48 The people retorted, “You Samaritan devil! Didn’t we say all along that you were possessed by a demon?”
49 “No,” Jesus said, “I have no demon in me. For I honor my Father — and you dishonor me. 50 And though I have no wish to glorify myself, God is going to glorify me. He is the true judge. 51 I tell you the truth, anyone who obeys my teaching will never die!”
52 The people said, “Now we know you are possessed by a demon. Even Abraham and the prophets died, but you say, ‘Anyone who obeys my teaching will never die!’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”
54 Jesus answered, “If I want glory for myself, it doesn’t count. But it is my Father who will glorify me. You say, ‘He is our God,’ 55 but you don’t even know him. I know him. If I said otherwise, I would be as great a liar as you! But I do know him and obey him. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced as he looked forward to my coming. He saw it and was glad.”
57 The people said, “You aren’t even fifty years old. How can you say you have seen Abraham?”
58 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I Am!” 59 At that point they picked up stones to throw at him. But Jesus was hidden from them and left the Temple.
Because of how today’s reading begins, it bears repeating that Jesus was having a lively discussion here with people who had accepted his teaching and placed faith in him. Or so they thought. It becomes quite clear in v.48 that they are rethinking that. One thing I really like here is that Jesus refutes their accusation that he has a demon, but he doesn’t refute the racial epithet they brand him with. He wasn’t technically a Samaritan, but in accepting what they meant as an insult, Jesus showed further solidarity with the Samaritans (sort of like JKK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner“).
We should also pay attention to the last thing Jesus says here. He makes a blatant reference to what God said to Moses at the burning bush, where the divine name is revealed as “I am.” (Exodus 3.14) More clearly than at any point in the Gospels, Jesus self-identifies with God in this statement. This is the basis for the teaching that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. It took the church a few centuries to sort out the implications and limitations of this paradox. Not least among those was the implication it holds for the nature of God. If we accept Jesus’ claim to be God, but we already have the Father, and Jesus is about to introduce the Holy Spirit, then what? Do we have three Gods? That would run contrary to one of the foundational teachings of Hebrew Scripture: there is only one God. Do we have a God who takes different forms at different times, like an actor playing many roles in the same play and changing costumes for each? That seems more than a little disingenuous. Subterfuge is not a trait becoming of God, is it?
The early church ran through a series of answers to this conundrum that proved unsatisfactory (usually because they wound up messing up the balance of the God-human paradox with regard to Jesus). The church eventually settled (for the most part) on the teaching that God exists in Trinity, which literally means three-in-one, or Triunity. Three-one became an accepted paradox just like God-human. All because of how the Gospels portray Jesus, at times very human, at times making audacious claims. The crowd here reached for stones because that is what they did to people who blasphemed. And that’s the point, Jesus was either telling the truth or he was blaspheming. There is no in between. John wanted this to be as clear as possible so his readers would stop being led away into the Ebionite heresy that rejected the idea that Jesus was God and wanted everyone to follow all Jewish customs. In this passage, Jesus asserts his preeminence over Abraham (and thus relativizes the importance of Jewish religious custom), while at the same time claiming the identity of Israel’s God.
Sometimes it seems like we have the opposite problem from the Ebionites, like it’s easier for us to accept the idea that Jesus is God, and more difficult to keep in mind that he is fully human (and all that means for the rest of us humans). But I have been making the case that we have strong Ebionite tendencies of our own and I think this passage can help us see that. Notice what Jesus says about not seeking his own glory. Twice (v. 50, 54) Jesus specifically rejects the idea of seeking to promote or glorify himself (remember he said the same sort of thing to his brothers in 7.6-8). Instead, he works to glorify the Father, and the Father in turn glorifies the Son. This becomes an essential part of the concept of the Trinity (but one often overlooked): the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a state of complete self-giving love toward each other and toward creation. This essential divine trait is most fully revealed on the cross, where God gives as completely as possible of God’s own self in love for us. But the cross is not an exception. It is a picture that is true of God’s nature at all times in all ways. The cross is who God is. This is what Jesus is trying to get his would-be followers to understand in this discourse. He tells them at last, “I am,” not for his own sake (he’s not self-promoting right after claiming not to), but for theirs. Jesus risked their anger for the chance that they might accept the truth.
But I think they had much the same trouble that the later Ebionites had and the even later us still have: a God who is completely self-giving and in no way self-promoting seems ridiculous to us. We think we can accept the idea of Jesus being God easier, but we typically think of Jesus as some sort of powerful demi-god, subordinate to the Father, but still able to kick butt (as Mark Driscoll would say). But that isn’t the God Jesus reveals himself to be at all. Kicking butt and self-promoting are the sort of things the false gods of our age specialize in and so we project the traits of our idols onto who we think God is. When Jesus reveals to us that God is something altogether different from what we value (i.e., worship), then we start picking up stones too.
And in that moment we see all of the God-human nature of Jesus: the one who declares “I AM!” and then hides from the angry mob. And that’s the point here. The God of the universe has become human and stands in solidarity, not just with Samaritans, but with all of us.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.