So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." They answered him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free'?" Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
If you are a true believer in Jesus today, or if you are an unbeliever, or if you are phony believer, thinking you believe when you don't, these words of Jesus are meant for you. In fact, there is so much here for you in verse 31 that I never got to verse 32. And what I have decided to do is make verse 32 the text for Easter next weekend. "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
I encourage you to bring unbelieving family and friends. Everyone wants freedom. What is it? How do you get it? And how does it relate to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead? That's next week.
5 Questions Raised by Verse 31
But today we focus on verse 31: "So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.'" And I have five questions that this verse raises — all are crucial for your life:
- What does it mean to "truly be Jesus's disciples"? ("You are truly my disciples.")
- What is Jesus referring to by the phrase "my word"? ("If you abide in my word…")
- What does it mean to be "in" that word? ("If you abide in my word…")
- What does it mean to "abide" there? ("If you abide in my word…")
- What's the relationship between abiding in his word and truly being his disciple? ("If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.")
1. What does it mean to "truly be Jesus's disciples"?
Verse 31: "Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.'" What this phrase "truly my disciples" implies is that there are disciples who are not truly disciples. The word "truly" means "really" — "really my disciples." In other words, there are real and unreal disciples. There are authentic and inauthentic disciples. There is discipleship that is merely outward, and discipleship that goes down to the root.
The world is not just divided into two groups: disciples of Jesus and non-disciples. It is divided into three groups: non-disciples, unreal disciples, and real disciples — people who make no pretense of following Jesus, people that say they follow him and have a surface connection with him, and people who truly follow him.
Not All Belief Is Real
Why did Jesus bring up this distinction? It's disturbing. It makes us squirm and ask ourselves the question which one we are. He brought it up because verse 30 says, "As he was saying these things, many believed in him." There had been a large response to what he was teaching. And whenever there is a large response to anything you may guess that some are being carried along by the crowd. If your friends are going, it's easy for you to go, even if you wouldn't go on your own. You are along for the ride.
So Jesus doesn't assume that all this belief is real. What he does is give a test that we can use to see if we are real. And in giving us this test Jesus helps us be real. It is not just a test of reality. It is a pathway to reality.
To Create Faith — As Well as Sustain It
So what becomes clear here again, as we have seen several times before (for example, John 2:23–25; 6:26) is what John meant when he wrote in John 20:31, "These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." He meant that this Gospel was written not just to awaken faith in non-disciples, but also to wakeup people who think they are disciples but aren't, and to help those who are real disciples confirm their reality and be stronger in their faith. John's Gospel is written to sustain faith as well as create it.
You are in one of those three categories. And therefore all of you are included here. Let Jesus diagnose for you which you are, and then move toward reality.
Being a True Disciple
What then is a true disciple? Or what does Jesus mean by saying in verse 31, "you are truly my disciples"? Let's be really clear here: For Jesus "true disciple" is the same as "true Christian" or "true believer." Jesus is not saying that "true disciple" is a second stage in the Christian life. First believer, and then later you attain the level of disciple.
There have been ministries who talk that way. First, you're an unbeliever, then you are a believer, then you grow into a disciple, and then you are a disciplemaker. That is not the way Jesus thought. And one piece of evidence for saying this is to notice the words he uses here in verse 31: "Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples." He did not say to these professing believers, "If you abide in my word, you will become truly my disciples." In other words, he did not teach that being a true disciple was a later stage after simple belief. No. He said, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples." Now that you have believed, here is how you can know what you now are. You can know if your belief is real: You are now my true disciples if you go on abiding in my word.
So there is no thought here about "true discipleship" being a second stage of Christian maturity. True disciple means true believer or true Christian or true follower. It means, for example, truly forgiven for your sins. Look at verse 24: "I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins." So he says, if you do believe in me, you won't die in your sins.
Rescued from Wrath
Why not? What happens to them? They are forgiven, taken away. Back in John 1:29 Jesus is called "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" How does he do that? He tells us in John 10:15, "I lay down my life for the sheep." So Jesus takes our place, and receives God's punishment of death which we deserved, which means that the wrath of God is totally removed from us. And instead of getting wrath from God, we get life and adoption from God because of the death of Jesus.
Listen to this amazing word about God's wrath in John 3:36: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." But if you have believed — truly believed, God's wrath does not remain on you. Never again will you taste it. Ever!
Saved from Sin
So a true disciple in John 8:31 ("truly my disciples") is a true Christian, a true believer. His sins are truly forgiven; the wrath of God never again rests on him. He has true eternal life. He is one of Jesus' sheep, and no one can pluck him out of his hand (John 10:29). He is no longer a slave but a son of God (verse 35; 1 John 3:1). He is the heir of ten thousand blessings that come to the children of the creator of the universe.
That's what it means to be a true disciple. To be saved from sin. Rescued from the wrath of God. And already in the enjoyment of eternal life.
2. What is Jesus referring to by the phrase "my word"?
Our second question from John 8:31 is: What is Jesus referring to by the phrase, "my word"? "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples."
The word is singular, "my word," not "my words." This means that Jesus is thinking of the sum of all that he has taught. We could leave it at that: Jesus means "abide in the sum of all that Jesus taught." But my guess is that Jesus wants us to ponder what the sum of that word is. And surely the answer to that is: He is the sum of his word. All his words in one way or another draw our attention to him.
Words like: "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35). "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12). "I am not of this world" (John 8:23). "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11). "I am in the Father" (John 10:38). "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25). When you take all his words together, they have one great focus — Jesus himself. "These are written — all these words are written — so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" (John 20:31). They all point to him.
All Jesus' Words Point to Him
Which is why when you get to chapter 15, Jesus can say, not only "abide in my word," but "abide in me." "If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch" (John 15:6).
So the answer to our second question would be: The phrase "my word" here in John 8:31 ("if you abide in my word") refers to the sum of Jesus' teaching which is summed up in himself and all that he is for us as the crucified and risen Son of God.
Knowing Jesus Through His Word
One practical implication of this is that, if you want to know Jesus, you know him through his word. One of the most important convictions you can ever form is the conviction that Jesus, as a real, living, precious person, is known today chiefly through his word. And the only reason I say "chiefly," and not "only," is that in the fellowship of obedience and suffering from day to day, our personal knowledge of Jesus of goes deeper and deeper, but always through his word. But if you want to see the face of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:6) most clearly, most surely, you must look at him through his word.
For me, 1 Samuel 3:21 has been tremendously helpful. It says, "The Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord." Himself by the word. And the same is true for Jesus — he reveals himself to us today "by the word of the Lord."
3. What does it mean to be "in" that word?
Now the third question from verse 31 is: What does it mean to be "in" that word? "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples." Here's a picture of what I think it means. The word of Jesus, with himself as the center and focus of it, has a kind of force field, like a magnetic field around it. And when you are "in his word," you are in that force field. You are under the sway of that force coming from his word. So, for example:
- Part of this force field is the truth of the word. So when you are "in" the word, you are in the persuasion of the truth of the word. You are persuaded that the word is true. And you live in force field of that persuasion. You live in the truth.
- Another part of this force field is the beauty of the word (I'm referring here to moral and spiritual beauty, not stylistic beauty), and when you are "in" the word you in the attraction of that beauty. You are held by that beauty.
- Another part of the force field is the supreme value of the word, and when you are "in" the word you are captured by the preciousness of the word, and the Savior. You are drawn to treasure the word.
- Another part of the force field of the word is the power and grace of the word, so that when you are "in" the word, you made peaceful and hopeful by the word. You trust in the word. Because it can do what it promises; and what is promises is gracious.
- Another part of this force field is the word as the life-giving, soul-sustaining bread of heaven, so that when you are "in" the word, you are in the nourishment of the word. You are being fed and strengthened by the word.
- And the force field includes the word as living water so that when you are "in" the word, you are being refreshed by the word.
- And the force field includes the word as light so that when you are "in" the word, you being illumined and guided by the word. You see everything in the light of the word.
So when Jesus says, "If you abide in my word…," being "in" his word means being in
- the persuasion of its truth,
- and the attraction of its beauty,
- and the treasuring of its value,
- and the peacefulness of its grace and power,
- and the nourishment of its bread,
- and the refreshment of its water,
- and the brightness of its light.
To be "in" the word of Jesus is a whole new life. This is what it is to be a true disciple. To live "in" the word of the riches of the word of Jesus.
But Jesus does not simply say that true disciples are in his word. He says they "abide" in it. So our fourth question is:
4. What does it mean to abide in his word?
"If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples." The word "abide" is simply the word "remain." It doesn't carry in it any special spiritual connotations in itself. It means remain in his word. Don't leave it.
This doesn't mean that you can't lay your Bible down and go to your work. No. Abiding in the word of Jesus means remaining in that force field of the word. It means not leaving it.
- Abide means not ceasing to be persuaded by its truth, and never elevating any other truth above it.
- Abide means not ceasing to be attracted by its beauty and value, and never seeing anything as more beautiful or more valuable or more attractive than the word and the Lord it reveals.
- Abide means not ceasing to rest in its grace and power — never turning away as though greater peace could be found anywhere else.
- Abide means never ceasing to eat and drink from the word as the bread of heaven and living water, as if life could be sustained anywhere else.
- And abide means never ceasing to walk in the light of the word, as though any other light could show the secrets of life.
This is what it means to be a true disciple. "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples." And the fact that Jesus puts the emphasis on abiding — remaining — gives the answer to our last question:
5. How are abiding in his word and truly being his disciple related to each other?
"If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples." Jesus is saying that the mark of the true disciple is lasting, enduring, persevering, keeping on in the force field of the word. Temporary tastes of the truth and beauty and value and power and grace and bread and water and brightness of the word do not make you a Christian. The mark of Christians is that we taste and we stay.
To whom shall we go? You, O Lord, have the words of life (John 6:68).
The Power of Jesus' Word
So if you are a believer in Jesus, may the Lord use this word to confirm and strengthen and gladden your heart in the word of Jesus.
If you are an unbeliever, may the Lord use this word to give life to your spiritually dead soul and give you faith and joy through Jesus who died so that you might have eternal life through faith.
And if you are a phony believer, I pray that the Lord will use this word, to show you what a true Christian is, and wake you up and give you a true spiritual taste for the truth and beauty and value and grace and power and brightness of Jesus in his word. Amen.