Unique to the Gospel of John are the seven “I am” statements of Jesus. What are these statements, and what do they mean for Christians?
The tension grew with each exchange of words. First, Jesus had implied that these observant Jews were somehow in bondage (John 8:31-33), and then He insinuated that Abraham was not truly their father (verse 39). To make matters worse, He claimed that the devil was the father of these religious men (verse 44)!
Then Jesus stunned these Jews when He told them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Incredulous at this assertion, the Jews then asked how Jesus, who was still a young man, could have had an interaction with Abraham.
Jesus answered, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (verse 58).
Tempers were already hot, but at this point, the Jews were ready to stone Jesus for blasphemy. They clearly understood that Jesus was claiming to be God!
“I AM” as the name of God
The Hebrew name of God, often transliterated as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” and usually rendered as “LORD” in English Bibles, has “the root meaning to be, become” (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible).
The understanding of “I AM” as an expression by which God identified Himself to His people dates back to the experience of Moses with the burning bush. Moses had been tending sheep close to Mount Horeb, “the mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1).
God revealed Himself to Moses in a bush that burned but was not consumed by the fire (verse 2). After hearing that he would be used to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, Moses asked God His name.
At this point, “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’” (verse 14). Then God shortened the expression, telling Moses to tell the people, “I AM has sent me to you.”
As we explain in our article “Names of God”: “What God was saying is that He is the God who simply is. He has no source of origin, no progenitor, no beginning. He came from no physical place. He simply exists and always has existed.”
Understanding why the words I AM were significant to the first-century Jews is critical to understanding the seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel. That’s because the divinity of Christ is one of John’s most important themes.
The book begins with words reminiscent of the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2, emphasis added).
John left no doubt as to whom he was discussing when he added that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (verse 14). (For a longer explanation of Jesus’ identity as God, read “Jesus in the Old Testament?”)
It is in this context that we can understand the seven “I am” statements of Jesus, which only John records. Each of these unusual assertions is a metaphor Jesus used to describe Himself and His role to His disciples, to the religious leaders of the day, and to others listening to Him.
They all begin with “I am.”
1. “I am the bread of life”
Jesus uttered His first “I am” statement to a group of men who had witnessed a remarkable miracle the previous day. Jesus had fed 5,000 men (as well as the women and children accompanying them) with only five loaves and two fish (John 6:9-10).
During the night Jesus had crossed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, but some of the crowd who had enjoyed that wondrous meal figured out where He had gone. When they caught up with Jesus, He told them that they were more interested in the food He had provided than His teaching. He encouraged them to seek “the food which endures to everlasting life” (verse 27).
Even though these men had witnessed a miracle, they wanted something more. Reminding Jesus that their “fathers ate the manna in the desert” (verse 31), they asked Jesus to prove Himself with a sign.
Jesus then distinguished between the manna Israel ate in the wilderness and the “true bread from heaven” that “gives life to the world” (verses 32-33). The men asked for this bread.
It was at this point that Jesus first said, “I am the bread of life” (verse 35). He repeated this statement once (verse 48), and then said it a third time with slightly different wording: “I am the living bread” (verse 51).
When Jesus said He was the bread of life, He was saying that He was God, and as such, He was the source of life.
2. “I am the light of the world”
Jesus uttered His second “I am” statement after the Feast of Tabernacles, and He did so twice. In each case, the statement came in the context of the understanding and application of God’s law.
The first instance occurred as He taught at the temple (John 7:37; 8:1-2). The religious authorities brought a woman caught in adultery to test Jesus—to see whether He would uphold the law (verse 3). Jesus perceived their duplicity, commanding that “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (verse 7).
These same scribes and Pharisees went away one by one as Jesus wrote on the ground, until Jesus was left alone with the accused woman (verses 9-10). There were no witnesses at this point, as required by the law. Jesus let the woman go, and then He told the people still there, “I am the light of the world” (verse 12).
The second instance occurred as He left the temple complex. Jesus encountered a man born blind, prompting the disciples to ask Him who sinned—the man or his parents—that he was born blind (John 9:1-2). This question showcased their acceptance of a popular but false premise.
Many first-century Jews associated good health, wealth and status as an indication of God’s favor, but automatically viewed sickness, poverty and lowly status as indications of God’s displeasure. Jesus corrected their understanding, explaining that this man was born blind so that the “works of God [could] be revealed in him” (verse 3).
It was then that Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (verse 5).
The context of both of these instances shows people with an improper understanding and application of the law. In both cases—the woman caught in adultery and the man born blind—Jesus demonstrated righteous judgment. He shed light on the issues!
Light and darkness are seen throughout Scripture as symbols of good and evil generally, but also as symbols of God and Satan in specific references. The prophet Isaiah, for example, used the image of a sunrise to picture God’s appearance to and blessing on His people (Isaiah 60:1-3).
This is why the first chapter of John tells us that Jesus’ life “was the light of men” (John 1:4).
3. “I am the door of the sheep”
The third “I am” statement of Jesus draws on pastoral imagery. Sheep were an important part of the economy and culture of the ancient Near East, and the role of the shepherd was a vital part of both.
Through these seven “I am” statements, Jesus revealed His identity as the Son of God, drawing on well-known Old Testament terminology and imagery that pointed to His divinity.When not grazing in pastures, sheep were kept in enclosures to protect them from predators and thieves. Some of these enclosures were courtyards next to homes bordered by stone walls. Others were caves.
Many did not have actual doors. Instead, the shepherd himself, or sometimes an appointed gatekeeper, remained at the entrance while the sheep were in one of these sheepfolds. This is what Jesus was referring to when He said, “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7).
According to The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, “The emphatic singular pronoun ‘I’ (ego) emphasizes that the shepherd is the sole determiner of who enters the fold and who is excluded.”
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are characterized as sheep, and their human leaders, as shepherds. For example, God told David, “You shall shepherd My people Israel, and be ruler over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2). David famously recognized, “The LORD is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).
So, with His statement that He was the “door of the sheep,” Jesus identified Himself both as the Protector of God’s people and as the only way to enter the fold. In essence, to be part of God’s flock, an individual must go through Jesus (Acts 4:12).
4. “I am the good shepherd”
The fourth “I am” statement is closely linked to the previous one, both in meaning and setting. In fact, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14) right on the heels of saying, “I am the door” (verse 9) a second time.
By calling Himself the “good shepherd,” Jesus contrasted His loving leadership to the self-serving leadership of the Pharisees, Sadducees and other religious authorities of the time. He may also have been alluding to condemnations of Israel’s rulers in the past.
Prior to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the ensuing captivity of God’s people, Jeremiah wrote, “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!’ says the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:1).
The same problem existed after the exile, as recorded by Zechariah: “My anger is kindled against the shepherds, and I will punish the goatherds. For the LORD of hosts will visit His flock, the house of Judah” (Zechariah 10:3).
In John’s Gospel, though, Jesus goes beyond His roles as a protector of God’s people and as the only path to salvation. He points to His sacrificial death.
Immediately after proclaiming Himself as the good shepherd, Jesus said, “The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). This concept is so important that He repeated it more than once, saying, “I lay down My life for the sheep” (verse 15) and, “I lay it down of Myself” (verse 18).
5. “I am the resurrection and the life”
Jesus made His fifth “I am” statement to Martha after her brother Lazarus had died. She had confessed her belief that Lazarus would “rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24). It was in response that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (verse 25).
Jesus was particularly close to Lazarus, Martha and their sister Mary (verse 5). He knew in advance that He would resurrect Lazarus, glorifying God the Father as well as glorifying Himself (verse 4) by showing that He had power over death, even as His crucifixion drew near.
With Martha and Mary close by, and while onlookers watched, Jesus approached the tomb of Lazarus. For the sake of the people nearby, He uttered out loud a short prayer to the Father and then commanded, “Lazarus, come forth!” (verses 41-43).
And Lazarus did!
Jesus had resurrected a man who had been dead four days (verse 39). There was no mistaking this miracle as anything other than a miracle. And it was done, as Jesus had asked in His prayer, “that they may believe that You sent Me” (verse 42).
The resurrection of Lazarus convinced many of the Jews. As a result, the religious authorities sought to kill not only Jesus, but Lazarus as well (John 12:10-11).
God alone has the power to give and restore life (Genesis 2:7; Deuteronomy 32:39).
For additional study, see our article “The Resurrection and the Life.”
6. “I am the way, the truth, and the life”
When Jesus made His sixth “I am” statement, He addressed only His 11 closest disciples (Judas had already left to betray Christ), saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He made this statement late in the evening after the Passover service, knowing that He would be crucified the next day.
None of the disciples seemed to grasp the dangers ahead, and none were really mentally prepared for what would happen. For example, shortly before this statement, Jesus had told a disbelieving Peter that he would deny Christ three times that night (John 13:38).
Jesus understood that, following His arrest and crucifixion, the disciples would be confused and afraid. This sixth “I am” statement was a reminder of what they would need to keep in mind.
First, Jesus Himself is the way—the only way—into the Kingdom of God. In almost the same breath as this sixth “I am” statement, Jesus added, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
The second part of His statement dealt with truth. In the aftermath of the crucifixion, when the disciples would be so disheartened that they might be tempted to abandon what they had learned, they would need to remember that Jesus is the source of truth.
Finally, in the dark days before He would be resurrected, He wanted His disciples to remember that He is the source of life. By following His teachings faithfully, they would see Him resurrected, and they would be given eternal life.
For additional study of this phrase, see, “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
7. “I am the true vine’
It seems Jesus made His seventh and final “I am” statement while walking with His disciples from the upper room in Jerusalem toward the Mount of Olives. Soon after saying, “Arise, let us go from here” (John 14:31), He said, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1).
The meaning of this metaphor became clear a few verses later when Jesus appealed to His disciples to “abide in Me” (verse 4), and then pointed out that “as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.”
This metaphor is reminiscent of imagery in the book of Isaiah. In one prophetic passage, Isaiah pictured the rebellious people of Israel and Judah as the vineyard of God (Isaiah 5:1-7). In another, he described the coming Messiah as a Branch springing from the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1).
This would be important for the disciples to remember. In the coming days, they would be tested as they had never been tested while Jesus was with them. This “I am” statement reminded them that they must remain faithful, and that only by remaining connected to Jesus would they bear fruit.
The seven “I am” statements and you
Through these seven “I am” statements, Jesus revealed His identity as the Son of God, drawing on well-known Old Testament terminology and imagery that pointed to His divinity. He also gave us a richer understanding of how to view His character and role, as well as His promises to those individuals called to follow in His steps.
What Jesus revealed in these seven “I am” statements can help us, as Christians, to deepen our relationship with Him and with the Father. We can take comfort knowing that He will sustain us and give us everlasting life, and we can be encouraged by the understanding and light He sheds on this dark world.
We can also be assured that Jesus, who died for us, will protect us and ultimately resurrect us. We need not live in confusion, knowing that He has laid out the path for us to follow, and we can rededicate ourselves to remaining connected to the true vine.