I am currently cruising at about 36,000 feet on my way to the conference in Anchorage, Alaska. I was doing what is normally called “sermon preparation,” but for me of late, that has been focused very much upon the text itself. That is, I have found great freedom (and the people of God have seemed to be especially blessed) when I speak directly from the original language text itself. This involves a flowing translation of the text, commentary thereon, followed by exegesis of the key passages. I was reading John chapter 8 when I encountered these familiar words from Jesus’ encounter with the Jews, “And He was saying to them, ‘You are from below. I am from above. You are of (from) this world. I am not of (from) this world” (καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς· ὑμεῖς ἐκ τῶν κάτω ἐστέ, ἐγὼ ἐκ τῶν ἄνω εἰμί· ὑμεῖς ἐκ τούτου τοῦ κόσμου ἐστέ, ἐγὼ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου. John 8:23). I was struck once again by a theme I have pointed to many times in my preaching. We are so often used to hearing Jesus speak in the context of His divinity that we often do not “hear” how very strange His words would have sounded in their original context. We know Jesus is the Incarnate Lord, the eternal Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, and so these kinds of words do not amaze us. But we must put ourselves in the context of the Jews standing in the gazofulakion, the treasury room of the Temple. And I think what caused me to especially focus upon this text at this time is my upcoming debates with Muslims.
If you can, put yourself in the original context, and “hear” Jesus speaking. What do you hear? What strikes you? Is there not a clear, strong differentiation between the Lord’s view of Himself, His self-understanding, and that of everyone around Him? Are these the words of a man who sees Himself as “one of us” in the sense of origination? Surely not. The “below/above” and “this world/not this world” couplets are meant to communicate Jesus’ divine origin very strongly. Jesus is not merely saying, “I am in harmony with God, and hence have a heavenly connection, one that you could have as well, if you only chose to do so.” He is not saying, “I am a prophet like many before me.” No, He is about to say (v. 24) that His opponents will die in their sins: “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins, for unless you believe that ego eimi, (ἐγώ εἰμι) I am, you will die in your sins.” One’s eternal destiny, even one’s forgiveness of sins, is tied to faith in Christ, and more to the point, faith in what He reveals about Himself. The “I am” saying here (note v. 28, 58, 13:19, 18:5-6) aside from going directly to Yahweh’s self-identification in such texts as Isaiah 43:10, flows naturally from the assertion to be “from above” and to be “not of this world.”
Isn’t it just here that the enemy has been so insistent upon attacking the once-for-all-delivered-to-the-saints-faith? The list of falsehoods concerning the person of Christ propounded down through history (let alone today) is long indeed, but all the heresies of the past and present share this one consistency: they refuse to allow the Scriptures to speak fully in defining Him. The Jews rejected His self-identification in this text as well (8:58-59), and they are followed by the entire Muslim world today. The “Islamic Jesus,” though a virgin born worker of miracles, is not divine, but is a “mere rasul, a mere prophet.” But what “mere rasul” (إِلَّا رَسُولٌ) speaks to his fellow creatures and says “you are from below, I am from above”? What mere prophet has this kind of self-awareness? Obviously, no sinner can say the words Jesus said, and, of course, this is exactly why Muslims reject the testimony of John, for they, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, have a particular traditional understanding of who Jesus can, and cannot, be.
If today you embrace faith in Christ, obey Him as your Lord, love Him as your Savior, and rejoice in the fact that He is the God-Man, let your heart be filled with thanksgiving that He, by His Spirit, has opened your heart to see the very “Lord of Glory” (1 Cor. 2:8).