Compared to our previous readings this is a longish one. And seems to build as it goes. I’m almost inclined to take it apart and have us go at it in parts. But the postings have sort of died down and I’m not sure if folks are engaged in this that much.
First observation: these are the Jews who had believed in him. This tells us about how John sees these folks drift away and become hostile to the faith. This reinforces Larry’s point that this may be all about arguments with the Judaizers or as Paul speaks of them: the circumcision party. I suspect this marks the break — at least in John’s community — between the Jesus people and followers of the Baptist. Note also that Jesus’ dialogue partners claim to have never been slaves to anyone: they are likely reasonably well to do. From a social class that likely collaborated with the Romans.
We begin with the teaching on sin. Jesus claims that by following him, we will become free from bondage to sin. Anyone who sins is a slave to sin.
We go from there to teachings about the fatherhood of Abraham. They claim Abraham as their father and Jesus calls them to go behind the fatherhood of Abraham to the fatherhood of God. In effect a crisis has some to the house of Israel and faith in Abraham and Moses is no longer enough — you must now have the faith that Abraham and Moses had — faith in God.
And then we have the phrase which made former supporters of Jesus take up stones to slay him — the punishment of sorcerers, prostitutes and false prophets: before Abraham was, I am.
What is Jesus saying here?
I am is the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush. It is the under which the diverse tribes of Abraham were gathered together into a single force and walked clear from bondage in Egypt. Is all Jesus saying that God is before Abraham. That god is doing a new thing and so God must be attended to?
Or was Jesus some kind of mystic. His sensitivity to the spirit moving within him was such that he could spontaneously speak the words God spoke to the people through him?
Or, as orthodox Church-ianity teaches: was Jesus God himself? Pre-existent. Divine. The Word of God made flesh?
None of these options are mutually exclusive.