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John 8:31-36 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 8. THE CONTEXT
Chapter 8 begins with the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story of conflict between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees (vv. 1-11). Jesus has been teaching “all the people” in the temple (v. 2), and continues his teaching with the light of the world discourse, which generates further controversy (vv. 12-20)—”Yet no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come” (v. 20).
Then Jesus foretells his death, concluding, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and I do nothing of myself, but as my Father taught me, I say these things. He who sent me is with me. The Father hasn’t left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (vv. 28-29). The result was that, “as he spoke these things, many believed in him” (v. 30—see also 7:45-52).
Following our Gospel lesson, Jesus will continue with a discourse that begins, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God. Abraham didn’t do this” (vv. 39-40). They will protest, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father, God” (v. 41), to which Jesus will respond, “If God were your father, you would love me, for I came out and have come from God” (v. 42). The conflict will deepen until the Jews, presumably the same ones who earlier “believed in him” (v. 30), will answer, “Don’t we say well that you are a Samaritan, and have a demon?” (v. 48). At the end of the chapter they will pick up stones to throw at him, but Jesus will escape (v. 50).
Earlier, Jesus’ conflict was with scribes and Pharisees (v. 3), but now the conflict has widened to involve “all the people” (v. 2)—or the many who believed in him (v. 30). This has been a subject of scholarly discussion. Did the people who believed in Jesus (v. 30) turn on him, or were there two separate groups, one friendly and the other hostile? We can’t know for sure.
JOHN 8:31-32. IF YOU REMAIN IN MY WORD
31Jesus therefore said to those Jews who had believed him, “If you remain (Greek: meinete, from the verb meno—continue, abide, remain) in my word, then you are truly my disciples (Greek: mathetai—disciple, learner). 32You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
“Jesus therefore said to those Jews who had believed him” (v. 31). One verse earlier, it said, “many believed in him” (v. 30). Now it talks about “Jews who had believed in him.” Are these two groups (believers and unbelievers) or one (believers who became disenchanted)? The question at hand is the quality of their belief. While this Gospel does not include the Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13:1-7; Mark 4:1-9; Luke 8:4-8), we are nevertheless reminded of the seeds that “fell on rocky ground, where they didn’t have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of earth. When the sun had risen, they were scorched. Because they had no root, they withered away” (Matthew 13:5-6). That appears to be the case here—initial enthusiasm that withers quickly when they realize that Jesus is saying things that they don’t want to hear.
What is the test of authentic belief? Jesus says: “if you remain in my word” (v. 31). “If” is the relevant word here. Jesus makes three promises, but they apply only “if you remain in my word.” The three promises are that:
• We will truly be his disciples (v. 31).
• We will know the truth (v. 32).
• The truth will make us free (v. 32).
“if you remain (meinete—from meno) in my word, then you are truly my disciples” (mathetai) (v. 31). Continuing in Jesus’ word involves adhering to Jesus’ teachings—keeping his commandments (15:10).
A disciple (mathetai) is one who learns from a teacher. This learning is experiential—goes beyond learning facts. True discipleship involves becoming like the teacher in thought and action. In Jesus’ day, a disciple of a rabbi would live in close proximity to his rabbi over a long period of time. He would not only learn the rabbi’s teachings, but over time would learn how the rabbi thought—how he analyzed data and formed conclusions—how he conducted himself. The disciple would try to become as much like the rabbi as possible. That is what Jesus is asking us to do here. We are to learn from him and to become as much like him as possible.
The word, meno, is important in this Gospel. Jesus says:
• “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives (menei) in me, and I in him” (6:56).
• “Remain (menate) in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it remains (mene) in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain (meneite) in me” (15:4).
• “If you keep my commandments, you will remain (menei) in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and remain (meno) in his love” (15:10).
After hearing Jesus teach in the temple, these people believed in him (v. 30), but their belief has not yet borne the test of time. Initial enthusiasm proves nothing. True discipleship requires faith that continues over time in the face of temptation and difficulty. The test of faith is whether the disciples continue with Jesus when things are not going well. True discipleship has stamina.
“You will know the truth” (v. 32). Jesus mentions truth seven times in this section (see also verses 40, 44, 45, 46). This Gospel has told us that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:17), and Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).
“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (v. 32). Truth and freedom are the blessings that Jesus offers those who “remain in (his) word” (v. 31). Something wonderful happens when we “remain in (Jesus’) word.” In the early years of our faith, we understand only a little, but as we “continue in (his) word” our understanding and faith grow. As we walk with Jesus, we often find ourselves stumbling—but over time, as we “remain in (his) word,” we find ourselves stumbling less often.
Unlike our physical vision which dims with age, our spiritual vision grows clearer as we “remain in (Jesus’) word” over a period of time. We often see that kind of deep spirituality manifested in the lives of older Christians whose lives, in spite of the hardships associated with growing older, have a settled, peaceful quality. It is not simply that they have gained more and more knowledge about the bible, but that their lifetime journey of faith has taught them what they could never have learned from a book. They have grown in faith by studying the bible, but they have also grown in faith by walking with Jesus. Their walk with Jesus has made them free.
This is a word that Christians need to hear today. We are bombarded day and night with messages from the media, public officials, and friends. Some are faith-strengthening messages, but most are not. Much of what we hear calls us to a lifestyle inconsistent with “remaining in (Jesus’) word.” We need spiritual discipline to shut out faith-destroying messages and to seek out faith-enhancing messages—to “remain in (Jesus’) word” instead of continuing in the world’s word.
To “remain in (Jesus’) word,” we need to choose carefully what we read—and what we watch on television—and which movies we see. In the early days of personal computers, we often heard the phrase, “Garbage in; garbage out!” The point, in those days when computers seemed magical, was that we shouldn’t feed garbage data into a computer and expect it to turn trash into treasure—to transform garbage data into valid, helpful reports. What we put into computers determines what we can get from them. So it is with life! We cannot immerse ourselves in off-color humor and pornography and violent video games and expect to come away unaffected. “Garbage in; garbage out!” applies in the spiritual as well as the digital realm.
“and the truth will make you free” (v. 32). For Israel, freedom is spelled E-X-O-D-U-S. For centuries, Israelites served Egypt as slaves. Then at God’s direction Moses defied Pharaoh and led Israel out of slavery into freedom. Now, in like manner, Jesus promises to lead those who “remain in (his) word” from slavery into freedom. The problem, as we will soon see, is that the people to whom he is speaking do not perceive themselves as needing emancipation.
JOHN 8:33. WE ARE ABRAHAM’S SEED
33They answered him, “We are Abraham’s seed, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How do you say, ‘You will be made free?'”
“We are Abraham’s seed, and have never been in bondage to anyone” (v. 33). This claim is remarkable, given Israel’s four centuries of slavery in Egypt, their long exile in Babylonia, and their current subservience to Rome. They are required to pay taxes to Rome. They are subject to Roman law. A Roman governor imposes the emperor’s policies on them. If a Roman soldier asks, they are compelled to carry his burden for a mile.
They believe that they are free, however, not because of their political circumstances, but because of their inheritance. They are “Abraham’s seed” (sperma)—sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—heirs of the covenant established between God and Abram so many centuries earlier (Genesis 12:1-3). As they understand it, their salvation is guaranteed. The Talmud says, “All Israel are royal children” (b. Sabb. 128a—cited in Kostenberger, 262).
When there is a problem, hope begins with acknowledging the problem. Hope for a sick person’s recovery begins with the acknowledgment of the illness. So also, when we are in spiritual need, we need to acknowledge our need so that we can seek help. These sons of Abraham cannot acknowledge their need, and that fact binds them to their spiritual slavery.
JOHN 8:34-36. IF THEREFORE THE SON MAKES YOU FREE
34Jesus answered them, “Most certainly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is the bondservant of sin. 35A bondservant doesn’t live in the house forever. A son remains forever. 36If therefore the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.“
“Most certainly I tell you” (v. 34) signals the importance of that which follows.
“everyone who commits sin is the bondservant to sin” (v. 34). The word “everyone” erases the line between Jew and Gentile—places everyone on the same level. When Jesus speaks of “everyone who commits sin,” his listeners have every reason to realize that they are included. The temple ritual with its sacrificial system reminds them daily of their sin. On the Day of Atonement they are required to acknowledge their sin and their need for atonement. They have just celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles (also known as the Feast of Booths) (7:2, 14), and the Day of Atonement precedes that festival by just five days. Their need for atonement—for freedom from sin—should be fresh in their minds.
“everyone who commits sin” (v. 34). The word “commits” is present tense, which in the Greek shows continuing action. While “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), true discipleship involves resisting temptation rather than inviting it.
“is the bondservant to sin” (v. 34). People prize freedom. The people of our nation have made great sacrifices to secure freedom to worship, freedom to vote, freedom of expression, freedom to move from one place to another, and other such freedoms. We have come to take those freedoms for granted, but enjoying them has not satisfied our appetite for freedom. The push for personal freedom today focuses on behaviors that an earlier generation considered unhealthy or immoral—freedom to market and to watch sexually explicit materials—freedom to build casinos and to gamble—freedom to prescribe and to use mood-altering drugs—freedom to live together without benefit of marriage. “The greater the mass of vices anyone is buried under, the more fiercely and bombastically does he extol free will” (Calvin, quoted in Torrance, 223).
But “Freedom Isn’t Free!” That phrase from a popular song highlights the fact that freedom has often been won at high cost on battlefields. That is true, but there is also another sense in which freedom isn’t free. When we exercise the freedom to indulge in self-destructive behavior, we can be sure that we will pay a price. Viewing pornographic material can affect personal relationships and can become addictive. A friend of mine lost his job and his wife and his place as a respected member of the community as a result of his addiction to pornography. Gambling is equally dangerous, as are mood-altering drugs. The breakdown of marriage in our society has put millions of children at risk.
Jesus puts it this way: “Everyone who commits sin is the bondservant to sin.” We know that Jesus is right, but are loath to admit it. We no longer want to believe in sin. We want to believe only in freedom—but “Freedom Isn’t Free!” There is a price to be paid if we are to be truly free. Jesus paid that price for us on the cross, but his gift of freedom cannot help us unless we accept it. Furthermore, Jesus warns us that sin binds us in a state of slavery. We must cast off our sinful ways if we are to be truly free.
“A bondservant doesn’t live in the house forever. A son remains forever” (v. 35). Hearing these words, Jewish minds would turn immediately to the story of Ishmael (Abraham’s son by his wife’s slave, Hagar) and Isaac (Abraham’s son by his wife, Sarah). Even though God had promised Abraham and Sarah descendants as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5), Sarah became distressed at her barrenness and encouraged Abraham to go in to her slave-girl, Hagar, so that she might bear him a son (Genesis 16:2). Abraham did so, and Hagar bore Ishmael—but Hagar could not conceal her contempt for barren Sarah, and so there was trouble in Abraham’s house (Genesis 16:4).
Later, Sarah bore Abraham a son, and they called him Isaac (Genesis 21:2). When Isaac was a small child, Sarah saw him playing with Ishmael, and said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman and her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10). This caused Abraham great distress, but God told him to do what Sarah had asked. Abraham then cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness with only bread and a skin of water as provisions (Genesis 21:14). When Jesus says, “A bondservant doesn’t live in the house forever,” his listeners would remember this story.
While Jews identify with Isaac rather than Ishmael, Jesus’ statement, “everyone who commits sin is a bondservant to sin” (v. 35) combined with his statement that “A bondservant doesn’t live in the house forever” (v. 36) constitutes a veiled warning. It says that their sin makes them slaves—more like Ishmael than Isaac—no longer sure of a place in God’s household. They should not take comfort in their relationship to Abraham and Isaac, because they are really descendants of Abraham and Ishmael.
However, “the son has a place there forever” (v. 35). We should not miss the significance of Jesus’ word “forever.” While at first blush, it seems to mean that in a normal family circle a son’s place is solidly established, from Jesus’ lips “forever” has an eschatological (end of time) dimension. The Son has a place at God’s table “forever”—and the Son has come to make it possible for us to join him at that eschatological banquet “forever.” The bondservant has no such permanency (v. 35).
“If therefore the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 36). In verse 32, Jesus said that the truth would make them free. Now he says that the Son will make them free. We conclude, then, that the truth = the Son (O’Day, 638).
Jesus’ listeners consider themselves to be the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but Jesus has revealed them to be the sons of Ishmael, the slave. Jesus is the true son of Abraham and the true Son of God—a fact that was revealed to us in the Prologue to this Gospel (1:14, 18). As the Son of God, Jesus has the power to make us free, a fact that is emphasized repeatedly in this Gospel:
• God, in love, “gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (3:16).
• “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand. One who believes in the Son has eternal life, but one who disobeys the Son won’t see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (3:35-36).
• “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom he desires. For the Father judges no one, but he has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who doesn’t honor the Son doesn’t honor the Father who sent him” (5:21-23).
• “Most certainly, I tell you, the hour comes, and now is, when the dead will hear the Son of God’s voice; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, even so he gave to the Son also to have life in himself. He also gave him authority to execute judgment, because he is a son of man” (5:25-27).
• “Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has sealed him” (6:27).
Hendriksen labels the freedom that Jesus offers “freedom plus,” because the Son not only emancipates us from our slavery to sin, but he also makes it possible for us to be adopted sons and daughters of God. As Paul says, “You are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Galatians 4:7).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan