30 Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him.
Dispute Over Whose Children Jesus' Opponents Are
31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
33 They answered him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?"
34 Jesus replied, "Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, announcing that it would go into effect on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation declared that all slaves that lived in territories that remained in rebellion against the United States government would go free on January 1st. Because those states continued in their war efforts, this meant that the Proclamation itself freed virtually no slaves. This particularly applied to Texas, which was almost completely under Confederate control for the remainder of the war. Although the American Civil War ended in essence on April 9, 1865, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 that Union General Gordon Granger and his soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to enforce the end of the war and the emancipation of the slaves. Immediately, the slaves broke into jubilant celebrations over the fact that they had been freed for good. That day has gone into history as Juneteenth and has developed into a huge holiday of parades and celebrations commemorating the actualized date of the end of slavery in Texas, and symbolically, all of the United States.
Imagine, though, if those slaves in Texas had not broken into celebration. What if they had, instead, began to shout down General Granger as he stood out on a balcony announcing their freedom? What if they got angry, denying that they were even in slavery rather than being filled with joy? If that had happened, they would have remained in their slavery, at least in their own minds and would have never enjoyed their freedom. Indeed, the only thing worse than being in slavery is having the opportunity to be free, not realizing it, and choosing to stay there in slavery when freedom has been offered to you. This might sound unthinkable but it is exactly the situation that Jesus found himself in with the Jewish leaders and much of Israel in general. He was announcing that the time of their freedom had finally come, but rather than celebrating jubilantly and praising God, they railed against the suggestion that they weren’t free. They didn’t like the idea that there might be something from which they needed to be freed. So, when the offer of freedom came they rejected it rather than embracing it.
As Jesus spoke against the Jewish leaders and their earthly agenda, many put their faith in him. Generally when John brings up the idea of someone having faith in Jesus it is in the positive sense of trusting in his life as the only means to reconciliation with the Father. In fact, many people have read this passage out its full context and assumed that John is speaking of those who had faith here in a positive sense. A careful reading of the rest of the scene, however, puts verse 30 in context and demonstrates that they came to a certain level of faith that Jesus was saying the right things and was, perhaps, the Messiah, but they didn’t have the real kind of faith that Jesus demands of his disciples. John, then, is evidently demonstrating that it is possible to come to a level of faith that reaches a mental assent to the ideas of Jesus, but they were not truly willing to follow Jesus’ teachings all the way, which is always the true sign of a genuine disciple (2 Jn. 1:9). As Jesus will expose in the rest of the passage, these "believers" were not willing to die themselves and their former identities. They still put value on who and what they were and thought that there was some value to their lives.
It was to these nominal believers that Jesus challenged further, as his word will do to everyone who supposes to have faith in him. To these Jews who had believed in him, Jesus said that if they really were his disciples, they would hold to his teaching. They wanted the Messiah part, it would seem, without the teaching that they must rely on faith in his life alone. It is important to notice that Jesus did not say that if people hold to his teaching then they will be his disciples. Holding to Jesus’ teaching is not what creates disciples, faith does that. Instead, holding to Jesus’ teaching is the marker of a true disciple. It is the attribute of a genuine disciple not the creating condition. In issuing this challenge, Jesus shows that he is more interested in deepening the genuine faith and discipleship of his followers than he is in simple and often misleading numerical growth.
What Jesus truly wanted for these Jews, as well as all human beings, was to know the truth and be set free. Jesus is not talking about some sort of religion here. True Christianity is not mere religion and if ever is reduced and starts sounding something like other religious beliefs, then we can be sure that it is not the truth that Jesus was offering. His truth is far more than just a set of doctrines or fundamental set of beliefs that needed to be adhered to. He is speaking of new creation. Jesus is the truth and the life (14:6). Try as we might, humans will never find complete light and truth outside of his life. His life, this truth is the only thing that will ever free any human from what truly enslaves us.
This is exactly what these Jews could not understand. Talk of needing to do something to be free implied that they were enslaved too. This notion would have been unacceptable to the average Jew and certainly was to those speaking with Jesus here. Freedom was the natural birthright of any Jew; they were, after all, the children of Abraham. The law declared that regardless of how poor they were, no Jew should ever sink to becoming a slave (Lev. 25:39-42). The Jewish Mishnah states that, "Even the poorest in Israel are looked upon as freemen who have lost their possessions, for they are the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." They had overlooked the political reality that Israel had been in subjection to Babylon, Persia, Greece, and now Rome for the better part of the previous six centuries. Although that may be a small part of his point, Jesus’ real concern is the true enemy that had enslaved God’s people, and all human beings. Sin was the real enemy, the real slave master. The Jewish leaders would have known this, even if they denied that it was a problem in their individual lives. Yet, Jews believed that sin was something that God would only deal with at the end of the present age. They simply could not and would not consider Jesus’ message that the gift of freedom from sin and the life of the age to come could be made available in the here and now through the life of Christ.
Everyone who sins, says Jesus, is a slave to sin. This is the problem in a nutshell. Those who are in sin are a slave to sin. The language that Jesus uses here does not mean occasional sin. He refers, rather, to those who remain in a continual state of sin, the realm of sin. The problem was that the Pharisees, chief priests, and so many other Jews confused being children of Abraham with being the children of God as though they were one in the same. But they were not. God would bless all of the nations through the seed of Abraham (Genesis 12:3; 18:18) but it would be one seed. The Messiah would come through the children of Abraham but the blessing for all people of the world would come through him and him alone. The Jews assumed they were the solution, but in fact they were part of the problem. Israel had succumbed to the disease of sin just like everyone else in the world. This was the big problem that Israel did not want to face. What do you do when the doctor through whom the cure is supposed to come becomes a carrier of the disease? The answer is the solution that the Jewish leadership simply did not want to face. They weren’t the solution at all, they were part of the problem. Until they owned up to that they could never consider Jesus as the cure.
The true fault in their thinking is that the Jews believed themselves to be sons in God’s household. They presumed on rights that belonged to sons but they were slaves not sons. In the ancient world, the rights of the son lasted forever, but the rights of the slave were temporary at best, and were dependent on the will of the master. At any point a slave can be sold or sent away, but a son has rights that nothing can alter. It is only Jesus who fulfilled the words of the prophecy of 1 Chronicles 17:13-14: "I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever." Jesus was the true son but he wasn’t trying to cast them out forever. His true desire was to share his sonship with all of those who would enter into belief in his life. If they would only humble themselves and consider for a moment that his word might be true, then they could be set free from the slavery that they didn’t even know that they were in. It is only when the Son sets you free, that you will be free indeed.
Throughout the book of 1 John, John warns his beloved fellow disciples of the danger of walking in darkness and remaining fully in the light. There is always a danger when those who are called to reflect Jesus’ light to the world slip into darkness themselves. Spend some time reading 1 John this week and reflecting on whether you have truly been remaining in the light of Christ.