“I Am He” or “I Am”?
The Bible plainly teaches that Jesus is divine. When He came to Earth to die on the cross for humanity, He was God in the flesh (John 1:14; Colossians 1:15-19). Jesus unhesitatingly called attention to this fact on several occasions since the acknowledgment of this truth is necessary for salvation (Romans 10:9-10). Recall the incident 1,500 years before Jesus came to Earth when Moses was tending livestock in the desert and encountered a bush that was on fire but continued to burn unconsumed. Warning him to keep his distance and remove his shoes, God identified Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Announcing to Moses his mission to return to Egypt to proclaim to Pharaoh God’s demands, Moses proceeded to offer a series of quibbles designed to justify his reluctance to go. One of those excuses was framed in this question: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13, ESV). God’s response was decisive: “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (vs. 14).
The import of God’s declaration on this occasion pertains to the eternal nature of deity. God is the Eternal Present, i.e., He has always existed and always will because, unlike everyone else, He possesses infinite eternality. Incredibly, the same may be said of Jesus. He is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He declares: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8)—precisely the same thing that is said about God (Revelation 4:8). Since the purpose of the Gospel of John is to cause people to believe that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31), it is to be expected that the book should contain multiple allusions to the deity of Christ—and such is certainly the case. In fact, we encounter several instances in John where Jesus applies to Himself the same expression that God used at the burning bush: “I AM.”
For example, on the occasion when Jesus faced the incessant unbelief of the Jews, He forthrightly declared to them: “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). The word “He” is in italics in the NKJV and several other translations,1 indicating the translators’ insertion. However, in keeping with the theme of John, as well as the immediate context, its insertion is unwarranted and obscures the power of Jesus’ statement. He was, in fact, forthrightly declaring His deity to the hard-hearted Jews by identifying Himself with the same Deity that Moses encountered at the burning bush.2 This fact is evident in the context. Three verses later, Jesus again states: “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things” (vs. 28). Once again, the NKJV places “He” in italics. And then, for a third time, Jesus pointedly presses the fact to bring closure to His confrontation: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM” (vss. 55-58). The Jews correctly understood that Jesus was making a direct claim to Deity, evidenced by the fact that they prepared to execute Him for the capital crime of blasphemy.3 Jesus stressed this same point to the Samaritan woman with whom He engaged in a conversation regarding His identity. His remarks were such that she first considers Him to be a prophet (John 4:19). But as He continues to speak, she admits that she is aware of the fact that the Messiah/Christ was yet to come. He uses her admission to declare: “I who speak to you am He” (vs. 26).4 Once again, in various translations, the word “He” is in italics to denote its insertion. But I suggest that Jesus was connecting Himself with the “I AM” of the burning bush.
After the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples sought to row back across the Sea of Galilee when there arose a sudden storm. Gripped by fear for their lives, their fear was enhanced by the sudden appearance of Jesus walking on the water toward their boat. “But He said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid’” (John 6:20). The English reader would likely never know that the words “It is I” are a translation of the Greek ego eimi—“I am.” The only reason for the disciples not to fear a life-threatening situation is if Jesus was more than a mere man who, in fact, possessed the divine power to still a storm. Undoubtedly, Jesus was again calling attention to His divinity—as indicated by the JUB: “I AM. Be not afraid.”5 On the occasion when Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, as a predictive prelude to Judas’ betrayal He quoted Psalm 41:9 and declared: “Now I tell you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe that I am He” (John 13:19). Once again, Jesus was deliberately spotlighting His divinity to His disciples by identifying Himself with the burning bush episode. He intended to emphasize to them that they would realize that He is the great “I AM.”
Still another occasion appears to set forth the same realization. When the mob came to arrest Jesus, which consisted of Judas, together with a detachment of troops, and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, carrying lanterns, torches, and weapons, the text states: “Jesus therefore, knowing all things that would come upon Him, went forward and said to them, ‘Whom are you seeking?’ They answered Him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am He’” (John 18:4-5). Once again, “He” is in italics. Observe the reaction to Jesus’ identification: “Then—when He said to them, ‘I am He,’—they drew back and fell to the ground” (vs. 6). One might assume that they were surprised that Jesus would come forward and identify himself, since one would think that a criminal would try to evade arrest and not give himself up so easily. But surely such surprise would hardly evoke a reaction that included falling to the ground. Remember, that these soldiers were not Romans. They were Jewish soldiers sent by the chief priests and Pharisees. Consequently, they were likely quite aware of the Jewish anticipation of the coming Messiah, as well as the import of the expression “I AM.” They were likely initially stunned by the bold, but presumptuous, affirmation by Jesus, only to recover themselves and dismiss the claim to deity as the rantings of a madman.
The following English translation renderings capture the meaning: CEB: “When he said, ‘I Am,’ they shrank back and fell to the ground.” CJB: “When he said, ‘I AM,’ they went backward from him and fell to the ground.” ISV: “When Jesus told them, ‘I AM,’ they backed away and fell to the ground.” JUB: “And when he said unto them, I AM, they went backward and fell to the ground.” Keep in mind that the words “I am” are also used throughout the Bible simply to refer to any person’s existence—even in John where the blind man identified himself as the one that Jesus had healed (9:9). The issue in John, however, is whether Jesus intentionally used the expression to link Himself to God and thereby assert His deity.6 It is equally interesting that Jesus enlisted the use of “I am” in seven additional instances when He offered descriptions of His divine nature, each prefaced by ego eimi: 1. “I am the Bread of Life” (6:35). 2. “I am the Light of the world” (8:12). 3. “I am the Door” (10:9). 4. “I am the Good Shepherd” (10:4). 5. “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25). 6. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (14:6). 7. “I am the Vine” (15:5). In each of these cases, a feature of Jesus’ Person is spotlighted that can only describe deity. No mere human being can rightfully be said to be the Bread of Life, the Light of the world, etc. These glorious affirmations pertain solely to Christ in His divine state.
To summarize, it so happens that the expression “I am He” likewise connotes that Jesus is the divine Messiah Who was to come. So, the import remains the same either way. However, inserting the word “He” was not only unnecessary, its insertion obscures and softens the force of Jesus’ claim explicitly linking Himself directly to the statement spoken by God to Moses at the burning bush. Indeed, the very heart and core of Christianity is Christ as the divine Son of God. One cannot even be a Christian unless that divinity is orally confessed prior to conversion (Romans 10:9-10).
1 ASV, BRG, KJV, LEB, NASB (1995).
2 Several English translations recognize this fact and refrain from inserting “He,” including: CEB, ERV, GNT, ISV, PHILLIPS, JUB, NABRE, NASB, TPT, TLV, WYC.
3 “Believing that He was speaking sheer blasphemy and claiming equality with the great ‘I Am,’ they sought to stone Him”—Marcus Dods (no date), The Gospel According to John in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:782.
4 Literally: “I am, the one speaking to you.”
5 Also the CEB, TLV, and WYC.
6 For more discussion of the nuances of the Greek, including the issue of the predicate nominative, see Robertson, Grammar, pp. 879-880; Robertson, Word Pictures, 5:68,146,242,284; Alford, 1:801-802; P.B. Harner (1970), The “I AM” of the Fourth Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress); Raymond Brown (1977), “The EGO EIMI (‘I Am’) Passages In the Fourth Gospel” in A Companion to John: Readings in Johannine Theology, ed. Michael Taylor (New York: Alba House), pp. 117-126; Georg Braumann and Hans-Georg Line (1976), “I Am,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 2:278-283; E.D. Freed (1982), “Ego Eimi in John viii. 24 in the Light of Its Context and Jewish Messianic Belief,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 33, 1:163-167, April.
REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.