Commentary on John 8:31-36
The Gospel of John contains many memorable phrases that are revered as classic Christian statements (for example John 3:16; 6:35; 8:12; 13:34; 14:6).
We find one of these in John 8:31-36: “The truth will make you free” (8:32). As poetic as John’s famous “one-liners” sound, reading them in context can be disorienting. Jesus’ proclamation that the truth sets one free appears in a tense discussion between Jesus and his Jewish audience. Not long after he says it, Jesus calls “the Jews” children of the devil (8:44) and they try to kill him (8:59). It’s no wonder proof-texting is so attractive! Who wants to deal with the messy particularities of John 8 when the line by itself sounds so good? Even the lectionary tactfully avoids 8:37, where Jesus accuses “the Jews” of looking for an opportunity to kill him “because there is no place in you for my word.” Stripped from its context, Jesus’ statement on freedom more readily appeals to whatever we think freedom means, which for those of us in the United States context often has to do with personal liberty and autonomy.
The full statement that Jesus says in John 8:31-32 is, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” He says this to Jews “who had believed in him” (8:31). According to John 8:30 many among Jesus’ Jewish audience came to believe in him, but 8:31 and the conversation that follows indicates that their belief was short-lived. Jesus uses their example of lapsed faith to assert that true disciples “continue in my word.”
We can begin to see that “the truth will set you free” is not an affirmation of personal independence or autonomy. In context, what is in view is the idea of faith as a continuing relationship. The verb translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “continue” in John 8:31 is meno, a key term in John’s Gospel that is often translated as “remain” or “abide” and points to the permanent or enduring nature of the relationship between Jesus and the believer (for example John 5:38; 6:56; 14:17; 15:4-7; 15:9-10). In 8:35 this term appears twice, which we would more readily see if the text were rendered as, “The slave does not remain [menei] in the household; the son remains [menei] there forever.” By taking into consideration that Jesus’ language focuses on “remaining” and that his audience is a group whose faith in him did not “remain,” we see that this passage presents faith as a continuing relationship. The true disciple “remains” in a faith relationship with Jesus, and it is this disciple who will be set free by knowing the truth revealed by Jesus.
In John 8:33 “the Jews” question Jesus about the freedom he offers because, from their point of view, their Abrahamic lineage means they do not stand in need of the freedom provided by Jesus. In response, Jesus explains that the freedom he offers is freedom from sin (8:34-36). Jesus first asserts that actions (committing sin), not genealogical descent, determine whether one stands in need of the freedom from sin that he can give (8:34).1 Then he returns to the concept of “remaining” using an analogy drawn from the household hierarchy (8:35). A slave does not have the same permanent status in the household as does the son of the head of the household because a slave could be sold or perhaps even set free. The son, on the other hand, has a place in the household forever and even has the authority to carry out his father’s commands, which is why in 8:36 Jesus can boldly say that “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”2 Freedom from sin is a gift given by the one who has the authority to give it.
Since believers in Jesus get from him the power to become children of God (see John 1:12-13),3 Jesus grants freedom from sin by bestowing on those who believe in him — and remain in that belief (John 8:31) — the same status as child of God that he has. By transforming their status from “slaves to sin” to “children of God,” Jesus gives believers a permanent place in the household of God, where they are free from sin’s bondage and from sin’s most destructive consequence, death itself (see 8:21, 24, 51).
According to John 8:31-36, then, freedom does not mean that one is free to do what one wants, as much as notions of independence and autonomy may inform our own cultural understanding of what it means to be free. Rather, freedom means to be bound to a relationship with God, a relationship that is marked by personal intimacy (as a child is intimately related to his/her parents) and by freedom from sin and death.
Since this passage constructs freedom in terms of being in a relationship marked by liberation from sin and death, John 8:31-36 challenges us to examine the current state of our personal and social relationships. What relationships in our lives are liberative and life-affirming for us and for others? What relationships do we participate in that sustain the oppressing bondage of sin and result in death and destruction on personal, social, and even environmental levels? What can we do to transform destructive relationships in our lives and in our world into relationships that liberate instead of oppress? If Jesus as Son has authority to make believers free, then as children in the household of God don’t believers have authority and power to set others free as well (John see also 14:12)? How can we reimagine our social structures so that they generate liberating relationships among persons in our communities and beyond?
1 Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina 4 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998), 276.
2 Jo-Ann A. Brant, John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 145.
3 Moloney, John, 275.