Easter Gift: Freedom

Read John 8: 14-36

 In John 8:14-36, we are reminded of the fact that as human beings apart from grace, we are enslaved to sin.  We will also learn that Jesus meets our needs by teaching us that the only way to experience real freedom is through becoming a disciple – a follower of Jesus through the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

 The context for the events of this passage is the Feast of the Tabernacles.  During this festival, pilgrims and residents of Jerusalem would build temporary shelters in which to celebrate the feast.  These “booths” commemorated the protection God gave to Israel during their journey into Canaan when the Israelites lived in temporary shelters.

 Jesus was teaching in the temple courtyard for the women where the rabbis often taught the people.  Near where He was standing were four large oil lamps which provided light for the celebrations which lasted until late in the evening.  These lamps reminded the people of the “pillar of fire” God had used to guide the Israelites in the wilderness.

 In this setting, Jesus stood and announced to the people that He was the “light of the world” and those who followed Him would possess the “light of life.”  (8:12)

 Of course, the Pharisees were not pleased with this announcement.  They took it as an attack upon their authority.  Thinking His words to be an expression of personal egotism, the Pharisees decided to challenge the authority of Jesus’ testimony concerning Himself.  The remainder of this chapter is devoted to the debate which ensued between Jesus and the Pharisees as to who had the right type of relationship with God.

Two witnesses

 In response to the challenge by the Pharisees, Jesus defended His testimony.  Since they were only human, unable to rebuild the past or predict the future, the testimony and judgments of the Pharisees would always be incomplete.  Human judgment is always limited to what can be seen and experienced at any given moment.  Since Jesus was aware of both His origin and destiny, His testimony concerning Himself could be considered trustworthy.  He was able to offer His testimony based on an eternal context because He had come from God, and would return to God (7:25-36).

Jesus’ response to this challenge helped Him meet the intent of the Jewish law which said that the testimony of two witnesses was needed to establish the truth of a certain claim.  In essence, Jesus was claiming that both He and God were witnesses to His authority to claim to be the “light of the world.”

 While this claim ultimately had no real legal foundation (since the law insisted upon two witnesses other than the accused), Bill Hull points out that at the level of faith, this argument was perfectly valid.  What two witnesses could be more trustworthy than God and God’s chosen messiah?  (Broadman Commentary Vol. 9, p. 291).

 The reply of the Pharisees reveals that they really did not understand what Jesus was talking about when He made reference to “the Father” (8:18-19).  They thought Jesus was referring to another man whom they could question, so they asked, “Where is your father?”  Jesus’ answer indicated just how sad the situation was for the Pharisees.

 Since they were incapable or unwilling to recognize the identity of Jesus as the only begotten child of God (Abba/Father), it was also evident that they couldn’t have any real knowledge of God.

 “If you knew Me,” Jesus said, “you would know God also” (8:20).  Since they did not know Him, they could not know God.

 The one from God

 As the discussion continued, the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees became even more intense.  Jesus returned to the departure motif he began in 7:33-34, but here, the message was even more threatening for his hearers.

 Jesus said that soon he would return from whence he came.  When he did, his accusers would look for him but not find him. Instead, they would “die in sin” (8:21).

 George Beasley-Murray as suggested that this may have been meant ironically.  The Jews who opposed Jesus would seek what he proclaimed as God’s gift through him, but they wouldn’t be able to find it because of their unbelief (8:23).  Those who walk in faith would have the “light of life.”  Those who had no faith would walk in darkness toward their death (Word Biblical Commentary Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 36, p. 130).

 When Jesus first introduced the theme of his departure, some of the Jews thought he meant that he would “go to the Dispersion among the Greeks” (7:35).  When he spoke again, they thought he was talking about committing suicide (8:22).

 It is interesting that the Pharisees would suggest that Jesus might kill himself, when in fact, they were the ones who were seeking to take his life.

 Jesus was offering words of warning when he said that if they were to hasten his departure by lifting him upon the cross (8:28), then they would seal their own doom through their rejection of the salvation which he offered.

 In fact, the Jews who opposed him were already doomed because of their unbelief.  Jesus declared that while he was “from above,” his opposition was “from below” (8:23).

 As such, they were alienated from Abba due to their unbelief, and they would therefore die in their sins (8:24).  Some of the Jews once again failed to understand the implications of what Jesus as saying.

 Several times since this debate had begun, Jesus had used the phrase “I am” which was the Hebrew Scriptures’ formula for expressing the presence and existence of God (BC, Vol. 9, p. 292).  Expecting that he would follow this phrase with some type of definite predicate, which the law demanded, the Pharisees asked, “Who are you?”

 Jesus simply replied, “Just what I have been claiming all along.”  Since they refused to believe, nothing more could be said to open their minds.  Once again, we note that they were enslaved to the sin of unbelief.

 Liberty and life

 In this section of the narrative, not all the Jews rejected Jesus.  There were some Jews who “had believed in Him” (8:31).

 This reference is a problem since Jesus later calls some Jews “children of the devil” (8:44), and they retort by saying that Jesus was possessed by a demon (8:52).

 Bill Hull suggests that this difficulty might be resolved if we understand that these Jews had “come to give intellectual credence to certain doctrinal propositions about Jesus but that they did not share that higher form of faith which lodged personal trust in Him” (BC, Vol. 9, p. 292).

 Jesus’ words seem to support this interpretation. The Jews had accepted certain doctrinal propositions about Jesus, but that wasn’t enough to free them from their enslavement to sin.

 To be really free they would have to “remain” or “abide,” in His word (8:31).  Knowing the truth, therefore, is a process.

 The more you “abide” in what Jesus says, the more you will come to understand the dynamic power of God’s truth which will set you free.  Such freedom begins when one becomes a disciple.

 The word for FAITH in John’s gospel is not a noun.  It is used 98 times in John’s gospel as a verb, not a possession, but an action.  Specifically, it means to “live into” or “breathe into” a certain life’s source.  When the Greek work was translated into Latin, the translators chose the work “credo” – which refers not to a list of doctrines, but the direction of a person’s heart.  There are others words that would have been used if the meaning was a doctrinal list.

John is not talking about DOGMA, but devotion.  It’s not  here I STAND, but here I walk.  It’s not about rules,  rituals, or regulations, but relationship.

Well, what is freedom?  We’ve heard a lot of talk about freedom in recent years, haven’t we?  Think about all the uproar in the Middle East and Northern Africa from folks hungry for freedom.  It has almost become intoxicating.  Most people in our country are willing to accept almost anything if it can somehow be associated with the word “freedom.”

 If there is one virtue in our nation which we all would readily applaud, it would probably be freedom.  We would, no doubt, have some disagreements over certain social issues, taxes, the national defense, and whether McDonald’s or Wendy’s has the best cheeseburgers, but we would all probably agree that freedom is good.

 “Freedom,” he said, “that’s why I’m proud to be an American.”  He was a wealthy surgeon in Louisville, Kentucky, who had hired me to house-sit while is family vacationed in Europe.

 Freedom and locked doors

 He continued, “I have visited over 30 countries in our world, and the freedom which we have here in the United States makes me very proud!”  After making this statement, he then told me how to lock up the house for the evening.

First, I would have to lock the latch, then I needed to turn the deadbolt, insert the chain and then go to the bedroom and punch in a secret code which would active a sound-sensitive alarm throughout the house.  After the alarm was activated, I would be unable to leave the bedroom without setting off the alarm and bringing out the Louisville police.

 “Freedom,” he said, “that’s why I’m proud to be an American.” 

In the U.S., we have built a society of great freedoms and liberty for all our citizens…or have we?  Are we really free when we feel we must be surrounded by all our locked doors and sophisticated burglar alarms in order to feel safe in our homes?  Are we really free if we feel we must have the ability to send massive numbers of troops across the globe in order to protect our “national interests?”

 Are we really free when we allow our fears – fears of Iraq, nuclear wars, oil shortages, the greenhouse effect, terrorists, insanity and AIDS to dominate our thoughts and actions?  Is this freedom?

 The primary objection to Jesus’ word about freedom comes in the form of an argument which revolved around the Jewish identity as a nation.  They didn’t believe that Jesus could offer them anything new in the way of freedom.

 “We are descendants of Abraham,” they boasted.  “We have never been slaves to anyone” (8:33).  This is a rather curious claim when one considers that several times in Israel’s history; the nation had been in slavery (Egypt, Babylon).

 Even as they spoke, the nation was a vassal of the Roman Empire.

 In His response to their claim, Jesus taught that there is an enslavement to which all people are heirs, even the descendants of Abraham.  Enslavement to sin is a characteristic present in the lives of everyone at birth (according to John’s theology).  The author of this gospel understands sin to be not merely a breach of the law but rather a rejection of Abba/Father-God.

 Somebody once said that there is really only one sin known to humanity and that is the sin of idolatry.  To reject Abba is to bow before some other god and become enslaved to that god.

Next, Jesus related captivity and freedom to the concepts of slavery and an offspring’s inheritance.  A slave has no permanent place in a family but the child always has a place (8:35).  We should interpret this to mean that Jesus, the Son of Abba, has come to liberate the slaves and allow them to become part of Abba’s family.  This type of redemption allows us to experience real freedom (8:36).

Reflection questions

  1. In what ways are we held captive to sin?  What prejudices, habits and attitudes enslave us?
  2. Because of our identity as citizens of the United States, are the churches in our nation ever blinded from the call to committed discipleship?  In what ways?
  3. What are some of the implications for “remaining” or “abiding” in Christ’s words?  How does one “abide” in His word?
  4. Is truth propositional, relational or a mixture of both? 

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