John 8:31 – Freedom
Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast 3/25/07
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC. I hope that it was a good week for you, and that you will take advantage of the spring weather to visit Bethabara Park. I had the privilege of talking to the guides there this week about the Moravian Church as a Peace Church. I saw many familiar faces at Wake Forest to hear Bishop John Shelby Spong, one of the more controversial church leaders in America today. I think one of the saddest things about the controversial that swirls around the bishop is that much of what he says about the Bible has been taught in seminaries and divinity schools for over a century. One of the many great insights of the Moravian theologian Luke of Prague was that the Gospel existed before the gospels themselves were written down.
We cannot say that the Scripture is necessary for salvation since the first generation of Christians did not have a NT. The Bible is the authoritative text for the church and is the basis for our worship, doctrine, and practice, but we need to read it with eyes wide open and with hearts in tune with God or we can make deadly mistakes in interpretation. You probably have heard the story of the depressed young man who opened his Bible looking for help. He put his finger on a random verse and took that as a message from God. It read “And Judas went and hanged himself.” Shaken up, he decided to try another verse and his finger landed on “Go and do likewise.” The major purpose of this Adult Bible Class is to help you read the Bible thoughtfully, faithfully, and lovingly.
Anti-Semitism This is particularly important because John chapter 8 has been used for many years to promote violent anti-semitism. This is one of those chapters that looms large in the history of genocide, and it stands as a perpetual reminder that the Christian church has blood-stained hands. When you find yourself criticizing other religions for their violence and exclusivity, read John 8 and ponder how this chapter was used by the Catholic church in the Middle Ages to declare that Jews were the children of Satan. Ponder how the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther used these verses in his vicious polemic against the Jews, which is still being reprinted in some Arabic countries. Ponder how these verses were used to forcibly expel Jews from England, France, and Spain. Ponder these verses and then marvel at the wisdom of our Founding Fathers who assured the Jews and all other people that they were be protected from religious bigotry and violence in this New World.
Most Christians and Christian institutions have made great strides in confronting anti-semitism since the horror of the Holocaust, and these verses are rarely read in most churches today. Most commentators and preachers would prefer that we simply remove most of chapter 8 from the Gospel of John or at least reduce it to a footnote. But we can’t without doing damage to the whole principle of the canon. Unlike the story of the woman caught in adultery, this passage was most definitely in the original gospel. We cannot escape from it. Nor should we. I think that it is ultimately helpful to confront this portrayal in John’s gospel and place it in an historical context. The bitter irony is that this most anti-Jewish section of the Gospel is one of the signs that the gospel itself was written by a Jew for a Jewish Christian audience.
Before reading our text for today, let me remind you of some things we have talked about previously. The Gospel of John was most likely written in the 90s after the destruction of the Temple. During the three decades after this tragedy, Jewish rabbis and other leaders struggled to reorganize the religion and reunite the scattered people. No longer were Jews defined simply by circumcision and a pilgrimage to the Temple; there had to be ways to create an identity in the Dispersion without the Temple. The written Scriptures became much more important than they had previously, and over time the rabbis determined which books were sacred and which were not. Protestants call this list of sacred books the OT canon, and it includes the Law, Prophets, and the Writings. The synagogue also became the focal point of religious observance. Formerly synagogues were gathering places for prayer, study, discussion, and community events for Jews. It was kind of like a civic-center, but after the destruction of the Temple, the synagogues became worship centers with a liturgical calendar. And during this period, the rabbis began writing down the interpretations of the law and of Scripture that they had learned from their teachers. Four centuries after the NT was written, the Jewish Talmud was written.
So, the Gospel of John was written in a time of dramatic transition for Jews. All of the books of the NT reflect the tensions between Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and those who did not, but John’s Gospel demonstrates this tension most dramatically. There are many indications in the Gospel itself that the author of John’s Gospel and most of his original audience had recently been excommunicated from the synagogue because of their faith in Jesus as the Christ. Members of John’s community had been officially declared no longer Jewish. They had lost their identity, their support system, and in some cases their families. Some of the condemnation we read in John’s Gospel of the Jews was simply a mirror reflecting what the author had heard when he was expelled from the synagogue. John’s Gospel was written for a minority group that had been declared heretical; it was not written for a church that held political power over all of Europe. We have to keep this in mind when we read this chapter. We are reading one side of an angry debate among Jews over who is truly the descendents of Abraham. The language used in this chapter seems very harsh, but it has its parallels in other Jewish literature of the time, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes were a Jewish sect that viewed the other Jews as the children of darkness who would be destroyed by God.
I think it is also helpful to keep in mind that other books of the NT are dealing with similar issues in similar ways, but without as much as anger as we see in John. Paul, in particular, struggled with the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. Like John’s Gospel, Paul argued that the followers of Jesus were the true descendents of Abraham and that God’s salvation was available to Gentiles as well as Jews, but even Paul did not write as harshly against Jews as John did. Paul was clearly anti-Judaic, but he was not anti-Jewish. That may be because he was writing before the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of Christians from the synagogues. The main point for us this morning in reading these verses is that we not allow the harsh anti-semitism of this passage overwhelm the important message given here.
I think the words of Gail O’Day are useful here: “The Jesus who emerges from these verses speaks with staggeringly sharp invective to his opponents and holds nothing back in his attack on his theological adversaries. It is very difficult to harmonize this picture of Jesus with the images of him that shape our theological imaginations: Jesus as the one who eats with outcasts and sinners, who cares for the lost sheep, who is the model of how we are to love. Complicating this picture of Jesus is the fact that he speaks this scathing language to a group John identifies as the “Jews”, so that Jesus’ words in this chapter have become a pivotal text in discussions of Christian anti-Semitism. … The interpreter must work diligently and carefully to understand the text in its original social and historical context in order to avoid making simplistic and destructive extrapolations to contemporary church settings.” (O’Day, 647)
Translation Issues Before delving into the meaning of this passage, we should note that there are some difficult translation issues here, and different English versions of the Bible handle them in different ways. First of all, it appears strange that this passage says that Jesus was speaking to Jews who believed in him and yet those same Jews wanted to kill him. There are a number of ways of dealing with this. Some scholars think that this statement was added by a later scribe trying to make a smooth transition from the previous section. Another possibility is that this section is simply disordered. It is also possible that Jesus was talking to different groups of Jews here or that this chapter is made up of separate pieces of oral tradition imperfectly stitched together. We cannot know for sure, but it does seem evident that there was a difference between those Jews who believed in Jesus, such as the disciples themselves, and the authorities who wanted him dead.
This confusion carries through to the sentence that speaks for Jesus’ hearers doing what they had heard from the Father. In NIV, this says “you do what you have heard from your father,” which implies that they have a different father. In the NRVP it says that they should do what they have heard from the Father. It is not clear from the Greek who the Father is. In one version, it is clearly the Father in heaven who sent Jesus. In the other, it is presumably another father who teaches bad things. I think that this is referring to the Father in heaven.
Freedom and Slavery This section sets up a theme that runs throughout the writings of Paul, but which we haven’t seen much of in John. The disciples of Christ are the true descendents of Abraham who have the freedom that sons enjoy. Those who do not follow Christ are slaves who do not belong to the household of God. What we have here is actually a short parable, or perhaps a part of a parable. Since Paul preaches at length on the same parable, it is likely that this was part of Jesus’ teaching. John takes this parable to a different conclusion than Paul, though. In Paul, the slaves are slaves to the Jewish Law, but in John they are slaves to sin. John does not reject the Jewish law the way Paul does. The problem is sin, not the law.
This idea that people are slaves to sin is an important one in Christianity. We tend to think of sin as a matter of freedom. We know what is right and what is wrong, but we freely choose to do the wrong thing and so we deserve to be punished. If we are slaves to sin, then the sin is punishment in itself. A slave is not free to disobey the will of the master. One way to think about this is to view sin as a type of addiction. If you are truly addicted to a substance, such as heroine or morphine, then you are enslaved to it. The body is in such need of that substance that the will is powerless to resist. Taking drugs may be considered a sin, but the addiction is itself a form of punishment worse than any prison. Lies can enslave us as well. We are not free to make good decisions when the information we are given is a lie. We could go through the list of similar addictions and forms of mental illness in which people are metaphorically enslaved, but you can probably list them on your own. An important thing to remember is that enslavement is not pleasant. You will feed an addiction even when you hate what you are doing and what it is doing to you.
John describes sin this way. It is a form of enslavement in which you eventually sacrifice all of your self-respect. Such sin wraps itself in lies and deception to try to keep you from recognizing your enslavement. If you have ever listened to the self-justification of child abusers or drug addicts or smokers or alcoholics or any number of forms of addiction, you know how deep the self-deception goes. Hannah Arendt conducted long and tedious interviews with Adolph Eichmann after the Holocaust in which she tried to pierce the clouds of self-justification and deception until she came to the truth that he was nothing but a boring, banal, and shallow little man trying to make himself feel important by exterminating millions of people for the glory of the state. She coined the phrase banality of evil to describe what she had learned. John refers to the enslavement of sin that can only be overcome through the power of the truth and freedom.
It is not clear what John meant by truth, but we can be sure that he did not mean lying to people about scientific facts. The airwaves are full of preachers who proclaim they are proclaiming the truth when in fact they are lying to people about the nature of reality. Some of them are even lying about their ability to heal broken bodies and broken souls. The world is full of people claiming to speak the truth about their product, their candidate, their political ideology, their religion, their view of biology, and a thousand other things when in fact they are working hard to keep the truth from you. I don’t have the answers for you. For that matter, I don’t even know all of the questions, but I believe that Jesus wants you to search for the truth, love the truth, and follow the truth. If one of the cardinal teachings of our religion is that the truth sets us free, then we should beware of substituting lies for truth.
As chapter 8 continues, the conversation grows more heated and more dangerous. When the audience claims that they are children of Abraham, Jesus turns the table on them, much as he does in the synoptic gospels. He says that the children of Abraham are those who do the will of Abraham. We find similar statements in other Jewish literature, even in the Talmud where the followers of Abraham are contrasted to the followers of Balaam the wicked. “A good eye and a humble spirit and a lowly soul are of the disciples of Abraham our father. An evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a proud soul are of the disciples of Balaam the wicked.” The followers of Abraham’s way will then inherit the world to come and the followers of Balaam will inherit Gehenna and be destroyed. (O’Day, 641).
In other words, it is perfectly plausible that Jesus or his disciples would have made a contrast between those who truly follow Abraham and those who merely claimed biological descent from Abraham but who were slaves to sin. This was not anti-Semitic; it was a Jewish way to preach about good and evil. Where things get more complicated in John’s Gospel is that the main indication that Jesus’ opponents were not truly the children of Abraham is how they treated Jesus. You may remember from last years’ study of Genesis that one of the key stories was the hospitality Abraham showed to three messengers sent by God. They arrived at his tent without any warning or any sign of that they had come from God, and yet Abraham fed them and listened to their teachings. John’s Gospel contrasts that story of Abraham with the reception the Jesus received in Jerusalem. Like those angelic messengers, he was sent by the heavenly father with a life-giving word for the children of Abraham, but they handed him over to the Roman authorities to be executed. He was called a madman and a revolutionary. He was ritually humiliated and destroyed.
This chapter is not an indictment of Judaism or the Jewish people, it is an indictment on all those who cannot recognize goodness when it appears; those who resist God’s revelatory power. It is an indictment of all those who react to new ideas with ridicule and who respond to truth with hatred. When Jesus says, “you belong to your father, the death, and you want to carry out your father’s desires,” he was not saying that the Jewish race is evil. He is saying that all those who prefer lies to truth are enslaved to evil. When Jesus says that the devil was a murderer from the beginning, he is probably referring to the idea that death entered the world when the serpent deceived Eve, but it is possible that this was a specific reference to Cain’s murder of Abel. In either case, this puts the work of Jesus into a context far larger than the Jewish race; he is speaking of all people who are enslaved to sin and to self-deception.
It seems to me that this teaching in John is consistent with Jesus’ parables about the good tree bearing good fruit and the evil tree bearing evil fruit. Those who cannot bear the truth seek to destroy the one who speaks the truth. We’ve got a lot a people in this world worried about whether the devil exists without recognizing that the biblical teaching on the devil is that the devil is the father of lies. It is not exorcists or inquisitors or crusaders who battle the devil, it is scientists, ethicists, lawyers, teachers, police officers, psychologists, parents, pastors, and everyone who speaks the truth, seeks the truth, listens to the truth, and loves the truth. Those who participate in oppression and injustice, those who punish the innocent and praise the guilty, are of the devil, according to John, even if they hold high office. Look at their actions to see what is in their hearts.
Not surprisingly, the dialog grows more heated after Jesus has said that his opponents are children of the devil instead of children of Abraham. It really bothers some commentators that Jesus is so aggressive here, but I think we need to keep in mind that there were reasons why people wanted to kill him. Had he been as sappy and weak as we often portray him, it is unlikely that the authorities would have even noticed him. Those who say little and say it blandly rarely get into trouble with those who know they have all of the power. But Jesus was not bland, and they responded to his criticisms in the normal way. They accused him of not being Jewish. “You’re a Samaritan,” they cried, just as our politicians like to accuse someone of being a Communist, or being un-American or not supporting the troops. In more polite society, we just say “he’s just not one of us, now is he?” Today, someone might respond to Jesus by saying, “you’re just a liberal” or “you’re just a conservative.” In his day, they just said, you’re one of those filthy, down-trodden, God-forsaken, heretical Samaritans that we will not even talk to.
Is He Crazy? That’s not enough, of course. They also say that he is demon-possessed, which is another way of saying “you’re crazy.” I think it is still shocking for Christians to realize that many times in his life Jesus was called crazy by his opponents. We know this is true because his followers would not have made this up, and the accusation shows up repeatedly in the gospels. One of the best arguments for the authenticity and believability of the four gospels is that they include this repeated charge that Jesus was possessed by unclean spirits. His words and actions were so unexpected, so counter-cultural, that people thought he must be possessed. Indeed he was, the Scripture tells us, but it is was by the Holy Spirit of God or the Logos, not by Beelzebub.
Why do we think people today will respond immediately to the message of Jesus when so many of his original hearers thought he was crazy? Perhaps it is because we have so domesticated and truncated his message into a simplistic message of individual salvation or voluntarism that we no longer see just how radical he and his teachings were. Go into the streets of Winston-Salem today or on the airwaves and tell people to truly love their neighbors as much as they love themselves, and it sounds crazy. Tell people to love their enemies and do good to those who harm them, and they will call you crazy. Go to any university in the country and tell people that they should give up their hopes for financial success in order to dedicate their lives to something more meaningful, and see how people respond. Tell your lawyer that you do not want him or her to lie on your behalf in order to keep you from being punished. Tell your accountant that you want to pay all the taxes you owe. Tell your advertisers to tell the truth about your product. Tell your politicians that you want courageous peace and compassionate justice. What will they say to you? You’re crazy. Keep at it long enough, and they may try to kill you.
There is more to the story, of course. Jesus says that if we live in the truth and follow his path of total reliance on God, then we can endure the persecution of the children of the devil who try to kill all that is good and beautiful and true in this world. Those who follow the Logos, who obey the word of the Lord will never see death. This has often been misinterpreted by Protestants and Catholics alike as saying that whoever professes belief in Jesus will not die, as if salvation depends on knowing the “Jesus” passcode as you try to access the gates of heaven. It says that those who keep Jesus’ teaching, which is the word of the Father, will not experience death. The focus is on obedience not profession of faith.
Death and Life The audience immediately points out the apparent flaw in Jesus’ statement: many of those who were obedient to the heavenly Father have died, including Abraham himself. We must assume that the phrase “never see death” meant something different than one’s body not dying. John’s Gospel does not answer all of the metaphysical questions we might like it to, but the concept of eternal life in John appears to focus on the spirit rather than the body. As we shall see, Jesus truly dies in John’s Gospel. He sees death, and yet it does not have final victory over him.
But that is not the question John is most interested in here. He shifts the nature of the debate to the question of Jesus’ origins and connections to Abraham. Chapter 8 ends with a reaffirmation of one of the major themes of the prologue: the Logos existed before Abraham, and Abraham himself looked forward to the revelation of God in Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth was not even 50 years old yet, but he claimed to have existed before Abraham. In verse 58, we have another one of the I Am statements of Jesus. Before Abraham was, I am. Notice that it is not the past tense as we would expect: Before Abraham, I was; it is the eternal present tense. Again, Jesus is identified with the one who spoke out of the burning bush and the one who dined with Abraham. John’s Gospel does not try to work out the intricacies of the relationship of the Son to the Father or how Jesus the human being could be God in human flesh. He simply asserts it.
Many scholars doubt that the historical Jesus ever said such a thing, especially not in the Temple to his opponents, and biblical scholars debate whether the rest of the NT ever makes the claim that Jesus was God. We have come to the end of our time today, and we will keep coming back to this question. All I can say for now, is that John makes this claim most strongly. There is no birth narrative in John and little discussion of Jesus’ human biography. Instead, there is this bold claim that when Jesus spoke, when Jesus healed on the Sabbath, when Jesus taught his disciples, it was the Word of God speaking, acting, and teaching. Despite John’s apparent anti-Semitism and hostility toward the Jews who rejected Jesus, it is John’s Gospel that most clearly makes the claim that Abraham himself would have recognized Jesus as the one sent by God. For John, Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise of the OT, the one who makes it possible to follow the essence of the Torah, which is to leave the enslavement of sin and embrace the entire creation in self-giving love. Once you give yourself in love and rest in the arms of God, then death has no sting and the grave will not be victorious.