Jesus had a habit of scandalizing the moralistic types of his day. Sometimes he went out of his way to press in on their tidy interpretations of the Sabbath by healing those in need on the Sabbath (Luke 6; John 9). Other times, he associated with sinners who any truly holy man would shun (Luke 7:39). Still further, Jesus claimed prerogatives that seemed to go beyond the authority of any mere man, even a would-be messiah. Nobody could forgive sins but God alone (Mark 2:7). And who can take authority over God’s house but God himself (Luke 19:44-20:2)?
Nothing offended first-century religious sensibilities more than Jesus’s extravagant, explicit claims for himself. Jesus claimed the “Son gives life to whomever he wishes” (John 5:26), that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), and “No one can know the Father except through the Son” (Matt. 11:27). Easily the most startling of these of these pronouncements was his bold claim in the face of his critics, “Before Abraham was ‘I AM’” (John 8:58), for which the crowd picked up stones to execute him.
The crowds knew that by claiming this name, Jesus identified himself with the divine name “I AM” (Yahweh, or the LORD), the covenant God of Israel, revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3). When God revealed his name to Moses, he said that the peole would know him forever by this name (Ex. 3:15). By this name they would know the one who saved them, that the commands of God would be authorized (Ex. 20:1; 18; Lev. 1:2; Num. 5:1-2). It was scandalous for Jesus to take this name because a “sinful” mortal had identified himself with the holy, perfect God of Israel. If he wasn’t right, he was blaspheming.
We know Jesus backed up his talk. When the Father raised the Son in the power of the Spirit (Rom. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:16), he was fully vindicated in all of his claims, established as the true LORD of the world, and yes, proven to be the eternal Son of the Father. So, after a couple thousand years of church history, some councils, creeds, and confessions, the scandal of these words has somewhat dissipated.
But for many today, it seems that Jesus’s confession still scandalizes our reigning moral sensibilities.
The problem arises for many in the Old Testament; we see the acts of the “I AM” and start to ask, “Really? That God?” I AM is the one who, through a mighty act of redemption, brought the Israelites up out of slavery. But he did that through judgment on all the firstborn of Egypt (Ex. 12). I AM promised to graciously bring the Israelites into a good land, flowing with milk and honey, thereby keeping his promises to the fathers (Deut. 11:9-12). Yet he did so by judging the wicked Canaanites (Deut. 9:4-5), punishing and driving them out of the land (Ex. 23:27-31). I AM commands care for the orphan, the widow, and the alien (Deut. 24:19), but also condemns the idolater who breaks the Sabbath (Num.15:27-36).
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
We have no grid for this self-definition. We love simplistic either/or approaches. A God whose grace is so extravagant as to extend to thousands of generations? Sign me up. A God who simultaneously metes out judgments so terrible they have generational consequences? Not possible.
When You Tame the I AM
But this is where we really need to wrestle with the fact that Jesus didn’t caveat his identification with the God of Israel. Are we going to hear him, or will we try and tame him? Many are saying we need to move past bits of the Old Testament and not let it “back us in a corner.” We need to recognize those parts that don’t fit with the Jesus of the Gospels and understand the Israelites might have gotten a few details wrong about God. Or maybe a lot of details. Or maybe grand, sweeping themes. In any case, we need to be “brave” and realize we might have to “risk” living with the tension of a Bible that doesn’t live up to our initial expectations.
The problems that infect this approach cry out “I am legion,” like the demoniac Jesus healed. In the first place, these tacks threaten our ability to understand God’s long-term plan to save the world as expressed in the unity of the covenants with Abraham, Israel, David, and so on. The same narratives of gracious promise to bless the nations through Israel, contain the threat of curses to those who would opposed her (Gen. 12:1-3). You don’t get the one without the other.
This, in turn, threatens to tear apart the narrative unity and the coherence of the divine plotline. When we begin to cut out scenes that we, in our limited wisdom, find unnecessary to the story, we shortcut our ability to see the way that Moses and all the prophets testify to a coming Christ who is their climax and resolution (Luke 24:27; John 5:39). The irony, then, is that such approaches work precisely by using Jesus to collapse the tension because we can’t live with risk of an untamed I AM.
And this is where the real tragic irony comes in: trying to save Jesus from the scandal of the I AM, we end up missing the full character of the untameable one we worship. We miss the Jesus who tenderly heals and aggressively flips over the tables of injustice, enacting God’s symbolic judgment on a temple that ceased to witness to the nations (Mark 11:15-25). The Jesus who tells parables about a God who forgives wandering lost sons (Luke 15), as well one who is a long-suffering but avenging landlord (Luke 20:9-18). The Jesus who weeps over Jerusalem with motherly tears, and yet prophesies the coming judgment of God at the hand of the Romans (Luke 19:41-44). We miss the Jesus who willingly lays down his life as an atoning sacrifice for his wandering sheep (John 10:15, 17; Rom. 3:25), so that he might vindicate the justice of the God who had until then passed over their sins in silence (Rom. 3:26).
Just as he did 2,000 years ago, Jesus still promises, “Blessed is he who does not take offense at me” (Matt. 11:6). The challenge for us, then, is to do more than talk about wrestling with the scandal of the Bible, or Jesus, but to actually do so. Because wrestling with the scandal means not letting it go or writing it off, but hanging on to each and every passage for dear life until Jesus shows up and blesses us in the process.