“Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you continue in my word, you really are my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Sometimes the thing you see first isn’t the only thing to see. I had a puzzle book growing up where you had to find things hidden on each page, and use those things to solve a bigger mystery. Everything was there to see, but you had to spend a fair bit of time taking in each picture if you were going to see it. Once you saw it, you couldn’t miss it, but until then it might as well have been invisible. The Scriptures can be kind of like that sometimes. Everything we need to see is right there in the words, but some of it takes more time than others to find. This passage represents one of those places. Let’s talk about it.
John’s Gospel includes several pretty intense conversations between Jesus and the religious authorities of the Jewish people. More than once the conversations ended with their trying to kill Him via mob violence and Jesus’ somehow escaping from them. I haven’t watched any of The Chosen series yet (it’s on my list), but I’m curious to know if they’ve included any of those scenes yet and how they handled them. The conversation Jesus is having here in chapter 8 ends like that. John 8:59 reads, “So they picked up stones to throw at him. But Jesus was hidden and went out of the temple.” Oh, how I wish there were more details to give us a sense of just how that happened!
John organizes his Gospel around three different trips Jesus made to Jerusalem during His ministry – one during each of the three Passovers during the three-year span. This whole chapter unfolds during one of those trips. On this particular trip, Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the light of the world. This was followed, though, by a prediction of His death. John notes here in v. 30 that many people in the crowd believed in Him because of His teachings. In response to their nascent faith, Jesus gave them the encouragement that if they would continue to believe in Him, the truth He revealed to them would bring them freedom.
His theological opponents who were listening immediately seized on this idea and started to debate with him about whether or not they were free. They insisted that their freedom as a people came, not from anything Jesus said, but from the fact that they were God’s chosen people. They were descendants of Abraham and thus were free. While they didn’t believe that anybody started out life close to God, as God’s chosen people, they had a leg up on everyone else. Jesus responded that being a child of Abraham made no real difference in their standing before God because sin acts as the great equalizer of people. This, though, flew rather directly in the face of one of their foundational beliefs. Jesus seemed to be suggesting that being a descendant of Abraham didn’t matter, whereas they understood that fact as the bedrock on which their identity rested. Needless to say, they didn’t take it very well.
Preachers since have certainly analyzed this debate carefully, including Jesus’ rather direct claim to divinity near the end of the conversation in v. 58 (“Truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am”). But mostly preachers and writers focus their attention on what Jesus says right here about freedom. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. That’s a powerful statement from Jesus. There is great freedom found in the truth He proclaims that is not accessible by other means. This is obviously the most important thing on the page.
But if you look just a little more closely, it’s not all there is. And, I would argue, it doesn’t really mean what it could mean without something else hiding just a few words earlier. Jesus said these new believers would prove themselves to be His disciples and come into this freedom-granting truth when something happened. Specifically, this would all happen, “if you continue in my word.” In other words, the freedom part that gets all the attention is the fruit, not the root. It is the effect. The cause is continuing in Jesus’ word.
So, what does that mean?
It means that if we are going to grow in our faith and experience the freedom of being a follower of Jesus, we have to commit ourselves to Jesus’ words. If we aren’t willing to obey His commands, we aren’t really following Him. And if we aren’t really following Him, we aren’t going to reap any of the benefits of being His followers. Too often we imagine that following Jesus is a fairly easy thing. We just sign on the dotted line and go back to our normal lives. Sure, we should probably give some attention to the Bible and go to church on occasion, but otherwise, we can fairly well do as we please. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
One of the things about which Jesus was uncomfortably clear throughout His ministry is that when someone signed up to follow Him, His expectation was absolute obedience. He restored quickly and completely when His followers failed to live up to that standard, but the standard itself was clear and unchanging. If He is going to be your Lord, then He must indeed by your Lord. Whatever He commands, you do. Period. No exceptions.
But how does that grant us this incredible freedom? Put like that (and Jesus wasn’t shy about putting it like that), it sounds like we are just trading one master (sin, if we accept Jesus’ words on the matter) for another. While folks from other cultures may think differently on the matter, in the mind of someone shaped by American culture, having a Lord necessarily means you aren’t free. Having a boss means you can’t do what you want. Being beholden to the words of another person means your individuality is being silenced. That’s not freedom.
Except in this case, it is. You see, we all have a master. Even if that master is our own desires, we still have a master. The question in this matter is not whether but which. You are serving someone. The variable here is the nature of your master. Does your master grant you the ability to become fully who you were designed to be, or does it try to squeeze you into a tiny box of its own design? Jesus’ agenda for us is that we become fully who God designed us to be in the beginning. There are no other ulterior motives. This brings glory to God. He wants for us to be able to pursue our heart’s desires to the fullest extent possible.
But wait, I thought you just said He wants us to do what He tells us. Isn’t that a contradiction of terms? Not at all. It is not a contradiction because what Jesus does for us is to give us His Spirit to help us reflect His character more fully which gradually causes our desires to change. We begin to want the same things He wants. And what does He want? To see other people become more fully reflective of His character and who God made them to be too. And when our wants become aligned with His wants, we can indeed freely pursue the desires of our heart. We are free.
When we are serving someone or something else, there is always conflict. Our selfish desires must be balanced against what our master demands. Or, if we are serving our own desires, then those desires come into conflict with the desires of the world around us and are often rightly restricted because we don’t desire good things on our own. In other words, in spite of the illusion of freedom the world waves in front of our faces, there is no real freedom to be found here. There is only a prison cell of one size or another. Freedom – real freedom – comes when we begin and continue in Jesus’ word. Then and only then will we know the truth that sets us free.
2 thoughts on “Digging in Deeper: John 8:31-32”
This reminds me of Bob Dylan’s song Gotta Serve Somebody….the chorus is
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Good song but better message.
He pretty well nails it there.