Teaching on John 8:31-59

I delivered the following teaching to a group of about 15 men on Tuesday May 10th at our weekly Bible study at Mimi’s Café:

John 8:31-59

31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." 33 They answered Him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, 'You will become free'?"

34 Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham's descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. 38 I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father."

39 They answered and said to Him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you are Abraham's children, do the deeds of Abraham. 40 But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. 41 You are doing the deeds of your father." They said to Him, "We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God."

42 Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. 43 Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

45 But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. 46 Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? 47 He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God." 48 The Jews answered and said to Him, "Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?" 49 Jesus answered, "I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me. 50 But I do not seek My glory; there is One who seeks and judges. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death."

52 The Jews said to Him, "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.' 53 Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?" 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'; 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. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." 57 So the Jews said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?" 58 Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am." 59 Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple. NASB

Verse by Verse

I want us to read a few verses back to get the context of Jesus’ words in v31-32:

28 So Jesus said, "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. 29 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." 30 As He spoke these things, many came to believe in Him. 31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."  

The focus in the passage is upon those who were exercising the beginnings of faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God.  Jesus desired them to move on in their faith.  Saving faith is not fickle but firm and settled.  Such maturity expresses itself in full commitment to the truth in Jesus Christ resulting in genuine freedom. 

The 1st step in the progress toward true discipleship is belief in Jesus Christ as Messiah and Son of God.  The 2nd step is Perseverance in obedience to Scripture, which is the fruit or evidence of genuine faith:

Ephesians 2:10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

The word “continue” in v31 means to habitually abide in Jesus’ words.  A genuine believer holds fast, obeys, and practices Jesus’ teaching.  The one who continues in His teaching has both the Father and the Son (2 John 9; Heb. 3:14; Rev. 2:26):

2 John 1:9 Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.

Hebrews 3:14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end

Revelation 2:26 He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, TO HIM I WILL GIVE AUTHORITY OVER THE NATIONS

Real disciples are both learners (the basic meaning of the word) and faithful followers.

The word “truth” in v32 has reference not only to the facts surrounding Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God but also to the teaching that He brought.  A genuinely saved and obedient follower of the Lord Jesus will both know divine truth and experience freedom from sin.  The divine truth comes not merely by intellectual assent (1 Cor 2:14) but saving commitment to Christ (Titus 1:1-2).

Salvation is not just a one-time decision, but a life-long commitment to continue in His word (not perfectly, but increasingly).  However, there is a surviving “free grace movement” (FG) within the evangelical church today which contends that the reformation teaching of justification by faith alone precludes the need for repentance by the believer (repentance being understood as “remorse for sin and an internal resolve to forsake it”). FG believes requiring repentance from new believers is “adding works to faith”.  FG employs a kind of fallacious mathematical reasoning when it asks, “How many good works does one have to do in order to be assured of salvation?”, as though such things could be quantified. The biblical answer is, “Some”.[1]  The reformers repeatedly and unanimously insisted that justification is by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone – it is always accompanied by good works.

Q: Is a “carnal Christian” really a Christian?

Note the sequence of what Jesus is saying in v31-32 – it is obedience, then knowledge (similar to a statement in the last chapter):

John 7:17 If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether My teaching comes from God or whether I speak on My own.

In the Jewish way of thinking, obedience is the means of spiritual knowledge.

We should also remember the great commission delivered by Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel:

Matthew 28:18-20 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

In the Great Commission, Jesus directs the 11 disciples (and by implication all future followers) to make disciples, not just believers and to teach them to observe (obey, follow) all that He taught.

33 They answered Him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, 'You will become free'?"

In reality, the nation of Israel were slaves of the Egyptians:

Exodus 1:11 - So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses.

Of course they were also made subject to Nebuchadnezzar in the Babylonian captivity:

2 Chronicles 36:15-17,20 The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, until there was no remedy. Therefore He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans [Nebuchadnezzar] …; He gave them all into his hand. … Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia

Regarding their being Abraham’s descendants, John the Baptist had addressed this topic with them:

Matthew 3:7-9 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.”

34 Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.

The ultimate bondage is not political or economic enslavement but spiritual bondage to sin and rebellion against God.  

The idea of “commits sin” (v34) means to practice sin habitually.  The apostle John also references the topic in his 1st epistle:

1 John 3:4-9

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

Although genuine Christians have a sin disposition, and do commit and need to confess sin, that is not the unbroken pattern of their lives.  A genuinely born again believer has a built-in check or guard against habitual sinning due to a new nature (“born of God”).  Since Christ died on the cross to transform sinners, those truly born again have replaced the habit of sin with the habit of righteous living.  Consider the following quote:

Religion says, “I obey, therefore I am accepted.” Christianity says, “I am accepted, therefore I obey.” – Alistair Begg

35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

While the Jews thought of themselves only as free sons of Abraham, in reality, they were slaves of sin.  Those whom Jesus Christ liberates from the tyranny of sin and the bondage of legalism are really free.  Paul expounds extensively on these topics in his epistles, here is a sampling:

Romans 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

Galatians 5:1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.

37 I know that you are Abraham's descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you.

Jesus was denying that mere physical lineage was sufficient for salvation.  The Apostle Paul echoed that sentiment in recounting his own lineage and lofty attainments as a Jew:

Philippians 3:4-9 Although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith,

Paul’s lineage and attainments were greater than those his opponents (the Judaizers) could claim, but were of no benefit for salvation.

38 I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father." 39 They answered and said to Him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you are Abraham's children, do the deeds of Abraham.

Jesus calls on them to do the deeds of Abraham.  This could be a reference to the events of Genesis 18, where the LORD appeared to Abraham at his tent near the oaks of Mamre.  Abraham welcomed the Messenger who came from heaven, but these Jews were not welcoming Jesus, the Messenger from heaven.  When the LORD took Abraham outside to look up and said his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, he believed Him (Genesis 15:6), but the Jews did not believe Jesus, God who came down from heaven, when He spoke.

40 But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. 41 You are doing the deeds of your father." They said to Him, "We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God."

The Jews may well have been referring to the controversy surrounding Jesus’ birth.  The Jews knew the story about Mary’s betrothal and that Joseph was not Jesus’ real father; thus they implied that Jesus’ birth was illegitimate (see Mt 1:18-25; Lk 1:26-38):

Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.

42 Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. 43 Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.

44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

According to John MacArthur sermon (False Assurance of the Religious (John 8:37-47)), here’s the way to diagnose a child of the devil:

Doesn’t believe the truth, doesn’t love Christ.

Here’s the way to diagnose a child of God:

Loves the truth, loves Christ and loves others!

45 But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. 46 Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me?

Jesus challenges them to convict Him of sin.  They certainly were looking for any reason to condemn Him and would’ve presented it if they had any evidence of Him committing sin.  Yet, they were presented no evidence – just baseless ad-hominem attacks (“you are a Samaritan”, “you have a demon”).

47 He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God."

These “believers” were not true believers – they were not His sheep and therefore could not hear Him:

John 10:27-28 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.

They continued with baseless, unfounded, ad-hominem attacks:

48 The Jews answered and said to Him, "Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?"

They had no substance, so they just resorted to name-calling.  The same is going on in the modern day!

49 Jesus answered, "I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me. 50 But I do not seek My glory; there is One who seeks and judges. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death."

This is a staggering statement (“if anyone keeps My word he will never see death”).  C.S. Lewis comments on Jesus “talking as if He was God” in Mere Christianity:

Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world Who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.

Imagine your neighbor making these kinds of claims: I am the first and the last—the self-existing One. Do you need your sins forgiven? I can do it. Do you want to know how to live? I am the light of the world—whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. Do you want to know whom you can trust? All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Do you have any worries or requests? Pray in my name. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. Do you need access to God the Father? No one comes to the Father except through me. The Father and I are one.

What would you think about your neighbor if he seriously said those things? You certainly wouldn’t say, “Gee, I think he’s a great moral teacher!” No, you’d say this guy is nuts, because he’s definitely claiming to be God.  Since Jesus claimed to be God, one of only three possibilities could be true: he was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord (refer to famous C.S. Lewis quote from Mere Christianity).

52 The Jews said to Him, "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.' 53 Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?" 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'; 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.

56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." 57 So the Jews said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?"

58 Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am."

Here Jesus declared Himself to be Yahweh, i.e. the Lord of the OT.  Some of the most powerful affirmations of Jesus’ deity are a chain of expressions in John’s gospel known as the “I am” statements.  Each of these phrases employs the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush – “I AM” (Ex. 3:14).  Jesus applied that name to Himself in a series of prominent declarations: “I am the bread of life” (6:35).  “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven” (6:51). “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5).  “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7).  “I am the good shepherd” (10:11).  “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25).  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (14:6).  And the stunning, inescapable affirmation of deity, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am” (8:58).  Jesus’ stature as the great I AM of the OT was essential to His role as Savior.  Those who refuse to acknowledge Him for who He is cannot be saved: “Unless you believe that I am, you shall die in your sins” (8:24).  This set up an extremely difficult barrier for Pharisees.  They understood that He was claiming authority over their greatest patriarchs and prophets (8:53).  Indeed He was claiming equality with God and the ramifications of that they could not accept.  Therefore Jesus warned them, they would die in their sins (8:24).

Q: What statement or act of Jesus is the most explicit declaration of His Deity?

59 Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.

The Jews understood Jesus’ claim and were ready to punish Jesus for blasphemy:

Leviticus 24:16 Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him. The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.

Resources Used in Preparing this Teaching

  1. MacArthur Study Bible (NASB)
  2. MacArthur sermons:
    1. The Freedom of True Discipleship (John 8:31-36) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AM5x0_Bvzzo
    2. False Assurance of the Religious (John 8:37-47) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBLkSJVfg1Q https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/43-47/false-assurance-of-the-religious
    3. Jesus Provokes His Enemies (John 8:48-59): http://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/43-48
  3. How “Free Grace” Theology Diminishes the Gospel: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/free-grace-theology/
  4. “Free Grace” Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel (by Wayne Grudem): https://www.amazon.com/Free-Grace-Theology-Diminishes-Gospel/dp/1433551144/
  5. Salvation without Repentance from Sin? A Critique of the “Free Grace” Gospel – Nov. 21, 2014: ETS Annual Meeting, San Diego, California – Wayne Grudem’s notes (http://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Salvation-w-o-repentance-ETS-paper-11-21-14.docx)
  6. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist (Norman Geisler and Frank Turek)
  7. The Gospel According to Jesus: What is Authentic Faith (John MacArthur)

[1] Adapted from the Gospel Coalition review of Wayne Grudem’s book “Free Grace” Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel

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