Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So, if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.’
They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.’
The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon; but I honour my Father, and you dishonour me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’ The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham? Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So, they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
What is “truth” and what is “freedom”? These are two questions begged by this passage, and both raise live issues for our day.
Truth is a significant theme in the Fourth Gospel where we not only find such phrases frequently on the lips of Jesus but also Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” There have been innumerable, disheartening, instances of politicians in the UK, the USA and elsewhere claiming that their assertions are truthful and factually correct when their statements twisted facts and were untruthful, if only by omission and distortion – economical with the truth, indeed. Within this passage the reliance of the Jews on Abrahamic descent was true insofar as it reflected their confidence in being on the right side with God, but their conclusion from such reliance was negated by their failure to recognise and accept Jesus as coming from the Father.
It can be difficult, and for some people seemingly impossible, to accept that what they have been told to be true is in fact wrong. We find this among Christians who have grown up within fellowships dependent on narrow interpretations of either Scripture or the teachings of their Church. We once had an Elder who was dogmatic and decisive in expressing his views; another Elder challenged him, “Don’t you ever change your mind?” The response was instant, “Never” – a response that all too accurately reflected his attitude and revealed his personal tragedy.
And Jesus said, “the truth will make you free.” When we have the courage to face up to the truth, accepting where we have been wrong or in denial about ourselves or others, then we are offered freedom, but how are we to understand what that means?
The writer of our Gospel was steeped in both Jewish and Hellenistic (Greek) religious thought and was able to use such learning to develop and advance Christian understanding. For Jews the Law was truth and the study of the Law made people free – the greater and deeper the study, the greater the freedom. In the Hellenistic world the Stoics taught that people could obtain freedom by regulating their lives in accordance with the ultimate divine authority of the Logos. For Jews truth brought a total reliance on the Law and freedom from worldly concerns; for Stoics it meant deliverance from ignorance and error. Christians can benefit much from both approaches and here in the Gospel we find that ultimate freedom is deliverance from sin, born again to a new life with our Saviour, fully accepted of children of the Father without needing specific human ancestry.
Lord Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life; strengthen and guide us to live in your Way, growing in our understanding of your Truth and so finding the Freedom of those whose lives are grounded in your love and peace: trusting in your power we pray: Amen.
The Revd Julian Macro is a retired minister and member of Verwood URC.