I Am Who I Am
By David Feddes
The bush was on fire, but it didn’t burn up. No matter how brilliantly it blazed, the flame did not harm the bush. It was an astonishing sight, even for an old sheep herder. He had covered lots of ground and had seen many sights in nature but never anything like this. Leaving his flocks, Moses headed toward the bush to get a better look. Then a voice came from inside the bush, and Moses’ curiosity turned to fear.
God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:4-6)
God didn’t show up just to frighten Moses, however. He called Moses into his service and sent him to rescue his people. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for many, many years, since before Moses had been born. The Israelites must have wondered many times why the God of their fathers was letting them suffer. Year after year went by, generations came and went, but their slavery continued. If you’ve gone through hard times without relief, you might have some idea how the Israelites felt. How can God let troubles keep piling up year after year? Doesn’t God see what’s happening? Doesn’t he hear our prayers and groans? Doesn’t he care? Listen to what the Lord told Moses:
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
To Israelites enslaved in misery, and to you who may be trapped in troubles right now, God’s message is, “I see, I hear, I care, and I will rescue you and bring you to the promised land.”
Even during the Israelites’ worst times, God had not abandoned them. He was closer than they knew, and God’s plan for them was succeeding more than they realized. Even during the long, painful years of slavery, the Israelite nation survived and even thrived. “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread” (Exodus 1:12). How could they endure such cruelty without perishing as a people? For much the same reason a bush could be on fire without burning up: God was there. Centuries later, when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples, tongues of fire appeared on their heads without burning them up. Many of Jesus’ followers were oppressed and murdered, but the church kept growing stronger and more numerous. Where God’s fire burns, his people do not perish.
In some ways, Moses himself was a lot like that burning bush. He was already eighty years old when God spoke to him. Yet even at that age Moses had the health and energy to walk many miles herding livestock. He had been getting older without burning up or burning out. Now God’s flame was about to burn much more brightly in his life. Moses would first have a showdown with Pharoah, the dictator of the world’s most powerful nation. Then Moses would lead millions of people out of slavery. For the next forty years, until the age of 120, Moses would lead their marches, announce their laws, judge their disputes, and deal with all sorts of problems and challenges. God’s truth and power would go forth from him, the divine flame would burn brighter and brighter within him, yet Moses would not burn out or burn up. Up to the very end, his eyesight remained sharp, and his body remained strong (Deuteronomy 34:7). When Moses died at the age of 120, it was not because the years had consumed his body but because God called him to another world.
Moses wasn’t aware of all this on the day when God met him at the burning bush and called him away from shepherding flocks to shepherding a nation. When God told him to confront Pharaoh and all the might of Egypt, Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt?” God’s reply was simple: “I will be with you.” If God went with him, it didn’t matter what weaknesses Moses might have. If God went with him, it didn’t matter how strong Pharaoh was. A power greater than any fire, a force greater than any atomic weapon, an energy brighter and more intense than the sun and all the stars, would be working through Moses.
What Is His Name?
God is mighty, and he’s not just a force or an energy field. He is personal. He cares about people. He speaks. He acts. But who is he? What is his name? Moses wanted to know.
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘Yahweh, the 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, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.” (Exodus 3:13-15)
If you met me and asked my name and I replied, “I am who I am,” you might think I was just stating the obvious. I am who I am, and you are who you are—don’t we already know that without anyone saying it?
But God is not just being difficult when he says, “I AM WHO I AM.” He is saying something of immense importance. He is revealing a marvelous name. The divine name Yahweh (sometimes pronounced Jehovah, and appearing in some Bible translations as “the LORD”) comes from the Hebrew word for being. God is the great “I AM,” the one who is. He is utterly real, totally alive, marvelously personal. And unlike us, his existence, his character, and his actions depend on nobody but himself.
If you asked my name and I replied, “I am who I am,” the first impression might be that I was saying something too obvious to need saying. But the truth is that I can’t honestly say “I am who I am.” If I say, “I am,” that may be true for the moment, but it hasn’t always been true. I wasn’t here before 1961, and I might be gone at any moment. I would not exist at all apart from my parents, and they would not exist without their parents and ancestors going back through the generations. My life comes from others, and my identity and actions are shaped and changed by others. My parents, my teachers, my friends had a powerful impact on me growing up, and still today the way I behave and the person I am becoming is not determined simply by who I am but also by who is around me, and ultimately by God himself. So for me to say, “I am who I am,” may sound at first like a truism, but it’s hardly true at all.
God, on the other hand, can truthfully say, “I am who I am.” God doesn’t owe his existence to anyone else. He is the source of his own being. He is eternal, without beginning or end, depending on nobody or nothing but his own boundless life and reality. Theologians call this aseity (pronounced ah-SAY-uh-tee). God’s aseity means he is self-existent, not derived from anything else, not dependent on anyone else. This sets God apart from all created things. We depend on him for our existence, but he depends on nobody for his existence.
Yahweh, the great “I AM,” is self-existent, and that means he’s also unchangeable. Because everything outside his being has been created by him and because he reigns over every person and every event, nothing and nobody can change who he is. God says in the Bible, “I, Yahweh, do not change” (Malachi 3:6). You and I change. But God doesn’t. He is who he is, forever unchanged. He has no weaknesses to overcome, no immaturity to outgrow, no faults to correct. Nothing can improve him or make him more than he is. Nothing can be taken away from him to make him less than he is. His unchanging being means that his word is sure and his actions are dependable.
Yahweh can’t be improved or updated. He doesn’t reinvent himself to suit new trends or to please a new constituency, the way some politicians do. God never said, “I am whoever you think I am” or “I’ll try to be whatever you want me to be.” He said, “I am who I am.” If you don’t like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Bible, you have a problem. Yahweh is not going to change himself to suit you. He is who he is.
God is self-existent and unchangeable, but that does not mean he keeps himself in splendid isolation from us. God is alive, active, and involved with his people. He is high and holy, yet he is close and compassionate. His name Yahweh, “I AM,” means not only that he is, but that he is here, present in his boundless life and power. He told Moses to tell the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.” To Israelites enslaved in Egypt, the great I AM’s presence meant the cruel king and his slave drivers would vanish, for Yahweh had come near and would not change in his power or purpose. For you and me, the great I AM’s presence means liberation from God’s enemies and a personal relationship where we share in his life and walk daily with him.
God wants us to call on his name for help and blessings and to worship him by name. The Hebrew phrase “Hallelu Yah” means “praise Yahweh,” “praise Jehovah,” “glorify the great I AM.” But even that name, the high and holy name Yahweh, is not God’s ultimate name by which he makes himself known to us. To better know the reality of “I AM WHO I AM,” we must listen to Jesus.
You Will Know That I AM
The name Jesus in Hebrew simply means “Yahweh saves,” and Jesus has made it plain that he is the great I AM of Hebrew Scripture. Three times in just one conversation with his opponents, Jesus called himself I AM. Jesus told them, “You are from below; I am from above… If you do not believe that I AM [ego eimi in Greek], you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). Then, speaking of his coming crucifixion, Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, you will know that I AM” (John 8:28). Some Bible translations try to smooth out the sound of that but lose much of the meaning. They translate the words “I AM” as “I am the one I claim to be.” But that’s not what Jesus said in the original language. He said, “If you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” He said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, you will know that I AM.” And in case they still didn’t get it, Jesus added a few moments later, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I AM!” (John 8:58). Jesus is one with Yahweh. He has existed from eternity. Jesus is the awesome, eternal Yahweh who spoke from the burning bush and told Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”
That same voice speaks to you and me right now. In light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can know him as I AM, eternal God united to human nature. Just as Yahweh came down to save the Israelites from slavery, so Yahweh has come down to save his people from sin and death and hell. Believe this. Put your faith in him. Jesus warns, “If you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” But if you do believe, you will live forever.
The one being of God unites three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the time of Moses, the Trinity was not yet revealed so clearly. With the coming of God the Son into the world to save all who believe, and with the sending of the Holy Spirit to live in believers, the great I AM has revealed himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus commanded that his people be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). The one God named Yahweh is also named “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” and every baptized person bears that mighty name.
Scripture says of Jesus, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16). When the Holy Spirit came on the church with power on the day of Pentecost, tongues of fire appeared on the heads of those Christians. Today God’s fire is not in a bush and does not appear above our heads. The fire of the burning bush burns in the hearts of those who know Jesus and have received his Holy Spirit.
A wondrous name we may now use for God, thanks to Jesus and the Spirit, is “Father.” In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus teaches us to say, “Our Father.” The Holy Spirit in our hearts moves us to call out, “Abba, Father.” The fearsome name of Yahweh, which men trembled to speak if they dared speak it all, turns out to be our dear and loving Daddy, which is what Abba means.
A Name No One Knows
We know far more of God and his name than Moses knew when Yahweh spoke to him from the burning bush, yet the more we understand, the greater the mystery becomes. The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. The more marvels he reveals to us, the more we know he is too marvelous ever to know fully.
In Old Testament times, God didn’t always answer those who asked his name. The patriarch Jacob wrestled with a mysterious stranger in the night, and though the stranger crippled him with just a touch, Jacob held on until the stranger blessed him and renamed him Israel. Then Jacob said to the mighty stranger, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. (Genesis 32:29).
Another time a man and his wife were told by a mysterious stranger that they would have a baby, who later grew up to be Samson, the super-strong man who gave the Israelites relief from their enemies. When they asked the stranger his name, he said, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding” (Judges 5:18). A moment later he vanished from them in a flame.
Why wouldn’t he give them a name? Perhaps it was partly because they should already know: these were encounters with the God of their fathers, and they didn’t need fresh information or new names to know who he was. But at another level, they were being reminded that God never tells everything about himself, that no name fully captures who he is. He always remains, “I AM WHO I AM,” the mystery beyond all language or thought.
Even in our time of fuller revelation, even using the precious name “Father,” even calling on the saving name of Jesus, even being baptized in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we must never think we have a handle on God, that we have him figured out, that we know his deepest name. What we do know is cause for gladness, and what we don’t know remains cause for wonder and awe. The very last book of the Bible shows us that God the Son, whom we know as Jesus, has another name he hasn’t told us. Revelation 19:12 says, “His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself.” Jesus is the name above all names, the great I AM, and he has another name beyond human knowing.
The Blessings of I AM
Let’s marvel at his mystery, and at the same time let’s believe and delight in what he has revealed. Some of the most stunning and thrilling things Jesus ever said were his I AM sayings recorded in the gospel of John. Jesus fed a multitude and then declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:35).
Jesus gave sight to blind people and said, “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). With Old Testament believers, we can say, “Yahweh is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1). Jesus said, “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved” (John 10:9 NASB). Jesus also says, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). With Old Testament believers, we can say, “Yahweh, the LORD, is my shepherd” (Psalm 23), and we can rejoice that the good shepherd died to save us.
He didn’t just die, of course. He also defeated death. Jesus didn’t just claim to have powers of resurrection but to be the resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25). The Bible often calls Yahweh “the living God.” He’s not just alive—he is life!
The fact that he is the living God means he is also the God of the living. And the living include many we think of as dead. Once Jesus was challenged by some people who insisted that once you die, that’s the end of the story for you. But Jesus took them back to the burning bush and the words of the great I AM: “Have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:26-27). God never says, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He says, “I am their God.” “For to him all are alive” (Luke 20:38). This God never goes out of date, and his children never go out of existence.
Earlier we saw that “I AM WHO I AM” means that God is self-existent, dependent on no one. Jesus put it this way: “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). That’s why death could not defeat Jesus. In his human nature, his body could be tortured, his lungs could stop breathing, his heart could stop beating, his brainwaves could cease. Yet in his unchanging divine nature, the life he has in himself could not die, and that divine life raised his human body to live again and to be forever glorified.
There have been many religious leaders and teachers throughout history, but none ever had life in himself. Only Jesus does. That’s why it’s false to say all religions work equally well. Jesus is the only way to eternal life, the only way to the Father. Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus is our life, or we have no life, only a miserable, continual death. Without him we are as dead as branches cut off from a trunk. Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). I live only because he lives. Apart from the great I AM, I’m nothing and I can do nothing. But “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
After Moses walked with God for many years and saw his saving power many times, the Lord took him to glory. Among Moses’ final words was this parting blessing:
May Yahweh bless his land with the precious dew from heaven above and with the deep waters that lie below; with the best the sun brings forth and the finest the moon can yield; with the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills; with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness and the favor of him who dwelt in the burning bush… The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms… Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by Yahweh?” (Deuteronomy 33:13-16,27,29)
When you are blessed by the great I AM, then all created things become a blessing to you. The God who burned in the bush without destroying it will burn brightly in your life and all things around you will blaze with his blessing.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.