John 8:39–47: You Are of Your Father the Devil
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.
There’s a point that needs to be kept in mind in all of this conversation about fathers and fatherhood: it’s not a question so much of family tree as it is a question of who you are. In that day and age, especially for the males, who and what your father was spoke directly to who and what you were. If your father was a shepherd you were a shepherd; if your father was a tentmaker you were a tentmaker. That’s just how society functioned. There might have been the occasional exception, where someone didn’t take on his father’s profession, but the son taking over the family business was true in such a vast majority of cases that anything could be treated as an exception.
Because of this, colloquially, calling someone “the son of” someone else meant you were saying they were like that person. It had found its way into becoming a figure of speech. If you called someone a child of God, you were really saying that that person was like God, and if you called someone a child of the devil you were saying that that person was like the devil.
Jesus is saying that his listeners don’t believe him because their father is telling them something different, but they answer him, “Abraham is our father” (verse 39, emphasis added). But Jesus disputes them on this point:
“If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 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. You are doing the works your father did.” (verses 39–41)
Jesus his obviously focusing on the colloquial way this phrase is used; he’s saying his listeners are not like Abraham, they’re like someone else. We might say, in my day and age, they’re following in someone else’s footsteps. He’s not arguing that they’re not ethnic Jews, he’s arguing that they’re not spiritual Jews.
His listeners, however, aren’t getting into conversations about what they’re like, because it’s not important to them: “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God” (verse 41). In other words, they’re saying, “we’re not bastards, we’re Abraham’s children—nobody else slipped into our family tree!” On the face of it they seem to be talking only of literal descendancy, but to them it’s one and the same: they are God’s chosen people because they are descended from Abraham. Jesus is trying to take them into this “tangent” about their behaviour, but they don’t feel that part of the conversation is relevant.
Jesus, however, is specifically focusing on that as the only thing that is important.
|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.”||If Jesus’ listeners were really children of God, they would recognize God’s actual Son—himself. The fact that they don’t proves that they aren’t really God’s children.|
|43||“Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.”||This is an interesting—and important—point. It’s not just a matter of who your father is, or who you’re descended from, it’s a matter of what you’re willing to hear. To say that Jesus’ listeners couldn’t “bear” to hear His word because they were Jews would be very much missing the point; this isn’t a Jewish vs. Christian point. Nobody can bear to hear Jesus’ word! Not without the intervention of the Holy Spirit. The whole point of Jesus coming to this world is that we are so sinful that the only way to save us from that sin was for the Son of God to die on our behalf. We can’t save ourselves, it’s completely out of our power; we don’t want to hear that. And if we were to accept this, and become Christians, it would mean that we owe God everything, a debt we couldn’t possibly repay, and we don’t want to hear that either, because what could He not ask of us, if that were true?|
|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.”||Now we get to the heart of the matter: Jesus’ listeners are following in the footsteps of the devil. They’re claiming Abraham is their father, and in a sense of course that’s true, but Jesus is saying that how they’re acting—especially in relation to him—proves that they’re not truly God’s people, regardless of how much they may claim they are. And again, this isn’t something we lay at the feet of 1st Century Jews and leave it at that; this is the state of all who reject Jesus’ message.|
|45||“But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.”||This is related back to verse 43: Jesus is telling his listeners (and us) that we’re slaves to sin, unable to save ourselves, but that He can, and we don’t want to hear it.|
|46||“Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?”||A point I don’t actually think of that much, but it wasn’t just Jesus’ miracles/signs that attested to who he was. He was also sinless, which is such a remarkable thing that, frankly, it’s never actually been seen in the world, before or after him. He’s genuinely unique in that aspect: he’s never committed a sin. And he offers that here as further proof of who he is—and, therefore, the truth of what he says.|
|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.”||It’s just that simple: If you’re of God you’ll hear the words of God; if you’re not, you won’t. Or: If you hear the words of God it’s because you’re of God, and if you don’t it’s because you’re not.|
What the Christian should do with a passage like this is to be thankful, first of all, that we have accepted the Word of God. Through the Holy Spirit, we’ve accepted something that many haven’t, which is a blessing to us; it’s Grace.
And secondly, we should understand that Jesus’ listeners were raising objections to him that are still with us today. Nobody wants to hear Jesus’ message; they didn’t then, and they don’t now. We won’t always have the right words to argue the point—and sometimes “argument” isn’t the right approach anyway—but we should read and take in passages like this, be thankful for what God has bestowed upon us, and trust Him to guide us in all things.