What’s in a name? (I AM)

In every culture, names carry significance. This is especially true in the Semitic culture of Bible where names are frequently used to define a person’s characteristics and actions. In this short series, we’ll explore the many and varied names used for God throughout the Scriptures and see how they are employed to reveal distinct aspects of who he is.

It was in the well-known incident of the (not) burning bush that God first revealed his personal name—YHWH—to his people through Moses. However, that wasn’t the only name given during this fiery encounter: God also tells Moses that his name is ‘I AM WHO I AM’, or more simply, ‘I AM’.*

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”. And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AMhas sent me to you.’” (Exod 6:13-14)

If names in Hebrew define a person, God is saying to Moses that what defines God is God alone.

God doesn’t need to define his identity with reference to his role as creator and sustainer of the universe (although, of course, he is both of these things). Instead, in using the name ‘I AM’, he declares himself to be entirely unlimited, defined only by himself. He alone enjoys complete freedom and infinite possibilities, independent of all creation. This is underscored throughout the Old Testament as God time and time again declares “I AM the LORD”—implicitly contrasting his power, sovereignty and might with that of humans:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God.”  (Num 15:41)

I am the LORD; that is my name;

my glory I give to no other,

nor my praise to carved idols. (Isa 42:8)

Interestingly, this name isn’t only applied to the God of the Old Testament. Jesus also uses the name, most notably, in seven ‘I AM’ statements in John’s Gospel, revealing that he too is God!

  • I AM the bread of life (John 6:48)
  • I AM the light of the world (John 8:12)
  • I AM the gate for the sheep (John 10:7)
  • I AM the good shepherd (John 10:11)
  • I AM the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)
  • I AM the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)
  • I AM the vine (John 15:5)

While clearly showing Jesus to be God himself, each of these titles also deepen our understanding of Jesus and the work he came to do.

When life is busy and stressful, I find it’s easy to have a small view of God that underestimates his power, influence and goodness. I can slip into assuming that God is like me with all of my frailties and weaknesses. Sometimes, in my behaviour if not my thoughts, I can take it step farther and assume I can be like God—that I’m the one in control of my own life. I wonder if, like me, you need to be reminded of the mind-blowing reality of our God, I AM. He is unlimited, beyond our wildest imaginations, defined only by himself—yet he suffered in your place and mine so that we could have a relationship with him. He alone is the LORD who saved our ancestors from slavery in Egypt, and he has saved us forever from slavery to sin.

Praise be to our God, the great I AM!

I AM, the Alpha and Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Rev 1:8)

* Fun fact: Some translators think the Hebrew here would be better translated “I will be what I will be”. There are all sorts of incredibly detailed articles you can read about it if you’re interested, but the take-home point remains the same: God is defined only in reference to himself.