More than a Prophet? Jesus’ Self-Characterization in the Fourth Gospel

Arren Bennet Lawrence
Saturday, May 1st 2021
May/Jun 2021

Throughout the Four Gospels, Jesus is characterized as a prophet (Matt 21:11, 45; Mark 6:1–4, 15; 8:27–28; Luke 7:15; 9:8; 13:35; 24:19; John 4:14). Jesus himself did not object to others’ claims that he is a prophet.[1] Although prophetic office was not common in the time of Jesus, in many instances he was also characterized as more than a prophet. As Andreas Köstenberger says, “We also glimpse Jesus’ deity in the supernatural insight he shows throughout John’s Gospel.”[2] In this article, we will identify the ways Jesus characterized himself as divine in the Gospel of John.

By “characterization,” I simply mean the way a character is characterized in literature.[3] The process of characters characterizing themselves is called “self-characterization.”[4] More than the other Gospels, John uses many self-characterizations to characterize Jesus Christ. In a few instances, Jesus describes who he is by using ἐγὼ εἰμί (“I am”). He describes himself with phrases such as “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” and so on. Or, as in John 2:19 when Jews ask for a sign, Jesus describes himself this way: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

There are three places in John’s Gospel in particular where Jesus’ self-characterization reveals his divinity. We’ll take them here in turn.

Self-Characterization in John 5:1–18

In John 5:1–18, the story is told of the healing of the person who had been disabled for thirty-eight years. Jesus healed him, but he healed him on a Sabbath; and when the Jews became aware of this incident, they questioned Jesus. In verse 17, Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” When the Jews heard this, they sought to kill him “all the more because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” William Hendriksen says the Jews “immediately understood that Jesus claimed for himself deity in the highest possible sense of that term.”[5]

Three important kinds of characterizations are involved here. By equating his work with the Father’s work in 5:17, Jesus equated himself with God. In 5:18, the actions of the Jews seeking to kill him indicate their perception of Jesus’ claim to divinity. In addition, the author, by revealing that the Jews intended to kill Jesus—“he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God”—indicates the authorial characterization of Jesus as divine. In this episode, therefore, the author characterizes Jesus as divine with three kinds of characterizations: Jesus himself, the actions of the Jews, and the author’s narrative insight.

Self-Characterization in John 8:53–59

In a conversation that begins in John 8:48, Jesus’ interlocutors ask him in verse 53, “Are you greater than our father Abraham who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” These questions demand clarifications that would eventually characterize Jesus. In answering these questions, Jesus does not give a direct, immediate answer. He first talks about his relationship with the Father (vv. 54–55), saying that his Father glorifies him. While the whole universe is expected to glorify the Father, here Jesus claims that the Father glorifies him. In verse 55, Jesus stresses that he knows God the Father intimately. This intimate relationship of Jesus and the Father itself could subtly imply the divinity of Jesus Christ.

In verse 56 and following, the subtlety becomes explicit, however, when Jesus says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” When the Jews reply that Jesus is not even fifty years old and question how he could have seen Abraham, Jesus makes a startling statement: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (v. 58). Here, Jesus indisputably claims his preexistence. If Jesus was merely human, he could not have met Abraham. If he had met Abraham, then he could not be merely human. The Jews understood this clearly. “So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (v. 59).

Köstenberger writes, “The very fact that the Jews sought to stone Jesus for blasphemy proves that they understood Jesus’ claim to deity very well indeed.”[6] D. A. Carson further states, “The desire to execute Jesus sprang from the perception that he was claiming equality or oneness with God.”[7] Here again, Jesus’ self-characterization emphasizes his divinity.

Self-Characterization in John 10:30–33

At the time of the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) when Jesus was in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon (10:22–23), the Jews gathered and enquired whether he was the Christ. Jesus answered that he had already told them, but they had not believed (vv. 25–26). Then, in verse 29, he speaks of his relationship with the Father: “My Father, who has given my sheep to me, is greater than all and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” As Craig Keener suggests, Jesus’ claim that no one could snatch his sheep could again be a somewhat veiled reference to Jesus’ deity because of its allusion to Psalm 95:7, where God’s people are characterized as his sheep.[8] The veil is again lifted in John 10:30 when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” The verse is an important self-characterization of Jesus. As Köstenberger observes, “For Jesus to be One with the Father yet distinct from him amounts to a claim to deity.”[9] In verse 30, John not only establishes the equality of Jesus with the Father but also attests to the unity of Jesus with the Father. Keener says, “In this context, Jesus’ unity with the Father . . . reaffirms his divinity.”[10] When the Jews enquired about Jesus’ messiahship, they got more than they asked for: his divinity.[11]

Again, John confirms Jesus’ self-characterization as divine through the actions of the Jews. They rightly understood the significance of Jesus’ claim, considered it as blasphemy and with a concurring authorial characterization, as he depicts the Jews taking up stones to kill Jesus. Therefore, in all the three passages that describe the Jews’ attempts to kill Jesus, Jesus’ characterization of divinity is embedded and exemplified.

The “I Am” Sayings

In Jesus the God-man, Darrell Bock argues that in the Gospel of John the key to gaining an understanding of Jesus is primarily found in the ways Jesus refers to himself.[12] This self-portrayal of Jesus finds a pinnacle in John’s use of “I am.” Though the first-person personal pronoun reference “I am” is a common feature in any language, in Greek the use of ἐγὼ εἰμί is significant, because in many instances it’s an added feature, not an essential one. In Greek, the author could communicate the personal pronoun in the verb itself, so the additional personal pronoun is often added for a certain emphasis. It’s notable, then, that John uses ἐγὼ εἰμί frequently. There are seven “I am” sayings that come with a predicate.

1. “I am the bread.” (6:35)

2. “I am the light.” (8:12)

3. “I am the door.” (10:7)

4. “I am the shepherd.” (10:11)

5. “I am the resurrection and the life.” (11:25)

6. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (14:6)

7. “I am the true vine.” (15:1)

In the LXX, ἐγὼ εἰμί is the translation of the tetragrammaton, the holy name of the God of the Hebrew Bible (Exod. 3:14–15; 41:4; 43:10–13, 25; 45:18; 51:12; 52:6; Isa. 40:66). Therefore, as Rodney Whitacre writes, the “‘I am’ sayings affirm Jesus’ deity and point to the divine life he offers.”[13] Likewise, Carson notes that because the “‘I am’ phrase does not appear to be a normal Greek expression at all,” Jesus’ application of such a phrase to himself “is tantamount to a claim to deity.”[14]

Apart from these uses of “I am,” Jesus also uses ἐγὼ εἰμί in a few other instances when ἐγὼ εἰμί does not follow any description or predicate. In 18:4–6, for example, when the soldiers in the garden ask whether Jesus is the Jesus of Nazareth, his response of ἐγὼ εἰμί may not itself indicate divinity. But the soldiers’ response to Jesus’ self-characterization is significant: they draw back and fall to the ground. Why? It seems the soldiers take Jesus’ self-characterization as a self-revelation of divinity.[15]


By looking closely at several of Jesus’ self-characterizations in the Gospel of John, it’s evident Jesus thought of himself as more than a prophet: he characterized himself as divine. This, moreover, is emphasized in John’s account not only by the words of Jesus concerning himself, but also by the witness of the Jews to the meaning of Jesus’ words—that is, how they reacted to his claims that he was, indeed, more than a prophet. Still more, in several of the accounts we are also privy to the narrator’s insight, by which he gives a third level of confirmation to Jesus’ self-characterization as divine.

When we come, therefore, to the words of the apostle John, we come not simply to a historical figure who was. We come to ἐγὼ εἰμί, the one who is.

Arren Bennet Lawrence (PhD, Asia Graduate School of Theology) is assistant regional secretary of the Asia Theology Association. He is the author of Legalistic Nomism: A Socio-Rhetorical Reading of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (ISPCK, 2015), Comparative Characterization in the Sermon on the Mount: Characterization of the Ideal Disciple (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and Approaches to the New Testament (SAIACS Press, 2018).

1. See Frank W. Young, “Jesus the Prophet: A Re-examination,” JBL 4 (1949): 285–99.
2. Andreas Köstenberger, John, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 58.
3. Adele Berlin states that characterization is not just about how a character is presented by the author, but also how it helps a reader to reconstruct the character. Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 34. See also Arren Bennet Lawrence, Comparative Characterization in the Sermon on the Mount (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017); and Mark Allen Powell, What Is Narrative Criticism? A New Approach to the Bible (London: SPCK, 1993), 52.
4. Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 1984), 38.
5. William Hendriksen, The Gospel According to John: New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002),190.
6. Köstenberger, John, 147.
7. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 395.
8. Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 825.
9. Köstenberger, John, 312.
10. Keener, The Gospel of John, 825.
11. See Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 465.
12. Darrell Bock, Jesus the God-Man: The Unity and Diversity of the Gospel Portrayals (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 66.
13. Rodney A. Whitacre, John, IVP New Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 38.
14. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 343–44.
15. Köstenberger, John, 26.
Saturday, May 1st 2021

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