The truth will set you free!
These are powerful, oft repeated words. We find them in John 8:32. Jesus was speaking to Jews who had just heard His teaching during the Feast of Tabernacles and believed in Him.
Even as He spoke, many believed in Him. To the Jews who had believed in Him, Jesus said, “If you hold to My teaching, you really are My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys My word will never see death.”
At first glance, it might appear that Jesus is promoting obedience or commitment as the means of salvation. One could certainly argue from words like these that Jesus expects us to make Him Lord of our life if we are to truly be saved. But is that what Jesus meant?
What were these Jews in bondage to? What did they need to be set free from?
They were in bondage to sin, yes. Jesus said as much. “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” But how would truth set them free from sin? They lived in a religious system that put them in bondage to the Law. They were slaves to the Law. They couldn’t keep it perfectly, so they were condemned by it.
Would it make sense, then, for Jesus to replace a strict keeping of the Law of Moses with a strict adherence to His own teaching as the means of salvation? In the Apostle Paul’s words, “God forbid!”
These Jews have just “believed in Him.” What does that mean? Based on John’s use of the word ‘believe’ we must assume that these Jews had placed their faith in Jesus as their Messiah. But if that’s the case, why does the conversation go the direction Jesus takes it from here. He calls them “children of the devil” and tells them “they do not belong to God.” Is this because the crowd is mixed? Some have believed, some have not? And by the end of the conversation, they are picking up rocks to stone Him for blasphemy because He claimed to be God, saying, “Before Abraham was born, I AM!”
Remember, in John 6 many disciples turned back and no longer followed Him. Did He have them in mind when He spoke to this group?
“If you hold to my teaching, you really are my disciples.”
Can we make a distinction between “believer” and “disciple?” Did Jesus make a distinction between the two? He certainly never seemed to be concerned with just getting people saved, making converts. His chief aim was to make disciples. That begins with conversion, but it doesn’t end there.
It must be asked, what is the truth Jesus speaks of here, and what is that truth setting us free from?
In John 8:51, Jesus says, “Whoever obeys my word will never see death.” Because Jesus says “word” and not “words” I believe He is speaking about a singular part of His teaching and not all of His teaching.
In Matthew 7:24, Jesus concludes His Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon the rock…” “Words.” Plural. The totality of His message.
But here in John 8, “word.” Singular. A specific message. Jesus’ specific message here is about His identity and His purpose.
“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be…”
The phrase “lifted up” refers to how Jesus will die. It is a phrase Jesus uses with Nicodemus in John 3. It is a phrase that refers back to Moses lifting up the snake in the desert… a statue of a snake atop a pole that the Israelites were told to look upon to live after they’d been bitten by venomous snakes.
The singular message, the “word” they are to obey, is the message of the cross. To Nicodemus, Jesus said, “You must be born again.” Would he obey by placing his faith in Jesus sacrificial death on the cross? Would he “look up?” Will they?
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