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Jesus Christ, True God and True Man

General Audience — August 26, 1987

—    Significance of "I Am"

"I believe in Jesus Christ, his (God the Father's) only Son, our Lord; who was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary." The catechetical cycle which we have been studying makes constant reference to the truth expressed by the Apostle's Creed that we have just quoted. These words present Christ as true God—Son of the Father—and at the same time as true man, son of the Virgin Mary. The preceding catecheses offered the opportunity of examining this fundamental truth of faith. Our present study intends to deepen our understanding of the essential elements of such a truth. We must seek to penetrate the significance of the statement "true God and true man." This is a reality that is revealed for our consideration through the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Admitting that such a truth—similar to every other revealed truth—can be justly apprehended only by faith, we are conscious that we are dealing with rationabile obsequium fidei—the rational deference due to faith. To strengthen such faith our future catecheses will concentrate on the mystery of the God-Man.

In earlier talks we noted that Jesus Christ often spoke of himself as the Son of Man (cf. Mt 16:28; Mk 2:28). Such a title referred to the messianic tradition of the Old Testament, while at the same time it served the purpose of teaching the faith, which Jesus intentionally wished to do. He desired that his disciples and listeners would be able to discover by themselves the Son of Man was also the true Son of God. This is especially evident in the profession of faith made by St. Peter in the region of Caesarea Philippi, to which we have already referred in the preceding catecheses. Jesus challenged the apostles by his questions. When Peter explicitly recognized Jesus' divine identity, the Lord confirmed this testimony, calling him "blessed, because neither flesh nor blood" had revealed this to him, "but the Father" (cf. Mt 16:17). It is the Father who testifies to the Son, because he alone knows the Son (cf. Mt 11:27).

However, notwithstanding the discretion used by Jesus in applying the pedagogical principle referred to above, the truth concerning the divine sonship gradually became more apparent, in the light of what he said and especially of what he did. Nevertheless, for some this constituted the object of faith, while for others it was a source of contradiction and accusation. This was openly manifest during the trial before the Sanhedrin. We read in St. Mark's Gospel: "The High Priest...put this question to Jesus: 'Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?' 'I am,' said Jesus, 'and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven'" (14:61-62). In the Gospel of St. Luke the question was formulated in these terms: "'So you are the Son of God, then?' He answered, 'It is you who say I am'" (22:70).

The reaction of those present was unanimous. "He has blasphemed!... You have just heard the blasphemy.... He deserves to die" (Mt 26:65-66). Such an accusation was the fruit of a material interpretation of the old law.

The Book of Leviticus is explicit: "The one who blasphemes the name of Yahweh must die; the whole community must stone him" (24:16). In the presence of the official representatives of the Old Testament, Jesus of Nazareth declared that he is the true Son of God, and in so doing—according to their conviction—he blasphemed. Because of this "he must die," and the sentence was carried out even though not with stoning in accordance with the Old Testament, but by crucifixion in obedience to the Roman legislation. To refer to himself as the "Son of God" was to declare himself God (cf. Jn 10:33), and it was this that aroused the radical protest on the part of the custodians of the Old Testament monotheism.

That which was eventually accomplished in the legal action undertaken against Jesus had been threatened beforehand, as the Gospels indicate, especially that of John. We read there that on several occasions his listeners wanted to stone Jesus, when they considered his statements blasphemous. An example of this concerns Jesus' words in the context of the Good Shepherd (cf. Jn 10:27, 29), and the conclusion he arrived at on that occasion: "I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:30). The Gospel narrative continues: "The Jews fetched stones to stone him, so Jesus said to them, 'I have done many good works for you to see, works from my Father; for which of these are you stoning me?' The Jews answered him, 'We are not stoning you for doing a good work but for blasphemy. You are only a man and you claim to be God'" (Jn 10:31-33).

There was a similar reaction to Jesus' other words, "Before Abraham was, I Am" (Jn 8:58). In this instance Jesus was confronted by a question that is also an accusation: "Who are you claiming to be?" (Jn 8:53), and the reply to such a query involved the possibility of being stoned (cf. Jn 8:59).

It is clearly evident that, although he referred to himself especially as the "Son of Man," at the same time the whole context of what he did and taught testified that he was the Son of God in the literal sense of the term. He was one with the Father and consequently, as the Father is God, similarly he too is God. The unambiguous substance of such testimony is doubly evident. First, he was recognized and accepted by certain persons. "Many believed in him" (cf., for example, Jn 8:30). Second, and more strikingly, he encountered in others a radical opposition, even to being accused of blasphemy with its implied threat of the punishment reserved for blasphemers in accordance with the law of the Old Testament.

1.  Significance of "I Am"

In the context of our discussion, the affirmation of Christ—I Am—is particularly significant. The occasions when he used these words indicate that he referred to the reply given by God himself, when Moses asked God's name: "I Am who I Am...this is what you must say to the sons of Israel, I Am has sent me to you" (Ex 3:14). Christ used the same expression "I Am," in significant contexts, such as that in which he said concerning Abraham, "Before Abraham was, I Am," and not only this. Thus, for example, "If you do not believe that I Am you shall die in your sins" (Jn 8:24). And again, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I Am he" (Jn 8:28); and finally, "I tell you this now, before it happens, so that when it does happen you may know that I Am he" (Jn 13:19).

This expression, "I Am" is found in other contexts in the Synoptic Gospels (such as Mt 28:20; Lk 24:39); but in the quotations used above, the use of the name of God as found in the Book of Exodus is clearly unequivocal and resolute. Christ speaks of his paschal "elevation" on the cross and subsequent resurrection, "Then you will know that I Am." In reality he is saying that it will then be clearly evident that I am the person to whom the name of God belongs. By this expression Jesus proclaimed that he is true God. Prior to the passion he prayed thus to the Father, "all I have is yours and all you have is mine" (Jn 17:10), which amounts to saying, "The Father and I are one" (Jn 10:30).

In the presence of Christ, the Word of God Incarnate, let us unite ourselves with Peter and repeat in a similar transport of faith, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16).