God said to Moses, "I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, ‘I-AM sent me to you.’" Exodus 3:14 (TM)
Wendy and I have been slowly listening to The Lord of the Rings on audio book in the car. I’m a huge fan of the trilogy and have read it countless times since high school. Wendy has never been able to get through the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. I understand. I probably started the first book a dozen times before I was able to get through it. In fact, I finally just started the second book, The Two Towers. I read through the last two books before I was able to go back and make it through the The Fellowship of the Ring.
The Fellowship of the Ring spends so much time laying the back story and foundation for the "really good" parts of the story, that it’s tough for people to wade through it. The same is true for the Old Testament. Most Christians prefer to stick to the New Testament which, on the whole, is a bit easier to understand and apply to every day.
But like The Lord of the Rings, you can’t fully appreciate the end of the story until you really understand the fullness of the back story. The New Testament takes on more depth and fullness when you understand the Old Testament. Today’s chapter, and this verse in particular are a case-in-point.
The Hebrew name God gives himself to Moses here on Mt. Horeb ("I AM"), when directly translated into the English alphabet is YHWH, to which we usually then add vowels to make YAHWEH. In Hebrew it has special significance. In fact, this particular name of God was considered holy and was not uttered – ever. When readers came to the name YHWH, they would substitute a more common word for "Lord" because they would not utter God’s holy name.
Fast forward to John 8. The Jewish leaders are pressing Jesus, arguing about who he really is. They are looking for a way to trap him and bring him up on charges. Jesus was stirring up trouble for them. They wanted him out of the picture. In verse 58, Jesus says to the leaders, "Before Abraham was, I AM!"
He uttered the holy name of YHWH. With this one, brief statement, Jesus was saying "I AM the holy God of Abraham who was in the burning bush with Moses". You’ll notice that the next verse says that the leaders immediately picked up rocks to stone him. He had just committed blasphemy. He claimed to be God.
When I was younger I always thought that statement, "Before Abraham was, I am" was a strange one. I never quite got what Jesus was saying…until I learned the rest of the story (props to Paul Harvey).