There are seven “I am” statements from Jesus sprinkled throughout the Gospel of John. Each one points in some way to Jesus’ divinity, and to the exclusivity of Jesus as the way – the only way – to escape from death and enter into life:
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
“Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58
“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:9)
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2)
Taking into account the historical context of the expression “I am,” what Jesus is really saying in each of these verses is, “I myself, and only I, AM …”
Stating the obvious, the exclusivity of Christ runs contrary to the supposed inclusivity of today’s culture. But paradoxically, it is only the radical exclusivity of Christ that allows for radical inclusivity in Christ. And make no mistake, inclusivity in Christ is far, far different than the “anything goes” inclusivity of our culture, which has permeated much of Christendom in the west.
It has been said that all religions in the world – except for Christianity – are in essence one and the same. In some manner, each teaches that to be right with God, or to reach nirvana, or to find enlightenment, or to have the right karma, or whatever the main objective of the religious belief is, you need to adhere to a specific set of rules. There are things you need to do, things you must never do, rituals to keep, and principles to follow. And if you do these things the hope is that you will find your way to God, or nirvana, or enlightenment, or whatever the big idea is. But here’s the kicker: All of the “dos and don’ts” of other religions are based on attainable actions. They may not be easy actions, but they are attainable on our own strength and willpower.
This, of course, is not the case with Christianity. Our faith is rooted not in ethical or ritualistic standards from man, but in the perfect and holy standards of God, which means that there is absolutely no way we can be right with God on our own strength. God is holy, and we are not – not at birth, not today, not ever. At least not by anything we do. But God offers us reconciliation through the exclusivity of His Son Jesus Christ.
But the exclusivity of Christ has always been a hard truth to accept. We see this in each of the four gospel accounts, where early in Jesus’ ministry there are enormous crowds of people clamoring to get close to Jesus, to listen to His words and be awed by the healings and miracles. But then as Jesus’ words and teaching become increasingly pointed, increasingly exclusive, people begin to fall away. Tellingly, the apex of this shift takes place after one of Jesus’ “I am” statements (“I am the bread of life …” John 6:35). After the crowd begins to grumble, we read in verse 66 that, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”
The hard truth is that following Jesus – living out our faith in Jesus – is not easy. We love the idea of confessing Jesus Christ as our Savior, but we’re not so quick to want to follow Jesus Christ as our Lord.
A 2011 study by Barna Research showed that 43% of Americans agreed with the statement, “It doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons.” This is no surprise at all, is it? But what is surprising – at least to me – is that the same study revealed that 26% who self-identify as born again Christians also agree with the statement. Perhaps even more tellingly, the study revealed that 25% of born again Christians believe that ALL people are eventually saved or accepted by God, and 40% believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
Regarding the latter point, how is that even possible? At a basic level, Christians worship a Triune God, while Muslims reject the notion of a triune God as blasphemy. Further, Muslims believe that Jesus was a great prophet among many great prophets, while Christians believe Jesus was both fully human and fully God. Is this not the epitome of an irreconcilable difference? Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God. And if you don’t believe me, go ask a Muslim – they’ll tell you!
Why is the exclusivity of Jesus Christ – the exclusivity of our faith – so difficult to accept?
One reason is a base desire to believe that sincerity and goodness ought to be enough for people to be in good standing with God. But the problem with sincerity is that you can be the most sincere person in the world, and yet be sincerely wrong. This was Jeremiah’s lament: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
As for goodness, we can strive on our own, with all of the strength and resolve we can muster, to be as good as we can possibly be, but at the end of the day – literally – we will have failed. Because while we in our flesh, in our humanity, can devise all manner of standards for goodness and right conduct, the truth is that even our most righteous acts are tainted by sin. Romans 3:10 is a sobering reminder of this truth: “There is no one righteous, not even one.”
I suppose that if we dug deeper to the root of our resistance to the exclusivity of Christ, we would find that ultimately it is a faith issue. Placing our faith in a Savior who loves us just as we are is easy. Placing our faith in a Savior and Lord who calls us to crucify our flesh with its passions and desires, carry a cross daily, and lose our life for the sake of Christ is not so easy.
Difficult as it is, the exclusivity of Christ demands that we receive Christ as our Savior, and follow Christ as our Lord. Because it is only out of the radical exclusivity of Christ that we are able to experience radical inclusivity in Christ:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)