Summary: He said something only God could say. These are the words of the greatest blasphemer of all time, or the words of God Incarnate.
“I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I AM,”
Jesus is talking mainly to people who think they’re insiders, yet are outside of God’s grace. But first--verse 30 (which we looked at last time) records how, in spite of critical opposition to Jesus, many came to faith in Him; so now He briefly addresses them in verse 31, telling them that the truth sets free all who trust in Him. His critics are not free; they are enslaved to their hostile opposition, viewing Jesus as a threat to their authority.
The religious leaders are offended by Jesus’ words, and insist in verse 33 that they are no one’s slaves--so they hardly need to be “set free.” They’re counting on their religious heritage to make them acceptable to God, but God looks at the heart. Jesus counters that only one who is enslaved to sin would seek to kill Him--hardly a family likeness of father Abraham.
To those caught up in the slavery of sin, Jesus adds in verse 36: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” The truth sets us free—vs 31, & the Son sets us free—vs 36; the two are intertwined. When we come to faith in Christ we are freed from the bondage of falsehood, fear, and iniquity. We’re given new and abundant life.
In verse 37 Jesus charges His opponents: “you have no room for My word.” His message has not found a place in their hearts. Jesus is disclosing what He has seen in His Father’s presence, verse 39, something no mortal could claim.
He then warns his critics (39) that if they were truly children of Abraham, they wouldn’t be seeking to kill Him; and furthermore in 42: “If God were your Father, you would love Me.” They would reflect their Father’s qualities; in their hatred they don’t bear much of a family resemblance. We’re all biological children of God, but not everyone is a spiritual child of God. True children reflect the Father’s qualities.
Then in verse 43, Jesus says that, while they’re speaking the same language, He may as well be communicating in a foreign tongue, because they cannot grasp what He’s really saying. One translator puts it this way: “Why do you not understand My language? Because you cannot comprehend My thought.” By their eagerness to kill Jesus, they’ve revealed their true nature and allegiance to another father, namely the devil. They’re so wrapped up in their biased thinking that they can’t catch the truth of Jesus’ teachings. They are likewise clueless as to His origin, identity, and redemptive purpose.
When people are closed to what God has to say, it is because of their fallen nature. Jesus goes to the heart of the issue by telling His critics that they are of the devil--verse 44, and are choosing his will. Their hostility reflects their kinship with their father below, the master of falsehood. The Pharisees were speaking the devil’s language of lies. They rejected Jesus “because” He told the truth, verse 45. In the NLT Jesus says, “When I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t believe Me.” The nature of unbelief is to reject the Truth. God has not stopped communicating, but many people are listening to other voices.
In verse 46 Jesus makes an outrageous claim, if it is not true. Can anyone point out a single sinful act of His? It is impossible to conceive of any other figure in human history making such a claim of sinlessness. The only one without sin is God…and that’s the point. The author of the Book of Hebrews points out that Jesus “was tempted in every way, yet without sin” (4:15).
In verse 47 Jesus insists that those who belong to God hear and obey His word. The public regarded the Pharisees as saintly individuals, closest to God…but actions reveal the attitude of the heart. These religious leaders were spiritually tone deaf and color blind. They were not tuned to God’s voice. People claim they can’t grasp biblical truth; the problem often is that they’re unwilling to accept the authority of God’s word--a refusal to see. This is why some people aren’t open to consider spiritual teaching. People walking in spiritual darkness are so accustomed to the dark they don’t even know their fallen condition. They need the “Light of the world.”
The Pharisees counter this claim of sinlessness by calling Jesus a Samaritan, verse 48; in other words, a heretic, disloyal to the faith. The Samaritans were half-Jews who worshipped apart, rejecting Jerusalem as the center of religious practice. To this charge they add that Jesus must be demon-possessed--an unpardonable sin.
Jesus is not finished with His claims. While He points out how His critics dishonor Him, He isn’t seeking honor, verses 49-50. He follows-up by declaring that those who keep His word “will never see death.” I’ve had some great teachers over the years, but none ever offered to grant me everlasting life. So naturally the Pharisees fume, “Who do you think you are?” verse 53.