Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the personal identifier I AM, written in the Greek as egō eimi or using the Aramaic ani hu. How many times have you said something like, “I am a great gardener, I am a good husband, I am the manager of…?” Yet nobody tried to stone you, attack you or fell to the ground crying out. Yet the reaction of the crowd when Jesus uses the phrase is pretty extreme. Hatred, terror or worship, definitely not mild approval.
This response to the simple saying interested me, like a Sherlock Holmes clue. I had obviously missed something in what Jesus was saying.
There are two groups of I AM statements in John:
As we read through the Fourth Gospel, John records 7 times when Jesus uses I Am on its own, such as when Jesus is walking on the waters and He answers the disciples “I Am, do not be afraid”. In John 8:58 in the argument with the people about their claim of rights through descent from Abraham, Jesus hits them with, “Before Abraham, I AM” not I was.
John also records 7 occasions when the I AM statement is followed by:
- The bread of life
- The light of the world
- The gate for the sheep
- The good shepherd
- The resurrection and the life
- The way the truth and the life
- The true vine.
Maybe used to make a point, but why the extreme reaction? Then one day I heard a lecture by Darrell Johnston of Regent College, who brought it all together. In the Jewish calendar there are a number of very important religious festivals, in particular Passover, Pentecost and Booths. Essentially Jesus is repeating the liturgy used the day before in the Synagogue.
In Booths they are celebrating surviving in the desert. They live in small tents and bowers made of Succoh branches. There is a light ceremony, remembering the pillar of fire, the guidance of God.
Then Jesus says, “I AM the light of the world…” There was a water ceremony marking Moses striking the rock and bringing water. Jesus says, “Come to me if you are thirsty, I bring living water…” And it goes on.
With all of these Jesus is not claiming to be the Messiah, He is using the personal name of God from the Old Testament and in mon use in the first century temple liturgy. Ani hu, ani hu, ani hu would have been chanted in the public areas.
This would be like Vic standing up on Sunday in church and saying “Welcome to my service, today we are worshiping me. I am he.” I think there would be an extreme reaction.