Sermon, June 13, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church
We return this morning to the book of John, as we so frequently do these days, and we’ll continue in this extended episode of Jesus’s teaching at the Feast of Booths. It’s yet another instance of Jesus saying hard and uncomfortable things, and another example of the really excellent marketing that Jesus uses to draw people in—oh, wait, actually no, another example of Jesus saying things that his hearers, even those who are “believing in in him,” saying things that make them angry enough that by the end of his teaching, everyone wants to at the least leave him, and at the extreme end, to kill him. That’s a more familiar story isn’t it? No warm, fuzzy Jesus here.
Last week we saw the start of this particular scene, and we looked at again lots and lots of misunderstandings about Jesus, about who he is and what he is there to do, one of our big themes in John. And of course we looked at the root cause of all of that, it’s as Jesus says, because Jesus and the people he is teaching and talking to are from fundamentally different origins. Jesus says “I am from above, you are from below, you are of the world, I am not of the world.” That dichotomy, the difference between natural man and Jesus is fundamental, I hope we can all rally around that, because it makes what comes next, in this sermon and the one after it, so much clearer. Jesus is not of the world, but we are. There’s more to be said, more depth that Jesus gives about our natural state in the passage that we are going to consider today, but I wanted to review a little to set that up, because it is important in understanding what we have here. So let’s read now, John chapter 8, and though our text begins in verse 31, we’re going to back up one verse to verse 30 and read through 38. Read along with me now John 8, starting in verse 30. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
The Word of the Lord.
The reason we backed up one verse here is to take care of something that we’ve had to do a lot in our exposition of John, and that is to pay attention to the audience to which Jesus is speaking. What Jesus says here is part of a longer discourse, and he is saying this at the Feast of Booths in the temple, more specifically, if verses 21-30 follow immediately after the previous ones, more specifically in the treasury, which as we said last week was a good symbolic place, with the nightly lighting of the lamps, for Jesus to take on once more the title of “Light of the World,” if they follow directly after that, then the treasury is the setting for this teaching as well, and the audience is the same as in that scene. And at the end of that instruction that we covered last week, John tells us in verse 30 that, “As he was saying these things, many believed in him.”
Some of the gathered people responded to this message positively and wanted to know more, they wanted to hear more from Jesus. And so we read in verse 31 that this next bit of instruction was directed to those people, the ones referred to in verse 30 who it says believed in him as a result of the previous instruction.
Now we have to pause for a second and I’ll tell you there is significant debate about the true nature of these people. When it says that “they believed,” does it say that they came to a true saving faith in Christ? Reading the rest of this story, to the end of the chapter, unless at some point Jesus started talking to other people, we would have to say no, they did not have a saving faith yet. There was some interest in Jesus among this audience, maybe even some that believed logically that he was the promised Messiah and they wanted to hear more, but they did not yet have a saving faith. Here is a difference between knowledge of Jesus and faith or trust in him, right? There’s a difference between knowing and even understanding who Jesus is, and placing your faith in Jesus for your salvation. We’ve mentioned that before as the Spirit pulling your knowledge of God from your head to your heart—it must make it that last 18 inches or it is not true faith.
So, because of how this conversation continues to unfold, we must assume that that has not yet happened in this audience here, and it’s an invitation to us to look at our own hearts and assess the same. Even among us who are truly confident that we possess a true faith in Christ, there are seasons where we feel it more in our heads than our hearts. So it is to these people, and to us that Jesus addresses these words. Let’s look at what Jesus says in more detail.
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Jesus’s thesis statement here—abide in my word, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. This of course is reacted to with disbelief from the hearers (as is typically the case). They focus on the end of what Jesus says and that sets up the rest of this conversation. They say, why do you say that we will be free? We’re already free, we have always been free, why do you suggest that at some point in the future we will be set free?
It may not look it, but this is actually one of the first instances in John where Jesus says something that the people don’t take literally. That’s been the mistake of the hearers in almost every other discourse, that Jesus says something like “eat my flesh” and they think he’s talking about cannibalism. But here, they don’t take it literally, they respond recognizing that the freedom that Jesus is talking about is not physical freedom, but spiritual freedom. If it were physical bondage that Jesus was talking about, of course they were in bondage, of course they had been slaves in the past, they were currently under the boot of the Romans, but they had been exiled as slaves to Babylon, let’s not forget the slavery in Egypt. So by saying “we’ve never been enslaved to anyone,” the people are for once not taking Jesus literally, and understanding that he is talking about their spiritual selves.
But though they have been enslaved before, they are proud of the fact that they can point back to Abraham, that heritage, and say “look, we’ve had the spiritual heritage of Abraham this whole time, we are free because of that, God told us we were chosen.”
Oh, so close. They’re closer, because they are finally in the right neighborhood, applying Jesus’s words to religion, but they’re staying on the outside, they appeal to their heritage, but they aren’t yet considering their individual hearts. So Jesus goes on to show them the real slavery that they are under:
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.
This is the human condition. We are all born slaves. Slaves to sin. And what is slavery? Slavery means you have no choices. Slavery means you do what your master tells you. Slavery is dehumanizing, it makes you something less than what you were originally born to be. Calling us slaves to sin is another excellent picture of our condition as sinners.
We sin because not because we mess up from time to time, or make mistakes, we sin because we are sinners. We are slaves to it. We’ve exposed the big lie before when going through John – you don’t start your life neutral. You don’t start your life with empty scales, and then spend your life putting bad things on the one side of the scale and good things on the other side of the scale, just hoping that it will balance to the right side in the end. Or worse, that you can use Jesus as a really big weight on the good side that will tip it in your favor in the end.
Most Christians wouldn’t profess such a model, but we often live like that is actually think it works. That’s how this audience is reacting. Look, we have Abraham, we’re good! In fact, in their haughtiness, they boldly declare that since they have this religion that comes down from Abraham, and this law that comes down from Moses, they have the best religion in all the land! And it’s true, they do have the best religion in all the land, in all of history. But having is not believing. Jesus says to them none of that matters, because you’re still slaves to sin.
When you are a slave to sin you may even feel free. You still make decisions, you still do things that appear good from time to time, so you feel pretty OK. That’s the distinction between Total Depravity and Utter Depravity. If we were Utterly Depraved, then every decision we made and every action we took would always be the most heinous thing. Clearly that isn’t the case, because we’re not all murdering each other right now. But we are Totally Depraved. In our natural state we cannot actually choose good. We are incapable of it. Even works that appear good, like if we were a non-believer providing clean drinking water for a village of people in Africa, even something like that, which is a good thing in a certain, earthly sense, is not a good thing in an ultimate sense, because it was not performed in thanksgiving and service of Almighty God. It was done in service of myself. It was done by the heart of a slave to sin, a person with a different father than Jesus.
We’ll get into it a lot more next time, but Jesus sets up the rest of the chapter here by contrasting the Father with their father (who is the devil). Verse 38
I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
Your father is the devil, he says. This is so important to understand, because we like to feel that we are free in this life, but we aren’t. Jesus says that without him, we are slaves to sin and the devil is our father. It is not a matter of degree of slavery or position, it’s either/or. You are either a slave to sin, or you are a follower of Christ, that’s it. Jesus has been making this point endlessly throughout this gospel. Go back to chapter 3, verse 18, where Jesus already made the emphatic point about this default position:
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Condemned already. Default. Slave to sin. You’re not just broken, you’re dead. So that, of course is the first point. We are reminded of the profundity of our sin, the total grip that it has on our lives until we are set free by the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s number 1.
But the second point that Jesus makes in response here is what I kept thinking about as “The Difficulty of the Close Slave.” It’s what Jesus says next in verse 35:
The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.
You might expect, after Jesus brings up the image of them and us being slaves to sin, that the next thing he would say would double down on that, or expound on it a little more like I just did for several minutes, but he doesn’t. He turns and illuminates a more specific condition, one that the Jews in front of him are in, that of the close slave.
When we have the image of slavery in our minds, we think mainly of the horrible injustice of British and then American slavery of African-Americans. And horrible it was. In its worst iterations, abuses and horrors that we won’t recount here were carried out on people. But in many cases slavery looked different in the time and place when this was written. Not all, but in a large household, some slaves had what amounted to a lot of power, a lot of responsibility. Some would manage the affairs of the whole house. The most prominent slaves in a house might be very near their masters. Even in American slavery, not everyone was on the lowest rung, some filled positions to their masters like personal secretaries and confidants.
That’s not at all to say it is a desirable condition, because there’s the difficulty of the close slave. Jesus says, “the slave does not remain in the house forever.” The slave may rise to a place of prominence in a household, may even be sincerely loved by the master, but even so he remains property. The slave will not always remain in the house, he could be sold away at any second. And even if that beloved slave would serve the family until the master dies, what is his inheritance? Nothing. The son of the household is who remains and receives an inheritance.
What Jesus accuses the Jews of here is being so close, but not really believing anything. Boasting about their father Abraham, and thinking that that is what will save them, that is where their faith is. They are content to be slaves to sin, on the outside of all of the blessings of the house. And Jesus, the Son is here, the one who has the power to set the slaves of the household free, and when he does you will have your freedom.
It’s difficult for the close slave, because the close slave has a taste of so many of the advantages of being in the house, but he owns none of them and can be cast aside. I think Jesus could and is saying the same thing to the American church. Our freedom of religion in our country was a completely new idea when we were founded, real religious freedom. And because of that, we’ve been able to worship God freely and openly without threat from the government for almost 250 years. And that freedom, that proximity of the things of God all around us gives us the opportunity to be complacent. God’s right over here, so I can visit him when I want to. My family has been members of XYZ church for five generations. If this church gets a new music director and I don’t like the changes, I can just go find another one. Despite recent shifts in culture, there are still many parts of the country where “God, Guns, and Guts” are a rallying cry, sadly sometimes making it seem like God is just this cool part of our national heritage for generations. It sounds a lot like, “We’re children of Abraham, what do you think of that?” Why do we need to be set free?
Jesus’s answer to this is that the heart trumps heritage every time. It doesn’t matter how close you are to the center of the household, to the center of the visible church, if you never shed the title of slave. You can know lots of things about God and still remain a slave to sin. And God isn’t looking for people to be interested in him, or be satisfied with being a slave close by, God is looking for sons and daughters to be adopted into the family. Adoption. When we become free from our slavery and adopted as sons and daughters, legally, as part of our salvation, what happens? We cannot be sold away from the household anymore, Jesus says we—sons and daughters—remain forever. And what’s more, when we are adopted into the household we become co-heirs with Jesus Christ to all the blessings and riches of God, heirs of the promises in the Word given to us that our glory will one day be complete.
The message here is that being a close slave is nothing. Being a “good person” is nothing. Rising to great heights of success in this world is nothing. Being a child of Abraham is nothing. Being a child of an upstanding member of a church is nothing. Even being an elder and a pastor of a church is nothing in an ultimate sense. Your salvation is not credited to you for anything, no matter how great you are or how low you are. You come a slave to sin, and you remain one, unless the truth sets you free.
So we say, “Amen, I want to be free!” Right? Well, how? How do we become free? We learn about evangelism from Jesus, here. What’s the most important piece of evangelism when you’re sharing the gospel? The first thing anyone needs to realize is that they need to be saved. Unless you can get together on that, there’s no point to the rest of it. “Hey, let me tell you about Jesus, he’s here to save you!” and you get a response, “What do you mean, save, I’m good!” That’s basically this conversation. The truth will set you free. I’m already free! No you’re not, you’re a slave.
That’s the root of evangelism, to get people in this world to truly understand their position in it. The church does no one any good when it tells people they are anything other than slaves to sin.
June has become in recent years a difficult month for us, a great barometer of our country’s morality, because it has become a month in which we are all supposed to celebrate sin. A month-long celebration of sin. In Canada, they’ve declared it officially to last all summer, three months! It’s feeling very Romans 1 out there, maybe Genesis 6. But we should expect the world to act like the world, shouldn’t we? This is what a country, a world of sin-slaves does, it seems only natural. It’s tough out there for scripture-affirming Christians. The world feels free. We feel in bondage. That’s what it feels like some days, but we know that the opposite is true! Freedom in Christ is real! Freedom from wanting to please the world is real. We do everything we do not for an audience of 7 billion, we do everything we do for an audience of one. All else is bondage. Does you liking your slavery make it any less slavery, does it change the wages and inheritance that it brings? Of course not.
But we, the church, can’t be involved in that. Sadly there are things called Christian churches who are, and they are heaping judgment on their heads. Our message to everyone, to each other gathered here, to our neighbors, to our friends, to everyone, is that you are in slavery to sin and that there is freedom in Christ. We don’t always have to use those words in that way, but the message cannot be adjusted, cannot have asterisks, no qualifications. We are all sinners in need of a Savior.
So once we understand that, what is the path to this freedom from slavery? Well, Jesus already told us, back to the beginning, in his thesis statement that tipped off this whole conversation about slavery. He tells us the path to freedom.
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The truth will set you free. We have to work backwards to see the process that causes the end result. Jesus says you will be set free when you have the truth. Well, how do we get the truth? Back up, Jesus says the truth will be known by those who are truly his disciples. So does the truth come to the disciples mystically when they become disciples? No! Discipleship comes to those who what? Abide in his word. When we abide in his Word, and his Word only, the rest follows as a consequence. Each step is a natural outgrowth of what came before. Abide in the Word, and become a true disciple. Become a true disciple, and you will know truth. Know that truth, and you will know freedom.
That’s the tragedy of any pseudo-gospel. Pseudo-gospels are not gospels, they’re as worthless as trusting in your being a son of Abraham. No, abide in the Word. Read it, preach it, hear it, pray it. The Word is everything. Taste the Word, and taste freedom. Live in the Word, and your chains fall off. Because here in the Word we don’t just have nice stories, moralistic teaching, or a path to a more fulfilling life on earth. No, it is much higher and grander than that. This bible, the Word of God, is the only source of true truth. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: everything actually is what God says it is. And that’s true whether I recognize it or agree with it or anything. Morality is what God says it is. How salvation works is what God says it is. Acceptable worship is what God says it is. My opinions don’t enter into it, in fact they’re quite suspect.
But what a blessing that God did not leave us in our slavery! What blessing that he chose to give us this treasure of his Word that we could learn about him, learn about ourselves, learn about the plan of our salvation, and come to believe it. All as a result of standing in the Word, abiding in it.
So, fellow former slaves, let us revel in this opportunity to abide in the Word of God. Gathering here, hearing and reading and singing the Word is not just something that we do, it should be our greatest treasure. This is God calling us continually out of our slavery. We still struggle, but we are free. This is a gathering of free men and women. Men and women who have tasted freedom as it comes to us from Jesus Christ, we come together to abide in the Word, and we marvel at what God has in store for his adopted sons and daughters. I can’t wait, how about you? To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
What freedom you have given to us through your Son, Jesus Christ. Thank you for continuing, through these meditation on your Word, for continuing to drive us back to the truth, that it’s all about Jesus and his work. We bring nothing but slavery and bondage, and he is the only key that looses our shackles. Help us to go out with confidence in a hostile world, knowing that what at times feels like bondage is actually freedom, and we pray that you use us boldly to reach those who feel like they have freedom but are actually in bondage. We pray all these things in the mighty name of he who saves, amen.