Are we free—or the devil’s children?

by K.W. Leslie, 07 October

John 8.30-47.

Those who haven’t read the gospels, but only know of Jesus by reputation, often wonder why on earth anyone’d want to kill him… because Jesus is so nice. He only said nice things. He loved kids. He was so friendly to sinners. Why would anyone wanna kill such a nice guy?

And they’re partly right. Jesus is kind. He has the traits of the Spirit’s fruit, and kindness and niceness overlap greatly: He’s gonna be nice more often than not. But even so, kindness and niceness aren’t the same thing. Sometimes when we tell the truth, we’re gonna say things people can’t handle. As kind as we might be, as tactfully and constructively as we might put things, they’re not gonna see them that way: They’ll read their own bad attitudes into it, and interpret us as cold or cruel.

So in Jesus’s following discourse, that’s how many people have chosen to interpret him. They don’t look at him as accurately diagnosing the real problem with people who won’t listen to him, and warning us of it. They look at him as calling people names. They read their own hostility into Jesus—probably same as Jesus’s audience at the time. They desperately didn’t want him to expose their hypocrisy, and figured he only did it to be cruel. And that’s why they wanted him dead.

And the discussion started so nicely…

John 8.30-32 KWL
30 As Jesus was saying these things, many believed in him,
31 so Jesus told those Judeans who’d believed him,
“When you remain in my word, you’re truly my students.
32 And you’ll know the truth, and the truth will free you.”

We Christians still quote this passage. It’s a reminder that truth’s a good, liberating thing. Truth will set you free. Sometimes we aren’t particular about which truth, and figure any truth will set us free. Well, truth is always better than error and lies. But in context Jesus was talking about τῷ λόγῳ τῷ ἐμῷ/to lógho to emó, “my word,” the stuff he taught us about the Father. That stuff really sets us free. Other truths, less so.

Thing is, the way the ancient Judeans taught was Socratic style, which meant as soon as you made a statement like this, your pupils responded by taking your words apart to see whether your statements could stand up to intense scrutiny. It’s a good method, but in the hands of nitpickers who don’t care to learn and only wanna cut you down, it can quickly disintegrate into harsh words and hurt feelings. John 8 is a really good example of this.

John 8.33-38 KWL
33 The Judeans answered Jesus, “We’re Abraham’s seed. We’ve never been enslaved, ever.
How can you say ‘You’ll become freemen’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Amen amen! I promise you everyone who commits sin is sin’s slave,
35 and a slave doesn’t remain in the house in this age.
In this age, the son remains, 36 so when the son frees you, you will truly be free.
37 I know you’re ‘Abraham’s seed’—but you seek to kill me, because my word doesn’t take hold of you.
38 What I see with my Father, I speak, so you’ll hear what’s from the Father and do it.”

The discussion goes downhill from there, but I’ll get to that.

These are believers?

Jesus identifies these listeners as τοὺς πεπιστευκότας αὐτῷ Ἰουδαίους/tus pepistefkótas aftó Yudéus, “the believers in him [Jesus], Judeans.” But in this story they sure don’t act like believers. They come across as downright hostile.

’Cause John doesn’t say Jesus switched audiences. And a few verses down, we see them passive-aggressively call Jesus a bastard, Jn 8.41 then full-aggressively call him a heretic and demoniac, Jn 8.48, 8.52 then actually pick up stones to throw at him. Jn 8.59 And in turn, Jesus calls them Satan’s children. Jn 8.44 Hence interpreters tend to skim over the two verses which identify these folks as believers. Easier to ignore what John called them… than deal with the fact they acted like antichrists, and that John might be wrong.

When interpreters do deal with this idea, they take one of three routes:

FAKE BELIEVERS. These people claimed to believe in Jesus, but clearly they didn’t really. So when John called them “Judeans who’d believed him,” he meant it ironically. They believed him just as much as the people who bailed on Jesus after he talked about the living bread. Their faith only extended so far—and when Jesus pushed ’em that far, as he does, they responded with all the rage of demoniacs.

BELIEVERS, BUT LEGALISTS. A popular theory is these Judeans really did believe Jesus, but their Pharisee upbringing had so corrupted them, made ’em so legalistic, they couldn’t fully accept Jesus’s teaching: When he started talking about how his words, his truth, freed them, their knee-jerk response was to insist the Law freed them.

To which I point out in this discussion, they never, ever brought up the Law. They only brought up Abraham ben Terah. Abraham doesn’t represent the Law in Pharisee thought; that’d be Moses. Abraham represents God’s grace.

Genesis 15.6 KWL
Avram believed in the LORD, and to the LORD this was considered rightness.

It’s why Paul kept referring to Abraham when he was trying to explain grace and justification. Abraham’s relationship with the LORD—and ours too—isn’t based on obeying the Law; there was no Law yet in Abraham’s day. (True, some Pharisees tried to retcon parts of Genesis so the Law did exist in Abraham’s time, taught to his ancestors by angels. Ac 7.53) But whenever Pharisees brought up Abraham, it was to point out their relationship with God predated Law and obedience to the Law. God didn’t grant them the Law, and establish a formal relationship with them, because they were a great and righteous people. It was only because of his pre-existing relationship with Abraham. Dt 7.7-8 His grace towards Abraham extended to Abraham’s descendants.

If anyone brought up the Law, it’d actually be Jesus. Because Abraham’s faith, Jesus pointed out, led to good works. People with Abraham’s faith should similarly produce Abraham’s fruit. Jn 8.39 The fact the Judeans produced no such fruit, meant they took God’s grace for granted, and weren’t Abraham’s spiritual descendants as much as they imagined.

If these Judeans were legalists, they’d have brought up Moses, not Abraham. They wouldn’t have objected, “We’re Abraham’s seed… Abraham’s our father.” They’d have said, “We uphold the Law, and that makes us free.” Legalists have no objection to good works. Likewise they have no objection to anything Jesus said here: “Everyone who commits sin is sin’s slave? Darn right. That’s why we don’t sin.” Jesus would’ve had an entirely different discussion with legalists. That’s why this isn’t that.

THE AUDIENCE DIDN’T SOLELY CONSIST OF BELIEVERS. The other popular theory is Jesus’s listeners weren’t just believers. When he said, “When you remain in my word,” he was directly addressing those who believed him… but mixed in the crowd were people who didn’t believe him, and these are the ones who piped up, “Waitaminnit, we’re Abraham’s seed, and we’re already free,” and started this whole debate.

To a large degree this interpretation makes sense. Even in our churches, not everybody in attendance wholly trusts Jesus. They’ll fake it Sunday mornings, and say amen along with the crowd, but the rest of the week they’ll behave like the pagans they really are. They don’t make a stink because our lecture-style sermons don’t push back at them like Jesus’s discussion-style lessons. “When you remain in my word… you’ll know the truth,” immediately offended those people who thought they already had truth. “And the truth will free you” immediately offended those people who thought they already were free. People who trust Jesus accept these statements; people who don’t really trust him will reject ’em as quickly as these folks did. So they aren’t believers. Not fake believers, not compromised believers: Unbelievers.

Lastly I’ll bring up those commentators who love to point out the Judeans’ objection, “We’ve never been enslaved, ever,” Jn 8.33 strikes them as ridiculous. At that time Judea was occupied by the Romans, which gave them the illusion of freedom by letting the Judeans keep their senate and temple and police, and by letting the Herods run the other parts of Israel. By our standards, they were totally slaves; they were a conquered nation. But by ancient standards, where nobody lived under democracy anymore, they were as “free” as they could imagine freedom. They weren’t slaves, directly owned by somebody who profited by their servitude: They were freemen, able to come and go as they pleased… till they reached Roman checkpoints, but whatever. Close enough.

“Remain in my word.”

Back to those of us who do trust Jesus: If we wanna be free from sin’s slavery, we need to remain in his word.

I frequently translate λόγος/lóghos, “word,” literally. It means a lot of things, and if I translated it as only one of those things, it might miss one of the other things it might also mean. In this case it means Jesus’s message, lesson, or teaching; if we stick to what he teaches, we’re truly his students. At the same time Jesus himself is God’s word, incarnate, so sticking with him personally is just as important. Maintaining a relationship with Christ Jesus Jn 15.4-7 is really more important than merely following his lessons.

So how do we maintain that relationship? Well duh: We obey him. Jn 15.10, 1Jn 3.24 We aren’t just Jesus fans; we don’t just like him a lot, or have warm fuzzy feelings towards him. We do as he says. And since Jesus calls such people μαθηταί μου/mathité mu, “my students,” it’s appropriate to focus on our master/pupil relationship. Students remember and follow their teacher’s lessons.

Bad Christians don’t bother. They appeal to cheap grace, kinda like Jesus’s opponents: “We’re saved by grace. We’re Abraham’s seed. We believe, and that’s all that matters; we don’t need to do anything.” They refuse to recognize any connection between obedience and freedom. To them, “freedom in Christ” means precisely the opposite of obedience: Freedom to sin all they please, and get forgiveness regardless. But that’s entirely wrong: When we sin, it proves we’re still enslaved to sin. Doesn’t matter what we claim to be. Bad fruit proves otherwise.

Jesus added an analogy: “A slave doesn’t remain in the house in this age.” Jn 8.35 In the first century, slaves didn’t live in their master’s house: They had their own houses. At the end of the day, they went home. But sometimes Romans adopted their slaves. Didn’t happen often, but it did happen: They trusted and loved their slaves so much, they freed them and declared them daughters and sons, and heirs. And in Roman adoption, heirs didn’t get their parents’ stuff after they died; they got access to their stuff now. Everything you owned, your heirs likewise owned. Lk 15.31 All your authority, your heirs shared. So if your master’s son freed you, it was as if your master freed you: You were free.

Same with Jesus freeing us from sin. He’s fully authorized to do so.

So when we enslave ourselves to sin, and dismiss Jesus’s lessons as unnecessary ’cause grace, we’re not truly his students. We’re still slaves. We should be resisting sin, because we belong to Jesus now. When we don’t, it simply proves we haven’t remained in Jesus’s word.

Abraham’s not your father.

The Textus Receptus has a slightly different version of verse 38, which the King James Version renders thus:

John 8.38 KJV
I speak that which I have seen with my Father:
and ye do that which ye have seen with your father.

The TR added the pronouns μου/mu and ὑμῶν/ymón, “my” and “your,” and implies Jesus is contrasting his Father and the Judeans’ father. Following the KJV’s lead, several translations also add these pronouns. But properly, Jesus isn’t contrasting anything; he’s simply explaining his mission. “What I see with my Father, I speak, so you’ll hear what’s from the Father and do it.”

But they didn’t wanna do as the Father and Jesus wanted. They just wanted to point to Abraham and claim they had faith, and faith righteousness is enough. So if we’re comparing spiritual attitudes with spiritual fathers… well, Satan makes a much better match than Abraham.

John 8.39-47 KWL
39 The Judeans replied and told Jesus, “Abraham’s our father.”
Jesus told them, “If you’re Abraham’s children, you’re doing Abraham’s works,
40 and now you’re seeking to kill me—a person who told you the truth I hear from God.
Abraham didn’t do this. 41 You do the works of your father.”
The Judeans told Jesus, “We weren’t begat by some fornicator. One is our Father, God.”
42 Jesus told them, “If God’s your Father, you should love me: I came from God, and am here.
For I haven’t come by myself. Instead he sent me.
43 Why can you not recognize my sayings?—for you’re unable to hear my word.
44 You’re from your father—the devil. You want to do your father’s desires.
This creature was a murderer from the beginning, and doesn’t stand in truth; there’s no truth in it.
Whenever it says something false, it speaks its own language. It’s a liar and lying’s father.
45 You don’t trust me because I say the truth.
46 Who among you can convict me of sin? If I say the truth, why don’t you trust me?
47 One who’s from God, hears God’s words. This is why you don’t hear: You’re not from God.”

Jesus came into the world to bring us life and truth, and grant us his power. The devil? Just the opposite: No life, no truth, and to hog any power for itself. Hence Jesus’s purposes destroy the devil’s works. 1Jn 3.8 And Satan, recognizing this, tries to destroy Jesus’s works—and Jesus himself, if possible. Jesus’s opponents are simply its unwitting pawns.

From the beginning, Jesus said, Satan’s been into ἀνθρωποκτόνος/anthropoktónos, “homicide.” In Revelation John identified Satan as the serpent which deceived the whole world, Rv 12.9 namely the serpent which got Adam and Eve to sin, and got ’em expelled from paradise. Ge 3 In paradise, humans would’ve lived forever, Ge 3.22 as we were always meant to. Outside it we don’t, and kill one another all the time. Jesus didn’t say the devil wanted him dead because of who he is—God the Son, ruler of the world, defeater of Satan. Frankly, anyone’s death will suit the devil just fine. Jesus’s, yours, mine, convicted criminals, starving refugees, war victims, unborn babies, neglected seniors, noble soldiers, whoever. Satan doesn’t care what excuses we make for killing or ignoring such people; whatever gets us to do its work for it.

It’s a liar, Jesus pointed out. When Satan lies, it ἐκ τῶν ἰδίων λαλεῖ/ek ton idíon laléi, “speaks from [its] own,” or “speaks from [its] idiom.” Lies come naturally to it. Lies originated with it. Anyone who thinks God’s the first cause of absolutely everything in the cosmos, clearly missed Jesus’s statement that the devil’s the first cause of lies. Jn 8.44

So when Jesus offers people truth and they reject it, and won’t hear it, they’re clearly not following God. His kids should recognize truth when we hear it; the Holy Spirit living within us should make it resonate throughout our spirits. But if there’s no Holy Spirit in us—if it’s nothing but pitch black self-centeredness—we’ll have the darnedest time detecting truth or falsehood. We’ll pick whichever suits us best. And if we pick nothing but falsehood—as if you flipped a coin a thousand times and it always came up heads—clearly something’s rigged. If there’s no room for Jesus, something else has taken up the space.

Your average pagan, who claims they like and respect Jesus, and think him a great moral teacher, is trying to have it both ways: They wanna acknowledge Jesus is a great person. But not great enough to follow, or take seriously. They like all his peace and love stuff, but don’t wanna call him Lord. They won’t bluntly accuse him of falsehood, and can’t prove anything he says is wrong… but their refusal to actually follow him proves they just don’t believe and trust him.

“Who among you can convict me of sin?” Jesus points out. Jn 8.46 If he’s a sinner, surely that undermines everything he teaches. If he’s lying, don’t follow him! And conversely, “If I say the truth, why don’t you trust me?” But people don’t trust him… and wanna pretend they think he’s great. Well, he’s calling them on their hypocrisy. If they really had Abraham-style faith, they’d follow Jesus. They don’t, so they have no such faith. They only have lies. Like Satan.

Who’s your father?

Historically, antisemites have used this passage to claim Jesus’s statement, “You’re from your father—the devil” applies to every Jew. They didn’t accept Jesus; that makes ’em the devil’s children. And therefore, antisemites claim, they’re justified in doing horrible things to Jews.

What about Jews who become Christian? Well, some antisemites say they don’t count; embracing Jesus takes ’em out of the devil’s camp. Other antisemites don’t care: Jesus’s statement cursed the Jews, and once cursed always cursed. No, this reasoning is neither logical nor biblical, but racists aren’t into either logic or bible anyway.

Jesus’s statement is no curse. He was simply calling things as he saw them. Spiritual children do as their spiritual father does. If people wanna kill, their spiritual father is therefore a killer. No matter what religion they claim to follow: If Hindus persecute Muslims, or Muslims Hindus; if Jews persecute Palestinians, or Palestinians Jews; if Protestants persecute Catholics, or Catholics Protestants: Those who seek to kill anyone are following their spiritual father, the devil. Because the devil is into homicide, and religious reasons for homicide do its bidding just as well as any.

So if we want anyone dead, whom does that make our spiritual father?

Same with lies. Plenty of Christians have no trouble with fudging the truth, so long that we win our debates—whether they’re political debates, apologetics arguments, discussions about our Christian duty, anything. The truth matters far less than winning. But again, whom does that make our spiritual father?

Christ Almighty!