Commentary on John 8:31-36
These days if we say “I’m in,” then immediately someone asks us, “But are you ALL in?” This is the question Jesus asks in our passage from the start: Are you all in?
We hear Jesus make promises to the “Jews” who had believed in him and, by extension, to the rest of us: if they abide (meno) in his word (logos) they will
- truly (alethos) be his disciples;
- know the truth (aletheia); and,
- be set free
It’s a big “if.” Many don’t attain it though, because it’s always easier to join than to persevere faithfully.
Notice here that Jesus’ addresses the Ioudaioi, usually translated “Jews.” But this translation has been so tragically misleading and misinterpreted by subsequent readers of the Gospel that most Johannine scholars choose to do one of the following:
- to leave the term untranslated to indicate the problem
- to render it as “the Judeans” since in the Fourth Gospel, geography is theology such that Jesus is particularly associated with Galilee and his opponents with Judea
- to translate it “the religious leaders” to indicate that the debate is an intra-Jewish one between the establishment and the prophetic, reformer types (exemplified, in part, by Jesus of Nazareth)
It is important to situate the passage in its historical context and recognize that this is a family dispute — Jews talking to Jews. As Gail O’Day notes, “The long history of Christian anti-Semitism and of Christian proselytizing of people of the Jewish faith bears witness to the distorted history to which words like those in John 8 have given rise. The Gospel of John, as deeply shaped as it is by the fabric and texture of Jewish Scripture and liturgical traditions, is not an ally for Christian anti-Semitism.” 1
The text speaks of the Jews who had believed, in the perfect tense. The perfect tense describes action completed in the past with continuing effect in the present. They believed. Some argue that they never really believed or they did not believe fully. But the text doesn’t say they were on the way to believing or that they semi-believed. They believed. It turns out that believing may be easier than abiding for the long haul as the path gets more challenging and belief more demanding in multifarious ways. Two thousand years hasn’t changed this fact.
Truth and Freedom are two virtues we all claim to value. In verse 33, the audience does not respond as true disciples eager to hear their teacher go into more detail about the attainment of these two great gifts. Instead, when confronted with Truth, with the Source of True Freedom, the Way and the Life (cf. 14:6), they respond antagonistically and defensively. This pattern will become more heightened throughout chapter 8. The language is harsh and dualistic on both sides.
Only in chapter 8 does the language of freedom occur mostly as a verb (in the Greek). Being set free is a dynamic process. The same is true for believing and knowing — believe and know are always verbs in John, not nouns. From what does Jesus free us, according to John? From falsehood, hatred, faithlessness, troubled hearts (14:1), and self-absorption (described as “blindness” in John 9), at least. Toward what does the Son free us? Liberating truth that reveals our secure place in the household of God as beloved children.
Repugnant to us but normal for Jesus’ audience, ancient households were hierarchical with the father/husband at the top and slaves at the bottom. The slave was the most vulnerable member of the household; the slave’s fate was most uncertain. One of John’s favorite words is abide, meno. The literal translation of verse 35 says, “The slave does not abide… the son abides.” No one is a slave in the household of God; rather we are children, sisters and brothers of Jesus loved by the same Father. What’s more, just as Jesus powerfully and poignantly announces that God will never abandon him (8:29), neither will they leave us orphaned (14:18-23). That’s how family works.
This paternity issue looms large in the Fourth Gospel overall, and specifically in chapter 8. The opponents pit Abraham and Jesus against each other and they don’t choose Jesus. This means that they don’t choose God as their Father. The same kind of debate occurred in 5:31-47 with Moses. Moses is in the background in chapter 8 as well, since the opponents claim to never have been enslaved and are not being enslaved now (perfect tense again). The irony is almost unbearable since the setting is Passover.
The story asks us to consider what constitutes slavery and freedom, both literally and metaphorically, especially with respect to sin. In John, sin is not a list of do’s and don’ts; rather it consists of not recognizing that Jesus is who he says he is, and going so far as to do violence to him. Hatred (3:20; 12:25; 15:18, 19, 23, 24, 25; etc.); murder (7:19, 25; 8:37, 40; etc.); and disbelief (5:37-38; 8:24; etc.) equal sin. This should not be surprising in a Gospel preoccupied with love, life, and trusting in a way that leads to eternal abundance. Sin is comprised of trading reality for falsehood, deceit, deceptions, and half-truths in place of full-on, unabashed truth.
Jesus has the power to free, given to him by God, with whom he shares complete unity of will and power. What does freedom look like in John? Misconstrued freedom typically leads to sin. I recently saw an article about how the incessant dependence on pornography may interfere with our real flesh and blood sex lives. Yes, we have the freedom to consume as much pornography as we want; sure, no one can take it from us even if they tried at this point. Granted.
The question to ask in the process is “how is this use of freedom affecting my real, live, non-virtual relationships?” If it damages and derogates a real person, sin may be lurking at the door. If, on the other hand, our hard-won freedom is used to promote the abundant flourishing of all creation, then it can properly be called Christian freedom.
So, when it comes to truth, freedom, and true freedom, are we all in?
1Gail R. O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, John (WJK, 2006), 96.