John 8:31–38: The Truth Will Set You Free
This passage is part of a larger conversation Jesus is having in 8:12–59 with some of the Jews—I believe they’re religious leaders.
Jesus starts by talking to the people “who had believed him” (verse 31), and the past tense is significant here: these people had believed in him, but the more he talks the less palatable they find him. Regardless, he tells them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (verses 31–32). Which is already offensive to his listeners; if he’s promising to set them “free,” then it must mean they’re enslaved to something, which they roundly reject: “We are offspring of Abraham,” they answer him in verse 33, “and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
They’re using “offspring of Abraham” as a shorthand; they just mean that they’re Jews. And as far as they’re concerned, that’s enough! The Jews are God’s people, chosen by Him. Which is true: God did choose the Jews. but thousands of years of history should have taught them that that wasn’t enough; the people still could, and often did, sin against Him. In fact, Jesus points out to them that their problem with sin is actually much worse than they’ve been thinking it is:
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (verses 34–36)
This is an important point, that shouldn’t be skipped over. Jesus says that “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” This is not how most people think of sin; if we even recognize “sin” as a thing, we view it as a choice that people make. We sometimes do things that we shouldn’t do, and we sometimes do things that we should do, because we make choices. But Jesus says that we’re actually slaves to sin. Does that mean that we only ever do what sin leads us to do? Well… it means that we only ever do what sin leads us to do in the same way that an actual slave only ever does what their master tells them to do. Sometimes a slave disobeys a master, and sometimes we don’t follow the leading of sin—this is the Grace of God at work, sometimes even in non believers—but if you were to characterize a slave you’d characterize them as obeying their master, and if you were to characterize any human you’d characterize us as obeying our master: sin.
I don’t understand Jesus’ next point: “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.” I don’t know what that means.
I do know what the next part means, however, and it’s the “good news” of the Gospel: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Which makes me wish I did understand the point about the slave not remaining in the house forever but the son does, because it seems to lead into the next point, which starts with “so.”
“The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (verses 35–36, emphasis added)
Regardless, the point in verse 36 is clear: even though we are slaves to sin, the Son can set us free from that slavery, and if He does, we will be free indeed. Not to say that we will never sin again, or that sin will have no hold over us; sin is still very tempting/alluring, even to the Christian. Yet it doesn’t own us in the same way anymore; we’re not slaves to it after we’re saved. We have much better ability to resist the temptations of sin once we are no longer owned by it.
But then Jesus goes on to address the fact that the Jews are children of Abraham. He acknowledges that, but then doubles down on the fact that simply being Abraham’s offspring isn’t enough to truly make one a child of God:
“I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” (verses 37–38)
Again, the idea of being “offspring of Abraham” has lost its punch to modern readers; especially in a day and age when Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all called children of Abraham (now speaking metaphorically, rather than literally in the sense of coming from his family tree). But again, the Jews aren’t talking about biology or family trees; God chose Abraham and Abraham’s descendents as His people. Judaism was more than a “religion,” it was an identity: they were children of Abraham, which made them God’s people. (I would imagine that this is still how Jews would identify?) But Jesus is saying that, even though these people descent from Abraham, the fact that his word finds no place in them means that Abraham isn’t their true father; their true father is giving them a different message.
Which begs the question: who is Jesus claiming is their real father, then? Which Jesus will pick up in the next passage.