It is possible to live in an evangelical, Bible-believing, Bible-loving world and never hear the criticism of the Bible that is commonplace in university religion departments around the country and in the classrooms of many mainline churches. I lived outside this evangelical world for three years in Germany and was struck at how bold the criticisms could be. I recall in one seminar, a group of scholars were discussing the Psalms, and someone quoted a particular Psalm to address the issue at hand, and a very emotional scholar across the table said, "Das ist doch ein Pharisäer Psalm!" "That's a Pharisee psalm," meaning, this psalm teaches the kind of legalism that characterized the Pharisees and can't be used as a basis for truth.
It seems wise to me, as one of your shepherds charged to guard you from false teaching, that I should make you aware that many critical scholars believe that not only did John create dialogues that Jesus never spoke, but in the process he distorted and indeed falsified what Jesus actually taught. The most burning issue for these scholars is what they would call John's heated anti-Semitism—that the author (usually not the apostle John) is writing from a later time when the hostilities between Christians and Jews were intense. And that John distorted the portrait and words of Jesus to demonize Jews in general.
Tensions Between Jews and Christians
And, of course, there was hostility. Recall, for example, that Jesus said in Mark 13:9, "They will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues." And recall that Saul the Pharisee (who would become Paul the apostle), before his conversion, was "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord . . . so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem" (Acts 9:1–2). So the relationship between Jews and Christians (including Jewish Christians) after the days of Jesus on earth were very strained.
And no one can seriously deny that in the history of the church there have been horrible centuries of Christian hostilities toward the Jewish people. When I was preparing my message on Robert Murray McCheyne for the pastors' conference, for example, I read the journals of his trip to Israel in 1839. Several times he groaned at how hard evangelism was among the Jewish people because of these hostilities: "The Jews mistrusted the Christians, especially the Roman Catholics, because of the indignity and persecution they had suffered at their hands for centuries" (L. J. Van Valen, Constrained by His Love: a New Biography on Robert Murray M'Cheyne [Tain, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2002], p. 283).
Scholars Slandering the Word of God
We should be ashamed of this part of our history. But unlike so many critical scholars, we should not lay the fault of this history at the feet of the Gospel of John, which is what so many do. I mention this now in our series on John because chapter 8 is the climax of what the critical scholars see as the problem. For example, concerning our text today, Richard Hays, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, says:
Nowhere in John's Gospel does the superheated animosity toward the Jews come to more vigorous expression than in chapter 8. . . . The dialogue [of John 8:39–47] is the most deeply disturbing outburst of anti-Jewish sentiment in the New Testament. . . . John makes a fateful theological step: from the empirical fact of the unbelief of the Jews . . . . The Jews who do not believe must be children of the devil. . . . The conclusion of verse 47 articulates the chilling logic of this position: the reason they do not hear the word of God is that they are not from God. . . . One shudders to contemplate the ethical outworking of such a theological perspective on the Jews. . . . The Gospel of John really does adopt a stance toward Judaism that can only engender polemics and hostility.1
This is a great sadness that ordained Christian teachers in the church should slander the word of God in this way. Let me mention four problems with this way of dealing with Jesus' very hard words in John 8—for though they are hard, they are especially offensive to modern, soft, pluralistic ears. Four responses, and the fourth one will launch us into an exposition of the text itself to let Jesus and John speak for themselves.
Four Problems with the Critical Approach
First, if we try to eliminate from the Gospels language that is intensely indicting toward some Jewish people in Jesus's life, we will have to eliminate far more of the Gospels than John 8. Jesus' language toward the Pharisees is almost uniformly negative everywhere in all four Gospels, and often intensely so. He called them a "brood of vipers" in Matthew and Luke (3:7 and 3:7); "hypocrites" in all the Gospels; "blind men" (Matthew 23:19) and "white washed tombs" (Matthew 23:27) and "children of hell" (Matthew 23:15). This intense indictment of most of the Jewish leadership of Jesus's day is pervasive in the Gospels, not a quirk of the Gospel of John. If the Jesus of John has to go, so does the Jesus of all the Gospels.
Second, Jesus spoke of all unbelievers, Jews and Gentiles, not just Jews, as sons of the devil. For example, in the parable of the weeds, describing the growth of the church and the end of the age, he says, "The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one . . . The harvest is the close of the age" (Matthew 13:38–39). These weeds are all unbelievers in the church. Jewish people are not unique in their unbelief and their vulnerability to the blinding and distorting effects of the devil. The indictments of John 8 are not meant by Jesus to separate the Jews into a special category of sinner. We are all indicted for our unbelief in John 8.
Third, Paul teaches plainly that all unbelievers are in the sway of the devil: "The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers" (2 Corinthians 4:4). And all unbelievers—including all of us before we were rescued by pure grace—are "children of wrath" and "dead in our trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:3–4). The New Testament as a whole, not just John's Gospel, sees in the ongoing resistance to Jesus, whether in Jew or Gentile, the deadness and blindness of sin and the accompanying work of Satan. John 8 is not unique. We need to see that this criticism of John's Gospel is far more radical than it may seem. It is a deep opposition, not to one imbalanced writer, but to the pervasive diagnosis of the human problem in the New Testament. The Gospel of John is not an imbalanced distortion of Jesus. What is said of Jews in John 8 is true of me and you and all people apart from sovereign grace.
Not a Uniquely Jewish Problem, But a Human Problem
One last response that launches us into the text. The same author that wrote the Gospel of John wrote the First Epistle of John. The language and the ideas are very similar. And in the letter John makes clear that being "of the devil" is not a mark of Jewishness, but a mark of bondage to sin and unbelief. John says in 1 John 3:8, "Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil [Jew or Gentile], for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil."
So, yes, Jewish leaders are called sons of the devil in John 8. But woe to us Gentiles if we read this and do not see the tragedy of unbelief rather than the bitterness of anti-Semitism. Jesus is not addressing a Jewish problem, but a human problem. Woe to us if we do not see the Son of God at work like a doctor, diagnosing and exposing the horrific nature of our disease and our enemy—and offering himself as the one cure in the world, even to those whom he knows will kill him. Verse 36: "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."
I know I have taken up half this message before we have opened the text, but we don't need to rush. We will take several more weeks on John 8—and on this text in particular.
Recall where we ended last time in verse 30: "Many believed in him." He had said in verse 12, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." This is the Son of God in the world to destroy the dark works of the devil. And he is offering himself to every Jew and every Pharisee or anyone else: If they follow him, believe on him, he delivers them from darkness—from the blinding power of Satan in their lives. And it says in verse 30, "many believed."
Now the question is: Did Jesus treat this belief as genuine? We've seen before that there is a kind of "belief" in this Gospel that is not real (for example, 2:23–25). It doesn't embrace Jesus as satisfying water for the soul, or satisfying bread for the soul, or light for the path. It just follows him because of hope for some earthly benefit from his miracles (6:26, 36). Does Jesus treat this faith in verse 30 as genuine?
Those Who Truly Believe Abide
He leaves it open and tells them how they can know if it is genuine. Verses 31–32: "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.'" Now those two verses call for a whole sermon. And I hope to give it. But keep moving for now to get the big picture.
Something is going to happen that makes Jesus say that some of these believers are not believing. Look at verse 45: "But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me." So he begins this section by saying: If you abide in my word, you are the real deal. You really believe. You are really born again. You have passed from darkness to light. You will not die in your sins (8:24). You are no longer children of the devil, but children of God. That's what would be true if they "abide" in his word. This is what he came to do. For you and for me.
The Human Tendency to Self-Justification
What happened that makes him say in verse 45, "You do not believe me"? What happened was a refusal to hear his words (let alone abide in them), and a desire to kill him (opposition to truth and desire to kill the truth-bearer), all the while claiming to be children of Abraham and children of God and free from slavery, when, in fact, murder and a refusal to receive the truth are the marks of slavery to sin and Satan. So what we have in verses 33–47 (leaving verses 31–32 for its own sermon) is a painful and precious warning how we human beings tend to justify ourselves before God on the basis of our ethnic or religious or moral pedigree. In other words, Jesus is digging into the real condition of the human heart behind self-justifications that we come up with when confronted with Jesus' absolute claims on our lives. And he is naming the condition we are in, and it is frightening. The realities here are not funny, they're not light, they're not easy. They are dreadful and weighty and overpowering apart from God's grace—which Jesus is full of (John 1:14).
The real reason that Jewishness is important here is because it represents the kind of religious, ethnic, moral self-justification that all religions, indeed all humans, use when confronted with Jesus as the only one who can set us free from slavery to self and sin and Satan. Notice verse 36: "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." And the freedom he is talking about is, first, freedom from sin and its terrible power to condemn us if we are not freed from it. Verse 34: Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin." Everyone! Not just Jews. We all sin, and we are all slaves of sin, until the power of sin and Satan is broken in our lives. And only the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who lays down his life for the sheep, can cancel and conquer our sin. "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."
Why Jewishness Matters in This Text
Jewishness is the issue here because Jesus was Jewish and came to Jews—to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24). But suppose Jesus were presented among Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or Animists or secular materialists the way he presents himself here: "Only the Son can set you free from your bondage to sin. You must believe in the Son and abide in his word. Then you will truly be his disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Only through the Son, Jesus Christ, who came to give his life for sin and rise again—only through the Son can you be set free." If Jesus were presented that way among any of those religious groups, the same response would happen as happened here—unless God intervened with sovereign grace. Religion, ethnicity, and morality would be called in for self-justification.
That's why Jewishness matters here. It's an illustration of the way all of us try to evade Jesus and his words of indictment that we are slaves of sin without him, and will perish if we don't believe (John 3:16). It isn't Jews only who don't want to hear that they are slaves; it's all humans who don't want to hear it. I'm offended if you tell me I am a slave. And the point of this text is that when we are offended like this, we will use any religious or ethnic or moral self-justification we can.
Look how it happens, and pray that you will be able to spot this sort of thing in your own life, if you are ever tempted to do it.
Our Attempt at Ethnic Justification
Verse 33: "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 agrees with them at this point. Verse 37: "I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you." So do they have a good defense here or not? "We're not in danger of your indictment or God's judgment! We are the offspring of Abraham. You say so yourself." So they defend themselves with an ethnic argument—religiously laden for sure, but at this point it's just ethnic. We're safe. We're Jews. Could be Muslims. Could be Hindus. Could be Buddhists. Could be moralistic materialists. The question for them all is: Are you safe without Jesus?
But then things get messier. In verse 39, they say it again. "They answered him, 'Abraham is our father.'" But this time Jesus says, no, he's not. "Jesus said to them, 'If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did" (John 8:39–40). This is incredible. You say you are Jews. You're not Jews. You say Abraham is your father. He's not. True Jewishness, Jesus says, is not a bloodline; it's a faith and obedience line.
If you ever wondered where Paul got his theology, wonder no more. Romans 9:6–8:
Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, . . . It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.
Our Attempt at Religious Justification
So we are not surprised then when we read in John 8:41–42, "'We have one Father—even God.' Jesus said to them, 'If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here.'" First, it was their ethnic connection with Abraham that justified them. Now it is their religion, their God. We are children of God! And Jesus says (just like Paul in Romans 9:8), "No, you aren't."
Until the Son sets you free, you are not children in the house; you are slaves. Verses 34–35: "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." If you want to be a son—a son of Abraham, a son of God, you must be born again into the family. "A true Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not the letter" (Romans 2:29). But, as it is now, you are a slave, not a son.
And the fact that you want to kill me, Jesus says (verse 40), and won't receive the truth (verse 45), shows who your father is. The devil was a murderer and a liar from the beginning (8:44). And in your sin, he has you by the throat. And you do his will. Just like "Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. . . . Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous" (1 John 3:12). And Cain was not a Jew.
Our Attempt at Moral Justification
And most of you are not Jews. So you may say, I don't do this. I don't claim any ethnic or religious superiority. I'm just a regular guy that keeps my nose clean, probably better than most. One closing word for you: Verse 41: "They said to him, 'We were not born of sexual immorality.'" Where did that come from? Nobody said they were. They probably weren't. Well, why bring it up? They brought it up because the scuttlebutt about Jesus is that he was born of sexual immorality. His mother was pregnant before she was married. So what does that get the people?
It gets them moral superiority. "Look Jesus, we're not bastards. If anybody is enslaved here, it's you, to your sordid past." Nobody escapes from this text. Everybody is here in these Jewish self-justifiers. We don't need you, Jesus. We have our ethnicity. We don't need you. We have our religion. We don't need you. We have our moral superiority.
Only the Son
But they won't work. They won't work for the Jews, and they won't work for you or me. One thing works. "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."