In explaining a scripture it has to be remembered that it is not what can be put into it, but what is its mind and intention; what, in other words, is its divine meaning. The question, therefore, whether the "I am" of this passage is a direct assertion of the Lord's Deity, of the same character as chap. 8:58, concerning which there cannot be a doubt, must be carefully weighed. In the first place it need not be, grammatically considered, more than the simple statement as given in our translation, that the Lord was Jesus of Nazareth; that is, "I am" (the one you are seeking) Jesus of Nazareth. Two examples of this usage will make this evident. When the disciples were crossing the sea of Galilee by night, and "Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea," they, when they saw Him, "were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I (literally, ' I am'); be not afraid." (Matthew 14:25-27.) So also in John 9 we read concerning the blind man, that "some said, This is he: others said, He is like him: but he said, I am (he)." (v. 9.) These two cases will suffice to show that in the ordinary forms of speech "I am" does not of necessity contain more than an affirmation of identity. On the other hand, it cannot be overlooked that the Spirit of God has caused this idiomatic language to be recorded three times in John 18:5-8; and that it is expressly stated that "as soon then as He had said unto them, I am (he), they went backward, and fell to the ground." Construing this in the light of the presentation of Christ in this gospel as the eternal Word and as the eternal Son, it does seem as if there might be the flashing out of His divine glory and power through these words on the minds of His enemies, which for the moment awed them, drove them backward, and caused them in their terror to fall prostrate on the ground. That He was the "I am," the self-existent One, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, we all know: the only question is whether the Lord meant to affirm this by the words we have examined. However this may be, it is beyond contradiction, that He manifested His divine character in this scene, and that even His enemies were made to feel that they had to do with One who was above and more than man. Unconsciously they testified that He whom they were with wicked hands about to take (only with His permission) was no less than the One whom they professed to know as their God.
It is most instructive to notice the different ways in which the Lord dealt with the various classes with whom He came into contact. In this scripture His opponents are the chief priests and elders, and these latter appear to have been of the sect of the Pharisees. (v. 45.) Their attempt was evidently to discredit the Lord with the people by the insinuation that He was an unrecognized teacher and acting without authority, whether human or divine. The Lord in His reply is seen as Divine Wisdom (acting as light) confuting the folly of men's thoughts and reasonings, and thus exposing their moral condition. First, He forced His adversaries to confess that they could not tell whether the baptism of John was from heaven or from men; and yet, as we learn elsewhere, they had rejected the counsel of God "as to" themselves, and had refused John's baptism. (Luke 7:30.) These blind leaders of the blind had taken upon themselves to reject the Lord's forerunner, and now, in the presence of their Divine Interrogator, they are condemned out of their own mouth. In the following parable the Lord proceeds a step further. Still probing their hearts, He asks, Which of the two sons did the will of his father, the one who at first said, in answer to the command, "Go work today in my vineyard," "I will not; but afterward he repented, and went"; or the one who responded, "I go, sir: and went not?" Utterly ignorant of their moral state, they replied, "The first." Again they had condemned themselves, for the publicans and harlots, on the preaching of John, repented, whereas these men, while professing to walk in obedience to the law, never took one single step in the path it enjoined. Another parable is given, containing a short summary of Jewish history until the advent of Christ; and the culmination of the sin of the nation is depicted in the conduct of those existing when Christ was among them: "When the husbandmen saw the Son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill Him, and let us seize on His inheritance. And they caught Him, and cast Him out of the vineyard, and slew Him." (vv. 38, 39) The chief priests and Pharisees must themselves make once again the application; and hence the Lord put the question, "When therefore the lord of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?" In their answer they pronounced their own judgment, as the Lord proceeded to say, after reminding them of a solemn prediction of His own exaltation, and of their conduct in regard to Himself, "Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof." Moreover He warned them of the certain consequences of their opposition, and of the swift and destructive judgment which would finally be their portion.
To sum up, these wretched men, seen to be helpless and ignorant when handled by Him who is Divine Wisdom, were made to confess the folly of their unbelief, the wickedness of their conduct, and also to declare the character of their own righteous judgment. What a striking foreshadowing of what will take place before the great white throne, where every one will be self-condemned and self-judged! But their eyes were at length opened; for when they had heard the Lord's parables, "they perceived that He spake of them." And what was the effect? Only further and more pronounced enmity. "They sought to lay hands on Him," on the One who had convicted them of their guilt: and they were only restrained from the attempt by fear of the people. Such is the incurable heart of man: the carnal mind is enmity against God, and the fact is strikingly revealed in this wonderful narrative.