Jesus made many statements recorded in the Gospels that garnered great controversy in His day. He said that He came from heaven (John 3:13), had the authority to forgive sins (Luke 7:48–50), and is the “Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). But perhaps His most surprising assertion was given in response to the Jews in John 8. Amid a heated debate over His identity, Jesus told them, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). This declaration is especially significant given that the phrase I am was used as a title for God (Exodus 3:14).
When analyzing Jesus’ comment, it is important to notice what Jesus did not say. He did not say that “before Abraham existed, I existed.” Or, “Before Abraham was, I was.” Rather, He declared that before Abraham was even born, “I am.” Before Abraham was (past tense), Jesus is (present tense). Jesus was claiming pre-existence.
When Jesus claimed to exist before Abraham, His hearers “picked up stones to stone him” (John 8:59). They knew immediately that Jesus’ statement was tantamount to claiming equality with God, and the penalty for blasphemy under Jewish law was stoning (Leviticus 24:16). Jesus’ opponents were unsuccessful, however. John records that “Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:59). Later, in John 13:19, Jesus again applies the divine name I AM to Himself: “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am.” The words echo God’s statements in Exodus 3:14, “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’” and in Isaiah 41:4, “Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he.”
One day, “the LORD appeared to Abraham” (Genesis 18:1). Throughout the conversation, the Lord is alternately called a “man” and “the Lord” (verses 2, 13, 16, 17, 22). This is a case of an Old Testament Christophany (a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ). Genesis 18 provides further support for Jesus’ claim that He existed before Abraham. Jesus visited Abraham and Sarah in their tent and ate a meal with them.
Yes, the Bible certainly teaches that Jesus existed before Abraham. Jesus was “with God in the beginning” (John 1:2; see also John 1:14; Colossians 1:16–17), and that predates Abraham by quite a while. Jesus claimed to be divine on numerous occasions, and one such claim was that He existed prior to Abraham. Not only did Jesus exist prior to Abraham, but Abraham gave Him honor (Genesis 18:2–5).
As Jesus’ resurrection from the dead made clear, Jesus’ divine claims were true! So Jesus’ use of the name “I am” was not blasphemy as the Pharisees had supposed. Such an identification with Yahweh was entirely appropriate given who Jesus is. He is the “Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13). He is “God over all” (Romans 9:5) and “the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14). He was then and will forever be the great “I AM.”