“I am.” Those two small words don’t initially pack a huge punch. They could be used by someone agreeing to something—“sure, I am going!” Or, they can be way of affirming a question—“are you the owner of this car?” “I am.” On top of that, they could be the beginning of how someone communicates something about themselves—“I am really bad at being on time!”
But, when Jesus uses these two words, something else happens: He is claiming to be Israel’s God, Yahweh.
Take a look at the three times that Mark records Jesus saying “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι, pronounced: ego eimi)—on a boat, on a mountain, and on trial.
First, one night Jesus’ disciples were on a boat without Him. Then, Jesus decided to come to them, and, “He came toward them walking on the sea and wanted to pass by them. When they saw Him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out, because they all saw Him and were terrified. Immediately He spoke with them and said, ‘Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’” (Mark 6:48-50). This story is soaked in Israel’s story. Just like when Moses asked to see God’s glory, and Yahweh “passed before him” (Exodus 34:6), Jesus begins to “pass by” the disciples. That’s our first clue. Then when Jesus gets on the boat He says “It is I.” In Greek, Jesus simply says two words: “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι). Recalling the events from the same book in Jewish Scripture, Mark connects Jesus’ words with Yahweh’s revelation of His name: “God replied to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (Exodus 3:14). This name is אֶהְיֶה (ʾehyeh – where we get the name “Yahweh”) which is translated in the Old Greek translation of Exodus 3:14 as ἐγώ εἰμι.
Second, while sitting on a mountain, Jesus prepped His disciples for future hardships that they will suffer as His followers. He tells them “watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and they will deceive many” (Mark 13:5-6). Those who will try to deceive Jesus-followers will come bearing Jesus’ name. And how will they try to assume the identity of God? Jesus gives us their two-word claim: “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι). So, according to Jesus, if someone is trying to steal God’s identity, all they need to do is say: “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι).
Last, on trial before Jewish authorities, Jesus is questioned about who He is. The High Priest asks “are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:61). How does Jesus affirm that He truly is the promised Jewish Messiah—Yahweh become human? He plainly, yet profoundly responds with “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι) (Mark 14:62).
Being the nerd that I am, I looked through every occurrence of ἐγώ εἰμι that appears in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (LXX) in order to see if there were other key moments when Yahweh says “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι). Here are some of the highlights (and these are all of them, by my count: Genesis 17:1, 26:24; 31:13; 46:3, Exodus 3:6, 14; 7:5, 8:22; 14:4, 18; 15:26; 20:2, 5; 29:46; Leviticus 11:44, 45; 19:10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 25, 28, 30, 31, 32, 34, 36, 37; 21:23; 22:30; 24:22; 25:17; 26:1, 2, 13, 44, 45; Numbers 35:34; Deuteronomy 5:9; 32:39; Judges 6:8; Psalms 45:10/11; 80:10/11; Hosea 1:9; 11:9; Joel 2:27; Zephaniah 3:1/2:15; Haggai 1:13; 2:4; Malachi 1:14; Isaiah 41:4, 10; 43:10; 43:25; 45:8, 18, 18; 46:4, 9; 47:8, 10; 48:12; 48:17; 51:12; 52:6; 61:8; Jeremiah 1:17, 19; 3:12; 23:23; 24:7; Ezekiel 7:6/9; 28:22, 23, 24, 26; 29:6, 16, 21; 30:8, 19, 25, 26; 32:15; 33:29; 34:15, 27, 30; 35:4, 9, 12, 15; 36:11, 23; 37:6, 13, 28; 38:23; 39:6, 7, 22, 28):
- Genesis 17:1-2: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him, saying, “I am God Almighty. Live in my presence and be blameless. I will set up my covenant between me and you, and I will multiply you greatly.”
- Exodus 20:1-2: “Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.”
- Leviticus 11:44-45: “For I am the Lord your God, so you must consecrate yourselves and be holy because I am holy. Do not defile yourselves by any swarming creature that crawls on the ground. For I am the Lord, who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God, so you must be holy because I am holy.”
- Joel 2:27: “You will know that I am present in Israel and that I am the Lord your God, and there is no other. My people will never again be put to shame.”
- Isaiah 48:17: “This is what the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel says: I am the Lord your God, who teaches you for your benefit, who leads you in the way you should go.”
- Ezekiel 36:11: “I will fill you with people and animals, and they will increase and be fruitful. I will make you inhabited as you once were and make you better off than you were before. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”
While much more could be said (and has, by others) about these two little words, it is sufficient to see what storyline and background Jesus draws from when He says “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι). By using these words, Jesus is uniquely putting Himself in the spot of Israel’s God, Yahweh. He’s saying “you’ve heard that Yahweh is the great I AM, and that’s exactly who I am.”