What’s in a name?

Since it first began to circulate the Gospel of John has been a runaway bestseller. The first readers were immediately taken with its intimate style and contrast to the other three gospels. John’s gospel has often been termed the spiritual gospel. Even Napoleon was reported to be so taken with it that he declared that either the one written about was the Son of God or the one who wrote it was.

John writes with the intention of revealing the true nature of Jesus to his readers. He does this masterfully by structuring his account around seven key miracles, which he terms signs. For John the fascination lies not only in the miracles that Jesus performs but in what they point to – their intention to reveal the true nature and identity of Jesus.

Whilst the signs are easy to spot (given the fact that he calls them exactly that), there is always more going on in John’s gospel than what we read at face value. At a more subversive level John includes a phrase that echoes throughout his narrative – ‘I am’. Although there are perhaps over 20 citations peppered throughout (used by either Jesus himself or where others quote him), there are seven emphatic ‘I am’ sayings. The same number as the seven signs. From John 6 to John 15, Jesus says: “I am the bread of Life; I am the light; I am the door; I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection; I am the way; I am the vine.”

In itself these claims are extraordinary but when understood within their implied meaning they are simply staggering. The ‘I am’ sayings are nothing short of a rumbling that begins to escalate till it erupts as an earthquake in John’s account. One story where Jesus uses this phrase ‘I am’ (although not one of the seven emphatic sayings), is with the woman at the well in John 4. This famous encounter with the Samaritan woman serves as good a place as any to introduce the topic. Without recounting the entire episode (I have shared on this elsewhere, but you can read is here in John 4), the discussion between Jesus and the Samaritan woman reaches a climax when she says in verse 25:

“I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Jesus then responds to her saying:

“I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

The Greek text has a way of emphasizing the ‘I am’ – literally Jesus says: “I, I am, the one speaking to you.” So why the big deal?

The story behind the story

The background and significance is found in the history of the Jewish people. Exodus is not only an important book in the Hebrew scriptures but it is a key event in the history of the Jewish nation. It is embedded in their culture, in their corporate psyche. It is commemorated each year and remembered from generation to generation. Early on in the Exodus event (Ex ch. 3), God appears to Moses in the iconic burning bush episode. God unveils to Moses his plans for the Israelites and the central role Moses will play. Moses is astounded and asks the obvious question: “Who shall I say is calling?”

13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

Within the world of that day this is not as silly as it sounds. Gods have names and there were a lot of them. Saying god sent me wouldn’t surprise anyone, the crucial question was which god? God responds to Moses, saying:

“I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”

I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine Moses thinking, “Lord, this is seriously not going to cut it.” This is where we get the name for God in English, Yahweh or YHWH. A name so sacred that the Jews will not even write it down. We are not even sure of the original pronunciation. This name, this non-name, this indescribable name, in fact says a lot. “I won’t be named or reduced to a mere name. I cannot be described in a word or put in a box. I won’t be ‘named’ – controlled, used, or manipulated.”

In our consumer culture this is counter intuitive. We would like to define God, explain him, we would like to know what we can expect of him. In other places in the Old Testament there are specific names ascribed to God. These can be helpful in understanding his character, his nature. But with one massive caveat. This Exodus account needs to be the foundation. Knowing a name for God is not like having a token for a slot machine. Put in the token and out comes a payout – healing, help, provision. Perhaps an earlier caution is appropriate:

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

Personally when I read the rest of the story I get the impression that God is saying, “As you follow me you will see who I am. As I act against Pharaoh, as I lead you through the wilderness, you will encounter me.” It’s a journey of discovery, a relationship. “Follow me, learn to obey me, trust me, encounter who I am. I am who I am.”

Eugene Peterson reflecting on this name says: “I am presence, I am present”.

In the follow on to this Blog I will share what I consider the wider implications. How this story relates to creation and Genesis, Exodus and new creation. But for now you can join the dots. As we journey through John’s narrative, Jesus’ use of this phrase is packed with significance. Not only is Jesus saying, ‘I am, the I AM’, which in fact leads to his execution. He is extending the same invitation: “Follow me, encounter me. I am present, I am presence.”

4 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. So, now I can confidently and very simply say that I AM a follower of Jesus, because I AM lives in me and has drawn me into relationship and journey with YHWH.
    I like it !! It has a bit of Dad’s voice in it.

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