Before Abraham (John 8)

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Service Notes

Fifth Sunday in Lent + April 7, 2019
  • Order of Service: Divine Service 1
  • Hymns: LSB #425, 430, 427, 433
Before Abraham

Theme Verse

[Jesus said:] "Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." (John 8:56-58)

Sermon Text

If you are reading the Gospels looking for a "tipping point" where the Jewish leaders began strategizing their imprisonment and destruction of Jesus, John 8 is the chapter for you. Especially the conversation we have in this morning's Gospel reading. "Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM."[1]

This very brief statement was all that was really needed in order to have the Jews come after Jesus for blasphemy. A very brief statement, but it is the beginning of a "new covenant" between Jesus and His followers.[2] A new covenant that fulfilled the old covenant, but the Jews wanted nothing to do with this new covenant. They enjoyed the rationality of the Law. They weren't thrilled with the faith of the Gospel.

It follows the same pattern as God's previous covenant updates.

  • Genesis 17:1-2: When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD [YHWH] appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty [El Shaddai]; walk before Me, and be blameless, that I may make My covenant between Me and you, and may multiply you greatly."
  • Exodus 6:2-4: God spoke to Moses and said to him, "I am the LORD [YHWH]. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by My name the LORD [YHWH] I did not make Myself known to them. I also established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners."
  • John 8:58: Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM [YHWH]."

With each update, the covenant is strengthened. With each update, the source goes even further back. With Abraham, the source went back to the call to leave Haran.[3] With Moses, the source went back to the covenant with Abraham over the land of Canaan. With Jesus, the source goes back before Abraham to the LORD [YHWH] Himself.

Jesus says the same thing about His relationship to Moses and Abraham that John the Baptizer said about Jesus' relationship to him: "He who comes after me ranks before me, because He was before me."[4]

What does the word "before" mean when Jesus says, "Before Abraham was"?[5] Jesus says that He is "before Abraham." He is greater than Abraham. Abraham is the most respected figure among the Jews of Jesus' day. Yes, they followed Moses' Law as the most basic handbook for life, but they prided themselves on being children of Abraham.[6] Not once does anyone in the Gospels or in all of the New Testament call themselves a child of Moses. A student of Moses, yes, but never his child.

Abraham is considered the greatest historical figure in Jewish history because the Jews, as a people, began with Abraham. While they thought they were the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, Jesus was the true fulfillment. Genealogical descent doesn't grant you anything in God's eyes. John the Baptizer told the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him, "Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham."[7] Genealogy doesn't mean anything outside of Christ.

When God makes His covenants with His people, His focus is always on Christ. Why? Because Christ was before Abraham. He is the Son of God. Not only did He exist prior to Abraham. His prior existence shows that He is more important than Abraham. Abraham couldn't save himself. He himself needed salvation. He needed someone greater than himself. The One who was before him.

That salvation came because Jesus is YHWH. The great I AM. Jesus is telling the Jews just that. Two chapters later, the Jews ask Him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly."[8] How much more plainly can you say it? Jesus called Himself YHWH. That He appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai in the burning bush.[9] That He lead the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt as the pillars of smoke and fire.[10] That He is the salvation of mankind.

How can He say that? Because He is the "mediator of a new covenant ... that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant."[11] In this new covenant, salvation is given fully and freely. This new covenant truly gives the "promised eternal inheritance" to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.[12] What is the "eternal inheritance"? Not the land of Canaan but Heaven. Where there is no death.[13]

Here, you will see the fulfillment of Jesus' words, "If anyone keeps My Word, he will never taste death."[14] The Jews thought Jesus crazy, even demon-possessed,[15] to make such a statement. Especially since Abraham and the prophets had died and were buried.[16] Jesus opens the door to the eternal Promised Land so that all who believe in Him, who keep His Word, may enter and never taste death.

How does He fulfill this? He fulfilled what Isaac did. On the way to the sacrifice in the land of Moriah, Isaac carried the wood on his back.[17] Jesus carried His own cross out of Jerusalem.[18] He provided for the redemption found in the new covenant through His own death. His sacrifice on the cross of Calvary makes "the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh."[19]

Jesus makes this final purification as God the Father doesn't stay His hand. Instead of calling out from on high like He did with Abraham,[20] He completely forsakes Jesus on the cross.[21] Jesus is the ultimate substitute that "The LORD will provide."[22] When Abraham answers Isaac, he points toward Jesus.[23] This is when "your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see My day."[24]

Our hymns this morning are all about this fulfillment of the new covenant on the cross. "The wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died."[25] The cross that is the focus of our Lenten collect that concludes our prayers. The cross to which "He came from His blest throne salvation to bestow."[26] The cross "towering over the wrecks of time"[27] where "the Lord of life [was] arraigned."[28] "Here might I stay and sing,"[29] "adoring at His feet … God's own sacrifice complete."[30] The cross where we have the answer to the question from this morning's Psalm, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?" "Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God."[31]

"Before Abraham was, I am."[32] Jesus announces the new covenant that He mediates. The covenant of grace where YHWH provided the Lamb to be slain so that you might "never see death."[33] Not fearing death is the greatest update to God's covenant. Adam and Eve were created to live forever. When you and I were joined to Jesus in His death and resurrection, we were re-created so that we would live with Him forever. This is the new creation because Jesus is greater than Abraham.[34] Because Jesus is God in the flesh.[35] Because Jesus was sacrificed so that you would be saved. Amen.


  1. John 8:58
  2. Hebrews 9:15
  3. Genesis 11:31-12:9
  4. John 1:15
  5. John 8:58
  6. John 8:39
  7. Matthew 3:7
  8. John 10:24
  9. Exodus 3
  10. Exodus 13:21-22
  11. Hebrews 9:15
  12. Hebrews 9:15
  13. Revelation 21:4
  14. John 8:51
  15. John 8:48
  16. John 8:53
  17. Genesis 22:6
  18. John 19:17
  19. Hebrews 9:13
  20. Genesis 22:11-12
  21. Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34
  22. Genesis 22:14
  23. Genesis 22:8
  24. John 8:57
  25. LSB #425.1
  26. LSB #430.2
  27. LSB #427.1
  28. LSB #436.2
  29. LSB #430.7
  30. LSB #436.3
  31. Psalm 43:5
  32. John 8:58
  33. John 8:51
  34. 2 Corinthians 5:17
  35. John 1:1-14