To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:31-36
I have restrained my usual inclinations to write out a long passage of scripture, so you will need to look up and read the rest of John 8. It recounts a truly amazing conversation. It begins in verse 31 with, “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said…” This is important because the previous conversations in John 8 were with people who were adversarial or unconvinced. But these people were gathered around Jesus because they had come to believe that He had been sent by God and spoke God’s Word.
What is amazing about the conversation is how polarized they become from Jesus in such a short time. They revealed their true nature and He revealed His and they couldn’t be further apart. In fact, the narrative ends with the Jews picking up stones to kill him, only thwarted by an evasive maneuver on Jesus’ part. How can people move from belief to murderous intent in such a short interval? I have perfect confidence in Jesus’ knowledge of His audience and He, never one to bask in the adulation of others but rather seeking to bring genuine sons to God, spoke to the truth of their hearts in order to expose what was true and what was false.
It began with what seems like a reasonable and encouraging thing to say to believers: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” What is your immediate response to this statement? Since I desire to be a disciple of Jesus, I am motivated to know and hold to His teaching. The promise that this will lead to knowledge of the truth and subsequent freedom encourages me. I am all too familiar with confusion and the mess it brings, so everything about this statement inspires hope and direction for me. Do you have a similar response? Or do you lean the way of the people Jesus was speaking to that day? They focused on the implications of what He meant when He said that they would be set free. Their first head-tilt came here and rather than being encouraged to give a listening ear and a receptive heart to the teaching of Jesus, they defended themselves and demanded clarification.
These two types of response are very divergent and take people down entirely different paths. Having taken the latter, it is difficult, though not impossible, to reverse direction and chart a new course. They could have done it at any point in the conversation because Jesus kept throwing them lifelines of truth, but, for this group, they stuck to their position and pressed on, full steam ahead. It’s tragic reading and it has been repeated countless times since.
As I said, both parties revealed more and more of their true natures. The Jews insisted over and over that their pedigree as children of Abraham established their credentials as ‘good to go’ and Jesus patiently pointed again and again to the Father of both Abraham and his children and, most importantly, Himself. He offered the benefit of His advocacy and salvation, but they would have none of it.
As the Jews became more defensive and hostile, Jesus became more frank. When He gently hinted that their position was influenced by a source other than God because they were beginning to entertain thoughts of harm toward Him, they continued to protest that they were God’s children. When Jesus pointed out that they could not both come from God if they were so violently opposed to Him and then suggested that they were making statements that smacked more of the father of lies, He summarized with this statement: “He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” (John 8:47)
The Jews’ response was that Jesus must be demon-possessed. Jesus came back with “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (John 8:51) His hearers, becoming more incensed and disbelieving by the minute, retorted with the ageless, “Who do you think you are?” (John 8: 53a) Jesus calmly said that He was the Son who knew His Father and kept His word and that Abraham look ahead to the day of His coming. When the Jews mocked this, Jesus responded with perhaps one of His most revealing statements. “I tell you the truth, before Abram was born, I am!” (John 8:58) Do you understand the magnitude of what He just said? I AM is the personal name God gave Himself when asked by Moses at the burning bush. (Exodus 3:13-14) There is no more holy word in Hebrew. Jesus told the Jews without equivocation that He was God and they started groping for stones. End of conversation. They revealed themselves as those who emphatically did not believe Him and He revealed Himself as the eternal God.
To repent means ‘to think again, after the fact, in order to choose a new course; to turn’. There were plenty of opportunities during this exchange when any of the Jews could have turned, thought again. Jesus had begun with the promise that if they held to His teaching, they would know the truth and be set free. We have no ability to influence those who were present, but we still have the opportunity to repent. Do you have a default defensive position in your heart? Are you quick to question the teaching of Jesus? Think again, choose a new course. Hold to Him. He has the authority to give freedom and life. What could possibly rate higher than that?