Who Said That?: ἐγώ εἰμί (I Am) in John’s Gospel
|Kurt Willems||Jul 13, 2017|
• 5 Minute Read
Nothing spells summer fun quite like a Greek reading group, right?
The scene: Friday morning, 7:30 am. A coffee shop in the south end of Regina. Three people sit down to cups of tea, armed with Greek New Testaments and a lexicon. Let the fun begin!
I am by no means a Greek scholar: I took two semesters of introductory Greek in seminary and, while I enjoyed it, I found that theology resonated with me more than biblical studies. However, in reality, you can’t really have one without the other.
So that’s why I found myself with two friends at 7:30am reading John 9:1-12 in Greek.
When I was studying Greek in seminary, it was certainly tedious at times. Parsing verbs, memorizing vocab, trying to wrap your head around syntax and structure is hard work! Yet, as I found myself reading John 9 verse by verse in Koine Greek, and working out the verb tenses, participles, and cases with my friends (who were certainly more helpful than I was!), I was so glad I had spent all that time learning the basics of Greek.
John 9:1-12 is the story of Jesus healing the blind man with spit and mud and a command to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The disciples had asked Jesus: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1). Jesus answered that neither of these explanations were correct, but that the man had been born blind in order that the work of God may be displayed in his life. And then came the unconventional healing.
John could have stopped the narrative there: problem presented, man healed miraculously, disciples hopefully closer to grasping who Jesus is. Moving on!
But he doesn’t. Rather, Jesus seems to exit the scene and the newly seeing man is left alone with his sight and his neighbours who begin to question him: “Are you actually the same blind man who used to sit here and beg?” (John 9:8). You can almost hear the skepticism behind the question. You were blind. How could you possibly see now? Maybe you’re not who you say you are.
The healed man answers their questions: “I am the man.”
Now, in English, this doesn’t look like anything too special. But as we were reading it in Greek, the phrase “I am the man” reads as ἐγώ εἰμί.
We all stopped at ἐγώ εἰμί. It stood out. It wasn’t normal. It was different. And what was it doing there? This phrase is quite emphatic in the Greek; effectively, it says “I AM.” εἰμί on its own means “I am,” so when you add the extra “I” or ἐγώ to the phrase, the emphasis really jumps off the page.
There is another reason ἐγώ εἰμί jumps off the page in John 9: the famous “I am” statements of Jesus that occur in the rest of John’s Gospel: ἐγώ εἰμί the bread of life (John 6:35). ἐγώ εἰμί the light of the world (John 8:12). ἐγώ εἰμί the door (John 10:7). I am the good shepherd (John 10:11). ἐγώ εἰμί the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). ἐγώ εἰμί the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). ἐγώ εἰμί the true vine (John 15:1).
ἐγώ εἰμί , ἐγώ εἰμί , ἐγώ εἰμί.
And then, ἐγώ εἰμί shows up on the lips of a newly healed blind beggar. Why?
Tell Us Plainly
At our Greek reading group, we briefly discussed why John decided to use this striking, strong phrase ἐγώ εἰμί on the lips of the newly healed man. Why not reserve it only for Jesus, as the “I am” statements seem pretty important to John’s Gospel as a whole? There are others way to say: “That’s me! I’m the man who used to sit here!” in Greek. So why this phrase? Admittedly not a Johnannine scholar or a Greek expert, here are some initial thoughts, spurred on by the discussion with my friends.
Right before this healing story, Jesus is in a discussion with the Pharisees in John 8. The gist of the conversation seems to be “who are you?” (John 8:32). There is more discussion, a lack of unbelief, and finally Jesus boldly states: “very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). This angers the Jewish leaders so much that they pick up stones in order to kill Jesus, to silence these mad testimonies, these mad identity statements.
After the healing story, we find a similar scenario. The Jews ask Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10:34). Jesus’ answer: “I did tell you but you did not believe” (John 10:25).
They did not believe. And this unbelief is what leads to Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and death. How could he be the Messiah? We know his father, mothers, brothers, and sisters. And besides, nothing good comes out of Nazareth.
Perhaps the newly healed man who answers the pestering crowds’ questions as to his identity is a type of Jesus. Just as Jesus stated his identity and was not believed, the crowds remain skeptical to the newly healed man’s claims that he is one and the same: the blind beggar who used to sit here!
A servant is not greater than his master.
A Journey of Discipleship
However, if John has meant for the newly healed man to act as a type of Christ, the story is far from over. My friends at the reading group pointed out that the healed man becomes progressively more and more bold as he answers the questioners.
First, he answers the questioning crowd simply: ” ἐγώ εἰμί” (John 9:9). Yep, I’m your guy. Nothing too elaborate. And when questioned where this man who put mud over his eyes went, he noncommittally answers: “I don’t know” (John 9:12).
After a while, the Pharisees join the questioning: “What have you to say about him [Jesus]? It was your eyes he opened.” The man takes a step further: “He is a prophet” (John 9:17). A step in the right direction, but not the full story.
The healed man’s parents are even being questioned now, and their response is: “He’s old enough. Let him tell his own story.” John gives us some inside information: no one wanted to say that Jesus was the Messiah because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders who said that anyone declaring Jesus to be Messiah would be thrown out of the synagogue (John 9:22). The stakes are high.
So back to questioning the healed man. “Give glory to God by telling the truth. We know this man [Jesus] is a sinner,” they demand (John 9:24). The man is becoming bolder: “I don’t know if he is a sinner or not, but I do know this: I once was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25).
The breaking point. The questioners question one more time: “how did he heal you?” (John 9:26). Boldness and perhaps a bubbling understanding of who Jesus really is erupts from the healed man: “I told you all that and you didn’t listen! And why do you want to know? Do you want to become his disciples too?” (John 10:27).
Notice the word “too.” As well. This man has just declared himself to be a disciple of Christ, to believe what he has claimed.
The Jewish leaders didn’t miss this small fact. They throw insults at the man: “You’re his disciple, which is too bad for you! We are disciples of Moses. As for this Jesus, we don’t even know where he comes from!” (John 9:28-29).
The healed man has one more chance. He is becoming more like his master as he absorbs their anger and disbelief. Then he puts the nail in his coffin: “If this man [Jesus] were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9:33).
That does it. The leaders cry: “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” (John 9:34).
And they threw him out. The disciple has been rejected, just as the master has been.
Who Do You Say that I am?
I find the progression of the healed man from timid responses to bold declarations of his discipleship fascinating. Perhaps we are all on this journey, each of us on different points. What will we say when questioned who Jesus is?
I don’t know. A great teacher. A social activist. Some people say he is God. My Lord.
And what will we say when Jesus himself asks us, “Who do you say that I am? And how does the way that you live say who I am?”
These are important questions to ponder. And I would have missed these questions if I had quickly passed over John 9:9 in the English, instead of taking the time to ask what ἐγώ εἰμί is doing coming from the mouth of a blind beggar.