(John 8:31-32 ESV) 31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
What does Jesus mean by “the truth will set you free”? Let’s start with “truth.” Throughout the New Testament, and especially in John, “truth” refers to the truth about Jesus, especially the truth that he is the Messiah and God in the flesh. The “truth” is the gospel.
Modern legalists pervert “truth” to mean any true proposition. Therefore, to be “free,” we must agree with the legalist about a host of hundreds of laws and rules and strictures. We wind up not very free at all.
Jesus is speaking to real Jews in real context about what he’d been discussing for two chapters. He was speaking about who Jesus is — that he was sent by God, that he will judge and judge according to the will of God, that he is the light of the world, and that he is God’s Son. He is preaching gospel. And the truth that frees is the good news about who Jesus is.
Good news, therefore, is not so much an atonement system or systematic theology or ethical code as the nature of the person Jesus of Nazareth. The gospel is not just the propositions taught by Jesus but the proposition who Jesus is.
Thus, “word” or logos is the message given by God to be communicated to the people by Jesus — communicated both by his words and actions and by his person. He is the word. Jesus is the message. He is the truth (which I why take offense when athletes call themselves “the truth”; it’s blasphemy).
To “abide in my word” is to be abide in his teachings but also to be true to the nature of Jesus. It’s to become like Jesus. It’s to become his disciple, but that’s because disciples sought to become just like their rabbis.
“If you abide in my word … you will know the truth … .”
The way you learn the truth is to experience the truth by living the truth. To a degree, the truth can be taught. It can be written down. But ultimately, you come to know the truth by living the truth. Some knowledge has to be experiential. The gospel is not merely a set of propositions — it’s a way of being, a worldview, that transforms how we live. And it’s only well-understood by those who pour themselves into the life it compels.
(John 8:33-34 ESV) 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.
The Jews, proudly, claimed to not be enslaved by anyone. They forgot about the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Hellenists, and the Romans. Details ….
But Jesus wasn’t worried about empire and conquest and political freedom. He was concerned with freedom from sin.
Hence, “the truth will set you free” from what? From sin.
(John 8:35-36 ESV) 35 “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
This is likely an allusion to God’s covenant with David, which would have been well known to the Jews —
(1Ch 17:13-14 ESV) 13 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, 14 but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.'”
Only the Son of God can grant full freedom because only the Son remains in the house forever. The metaphor is less than clear, but I take “house” to mean where God lives: heaven. Only the Son has the right to free slaves and let them live in the house.
No earthly king can grant freedom (American political theory notwithstanding). Only someone with the power to defeat sin can do that (and the political system is obviously inept at such things).
(John 8:37-38 ESV) 37 “I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
Jesus has likely turned to a part of the crowd that didn’t believe. “Your father” is, of course, Satan, the father of lies, but the crowd thinks he means Abraham.
(John 8:39-41 ESV) 39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.”
Jesus lured them into saying just that, so he could say —
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.”
Jesus can speak from experience. Abraham believed. (John’s vocabulary is not identical to Paul’s.) Most the Jews do not, and therefore are not truly Abraham’s children.
It’s difficult for many to hear Jesus referring to faith as a “work,” since Paul uses the terms as antonyms, but Jesus is a fan of irony. Yes, faith is not a work, but that’s the intended point.
They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father — even God.”
The unbelieving Jews don’t like the direction of Jesus’ comments, and so they try to claim higher ground. They are children of God (and Deuteronomy 14:1 says so)!
(John 8:42-43 ESV) 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.
Jesus denies that God is their Father — thereby denying that they are true Israelites. True sons of God would recognize the true Son of God! You cannot be a child of God and not believe in Jesus.
(John 8:44-45 ESV) 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.
Jesus then makes his point plain. They’re not only not God’s children, and not Abraham’s children, they are in fact Satan’s children — even though they believe in God, because they don’t believe in Jesus.
Jesus is the truth. To deny Jesus is to believe a lie. There’s no gray, just light and darkness. God and Satan. Truth and lies. If you reject Jesus, you join forces with Satan. Period.
(John 8:46-47 ESV) 46 “Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
If you are “of God,” then you recognize God’s truth when you hear it. If you reject the truth/gospel, then you are “not of God.”
We should not read too much inevitability into Jesus’ words. They are, of course, absolutely true. What can change is the human heart. Some are slow to come to faith. A failure to believe immediately doesn’t mean that one cannot later come to faith. We’ve all seen it.
Jesus is not saying that an unbeliever cannot change, only that until the change occurs, the unbeliever is a child of Satan, that is, damned.
(John 8:48-51 ESV) 48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
“The Jews” are surely the Jewish leaders, primary the Pharisees. They retaliate to Jesus’ hard words with outright lies, slander, and insult — revealing their true character.
Jesus then promises eternal life to those who keep my “word,” that is, logos.
The Pharisees are beside themselves (with glee) because Jesus is no longer ambiguous. He is plainly a blasphemer!
(John 8:52-53 ESV) 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?”
They see that he is claiming to be greater the Abraham and the prophets. Certainly. So who is this?
(John 8:54-56 ESV) 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”
Jesus declines to say, preferring to let God do his talking for him. But, Jesus says, Abraham was looking forward to the day Jesus would arrive.
(John 8:57-59 ESV) 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Jesus now makes one of his famous “I am” statements, repeating the words of God to Moses. He claims to be God. What else could his words mean?
Predictably, the unbelieving Jews, especially the leaders, were ready to stone him for blasphemy.
And yet, by the hand of God, we must believe, Jesus slipped out of their grasp. How? Well, God can do whatever pleases him. But it also appears that Jesus looked and dressed very much like an ordinary Jew.
(Isa 53:2 ESV) 2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
Therefore, in the extremely crowded Temple precincts, once Jesus stepped into the crowd, he was not easily picked out of the crowd.
He did not stand out with a bright, white robe and red sash. He didn’t look like a tall, blue-eyed Englishman among Jews. He was a Jew among Jews, and not a particularly good-looking one, if Isaiah speaks truth.