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I think that of all the New Testament verses and words of Jesus, this verse may be the one that has been the most taken out of context throughout history.
[I recommend that you read this article with your Bible at hand, also available via this link and that, if you can, you read John chapter 8 before starting, in order to get the context].
I think that of all the New Testament verses and words of Jesus, this verse may be the one that has been the most taken out of context throughout history. These words, taken out of their context, can be used to say anything. Truth and freedom are two of the most basic concepts in our society. It’s possible to follow their footprints through all the important social and political moments of the last one hundred years.
Since the 60s, these concepts have been used to justify the New Age propaganda of spiritual self-knowledge. They’ve also been used to justify that concept, universal in those who are distanced from Christian foundations, that Jesus is nothing more than a nice guy, a good man, but just one more of many. In fact, the de contextualisation of the verse is such that it wouldn’t surprise me if one day, even my cat used it to escape from me when I try to prevent her from climbing up on the roof to meet the neighbour’s cat.
I’ve deliberately only quoted part of verse 32 and not the whole text of the passage because those are the words that are always chosen; sadly, it’s also the part that is repeated in many supposedly Christian writings and sermons which use this verse to defend their own hidden interests (which, coincidentally, are almost always to do with money.) I don’t believe that it’s necessary to give examples.
The first thing that we should ask ourselves is: what truth and what freedom are being referred to? For example, when we look at the dictionary we can see that the word αληθεια (truth), as in English, in Greek the word is associated with a concept of reality, I mean to say, that there can only be one truth, since there is only one reality. That doesn’t really fit with today’s fashionable idea that each person has their own truth. We talk of my truth or of your truth as if they were interchangeable.
As regards ελευθερωσει (the truth will set you free), it’s an interesting verb and one which the natives understood to speak of the freedom given to slaves. It could also be used in the sense of absolving someone of blame. When it was shown that a prisoner was innocent, their freedom was given back to them, and this verb was used to explain that fact.
For that reason, in using it here, Jesus wasn’t only talking about an abstract freedom, such as we understand today, but rather he was referring to the true fact of having been pardoned from a serious accusation. Only with that detail is there room for the whole gospel message.
This passage starts as a long conversation, particularly with the Pharisees who pursue him in order to trap him in some heresy. We know that for the majority of them, Jesus was very suspect. Even though the text covers different periods of time, from v.12 it’s presented as a unit; I suppose that´s in order to understand the conversation that takes place in v.31 and later builds upon what came before.
In reality, He had been having that conversation for the whole of John’s gospel. The main theme is to do with the very identity of Jesus. Even though He clearly explained the characteristics of His nature (mainly vv. 14, 23, 28 and 29), the Pharisees and other Jews don’t stop pestering him (I’m using the NLT), “Where is your Father?” (v.19), “Who are you?” (v.25), etc. Despite the fact that Jesus had no need to continue answering the same questions and accusations, he stops to do that.
But then something beautiful happens; the text tells us that there comes a point when many of those who heard him say such things in response to provocations, believe in Him. At some point, while they listened to the debate, they realised that Jesus was saying the truth and that it was too important to be ignored.
And on this occasion, Jesus stops talking with those that are attacking him with questions and doubting his words, and he directs himself towards those who believe in Him. As was often the case with Jesus, his words don’t only apply to the people that believed in Him in that time and place (John 2:25 tells us that Jesus had the ability to see further than the intentions of people’s hearts), but they establish a universal principle for all those who would be His disciples from that moment.
This is where the context starts for the famous verse. Jesus knew who His true disciples were and who they weren’t. But how do we know that ourselves? There’s an indispensable measure: remain faithful to His teachings, or remain in His word, as it’s often translated. Jesus can say that if we remain faithful to His word, then we’ll know the truth because that is the truth; He, is not an abstract, nor an ambiguous concept, but rather a person.
Therefore, if we remain faithful to the words of Jesus and to His teachings, then we’ll know the truth; that He is the truth (John 14:6); and that’s when that unique truth that is Jesus will make us free. In case it hasn’t been made clear that Jesus is the truth, in verse 36 that affirmation is repeated form verse 32, but changing the terms around, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (NIV). Once again, truth means Jesus, and viceversa.
There are no other truths. Many times I’ve had the same conversation with non-Christians: with so many religions in the world, how can we know the truth? It’s surprising that the Bible doesn’t defend its belief system as being more trustworthy, rather it points directly towards a person: Jesus, the son of God.
Now we come to the topic of freedom. Of course, the Pharisees, the saintly Saints, were not going to allow anyone to call them slaves (v33). In this corner of Roman Judea, a Jew had certain inalienable rights. But Jesus wasn’t talking about legal rights, but rather about spiritual rights. No one could dare to call a Jew illegitimate. And that’s not wat Jesus says. No-one could doubt that their father was Abraham and that, just like Him, they were sons of God.
However, Jesus tells them that the true nature of a son of God is a heart that loves the Father and loves the Son, and that has nothing to do with one’s bloodline. When Jesus accuses them of having the devil as their true father, the Pharisees respond with a polite, “you’re demon possessed” (v.48) and from that moment the conversation becomes so heated that Jesus eventually has to leave the temple so that they don’t stone Him.
Looking at the text in its context, it doesn’t appear that the moment when Jesus said one of His most famous phrases had much to do with the false image of a decaffeinated Jesus that many of the modern trends would have us believe. I have to acknowledge that I like this Jesus. I don’t think that those who compare Jesus with Buddha can ever have read John chapter 8, or this conversation that that He had with the Pharisees.
I have no doubt that Jesus loves everybody: Who knows, perhaps some of those involved in this events in the temple, or even those who had insulted him and picked up stones with the intention of killing him, later converted at Pentecost. But in any case, an important part of God’s love is that He always tells us the truth, whatever the truth may be (v.47) In the same way, Jesus didn’t hold back from saying the truth to those who He knew were engaging in evil and planning His death (v.44)
For me, the key to this verse lies in the words that precede it: You will know the truth, and I dare to say that there is even more hope in those words than in the message that truth leads to freedom. The key to this text is not where we find freedom, but rather that we can know it. And it’s not difficult to know because it’s not based on an idea, a concept or an abstract, but rather on a person, that is Jesus. How wonderful that we have been allowed to know Him.