Commentary on John 8:31-36
Believers, “the truth will make you free.” What an appropriate Gospel reading for Reformation Sunday!
What frees us? Not our works. Not groveling before God. Not institutions, whether political or religious. Only the truth. Yet surely Pilate is not the only one who wonders, What is Jesus talking about? What is truth?
Jesus’ claim that the truth will set his disciples free is part of a longer conversation with the Judeans.1 Although John’s Gospel sometimes treats the Judeans as if they were a monolithic block of people opposed to Jesus, in this part of the Gospel it is clear that the Judeans are divided (John 7:43-44). Not all resist him. On the contrary, many have come to believe in Jesus (8:30).
Jesus tells this group of Judeans who believe that their faith alone does not make them his disciples. That’s an unexpected message on Reformation Sunday. Yet there it is in black and white: They are already believers, but if they are truly to become his disciples, they must remain in Jesus’ word. Only then will they know the truth that frees.
What do they need to do in order to remain in Jesus’ word? Like so many other terms in John, “word” (logos) is ambiguous, multifaceted, and rich in nuances. Jesus himself is the logos that God speaks, through whom God created the world. He is God’s word made flesh (John 1:1-14). Yet logos can also refer to Jesus’ teachings or to any ordinary word.
How should we understand it here? Logos is singular in John 8:31 (“word,” not “words”), so the emphasis seems to fall on Jesus himself as the Word. Yet John 15:7 shows how closely the Word and his words intertwine: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you …” Those who want to be disciples (remembering that the Greek word for disciple means “learner”) must remain in Jesus and make room for Jesus’ words govern their actions, because the Word of God speaks the words of God. Jesus embodies, reveals, and teaches God’s word. To paraphrase Julian of Norwich, Jesus is God’s meaning.
Jesus promises his hearers that if those who believe remain in his word, they will know the truth, and the truth will make them free. Just as Nicodemus thinks that Jesus is talking about physical birth and the Samaritan woman thinks that Jesus is talking about literal water, the listening Judeans immediately assume that Jesus is suggesting that they are slaves who need to be freed from their earthly masters.
They protest that they are the offspring of Abraham, and that they have never been enslaved to anyone. Confident of their heritage and identity, they are sure that they are already free. Jesus promptly challenges their claim, pointing not to their heritage but to their actions: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). They have squandered their birthright. Because they have followed their own desires instead of God’s word, they have become slaves to sin.
Jesus’ next words (John 8:35-36) are a bit puzzling. He says that slaves don’t remain in the house forever, but the son does, and therefore the son is the one who is able to set people free. The image he uses is not immediately clear. In her commentary on John, Marianne Meye Thompson suggests that, given the Judeans’ appeal to their status as offspring (sperma, “seed”) of Abraham, Jesus may be alluding to the story of Ishmael and Isaac.2 Both Ishmael and Isaac were sperma of Abraham. But Ishmael was treated as a slave and cast out of the house, while Isaac remained in the house as son and heir. Jesus seems to be saying that ethnic heritage is not enough. Being the seed of Abraham is not enough. Only the son can liberate them from their slavery to sin. He is the truth who will set them free.
Knowing the liberating truth, therefore, is not a matter of head knowledge. It does not mean learning facts or agreeing with doctrines. As the continuation of the conversation shows, such agreement can quickly turn to opposition (John 8:37-40). When Jesus challenges the Judeans’ worldview and their cherished identity, some of these same believers will try to kill him (8:59).
Knowing the truth means knowing Jesus Christ. It is relational knowledge, trust in a person rather than belief in a set of ideas. We can study a person’s teachings and know all about their life, their habits, and their history, but that doesn’t mean we know the person. To know them we have to spend time with them, listen to them, and share ourselves with them. As Jesus prays in John 17:21, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Believers become disciples by remaining with Jesus, staying in relationship with him, and letting his words and his presence challenge and change us. Jesus is God’s truth incarnate, and he exposes the hatred, the selfishness, and the lies that enslave us. He does not merely forgive our sins; he promises to liberate us from them and make us free to follow him instead.
If slaves are pronounced free but still wear their chains and serve their masters without pay, their freedom is meaningless. When we listen to Jesus and trust him to name our sin and free us from it, he transforms our lives. He invites believers to know him so deeply that his truth sinks into our very being. He calls us to embody his truth in our lives, so that we walk his way of love in the world. He is the Son who shows us how to find our home in God.
And if the Son sets us free, we are free indeed.
1 Many recent commentaries contend that the Greek word Ioudaioi, which is often translated as “Jews,” should be translated as “Judeans” instead. The term does not refer to all Jewish people, but to the Judeans—the residents of Judea—with whom Jesus was in conversation. Furthermore, many of them were not the ordinary people of Judea, but the religious leaders. Translating the term as “Jews” has too often led Christians to use biblical texts as a pretext for persecuting Jews.
2 Marianne Meye Thompson, John. A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), pp. 190–191.