[1.] Christ asserts Abraham's prospect of him, and respect to him: Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it, and was glad, v. 56. And by this he proves that he was not at all out of the way when he made himself greater than Abraham. Two things he here speaks of as instances of that patriarch's respect to the promised Messiah:—
First, The ambition he had to see his day: He rejoiced, eµgalliasto—he leaped at it. The word, though it commonly signifies rejoicing, must here signify a transport of desire rather than of joy, for otherwise the latter part of the verse would be a tautology; he saw it, and was glad. He reached out, or stretched himself forth, that he might see my day; as Zaccheus, that ran before, and climbed the tree, to see Jesus. The notices he had received of the Messiah to come had raised in him an expectation of something great, which he earnestly longed to know more of. The dark intimation of that which is considerable puts men upon enquiry, and makes them earnestly ask Who? and What? and Where? and When? and How? And thus the prophets of the Old Testament, having a general idea of a grace that should come, searched diligently (1 Pt. 1:10), and Abraham was as industrious herein as any of them. God told him of a land that he would give his posterity, and of the wealth and honour he designed them (Gen. 15:14); but he never leaped thus to see that day, as he did to see the day of the Son of man. He could not look with so much indifferency upon the promised seed as he did upon the promised land; in that he was, but to the other he could not be, contentedly a stranger. Note, Those who rightly know any thing of Christ cannot but be earnestly desirous to know more of him. Those who discern the dawning of the light of the Sun of righteousness cannot but wish to see his rising. The mystery of redemption is that which angels desire to look into, much more should we, who are more immediately concerned in it. Abraham desired to see Christ's day, though it was at a great distance; but this degenerate seed of his discerned not his day, nor bade it welcome when it came. The appearing of Christ, which gracious souls love and long for, carnal hearts dread and loathe.
Secondly, The satisfaction he had in what he did see of it: He saw it, and was glad. Observe here,
a. How God gratified the pious desire of Abraham; he longed to see Christ's day, and he saw it. Though he saw it not so plainly, and fully, and distinctly as we now see it under the gospel, yet he saw something of it, more afterwards than he did at first. Note, To him that has, and to him that asks, shall be given; to him that uses and improves what he has, and that desires and prays for more of the knowledge of Christ, God will give more. But how did Abraham see Christ's day? (a.) Some understand it of the sight he had of it in the other world. The separate soul of Abraham, when the veil of flesh was rent, saw the mysteries of the kingdom of God in heaven. Calvin mentions this sense of it, and does not much disallow it. Note, The longings of gracious souls after Jesus Christ will be fully satisfied when they come to heaven, and not till then. But, (b.) It is more commonly understood of some sight he had of Christ's day in this world. They that received not the promises, yet saw them afar off, Heb. 11:13. Balaam saw Christ, but not now, not nigh. There is room to conjecture that Abraham had some vision of Christ and his day, for his own private satisfaction, which is not, nor must be, recorded in his story, like that of Daniel's, which must be shut up, and sealed unto the time of the end, Dan. 12:4. Christ knew what Abraham saw better than Moses did. But there are divers things recorded in which Abraham saw more of that which he longed to see than he did when the promise was first made to him. He saw in Melchizedek one made like unto the Son of God, and a priest for ever; he saw an appearance of Jehovah, attended with two angels, in the plains of Mamre. In the prevalency of his intercession for Sodom he saw a specimen of Christ's intercession; in the casting out of Ishmael, and the establishment of the covenant with Isaac, he saw a figure of the gospel day, which is Christ's day; for these things were an allegory. In offering Isaac, and the ram instead of Isaac, he saw a double type of the great sacrifice; and his calling the place Jehovah-jireh—It shall be seen, intimates that he saw something more in it than others did, which time would produce; and in making his servant put his hand under his thigh, when he swore, he had a regard to the Messiah.
b. How Abraham entertained these discoveries of Christ's day, and bade them welcome: He saw, and was glad. He was glad of what he saw of God's favour to himself, and glad of what he foresaw of the mercy God had in store for the world. Perhaps this refers to Abraham's laughing when God assured him of a son by Sarah (Gen. 17:16, 17), for that was not a laughter of distrust as Sarah's but of joy; in that promise he saw Christ's day, and it filled him with joy unspeakable. Thus he embraced the promises. Note, A believing sight of Christ and his day will put gladness into the heart. No joy like the joy of faith; we are never acquainted with true pleasure till we are acquainted with Christ.
[2.] The Jews cavil at this, and reproach him for it (v. 57): Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Here, First, They suppose that if Abraham saw him and his day he also had seen Abraham, which yet was not a necessary innuendo, but this turn of his words would best serve to expose him; yet it was true that Christ had seen Abraham, and had talked with him as a man talks with his friend. Secondly, They suppose it a very absurd thing for him to pretend to have seen Abraham, who was dead so many ages before he was born. The state of the dead is an invisible state; but here they ran upon the old mistake, understanding that corporally which Christ spoke spiritually. Now this gave them occasion to despise his youth, and to upbraid him with it, as if he were but of yesterday, and knew nothing: Thou art not yet fifty years old. They might as well have said, Thou art not forty; for he was now but thirty-two or thirty-three years old. As to this, Irenaeus, one of the first fathers, with this passage supports the tradition which he says he had from some that had conversed with St. John, that our Saviour lived to be fifty years old, which he contends for, Advers. Haeres. lib. 2, cap. 39, 40. See what little credit is to be given to tradition; and, as to this here, the Jews spoke at random; some year they would mention, and therefore pitched upon one that they thought he was far enough short of; he did not look to be forty, but they were sure he could not be fifty, much less contemporary with Abraham. Old age is reckoned to begin at fifty (Num. 4:47), so that they meant no more than this, "Thou art not to be reckoned an old man; many of us are much thy seniors, and yet pretend not to have seen Abraham." Some think that his countenance was so altered, with grief and watching, that, together with the gravity of his aspect, it made him look like a man of fifty years old: his visage was so marred, Isa. 52:14.
[3.] Our Saviour gives an effectual answer to this cavil, by a solemn assertion of his own seniority even to Abraham himself (v. 58): "Verily, verily, I say unto you; I do not only say it in private to my own disciples, who will be sure to say as I say, but to you my enemies and persecutors; I say it to your faces, take it how you will: Before Abraham was, I am;" prin Abraam genesthai, egoµ eimi, Before Abraham was made or born, I am. The change of the word is observable, and bespeaks Abraham a creature, and himself the Creator; well therefore might he make himself greater than Abraham. Before Abraham he was, First, As God. I am, is the name of God (Ex. 3:14); it denotes his self-existence; he does not say, I was, but I am, for he is the first and the last, immutably the same (Rev. 1:8); thus he was not only before Abraham, but before all worlds, ch. 1:1; Prov. 8:23. Secondly, As Mediator. He was the appointed Messiah, long before Abraham; the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8), the channel of conveyance of light, life, and love from God to man. This supposes his divine nature, that he is the same in himself from eternity (Heb. 13:8), and that he is the same to man ever since the fall; he was made of God wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, to Adam, and Abel, and Enoch, and Noah, and Shem, and all the patriarchs that lived and died by faith in him before Abraham was born. Abraham was the root of the Jewish nation, the rock out of which they were hewn. If Christ was before Abraham, his doctrine and religion were no novelty, but were, in the substance of them, prior to Judaism, and ought to take place of it.
[4.] This great word ended the dispute abruptly, and put a period to it: they could bear to hear no more from him, and he needed to say no more to them, having witnessed this good confession, which was sufficient to support all his claims. One would think that Christ's discourse, in which shone so much both of grace and glory, should have captivated them all; but their inveterate prejudice against the holy spiritual doctrine and law of Christ, which were so contrary to their pride and worldliness, baffled all the methods of conviction. Now was fulfilled that prophecy (Mal. 3:1, 2), that when the messenger of the covenant should come to his temple they would not abide the day of his coming, because he would be like a refiner's fire. Observe here,
First, How they were enraged at Christ for what he said: They took up stones to cast at him, v. 59. Perhaps they looked upon him as a blasphemer, and such were indeed to be stoned (Lev. 24:16); but they must be first legally tried and convicted. Farewell justice and order if every man pretend to execute a law at his pleasure. Besides, they had said but just now that he was a distracted crack-brained man, and if so it was against all reason and equity to punish him as a malefactor for what he said. They took up stones. Dr. Lightfoot will tell you how they came to have stones so ready in the temple; they had workmen at this time repairing the temple, or making some additions, and the pieces of stone which they hewed off served for this purpose. See here the desperate power of sin and Satan in and over the children of disobedience. Who would think that ever there should be such wickedness as this in men, such an open and daring rebellion against one that undeniably proved himself to be the Son of God? Thus every one has a stone to throw at his holy religion, Acts 28:22.
Secondly, How he made his escape out of their hands. 1. He absconded; Jesus hid himself; ekrybeµ—he was hid, either by the crowd of those that wished well to him, to shelter him (he that ought to have been upon a throne, high and lifted up, is content to be lost in a crowd); or perhaps he concealed himself behind some of the walls or pillars of the temple (in the secret of his tabernacle he shall hide me, Ps. 27:5); or by a divine power, casting a mist before their eyes, he made himself invisible to them. When the wicked rise a man is hidden, a wise and good man, Prov. 28:12, 28. Not that Christ was afraid or ashamed to stand by what he had said, but his hour was not yet come, and he would countenance the flight of his ministers and people in times of persecution, when they are called to it. The Lord hid Jeremiah and Baruch, Jer. 36:26. 2. He departed, he went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, undiscovered, and so passed by. This was not a cowardly inglorious flight, nor such as argued either guilt or fear. It was foretold concerning him that he should not fail nor be discouraged, Isa. 42:4. But, (1.) It was an instance of his power over his enemies, and that they could do no more against him than he gave them leave to do; by which it appears that when afterwards he was taken in their pits he offered himself, ch. 10:18. They now thought they had made sure of him and yet he passed through the midst of them, either their eyes being blinded or their hands tied, and thus he left them to fume, like a lion disappointed of his prey. (2.) It was an instance of his prudent provision for his own safety, when he knew that his work was not done, nor his testimony finished; thus he gave an example to his own rule, When they persecute you in one city flee to another; nay, if occasion be, to a wilderness, for so Elijah did (1 Ki. 19:3, 4), and the woman, the church, Rev. 12:6. When they took up loose stones to throw at Christ, he could have commanded the fixed stones, which did cry out of the wall against them, to avenge his cause, or the earth to open and swallow them up; but he chose to accommodate himself to the state he was in, to make the example imitable by the prudence of his followers, without a miracle. (3.) It was a righteous deserting of those who (worse than the Gadarenes, who prayed him to depart) stoned him from among them. Christ will not long stay with those who bid him be gone. Christ did again visit the temple after this; as one loth to depart, he bade oft farewell; but at last he abandoned it for ever, and left it desolate. Christ now went through the midst of the Jews, and none of them courted his stay, nor stirred up himself to take hold of him, but were even content to let him go. Note, God never forsakes any till they have first provoked him to withdraw, and will have none of him. Calvin observes that these chief priests, when they had driven Christ out of the temple, valued themselves on the possession they kept of it: "But," says he, "those deceive themselves who are proud of a church or temple which Christ has forsaken." Longe falluntur, cum templum se habere putant Deo vacuum. When Christ left them it is said that he passed by silently and unobserved; pareµgen houtoµs, so that they were not aware of him. Note, Christ's departures from a church, or a particular soul, are often secret, and not soon taken notice of. As the kingdom of God comes not, so it goes not, with observation. See Jdg. 16:20. Samson wist not that the Lord was departed from him. Thus it was with these forsaken Jews, God left them, and they never missed him.
Excerpts taken from Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible