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Lesson 47: Terrible Words from the Loving Savior (John 8:21-29)

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March 9, 2014

Thomas Fuller (cited by C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David [Baker], 4:328) said, “You cannot repent too soon, because you do not know how soon it may be too late.” As long as you’re alive and mentally competent, you have the opportunity to believe in Christ for eternal salvation. But the second you die, it’s too late—you’ll be lost forever.

That’s not just my opinion, but something the loving Savior says over and over to warn us to believe in Him while there is still time. Three times in our text (8:21, twice in v. 24) He warns the Pharisees that they will die in their sins. This means that they will face God’s judgment for their sins. But Christ’s final warning contains a word of invitation and hope (8:24b), “For unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” (He is not in the original; it was added by the translators.) The invitation is, if you will believe that I am the Lord, who I claim to be, you will not die in your sins.

And so it’s crucial that we understand clearly who Jesus claimed to be and that we believe in Him before we die and face God’s eternal judgment. Our text tells us:

To go to heaven, believe the truth about yourself and the truth about Jesus while there is still time.

Jesus is interacting with the Pharisees at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles. At that feast, in conjunction with a ceremony that commemorated the water that God provided for Israel in the wilderness, He has claimed to be able to give living water that flows out of the innermost being of those who believe in Him (7:37-38). In conjunction with a lamp-lighting ceremony that remembered God’s presence in the pillar of cloud and fire in the wilderness, Jesus has claimed to be the light of the world and promised that the one who follows Him will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life (8:12). These were astounding claims that you can’t just shrug off. They grab you by the lapels and demand that you respond.

But, sadly, the Pharisees responded with hostile challenges, not with faith in Jesus. In 8:13, they claimed that His testimony about Himself was not valid. In 8:19, they sneered, “Where is Your Father?” which was probably a slur about the rumor that Jesus’ mother conceived Him before she was married. In our text, they continue throwing out comments that reflect their hardened hearts. But, rather than trying to take the speck out of the Pharisees’ eyes, we need to take the logs out of our eyes by recognizing that by virtue of our fallen nature, we’re just like them. Thus …

1. To go to heaven, recognize your true condition before God as a sinner.

In 8:19, Jesus pointed out the root problem with the Pharisees: “You know neither Me nor My Father; if you knew Me, you would know My Father also.” This is the root problem with the entire human race: We’re born as sinners, alienated from God. We don’t know Him or the one He sent to bear our sins on the cross. We have no idea of the holiness of God, who is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29), who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16). And, since we don’t know how holy God is, we don’t see how sinful we are. Rather than comparing ourselves with the holy God, we compare ourselves with people who are outwardly more wicked than we are, so we think we’re not so bad.

But we’re using the wrong measuring stick! Jesus draws a line between Himself and the Pharisees by saying (8:21), “I go away, and you will seek Me, and you will die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come.” He was going back to the Father in heaven and they would not and could not go there as long as they remained in their proud self-righteousness.

But they mistook His words, saying (8:22), probably in a deliberate put-down, “Surely He will not kill Himself, will He, since He says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” The Jews thought that a person who killed himself would go to the worst place in hell (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 446). So they may have been saying, “Well, if He kills Himself and goes to hell, at least we won’t have to listen to Him there, since we’ll be in heaven!” But they were sadly mistaken. Jesus came from heaven and was returning to heaven, but in their sinful condition, they would never see heaven.

So Jesus continues (8:23), “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” There is a humanly unbridgeable chasm between the holy God in heaven and all of us who were born in sin on this earth. We can try to compile good deeds to bridge the chasm, but that’s doomed to fail. All our good deeds are like filthy rags in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6). And all the good deeds in the world cannot pay for all the sins that we’ve committed. Just a single sin would be enough to condemn us to hell, but we’ve all piled up thousands of sins. To go to heaven, we first have to recognize our true condition before the holy God as rebellious sinners.

Furthermore, our sinful condition has rendered us blind to spiritual truth unless the Lord opens our eyes to see. John explains (8:27), “They did not realize that He had been speaking to them about the Father.” You would think that Jesus had made this point pretty clearly back in 5:18-47, where the Jews knew that by calling God His own Father, Jesus was making Himself equal with God. The only way that I can explain John’s comment in 8:27 is by Paul’s comment in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (See, also, 1 Cor. 2:14.)

Jesus will go on to explain to the disciples (John 16:8) that one role of the Holy Spirit is to convict the world of sin. The word “convict” means “to convince,” as a lawyer convinces a jury of his case. Before we will turn from our sin and trust in Christ as our Savior, we have to be convinced that we are sinners who cannot save ourselves. So to go to heaven, we must believe the truth about ourselves, that we are guilty sinners before the holy God.

2. To go to heaven, believe in Jesus as He is revealed in Scripture.

As I’ve often said, the crucial question in all of life is Jesus’ question to the twelve (Matt. 16:15), “Who do you say that I am?” There is no more important question in the world! Everything about your eternal destiny depends on believing the right answer to that question. Here, the Jews ask (8:25), “Who are You?” But before we yell, “Yay, they’re finally asking the right question!” we need to understand that they were not asking the question sincerely, with a desire to know the truth about Jesus. Rather, their question could rightly be translated (according to several commentators), “Who do you think you are to tell us that we will die in our sins?” They were challenging Jesus, not seeking to know the truth about Him.

Jesus’ reply (8:25) is difficult to translate, but the sense is probably either a statement (ESV), “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning,” or a rhetorical question (NASB), “What have I been saying to you from the beginning?” Their problem was not that they had not heard what Jesus was saying from day one of His public ministry, but that they didn’t believe Him. Our text contains four important truths about Jesus that we must believe if we want to go to heaven:

A. Believe in Jesus as the eternal God, sent to earth by the Father.

As Jesus said in 8:14, “I know where I came from and where I am going.” In 8:23 He asserts that His origin is from above, not from this world. He repeatedly emphasizes (8:16, 18, 26, 29) that He came to earth because He was sent by the Father. And, He says (8:24), “unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” He repeats (8:28), “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He….”

The translators have added “He” to complete Jesus’ “I am” statement. The legitimate sense may be, “I am who I claim to be,” or “I am the Messiah.” But given the Jewish audience, and especially the Pharisees, who knew the Old Testament well, Jesus was probably referring to the “I am” statements of Yahweh in Isaiah 40-55, which in turn allude to God’s disclosure of His name to Moses (Exod. 3:14), “I am who I am.” (See D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 343-344.) So Jesus was probably saying, “Unless you believe that I am the Lord God, you will die in your sins.”

In Isaiah 41:4, God says, “I, the Lord, am the first, and with the last. I am He.” The Greek LXX translates “I am He” with “ego eimi,” the same Greek phrase that Jesus uses in John 8:24 & 28. In Isaiah 43:10, the Lord says, “‘You are My witnesses,’ declares the Lord, ‘and My servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, and there will be none after Me.’” (It’s more than ironic that the Jehovah’s Witnesses take their name from Isaiah 43:10, but deny the deity of Jesus. They fail to see that, in part, Jesus bases His claim to be God on it!)

Then in Isaiah 43:13 the Lord adds, “Even from eternity I am He, and there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?” In Isaiah 48:12, the Lord says, “Listen to Me, O Jacob, even Israel whom I called; I am He, I am the first, I am also the last.” (In Revelation 1:17 & 2:8, Jesus claims to be the first and the last, a clear assertion of His deity.)

So when Jesus tells the Pharisees, who knew Isaiah well, “I am He,” using the same phrase that the Lord repeatedly uses in Isaiah, He was claiming to be the eternal God. Yet at the same time, here and throughout John’s Gospel, He frequently distinguishes Himself from the Father. He makes it clear that the Father sent Him to this earth to be our Savior. To believe in a “Jesus” who is not God in human flesh will not get you to heaven. As Bishop Moule once said (source unknown), “A Savior not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.”

B. Believe that Jesus lived a sinless life in total dependence on the Father.

In John 8:29, Jesus makes another astounding claim that no one else can legitimately make: “And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” In a similar vein, Jesus asks these same critics (8:46), “Which of you convicts Me of sin?” No one, not even Jesus’ enemies, could convict Him of sin because as a man He always lived in total dependence on the Father, being obedient to His will. If Jesus had sinned, then His death could not have atoned for others, because He would have had to pay for His own sin. He was the Lamb of God, without spot or blemish, who alone could take away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

C. Believe that Jesus was lifted up on the cross to die as the substitute for your sins.

In John 8:21, Jesus again (7:33-34) tells the Jews that He is going away and that they will not be able to come where He is going. He’s referring to His upcoming death, when He would willingly lay down His life for His sheep. Then in 8:28, Jesus tells them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.” “Lift up” also refers to His upcoming death on the cross (3:14; 12:32).

John intends some irony here, in that the verb usually means “to exalt.” To be put on the cross as a public spectacle was the most degrading and humiliating thing that could happen to a man. But the cross above all else revealed Jesus’ glory. The night before He was crucified, Jesus prayed (17:1), “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You.” The cross reveals the holiness and justice of God, who cannot allow any sinners to go unpunished. But it also reveals His abundant love and mercy, in that through the death of His Son, He can save sinners and clothe them with Jesus’ righteousness.

Satan hates the cross and is always trying to distort its meaning or eradicate it from any teaching about how a person gets to heaven. But any teaching that diminishes or denies the centrality of the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross for our sins is heretical to the core. To teach that Jesus died as an example of love is correct; but if it stops there, it’s heretical. He is the greatest example of love that the world has ever known. But you can try all your life to imitate His example of love and you will still go to hell when you die if you have not trusted in His death for your sins.

The same thing applies to trying to get to heaven by good works. If we can get to heaven by our good works, then Jesus didn’t have to die on the cross for our sins. Or if we can get to heaven by combining our works with His death on the cross, it still diminishes the centrality of the cross and allows sinners to share His glory, which can never be. Paul wrote Galatians to combat the Judaizers, who claimed to believe in Christ, but argued that you must also add keeping the Law of Moses to faith in Christ to be saved. But Paul called their view a different gospel which is not a gospel and said that they would be damned for believing it (Gal. 1:6-9).

Thus to go to heaven, we must believe that Jesus is the eternal God, sent to earth by the Father; that He lived a sinless life in total dependence on the Father; and that He was lifted up on the cross to die as the substitute for our sins. Also,

D. Believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven.

Jesus knew that He would soon die on the cross, but He also knew that that wasn’t the end of things. Rather, He would be returning to the Father in heaven (8:21, 22). This anticipates both His bodily resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven. Believing in Jesus’ bodily resurrection and ascension is absolutely essential to saving faith. As Paul argues (1 Cor. 15:14, 17), “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is vain…. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”

God has given much evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead. There was the empty tomb. If Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, His enemies gladly would have taken people there and refuted the disciples’ claims that He was risen. There were the many independent eyewitnesses, who saw Jesus alive in different settings. There is the fact of the changed lives of the witnesses, who did not expect the resurrection and were fearful and depressed after the crucifixion. But they went on boldly to proclaim the resurrection, even when it cost them their lives.

So, if you don’t want to die in your sins and face God’s judgment, or to put it positively, if you want to go to heaven, you must first recognize your true condition before God as a sinner. Also, you must believe in Jesus as He is revealed in Scripture. But there is one other crucial matter:

3. To go to heaven, believe in Jesus while there is still time.

The loving Savior says some terrible, terrifying words (8:21): “I go away, and you will seek Me, and will die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come.” Then in 8:28 He says, “When you lift up the son of Man, then you will know that I am He ….” The implication of these words is not that these religious leaders would seek Jesus after His death and come to know Him through saving faith, but rather that they would seek Him and know Him too late. The door of mercy would be shut because they had rejected the Light of the world when He was with them.

So while Jesus appealed to them to believe in Him (8:24), He was also warning them that even though they would seek Him later, they would still die in their sin, which is to face judgment and eternal punishment in hell. So I think He means that they would seek Him and come to know Him when it was too late, at the judgment. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man in hell cried out to Abraham in heaven for mercy and relief from his suffering. But Abraham tells him (Luke 16:26), “Between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.” Those in hell now want to go to heaven, but it’s too late!

Also, it’s possible to harden your heart against the light that God has given you to the point where you cross a line in this life and you can’t go back. Like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal, when he later sought for repentance with tears, he could not find it (Heb. 12:17). You ask, “Where is that line?” That’s like asking, “How close to the edge of the Grand Canyon can I go without falling over?” That’s a bad question! You don’t want to find out the answer. If you don’t want to fall over, stay back from the edge!

Jesus told the story of the ten virgins who were waiting for the bridegroom. Five were wise, but five were foolish. The wise virgins had prepared for the event and had plenty of oil, but the foolish virgins did not have enough oil. While they were away buying more oil, the bridegroom came and took the five wise virgins into the wedding feast. But when the foolish virgins came later, they were shut out. Jesus’ application was (Matt. 25:13), “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day or the hour.”

Also, it’s possible to seek Christ now, but for the wrong reasons. Maybe you want some blessing or you want to get out of a crisis, so you start going to church, praying, and trying to reform your life so that God will give you what you’re after. But you aren’t seeking salvation because you know that you’re a guilty sinner who has offended the holy God. You aren’t seeking Christ because He is the eternal God who took on human flesh to die for your sins. And so after your crisis blows over or you figure out how to get what you’re after, you go back to your old ways.

But to go to heaven—to not die in your sins—you must see yourself as a sinner deserving of hell and believe in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture while you still have time. That time is now!


Some may think that it’s unloving to talk about hell and judgment. But if the words of Jesus are true, then the most loving thing anyone can do is to warn you to flee from the wrath to come. Frances Quarles wrote (cited by C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David [Baker], 4:328, English updated), “He that has promised pardon on our repentance has not promised to preserve our lives till we repent.” Or, to repeat Thomas Fuller’s wise words (ibid.), “You cannot repent too soon, because you do not know how soon it may be too late.”

Application Questions

  1. What is the “unpardonable sin” (Matt. 12:31-32)? Is it possible for a person to harden his heart so far that he can’t repent? When does one cross that line?
  2. How much knowledge of who Jesus is does a person need to believe for salvation? Can’t much of that knowledge come later?
  3. What’s the difference between believing in Jesus to get you out of a crisis or to solve a problem and believing in Jesus to save you from your sins? Why is this an important distinction?
  4. Some argue that a God of love won’t send anyone to hell. They use verses like Col. 1:20 to argue that eventually everyone will be reconciled to Christ. How would you answer them?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Heaven, Soteriology (Salvation)