Jesus the “I AM” (Part 1)

[Posted by Benjamin Thocher]

At the beginning of John 15 Jesus says to disciples “I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” The rest of the chapter revolves around this illustration and what it means first of all for who Jesus is and secondly for who we are, as believers, in relationship with him. As we move through John’s Gospel we find Jesus issuing seven “I AM” statements (cf. 6:35; 8:12 & 9:5; 10:7; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1).

When Jesus says “I AM,” he is not making a simple statement about himself and tacking on some interesting imagery. The Greek construction utilized in these statements is one of emphasis and could be woodenly rendered “I Myself Am.” By including these seven statements in his Gospel, though, John is communicating something to us about who Jesus is. What is it that John wants to communicate?

In Exodus chapter 3, Moses encounters God at the burning bush. During this encounter God reveals his name to Moses – he tells Moses that his name is “I AM.” Fast forward a few thousand years to Jesus walking around making statements like “I AM the good shepherd” and “I AM the way, and the truth, and the life” and we see a much more profound intention. Jesus is invoking the personal name of God revealed to Moses and claiming to be equal with the God of the Old Testament. YHWH, the God of Israel.

We come then to John 15 and understand Jesus’ statement “I AM the true vine” to be a statement with respect to his deity. Jesus identifies himself as God. What then does he mean when he says that he is the “true vine”? My saying “I am a tree” is meaningless as there is no prior context for it to be significant. However, looking again to the Old Testament we receive assistance in discerning what Jesus is communicating about himself.

In Psalm 80 Israel is said to be a vine that God brought out of Egypt and “planted” in the Promised Land. Throughout the Old Testament – here in Psalm 80 and especially in Isaiah 5 – Israel is called God’s vine, or God’s vineyard. As God’s vine they were called to be obedient. Or, to utilize the language of John’s illustration, they were called to be “fruitful.” Israel, however, did not fulfill their calling.

Adam, as God’s son, failed in the garden to obey the Law of God and to rule over creation. So too Israel failed in the Promised Land, as God’s son, to obey the Law of God and to rule over her enemies. Jesus, in calling himself the “true vine” stands in opposition and stark contrast to that which is inherently counterfeit, or perhaps better put, that which is “less ultimate.” Jesus has in clear view here the disobedience of Israel as God’s faithless vine.

Jesus Christ, not Israel, is the “true vine” of God. Jesus here shows himself to fulfill Israel’s destiny – whereas Israel did not bear fruit, Jesus will bear the fruit of true obedience. This is what I like to think of as the punch-line of the whole Bible: Jesus defines himself as the one true Israelite. He represents in himself the faithful nation of Israel. “Faithful Israel” had been reduced to one man, and one man alone.

All that God had done for Israel looked forward to what he would do in and through his only son, Jesus Christ. Jesus as the true Israelite keeps the law perfectly, he worships God perfectly, and he succeeds in every place that Israel before him had failed. His obedience was a perfect obedience. In Philippians 3:8 Paul says that Jesus’ obedience was an obedience “unto death – even death on a cross.” His deliverance was not a deliverance from the hands of foreign oppressors, but a deliverance from the grip of sin itself.

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