Try not to let your eyes glaze over when I warn you that I am going to discuss some basis aspects of grammar in order to shed light on the topic I want to discuss. I confess that studying English grammar in high school was, to me, the educational equivalent to a root canal. However, when I studied Greek grammar in college and seminary, all of a sudden English grammar made sense, and it became a useful tool to explain the precise nature of the teachings of Scripture. Let’s see if a little grammar lesson opens our eyes of understanding.
“I am.” The two simple words “I am” can make up an entire sentence, and can make perfectly good sense, provided the context is clear. For example, if someone asked, “Who is writing this blog?” It would make sense if I said as my entire response, “I am.” However, without such a question being asked, if I opened up a conversation with “I am,” you’d wonder, “you are what?” My two words need something more to make sense. That “something more” is a “predicate,” the part of a sentence that expresses what the subject is or does. If I said, “I am happy,” or “I am six feet tall,” you would understand, because those sentences have a predicate.
Seven times in the Gospel of John Jesus uses the words “I am” followed by a predicate in order to express who He is. The predicates that follow Jesus’ use of “I am” are “metaphors,” figures of speech that use a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing, but is used to designate something else. The comparison of the two is what expands the ordinary meaning of the word. For example, after Jesus fed the 5,000 people along the shore of the Sea of Galilee (see Gospel of John chapter six), He said, “I am the bread of life.” The hearers knew that bread provided sustenance. Thus, Jesus uses a common element of his audience’s everyday lives to teach spiritual truth, equating Himself to that which sustains a person’s existence. “Bread” is used as both a predicate to express what Jesus is, and also as a metaphor to expand the spiritual application of who He is.
Seven times Jesus uses metaphors as the predicate following “I am.” He is not only the “bread of life,” but also the “light of the world,” the “door,” the “good shepherd,” the “resurrection and the life,” the “way, the truth and the life,” and “the true vine.” Each of these great metaphors is logically connected to a context that allowed the hearers to understand the spiritual truth Jesus was teaching. After multiplying the five loaves and two fishes in order to feed the 5,000, Jesus uses the food the multitude had received as a basis to provide a transcendent teaching about feeding our souls. After healing a man born blind (John chapter nine) He says, “I am the light of the world.” He then uses sheep to illustrate His nature (John chapter ten), stating “I am the door” (to the sheepfold). Sheepfolds of Jesus’ day were enclosures that kept the flock together and protected from predators. Often the shepherd would lay across the entrance to keep the sheep in and danger out. Jesus presents Himself as the door, also adding, “I am the good shepherd.”
After Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, Jesus told his daughter, Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He then proceeded to raise Lazarus from the dead (John chapter eleven). When Jesus told His disciples He was going “to prepare a place” for them, (John chapter fourteen) He added that they knew the way that He was going. When Thomas asked, “How do we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Finally, Jesus speaks about the fruit that His followers are to bear, and uses the metaphor of a vine to teach that without Him His followers “can do nothing,” stating “I am the true vine.”
The seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel greatly expand our understanding of the nature and work of Jesus. Those who heard His teachings could understand the spiritual truths He was revealing because He used metaphors that involved aspects of their everyday lives, including food, light, sheep, life and death, pathways and vines. These predicates provide rich meaning to the scope of Who Jesus was, and what He had come to do. But there are two additional uses of “I am” in John’s Gospel that are not followed by predicates—John 8:24 (“unless you believe that I am, you shall die in your sins”) and John 8:58 (“Before Abraham was, I am”).
Where is the predicate? There seems to be something amiss grammatically. It is natural to ask, “You are what?” Since Jesus, in both cases, does not use a predicate like He did with the seven “I am” statements mentioned above, what are we to make of these two “I am" statements? Judging from the reaction of the hearers (John 8:59, “they picked up stones to stone Him”) Jesus’ use of “I am” without a predicate meant something to the Jews who were present. What was it that caused those Jews to want to kill Him? The answer lies in the Book of Exodus, when Moses was confronted by God who appeared through a burning bush. God commissioned Moses to speak to the Jews, and Moses knew the Jews would ask the name of the God who had sent him. Thus, Moses asks, “What shall I say to them?" God says to Moses, “I am who I am. Tell them 'the I am has sent you.'” When Jesus tells the Jews in John 8:58, “Before Abraham was I am,” they understood this to be Jesus’ claim to deity—that He was the same as the God who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. In addition to the seven “I am” metaphors, Jesus also uses “I am” to confirm that He was God in the flesh (see John 1:1, 14 “…the Word was God… and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us”). From the humble beginning as a babe born in Bethlehem, Jesus emerges as the crucified, risen and exalted King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the great I Am seated at the right hand of the Father, at whose name every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that He is Lord.