Question of the Week: What did Jesus mean when He told us to believe in Him?
The best way to clarify a point someone makes is to consider each possible meaning and eliminating the absurd until only the most rational interpretation is left. In the case of Jesus’ statement in John 8:24, we are told the following;
Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.”
John 8:24 (NKJV)
There are three general understandings of what it means to “believe that I am.” You either acknowledge that they exist, you accept who they are, or you affirm the title “I AM” belongs to them.
Possibility #1: Existence
The first possibility places a grammatic emphasis on the word “that.” If this was the point Jesus was making, then everyone He ever interacted with during His earthly ministry qualified for salvation. The main problem with this interpretation begins in the next verse. John 8:25 continues the conversation with what His immediate audience understood Him to be emphasizing. It wasn’t a concern “that” He existed, but “who” was the one they all acknowledged the existence of. And given the fact they would be attempting to murder Him by the end of this chapter, it’s obvious that there wasn’t a positive relationship between them simply by acknowledging His existence.
Possibility #2: Acceptance
The second possibility stresses the term “believe” above anything else. This conclusion is one that can be supported elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he quotes Isaiah 28:16 and Joel 2:32 to support his conclusion about belief being the direct means by which we are made right with God. (Not dying in our sins) This is a very probable interpretation of the passage given the extended literary context.
For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Romans 10:10-13 (NKJV)
Possibility #3: Recognition
The only other interpretation that would carry more weight than the previous possibility is the one whose interpretation fulfills both of the prior criteria in a positive sense. If we can make our case within the very chapter Jesus spoke these words, then support our conclusion through the Bible as a whole, it would be the strongest possible conclusion to come to concerning the text. The grammatic focus of this interpretation draws attention to the statement of who Jesus is. “I AM” is the title God introduced Himself to Moses as when asked who was sending him to Israel. This claim by Jesus to believe in who He was claiming to be is also one He made elsewhere when claiming that we’re required to worship Him the same way we worship the Father. (John 5:23) It is for this reason that Jesus’ audience rightly concluded He was claiming to be the God of Israel when He repeated this title in John 8:58-59.
And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” Moreover God said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: ‘The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.’
Exodus 3:14-15 (NKJV)
Given its ability to answer the most possible information and the fact that the interpretation lines up with truth statements made within and beyond the immediate context, it would be the most reasonable conclusion to make about the text.
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