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Sermon: John 8:21-30: Believe That I Am He

Reading of God’s Holy Word

“So he said to them again, ‘I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.’ So the Jews said, ‘Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?’ He said to them, ‘You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.’ They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said to them, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.’ As he was saying these things, many believed in him.”

Introduction

It has been said of John’s Gospel that it is at once like “a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant can swim. It is both simple and profound. It is for the veriest beginner in the faith and for the mature Christian. Its appeal is immediate and never failing.” (Morris, 3)

One of the reasons the Gospel of John is at once deep and profound, and yet attainable is because of the way that John writes.

He uses symbolism and metaphor masterfully. He sometimes, in one or two words, manages to draw our attention to massive themes found within the Old Testament scriptures. Sometimes John is very specific and precise in what he says; at other times he is deliberately vague so that a particular word or sentence intentionally has multiple meanings.

The end result is that a brand new Christian can read John’s Gospel and come away happy and satisfied, having understood the message clearly.  At the same time the most learned theologian can study the Gospel in a most careful way and never fully exhaust all that is contained within it.

This is true of John’s Gospel in general, but I feel that it is particularly true of the passage that we are considering this morning. In a way, the meaning of this passage is utterly simple. Jesus is still revealing the truth concerning who he is. He is the Christ, the eternal Son of God, the Savior. Men and women will perish in their sins if they do not believe, or trust, in him. This is true because they are of this world. He is not of this world. It seems to me that the message is most clear, and accessible to anyone willing to listen. But we can wade out into deeper waters together.

This passage has something in common with what has come before. Jesus is still about the business of revealing his true identity. Notice the question at the heart of this text. In verse 25 the Jews again ask Jesus, “Who are you?” It seems that either the Jews were unable to understand his teaching up to this point, or they were unwilling to accept what he had clearly said. It is probably a combination of these things. Sometimes people simply cannot understand – more often than not they do not understand because they are unwilling. That would seem to be the case with the Jews of John’s Gospel. Jesus had been clear, but they had not truly listened to him. So Jesus is still about the business of revealing his true identity in the text before us.

But this passage differs from what has come before in that Jesus begins to reveal the truth concerning who we are in a more pronounced way. Notice Jesus’ words in verse 26: “I have much to say about you and much to judge…” (John 8:26, ESV) That is, in fact, what Jesus begins to do. He begins to reveal the truth concerning man. He has strong words to say concerning the condition of man. That is true of verses 21-30, and will continue even more strongly on into verses 31-47, which we will consider next week, Lord willing.

And so two things are revealed: One, the truth about Christ, and two, the truth about man.

I hope you recognize this: it is impossible to come to a saving knowledge of Christ without first of all understanding the truth of who he is, and secondly, the truth of who we are. If we fail to understand who Christ is then we will not see him as precious. If we fail to recognize who we are, we will not understand the greatness of our need. But when the two truths are grasped simultaneously we see the glory of God in Christ Jesus, and we run to him recognizing that he is the only answer to our great need.

This passage reveals these two things: the indescribable and unsurpassed glory of God in Christ Jesus, and the greatness of man’s need for him.

Let us first gaze upon the glory of God in Christ Jesus

Notice, first of all, that Jesus was from above. In verse 23 Jesus says,  “I am from above”. He goes on to say, “I am not of this world”. This is not a new concept in John’s Gospel. It has come up time and time again. Jesus Christ differs from us in that he has different origins. You and I are born into this world in the way that men and women are naturally born. We are the product of our earthly parents. We have a human nature, and that is all that can be said of us. But Christ is from above. His origins are heavenly. He came from the Father. He came down to us from above. It is true that Jesus was truly and full man – he had a human nature in the truest sense – but more can be said of him. He also had a divine nature. I do not have the time to explain all of  that now. It has been explained before and it will be explained again, I’m sure. For now simply gaze upon the glory of God in Christ Jesus knowing that he is “from above”, he is “not of this world”. When we think of the man Jesus Christ, and when we speak of him, we cannot simply say that he was born some 2,000 years ago. That he was born is true, but there is more to the man. He was born of a virgin, as you know. He is not only the Son of Man, he is also the Son of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1,14, ESV)

Consider, secondly, that Jesus was the “Son of Man”. Jesus reveals his identity in some interesting ways in this passage, which we will discuss in just a moment. But he is most clear when he says, “So Jesus said to them, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.’” (John 8:28, ESV)

The significance of the title, “Son of Man”, may slip by us unnoticed. Some might think that it is simply a humble way for Jesus to refer to himself, which it certainly was. Jesus rarely, if ever refers to himself as the Son of God. Others are right to call him by this name. But he preferred to call himself the Son of Man. It is indeed a humble title. It certainly emphasizes his humanity. But there is more to it than that. The title, Son of Man, is a Messianic title. It was used to describe the glory of the Messiah in the book of Daniel chapter 7, which was written over 500 years before Jesus was born. Daniel 7:13 says,

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13–14, ESV)

When Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, it is with this passage and this person in view. He is claiming to be the Messiah. He is claiming to be the Christ. He is claiming to be the one who will come “with the clouds of heaven”, be presented before the “Ancient of Days”, being given a “kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”

Jesus said to the Jews “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he…” (John 8:28, ESV) It can be hard to know what Jesus means by these words. Clearly the cross is in view. The Jews will indeed lift Jesus up on the cross when they crucify him. The cross, as horrible as was, is often times associated with the glorification of Christ. These things might seem contradictory at first, but the truth is that Christ was glorified through the suffering of the cross. As Christ was lifted up on the cross he was also lifted up to glory. And it was through the suffering of the cross that he would stand before the Father and be given all that Daniel 7 said that he would be given – “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”

When we think and speak of Jesus Christ we cannot think of a mere man – he was and is so much more. He was from above. He is the Son of Man – the Messiah, the Savior of God’s people.

Understand, thirdly, that Jesus was in fact the Son of God, the Savior. This is something that the Gospel of John makes incredibly clear. I’m not sure how a person can manage to deny that the scriptures teach that Jesus Christ was God come in the flesh after reading the Gospel of John. The Gospel was written, in part, to convince us of this very thing!

The deity of Christ is clearly taught in John’s Gospel as a whole, and it is taught here in a most profound way, though we might miss it if we are not careful. I think this is one of those places where the Gospel of John is more like a pool in which an elephant can swim than a pool in which a child can wade.

Listen carefully to Jesus’ words.

Verse 24: “For unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”

Again, listen to verse 28: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he…”

I hope that you are able to see that this is a strange way to speak. It is a strange way to speak in English, and perhaps even more so in Greek. Literally it is this, “For unless you believe that I am you will die in your sins.” And again, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am…” The Greek words are two in number – “ἐγώ εἰμι” – I am.

Typically when a person claims to be something we are also told what it is the he or she claims to be. In other places Jesus says things like “I am… the bread of life” – “Ἐγώ εἰμι… ὁ ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς”. Or, “I am… the good shepherd” – “Ἐγώ εἰμι… ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός”. But here it is simply “I am”, or “Ἐγώ εἰμι”.

I think you can understand why the Jews asked the question in verse 25, “Who are you?”

The Jews were without excuse for two reasons:

One, this is not the only thing that Jesus has said about himself. This is not the only time that he has spoken concerning his identity. And this is why Jesus responded to their question, “who are you” with these words: it is “just what I have been telling you from the beginning.” (John 8:25, ESV) In others words, I’ve been speaking of these things for a long time now. I’ve been about the business of revealing my true identity from the beginning – that is, from the beginning of my ministry. I think these words also have a unique impact on the reader of the Gospel. If you are puzzled by Jesus words – “For unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” – then you ought to go back to the beginning – that is, to the beginning of the Gospel – to be reminded of all that Jesus has claimed concerning himself.

The Jews were also without excuse for failing to understand Jesus’ words (as are we) because they are a clear and unmistakable allusion to very important passage of scripture in the Old Testament.

The most well known of these passages is Exodus 3:14 where, when Moses is speaking to God in the burning bush, and asks the name of God, so that he can tell the people of Israel who it is that sent him, God gives him this answer – “‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’’” (Exodus 3:14, ESV) It is impossible to compare the wording of the Greek New Testament with the Hebrew Old Testament, but we may compare the Greek New Testament with the Septuagint, which was the official Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, and the Bible of the early Church. Here is God’s answer to Moses in the Greek: “Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν”, which means I am… the one who is, or, I am… the existent one.

I think we are right to see that the Divine name given to Moses is behind Jesus’ answer here. We are to believe that he is – that he is the Ἐγώ εἰμι.

And this is without a doubt where John chapter 8 will go with things. As things progress in terms of Jesus revealing his true identity we will eventually hear Jesus utter the words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am [Ἐγώ εἰμι].” So they picked up stones to throw at him…” (John 8:58–59, ESV)

But may I suggest to you, that though Exodus 3:14 is clearly behind the “I am” statements of Jesus here in the passage we are studying this morning, there is more to the story?

My belief is that Exodus 3:14 is indeed in the background, but that it is in the distant background. I think there is another text – or, more precisely, a collection of texts – that fit the context and wording of John 8:24 and 28 more closely.

Notice this: the passage before us is more concerned with proving that Jesus is the Son of Man – that is, the Christ, or Messiah – than proving that Jesus is God come in the flesh. Both things are true, but this passage is centered upon the idea of Messiahship. Furthermore, consider that are other passages in the Old Testament which use the words Ἐγώ εἰμι in a way closer to the way that John uses them here in John 8. In Exodus 3:14 the words Ἐγώ εἰμι do not stand alone – the Divine name is “I am…who I am.” But in other important Old Testament passages, the words Ἐγώ εἰμι do stand alone.

Do you remember me making the point some time ago that John seemed to be particularly fond of the Prophet Isaiah? I mentioned this especially in connection to the way that John talked about John the Baptist and the Baptists ministry using texts from Isaiah. You may not remember it, but I did say it! John frequently quotes from and makes allusions to key texts from the book of Isaiah.

Please turn with me to Isaiah 40 so that I can show you something. You’ll have to explore what I am about to show you more on your own; I’ll only have time to briefly expose you to something amazing in the text. Notice that Isaiah 40 begins a section where the people of God are being comforted by the Prophet. They would be judged, but the good news was that God would save. Isaiah 40:1 says,

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1–5, ESV)

This sound familiar, doesn’t it? It should remind you of the way that the Baptist described his ministry at the forerunner to the Messiah.

Look at Isaiah 41:4: “Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am he [Ἐγώ εἰμι].” (Isaiah 41:4, ESV)

Look at 43:10-12:

“‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he [Ἐγώ εἰμι]. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, ‘and I am God.’” (Isaiah 43:10–12, ESV)

Look at 43:13: “Also henceforth I am he [Ἐγώ εἰμι]; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 43:13, ESV)

43:25: “I, I am he [Ἐγώ εἰμι] who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43:25, ESV)

The point is this: It is true, the Divine name of  Exodus 3:14 is indeed behind the “I am” statement of Jesus here. But there is more to it than that. Jesus, in using this language in this context, is claiming to be the one that Isaiah spoke of. He is God, it is true. But more to the point, he is the Savior. He is the Messiah.

When Jesus says in John 8:24, “For unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins”, he is insisting that we understand him to be the Savior promised from long ago. And we know from the Old Testament that this Savior will at once be God himself, and yet a man. He will be the Son of God, and yet the Son of Man. He will be One with God the Father, and yet somehow distinct. This is Christ Jesus our Lord – God incarnate – God come in the flesh. He is the Messiah – the Christ – the Anointed one of God.

Truly we must confess that Christ is glorious indeed!

Let us now consider the greatness of our need 

Notice, first of all, that we are described by Christ as being from below and of this world. Verse 23: “He said to them, ‘You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.”

This is true of natural man – this is true of all who are not in Christ, who have not been born from above. We are from below, and of this world. This does not mean that we are from hell, or something like that. It means that we are of this earth – this fallen earth, characterized by sin and darkness and rebellion against God. I’ve said it time and time again that this is the significance of the word world in John. It describes the fallenness of this place in which we live. We are from below and of this world. This means that we are sinful and rebellious. It means that we are limited due to our creatureliness and sin – we cannot know God truly, in and of ourselves. We walk in darkness and are in need of light. Our need is truly great.

Consider, secondly, that we, if we do not have Christ, will die in our sin. 

This is repeated three times in this short passage. John 8:21: “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” John 8:24: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24, ESV)

It should be clear that the thing that Christ came to save us from is our sins. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that Christ came to save us from the wrath of God that will poured out upon us because of our sins.  To sin is to miss the mark, or to fall short of God’s standard of righteousness. We sin when we break God’s law. The scriptures are clear that everyone has sinned. Romans 3:23 simply says: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” The penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23) – eternal death –  eternal separation from God. To die in your sins is to die with your sins un-atoned. Tot die in your sins is to die standing in the guilt of your sins. To die in your sins is to die in the filth of your sins to stand before God in that state.

It has been said that it would be better to die a thousand deaths in a ditch than to die in your sins. And yet this is the very thing that happens anytime someone passes from this world apart from Christ. It is not as if the scripture are unclear. Unless we believe that that Christ is he (all that he claims to be) we will die in our sins.

Understand, thirdly, that apart from faith in Christ, we cannot go where Christ has gone. Verse 21: “So he said to them again, ‘I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” Much has been said about the fact that Christ came from the Father. It is to the Father that Christ would return. The message is clear, unless we believe in Christ, we cannot see the Father. In John 14:6 Jesus puts it this way: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

To believe in Jesus is believe that he is who he claimed to be.

To believe in Jesus is to trust in him alone for the forgiveness of sins.

To believe in Jesus is to follow him as Lord.

To reject Christ means that we die in our sins. To reject Christ means that we will not be with him where he is now. To reject Christ means that will stand before God guilty of our sins, and will experience his judgment.

If hell and eternal judgment were not real it would a most unloving thing to tell people that they are real. But if they are real – if hell exists and the wrath of God does indeed threaten us – the it would most unloving to remain silent.

The scriptures teach that hell is real and that judgment is real. If we believe the scriptures to be true how could we not speak of these things? How could we not warn of the wrath to come and urge people to repent and believe in Christ? There is nothing worse than for a person to die in their sins.

Conclusion

After gazing upon the glory of God in Christ Jesus, and after briefly considering the greatness of our need, I must finally urge you seek Christ while he may be found.

Look again at verse 21. Jesus says,  “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.”

What does Jesus mean when he says, “you will seek me and not find me”? I think the meaning is this – if the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking decided to finally reject him as the Christ or Messiah, they would go on searching for the Messiah, but none would be found. Jesus is the only Savior there is! For the just Jews to pass on him would mean that had passed on their only hope for salvation. They would not have another opportunity – they would never come across another, for Jesus is the only one.

It is sobering thought, isn’t it? Those who are presented with Christ actually find themselves at a crossroads. If they are deliberate and decided in their rejection of Jesus they may never have another chance. They my go on seeking him – that is, seeking another savior – but none will be found, for Jesus is the only one.

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