If you don’t follow Jesus, of course you misunderstand him.

John 8.21-29.

As you know, those who imagine Jesus is only a great moral teacher, and figure “I’m the world’s light” means that and no more, tend to ignore the radical statements Jesus made about who he is, what he can do, and who sent him and why. They refuse to recognize him for who he is. When he made roundabout statements about it, they deliberately chose to misinterpret him; when he made blunt statements about it, they wanted to kill him. John 8 contains both such things.

So let’s get to those things. Back to temple, Jn 8.20 where Jesus was teaching yet another lesson to skeptical people.

John 8.21-29 KWL
21 So Jesus told them again: “I’m going away.
You’ll seek me, and you’ll be destroyed by your sins: You can’t go where I go.”
22 So the Judeans said, “He won’t kill himself, will he?
—because Jesus said, “You can’t go where I go.”
23 Jesus told them, “You’re from below. I’m from above.
You’re from this world. I’m not from this world.
24 So I told you you’ll be destroyed by your sins,
for when you won’t believe who I am, you’ll be destroyed by your sins.”
25 So the Judeans told him, “Who are you?”
Jesus told them, “I’ve been telling you who, since the beginning.
26 I have much to say and judge about you—but my Sender is truth.
And what things I heard from him, I speak to the world.”
27 The Judeans didn’t understand he spoke to them of the Father,
28 so Jesus told them, “When you exalt the Son of Man, you’ll then know who I am.
I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things just as my Father teaches me.
29 My Sender is with me; he’s not left me alone, so I can always do what pleases him.”

As the world’s light, those who follow Jesus get our eternal life from him. Jn 8.12 And those who don’t, who have no intention of following him, can’t possibly go where he does. Don’t wanna go where he’s going. He’s leading us to his kingdom. They might imagine they want God’s kingdom, but they want something radically different than what he’s creating, so they’re not going in. So their sins will destroy them.

Being destroyed by your sins.

My translation’s a tad different from the KJV’s “ye shall die in your sins,” Jn 8.24 KJV because Jesus’s word ἀποθανεῖσθε/apothaneísthe has a bit of a different meaning from the Judeans’ word ἀποκτενεῖ/apoktené, “kill.” Jesus isn’t describing people who will simply die, and because they died with unforgiven sins on their souls, it’s off to the hot place with ’em: Apothaneísthe means you died from something, like poisoned water. Rv 8.11 Or in this case, sin.

Sin kills. Ro 6.23 The Judeans who refused to believe Jesus would be killed by their own sins. They could turn to him and be forgiven; anybody can. He absolutely wanted them to. He wants everyone to; 2Pe 3.9 he came to save the world. Jn 3.16 But they refused him, and refused his salvation—so where he was going, they wouldn’t follow, and can’t go.

Traditionally Christians have interpreted this to mean Jesus was going to heaven:

  • Like after his rapture, ’cause he’s currently in heaven with his Father.
  • Or after our rapture, where we imagine he’ll take us to heaven to be with him forever; forget the millennium.
  • Or, in more recent years, this idea between Jesus’s death and resurrection he took a brief weekend trip to heaven. Which ignores the bit in the Apostles Creed which states he did no such thing: Jesus went to the grave and came back with its keys. Rv 1.18

Regardless of when we figure Jesus went to heaven, or whether it’s heaven or earth he plants his kingdom: For those who want nothing to do with Jesus, who’d rather follow their own will instead of his, they’re not getting in.

The Judeans were so blind to their own doom, they speculated, “He says he’s going where we can’t follow. Well then… he’s gonna kill himself and go to hell. ’Cause we’re certainly not going there.” Pharisees taught (and certain Christians still do) that suicide sends you to hell. God demands a consequence for spilling blood, Ge 9.5 so spilling your own is gonna bypass his grace and send you straight down.

Thing is, Jesus also said they’d seek him. Jn 8.21 Which confuses commentators, because they can’t figure out how people who don’t want Jesus, would nonetheless seek him. So various people figure:

  • They’re not so much seeking Jesus as his benefits, or the stuff he represents: They want light, salvation, access to the Father, and so forth.
  • They’re seeking Messiah, not realizing Messiah is Jesus.
  • This is actually a prophecy: When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem about 40 years later, the Judeans, full of fear and remorse, would cry out for Jesus to save them… and alas, last-minute repentance doesn’t count. (Contrary to the common Christian teaching last-minute repentance totally counts.)

Me, I figure they want fake Christianity. They want Christianism, a form of religion they can control, where they follow popular Christian culture instead of Christ Jesus, and instead of resisting temptation they slap Christianese names on their temptations and try to pass ’em off as virtues. Jesus still doesn’t like hypocrisy, y’know.

“You’re from below.”

I’ve regularly heard Christians misinterpret “You’re from below” Jn 8.23 as if he considered the unbelieving Judeans to be from hell. After all, later in this chapter he identifies the devil as their father. Jn 8.39, 44 But Jesus meant their spiritual father, for they mimicked Satan’s example instead of Abraham.

Often there’s a lot of antisemitism in this interpretation. Racists figure these Judeans represent all Jews, past and present (forgetting Jesus and his students, and sometimes Jewish Christians), and that in rejecting Jesus, they rejected God’s covenant with them so absolutely, they’re doomed to hell. Various misquoted bits of Romans are likewise used to support the idea of a damned people-group. It’s entirely wrong, ’cause Christianity has not replaced Israel as God’s kingdom. The kingdom is something other than both Israel and Christendom. Something better. Something Jews and Christians are both invited to enter.

“You’re from below” is simply part of the poem Jesus composed to teach his lesson:

John 8.23 KWL
Jesus told them, “You’re from below. I’m from above.
You’re from this world. I’m not from this world.”

Hebrew poetry repeats an idea. Jesus’s idea is these people are from earth, not heaven. His listeners presumed Jesus was from earth, same as them; an ordinary man and no more. But unlike every ordinary man, he was sent by the Father to explain God perfectly to them, and they were willfully ignoring him and confusing him with everyone else.

Various Christians confuse Jesus’s “When you exalt the Son of Man” Jn 8.28 with him getting crucified. So, supposedly the Judeans wouldn’t really recognize who Jesus was till after they killed him. But if you’ve read Acts, you’ll realize Jesus can’t have meant that, ’cause that’s not at all what happened: The Judean leadership who had the Romans kill Jesus for them, still didn’t believe in him. On its face, this interpretation won’t work.

This interpretation does: When we exalt Jesus—when we “lift him up” in the sense of making him important to us, and actually follow him instead of doubting and second-guessing him, then we see who he really is. He gives us the Holy Spirit, Jn 15.26 who bears witness with our spirit Ro 8.16 that Jesus is precisely who he says. That he does come from the Father, and does represent him perfectly.

Pagans, and certain Christians who have serious faith-killing doubts about Jesus, haven’t gone this far. They’ve not exalted him yet. They like him; they claim he’s the most important person in their lives. But they still don’t follow him, don’t obey him, don’t trust him; they still trust their gut instead. Till they exalt Jesus, their doubts are gonna hinder them.

Well, some of them did choose to trust him, as we see in the next verse. But then (as he does) Jesus pushed ’em to go even further, and that seized them up… and we’ll get to that next time.

Christ Almighty!