A. Slaves to Sin
Ron is a longtime Christian who worked for many years as an information technology director for a large company. His boss and coworkers admired his dedication, honesty, and integrity. One day, however, Ron was called to his super-visor’s office to be told that he was being fired for violating the company’s “fair use” policy: a colleague had discovered a huge number of pornographic images stored in Ron’s computer.
Ron confessed that he had become addicted to Internet porn. His technical expertise had enabled him able to hide the files for some time. Ironically Ron had become aware of Internet porn while investigating other employees, several of whom had been fired for similar violations. Ron lost his job but saved his marriage and family by confessing his sin and seeking counseling. He told his counselor that he was glad he had been caught because he had felt for a longtime that the porn had taken control of him. Ron’s situation illustrates the irony of addiction to sinful habits. We fear the loss of short-term gratification if we quit, but at the same time we fear the long-term consequences if we don’t. This is true not only of “high profile” sins such as pornography and drug abuse, but also of more common sins like anger, gossip, and lying. Once we develop a habit of doing the wrong thing, it becomes very difficult to change on our own. In our lesson today Christ offers us freedom from the power of sin and the fear of death.
B. Lesson Background
The events and teachings recorded in John 7and 8 occurred during one of Jesus’ visits to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem (see John 7:1,2, 37; 8:20). God instituted this festival for two reasons. First, it was a time of thanksgiving during the season of the olive and fruit harvests (the September-October time frame). Second, it was a time to remember deliverance from slavery in Egypt (see Leviticus 23:33-44).
As something of an object lesson, many who celebrated this festival would live in tents (“tabernacles”) outside the city to reenact the forty years that the Israelites had lived in tents while wandering in the wilderness. It is against this backdrop of deliverance from physical bondage that Jesus proceeds to demonstrate the way to deliverance from spiritual bondage.
I. About the Jews’ Status (John 8:31-38)
A. Discipleship and Truth (vv. 31, 32)31.
Then, said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him. “If ye continue in my word, then ye are my disciples indeed.”
The word “Jews” seems somewhat out of place here because both Jesus and John (the author of this Gospel) are Jews by race, culture, and religion. Why would a Jewish person refer to other Jewish people as “Jews,” as though they were somehow different from Himself?
Scholars generally see this unusual terminology as evidence that John had been persecuted by Jewish people by the time he writes, just as Jesus had predicted (John 16:1-4). The story of the blind man in chapter 9 reveals that this sort of persecution already had begun during Jesus’ ministry (see especially John 9:22).
Here at John 8:31 we see that some Jewish people have gone against the grain and have taken a positive view of Jesus. These are the ones which believed in him (see also v. 30). Jesus proceeds to test their faith by stressing that they must accept His teachings if they wish to be disciples. The verses to follow will reveal that they are not quite ready for that level of commitment.
32. And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
Truth refers back to Jesus’ “word” in verse 31, which He now says will give freedom to believers. The context reveals that John is not referring to Jesus’ ethical commands about lifestyle issues, the Gospel of John actually includes very little of that sort of teaching. In John 8:12-29 Jesus has been speaking about His identity as the light of the world, the one who reveals God in a special way. Believers know the truth in the sense that they accept what Jesus claims about himself; they recognize Him as the unique Son of God. This is the truth that gives us freedom. Our acceptance of Christ through His plan of salvation allows us to become children of God. This liberates us from the power and consequences of sin and death (see John 1:12).
B. Servants and Sons (vv. 33-36)
33. They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?
At first glance, the Jews seem to be very forgetful. Their people, in fact, had been in bondage many times over the years: slaves in Egypt, oppressed by foreign powers many times during the Judges period; taken in exile to Babylon; dominated by Rome even as they spoke. The reference to Abraham suggests, however, that they are thinking of their spiritual status with God.
Ancient Jews believe that having God’s favor comes from being born as descendants of Abraham, the person to whom God had made covenant promises (Genesis 12:1-3). Jesus, however, seems to say that their descent from that great man is not enough. So they want to know how He can make such a preposterous claim.
34. Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.
Jesus challenges the Jews’ claim to spiritual freedom by stating the obvious: everyone commits sin. That fact should eliminate any prideful belief that a person can somehow get to God through ancestral connections. Even if the Jews do think of themselves as “born into God’s family,” every subsequent sin should have underlined how far away from God’s will they had gone. Sin alienates us from God and enslaves us to carnal desires. This is a problem that our parents cannot solve for us.
35, 36. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.
Jesus’ words refer to legal relationships in ancient households. A son and a servant may live in the same house, and both serve the same person (the father, who is also the master). But the servant is, ultimately, not a permanent part of the family. He or she has no legal rights. The fact that the Jews are servants of sin shows that they do not enjoy full status as God’s heirs.
A son, however, is heir to everything the father has. A son carries the family name from generation to generation. The son’s status in a household is thus permanent (abideth forever) because he is a true member of the family. The genuine Son in view here is Jesus himself. Jesus as the Son has the power to grant full membership in the family. Abraham, himself a sinner and a servant, cannot grant true spiritual freedom. The phrase free indeed brings with it the sense, “I am the one who can set you free from sin and its power forever.”
C. Attitude and Testimony (vv. 37, 38)37.
I know that ye are Abraham’s seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you.
The word “but” highlights the irony of the situation. As the Jews well know, Abraham was famous for his faith (compare Genesis 12:1-4; 22:1-3). The Jews are not doing a very good job of following their famous forefather’s example. When they hear God’s message through Jesus they respond not with belief but by trying to silence him (compare John 5:18; 7:19, 25, 32, 44).
38. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father.
Jesus stresses again and again that He speaks and acts in complete harmony with the Father (see John 4:34; 7:16; 10:38; 12:44; 14:9-11). Jesus’ power both to do great works and to offer freedom from sin finds its source in this unity. Similarly, the Jews’ refusal to accept Him reveals the true source of their thinking. They claim to be Abraham’s descendants, but their lack of faith in the one whom God sent reveals that they actually are children of the devil (John8:43, 44, not in today’s text). The Jews will remain under Satan’s power as long as they reject Jesus’ words.
II. About Jesus Himself (John 8:48-56. 58, 59)
A. First Accusation (v. 48)
48. Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?
Just before this verse, Jesus had stressed again that His words come from God. Thus He condemns the Jews for their disbelief. He can only interpret their stubbornness as evidence that “ye are not of God” (v. 47).
This claim is extremely offensive to the Jews, but they do not know how to refute it. Jesus invited them to prove Him guilty of sin, but instead they resort to name calling. The Samaritans are a people of mixed Jewish and Gentile descent who live just north of Judea and worship at Mount Gerizim. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans is well documented both in the Bible (Ezra 4:1-5; Nehemiah 4:1-8; John 4:9) and in other literature. Jews and Samaritans each claim to be God’ select people. The accusation that Jesus is a Samaritan follows from His statement that the Jews are not acting as true children of Abraham. The accusation that Jesus is demon possessed is an attempt to contradict Jesus’ statement in verse 38. The Jews think that Jesus’ words do not come from God but rather from the devil, because surely neither God nor a true prophet would call them “slaves to sin”!
You are a Samaritan
The ad hominem argument is one of the oldest fallacies in the history of logic. The name of this argument literally means that it is an argument against the person, rather than against the logic of the person’s argument. It is an easy and convenient way of scoring points off an opponent. Sometimes it can be used in a humorous way. As children we could end an argument by stating, “Your grandmother wears combat boots!” Modern politicians can dismiss certain issues by claiming their opponents are “left wing” or “rightwing.” Valid points can be ridiculed by commenting, “You’re only a truck driver; what do you know about international diplomacy?” By giving people labels with negative overtones, we can dismiss their observations unfairly.
Jesus’ opponents found it hard to respond to His discussion on the proper behavior of the children of Abraham, and the implication that the Jews were not acting as true children of Abraham should. So they simply dismissed His comments by saying that He was a Samaritan. In their minds that ended the discussion. Ethnic Samaritans could not be expected to contribute intelligently to a discussion on Judaism, so Jesus’ comments could be ignored.
Yet ad hominem arguments don’t prove anything. They are a fallacy and therefore irrelevant to the discussion. The observations that Jesus makes are still valid. His critique cannot be overlooked simply by name calling. Neither can modern society dismiss Him by thinking of Him as a mere first-century carpenter.
B. First Response (vv. 49-51)
49-50. Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honor my Father, and ye do dishonor me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth.
Jesus, unlike the Jews, does not reject the word of the Father but rather obeys. Further, while the Jews are seeking affirmation of their own spirituality, Jesus is seeking only to do God’s will. God, however, is seeking to glorify Jesus. God knows that what Jesus says is true. The Jews will therefore be in a dangerous situation unless they repent.
51. Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.
Obviously Jesus is using the word death in away other than in a physical sense, since everyone dies. Death here refers to the lost state of those who do not accept Christ (compare 1 John3:14). That condition will become irreversible once we leave this world. Only those who believe Jesus’ claims about Himself will escape this fate and enjoy eternal life (John 6:63, 68).
The verse before us follows logically from Jesus’ earlier remarks in verse 34 about slavery to sin. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 15:56, “The sting of death is sin.” Those who accept Jesus need not fear judgment. Their belief in Him frees them from sin’s power and makes them God’s children.
The phrase verily, verily appears often in the Gospel of John to draw attention to particularly important sayings by Jesus. As is the case here and at v. 34), comments followed by this formula often relates to Jesus’ divine identity or the need to accept Him in order to receive salvation (see John1:51; 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19, 24, 25; 6:47; 12:24; 13:20).
C. Second Accusation (vv. 52, 53)
52-53. Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead and the prophets who are dead: whom makest thou thyself?
Taking Jesus’ discussion of death in a physical sense, the Jews mock His claim. Even their great heroes of the faith, Abraham and the prophets could not grant life; in fact these people died themselves. The Jews’ comment suggests that it would be impossible for any human being to do what Jesus claims He can do.
Apparently the Jews’ earlier “faith” that we saw in John 0:31 was based on the idea that Jesus was some sort of prophet or holy man (compare John 7:40). Now however, they suspect that He may be claiming something more.
D. Second Response (vv. 54-56, 58)
54. Jesus answered, If I honor myself, my honor is nothing: it is my Father that honoreth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God.
Jesus responds by pointing out that God, working through Hint, is making Jesus’ true identity plain to the world. Many people may refer to God as Father because they recognize Him to be the creator of the universe, yet Jesus is God’s Son in a unique way. Titus, the Jews (and others) reject God’s offer of freedom and life when they refuse to believe Jesus. God honors Jesus both by empowering His miraculous works and ultimately, by raising Him from the dead and restoring His divine glory in Heaven (John 17:5).
55. Yet ye have not known Him; but I know Him: and if I should say, I know Him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know Him, and keep His saying.
Jesus now exposes the real reason that the Jews cannot accept Him; their misunderstanding of Jesus reflects a deeper misunderstanding of God. Everything that Jesus does and says reveals the Father in a dark world, so that one can see God in Jesus (John 14:7-10). Those who reject Jesus, then, actually are rejecting the God who sent Him. John raises this point at the very beginning of his gospel by noting that Jesus’ “own” (the Jews), received him not” (John 1:11). They refused to recognize God’s power at work in Him.
I know that World War II happened. I have read books about it, seen pictures taken during, and listened to recordings of speeches by Roosevelt and Churchill. Yet if my father were to say, “I know World War II happened,” he could speak with more authority than I could. In 1943 he was drafted into the army and saw service in New Guinea and the Philippines. I know about the war, but he knew it first hand.
The verb “know” has two meanings, both in English and in Greek. On the one hand it can mean to know something intellectually, or to have what we often call “head knowledge.” This applies to facts, information, et cetera. Another meaning of to know is to have experience of something, this goes beyond mere head knowledge. This has to do with life experience and awareness.
The Jews had knowledge of God. They had learned the Old Testament; they had studied the law. They performed the ritual cleanings and they practiced tithing. The Jews knew factual data and information about God, but had they really experienced God in their hearts?
Jesus could claim, “I know Him,” because He had firsthand experience with God. Jesus invites us to go beyond mere knowledge about Him and experience Him in our hearts.
56-58. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. … Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.
Jesus confirms the Jews’ suspicions by noting two ways in which He is superior to Abraham. First, Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ day. Some ancient rabbis believed that God had revealed the secrets of the messianic age to Abraham in a vision (compare Genesis 15:17-24). A better idea may be that Jesus is referring to the joy that Abraham experienced when told by God that “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The Jews of Christ’s day have the opportunity to see that promise fulfilled in the coming of Abraham’s descendant Jesus. Abraham, then, was looking forward to what Christ would do.
Second, and much more substantially, Jesus existed before Abraham. Such a statement would be absurd if Jesus were a normal human being (compare John 8:57, not in today’s text). But it is obvious that Jesus is claiming something more. “I am” is drawn from Exodus 3:13, 14, where God refers to himself as Yahweh, meaning “the one who exists.” The ancient Jews came to treat that “I am” phrase as God’s sacred name. Many times in the Gospel of John, Jesus describes himself with a statement that begins with I am—”I am the light of the world”, “I am the good shepherd”, et cetera. But when “I am” is used in the absolute sense and with no other words following, Jesus is applying God’s sacred name directly to Himself. This highlights Jesus’ own divine nature. Jesus can offer freedom from sin and eternal life because He is, in fact, completely one with the God who existed before Abraham. It is therefore pointless for the Jews to appeal to Abraham as their spiritual forefather for Jesus is much greater than he is.
E. Actions (v. 59)
59. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.
The Jews’ actions reveal that they finally have come to understand the implication of Jesus’ words. Stoning was prescribed in the law for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16). Clearly they realize that Jesus is claiming to be God; sadly they reject that claim and the eternal life that He offers.
A. The Freedom Center
Recently a new museum opened in Cincinnati, Ohio, called The Freedom Center. This museum celebrates the men and women who led the Underground Railroad before America’s Civil War. Those heroes helped escaping slaves secretly make their way northward to freedom. The Ohio River, a natural boundary marker between North and South, symbolized a new life of liberty. Many pre–Civil War houses and buildings in northern Kentucky and southwestern Ohio still include secret rooms, trap doors and concealed crawl spaces for hiding. The Underground Railroad provided a means of escape from a world of harsh servitude.
How much more profound is the eternal freedom that Jesus offers! He, and only He, is our “eternal underground railroad.” To reject His route to freedom is both sad and amazing. Yet that’s just what we see people doing in today’s lesson. It is a pattern that continues today.
Lord, we live in a world full of doubts and temptations. Very often we don’t understand why we do the things we do. We want to do what’s right, but we fall back into our old, bad habits and patterns. Please give us both the power to believe Your Word and the faith to follow it at all costs. Then we can experience the freedom that Christ promised us, in Jesus’ name, amen.
C. Thought to Remember
When facing temptation, ask: Did Jesus come to earth so I could do this or be free not to do it?