Commentary on John 8:31-36
This pericope begins in an unusual way: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him…” (8:31).
It is not feasible to interpret this in the obvious way (that his listeners had faith in him as the messiah) because by the end of the story, Jesus says to them “I know you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me . . . .” (8:37).
Clearly, they do not believe in Jesus’ ministry or mission. John uses this description to distinguish these particular listeners from the disputatious Jews Jesus regularly encounters, as in the pericopes that precede this one. There, Jesus is being challenged and examined by Pharisees and scribes. Here, he seems to have a somewhat more open audience.
Yet, what he says to them is a challenge. If they “continue” (meno ¬in Greek) or have a firm relationship with Jesus’ word, they will know the truth and will be made free. The Jews take offense at this, claiming that as descendants of Abraham, they have never been slaves and do not need to be freed. They say this, in spite of the fact that it was the descendants of Abraham who lived in bondage in Egypt, and were made captives to several neighboring states throughout their history, and were currently in a form of bondage under the Roman regime.
Jesus corrects their literal understanding of his statement. They may not be in slavery, themselves, but are certainly bound to, enslaved to sin. That he begins with a solemn preamble (“Very truly, I say to you . . .”) indicates the sincerity with which Jesus utters the truth: they are in bondage to sin, but he (“the Son”) can set them free.
One of the abiding themes of Reformation Day is that Luther and the other Reformers discovered freedom in the gospel. This lesson raises that theme for the day’s homiletical consideration.
Young Luther was particularly caught up in the problem of Jesus’ auditors. Though not strictly enslaved in a literal sense, like them, Luther was trapped in his own sinfulness. Through reading the gospels with fresh understanding, Luther began to grasp its truth. Christ was not merely the Judge eagerly waiting to exact punishment on hapless sinners. Christ, through his victory on the cross, overcame sin so that those who live in it have the opportunity to be freed from it.
Any church or denomination celebrating Reformation Day can use this opportunity to consider the significance of the theology of the cross. The cross is the greatest irony in history. An instrument of condemnation and death, it becomes the vehicle for triumph over evil and death. The word of Jesus is the word of the cross and it sets humankind free from their bondage to sin.
People will be aware, however, that in one sense, they are not completely free from sin. They continue in sin, as before. Perhaps as believers, they sin less than before they learned to live in close relationship to Jesus’ words. But, sin is ever present in life. The difference is this truth: the cross changes the game entirely.
Before it, sin meant the just sentence of death. After the cross, sin brings the possibility of forgiveness. Death is replaced by forgiveness of sins. That is a striking reversal, one that affirms that sinners are free from the terrible fate they deserve.
Freedom, then, is the good news of this text and will be the good news shared by textual preachers. But, the word has two distinct prepositional directions. We can be freed from something, but we can also be freed for something. “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (8:36).
Clearly, by following the word of Jesus, we are set free from sin. But what are we freed for? The answer brings us back to the word meno. To remain in Jesus’ word is not merely passive, as in to remain, to stay, or to wait. The word pushes also toward the active: to abide, to live, to continue. It is used this way repeatedly in John. How shall the disciple abide? How shall he or she live? In what shall the disciple continue?
Those released from sin are freed to live an engaged life in the word. This is an active life of staying near the word by performing it in the world. To live in the word is to live a life of justice, of faithful devotion and study, and a life of commitment to the things that Jesus is committed to.
The resounding call of Reformation Day is both to celebrate the good news that we are free from sin and to move from celebration to action as Jesus’ agents in the world.