When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
John 8:12 (NIV)
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
John 8:58 (NIV)
When we left yesterday’s chapter of John’s biography of Jesus, Jesus was teaching and performing miracles at the Temple in Jerusalem during a national religious festival called the Feast of the Tabernacles. Jerusalem and the Temple were teeming with religious pilgrims in town for the festival. Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles are making a huge impression, and there are a myriads of opinions among the people about who Jesus is.
In today’s chapter, John shifts focus from the crowds and their popular opinions to the two leading players in the story: Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. Today’s chapter is a showdown that has been building between Jesus and the religious institutional establishment, and it’s an important one in the story. Once again, identity is the theme of this showdown: “Who am I?” and “Who are you?”
I find this chapter to be a critical text in what it means to me to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus is an upstart and a maverick. Like Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti westerns, He seemingly shows up out of nowhere to challenge the institutional religious authority. I’ve learned along my life journey that institutions of every kind are about authority, hierarchy, and control. Institutions can be healthy human systems or very dysfunctional human systems, but in either case institutions balk at direct challenges that come from outside the system.
As this question of “who is Jesus” gets bandied about, there are two parties who have never wavered in their opinion. Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God who has come from the Father in heaven to bring God’s Kingdom to earth and salvation to anyone who believes, receives, follows, and obeys. The institutional religious authorities have pegged Jesus as a threat to their prestige and authority, an unknown firebrand who is wildly popular with the unruly poor masses, and a disruptor of their lucrative religious racket.
In this showdown, Jesus steadfastly proclaims and maintains His eternal nature (I came from my Father in heaven to do His will, and I am returning there when my mission is completed) and His condemnation of the religious leaders who have transformed the plan God gave through Moses into an institution that oppresses the poor and needy in order to feed the egos, bank accounts, and authority of the religious ruling class.
In this showdown, the religious leaders proclaim and maintain their authority. These authorities are all essentially lawyers, and they default to multiple legal arguments to condemn Jesus:
- Objection: You don’t have two witnesses. (vs. 13)
- Objection: You keep talking about your Father, but you can’t produce Him. (vs. 19)
- Examination: They directly ask Jesus to say who He is in order to get it on record so as to build a legal case against His claim. (vs. 25)
- Point-of-order: We’re descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves, so how are you going to “set us free.” (vs. 33)
- Point-of-order: We are Abraham’s children, God’s chosen institutional authorities, and you are not. (vss 39, 41)
- Verdict: You, Jesus, are a half-breed, racially inferior, and heretical Samaritan scum, and you’re demon possessed.
What’s fascinating is that Jesus bookends this public showdown with two fascinating claims:
Jesus starts by saying that He is the “Light of the World” which directly connects to John’s assertion in chapter one, that Jesus is the eternal agent of creation and when God said, “Let there be light” it was Jesus flipping the switch.
He ends the showdown by countering the religious leader’s authoritative claim to being Abraham’s children by stating “before Abraham was, I am.” That’s critically important because these lawyers all know that in Exodus chapter 3 God revealed Himself to Moses as “I Am.” In fact, they considered “I Am” as “He who must not be named” and it was strictly forbidden to utter the name “I Am.” Jesus ends the showdown with a bang by firing the claim to be the eternal “I Am” who existed before Abraham. He is essentially proclaiming Himself God, which is why His opponents “picked up stones to stone Him.”
In the quiet this morning I find myself confronted, once again, by John’s story. In relating this debate about Jesus’ identity, I can’t help but see the contrast of Jesus’ personal, relational connection to individuals outside the system and the authoritative, human, religious institution of the Jewish authorities.
I hear Jesus saying, “This is, and always has been, about a personal, eternal relationship into which each and every one is invited. These people have taken it and made it into just another kingdom of this world, and all the kingdoms of this world are ultimately powered by the prince of this world.”
Here are the questions my soul is asking this morning:
- What kingdom(s) am I building on this earth journey?
- Is my faith personal or institutional? How do I, and others, know the difference?
- How can I be more like Jesus, and less like a card carrying member of an institution?
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.