byFaith | Winter 2009
By Alan Dowd
“Is it I?”[i]
The disciples’ worried words hang in the air as Jesus tells them His betrayer sits among them.
The disciples—the Gospels’ everymen—represent all humanity as they individually and collectively ask Jesus if they will betray Him, fail Him, abandon Him, wound Him. Imagine the anxiousness in their words, the cacophony of worry and fear as they turn to Christ for an indication of who is guilty and who is innocent.
“Is it I?” The question is so full of uncertainty and weakness that it would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic, so human. After all, how could someone not know whether he is guilty or innocent? The answer may be that each of the disciples recognized that he had, in some way, already betrayed Jesus. As Peter learned that weekend—as all believers learn—we are all betrayers.
It’s amazing how these same three words, by changing the order ever so slightly, can mean and say something so different. During another time of uncertainty—long before the apostles asked Jesus “Is it I?”—Jesus reassured them and comforted them by declaring, “It is I.”
As the twelve represent the doubts of humanity, Jesus represents the certainty of heaven.
Chaos, Courage and Christmas
All four Gospels record Jesus using those three words to underscore His hereafter power and here-and-now presence: In Luke 24, turning to Thomas—and to us—He exults, “It is I myself! Touch me and see.”
Earlier, in Matthew 14:27, Jesus shouts to the trembling twelve, “Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid.” In Mark 6 and John 6, He says, simply, “It is I. Don't be afraid.”
Why were they afraid? John tells us that the disciples were three and a half miles out to sea, when “the waters grew rough.” Matthew’s account says their little fishing boat was “buffeted by the waves.” Worse, “it was dark” and “a strong wind was blowing.” Mark adds that “the wind was against them.”[ii] Mark also includes this little morsel: “Jesus made his disciples get into the boat,” while He retreated to a mountaintop to pray.
Have you ever been on the beach—let alone on the sea—at night? The darkness is almost overwhelming. It envelops you. The sound plays tricks on you. What was welcoming, even soothing, in the daylight is now otherworldly, as once-hidden creatures reassert their claim. This strange mix of sensory overload and sensory deprivation is disorienting, and it can be terrifying.
That’s just a taste of what the disciples experienced. Alone. In a boat. In a storm. In the predawn darkness. In the middle of the sea. The disciples had good reason to be frightened. Yet when they saw Jesus—their Messiah and miracle worker, their healer and hope—their first inclination was not relief or praise, but more fear. They were terrified at the site of Jesus walking in the storm, his ghostly silhouette hovering over the chaos.
There is a faint echo in this story of the very beginning, when “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”[iii] But at just the right time, God brought order to the chaos, form to the formless, purpose to the emptiness, light to the darkness.
He did something similar on the Sea of Galilee that night.
From Mark’s vantage point, Jesus “was about to pass by them”—or so it appeared. In fact, Mark leaves us with the impression that it was their struggle that caught Christ’s attention. “The boat was in the middle of the lake…He saw the disciples straining at the oars.”[iv] Likewise, Matthew’s account gives us a sense that “Jesus went out to them” because the boat and its precious cargo were in distress. So it seems the very reason He interrupted His time of solitary communion with the Father was to help.
Seeing, hearing, feeling the fear that fueled the apostles’ cries, Jesus “immediately,” according to Matthew, said those three little words: “It is I.” For good measure, He sandwiched them between two power sentences of reassurance: “Take courage!” and “Don't be afraid.”
It’s as if Jesus was saying to them—and to us—I’ve got more than enough courage to share, so take it and be at peace.
John reports that after the disciples heard Jesus’ three-word declaration, “they were willing to take Him into the boat.” And that’s when a memorable evening became unforgettable.
Once they took Him in, the chaos and confusion turned to clarity. As Matthew tells us, once they took Him in, they declared what had always been true: “You are the Son of God.”
Once they took Him in, “the wind died down,” according to Matthew. Once they took Him in, “immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading,” according to John.
In other words, when they realized who He was, when they really heard Him and saw Him, when they invited Him in, they were safe, they felt peace and they arrived at their destination.
Isn’t that what Christ does for all of us? We drift into the darkness and the storms. Jesus might appear to be passing us by; He might try to offer help; He might shout to get our attention; He might have even put us in the boat. Whatever the case, He uses our circumstances, even our fears, to draw us closer to Him. And when we let Him in, whether or not the winds and the waves die down, we are protected. When we let Him in, we can tap into the courage and peace He has in abundance. When we let Him in, we are right where we are supposed to be. When we let Him in, we are, in a sense, already home.
As Jesus explained, the storms come for all of us—for those who invite Him aboard and those who don’t. But with Him, we are never alone, we are eternally secure. With Him, even in chaos, we can find peace and courage.
This seems especially apt as we turn our hearts toward Christmas—God’s most emphatic, dramatic declaration that He desires to be near us, to be with us, to be part of us. Christmas—Gabriel’s revelation to Mary, Joseph’s angel dream, heaven’s humbling and humble manger birth—shows that God wants to be with us in the storm, in the world, in the boat, as it were.
The Incarnation reminds each of us and all of us that the Great I Am cares about who we are, where we’re headed, what we’re doing and what we’re feeling—that the One who walked with Adam and wrestled with Jacob and fellowshipped with Moses and reasoned with Isaiah is not some distant deity but rather Immanuel, “God with us.”
We ask, “Is it I? Is it I you are searching for, waiting for, calling for? Is it I you are wanting to help?” With the Incarnation, Immanuel answers yes—to each of us and to all of humanity.
God’s Exclamation Point
A simple search on BibleGateway.com reveals that the phrase “It is I” appears just 12 times in the Bible. Tellingly, each time, the phrase is accorded to God.
In addition to Christ’s use of “It is I” in the Gospels, this tiny, power-packed sentence appears a handful of times in the Old Testament.
In Exodus 3:12, God declares, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you.”
In Psalm 75:2 the psalmist quotes God in announcing, “It is I who judge uprightly…it is I who hold [the earth’s] pillars firm.”
In Isaiah 45:12, God explains, “It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts.” In Isaiah 52:6, He adds, “Therefore my people will know my name; therefore in that day they will know that it is I who foretold it. Yes, it is I.” Later, in Isaiah 54:16, He says, “See, it is I who created the blacksmith who fans the coals into flame and forges a weapon fit for its work. And it is I who have created the destroyer to work havoc.” And in Isaiah 63:1, God answers His own question with those three little words: is owno“Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.”
In Ezekiel 7:9, the words are attached to a warning. “I will repay you in accordance with your conduct and the detestable practices among you. Then you will know that it is I the Lord who strikes the blow.”
The fact that these three little words, arranged in this particular way, are uttered only by God in the Bible says something about God. It’s as if He is reminding us of what He has been trying to get across from the beginning: With Me, there is certainty and sovereignty, responsibility and resolve, courage and calm, assurance and action, peace and purpose. Without Me, you really have none of this.
Job understood this, but only after God made it plain.
At the end of the book that bears his name, Job, who, like the disciples, is a stand-in for humanity, learns more from God’s questions than from man’s answers. The text tells us that, as He did that night on the Sea of Galilee, God speaks to Job “out of the storm.”[v] Indeed, the questions pour down like rain:
Who laid the earth’s foundation? Who gives orders to the morning or shows the dawn its place? Who is it that journeys to the springs of the sea and walks in the recesses of the deep? Who keeps watch over the gates of the shadow of death or the storehouses of snow? Who knows all the laws of the heavens? Who has dominion over all the earth? Who can raise his voice to the clouds and cover himself with a flood of water? Who cuts a channel for the thunderstorm? Who endowed the heart with wisdom? Who gave understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?
In a sense, God answers these questions in the Gospels—during another storm.
“It is I,” Jesus declares. It is who do all of these things.
“It is I!” He shouts, amid the storms and the chaos and darkness of our lives.
It is I who laid the earth’s foundation, lit the sun, imagined a universe of universes. It is who gives orders to the morning, who opens and closes the gates of death. It is I who sends lightning bolts on their way, who knows the majesty and mystery of all life.
It is—the Great I Am—who has no doubt about tomorrow and no regret about yesterday. It is I—the Good Shepherd—who lifts up the weak, comforts the widow, adopts the fatherless, restores the broken, refreshes the hungry.
It is I—the King of kings—who pardons the sinner, the betrayer, the denier, the doubter, the liar, the luster, the gossip, the glutton. It is—the timeless One—who makes all things new. It is I—Immanuel—who came at just the right time to bring life. It is I—the Lamb of God—who takes away the sin of the world.
It is I—the Word Made Flesh—who replaces question marks with exclamation points.
[i] See Matthew 26:22 American Standard Version
[ii] Mark 6:48
[iii] Genesis 1
[iv] Mark 6:47-48
[v] See Job 38-42