When Jesus said the words “I am” in John 6.20, nostalgia must have been triggered for his disciples.
And nostalgia is a strong force. It can cause us to relive memories of times gone by. However, the danger of nostalgia is that it can cause us to miss what is right in front of us.
On the flipside, it may well be that one of the great powers of nostalgia is to cause us to live more presently and to long more fervently for God’s promised future.
Here’s how Russell Moore, the president of the Baptist group called the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, puts it: “Our warm memories, of times we have known or of times we wish we’d known, point us to a deep longing within us for a world made right” [SOURCE].
Getting back to John 6 for a second, I’m convinced that Jesus saying “I am” served as a nostalgic moment for the disciples. They could either bristle at Jesus for pulling a much-loved phrase from a bygone era into the present. They could dwell wholeheartedly on the past meaning of what Jesus said. Or they could allow this moment to propel them into being active participants in bringing about God’s will in the world, his will to make everything right.
Jesus Says “I Am”
To understand what Jesus was saying in this passage, we need to unpack a few things.
First, these words are embedded in the “walking on water” incident in John 6, which we will talk more about soon. But suffice it to say here that Jesus said “I am” while he was literally walking on water.
Second, Jesus said these words between two significant episodes in his life, the feeding of the 5000+ (John 6.1-14) and his teaching on the “bread of life” which caused many of his followers to desert him (John 6.25-71). In other words, these words are surrounded by bread and knowing this might inform how we understand Jesus’ words.
Third, in Greek Jesus said ego eimi, which is the exact same way that the Hebrew that God spoke to Moses in Exodus 3.14 is translated in the ancient translation called the Septuagint, which we very popular in Jesus’ day.
And fourth, he paired the words “I am” with “don’t be afraid.” The latter set of words is most commonly associated with angels in the Bible. Whenever they appear in a situation in the Bible, they almost always say “don’t be afraid.”
So what might all of this have meant for the disciples in the boat? I think that the words “I am” would have served as a hyperlink to the story of God telling Moses his name in Exodus 3.14. Furthermore, when paired with “don’t be afraid,” they would have understood that Jesus must be more than a mere man since those words are almost always reserved for extra-human beings in the Bible. Furthermore, Jesus was actively demonstrating that he was more than just a man since he was walking on water as he spoke!
And how might the original audience have made sense of all of this? If they were Jewish, and some surely were, then they too would have been made to feel nostalgic about Moses and God in Exodus 3.14 and they would have also understood the words “do not be afraid” in the same way. They too would have caught onto the miraculous nature of Jesus walking on the water.
In addition, the original audience would be able to interpret this story in light of the one coming before it and the one after it, both of which are, at least in part, about bread. And it seems to me that bread in both cases points to God’s provision, hearkening back to the provision of manna (divine bread) during the wilderness wanderings of the ancient Israelites after they were set free from Egypt.
In other words, the fact that this “I am” saying is sandwiched between two stories about bread (both of which point to divine provision) shows that John (the author of this Gospel) was also trying to communicate that Jesus was extra-human through this literary technique.
So, to recap, by saying the words “I am” in this context (both in the original scene and in the Gospel of John), it seems clear that Jesus is identifying himself with God. This story points with a great deal of clarity at Jesus being divine!
Jesus Said “I Am” — Now What?
What does it matter that Jesus claimed to be divine? Who cares? What kind of impact might it have on us?
First, I find the reaction of the disciples in the boat interesting. After seeing Jesus walk on water and hearing him claim a divine title as his own, “then they were willing to take him into the boat…” (John 6.21a).
Jesus didn’t say “I am” to rub his divinity in anyone’s face. And he didn’t say it just for the sake of revealing himself.
He said it so that the disciple would further welcome him in. He said it to build intimacy with them.
He said it so that he could have a greater impact in the present so that he could train his disciples up for their future work.
Friends, Jesus still makes the same claim — he’s still the great “I am”! And we have the same set of choices to make as the disciples did.
We can deny that Jesus was telling the truth when he identified with God by saying “I am,” bristling at the very notion.
We can love that Jesus claimed to be divine, but only let thinking about it make us feel fondly about this story in the Bible and the times we thought about it in the past.
Or we can invite Jesus in our “boats” like the disciples did, giving Jesus the proximity needed to change us into the people we need to be to fulfill his mission for us in this world.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t reveal himself in the Bible to be divine just for the heck of it. No! Instead he desires for us to be changed by who he is so that we can best serve him in his mission to make all things right.
What do you think? What did Jesus mean when he said “I am”? And how should it impact us today? Let me know in the comments below.