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Like Father, Like Son (John 8:31-59)

Introduction

This text brings back fond memories. Over 30 years ago, before we moved to Dallas to attend seminary, I was a schoolteacher in the Northwest. A small church in the mountains of Washington State needed someone to fill in for a month while the two missionaries who pastored the church got away for a vacation. I remember that the Fourth of July came on the week I was to preach my first sermon, so I chose to preach on the text of John 8:32, and to focus on the subject of freedom. I honestly don’t remember what I said, and I hope no one else remembers it either.

I find it providential that this Sunday is Father’s Day. In our text, the word “father” appears over a dozen times. This passage really is about “fathers” and “sons.” It is one of the most powerful texts in the Gospel of John, dealing with those crucial issues which caused many to reject and resist Jesus as the Messiah, while at the same time bringing others to faith in Him. The issues dealt with in our text are those with which many in our culture struggle today. Let us listen and learn what the Word of God has to say to us about “fathers,” “sons,” and “freedom.”

Background

Opposition to our Lord began to intensify in John chapter 5 after Jesus healed the paralytic, and then told him to carry his mattress. This happened on the Sabbath, and so the Jewish religious leaders were greatly upset. When Jesus explained His actions, they became irate and more resolved than ever to do away with Him altogether. Jesus justified His actions on the basis that He was simply acting like His Father. His Father was at work on the Sabbath, and so was He. The Jews understood this as a claim to be equal with God, and this was more than they could handle. A great debate ensued. Jesus claimed that even though there were a number of witnesses to His identity as the Son of God, His accusers refused to accept their testimony. He told them that even though they studied the Old Testament Scriptures, they missed the fact that these Scriptures pointed to Him as the Messiah. When the time for judgment came, Jesus said it would be Moses who would condemn them for not heeding His testimony.

In chapter 6, Jesus fed the multitude in the wilderness, and the crowd was ready to make Him their king by force, if necessary. Jesus sent His disciples on ahead of Him and He dismissed the crowd, after which He went off by Himself to pray. But it was only a matter of time until they were urging Him to surpass Moses’ performance as the provider of bread for the multitudes. By the time Jesus finished His teaching on the “bread of life,” many of His so-called “disciples” deserted Him. His 12 disciples remained with Him. They did not understand what the future held, but they did believe that He alone had the words of eternal life.

In chapter 7 when Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, the opposition grew more widespread and intense than ever. By the time the chapter comes to a close, it seems that a great number of those who heard Jesus had had enough of Him and His teaching. The pilgrims who came to Jerusalem from afar thought Jesus was demon possessed and out of His mind. The Jerusalemites were ready to put Jesus to death for His claim to deity. In the last verse of chapter 7 and the next 11 verses of chapter 8, we read the story of Jesus and the Jews and the woman caught in the act of adultery. The Jews wanted to pit Jesus against the Law of Moses, so that they could charge Him under the law. When Jesus finished with this woman’s accusers, all of them gave up their attack on her, convicted of their own guilt under the law.

In verse 12 of chapter 8, Jesus extended this invitation to those who were lost and needed to be saved: “Then Jesus spoke out again, ‘I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” While many of those in His audience reject Jesus as Messiah, there are also many who come to faith: “While He is saying these things, many people believe in Him” (John 8:30).

The crowd that gathers to hear Jesus speak is a mixed multitude. Some believe in Jesus, while others think Him a deceiver, and others still are determined to put Him to death. Some honestly listen to what He says, while others listen only to hear something they can use against Him.

Father Abraham
(8:31-41a)

31 Then105 Jesus said to those Jewish people who had believed him, “If you continue to follow my teaching,106 you are really my disciples 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 “We are descendants of Abraham,” they replied, “and have never been anyone’s slaves! How can you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “I tell you the solemn truth, everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the family forever, but the son remains forever. 36 So if the son sets you free, you will be really free. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. But you are wanting to kill me, because my teaching makes no progress among you. 38 I am telling you the things I have seen while with my Father, but you are practicing the things you have heard from your father.” 39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father!” Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the deeds of Abraham. 40 But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth I heard from God. Abraham did not do this! 41 You people are doing the deeds of your father.”

If the words of verse 12 are addressed to those who have not yet believed in Jesus as the Messiah, verses 31 and 32 are addressed specifically to those who have come to faith:107 “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The fact that this is spoken to believers is noteworthy. Until now, I have always thought these words were addressed to unbelievers and were therefore “evangelistic” in thrust. While they certainly may have some application to the lost, this is not primarily what our Lord has in mind when He speaks to the Jewish believers in the crowd.

These words argue against what we might call “mere Christianity,” as our Lord challenges believers to become true disciples. It is not good enough to simply believe in Jesus as the Messiah, or even to make a public profession of one’s faith in Him. Jesus intends for men to become His disciples, and to do this, they must abide in His Word.108 Just what it means to “abide in His Word” is not explained here, because His adversaries interrupt Jesus. This matter will be taken up later on in the Gospel of John,109 and then by the Epistles. For now, we must be content with the statement of our Lord that those who abide in His Word are truly His disciples, and by abiding in His Word, they will come to know the truth, and that truth will set them free.

At this point, our Lord’s enemies come unglued because of what they hear Him say. I am both amazed and amused by how quickly they grasp the inference of our Lord’s words. They seem to reason in this manner:110

  • Jesus says that those who abide in His Word will be set free.
  • This implies that we are not presently free.
  • If we are not free, then we are slaves.
  • We are the children of Abraham. We can’t be slaves!
  • Jesus is terribly wrong!

The reasoning here is fascinating. On the one hand they seem to argue from history, insisting that they have never been anyone’s slaves, but this assertion is far from convincing. At this present moment, the Jews may not be “slaves” in the technical sense of the term, but neither are they completely “free,” either. Why do they have to obtain permission from Herod and Pilate to have Jesus crucified, unless they are subject to Roman rule? Israel’s slavery in Egypt (from which they were delivered at the exodus) and her captivity by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians certainly inclines us to think that history would show that they have been “slaves.” These Jews seem willing to rewrite history to maintain their claim that they have never been slaves to anyone.

On the other hand, they attempt to employ a priori reasoning. The basis for their denial is biological: “We are descendants of Abraham” (verse 33). The inference they draw from this is that because they are Abraham’s seed, they can never become slaves to anyone. In effect they are saying, “Because we are the descendants of Abraham, we can’t be slaves, ever. Therefore we have never been slaves, ever.” I believe they are reasoning on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant, as summarized in Genesis 12:1-3.

1 Now the LORD had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family And from your father’s house, To a land that I will show you. 2 I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, NKJV).

It is interesting to me that these Jews, so devoted to the Law of Moses, do not refer to the Mosaic Covenant, especially the summary contained in Deuteronomy 28. The first 14 verses promise God’s blessings and great prosperity if God’s people obey the law and keep their (Mosaic) covenant with God. This would be the portion of Scripture they would offer as their proof text. But the final 54 verses of chapter 28 spell out the certain consequences of Israel’s disobedience. In these verses, the actual term “slave” may not be found, but one would be hard pressed not to view these words as describing slavery:

28 “The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of heart. 29 And you shall grope at noonday, as a blind man gropes in darkness; you shall not prosper in your ways; you shall be only oppressed and plundered continually, and no one shall save you. 30 You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall lie with her; you shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it; you shall plant a vineyard, but shall not gather its grapes. 31 Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat of it; your donkey shall be violently taken away from before you, and shall not be restored to you; your sheep shall be given to your enemies, and you shall have no one to rescue them. 32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, and your eyes shall look and fail with longing for them all day long; and there shall be no strength in your hand. 33 A nation whom you have not known shall eat the fruit of your land and the produce of your labor, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually. 34 So you shall be driven mad because of the sight which your eyes see. 35 The LORD will strike you in the knees and on the legs with severe boils which cannot be healed, and from the sole of your foot to the top of your head. 36 The LORD will bring you and the king whom you set over you to a nation which neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods—wood and stone. 37 And you shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all nations where the LORD will drive you” (Deuteronomy 28:28-37, NKJV, emphasis mine).

This objection that is raised by our Lord’s opponents is not a new issue in the Gospels. It is one John the Baptist addressed in his preaching:

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Offspring of vipers!111 Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit worthy of repentance! 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ because I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’” (Matthew 3:7-10).

This same error is so deeply ingrained within Judaism that Paul must emphatically denounce it, both in terms of his own life and testimony (Philippians 3:1-10), and in terms of the gospel (Romans 9:1-8; Galatians 3:24-29). Many of the Jews assumed that their biological ancestry was the basis for their relationship with God. Put simply, they thought being Jewish was the same as being saved, and therefore that they were entitled to all of God’s blessings. How dreadfully wrong they were! Being Jewish was a privilege, as Paul points out in Romans chapter 9, but it is not the same as being saved. Being in Christ, by faith in His death, burial, and resurrection, is the basis for being the “true Israel” of God:

23 Now before faith came we were held in custody under the law, kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 Thus the law had become our guardian until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. 26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:23-29).

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed in the body by hands—12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who turned both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, in his flesh, 15 when he nullified the law of commandments in decrees. The purpose of this was to create in himself the two into one new man, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and non-citizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Jesus responds to the defensive objections of His opponents. Anyone who practices sin is a slave,112a slave of sin.”113 I believe the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery in the early part of chapter 8 contributes a great deal to our Lord’s words here. There, Jesus challenged the one who was without sin to cast the first stone. No one dared to take up a stone, and everyone left—self-admitted sinners. If no one there could claim to be free from sin, then those who protest against our Lord’s words here are sinners by their own admission.114 They are sinners, indeed, and thus they are slaves to sin.

The next words of our Lord are somewhat perplexing: “The slave does not remain in the family forever, but the son remains forever. So if the son sets you free, you will be really free” (vss. 35-36). A slave has no permanent place in the family. He can be sold at any moment. He can even be put to death in some circumstances. His position or status in the family is surely tentative. Furthermore, a slave is not “free” himself, so how can he possibly set anyone else “free”? (That would be something akin to a bald man claiming to possess the power to produce hair on the heads of other bald men.) Now a “son” is very different. His status as a son is permanent. He can exercise the authority and enjoy the privileges of his father. A son can “free” a slave, and that former slave’s freedom will be “real” and permanent.

I think we would all agree that when our Lord speaks of the “son” here, He is referring to Himself as the Son of God. As the Son, He can free men from sin, and this freedom is sure because He is the Son. The question is: “To whom is Jesus referring as a slave?” In a general way, all men are sinners, and thus all men are slaves of sin. It is my opinion here, however, that Jesus may be using the term “slave” to refer more specifically to the Jewish religious leaders. In many of His parables, slaves or stewards (or both) are used to represent His servants. In those parables which rebuke the Jewish religious leaders for their failed stewardship, slaves are again found. The “slaves” of Luke 20:9-19 represent the prophets. I believe Jesus is referring to the religious leaders as slaves, which is very much in keeping with the context of John 8. These “slaves” seem to be those who feel they can pronounce in a way that determines one’s destiny (see 7:13). This seems to be the case with their attitude and actions in response to the man born blind in chapter 9 (see verses 22, 34). Do these religious leaders think they can “loose” or “bind” men in relation to the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 18:18)? They are but slaves, and slaves cannot free other slaves. This is the work of the “Son.” It is Jesus’ claim of “sonship” which the religious leaders reject and oppose.

Do these Jews claim to be Abraham’s descendants? In a merely physical sense, they are his sons, but that is not what it means to be a true “son of Abraham.” They reject the word of Jesus, which reveals the truth, and which would set them free. Instead of believing in Jesus, they seek to kill Him. Here is a great contrast. They think they speak for God, and yet Jesus is the One who speaks of those things He has seen while He was with His Father in heaven. They claim to be the offspring of Abraham, and yet by their deeds, they show that they do not honor God by trusting in His Son because they are trying to kill Him. They are “sons” of someone, but they are not “sons” of Abraham in the way they believe they are. Their practice reveals their true “father.” We are just about to be told who this “father” is.

The Parent Trap
(8:41b-59)

Then they said to Jesus, “We were not born as a result of immorality! We have only one Father, God himself.” 42 Jesus replied, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come from God and am now here. I have not come on my own initiative, but he sent me. 43 Why don’t you understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot accept my teaching. 44 You people are from your father the devil, and you want to do what your father desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I am telling you the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Who among you can prove me guilty of any sin? If I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 The one who belongs to God listens and responds to God’s words. You don’t listen and respond, because you don’t belong to God.” 48 The Jewish people who had been listening to him replied, “Aren’t we correct in saying that you are a Samaritan and are possessed by a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I am not possessed by a demon, but I honor my Father and yet you dishonor me. 50 I am not trying to get praise for myself. There is one who demands it, and he also judges. 51 I tell you the solemn truth, if anyone obeys my teaching, he will never see death.” 52 Then the Jewish people who had been listening to him responded, “Now we know you’re possessed by a demon! Both Abraham and the prophets died, and yet you say, ‘If anyone obeys my teaching, he will never taste of death. 53 You aren’t greater than our father Abraham who died, are you? And the prophets died too! Who do you claim to be? 54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory is worthless. The one who glorifies me is my Father, about whom you people say, ‘He is our God.’ 55 Yet you do not know him, but I know him. If I say that I do not know him, I will be a liar like you. But I do know him, and I obey his teaching. 56 Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.” 57 Then the Jewish people who had been listening to him replied, “You are not yet fifty years old! Have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” 59 Then they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out from the temple area.

Our Lord has not yet said just who is the “true father” of these Jewish opponents. His adversaries seem well on their way to figuring that out for themselves. Almost as though they are trying to speak before Jesus can identify their “father,” they blurt out, “We were not born as a result of immorality! We have only one Father, God himself” (verse 41). This is almost as ugly as these enemies of our Lord can get, though they will improve on their ugliness by the end of the chapter. It is as though they find themselves with their backs to the wall (so to speak), and feel forced to use dirty tricks. They seem to be saying: “So, you think that God is your Father, but not ours. You think you can accuse us of having another “father” than Abraham. Well, since the subject of fathers has come up, let us remind you that none of us is a bastard115—but you are! It is we who are the sons of God, and not you!”

Our Lord is not taken aback by their cruel accusation. It simply isn’t true. Once again, their incorrect understanding of our Lord’s most unusual birth is given as grounds for their rejection of His claim to be Israel’s Messiah. For us, the virgin birth of our Lord is one of the most glorious truths of the Word of God, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and the basis for our Lord’s identity and ministry. Our Lord bases His next words on a principle we articulate by means of the expression: “Like father, like son.” You know who one’s father is by his conduct as a son. A son acts like his father, and so you know that the son will imitate his father.

The “father” of these hecklers in the crowd can be discerned by simply observing their conduct. Abraham believed God (see Genesis 15:6); these folks do not believe in the Son of God, who was sent down from heaven and who speaks for God the Father. If God were their father, they would welcome His Son and love Him, as they think they love the Father. They don’t even understand what Jesus is saying to them. It is because they cannot and will not accept His teaching.

Thus, Jesus concludes: “You people are from your father the devil” (verse 44). This must come as a slap in the face. These people think they have the inside track with God, that they are “sons of God” as much as men can be. Now Jesus tells them they are really sons of the devil. How can one conclude otherwise? They reject Him whose word is the truth. Are they not devoted to lies, just like their real father, the devil? When they seek to kill Jesus, are they not murderers, like their father, the devil?

Our Lord reveals truth to us here which concerns our adversary, the devil. Jesus tells us that the devil was a “murderer from the beginning” (verse 44). Somehow, as many times as I have read and taught through the third chapter of Genesis, I missed seeing this. Satan was not merely trying to deceive Eve or to promote rebellion against God, though he was attempting these things. Jesus tells us that Satan’s role in the fall was nothing less than premeditated murder. God placed Adam and Eve in a garden that had many trees. From all of the trees but one they could eat freely. One of the trees from which they could eat freely was the tree of life. Satan succeeded in getting both Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the one forbidden tree. God warned that to eat of the fruit of this tree would result in their death. It was as if the devil had given poison to both Adam and Eve. He was a murderer, even at the beginning, and he still is.

The devil is also a liar by nature. Whenever he speaks, he speaks lies. His words contain some truth, of course, but the bottom line is always a lie. In his book, People of the Lie, author Scott Peck describes demon possession. While it has been some time since I read the book, I remember him telling how one could recognize a person who was demon possessed. Peck claims that those who are demon possessed will lie, even when they don’t have to, even when it is to their own detriment. They are, like their “father,” liars by nature; they can do nothing else than to lie. For the devil to tell the truth is like a lion deciding to give up red meat. No wonder our Lord’s adversaries reject the truth He teaches and speak lies about Jesus. It is precisely because Jesus tells the truth that these sons of the “great liar” reject His words. And yet, for all their defamation of our Lord’s character, for all their attacks, Jesus challenges them to offer proof that He is guilty of even one sin (verse 46). Why will they not believe in Him? The answer is simple—they can’t, and they won’t. Those who belong to God do listen and respond to God’s words (as Jesus speaks them). These people do not listen or respond because they do not belong to God. It’s as simple as that.

If Jesus is becoming more and more direct in His accusations against His opponents, they are quick to retaliate with ugly accusations. Earlier, they accused Jesus of being an illegitimate child, but the words they speak here have to be their lowest blow ever. Of what greater offense can they accuse Him? They accuse Jesus not only of being an illegitimate child, but also of being the son of a non-Jew, a Gentile, and thus (in their minds) a Samaritan, a demon-possessed Samaritan no less.

Jesus responds to this monstrous accusation by denying the charge and claiming that His mission is to honor the Father. Therefore, as they dishonor Him by rejecting Him as the Son of God, they also dishonor the Father who sent Him. Our Lord’s mission is not a self-serving one, as will become evident in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross of Calvary. He is not seeking fame and glory for Himself as they are.116 The Father demands that men glorify Him, and He is also the One who will judge those who refuse to do so. Once again, Jesus offers the gift of eternal life to all who will obey His teaching, for such people will never see death (verse 51).

They have heard just about all they can take from Jesus. Now they know for sure that He is demon possessed, they say (verse 52). They have followed the logic of His words well. He has said that whoever obeys His word will never taste death. If Jesus can promise men that they will never die, then He is greater than all the great men of the Bible, all of whom died.117 Jesus is understood to be claiming that neither He nor anyone who follows Him will die. “Who does Jesus think He is?” they wonder. “Does He think He is better than Abraham, their ‘father,’ and the prophets? All of these men died, so how can Jesus speak of not dying? Who is He claiming to be?” Jesus responds that any glory He seeks for Himself (independently of the Father) would be of no value. It is the Father who is actively working to glorify the Son. This One whom they call their “Father” is the same one who is actively working to glorify the Son. If Jesus were to seek to appease His opponents by saying that He does not know the Father (as they want to believe), then He would be a liar, just as they are liars. They do not know God, but He does. They do not obey God, but He does. They do not rejoice at our Lord’s coming, and yet Abraham—the one they call their father—rejoiced to see His day (verse 56).

You can almost see the faces of those debating with Jesus turn a deep red. They are furious. They have things a little mixed up,118 but they still cannot miss the essence of what our Lord is claiming, that He is eternal. Not only does He speak of living on forever, He now speaks of being there in the distant past. “Has Jesus seen Abraham?” they ask. They are not prepared for the answer they receive: “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (verse 58). There is very little doubt that Jesus means to identify Himself as God here:

‘That is a supreme claim to Deity; perhaps the most simple and sublime of all the things He said with that great formula of old, the great ‘I AM’ … These are the words of the most impudent blasphemer that ever spoke, or the words of God incarnate’ (Morgan).119

Over against Abraham’s fleeting span of life (see Gen. 25:7) Jesus places his own timeless present. To emphasize this eternal present he sets over against the aorist infinitive, indicating Abraham’s birth in time, the present indicative, with reference to himself; hence, not I was, but I am. Hence, the thought here conveyed is not only that the second Person always existed (existed from all eternity; cf. 1:1, 2; cf. Col. 1:17), though this, too, is implied; but also, and very definitely, that his existence transcends time. He is therefore exalted infinitely above Abraham. See also on 1:18; and cf. 1:1, 2. The ‘I am’ here (8:58) reminds one of the ‘I am’ in 8:24. Basically the same thought is expressed in both passages; namely, that Jesus is God! Moreover, what he states here in 8:58 is his answer not only to the statement of the Jews recorded in 8:57 but also to that found in 8:53.120

As dull of hearing and understanding as they are, they cannot miss the interpretation of these words. Jesus is claiming to be God as boldly and emphatically as it can be done. They do not even appear to take the time to pronounce sentence upon Him. They spontaneously take up stones to stone Him on the spot. This they would have done, except that it is not yet “His time,” and so He hides Himself and goes out of the temple.

Conclusion

So far as the argument of the Gospel of John is concerned, things have gone from bad to worse. Opposition to Jesus has been strong. Even as early as chapter 5, the Jewish leaders have resolved to kill Him. At the beginning of chapter 8, they seem to be intent on stoning an adulteress, though this may only be a guise. But by the end of chapter 8, they are very serious about stoning our Lord, without a trial, on the basis of His claim to be the eternal Son of God. The chasm between Jesus and those who oppose Him is both deep and wide. The cross of Calvary is not far off. It is not that our Lord has failed to convince men; it is that He has spoken the truth, and men have rejected it. Jesus has set the stage for His final appearance in Jerusalem.

I would like to conclude this message by focusing on several key points of emphasis in our text. I urge you to consider these carefully and prayerfully.

First of all, our text has much to say about “fatherhood.” This is Father’s Day, and it is providential that our text has so much to say about one’s “father.” The Jews of that day made too much of their ancestry. They not only rightly believed that being a Jew is a privilege (see Romans 2:28-29; 9:3-5), they falsely assumed that being Jewish (the offspring of Abraham) was their ticket into the kingdom of God (see Matthew 3:8-10). Jesus makes it clear that Abraham must be our father in a different sense. Paul says virtually the same thing:

23 Now before faith came we were held in custody under the law, kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 Thus the law had become our guardian until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. 26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:23-29).

There are those in our text who are lost, destined to die in their sins, but who think they are saved because they are Jewish. In spite of the teaching of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8-10) and of Jesus (here), they persist in this error. They have made their religion a matter of race, rather than of faith. No one is born into the family of God through the actions of their parents. The new birth is something we must personally experience.

Our text also points to a very real danger for those Jews who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. They are likely to be tempted to take pride in their Jewishness, rather than to be humbled by God’s grace and the privileges He has bestowed upon them. Paul saw his Jewishness differently. Rather than take pride in his standing as a Jew, he came to view all that he had once taken pride in as “dung” when compared to the righteousness He gained through Christ, by grace (Philippians 3). How can anyone take pride in what they have not earned or deserved? The Jews reject the grace of God manifested in Jesus because they think they do not need grace, and they most certainly do not want it. They think God owes them salvation because they are Jews. Thus, they pride themselves because of their racial origins. Our racial origins are not the basis for our salvation (or our condemnation, for that matter), nor should they be the basis for pride or self-righteousness. We are what we are by the grace of God.

Lest it appear that I am selecting out Jews for criticism, let me remind you that in Romans 11 Paul warns Gentiles against taking pride in their status as Christians (see verses 11-24). We who are Gentiles have every reason to rejoice in our salvation. But we have absolutely no basis for boasting about our salvation, as though we are better than others, or as though we somehow have contributed to God’s grace in saving us. The same can be said regarding God’s grace in all its other manifestations, such as spiritual gifts. We cannot take credit for what we have been given by grace (see 1 Corinthians 4:7). Grace should humble us, rather than puff us up.

Jesus is telling us in this text that one’s “father” is known, not by one’s parents, or even by one’s profession, but by means of one’s practice. Our father is the one who behaves as we do. The Jews who oppose Jesus are liars and murderers, just like their “true father,” the devil. Who your “true father” is will be evident by your walk.

There is a great deal of interest these days in one’s genealogy. People are very often blaming their physical fathers for their own failures in life. Adopted children seem more interested than ever in discovering who their biological fathers and mothers are. Many teach that the way we “father” our children determines our children’s view of God as their “Father.” While there may be some measure of truth here, I think that it often needs to be just the opposite. I believe the Bible describes God as the ultimate Father, and that He is the standard and the pattern by which all fathers should be judged. Jesus is the ultimate “son,” the standard by which all “sons” should be measured. It is important for us to be good sons and good fathers, but let us look to God the Father as the standard for fatherhood, and to God the Son as the standard for sonship.

One of my greatest concerns is that some of the children who have grown up in a Christian home and in this church may falsely conclude that their relationship with God is inherited from their parents or is somehow absorbed by their presence among Christians. It is not. Parents should teach their children about God, about sin, and about salvation. But each child must personally become a member of the family of God by faith in Jesus Christ.

This text is very appropriate for the Fourth of July holiday we are about to celebrate. It is very apparent that the word “free” strikes a cord deeply embedded in the hearts of the Jews who react so strongly to our Lord’s words. They are incensed that Jesus implies they are not free, insisting that they are “free,” based upon their biological link with Abraham. Let me make several observations about “freedom” and the Jews of Jesus’ day.

  • Those who are enslaved are also those who are convinced they are free.
  • Those who are enslaved are most passionate about being free.
  • Those who are convinced they are already free are absolutely unwilling to turn to our Lord and to His Word to become truly free.

I do not think there is anything Americans value more than freedom. We have enjoyed political freedom so long that we fail to appreciate this blessing. Nevertheless, we have very strong feelings about our freedom. Our feelings on freedom are virtually identical with those summarized above. Let me mention a few areas in which we insist on being free.

We want to be free of government interference (this certainly includes taxes) in our lives (but not free of government benefits).

We want “free love,” which means that immorality, perversion, condoms, and abortions on demand are essential rights, a part of our personal freedom (the Supreme Court legalizes these on the basis of “privacy”).

We want to be “free thinkers,” which means that we cast aside much of the wisdom of the past (e.g., lessons from history), and we want no one to refuse us the right to publish and to purchase anything we wish, without restriction.

We desperately want to have our own “free will,” to be the “masters of our souls” and the “captains of our fate,” and so many reject the idea of a sovereign God, who knows all, and who is in absolute control of all things. We do not want to think of ourselves as slaves to God (even though Paul and the saints of the Bible do), but we like to think of God as our servant, who is there to meet our needs, as we define them.

Anything God’s Word teaches that in any way challenges our concept of freedom, we are inclined to reject, just as the Jews reject the words of our Lord. The irony of it all is that as “free” as we think we are, men and women and children have never been more enslaved. Today, one of the most prominent words in pop psychology is the word “addiction.” People are “addicted” to drugs, to alcohol, to tobacco, to relationships, to sex, to food, and even to the Internet (my wife would add “computers” to this list). In one sense, we should be indebted that such maladies are recognized as “addictions” (if indeed they all are addictions). On the other hand, I think we would be better off calling these “addictions” by their biblical name, “slavery to sin”:

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. 19 (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For indeed as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 20 For when your were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness. 21 So what benefit did you enjoy then from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now, having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life. 23 For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:15-23).

Here are some of the great paradoxes of Christianity: if you wish to save your life, you must lose it (Matthew 16:25); to be the greatest in the kingdom of God, you must become the servant of all (Matthew 18:4; 23:11). And here: if you wish to be truly “free,” you must surrender your life to Jesus Christ as His disciple, placing yourself under His Word. Years ago I read a pamphlet on the place of discipline in the Christian life, which I believe was written by Jay Adams. He used the illustration of a train. When is a train most “free,” when it is sitting on the ground “free” of any tracks, or when it is confined to a set of tracks? When are you and I most enslaved? It is when we think we are exercising our freedom. When are we most free? It is when we have surrendered our freedom to Jesus Christ, and submitted to Him and His Word as His disciples. It is through abiding in His Word that we come to know the truth, and the truth makes us free.

I am especially impressed that these words of our Lord, “… and you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free” (verse 32) were not spoken to unbelievers, but to those who had already believed. This seems to indicate that one can be a believer and not know the truth, and not be truly free. Freedom is the fruit of discipleship, and discipleship is the result of abiding in our Lord’s Word, so that we know the truth. I would like to spend a good deal more time exploring the implications of these words, but our Lord is interrupted by Jewish unbelievers, who wish to argue about freedom and fatherhood. Not until later on in the Gospel of John (especially chapters 14-16) does our Lord more fully explain what abiding in Him and in His Word involves. The Epistles of John (especially 1 John), of James (James 1:19-27), of Peter (see 1 Peter 1:22–2:3), and of Paul (e.g., Romans 12:1ff.; Ephesians 4:1ff.; Colossians 2-3) play out this subject in much greater detail.

From what does the truth of our Lord’s Word set us free? It sets us free from sin and its inevitable result, death. We are set free from the lies of the devil, and from the distorted thinking of our culture and our fallen nature:

17 So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. 19 Because they are callous, they have given themselves over to indecency for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn about Christ like this, 21 if indeed you heard about him and were taught in him just as the truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught with reference to your former life that you have laid aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, 23 and that you are being renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and that you have put on the new man who has been created in God’s image—in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth. 25 Therefore, having laid aside falsehood, each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another (Ephesians 4:17-25).

What a contrast we see between our Lord and Satan in our text in the Gospel of John. Satan is a liar and the murderer, who seeks to deceive and to murder. Our Lord is the source of truth, which sets us free, and He is the One who came to give His life to save wretched sinners like us! Unbelievers are dazzled and attracted by Satan’s lies, because he tells them what they want to hear. Men reject our Lord’s words, because they expose our sin (see 7:7). Satan claims to offer us freedom, but his way always ends up in slavery and death. In serving ourselves and seeking our own interests, we become slaves to sin and Satan; in submitting ourselves to Jesus Christ and His Word, we come to know the truth, which sets us free from the illusions and deceptions of the evil one.

As I close, may I ask you these questions? First, are you truly free, or have you only been deceived to think you are free? Second, who is your true father? These are the most important questions you will ever answer. The only way to the truth, to freedom, and to God the Father is through Jesus Christ:

6 Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7).


105 The Greek word oun can be merely a temporal indicator, and thus be rendered “then,” but it often has a more logical sense, rendered by “therefore.” I think “therefore” is the better choice here, because our Lord’s words are in response to the faith of some, which is mentioned in the immediately preceding verse.

106 I still prefer the rendering, “abide in My word.” Both menw (abide) and logo" (word) are significant and frequently employed terms in this gospel.

107 Many struggle with an apparent discrepancy here. They are troubled that those who are referred to as believers in verses 30 and 31 appear to be those speaking and acting like unbelievers in verses 32 and following. The difficulty seems to center around the “they” of verse 33, if one assumes the antecedent to be those who believed. Some seek to solve the problem by concluding that those who “appear” to have believed have not really come to a saving faith in Jesus. I am inclined toward the view that there are both believers and unbelievers in this crowd. Jesus speaks the words of verses 31 and 32 to those who are believers, but the unbelievers present interrupt and seek once again to engage Jesus in debate.

108 Jesus clearly indicates that true disciples will abide in His Word. By inference, Jesus adds His word to the Old Testament Scriptures, which His Jewish audience would already assume to be the inspired Word of God. The true believer will see Jesus as the Messiah whose coming is foretold in the Old Testament, and whose word is inscripturated in the New Testament. His Words, as He has said, are not His own words, but those the Father has given Him. Thus, just as God spoke to men at various times and in various ways through the Old Testament Scriptures, He has now spoken fully and finally to men through Jesus Christ, as recorded in the New Testament Scriptures (see Hebrews 1:1-4).

109 Particularly in chapters 14-16.

110 The Jews who oppose our Lord seem to have two ways of responding to His teaching: (1) to quickly grasp what He is saying (or implying), and to seek to refute it; or, (2) to fail to grasp what He is saying at all. This seems to be how much communication breaks down today.

111 How interesting that John would call those who claim to be offspring of Abraham the “offspring of vipers.” This is not very far from our Lord calling them sons of the devil.

112 In Romans 6, Paul takes up this same theme in dealing with saints who would turn grace into an occasion for sin.

113 Is there a subtle but significant change here? They insisted that they had never been enslaved to anyone; Jesus speaks of being enslaved to anything (namely sin).

114 This assumes, of course, that these folks were present earlier in our Lord’s ministry in Jerusalem, when the events of John 7:53–8:11 took place.

115 I know that “bastard” is not a nice word, but it is found in the Bible. Though it is not employed here, it is exactly the point our Lord’s opponents are attempting to make. These folks enjoy pointing out what they wrongly assume to be fact—that Jesus was the illegitimate child of Mary and a man who was not her husband, perhaps not even Joseph. They are not trying to be delicate here, but striving to employ the shock value of their words, hoping to shake Him from His confidence and claims. It isn’t true, and it doesn’t work.

116 For examples of their seeking glory from men, see Matthew 6:2, 5, 16, 18; 23:5-7; Luke 16:14-15. For this issue earlier in John’s Gospel, see 5:41-44; 7:18.

117 Virtually all died. There were men like Enoch, who was translated into heaven, and Elijah, who was taken into heaven in a fiery chariot, but for all intents and purposes, we can say that all the great Old Testament saints died.

118 Jesus said that Abraham saw His day and rejoiced. The Jews speak as though Jesus claimed to see Abraham. Jesus seems to be saying that Abraham looked ahead, by faith, to the time when the Messiah would come—seeing His day. The Jews seem to be hearing Jesus claim that He was there, back in Abraham’s day, seeing him. While this does not appear to be what Jesus means, it is true. John has already told us that the “Word” was with the Father and actively involved in the creation of the world, so we know that He was also there, later, in Abraham’s time. At various times in Old Testament history, our Lord seems to have appeared to men as what theologians have called a theophany, an earthly appearance of our preincarnate Lord. Was He one of the three “men” who visited Abraham in Genesis 18?

119 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 473, fn. 118.

120 William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), vol. 2, p. 67.