To understand the impact of Jesus’ use of “I AM” (ego eimi), you will need a bit of linguistics and a bit of history. Many languages, including Greek (but not English), “conjugate” all of their verbs: that is, the subject, “I, you, he, etc.” is inherent in the form of the verb, and does not require an expressed pronoun as a subject. In ordinary speech, “I am” is adequately expressed by the verb, eimi, standing alone. A pronominal subject would be used only for deliberate emphasis.
Historically, due to the account of Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3), “I AM” (with the pronoun) became traditionally recognized as the “name” of the Deity. Somewhere along the line – I recently heard the suggestion that it may have been in order to avoid breaking the third commandment – people were forbidden to pronounce the “sacred” name at all. Consequently, the use of the first person singular pronoun was forbidden to “ordinary people”. The verb stands alone in the vast majority of Biblical references, even after the translation of the Old Testament into the Greek Septuagint, though it does appear, rarely, where strong emphasis is needed.
In light of the identification with God implied by the phrase, it is no surprise that the Gospel of John contains the greatest number of incidents where Jesus deliberately used that forbidden phrase. John’s entire prologue is a paean of praise clearly identifying the Lord Jesus with the eternal God.
The first occurrence of “I AM” (I have used capital letters where the pronoun is included), and probably the earliest chronologically, is in Jesus’ conversation with the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria (Jn.4:26), where he matter-of-factly declares his identity as the promised Anointed One. She obviously got the message, as did the townspeople she recruited!
Four times, Jesus uses it in combination with his other “trademark”, “Don’t be afraid!” – in the storm at sea (Mt.14:26, Mk.6:50, Jn.6:20), and when he identifies himself to John (Rev.1:17). To his frightened followers, the recognition (or reminder) of who Jesus is, becomes a great comfort, as it was in his Resurrection appearance (Lk.24:39).
For his opponents, on the other hand, it only incites or increases their anger and determination to get rid of him (see the discourses in Jn.6:41-51 and 8:21-29). Sometimes these conversations are interpreted to imply that the hearers were confused, but here I must beg to differ. Both interviews are peppered with “I AM” statements (6:41, 6:48, 8:23 twice, 8:24, 8:28, 8:57). They knew exactly what he was saying: they simply chose not to accept it. This is clear from the conclusion at the end of John 8 (58-59), as they threaten to stone him.
The same is true of the trial scenes in Mk.14:62 and Lk.22:70. Jesus’ “I AM” statement is the capstone of their case against him – and he and they both know it. Although the phrase does not appear in Jn.5:18, it is clear that the point has been made: “The Jews were seeking to kill him, because he not only was breaking the Sabbath, but was saying that his own Father was God, thus equating himself with God!” See also Jn.10:30-33: “The Father and I are one!” Again, the Jews picked up stones to stone him… and when asked why, they replied, “We’re not stoning you about any good deeds, but for blasphemy, because you, being human, make yourself out to be God!!” And indeed that would have been heresy, had it not been absolutely true!
The use of “I AM” as an identifier is also clear in Jesus’ warning to his disciples in Mk.13:6 and Lk.21:8, against falling for impostors who would come pretending to his position. (“World-ending” is an ancient profession!)
Perhaps the most vivid of the scenes with his opponents is Jesus’ encounter with the posse that came to arrest him (Jn.18:5, 7, 8). He calmly greets them, and inquires what they want; and at his simple “ego eimi”– “I AM”, “they backed off and fell to the ground!” Please note:
the Lord of Glory could not have been “captured” without his own permission!
The other major block of references where Jesus’ “I AM” statements are quoted, contain a predicate nominative. These too are instructive.
Jn.6:35 “I AM the Bread of Life.” Bread has been spoken of as the most basic sustenance. It was God’s provision for the ancient Hebrews in the desert, and now again in the first-century wilderness.
Jn.8:12 “I AM the Light of the world.” The first element of creation, light has always been associated with God’s presence and his ways.
Jn.10:7, 9 “I AM the Door.” The door to a sheepfold provided both access and protection. A responsible shepherd was said to sleep across the doorway, to protect his flock from predators.
Jn.10:11, 14 “I AM the good shepherd.” Old Testament prophets had berated the official “shepherds” for abusing the flock for their own gain. Ezekiel described God’s determination to take over the job, and Jesus proclaims himself to be the final fulfillment of that promise.
Jn.14:6 “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Each of these is worth a separate study.
“Way”, hodos, may refer to a road, a journey, a direction, or a manner of life
“Truth” aletheia, indicates the opposite of falsehood; reality; or an actual event.
“Life” zoe, is one of three words translated this way; the only one that may (but need not) have an “everlasting” or “eternal” dimension. It may indicate simply being alive, but may also refer to one’s livelihood, or subsistence, or even be a term of endearment.
Jn.11:25 “I AM the Resurrection and the Life.” Martha had relegated resurrection to the future consummation, but Jesus does not. He goes on to explain that it is his very presence that confers Life (zoe).
Jn.15 “I AM the Vine.” Prophets (Isaiah 3, 5, and Jeremiah 12) had applied the “vineyard” figure to the people of Israel. Jesus’ parables also had critiqued their management (Mt.21, Mk12, Lk.20), and warned of the corrective action of God. His teaching here explains the work of the true caretaker, as well as redefining the Vine (himself).
The “I AM” statements in Revelation are all focused on Jesus’ all-encompassing constancy: Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last (1:17, 21:6, 22:13), in varying combinations. An interesting slant is found in 22:16, where Jesus refers to himself as the “root and offspring of David.” Genealogy buffs know that a mere person is one or the other – not both.
But it is the continuous, present tense that characterizes the Lord Jesus. This is also clearly revealed in the statement itself: “I AM” is a simple present tense. This is also seen in Jesus’ own quoting of the original Burning Bush statement in Mt.22:31 and Mk.12:26-27.
In a very real sense, both past and future are irrelevant, and consequently no cause for inordinate concern, to people who are joined to the only One qualified to use that simple yet profound declaration – “I AM.”