. . . my true love gave to me, seven swans-a-swimming. These alliterative swans are generally taken to symbolize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit -- prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading and compassion (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-11). But there are many sevens in Scripture, and the seven that are more meaningful to me today are the seven "I am" statements by Jesus in John's gospel.
According to Alister McGrath, "there is a direct similarity between the verbal form of these sayings and Exodus 3:14, in Which God reveals himself to Moses as 'I am who I am.' There thus seems to be an implicit declaration of divinity on the part of Jesus within each of these sayings" (McGrath, in Incarnation). This renders the almost consistent tendency of people to refer to Jesus as a "great man" (as musician Ben Folds did recently in an interview with Relevant magazine) or great moral teacher as absurd or plain ignorant. People who go around telling other people that they are God are the butt of jokes or the subject of pity or, in a few cases, the object of fear, as most of them inhabit our mental institutions or are the petty dictators of third-world countries. They are not great men in any commonly understood way. While I knew of this gospel writer's concern to establish the divinity of Christ (as in "the Word was God), I had never equated these seven metaphors that Jesus applied to himself with a claim to divinity.
The seven "I am" sayings are as follows:
6:35 The bread of life
8:12, 9:5 The light of the world
10:7, 9 The gate for the sheep
10:11 The good shepherd
11:25 The resurrection and the life
14:6 The way, the truth, and the life
15:1, 5 The true vine
All of these "I am" sayings point back at the Old Testament acts of God as well as to the acts of Jesus. For example, when Jesus says he is the bread of life, he points back to the manna that was given the Israelites in the wilderness, the bread supplied by God which sustained them on the journey. He's saying that when we feed on him, when we draw our life from him, we will never go hungry, that all our spiritual emptiness will be met. As McGrath says, "We see here again one of the great themes of the New Testament: that God's gracious promises and gifts under the Old Covenant are continued and extended under the New."
I am, I am, I am. These are powerful statements. Jesus did not use the indirect simile, but the much more powerful metaphor, to state his identity. He's saying "I'm your spiritual nourishment, I'm the source of enlightenment, I'm the only way to heaven, I'm the only one who can guide and protect and watch over you and keep you safe, I'm the only one who can give you life here and in eternity and raise you from the dead, I'm the one true path, the one truth, the only place you will be able to grow and be nourished. People, I am God." Understood rightly, we'd either worship him or lock him up.
I can't think of a better seven things to remember here at the cusp of a new year than these seven. These great "I am" sayings are powerful reminders that God is able to keep us, to preserve us, to remake us. As I reminded my children today, he has made us a new creation, but He's not finished yet with them or certainly with me. His recreative activity is constant, as He is remaking me in his image every day. I'm not destined to repeat my failures of the past year. Despite evidence to the contrary, people do grow and change. I can lose 20 pounds, though I didn't last year. I can grow in my love for my neighbor, though I failed many times at this last year.
If I just abide in Him, he will be my great I AM. Tomorrow is a new year, a new day, and a new moment. Take heart: there is hope for us all. Happy New Year.