Jesus challenged the Pharisee’s. He challenged their teaching, that it more reflected their own preferences and customs rather than God’s Law. He challenges their lifestyle, that they were little more than whitewashed tombs, squeaky clean on the outside and dead on the inside. Jesus challenged them so much and in so many various ways that they were sick of it, they wanted Him to quit stirring up trouble. They probably would’ve been happy to be rid of Him altogether, which is why we read of their many attempts to arrest Him and kill Him. In summary they wanted Him to just go away. Well, in our passage Jesus tells the Pharisee’s that a time is coming when God will give them exactly what they want. But He also warns them saying that when they get what they want, they won’t like it at all.
We see these things come to us in two ways in John 8:21-30, both of which are centered around two “I AM” statements. The first “I AM” statement is in v24 and the second “I AM” statement is in v28. Each of these statements come with their own context and center around the subject of death. We’ll take them one at a time.
Our Death and the “I AM” (v21-24)
After hearing everything Jesus had to say all the way from 7:14 to the present and seeing the commotion He was causing throughout the events of feast week the Pharisee’s were surely sick and tired of Jesus and would be, as we’ve said, very happy to be rid of Him by this point. In 8:21 Jesus speaks up again and says that they are about to get their wish, “I am going away (which they probably heard and quickly rejoiced!), and you will seek Me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” He had said things of this nature before back in 7:33-34, but here He ‘raises the bar’ of what it means to reject Him. Jesus had said He was the Light of the world, and promised that all those who follow Him wouldn’t walk in darkness but would have the light of life. As wonderful a promise this is to those who follow Him it is also a dreadful warning to those who don’t. We see something of this dreadful warning in v21. Those who reject His claims and His Person will walk in darkness and will not have the light of life. Jesus is leaving soon, and the time will come when those who now reject Him will want to seek Him and find Him, but they won’t be able to. The result of this vain search will be death, and not just any death…a specific death filled with judgment, wrath, and condemnation. Jesus says, “…you will die in your sin.”
Notice in v22 it says “the Jews” are the ones who respond here. He had previously been speaking with the Pharisee’s but now in v21 it seems Jesus opens up, perhaps gets a bit louder, and speaks not only to the Pharisee’s but the whole of the hostile Jewish crowd before Him. And once they hear it they don’t get it. They miss His frightful message, His threat of darkness, and His warning of judgment. Instead they wonder if He’s speaking of suicide by saying “Where I am going, you cannot come.” They wonder this because at that time suicide was believed to be the sin of ‘mad hands’ that sent you to the ‘lowest levels of the nether world.’ They were likely thinking, ‘If Jesus is going to kill Himself and be sent to hell, of course we won’t be there with Him and won’t be able to find Him, because we’ll clearly be in heaven.’ But O how deceived this religious crowd is! Jesus isn’t going to kill Himself and go into hell while they die and go to heaven. No, they’re going to be the ones who kill Him and while He’s being exalted in the heavens they’ll be sent to hell after death where they’ll wish they could seek Him and embrace Him and go to Him…but they’ll find that impossible.
Jesus sees how confused this crowd is so He, in v23-24, gets really clear about the difference between who they are and who they will become if they remain in their unbelief, and who He has been, who He is, and who He will remain to be in His deity. “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I AM He you will die in your sins.”
As oil is to water, as day is to night, as light is to darkness, so too is Jesus Christ in comparison to man. Yes, being truly God He became truly man, but His birth as a man was not the beginning of His existence. This is what we mean in the word incarnation. His birth was not the birth of a new person into the world. His birth was the entrance of an eternally old Person into the world. These Pharisee’s are missing this. v15 told us they judge Him according to the flesh and not according to reality, and so they miss who He truly is. They are from below, they are of this world, He is from above, He is not of this world. He is Creator, they are created. He is Definer, they are defined. He is Maker, they are made. He is independent, they are dependent beings. If He were not, they would never be. One of the reasons I enjoy the ocean so much is that it makes you feel really small as well as stunned at how big it is! There’s something very healthy for the soul in getting ourselves in front of objects vastly bigger than us. We ought to be reminded of how small we are compared to vast greatness. Increase my feelings about the ocean infinitely and see what Jesus is saying in v23. The gulf between God and man makes all the oceans of the world put together look little more than a drop in a bucket. The difference between us could not be greater. After reminding them of this great gulf Jesus repeats what He said earlier in v24 but with a very powerful addition. Again He gives the frightful warning, “I told you that you would die in your sins…” but now He adds more so we read more, “…for unless you believe that I AM He you will die in your sins.”
You see what He’s saying? The ‘he’ is an English add on, and shouldn’t be included, it’s literally just “…unless you believe that I AM you will die in your sins.” This statement is of massive importance to them and to every reader of John 8:24 in all of history. You can believe Jesus to be an inspiration, believe Him to be a great example, a great teacher, the founder of the largest movement in history, a unique person, a perfect person, truthful, honest, compassionate, loving, a prophet of God even…and still die in your sins. True faith in Christ embraces the weight of Christ’s deity. True faith, faith that saves us from our sins, is a faith that believes very concrete things about Jesus Christ. You will die in your sins unless you believe Jesus is none other than I AM, none other than Almighty God. These Jews knew the Scriptures, they knew God revealed Himself to Moses as I AM on the mountain, and they therefore knew the weight of Jesus’ Words. Do you? Or is your ‘Jesus’ leave out doctrinal demands? If you leave this concrete reality about who Christ is out of your faith, you leave the faith. You leave hope, security, light, life, and eternal salvation behind. You may believe very spiritual things but in no way would you ever be considered to be a Christian. Such a belief is a sad confession, and the end of such a sad confession is hopeless. “You will die in your sins.”
It would surely bring all of us much happiness if this deep unbelief was something only found in these Jews and never present in ourselves or in anyone else throughout history. But sadly that is not the case. One such example is Thomas Paine A great mind of history and one of the founders of our country. As well as a great enemy of the gospel in his generation. His book The Age of Reason led many of his peers and a large portion of the population away from the gospel. As he approached his deathbed he expressed an immense remorse saying, “I would give worlds, if I had them, that The Age of Reason had not been published. O Lord, help me! O God what have I done to suffer so much? But there is no God! But if there should be, what will become of me hereafter? Stay with me, for God’s sake! Send even a child to stay with me, for it is hell to be alone. If ever the devil had an agent, I have been that one.” These final words of Thomas Paine reveal how deceived he had been in life, and how frightful his death and life afterwards would soon become. Contrast those frightful final words with some of the fantastic final words of the late R.C. Sproul, “We are secure not because we hold tightly to Jesus but because He holds tightly to us.”
Church, I know medicine and science have progressed by leaps and bounds in the past century and will continue to do so as time goes on, but there is one thing that will remain ever incurable: 10 of 10 die. Because of this part of my role as your pastor is to prepare you for death. I know it’s hard, uncomfortable even, but pause and think…if the Lord Jesus tarries, in God’s timing and God’s way death will come to us all. See here what Jesus is saying. There are two ways to die. Either we die in faith or we die in our sins. How will you go? Will you die in your sins, vexed, miserable, and frightful of what’s to come? Or will you die in faith, peaceful, and eagerly awaiting what’s to come?
Christ’s Death and the “I AM” (v25-29)
What happens next in this dialogue reveals much about this Jewish crowd. They surely didn’t understand all of His words, but they did catch enough of it, probably from the I AM statement, to know Jesus was making a massive claim. So being a bit provoked they ask in v25, “Who are you?” This seems simple enough on the surface of things. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. If we were to follow the Greek word for word here the translation would be this, “So they said to Him, ‘You, who are you to say such things?’” One commentator says the question was ‘scornfully emphatic.’ And so Jesus gives a bit of a scornful response back to them, “Who am I? Just what I’ve been telling you from the beginning.” Have you not paid attention? Have you not witnessed the miracles and signs? Have you not heard my teaching? His reply makes is plain that they should know who He is by now. But their question reveals their blindness. So Jesus keeps on in v26, “I have much to say about you and much to judge, but He who sent Me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from Him.” Jesus being the Judge of all men knows He cannot stand by and leave their sinful unbelief unaddressed. But now is not the time to do so. That day will come, after their death, and on that day they will not be happy to meet Him in the courtroom of heaven. They’ll know firsthand then what Jesus knows firsthand now: that the Father sent Him, that the Father is true, that what Jesus spoke to them did not come from Him but from His Father, and that He truthfully does have much to say about them.
But notice v27, as He’s sharing these heavenly realities with them He sees what He saw a few verses earlier in v23-24, confusion. This brings Him to a sort of climactic moment in this passage where He brings up the second I AM statement. Recall the first was about our death. If we do not believe that He is the I AM we will die in our sins. Now, its not our death in view, its His. “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you know that I AM He, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me. He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” As before the word after I AM, the He isn’t there in Greek it’s an English add on. Which means Jesus is saying something again very weighty. ‘You may reject Me and what I’m saying now, but when you have lifted me up you will know that I AM, and that everything I’ve spoken about My Father is true, that He is always with Me, and that My life always pleases Him.’ We know this ‘lifting up’ is a reference to the crucifixion. Jesus had earlier told Nicodemus in John 3:14, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too must the Son of Man be lifted up.” It’s a sad story indeed that these Jews who refuse to identify Him as He truly is now, will identify Him correctly after they kill Him on the cross. When they see His exaltation in the irony of His humiliation…when the skies darken, when the curtain tears in two, when He hangs lifeless on the cross, they will know they’ve killed the Messiah they’ve been waiting for…they’ll know He was nothing less than the I AM, and they’ll be filled with dread.
Martin Luther once commented on this passage saying, “This is a dreadful sermon, an appalling and dreadful word of farewell.” He’s right. So much in these words makes us uncomfortable with hard realities. There is coming a time when people who once rejected Christ will look for Christ, find that He is not there to save, that He is there to condemn, and they will die in their sins, with no hope. But as hard as it is to face these things, this frightful passage turns wonderfully fantastic in v30. “As He was saying these things, many believed in Him.” In the unlikeliest of moments, after some of the darkest and hardest teaching from Christ, many believed and were saved. Hard hearts were softened by the hard preaching of Christ. This is where we see Christmas hope this morning. In what was one of the darkest and unlikeliest moments of history, a light burst through the darkness in a most peculiar manner. “Not with fanfares from above, not with scenes of glory. But a humble gift of love, Jesus born of Mary.” Sent by the Father, taught by the Father, upheld and sustained by the Father, ever with the Father, this One born on Christmas morning, would indeed change the whole world. Has He changed yours? If He hasn’t you’ve got every reason to be frightful as the day of your death approaches. If He has you know it’s Christmas everyday and you’ve got every reason to feel fantastic about what awaits you on the other side of death.
 Richard Phillips, John 1-10 – Reformed Expository Commentary, page 529.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT, page 446 (see note 34 on same page also).
 Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe – Preaching the Word Commentary, page 243-244.
 Thomas Paine, quoted in Hughes, page 240.
 Morris, page 448.
 Ibid., page 451.
 Martin Luther, quoted in Phillips, page 529 and 536.
 Gospel Transformation Study Bible, notes, page 1423.