How Old is He?

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 8:56-59

“. . . Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.

John 8:56-59 rsv

When did Jesus’ life begin? At one level we can answer that question in an ordinary way. A number of lines of historical evidence point to a period in late 5 b.c. or early 4 b.c. as the most probable time for Jesus’ birth. We can’t be sure it was on the day we call December 25 but neither can we be sure that it wasn’t. We know, at least, that Herod the Great died shortly after Jesus was born, probably on April 1 in the year of Rome 750 which was, by our reckoning, 4 b.c. We probably will never be sure of the exact date but we can be strongly confident that it was within this span of several months that Mary gave birth to Jesus.

But the question “When did Jesus’ life begin?” has another dimension to it. That’s what I want to explore with you today. Listen to these words from the Gospel according to John, chapter 8, beginning at verse 56. Jesus is speaking:

“. . . Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.


The first issue here is the relationship between the patriarch Abraham and Jesus. Early in this conversation, Jesus had said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if any one keeps my word, he will never see death” (v. 51). His hearers had responded, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, as did the prophets, and you say, `If any one keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our Father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died? Who do you claim to be?” (vv. 52-53). The crowd is obviously upset because Jesus has said that those who keep His word will never really die. His hearers, already irritated by His former claims, are sure that He must be demon possessed. Father Abraham, the great pioneer of faith, had obviously passed through death, as did all the prophets. Who does Jesus think He is, claiming that those who follow His teaching will never see death? He seems to be placing Himself in a category above the greatest names in Israel’s history.

Jesus replies that Abraham rejoiced to see His day. He saw it and was glad. By “His day,” Jesus probably means the day of His birth or simply the general period of His lifetime. He seems to say, “Abraham knew that I was coming, and that prospect gave him joy.”

What can Jesus mean by that? In what sense could Abraham have seen the coming of Jesus beforehand and been gladdened by it? Abraham, of course, had the promise of God that through his offspring all the families of the earth would be blessed. Perhaps he apprehended dimly the way in which that promise would some day be fulfilled. He trusted God and it was counted to him for righteousness. He believed that he would have innumerable descendants, as God said, and that his progeny would somehow bring great benefit to the world. In that sense, surely, he rejoiced at what God would do in fulfillment of His promise.


Jesus’ hearers, however, can make no sense of His words. They object, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” It’s interesting to notice that this is one of the three references made in the gospels to Jesus’ age. We learn from Luke 2:42 that when He went up to the Passover with His parents, He was twelve years old. We learn from Luke 3:23 that when He began His ministry, He was about thirty years old. Now here, His contemporaries say, “You are not yet fifty.” We get the feeling that they are setting fifty as the outside limit of what His age might be at the time. They’re saying, “You’re not even fifty.” Maybe they’re saying, “You’re not even close to that age, and have you seen Abraham?”

They’re pointing here to an enormous time differential. Almost twenty centuries had elapsed since Abraham’s time. Jesus is a young man in His thirties. How does He know so much about the patriarch’s hopes and joys? After all, they reason, He’s a contemporary of theirs – and a youngish one at that. On what basis can He claim that His day, His appearance in history, had significance for Abraham, the famous father of the faithful?

Has Jesus seen Abraham? Has He talked with this ancient man of faith? Is there any conceivable way that He could know what Abraham had thought? How could there be any connection between these two, and how could Jesus presume to know about it? His contemporaries felt that simply raising that question would make Jesus’ claim appear ridiculous. Theirs was a kind of sarcastic jest, as though they had said in today’s language, “Yeah, sure, Jesus. You knew Abraham. Tell us about it!”


Then came Jesus’ answer, surely one of the most astonishing things He ever said. Listen. “Before Abraham was, I am.” He doesn’t merely claim to be old enough to have had some living memory of Abraham. He points to a time before Abraham was born. Back in the mists of antiquity, before God ever appeared to His servant Abraham, before He made the promises of His covenant with him, before the chosen people came to be, Jesus claims to have been in existence. And here’s the most amazing part of it. It’s not, “Before Abraham was, I was.” It’s, “Before his birth, I am.”

Those words “I am” make two great claims. The first is to an eternal existence. Jesus picks out a point in history far removed in time and says that before that point, He was in existence. The clear implication is that there never was a time when He did not exist. With Him, there was no past, present and future, but one vast, eternal Now.

It’s not simply that He antedated Abraham. He might have put it like this: “Before the flood that visited the earth, I am. Before the creation of the first man and woman in God’s image, I am. Before the heavens and the earth were created, I am. Before the creative word was spoken that called everything into being, I am.” Jesus is saying that in some sense He existed before all ages, before time began. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

But the words “I am” make a claim still further and grander. “I am” was the revealed name of Israel’s God, Creator of heaven and earth. He had made Himself known to Moses as “I Am who I Am” (Exod. 3:14). Moses was told to say to the people of Israel, you remember, “I Am has sent me to you.” In other words, Jesus is claiming to share the existence of the sovereign Lord, the everlasting God, the holy One of Israel. He would later say it more explicitly, “I and my Father are one . . . (John 10:30). He that has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). But here He claims the title, the revealed name, that belongs to God alone.


Now see the effects of His statement, “So they took up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.” Stones! Why stones? It was the Word of the Lord through Moses, “He who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him; the sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, he shall be put to death” (Lev. 24:16). These enraged hearers could only see Jesus’ words as blasphemy. What else could it be? they reasoned, when a man like themselves claims an eternal existence and takes as His own name the name of the most high God? They were so sure that this was a criminal offense that they didn’t wait for a trial. They would take justice in their own hands. Retribution would be severe and swift. What could be more scandalous, they thought, more heinous, than for a mere man to claim deity?

And wouldn’t all of us agree that if Jesus had made claims like these that were untrue, He would certainly have been guilty? If He were not the Son of the living God, if He did not share an existence with the Father from all eternity, then He did utter blasphemies.

But what if His words were true? What if He is the everlasting word of God made flesh, the unique Son coming from the bosom of the Father? What if, in His birth, eternity did break into time and the living God visited Planet Earth? Then we owe Him not stones and reproach but worship and adoration. Then He’s not a blasphemer but a truth teller, a faithful witness. He’s not a man pretending to be God but the God who deigned to become man. Then we say to Him, not what the crowd said, “Surely you have a demon,” but what once-doubting Thomas said, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

I think of another moment in the Scriptures when stoning and worship were close together. After Barnabas and Paul had healed a crippled man in Lystra by the power of the name of Jesus, the townspeople lifted up their voices and cried, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:11). They wanted to offer sacrifice to these servants of the Lord, to worship them. Barnabas and Paul were aghast and said, “Men, why are you doing this? We also are men of like nature with you” (v. 15). They pointed them rather to the living God who made the heavens and the earth. Some time later, when enemies came from other cities, these same people who had wanted to worship the apostles stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city for dead. And again, it was because of the controversial claim of Jesus. Is He the Lord from heaven or is He not? Do He and His servants speak the truth or are they blasphemers to be despised and rejected? That’s the question all of us have to answer.

Some have difficulty with this doctrine which theologians call “the pre-existence of Christ.” They see it as mere speculation, a needless appendix, as it were, to the Christian faith. But those of us who embrace the biblical witness see it as tremendously important, as one of the leading clues in the Bible to Jesus’ identity.

The apostle Paul delights to express this theme. Listen to Him when He’s speaking about something as mundane as giving, as stewardship: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

Someone asks, “Well, what does that have to do with what we’re talking about? How does that fit in with these words, “Before Abraham was, I am”? I’ll answer with the words a simple believer once used to confound his skeptical opponent, “When was He rich?” When was Jesus rich? We know Him as a poor man, working in a carpenter shop, having nowhere to lay His head, leaving behind no property at His death but the seamless robe He wore. When was He rich? It must have been in some life He had lived before He came. It must have been when He shared the glory that He had with the Father before the world was. It must have been when He was surrounded with the worship of innumerable angels. Then, at Christmas, leaving all His riches behind, He became poor for our sakes.

What about you, friends, on this question of who Jesus is? Will you line up with the skeptics or the believers? Will you pick up stones to get rid of the blasphemer, the madman? Or will you prostrate yourself before the living Lord, Jesus Christ? Here’s the mysterious, astonishing word to which each of us must respond in some way to Jesus saying, “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Prayer: Lord, who came from the glory, the Ancient of Days, awaken faith, we pray, in every heart today. In the name of Jesus. Amen.