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Lesson 50: Challenging Jesus (John 8:48-59)

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March 30, 2013

Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) was a German pathologist and politician (interesting combination!) who openly opposed the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. On one occasion, Bismarck was so enraged at Virchow that he challenged him to a duel. Virchow replied, “As the challenged party, I have the choice of weapons and I choose these.” He held up two large and apparently identical sausages. “One of these,” he continued, “is infected with deadly germs. The other is perfectly sound. Let His Excellency decide which one he wishes to eat, and I will eat the other.”

Almost immediately the message came back that the chancellor had decided to laugh off the duel. (The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, ed. by Clifton Fadiman [Little, Brown, & Co.], p. 565.) The moral of that story is that if you’re going to challenge someone, you had better know your opponent and know when to drop the challenge before you lose more than face.

In John 8, the Pharisees have been challenging Jesus ever since He proclaimed (8:12), “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” They contended that His testimony about Himself was not true (8:13). They sneeringly asked (8:19), “Where is Your Father?” After Jesus told them that they would die in their sins, they scoffed (8:25, giving the sense of the Greek), “Who do you think you are?”

After Jesus told them that the truth would make them free, they retorted that they were Abraham’s descendants and had never been enslaved to anyone (8:32-33). After Jesus countered by saying that their deeds showed that Abraham was not their father, they again sneered (8:41), “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.” Jesus responded (8:44) by telling them that their real father was the devil, who is a murderer and liar. The reason that they could not hear God’s word through Jesus was that they were not of God (8:47).

Well, if you can’t win the argument, you can always attack your opponent. That’s what these Jewish leaders did (8:48), “Do we not rightly say that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” After Jesus replies to these insults with an explanation, a warning, and an invitation (8:49-51), they repeat the challenge with more conviction (8:52), “Now we know that You have a demon.”

They can’t believe that Jesus would claim to be greater than Abraham. They ask again (8:53), “Whom do You make Yourself out to be?” Jesus counters by claiming that He is far greater than Abraham, who rejoiced to see His day (8:56). Then He goes further and claims to be the eternal God (8:58): “Before Abraham was born, I am.” By this time, the Jews had heard enough. They picked up stones to kill Jesus. But, since Jesus’ hour had not come, He hid Himself and went out of the Temple. Their challenge to Jesus had failed. That’s an inviolable principle to always keep in mind: challenges to Jesus always fail!

If you challenge Jesus you will lose, but if you keep His word you have His sure promise of eternal life.

Jesus and His Word still challenge those who oppose Him. He also challenges His followers when they’re out of line. The crucial thing is how you respond when Jesus challenges you. Do you get defensive and hostile, as these Jews did? The result of that response was that Jesus left them to die in their sins (8:21, 24, 59). That’s a terrible place to be! But, Jesus says (8:51), “If anyone keeps My word he will never see death.” To state it another way, you will have eternal life. So let’s learn from these hard-hearted Jews not to challenge Jesus when He challenges us!

1. When you challenge Jesus, you lose.

It’s a fight that you don’t want to pick! And yet, people still do it. It’s like getting in the ring with a world champion boxer. You’ll get knocked out!

A. There are different ways to challenge Jesus.

1) Some challenge Jesus in bold, blasphemous ways.

These Jews resorted to name-calling and blasphemy when they said (8:48), “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” For a Jew to call someone a Samaritan was a degrading put-down. It was both a racial and a religious slur. The Jews despised the Samaritans, whom they considered half-breeds and heretics. They would often walk miles out of their way if they were traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee just to avoid contaminating their feet with Samaritan dust. Jesus chose not to respond to that charge, perhaps because He did not want to implicitly support their racism by insisting that He was not a Samaritan.

But He did respond calmly to their more blasphemous charge that He had a demon (8:49): “I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me.” Dishonoring Jesus is a serious matter, because as He said (John 5:22-23), “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.” To dishonor Jesus is to dishonor the eternal Sovereign of the universe! It is to dishonor the One before whom you will stand one day for eternal judgment! If you’re going to court on a charge for which you could be executed, it’s not wise to spit in the judge’s face! But that’s what the person who dishonors Jesus is doing!

Jesus replies with a warning and a gracious invitation. The warning is (8:50), “But I do not seek My glory; there is one who seeks and judges.” God the Father seeks Jesus’ glory and He will ultimately judge all who reject His Son. But then Jesus issues an invitation (8:51), “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death.” I’ll say more about that in a moment, but for now note the abundant grace of our Lord. Rather than striking dead on the spot these arrogant Jewish leaders, who should have recognized Jesus as their Messiah, Jesus promises eternal life to any of them who would keep His word. But they respond with more blasphemy (8:52-53),

“Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death.’ Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?”

Then, after Jesus’ clear claim to be the eternal God (8:59), they picked up stones to kill Him. It never occurred to them that His claims might be true. Because they challenged Jesus rather than believed in Him, they would die in their sins.

Those who challenge Jesus in bold, blasphemous ways often die in their sins. There are exceptions, like the apostle Paul, so that there is hope for all. But the Lord had to deal with Paul in a pretty forceful way, knocking him to the ground and blinding him for a few days, to bring him to salvation. With King Herod Agrippa, who blasphemously allowed people to attribute divinity to him, God directed His angel to strike him so that he was eaten by worms and died (Acts 12:23). It’s safe to say that challenging the Lord of the universe is not a wise thing to do!

2) Others challenge Jesus by ignoring Him and shrugging off His invitation to salvation.

This is probably the most common response to Jesus and His claims: People just ignore Him and go on about their lives as if He didn’t exist and as if He had not died so that they could have eternal life. They would say that they don’t have anything against Jesus. He was probably a good man who helped a lot of people. But they have other more “important” things to tend to. Like those in Jesus’ parable who were invited to the feast, some beg off because they have just bought a piece of land and need to go look at it. Others just bought some new oxen (in our day, a new car) and need to go try them out. Another just married a wife and can’t come (Luke 14:17-20). But they all dishonored the host and missed out on his banquet.

So, any rejection of Jesus and His claims, whether a bold, blasphemous challenge or a quiet, polite excuse from those who ignore Him and move on with their own agendas, is a serious matter. Here’s why:

B. The result of challenging Jesus is that He leaves you to die and face judgment.

Jesus warns (8:50), God is the judge of all that dishonor His Son. Leon Morris comments (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 468), “Jesus’ hearers may act as though they are supreme and dispense justice. Actually they are men under judgment.” Ironically, although the Jews sought Jesus’ death and finally succeeded in killing Him, this brought His greatest glory. You cannot win if you oppose God. He uses even the wicked to accomplish His sovereign plan and then He judges them for what they did (Acts 4:27-28; cf. Habakkuk). Those who crucified Jesus only brought about God’s predestined purpose. Then they faced judgment for their horrible crime.

John 8:59 states, “Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.” We don’t know whether this was a miraculous hiding or whether Jesus simply blended in with the crowd. But I do know that it’s always tragic when Jesus hides Himself from you and leaves you to die in your sins. Jesus left the temple, where these Jews purported to worship God. This reminds us of Ezekiel’s vision, when the glory of the Lord left the temple (Ezek. 10:18, 11:22-23). The Jews had their religion, but they didn’t have God’s glory. To have religion without the Lord of glory is to have nothing. Whether you challenge Jesus boldly as a blasphemer or subtly by ignoring Him, the final result will be that He will leave you to die in your sins and face judgment. When you challenge Jesus, you lose!

But, even to these blasphemers, who should have known better, Jesus issues a gracious invitation. He still does that. It applies to you if you will respond:

2. When you keep Jesus’ word, you have His sure promise of eternal life.

Rather than face God in judgment (8:50), Jesus extends this gracious promise:

A. Jesus promises that whoever keeps His word will never see death.

John 8:51: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death.” “Truly, truly,” means, “Listen up! This is really, really important!” The one speaking is the eternal Word who became flesh. The promise extends to all (“anyone”). It would be a ludicrous promise on the lips of anyone other than the Lord God: “If anyone keeps My word he will never see death.”

In typical fashion, the Jews understand Jesus in earthly, physical terms, pointing out that both Abraham and all the prophets died (8:53): “Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?”

John again is using irony. His readers know that Jesus is far greater than Abraham, as He Himself will state in 8:58. If the Jews’ question about whom Jesus made Himself out to be had been asked sincerely from seeking hearts, it would have been valid. But as it is, it misses the point that both Jesus and John’s Gospel have been making. D. A. Carson puts it (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 356), “Jesus does not make himself or exalt himself to be anything. Far from it: he is the most obedient and dependent of men, uniquely submissive to his Father.”

But, what does Jesus’ promise mean?

1) Jesus’ promise means that the one who keeps His word will have eternal life and not face judgment.

If the Jews truly had been seeking to know if Jesus was who He claimed to be, they would have asked for clarification. Instead, they confirm their charge that He had a demon (8:52). Jesus here means the same thing that He said in 5:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” He repeats the same truth to Martha in 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Obviously, all people die physically. Jesus died; all the apostles died. In human history, the only men never to die were Enoch and Elijah. The believers who are living when Jesus returns will not die (1 Thess. 4:15-17). But other than that, all people, including believers, face physical death. But believers are kept from the second death, which is to spend eternity separated from God in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). Believing in Christ means that we will not come into judgment, but have passed out of death into eternal life.

2) The condition of Jesus’ promise is that we keep His word.

What does that mean? Does it mean that if you ever disobey Jesus, you do not have eternal life and will face judgment for your sins? If so, there won’t be anyone in heaven, because we all sin (1 John 1:8)! Rather, Jesus means the same thing as He said in 8:31, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine.” He said that in response to the Jews who professed to believe in Him, but (as the subsequent dialogue shows) did not truly believe in Him. Jesus wasn’t describing the condition for becoming His disciples, but rather the result of genuinely believing in Him. Those who truly believe in Him abide in or keep His word. It doesn’t refer to perfection, but to direction. The new direction of a person who truly believes in Christ is to keep His word.

C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 36:566-568) developed several characteristics of the one who keeps Christ’s words. He has close dealing with Christ. He hears what Christ says and clings to it. He accepts Christ’s doctrine. Whatever Christ teaches is the truth. He trusts Christ’s promises, especially the promise that whoever believes in Him has eternal life. And, he obeys Christ’s precepts. Jesus promises that the one who does these things has eternal life.

But, how do we know that Jesus’ promise is true?

B. Jesus’ many claims secure His promise that the one who keeps His word will never see death.

We’ve already seen that Jesus claimed that whoever keeps His word will not see death. There is no middle ground with a claim like that. Either Jesus is deluded and you should not trust Him, or He is God and you had better trust Him. Here are 5 more claims:

1) Jesus claims to honor His Father and seek His glory.

John 8:49-50: “Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me. But I do not seek My glory; there is One who seeks and judges.’” Jesus is here identifying Himself closely with the Father so that He seeks the Father’s glory and the Father seeks Jesus’ glory. John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 355) paraphrases Jesus’ statement here, “I claim nothing for myself which does not tend to the glory of God; for his majesty shines in me, his power and authority dwells in me; and therefore, when you treat me so disdainfully, you pour contempt on God himself.” You have to decide: Was Jesus deluded or lying, or was He uniquely one with the Father, so that they could promote each other’s glory?

2) Jesus claims that the Father seeks His glory.

John 8:54: “Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, “He is our God.”’” Jesus is saying that if He were just promoting Himself, His claims would be invalid. But when the Father glorifies the Son, if we oppose the Son we oppose God Himself.

3) Jesus claims to know the Father and keep His word.

Although these Jewish leaders claim that God is their God, Jesus plainly tells them the truth (8:55): “And you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I will be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word.” Jesus calls them liars for claiming to know God. By way of contrast, Jesus claims both to know the Father and to keep His word. He could authoritatively tell them that they did not know God because He knew what was in every heart (2:25). And, as Jesus has just claimed in 8:46, He keeps God’s word perfectly. No one could convict Him of sin. Was He deluded or did He speak the truth?

4) Jesus claims that Abraham rejoiced to see His day.

John 8:56: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” Jesus’ “day” refers to the time of His incarnation and the whole of His work (Morris, p. 471). It probably also refers to His coming day, when He will judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31). The Jews responded with incredulity (8:57): “You are not yet fifty years old, and You have seen Abraham?” They were not suggesting that Jesus looked like He was fifty. Rather, they were just picking a round number that obviously was older than Jesus (who was in His mid-thirties) and asking, “How can a man who isn’t even fifty claim to have seen a man who lived 2,000 years ago?” Notice, also, that Jesus did not claim to have seen Abraham (although He saw and talked with him; Gen. 18:13, 17, 20). Rather, He said that Abraham saw His day.

Scholars debate what that refers to. I think that it refers to all of the revelation that God granted to Abraham regarding the coming Messiah and His death on the cross. God promised to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed and that kings would come forth from Sarah’s womb (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:16-17). When Abraham met the mysterious Melchizedek, the priest of God Most High, who gave him bread and wine (Gen. 14:18), God could have revealed to Abraham something of the coming priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 7). On Mount Moriah, where God told Abraham to sacrifice the son of the promise, He provided the ram as a substitute (Gen. 22). God showed Abraham there how His own Son would be the sacrifice for sins, but also how He would be raised from the dead (Heb. 11:17-19).

Note in passing that if with Abraham you see Christ’s first day, when He came as the offering for sinners, and rejoice in it, you will rejoice to see His second day, when He comes in power and glory to judge the earth. But if you have not rejoiced in His first day, His second day will be a day of dread and gloom for you.

5) Jesus claims to be God.

John 8:58: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” Jesus did not merely say, “Before Abraham was born, I was.” That would point to His preexistence, but not to His eternity. But rather, He says that before Abraham was born, He was continuously in existence. He was claiming to be eternal. Also, the Jews instantly recognized “I am” as a reference to the name of God given to Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:14). Since the penalty for blasphemy was stoning, the Jews picked up stones to kill Jesus. But His hour had not come, so He left them.

The point is, Jesus’ claims are so radical that either He was a deluded crazy man, or He was who He claimed to be. And His claims are backed up by the many Scriptures that He fulfilled, by His sinless life, by His many miracles, and by His resurrection from the dead. Thus we can rely on His promise that whoever keeps His word will never see death.


You face the same choice these Jews faced: Either Jesus was a blasphemer or He is God. He could not have been just a good man. If you challenge Jesus by shrugging off His claims, you will lose big time. If you bow before Him as the Lord God and obey His word, you will see the day of His coming and be glad.

Application Questions

  1. What are some specific ways that Christians challenge Jesus?
  2. How should a believer view death? Is it to be dreaded and put off at all costs? When should believers stop medical treatment and go be with the Lord?
  3. Just as Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ coming day, so we can rejoice to see the day of His second coming. How can we cultivate that hope? What difference should it make in our lives?
  4. Why is Jesus’ claim in 8:58 clearly a claim to deity? How could you use this in witnessing to a member of a cult?

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: Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

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