NASB: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born I am’” (as in most trans.)  

NWT: “Jesus said to them: ‘Most truly I say to you, Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.’”

Greek: εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Ἰησοῦς· ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί (eipen autois Iēsous: amēn amēn legō humin, prin Abraam genesthai egō eimi).

That Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is truly God (YHWH) and truly man, is a main theme in John’s literature (esp. seen in the response of the Jews in John 5:17-18; 8:58-59; 10:30-33). The rejection of the person and nature of the Son as truly God (and man) by unitarian groups such as JWs (and Muslims, Oneness Pentecostals et al.) is chiefly based on a unitarian (or unipersonal) pre-committed theology that God is one sole person (unipernal), and not the exegesis of the text.   

Jesus declared in John 8:24: “For if you should not believe that I am [egō eimi] you will perish in your sins” (lit. trans.). The unpredicated egō eimi (“I am”) affirmation of the Son were unequivocally claims of deity–that is, claims of being truly God (and truly man)- esp. in light of YHWH’s exclusive claims of being the unpredicated egō eimi (“I am”) in the LXX (Deut. 32:39; Isa. 41:4; 43:10; 46:4).  

See Jesus’ Ἐγώ εἰμι, Egō Eimi (“I Am”) Declarations- John 8:58 for a detailed presentation of Jesus “I Am” claims.   
 

Exegetical Refutation: The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’s (JWs) attempt to
‘Reason from the Scriptures’ regarding  John 8:58    

So strong was Jesus’ affirmation of deity in John 8:58 that the JWs’ Bible the NWT mistranslated the present active indicative verb, eimi (“am”) turning it into a past tense: “I have been.” From this, the JW’s argue that Jesus was not claiming to be deity (“I am”), but rather He was claiming to be “older” than Abraham was (as Michael the archangel), which incited the Jews to want to kill Him. However, what immediately refutes this false notion is:

1) Simply, the Greek text contains the present indicative verb eimi (“am”) and not any kind of past tense. In 1969, WT published a Greek Interlinear called, The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures (KIT) and a revised ed. in 1985. The KIT is a Greek NT with English equivalents under each Greek word and the NWT on the side margins. What is interesting is that the Greek is unchanged, only the NWT is altered from the Greek.

For example, notice the photocopy of John 8:58-59 from the KIT in which you can see the unaltered Greek phrase egō eimi (“I am”) and the NWT’s altered reading “I have been,” on the side:

This clearly shows that the NWT purposely altered the Greek NT text, from the present “I am” to a past “I have been” (cf. Watchtower, 1 Sept. 1974, 526-27); as if Jesus was merely saying that He is older than Abraham-  only to fit the distinctive theology of the WT.

2) Even more, throughout the years, the WT has offered at least three reasons as to why the present tense verb eimi (“am”) should be translated as a past action (“have been”). First, in the 1950 ed. of the NWT, there is a footnote referring to the “I have been” rendering, which states: “I have been— ἐγώ εἰμι [egō eimi] . . . properly rendered in the perfect indefinite tense. . . .” (p. 312).

This sounds legitimate to one who is not familiar with Greek, however, there is no such tense as a “perfect indefinite” in biblical Greek. The WT made up a phony tense. Some have defended the WT’s explanation saying that “perfect indefinite” refers to the English, not the Greek. But we are not aware of a single official WT source that states this.

Then, the WT argued that the verb eimi was a “perfect indicative” (KIT, 1985 ed. 451). Now, there is a perfect indicative in Greek, however, the verb eimi takes no such form. And currently, the WT asserts that eimi is a “historical present”[9] explaining that “The verb ei·mi’, at John 8:58, is evidently in the historical present, as Jesus was speaking about himself in relation to Abraham’s past” Reasoning from the Scriptures, 418). Thus, the JWs see Jesus as merely claiming that He pre-existed Abraham, which, according to the JWs, enraged the Jews to the point of wanting to kill Him (cf. v. 59). This assertion, however, is flawed both grammatically and contextually.

First, a historical present tense occurs primarily in narrative literature and only in third person. In this context, Jesus was arguing with the Jews—He was not narrating. Secondly, the equative verb eimi is not used as a historical present. As the recognized Greek scholar, Daniel Wallace, points out, “The historical present is used fairly frequently in narrative literature to describe a past event” (Wallace, GGBB, 526).. Wallace also comments: 

If this is a historical present, it is apparently the only historical present in the NT that uses the equative verb eimi. The burden of proof, therefore, lies with the one who sees eimi as ever being used as a historical present. . . If this is a historical present, it is apparently the only historical present in the NT that is in other than third person (ibid., 530). 

The weight against the historical present view is massive. The reason for these various assertions of eimi postulated by the WT throughout the years (viz. the phony perfect indefinite; perfect indicative, and historical present) is, of course, obvious. If Jesus’ divine statements of being the “I am,” stand unmodified, then, Jesus made some astonishing and unambiguous claims of being the eternal God (as with John 5:17 and 10:27-30), which clearly show the WT to be a false religion in need of salvation.


 

Throughout the OT, we frequently encounter the “angel of the Lord” (or, “angel of God”—as used interchangeably[1]). The term translated “angel” in both Hebrew (malak) and Greek (aggelos) simply means “messenger.” Although, we find many occurrences and classes/ranks of “angels” in both the OT and NT (some by name/description such as Michael, Gabriel, Satan, sons of God, cherubim, seraphim, etc.), the angel of the Lord in the OT was not a mere “created” angel (as asserted by the JWs). Rather,

He was identified as, and claimed to be, YHWH, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” “God.” While all unitarian groups (esp. Muslims, JWs, and Oneness Pentecostals) oppose any implication of the deity and thus preexistence of the Son, Jesus Christ, the biblical evidence points to the preincarnate Christ as the identity of the angel of the Lord. Note below some of the more significant examples:

HAGER (fist defined occurrence): In Genesis 16, Hager encountered the angel of the Lord in the desert. In verse 10, the angel of the Lord said to her: “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.” In verse 11, the angel of the Lord refers to YHWH in third person: “Because the LORD has given heed to your affliction.” However, note Hager’s words to the angel of the Lord in verse 13: “‘You are a God who sees’; for she said, ‘I even remained alive here after seeing Him?’” First, she addresses the angel as “a God who sees.” And second, she acknowledges that she “remained alive here after seeing Him,” thus echoing Exodus 33:20, where YHWH says, “no man can see Me and live!”

Abraham: In Genesis 18:1-2, 8, we read that “the LORD [YHWH] appeared” to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. And “when he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him. . . . He took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate” (emphasis added). When we look at chapters 18-19, we find some interesting things pertaining to the preincarnate appearance of Christ as the angel of the LORD, YHWH Himself. First, in Genesis 18:1-2, we read that YHWH had appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. Second, when Abraham “lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him,” which Abraham prepared food and they ate.

Third, one of the visitors had told Abraham: “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son,” which Sarah laughed since she “was old advanced in age . . . past childbearing” (vv. 10-12). Lastly, verses 13-14 identify one of the visitors as YHWH: “And the LORD [YHWH] said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?’ Is anything too difficult for the LORD [YHWH]?”

Again note verses 16-17, where the men spoke of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Then the men rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off. The LORD [YHWH] said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do.” After Abraham’s interesting dialogue with YHWH from verses 22-33, we read in chapter 19:1: “Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom.” Here only two of the visitors are mentioned. After the two men repeatedly warned of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah verses 23-24 indicate that 

“The sun had risen over the earth when Lot came to Zoar. Then the Lord [YHWH] rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD [YHWH] out of heaven.”  – – See Hebrew preposition min (LXX, ek tou ouranou).

This point cannot be missed. YHWH did something (rained brimstone and fire) from another YHWH in heaven! This can only be consistent with biblical monotheism in light of Trinitarianism. The angel of the LORD (the Son) was one of the visitors; He is called YHWH, and He did something on behalf of YHWH “out of heaven” (the Father). In fact, the Targums is ever more revealing as to the identification of the angel of the LORD as the Word if the LORD:

And the Word [Memra] of the Lord had caused showers of favour to descend upon Sedom and Amorah, to the intent that they might work repentance, but they did it not: so that they said, Wickedness is not manifest before the Lord. Behold, then, there are now sent down upon them sulphur and fire from before the Word of the Lord from Heaven. And He overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the herbage of the earth (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan).

 

MOSES: We all are familiar with Moses’s encounter with the angel of the Lord in Exodus 3:1-6: “Then the angel of the LORD appeared to him” (v. 2). Yet verse 4 indicates that it was “God” who “called to him from the midst of the bush.” Throughout the account, the angel of the Lord is used interchangeably with “God.” Further, in verse 14 (in the LXX), the angel of the Lord claimed that He was the Eternal One—egō eimi ho ōn (lit., “I Am the One/Being”); and in verse 6, He affirmed to Moses: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Notice Moses’ response to Him: “Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”

GIDEON: In Judges 6:11-24, Gideon also encountered the angel of the Lord[4]: “The angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, ‘The LORD is with you, O valiant warrior’” (v. 12). However, because “the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (6:1), the “LORD gave them into the hands of Midian seven years” (v. 1), which prompted Gideon to ask the angel of the LORD: “O my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian” (v. 13). However, the response of the angel of the Lord in verse 14 clearly identifies Him as YHWH: “The LORD looked at him and said, ‘Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?’” As in other places, the angel of the Lord is referred to as YHWH (“LORD”). After “the angel of the LORD vanished from his sight” (v. 21), Gideon reveals his understanding that the “angel” to whom he was speaking was not a mere angel, rather, as he stated: “Alas, O Lord God! [Adonay YHWH]. For now I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face” (v. 22). And the Lord Himself said: “Peace to you, do not fear; you shall not die” (v . 23; see Exod. 33:20).

MANOAH: In Judges 13, we find the angel of the Lord announcing to Manoah and his wife of their coming son, Samson, a “Nazirite to God.” Verse 16 (and v. 21) indicates that Manoah knew that this angel was not an ordinary angel, but the angel of the Lord, YHWH Himself. Manoah had wanted to prepare some food for Him, but the angel of the Lord said to Manoah: “‘Though you detain me, I will not eat your food, but if you prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to the LORD’ For Manoah did not know that He was the angel of the LORD.”

Attesting even more as to the identity of the angel of the Lord, not only as YHWH, but as the preincarnate Christ, is the response the angel of the Lord gave after Manoah had asked of His name in verse 17: “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful [Heb. piliy/paliy]” (v. 18). In Isaiah 9:6, the name of the coming Messiah will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father [or father/possessor of eternity], Prince of Peace.”

The Hebrew term translated “Wonderful” (pele) is from the same root word (both from pala) as in Judges 13:18: “seeing it is wonderful.” No created angel can claim this name of Himself. This claim is certainly consistent to the many claims Jesus made and titles ascribed to Him in the NT, which were claims that only YHWH made and titles ascribe to YHWH alone in the OT (e.g., “First and Last”[5]; egō eimi [“I am”][6]; “Lord of glory”[7]; “only Lord”[8]; etc.). When Manoah discovered that it was the “angel of the Lord,” he declared to his wife, “We will surly die, for we have seen God” (v. 22)—seeing that the angel of Lord was God.

There are many other angel of the Lord references in the OT (cf. Josh. 5:13-15;[9] Num. 22:22-35; 2 Kings 19:35; etc.). However, the examples mentioned above are more than sufficient in showing that the angel of the Lord was identified as YHWH Himself and as the preincarnate Christ. This view has been concurred by early church Fathers and most biblical commentators throughout church history. In sum,

1. As countlessly revealed in the NT regarding the personal distinctions between Jesus and the Father (and the Holy Spirit) there is a marked distinction between the angel of the Lord and God/YHWH—i.e., two divine speakers/persons both identified with divine titles (i.e., YHWH, God, “the God of the fathers,” etc.).

2. In Colossians 1:15 and 1 Timothy 1:17, Paul explains that God the Father (as with the Holy Spirit) is an invisible spirit, which “no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16, as confirmed in John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12). Hence, it is quite implausible that the angel of the Lord is the Father or the Holy Spirit.

3. In Zechariah 1:12 (see chap. 3), the angel of the Lord (who had been claiming to be YHWH since Genesis) is now praying to the “LORD [YHWH] of hosts.” As stated, YHWH praying to “another” YHWH can only be consistent with biblical monotheism in the context of Trinitarianism (cf. Gen. 19:24). We find the same in the NT, where God the Son prays to another divine person, God the Father (cf. Luke 10:21-22; John 17:1ff.).

4. Unitarian groups (esp. Muslims) frequently assert that the angel of the Lord was merely a “divine agent” as with Moses, judges, prophets, created angels, etc., but not God Himself. This assertion, however, is clearly refuted by the fact that no agent of God ever identified himself as “YHWH,” “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” “Wonderful,” etc.

5. Lastly, many who encountered the angel of the Lord identified Him as God in which they feared for their life: “We will surly die, for we have seen God” (Judg. 13:22; cf. Gen. 16:13; Judg. 6:23).

The angel of the Lord was not an indefinite created angel. Rather, as He claimed, He was the “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”—YHWH, yet a distinct person from another YHWH (cf. Gen. 19:24; Zech. 1:12). In the highest probability, the identity of the angel of the Lord was the preincarnate Christ, God the Son. As revealed in the NT, He mediates and intercedes for the people of God, on their behalf— not as a mere created agent, but as YHWH Himself, second person of the Holy Trinity.

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NOTES

[1] Cf. Judges 6:20.

[2] The Trinitarian force of this passage sharply disproves any unitarian view of God.

[3] The Targum was an ancient Aramaic translation providing explanations and paraphrases of the Hebrew OT. In the post-exilic period, Aramaic began to be broadly spoken in the Jewish community in conjunction with Hebrew. Further, the Targums’ “Memra of the Lord” identifies “the angel of the Lord” with the Memra (“Word”) of the Lord (cf. in Gen. 1:16-17 Targum Neofiti reads, “The Word of the Lord created the two large luminaries. . . . and the Glory of the Lord set them in the firmament”; Gen. 2:2-3: “On the seventh day the Word of the Lord completed the work which he had created. . . . and the Glory of the Lord blessed the seventh day” (cf. Exod. 3:6, 14 et al.). Mostly likely the Targums’ Memra theology may be indeed the background of John’s Logos doctrine.

[4] Again, as with other places, here the angel of the Lord is used interchangeably with the “angel of God” (cf. vv. 20-21).

[5] Cf. Isaiah 41:4; 44:6; and 48:12. In the NT, only Christ claims to be “the first and the last” (Rev. 1:17; 2:8; 22:13).

[6] In such places as in the LXX of Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10; and 48:12, YHWH alone claims to be the “I am” (egō eimi). As with the divine title, “the first and the last,” only Christ Himself claims to be the absolute “I am” (egō eimi, John 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19 et al.) To recall, at Isaiah 41:4 and 48:12, both divine titles, “I am” and “the first and the last” are contained in the same verse!

[7] In Acts 7:2, Steven declared, “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham.” Whereas in 1 Corinthians 2:8, Paul calls Jesus, “the Lord of glory,” which is a title of full deity (see 1 Sam. 15:29 where YHWH is called “the Glory of Israel”).

[8] Biblically, there is only one true Lord and God—YHWH. In Jude 1:4, Jesus is called ton monon despotēn kai kurion, “the only Master and Lord.”

[9] Especially note verses 14-15: “[Joshua] said, ‘No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the LORD.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and bowed down, and said to him, ‘What has my lord to say to his servant?’ 15 The captain of the LORD’S host said to Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.” This is exactly what the angel of the Lord said to Moses in Exodus 3:5: “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Nowhere in Scripture is it even implied that being in the presence of mere angels is “holy ground” in which one must remove his sandals. John the Baptist speaks of the coming Christ before whom he is “not fit to remove His sandals” (Matt 3:11). Thus, John saw the presence of the Christ, as God incarnate, sacred.