48 The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”
49 “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honour my Father and you dishonour me. 50 I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
52 At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”
54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.
This dispute in the temple, which has been building in intensity, now comes to its climax. At the heart of the conflict is Jesus’ claim to be sent from God, meaning that he also bears the authority of God in all that he says and does.
The Jews counter Jesus’ claim by saying that he is not from God at all. Rather he is from Satan; and even then, he is not even properly Jewish but merely a Samaritan.
In reply Jesus could not be clearer in his claims (v49-51, 54-56). He is not engaged in self-promotion, but instead seeks only his Father’s glory– his Father who is the Judge of all. Because he speaks from the Father, because he bears his authority– even over life and death– if a person obeys Jesus’ words, they will never experience death. Indeed, Jesus makes clear that he is greater than the prophets and greater than Abraham, not just because he brings a greater testimony from God, but in his very being he is before them. He existed eternally before them and he is greater in glory.
Ultimately Jesus declares, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” This is the climactic ἐγὼ εἰμί statement of the chapter, the ultimate claim to divinity and everlasting being with God, which the crowd cannot ignore. Exodus 3:14; 6:2-7 echo in the background. Jesus identifies himself as the eternal Word, with God in the beginning, acting in concert with him for the salvation of his people throughout history. “I Am” (Yahweh) is the personal covenant-salvation name of God, owned by Jesus himself in triune relationship with the Father for all eternity.
For the temple crowd this sounds like blasphemy. Like a small child with too much food in their mouth, t is more than they can swallow. And so they prepare to stone Jesus. But since this is not the kind of death God has decreed for his Son, he is able to slip away from the temple grounds.
Dear Lord Jesus, please give me a truer and greater appreciation for who you really are. My human mind struggles and stretches to grasp that you are at once the living God from all eternity, and yet you came into your creation in order to redeem it. You are Lord and God; and yet you are also the Lamb of God.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Rom 11:33-36)