Thrust Statement: Jesus is the Truth that will make one free.

Scripture Reading: John 8: 32

INTRODUCTION

            One of the best-known Scriptures, at least within the Churches of Christ, is a statement by Jesus: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).[1] This Scripture is frequently employed by many sincere Christians in order to justify their separation from other Christians over what they conceive to be “truth,” that is to say, their particular brand of orthodoxy. The question that confronts every Christian is this: What is “the truth” that Jesus alludes to? Is this “truth” dogmatic truth? Is it right orthodoxy? Is this “truth” abstract truth? Is this “truth” simply an understanding of intellectual knowledge of facts recorded in the Bible? As one approaches this well-known passage, one faces the influence of preunderstanding in one’s interpretation. The abuse of this Scripture, in many instances, has fractured the Body of Christ into warring factions, each claiming to be the only ones who have a handle on the “truth” that Jesus speaks about in John 8:32. This essay is not designed to castigate God’s people for their lack of understanding, but rather the purpose of this paper is to help break down the barriers that separates the ones for whom Christ died.[2]

E. D. Hirsch enunciates a basic principle of interpretation that one must apply in the interpretation of any text: “Meaning is that which is represented by a text.”[3] Hirsch is simply saying that the meaning of any wording is the author’s meaning, not the interpreter’s. Today, one should reject the traditional interpretation of John 8:32 because it is wrong. This “truth” is not one’s party slant. It is Jesus! Whenever an interpreter discards the meaning of the author, the interpreter takes over the place of the author—this leads to confusion and division among God’s people. When one begins with a faulty foundation (conception or impression) about what the text is saying, one is able to find all his or her viewpoints. After one throws out the context, one is without a guidepost to steer him or her in an accurate awareness of the author’s intent.

As soon as one comes within reach of John 8:32, one must not move toward this text with strong subjective biases. In one’s advance toward this Scripture, one must not isolate this text from its context. It is not uncommon for Christians to view the Bible as a series of unrelated verses. It is not exceptional for God’s children to habitually proof-text Scriptures in order to give validity to their doctrinal beliefs. Cedric B. Johnson is correct when he writes: ‘“A proof-texting’ approach is a poor way to discover the meaning of Scriptures.”[4] This kind of theology is hollow and empty. People want to hear again about the saving revelation of God as revealed in His Holy Word—Jesus Christ, the mediator of the divine covenant of grace. In many fellowships, one witnesses the “paper pope” (religious journals—not all, but some) In this system of orthodoxy, one observes that, for many, faith is commonly identified with the traditions of the church—both faith and traditions become identical.

Leroy Garrett, as early as 1976, called attention to the abuse of this passage. He briefly comments on this penetrating passage, along with many others, in order to bring individuals back to the true intent of Jesus’ words. Listen to Garrett’s insightful words as he seeks to unfold the original intent:

Also in my file is a tearsheet from one of our papers on what is truth? It reminds one of how terribly we have abused this term, applying it, for the most part to our particular party slant. You are loyal to “the truth” if you are accapella or amillennial or noncooperative—or faithful to what the Christian Church or Church of Christ teaches. There are of course many truths in Scripture, and we must be faithful to all of them that we understand. Some of these are obviously more important than others. But “the truth” is something else, and I can’t believe that when Jesus said “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” that he was referring to all the truths of revelation. He was referring to his own entrance into history and into the lives of his disciples. He and only he is the truth. When one knows that truth, when he knows Jesus, he is free, not until. It doesn’t matter how full his head may be of the many truths of Scripture or how faithfully he interprets all the doctrine. If his heart is empty of the truth, which is the Person of Jesus dwelling in our hearts through faith, then all else is vain.[5]

            Garrett strips away all extraneous matter when he writes: “He was referring to his own entrance into history and into the lives of his disciples. He and only he is the truth.” Did Garrett just decide the meaning of “the truth” subjectively or did he examine the context objectively? A word of caution is in order when anyone approaches God’s Word. As stated above, one should never proof-text as his or her method of interpretation. It is not sufficient to just quote a passage; one must consider its historical context. Since the Word comes to one in the form of a past context, one should examine the Scriptures before and after the text under examination in order to draw from the Scriptures what God says to His people. John 8:32 is frequently limited by the predetermined interpretive grid (brand of orthodoxy/party slant).  Just a perusal of many Church of Christ journals reveals that the various factions within the Churches of Christ lay claim to this Scripture as their own. As a result of this mindset, many saints confuse their view of Scripture with their own interpretation—an interpretation that is identified as “the truth.” From this kind of reasoning, if one disagrees, one is then described as unsound.

            Before this author analyzes the context for John 8:32, perhaps it would be helpful to call attention to the fact that this author grew up in a fellowship in which this passage was cited to justify separation from every believer that dared to disagree with the status quo of this odd fellowship.[6] As a young man, I was associated with the one cup and nonSunday school fellowship. I cited this passage to prove that if one wanted freedom then one had to give up individual cups, Sunday school, instrumental music, wine in the Lord’s Supper, breaking of the bread,[7] and so on.  In the prevailing attitude of this fellowship, Christians did not recognize the distinction between the Word of God and its traditions (doctrine), which is also true of many other Churches of Christ outside this small group of believers. One of the basic errors of this sincere fellowship consisted in an overvaluation of doctrine of the church rather than proclamation of Jesus and Him crucified. This fellowship confused the proclamation of the Good News with their brand of accepted beliefs.

            As one examines the preaching of the apostles, one discovers that the missionary proclamation of the apostles has only a distant relationship to what takes place in the pulpit of many churches today.  What takes place in countless churches today has very little to do with what the Bible calls “proclaiming the Word.” Just recently, I read a chapter in a book on missionary activities—yet to be published—in which the author stressed the sinfulness of handclapping in the assembly, contemporary singing in the congregation, instrumental music in congregational singing,[8] preachers preaching from the floor in order to be closer to the congregation, women participating in the assembly,[9] and so on.[10] Ultimately, this dear brother concludes that anyone who is not in his camp on these issues is in the camp of the post-modernist. It is not uncommon for Christians of this mindset to cite John 8:32 to give credence to their position of the nature of “truth.” Those who wish to discard the false identification of doctrine with the Word of God—the Gospel of God—are castigated with the anathema of “post-modernist” or “digressive” or “unsound” in THE FAITH.

            Countless churches no longer understand themselves as missionary churches. The churches, as a whole, have put so much emphasis upon right doctrine that they have ceased to emphasize discipleship. Within many fellowships, especially within some Churches of Christ, so much emphasis is placed upon the “true church” or the “Lord’s church”[11] that the true purpose of the Christian community has been lost—proclamation of God’s Way of salvation in and through Jesus Christ—who is “the Truth” that sets one free (John 8:32). Just a casual reading of the Sermons in the Book of Acts reveals the distinction between the preaching of the apostles and the preaching of he modern day church, especially within some of the twenty-five or more divisions within the Churches of Christ. It is in this vein that Emil Brunner says,

The truth of which the Bible speaks is always a happening, and indeed the happening of the meeting between God and man, an act of God which must be received by an act of man. The truth acting—this is the characteristic unphilosophical, non-Greek way in which the Bible speaks of truth. In the measure that this understanding of truth again becomes alive in it, the Church will itself be renewed again into the true Church. For this renascence we are hoping.[12]

BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE FIRST SEVEN CHAPTERS IN

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN

            If one is to interpret John 8:32 correctly, one must treat this text within its full unit of meaning. The safest way for one to be sure that the Scriptures support his or her own position is to ignore the context. In order for one to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words in John 8:32, one must unpack the background leading up to the text in question. John begins his Gospel with the identity of this One who is called Jesus:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understooda it (John 1:1-4).

            In these four verses, John goes right to the heart of the One who will set one free. This One is none other than the One whom John writes: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only,d who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). This verse reveals that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. In other words, Jesus is the centerpiece of history: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really knew me, you would knowa my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6). Jesus is the single way to God. It is only in Jesus Christ that one finds freedom from God’s wrath. For one to deny this message about Jesus, while, at the same time, pursuing spirituality, one simply conjures up an imaginary religion—one that is fatal. Only the Son of God can make one free.

            The Prologue to John reveals that the message about Christ is not just an introduction to a religion, but rather it is an introduction to the truth about the reality of God and His love for humanity. Following the Prologue, John zeros in on the ministry of John the Baptist (1:19-28). In this pericope (unit of Scripture), John denies that he is “the Christ” (1:20).  After this encounter, John sees Jesus coming and exclaims: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29)! The day following this confession of John, John again calls attention to Jesus as the Lamb of God (1:36). Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, heard John speak and immediately found Peter and told him that he had found “the Messiah (that is, the Christ)” (1:40-42). The next day, Philip also found Nathanael and told him about the Messiah (1:43-51). After this meeting with Jesus, Nathanael confessed: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (1:49).

            In Chapter two of the Gospel of John, John writes about Jesus changing water into wine (2:1-11) and about His clearing the Temple of those making merchandise of God’s holy place (2:12-25). In this pericope (Jesus Clears the Temple), Jesus encounters rejection by the Jews. In spite of this negative response by the Jews, Jesus still performed many miracles while in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast (2:23). Many came to the conclusion that Jesus is the answer to man’s slavery to sin—“many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name” (2:23). Chapter three opens with Nicodemus coming to Jesus (3:1-2). During his conversation with Jesus, Jesus tells Nicodemus that

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,f that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.g 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God (3:16-21).h

            Surely, John 3:16-21 is a commentary on John 8:31-32 and 8:36-37:

If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (8:31-32).

 

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word (8:36-37).

 

            If one refuses this teaching—Jesus came from God to save the world—one will perish. Freedom from condemnation can only be found in one’s acceptance of Jesus as the Son of God, the savior of the world. Again, after this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, John gives John the Baptist’ testimony about Jesus (3:22-36). In this testimony John goes right to the heart of Jesus’ teaching:

The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 33 The man who has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. 34 For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for Godc gives the Spirit without limit. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on himd  (3:31-36).

            If one rejects this teaching that Jesus is “The one who comes from above,” this one will perish “for God’s wrath remains on him.” It is only the Son of God who can set one free from the wrath of God. In the very next Chapter, one observes that the Samaritan woman believed this testimony (4:1-26). Not only did she believe this teaching—“I who speak to you am he” (1:28)—but many of the Samaritans also believed that Jesus was the Messiah (4:39-42). In Chapter five, Jesus heals a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years (5:1-15). As a result of this healing on the Sabbath, the Jews sought to persecute Jesus. The Jews reasoned that since He forgave sins, this statement made Jesus equal with God (5:18). Again, Jesus explains His teachings about His relationship to the Father:

I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. 21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. 22 Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him (5:19-23).

            If one refuses to accept and abide in this teaching, God’s wrath abides upon that person. Once more, Jesus strips away all the underbrush and goes right to the heart of eternal salvation: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life (5:24). As one turns to Chapter six, John reveals that Jesus fed five thousand with just “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (6:1-8). Those who witnessed this miracle exclaimed: “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14). Following Jesus’ walking on water (6:16-24), the crowd found Him on the other side of the lake (6:25). Jesus reflects upon the earlier miracle of feeding the five thousand and refers to Himself as “the bread of life” (6:35). In the flow of the conversation with Jesus, they inquired: “What must we do to do the works God requires” (6:28). Jesus responds with piercing words about His identity: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (6:29).

            If one wishes to know what the teaching is that Jesus speaks of in 8:31, one should reflect once more on Jesus’ words to the crowd that He had previously fed. Listen to the words of Jesus as He seeks to call attention to Himself in the scheme of redemption:

I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (6:35-40).

            If one “looks to the Son and believes in him,” that one “shall have eternal life.” It is only in the Son of God that one finds freedom from God’s wrath. In Chapter six, one also reads about the desertion of many of His disciples, individuals who rejected His teachings about Himself (6:53-66). In Chapter 7, John records that Jesus went to the Feast of the Tabernacles (7:1-13). While at this Feast, Jesus teaches (7:14-24). About halfway through the Feast, Jesus goes into the temple courts and begins to teach (7:14). As result of His teachings, “The Jews were amazed and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having studied” (7:15). In reaction to their question, Jesus responded by saying:

My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. 17 If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. 18 He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. 19 Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me (7:16-19)?

            Many Jews rejected this teaching about Jesus’ deity. They rejected Him as the One that the Prophets foretold would come to take away the sins of the world. John focuses once more on the identity of Jesus by reporting the reaction of the people to Jesus:

At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? 26 Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Christa? 27 But we know where this man is from; when the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from (7:25-27).

Is Jesus the Christ? Some said “yes,” but others said “no.”  Following this conversation in 7:25-27, John, once more, calls attention to Jesus’ teaching. Pay attention to the words of Jesus as He again identifies Himself: “Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, 29 but I know him because I am from him and he sent me” (7:28-29). After this encounter, each went to his own home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives (8:1). When dawn came, Jesus, once more, went to the temple courts where the people gathered around him and He taught them (8:2). In this teaching, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world, Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12).

The Pharisees challenged this teaching (8:13). But Jesus did not for one moment shrink back from this teaching. He plowed ahead, as it were, with the truth of His teachings:

Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. 16 But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. 17 In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. 18 I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me (8:14-18).

            The Pharisees rejected this teaching. But Jesus continued to drive home the point that without belief in Him, one could not be free. Jesus says, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be,a you will indeed die in your sins (8:23-24). In spite of this rejection by the religious leaders, nevertheless, there were Jews who believed His teachings about His having come from the Father to give eternal life to those who believe in Him (8:31).  Listen to Jesus as He says, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:31-32). Then Jesus drops the bombshell on His listeners:

I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you do what you have heard from your fatherb (8:34-38).

THE “I AM” STATEMENTS

With the above examination of the first seven chapters in John leading up to 8:32, this focus should assist one in understanding the “I AM” statement as a reference point in approaching John 8:32. The preceding discussion about Jesus’ statements concerning Himself is necessary in order to fully grasp the significance of this now famous verse (8:32). The “I am” statements in the Gospel of John should enhance one’s understanding of what Jesus really meant by “the truth will make you free.” Only in the Gospel of John does one discover the startling “I am” statements. John records seven great “I am” (ejgwV eijmi, egw eimi) announcements of Jesus (6:35; 9:5; 10:7; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). Each of the “I am” sayings is followed with a predicate nominative—“the light of the world,” and so on. These “I am” declarations indicate that one is dealing with someone who is deity. In addition to these seven assertions, one also reads of three statements in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John (8:24, 28, 58) that sets forth in clear terms that Jesus is the One that the prophets foretold would come into the world to save sinners—“I am He” (The pronoun “He” is added as a predicate nominative, even thought the I AM sayings in vv. 24, 28, and 58 are absolute—no predicate. These statements by Jesus unfold something of the greatness of this One that is called “the Christ” (oJ Cristov", &o cristos). He identifies Himself as the Messiah (Messiva", Messias), the savior of the world (1:29-30). Having said this, Jesus, in this very statement (ejgwv eijmi, egw eimi), discloses the truth of His Person—deity.

John does not argue the point of Christ’s deity as he begins his Gospel. He simply states that Christ “was with (prov", literally, “facing God”) God in the beginning” and that Christ “was God” [qeov" hj'n oJ lovgo", qeos hn &o logos] (John 1:1-2). After stressing the deity of Christ in the Prologue (1:1-18), he gives evidence to substantiate his bold assertions about who Christ is as well as His preexistence (1:14-18). John the Baptist said, “He was before (e[mprosqen, emprosqen) me” (1:15). John had a beginning in time, but there has never been a time in which Jesus never existed. In fact, He created time. John proves Jesus' deity by calling attention to the miraculous in Jesus’ ministry, and, at the same time, John gives the personal testimony of Jesus to substantiate His preexistence in order to prove that Jesus existed prior to the creation of this universe. Thus, from this testimony, John declares: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (1:3).

            This language of John is similar to the language of Paul to the Christians at Colossae. In this short epistle, Paul, too, speaks of the creation as a work of Christ: “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things (proV pavvntwn, pro pantwn), and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). John also records a prayer of Jesus—a prayer that occurred shortly before His trial—which is quite revealing, concerning His preexistence. In this prayer, Jesus prays: “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:5).

            The Gospel of John is loaded with information concerning the preexistence of Jesus. On one occasion, Jesus encountered some Jews who were antagonistic toward His remarks about God and Himself. In the ensuing conversation, He replied:

If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad (8:54-56).

This affirmation by Jesus is amazing. Why? Well, He said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” Abraham was born in 2166 BC;[13] yet, Jesus speaks of Abraham as having seen the day of Christ and was glad. How could this be? Abraham lived 2000 years before the birth of Jesus. In fact, the Jews questioned Him: “You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” (8:57). Jesus’ answer to their statement is quite revealing concerning His true identity. In His response to the Jews, He testifies that He existed before Abraham (8:58) and that He is the One whom Abraham saw (ejgwV eijmi, egw eimi, “I am he”). The I AM statement, as observed above, is an expression of deity.  The Greek text is: “Before (privn, prin) Abraham became (genevsqai, genesqai, “to become”) I am (ejgwV eijmi, egw eimi).” The aorist verb (genesqai) marks a historical point in time. On the other hand, Jesus uses the present tense to indicate that before Abraham’s existence He Himself existed.

With this expression (egw eimi), an expression that is applied to God the Father in the Old Testament, Jesus is not saying that He is identical with the Father, but rather He is claiming that this unique expression may also be used of Him. In the eighth chapter of John (vv. 24, 28), He does assert His Messiahship with this same expression. Not only did He assert his preexistence, but He also identified Himself as the One foretold by the prophets that would take away the sins of the world. Listen, once more, to Jesus as he boldly asserts: “before Abraham was born, I am! (ejgwV eijmiv, egw eimi)” (8:58). Abraham’s time was time-bound. On the other hand, Jesus is not time-bound. With the “I AM” expression, Jesus points to His existence with God beyond the bounds of time.[14] George Beasley-Murray expresses the significance of the egw eimi saying this way: ‘“Before Abraham came into existence I am’ expresses ‘the contrast between the existence initiated by birth and an absolute existence.’”[15]

The three occurrences of the “I AM” sayings (absolute) in chapter eight is found in the absolute, no predicate attached.[16]  This confession (8:58) is the third of the “I am” (ejgwV eijmi) statements in the eighth chapter of John. Did the Jews understand Jesus’ declaration that He was the One to come as predicted by the prophets? Did they comprehend this unique expression to refer to deity? Yes, they did! They understood His words, but they did not believe His words. John records their swift reaction to these words: “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds” (8:59). The Jews refused to hold/accept the teaching of Jesus about His identity (8:31).

JESUS IS THE TRUTH

As one examines the Christian faith, one can say that the Christian faith is faith in Jesus as “the truth.” For one to say that Jesus is the content of truth is a radical departure from the ordinary concept of truth. In the Prologue to the Gospel of John, John writes: “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). With Jesus, truth came into being. Truth is something that happens; in other words, it is something God does. It is in Jesus that grace and truth reaches its pinnacle—grace and truth come to realization. In one’s reflection upon the Incarnation, one understands that this supernatural birth is not the pivotal point of the biblical revelation, but rather the work of the redeemer that results in salvation for sinful humanity.

The Gospel of John guides one in understanding the “mystery of God,” which is Jesus Christ (See also Colossians 1:27—2:2). The Person of the Mediator must be understood as an act of God—an act designed to set men and women free from condemnation (See also Romans 5:1-2; 8:1). In the Gospel, one observes that God reveals Himself in Him—“the Truth.” God also reconciles the world unto Himself in Him—“the Truth.” It is in Him that God redeems humanity (See also 2 Corinthians 5:17-19). Jesus is God’s act of atonement for sinful humanity. It is in and through His Son that God gives freedom. It is in and through His Son that God gives Himself. Again, one can say that the sufferings of Christ—His passion—is the act of God in which He gives Himself and establishes fellowship with both men and women. Is it any wonder that Jesus went to the very heart of redemption when He startled His disciples with the following words:

You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be,a you will indeed die in your sins (John 8:23-24).

Jesus identifies Himself as the One who came forth from the Father. Some rejected this truth and therefore condemned themselves (8:42). In contrast, there were some who put their faith in Him. Thus, Jesus said to the Jews who believed that He came from the Father and that He was the Christ: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:31-32). What truth (teaching) would they know? The Jews would know that Jesus is the One whom Abraham saw. They would know the truth that Jesus is the Son of Man. They would know the truth that He is God. They would know the truth (teaching) that Jesus is the One whom God sent into the world.  They would know that He is from above. That is to say, they would know that Jesus is the One He claimed to be. The word truth in verse 32 is the same as the word Son in verse 36.  The following chart in parallel columns illustrate graphically this truth:

John 8:31-32

John 8:36-37

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

 

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word.

 

Gail R. O’Day writes: “The truth is the presence of God in Jesus.”[17] Again, she writes: “It shows a complete misunderstanding of the egw eimi saying. They think Jesus has merely omitted the predicate in an identification saying and grasp none of the theological overtones.”[18] See the following chart for a comparison of the three ejgwV eijmi sayings in John 8. One will observe, in all three verses, that one only finds the egw eimi sayings in the absolute, even though the NIV adds a predicate—“the one I claim to be” in two (vv. 24 and 28) of the three citations:

John 8:24

John 8:28

John 8:58

“I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be (ejgwV eijmi), you will indeed die in your sins.”

 

“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be (ejgwV eijmi) and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.

 

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered,“before Abraham was born, I am!” (ejgwV eijmi)

 

Again, in John (chapter 8) there are four occurrences of the “I AM” (egw eimi)  sayings; all, but one, are expressed in the absolute, no predicate given. This absolute saying is difficult to reproduce in English.[19] There are possibly three meanings that one could assign to this unique expression: (1) I am what I say I am—the light of the world, (2) I am He—the promised Messiah, and (3) I am—absolutely, the divine name. Even though all three ideas are present, nevertheless none are actually indicated. To those who refused to acknowledge this truth found in the egw eimi saying, Jesus said: “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be (ejgwV eijmi, egw eimi), you will indeed die in your sins” (8:23-24).

To return again to the “I AM” statement in 8:28, Jesus had just called to their attention a point in time in the future when many would acknowledge His claim to be from above and the One whom Abraham saw. John records the following words for his readers and for us:

When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be (ejgwV eijmi, egw eimi) and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him (8:28).

            The occurrence of the “I AM” in 8:28 is, as stated above, absolute, no predicate supplied. The NIV does supply a predicate by translating this as: “I am the one I claim to be.” The NRSV supplies a pronoun as a predicate nominative (“I am he”). Even though these translations may be accurate according to the context, still one must remember that by adding the predicate, one alters the absolute egw eimi. Jesus identifies Himself with the divine name.[20] One can hardly read this prediction (8:28) of Jesus without reflection upon the Roman Centurion who stood at the foot of the cross. Mark gives the following reaction of this Centurion: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’”  (Mark  15:39).

Generally, the “I am” (ejgwV eijmi, egw eimi) saying in John 8:58 is associated with Exodus 3:14, and there is validity to this assumption.  God said to Moses: “I AM WHO I AM (jEgwv eijmi oJ w[n, Egw eimi &o wn). This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (3:14). The ejgw eimi is an Old Testament formula. The phrase is equivalent to “I am the Lord.”[21] The ejgwv eijmi in the Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew aWh yn]a& (a&n! hWa), which is the way God speaks (see Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10; 46:4). The Hebrew may carry a reference to the divine name  hwhy (yhwh).[22]

  This absolute occurs in several passages in the Gospel of John—4:26; 6:20; 8: 24, 28, 58; 13:9; 18:5, 6, 8. Perhaps, there is some justification for adding the predicate since the controversy was over whether or not Jesus is the Christ (7:25-44). But having said this, one must never forget that the egw eimi is absolute in the above references, even though sometimes, in other citations, one does observe the predicate, for example, John 6:35—“I am the bread of life.” This essay does not deal with 8:18, since this expression does not occur in the sections of controversy over who Jesus is.

Earlier, Jesus, in His conversation with the Samaritan woman, used this same phrase—“I am he” (ejgwV eijmi, egw eimi). In the course of this encounter, the woman responded to a statement of Jesus by saying: “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us” (4:25). In response to this statement about the Messiah, Jesus responded by saying: “I who speak to you am he (ejgwV eijmi, egw eimi)” (4:26). Jesus states emphatically that He is the One that she and others were looking to come. Pay attention to 4:26 once more: “Jesus says to her: “I am (ejgwV eijmi, egw eimi, “I am he”) the one speaking to you” (my translation—RDB). The “I am” statement in John 4:26 is equivalent to the three identical phrases found in John chapter eight (vv. 23, 28, 58).

            In the seventh chapter of John, Jesus emphasizes His origin and His mission. At the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles), Jesus began to teach. As a result of this teaching, “The Jews were amazed and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having studied?’” (7:15). Whereupon Jesus responds by saying: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me” (7:16). Following His discourse, some asked the question concerning His identity. John records the following response from the people as to whether or not He really is the Christ:

At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? 26 Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Christ? 27 But we know where this man is from; when the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from” (7:25-26).

            On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths), Jesus stood and said in a loud voice: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (7:37-38). Again, almost immediately, the people said, ‘“Surely this man is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘He is the Christ.’” In Chapter eight of John’s Gospel, Jesus gives testimony as to His preexistence and to His being the Christ whom God sent. Three times in this chapter, Jesus uses the expression: ejgwV eijmi (8:24, 28, 58) in the absolute. The salvation of the Jews depended upon their acceptance of Jesus as the Christ, the savior of the world. Pay attention to Jesus as He issues His warning against the Jews: “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am (ejgwV eijmi) the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (8:23-24). The Jews demanded to know “Who are you?” (8:25). Thus, the translators provided the predicate for the “I am” in order to complete the sense of Jesus’ response.

The NIV added the words, “the one I claim to be.” This translation captures the essence of verse 24. Unless they accepted the fact that Jesus is the One He claimed to be, they would die in their sins. Repetition is unavoidable in this study. It is necessary to call to mind certain Scriptures over and over again in order to draw attention to the significance of John 8:58. One’s salvation hinges upon one’s acceptance of Jesus as the One the prophets spoke of. Still, many Jews did not understand, so Jesus again explains His relationship with the Father:

When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am (ejgwV eijmi) the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him (8:28).

Once more the NIV translators, in order to make clear the sense of the passage, added the words, “the one I claim to be.” As a result of the words of Jesus, John says, “many put their faith in him” (8:30). Then to the Jews who believed, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:31-32). What truth would make them free? If they accepted the truth that Jesus had come from the Father and that He was the Christ, then they would not die in their sins. In other words, if they accepted that Jesus is the One He claimed to be, then they could have eternal life—acceptance of this truth would set them free.

One must accept this teaching if he or she wishes eternal life. Jesus went on to say: “So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (8:36). Many of the Jews just refused to accept Jesus. In fact, some cried out: “Abraham is our father” (8:39). Jesus responds to their statement by saying:

If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41 You are doing the things your own father does” (8:39-41a)

How did Abraham react to the announcement concerning the coming of the Messiah? He rejoiced and was glad. On the other hand, the Jews sought to kill Jesus. Thus, the Jews who refused to believe were of their father, the devil. In response to their negative reaction as to His claims, Jesus said to them:

If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! 46 Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God (8:42-47).

CONCLUSION

Many did not even know their own Messiah as He stood before them. Certainly, Abraham saw the birth of the Messiah. More conversation follows these remarks in 8:42-47. Jesus zeros in on Abraham’s faith. He told the Jews: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (8:56). They were dumbfounded by this comment. They questioned Him by saying: “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham!” (8:57). Then Jesus issued a statement that cemented His claim about being the Messiah sent forth from God: “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am [ejgwV eijmi] (8:58).  JEgwv eijmi = “I exist.” Yes, Jesus identifies Himself as the Messiah by saying: “I am he” (egw eimi, vv. 24, 28).  Jesus is saying, in effect, that I am the One that “Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (8:56).  Emil Brunner captures the essence of the coming of Jesus in his remarks in his book, The Mediator:

The assault of God upon the world is Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of revelation and atonement. He is the Divine King who thus establishes His sovereignty, and is so doing sets humanity free from the powers which are hostile to God and therefore also hostile to life.[23]

            In John 8:24, 28, and 58, Jesus is simply saying, “I am he” (ejgwV eijmi, egw eimi). In other words, I am the One whom Abraham saw. Jesus not only proclaimed His preexistence, but He also proclaimed Himself as the One whom Abraham foresaw.  Is it any wonder that Jesus said that if you do not believe that “I am he,” you will die in your sins? Have you accepted this One who is called God (John 1:1)? Have you accepted this One who created all things (1:2)? Have you received the One who turned water into wine (2:1-11)? Have you acknowledged the One who walked on water (6:16-21)?

Have you recognized the One who raised Lazarus from the dead (11:38-44)? Have you trusted in the One who cured the eyesight of one born blind (9:1-12)? Have you accepted the One who fed 5000 with just five small loaves and two fishes (6:1-15)? If not, why not receive Him so that you may have eternal life (8:31-32)? Do you believe that before Abraham was born that Jesus existed? Do you believe that Jesus is the “I AM” of John 8:58? If so, then you need to acknowledge this truth and become a disciple of the Messiah, the savior of the world (3:16-21). His miracles prove His assertion—egw eimi.

31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendantsa and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” 34 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you do what you have heard from your fatherb (8:31-37).

 

 

 



[1] All Scripture citations are from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), unless stated otherwise.

 

[2] This essay is rather lengthy, but this drawn-out discussion is necessary in order to lead individual into the true meaning of the text. When one tries to eliminate traditions, one must go to great lengths in order to unfold the author’s intent. For this reason, this author has taken a great deal of space to analyze the first seven chapters of the Gospel of John in order to nail down the meaning one should attach to Jesus’ words about “the truth shall set you free.”

[3] E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University press, 1967), 8.

[4] Cedric B. Johnson, The Psychology of biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 27.

[5] Leroy Garrett, “Some of the Left Over Passages,” Restoration Review 18, No. 10 (December 1976): 283.

[6] Even though I am calling attention to the abuse of this Scripture in my earlier traditions, I still must say that the ones who taught me were sincere and godly men. Many of these preachers are now with the Lord; they have crossed the great gulf between God and humanity. I have been extremely fortunate to have been exposed to the science of interpretation.  As a result of having been exposed to the science of interpretation, this author has been able to avoid the many pitfalls of the forefathers in the Stone/Campbell Movement. It goes, almost without saying, that perfect understanding of God’s Holy Word is not essential to salvation. But what God is concerned about is whether one loves Him. Listen to Paul as he seeks to draw attention to what it is all about:

 

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But the man who loves God is known by God (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).

[7] This particular group “pinches” the bread rather than “breaks”  the bread. If one broke the bread, one broke the bones of Jesus and violated the Scripture that states that not a bone of Him shall be broken.

[8] For an examination of the subject of instrumental music in the Christian assembly, see Dallas Burdette, “God Is A Lover of Music” [ONLINE]. Available from www.freedominchrist.net [accessed May 6, 2004] located under caption BIBLICAL STUDIES and then under OLD TESTAMENT and then under PSALMS.

[9] This same brother will allow women to stand in the pulpit and translate his message by their preaching to the congregation in the native language of the hearers. For some strange reason, this practice does not violate the Scriptures, according to him, but if a woman speaks to the congregation without being an interpreter, she sins. This man is a very godly man, but, so it appears to me, has not yet grasped what the kingdom is all about. This practice of women speaking as interpreters is frequently done in Russia. This author (Dallas Burdette) is writing a series of essays on the role of women in the Christian community. Thus far, he has written two essays in this study. See Dallas Burdette, “The Role of Women in the Great Commission” and “First Timothy: Literalism and Isolationism of Scripture”[ONLINE]. Available from www.freedominchrist.net [accessed May 6, 2004] located under caption SERMONS AND ESSAYS and then under WOMEN: THEIR ROLE IN THE CHURCH.

 

[10] The items listed above are issues surrounding the so-called worship service associated with five rituals to be performed on Sunday morning in a prescribed way. The Bible does not call the assembly a worship service; this concept has come out of Roman Catholicism. For essays dealing with the current problems within the Churches of Christ over “worship,” See Dallas Burdette, “The Coming of God’s Kingdom: A Call to Worship,”  “True Worship,” “Congregational Worship and Division,” “Sunday Morning Worship—Five Acts,” Worship: An Analysis of the Various Greek Words,” and “Biblical Worship” [ONLINE]. Available from www.freedominchrist.net [accessed May 6, 2004] located under caption SERMONS AND ESSAYS and then under WORSHIP.

 

[11] The unique expression (“the Lord’s Church”) is employed by many within the Churches of Christ to distinguish themselves from the so-called denominational world. In other words, no one is a member of the Lord’s Church who is not a part of the Churches of Christ. It goes almost without saying that the denominational Church of Christ did not exist when Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Schlosskirche in 1517, nor did the Church of Christ exist when pope Urban II led the first Christian crusade in 1095. The church of Christ was in existence, but not the Church of Christ Church that came out of the Stone/Campbell Movement.

[12] Emil Brunner, The Divine-Human Encounter (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1943), 210-202.

 

            a Or darkness, and the darkness has not overcome

            d Or the Only Begotten

            a Some early manuscripts If you really have known me, you will know

            f Or his only begotten Son

                g Or God~s only begotten Son

                h Some interpreters end the quotation after verse 15.

            c Greek he

                d Some interpreters end the quotation after verse 30.

            a Or Messiah; also in verses 27, 31, 41 and 42

            a Or I am he; also in verse 28

                b Or presence. Therefore do what you have heard from the Father.

[13] For an examination of the subject of biblical chronology, see Dallas Burdette, “What Is Liberalism” [ONLINE]. Available from www.freedominchrist.net [accessed May 6, 2004] located under caption SERMONS AND ESSAYS and then under UNITY AND DIVERSITY.

 

[14] See Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John in Leander E. Keck, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 646. I am indebted to her insights for her discussion of the predicate added by translators to the absolute egw eimi (see page 634).

[15] George R. Beasley-Murray, John in Word Biblical Commentary, vol., 36 (Waco: Texas: Work Books, 1987), 139.

[16] In 8:18, there is an egw eimi statement, but this egw eimi is not absolute; it has a predicate attached to it—“who testifies for myself.”

            a Or I am he; also in verse 28

[17] Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John., 637.

[18] Ibid., 634.

[19] See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, Revised, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 397.

[20] O’ Day, The Gospel of John, 634.

[21] See Beasley-Murray, John, 130.

[22] See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, 420.

[23] Emil Brunner, The Mediator: A Study of the Central Doctrine of the Christian Faith (1934, reprinted (London: Lutterworth Press, 1952), 553.

            a Greek seed; also in verse 37

                b Or presence. Therefore do what you have heard from the Father.