"If You Believe Not That I am He…."
John 8: 24 is an often quoted and memorized verse, but what is it really teaching? The author of the statement recorded in John 8: 24 is Jesus. This same speaker had just uttered the shocking statement, "I am the light of the world…." (vs. 12). It was he who also said to these Jews, "…Ye neither know me, nor my Father, if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also" (vs. 19). Jesus’ statements were so strong and shocking that a violent response was forthcoming on the part of the hearers (vs. 59).
An exposition of the verse. First, let us consider John 8: 24 and then break it down in the process of exegesis in order to ascertain the teaching of the verse.
"24: I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins" (John 8).
"If ye believe…." Let us consider and isolate the expression, "If ye believe…." Faith is absolutely necessary in view of its practical meaning and its requisite presence (Heb. 11: 1, 6). Christianity is presented as a "walk by faith" (2 Cor. 5: 7). The faith is not based on simple subjectivism, but since we have not seen the God whom we serve and are to totally trust in him, faith is basic. We ask the question, in whom are we to believe? The answer is provided by Jesus:
"1: Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me" (John 14).
Saving faith is always observed in the scriptures as active and obedient (Jas. 2: 19-26). Faith only results in being on an equal level with the demons who also believe and tremble, but certainly they do not submit to God’s will (Jas. 2: 19). Faith is produced by hearing the word of God and believing it (Rom. 10: 17, John 20: 30, 31).
"If ye believe not…." It is entirely possible that man elects not to believe, notwithstanding all the witness as to God’s existence as observed in his creation and the matchless love God has had for man (Rom. 1, John 3: 16). This is because man is a free moral agent (cp. Josh. 24: 15). The doctrine commonly known as Calvinism that teaches that some have no choice but to believe and cannot forfeit their salvation once they are forced to believe, is patently false, stripping man of this free moral agency.
In the absence of faith, there is only condemnation. This is one reason Mark 16: 16 while considering the fate of the believer who is baptized, does not even mention baptism in the second instance. One who does not believe, will not be baptized. The state of the lack of belief does not produce anything spiritually worth while. However, unbelief is not limited to atheism. One can be an unbeliever in the sense of not trusting in God, as the Israelites of old (cp. Heb. 3: 12-19). The unbeliever has the lake of fire and brimstone awaiting him and the total removal from the presence of God (Rev. 21: 8, 2 Thes. 1: 6-9).
"That I am he…." Who really was and is Jesus? As mentioned, he is "the light of the world" (John 8: 12). Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last," expressing totality (Rev. 1: 11). He is the one who searches the reins and hearts of men (Rev. 2: 23). He is the way, the truth, and the life, the only approach to the Father (John 14: 6). He is the true vine, the door of the sheep, and the good shepherd (John 15: 1, 2; 10: 7; 11). He later said, "I am the resurrection, and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (John 11: 25).
The Greek text makes Jesus’ statement in John 8: 24 even more emphatic. If we literally render the Greek text, it is: "If ye believe not that I am…." (gar me pisteuoete oti ego eimi). Is Jesus simply calling on them to believe that he exists? Such an explanation is not tenable, because he was physically in their mist, speaking and conversing with them. Jesus later in the conversation explained more completely what he meant by, "believe I am."
"56: Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. 57: Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? 58: Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am."
Hence, "I am" refers to the "I am" of Exodus 3: 14 and presents Jesus as deity. Some suggest that if these Jews had so understood Jesus as identifying himself as the "I am," they would have stoned him, as they denied his deity. They are correct. Consider the next verse:
"59: Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by" (John 8).
Jesus’ works established his deity and identification (John 10: 37, 38, 25). The Father acknowledged Jesus and thus confirmed Jesus’ claims (Matt. 3: 17, 17: 1-5). One, though, may intellectually acknowledge Jesus as the "I am," but still be lost, because saving faith is trusting and obeying in its essential nature (Jas. 2: 19-26).
"Ye shall die in your sins." The fact that "…ye shall die in your sins" is repeated in John 8: 24 indicates the emphatic posture it occupies. Jesus is associated with sin, not because he is a sinner, he was sinless, but because he "tasked death for every man" and in his blood there potentially resides the "remission of sins" (Heb. 2: 9; Matt. 26: 28, Acts 2: 38). All men shall die, unless Jesus first returns (Heb. 9: 27). Even the righteous die (Num. 23: 10). The significance of Jesus’ statement, though, is seen in: "Ye shall die in your sins." If we die in our sins, we cannot go where Jesus went, he explained (vs. 21).
An application of John 8: 24. Believing in and acknowledging that Jesus is the "I am" means that we necessarily exclude all our idols, the gods of all false religions, including Islam, and every thing, person, and being that takes first place ahead of God (cp. Col. 3: 5).
In view of Jesus’ enunciation in John 8: 24, perhaps we have a greater understanding and appreciation as to his identity and desired place in our hearts and lives. Let us not do as the Jews who heard him, reject and attempt to stone him, but accept and imbibe him without reservation. He is truly the "bread of life," of whom if we will partake, everlasting life will be for us to enjoy (John 6: 48-58).