My initial foray into the prospect of doing doctoral research was fueled by a personal quest to better understand the idea of our being “in Christ.” Union with Christ has been explored for years and years by scholars much smarter than I, yet I wanted to understand it better for myself. With that I began to read, moved especially by studies like Constantine Campbell’s Paul and Union with Christ (Zondervan Academic, 2012), and Grant Macaskill’s Union with Christ in the New Testament (OUP, 2014). Before long I was drawn to John’s Gospel for its theme of abiding. It took more than a year of reading, reflecting and conversation (played on repeat, several times over), but eventually I landed on the seven I am sayings in John as an object of study, asking the question: What might these sayings contribute to our understanding of union with Christ? The following is a summary of my doctoral thesis, that is, what I have learned about participation with Jesus through the seven I am sayings in John’s Gospel.

You might notice that there are more than seven I am sayings throughout John. When Jesus says “I am” (egō eimi), his words resonate with Old Testament divine declarations like Deuteronomy 32:39, sometimes making certain religious leaders angry. (See, for example, John 8:58.) Among all these I am claims, the seven I am sayings are unique because each has an attached image, which immediately invites readers and hearers to reflect. This is why I am drawn to them. Maybe you are too. Here are the seven, unique to John:

I am the bread of life (6:35, 41, 48, 51).

I am the light of the world (8:12; 9:5).

I am the gate (10:7, 9).

I am the good shepherd (10:11, 14).

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

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

I am the true vine (15:1, 5).

In addition to the magnitude of the first part of each statement — I am — there are some additional features that make these seven sayings compelling. First, notice how these I am sayings are metaphors. Metaphors are powerful because of how they spark the imagination into action. With each metaphor, we are invited to imagine the implications of Jesus saying he is equivalent to bread, or to light or to a vine. Second, every image resonates with layers of meaning, most of the time connecting back to Old Testament themes. This means that Jesus is equating himself to something with scriptural resonance, heightening the theological weight of each claim.

For example, Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” and those who are scripturally aware are meant to recall Moses’ wilderness community experiencing manna raining down from heaven. Others might simultaneously associate bread with their understanding of wisdom, or Torah. At the bottom layer of this metaphor we cannot help but recall actual physical bread, a food staple that feeds hungry bellies. This easily resonates with the food Jesus fed to the multitudes on the previous day (John 6:1–15). So, which layer of meaning is Jesus equating himself with? This is the question we are invited to answer.

Ultimately each “I am” metaphor, with its layers of meaning, presents a distinct salvific picture. When Jesus says he is the “bread of life,” he elaborates that it is his Father “who gives [this] true bread from heaven” and offers life to the world (John 6:32­–33). Those who feed on this bread will live forever (John 6:51). Jesus as bread is, therefore, a portrait of true spiritual nourishment.

This salvific portrait, however, is more than a still-life canvas to hang on your wall. Instead, we can think of it as an animated image. All seven metaphors are like moving pictures, to be engaged using the physical senses. Each suggests a certain kind of sensory participation with Jesus, bringing this salvific connection to life in dynamic, tangible ways. In the following survey, notice the sensory elements involved in each saying.

When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” disciples are invited to participate by believing. In this scene, to believe is to eat: “those who eat of this bread will live forever” (John 6:51). Participation with Jesus is made tangible by it being a sensory invitation we can resonate with. If you have ever experienced physical hunger satiated by bread, then you have an embodied quality of understanding when you hear the invitation to eat Jesus, the bread of life. Participation with Jesus is satisfying, like eating a nourishing meal. Each of us knows this truth in our guts. In this I am metaphor, to eat is to believe.

The second I am saying appears against the backdrop of the great lamp-lighting ceremony during the Festival of Tabernacles, a sensory commemoration of God’s provision, leadership and presence. When Jesus makes the public proclamation, “I am the light of the world,” notice how this too is an animated picture: disciples are invited to a belief conceived as following the light (John 8:12). To follow the light, one must be able to see it, and in the very next scene, Jesus embodies and substantiates his light claim by creating sight for a man born blind (John 9:1–41). Here in this scene, seeing is believing.

The third and fourth sayings occur within the illustration of a sheepfold (John 10:1–21), as Jesus makes two interconnected claims, “I am the gate,” and “I am the good shepherd.” This locates Jesus within the scriptural tradition of leaders as shepherds. Notice again the sensory qualities animating the scene: believers are sheep who hear the voice of the good shepherd, and they follow him through the gate to be saved (John 10:9). Jesus the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, bringing abundant life. Here, to listen and follow is to believe.

The fifth saying occurs in the very next scene (John 11:1–44). Jesus, the good shepherd, claims “I am the resurrection and the life” just before his voice bellows into the tomb to his lifeless sheep: “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man hears the voice of the Son of God and emerges from the silent, putrid tomb (John 11:39, 43–44; cf. 5:25, 28–9). Notice how Jesus embodies his I am claim: life comes forth from the stench of death as Lazarus hears Jesus’ voice and lives.

The sixth and seventh I am claims are presented while Jesus is gathered with his disciples before his departure to the cross. When he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he invites believers to follow the way to the Father through him (John 14:6). This suggests movement along a path, not unlike the Isaianic “way of the Lord.” Or perhaps it resonates with the kind of path Israel traversed when following the pillar of light through the desert. Here it’s Jesus himself who is the very path to the Father.

As Jesus shares about his impending departure to the cross, there is a rapid crescendo of the abiding language, culminating in his final claim, “I am the true vine.” Set in a metaphorical garden scene, the Father is the gardener, Jesus is the true vine, and his loyal disciples are the abiding branches. Here the sensory engagement is slightly different given the agricultural imagery. The invitation is for branch-disciples to abide. This suggests both a nutritive connection as branches draw sustenance from the vine, but it also conveys a kind of proprioceptive quality of remaining in Jesus. Just as the previous sayings narrate a sensory participation that keeps believers close to Jesus, this image also portrays Jesus and his disciples about as close as anyone can get — as branches fused to the vine. Believers are therefore encouraged: remain where you already are.

Therefore Jesus, the enfleshed revealer of God to the world (John 1:14, 17), says I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, and the true vine. Each of these metaphors is a distinct salvific portrayal of how Jesus brings “life in his name” (John 20:31) to those who believe. While each saying is sensory in its own distinct way, together this collection pictures a salvific life consisting of multisensory invitations to participate with Jesus in all of his goodness.

Why might these sensory invitations be important? Well, as embodied readers seeking to understand our union with Christ, we live in a world of flesh from which the Word made flesh is physically absent. It seems to me that these sensory qualities provide concrete and tangible insight into this union we are invited into. His love arranged for us to live in his abiding presence. These sayings present Jesus as the one who meets vital needs in an ongoing way. Our participation with him is characterized by enduring dependence and abundant life as we abide in him.

For those interested in reading a more detailed version of this research, my doctoral thesis on this topic was published by Brill in the Biblical Interpretation Series this past year (2023). It is entitled Sensing Salvation in the Gospel of John: The Embodied, Sensory Qualities of Participation in the I Am Sayings. My hope is for followers of Jesus to settle more deeply into this abiding life with Jesus, to taste and see that the Lord is good, and to live this embodied life knowing he is as near as the vine is to the branch.