Commentary on John 8:31-36
John 8:31-36 is part of Jesus’ teaching in the temple during Tabernacles (7:14–10:21).
After debating the identity of his Father in John 8:12-29, verse 30 reports: “While he was saying these things, many believed in him.” For a moment, it seems Jesus succeeded in convincing his audience. Recalling another episode in Jerusalem from 2:23-25, however, we remember Jesus’ distrust of believing crowds. Jesus knows “all things,” including “what is in humanity,” making him skeptical of crowds, including the one in John 8. While Jesus knows humanity needs a new birth to become God’s children, the people he encounters throughout the Gospel cannot recognize this truth just yet.
John 8:31 reiterates the crowd’s belief. Instead of affirming the crowd, Jesus challenges them: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (eleutherosei).” Jesus’ language about freedom describes a change of status. It is manumission, the transition from being a slave with no rights or ability to protect oneself, to a freeperson (eleutheros) who was able to claim personhood in the Roman world. This definition helps explain the Jews’ response to him in the next verse: “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been enslaved by anything! How are you saying, ‘You will become freepersons’?!” (my translation). What the crowd misses is Jesus’ double-meaning, a typical feature of his dialogues in John.
While Jesus’ audience thinks he is insulting them by calling them slaves of people, he is describing a different type of enslavement. “Everyone who continues doing the sin is a slave of the sin,” he says, “but a slave does not remain in the household eternally, the son remains for eternity. If, therefore, the son should free you, you really will be freepersons” (John 8:35-36, my translation). Jesus is not calling them slaves of people, but slaves of “the sin,” or “the mistake.” In John, this mistake is the inability to recognize Jesus as God’s Son and Christ. Even though the crowd “believes” in Jesus, as in 2:23-25, they do not fully recognize him yet. It is questionable whether anyone can recognize Jesus fully before his death and resurrection. Jesus’ comment could be levelled against almost any character in the Gospel. The good news, however, is that slaves (unlike sons) can be freed. Jesus, as God’s Son, promises to grant freedom to those who recognize the truth.
The Jews’ reaction in verse 33 and following shows just how hard it is to remain in, and understand, Jesus’ words. As descendants of Abraham, the Jews were enslaved for a time in Egypt, regardless of their current social status in the first century CE (Exodus 14:5, 12). Tabernacles recalls this history by remembering God’s miraculous provision during Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering. These Jews are in Jerusalem participating in this very festival, while simultaneously denying their connection to its history! This inability to recognize themselves means they cannot recognize Jesus either (see also 5:31-47). They cannot yet obey Jesus’ command from 7:24: “Stop judging by appearances but start judging rightly!” (my translation).
Jesus makes a distinction between being someone’s “descendants” (sperma) versus having him as a “father” (pater) in 8:37-41. This distinction is rooted in the ancient understanding that “like corresponds to like,” meaning children behave like their fathers regardless of to whose “household” they belong. There were no paternity tests in the ancient world; once a “father” accepted a member into the family, they were included, regardless of actual ancestry. Slaves, of course, would often not live with their actual fathers (nor would they be treated as legitimate children of their master). Instead, they were to seek only those things their master desired.
Jesus’ judgment, “the one who continues doing the sin” is a “slave of the sin,” means that regardless of these Jews’ actual Abrahamic ancestry, their slavery has led them to desire Sin’s desires. Thus, they do not accept God’s messenger, even though this is the very thing for which Abraham was famous (Genesis 18). Freedom from Sin’s household would mean these children of Abraham could return to their actual identity and welcome Jesus.
As the dialogue continues, however, things devolve rapidly with accusations of illegitimate birth, diabolical paternity, Samaritan ancestry, and demonic possession (8:41-59). In 8:37 Jesus begins shifting from a message of freedom for slaves, to a condemnation of diabolical paternity. Not trusting this crowd, Jesus identifies them not as “believers,” but as liars and would-be murderers. They are now children of the devil, rather than just slaves, and they “desire” what their father “desires” as seemingly permanent members of that household. It is no wonder the crowd turns on Jesus! In 6:60-66 Jesus lost a multitude of followers, but in 8:41-59 he prompts a once-sympathetic crowd to try to kill him!
Rather than concluding that Jesus has eternally condemned these (or any) Jews, however, we must remember the household metaphors that pervade this Gospel. Jesus already told Nicodemus that everyone who enters the Kingdom of God must be born again (3:5-8). Because we cannot recognize Jesus rightly, we all are part of the Sin’s household: either as slaves or as children. This has nothing to do with actual ancestry. Jesus speaks predominantly with Jews because he himself was Jewish, not because he sought to condemn them. As he says in 4:22, “salvation is from the Jews.”
New birth, though, is painful. It requires Jesus’ death and resurrection, as well as the gift of the Holy Spirit (20:19-22). These events make possible corrected vision, not only of Jesus, but also of ourselves. Although we think we are free and have things figured out, Jesus reminds us we need to be freed and become God’s children (1:12–13).