1.12 “Before Abraham was, I am”(Jn. 8:58)
These words are often misapplied to teach that Jesus existed before Abraham did. However, closer investigation reveals the opposite to be true:
1. Jesus does not say ‘Before Abraham was, I was”. He was the promised descendant of Abraham; we make a nonsense of God’s promises to Abraham if we say that Jesus physically existed before the time of Abraham.
2. The context of Jn. 8:58 is Christ’s discourse with the Jews concerning Abraham. As far as they were concerned, Abraham was the greatest man who would ever live. Jesus is saying “I am now, as I stand here, more important than Abraham”. As they stood there, Jesus was the one to be honoured rather than Abraham. He is saying ‘I am now, more important than Abraham ever was’. It is possible to understand “before” in Jn. 8:58 with some reference to time, in the sense that before Abraham existed, Christ had been in God’s plan right from the beginning of the world. It was because Jesus was “before” Abraham in this sense that he was “before” him in terms of importance. But the more comfortable reading is to understand "before" as referring to importance rather than time. In 2 Sam. 6:21 there’s a good example of “before” meaning ‘before’ in importance rather than time. David tells his wife: “The Lord chose me before your father [Saul]”. Actually, in terms of time, God chose Saul well before He chose David. But God chose David above Saul in terms of importance and honour.
3. Proof of this is found in Jn. 8:56: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad”. The only time Abraham is recorded to have laughed and been glad was when he was given the promise that he would have a seed; he understood that ultimately that promise had reference to Jesus (Gen. 17:17). Abraham “saw” ahead to Christ through the promises made to him concerning Jesus. He cryptically commented about the future sacrifice of Jesus: “In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen” (Gen. 22:14). It was in this sense that Jesus speaks of Abraham as having seen him. It is in this context of speaking about the promises that Jesus could say “Before Abraham was, I am”. He appreciated, as we have explained in Section 3.1, that God’s promises to Abraham were revealing the plan about Jesus which God had known from the beginning of the world. That purpose, which had been “before Abraham was”, had been revealed to Abraham in the promises to him, and was now being fulfilled in the eyes of the Jews of the first century, as they stood in a ring around Jesus, “the word (of promise) made flesh”.
A related misunderstanding is often applied to the comment of John the Baptist about Jesus- that “He was before me” (Jn. 1:30). John the Baptist was actually older than the Lord Jesus; he therefore meant that Jesus was “before” him in the sense of being more important than him. C.H. Dodd interprets this passage as meaning: “There is a man in my following who has taken precedence of me, because he is…essentially my superior”(1).
(1) C.H. Dodd, Historical Tradition In The Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: CUP, 1976) p. 274.