The Jews bring an argument to Jesus after He has been encouraging the believers about the freedom that they could have in His message. This is one of the most intensive passages in the New Testament (John 8:31-59), but so important for the conviction of the heart. Jesus says, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (vv. 31b-32, NIV) As earlier in chapter 8, the Jews do not understand Jesus’ message. He is speaking about true, spiritual freedom from sin, while they are still thinking about political freedom (from Rome). Jesus explains that the difference between spiritual freedom and bondage is a matter of whether one is a son or a servant. The servant may live in the house, but he is not part of the family, and cannot be guaranteed a future. And these religious leaders were servants or slaves...but of sin. How could they be set free? Only by the Son whom they do not understand and whom they despise.
These Jews claim to belong to Abraham, but they are very unlike Abraham is critical ways. Their nature is evil…they reject the truth; further, they are seeking to kill Jesus because He speaks the truth. They say that they love God, and they may be well-versed in their religious traditions, but do not understand Jesus or His teachings. Jesus claims that by faith Abraham could see and understand many spiritual concepts that they are unable to comprehend. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac -- a foreshadowing of what would happen with Jesus Himself -- reveals the depth of Abraham’s faith. If only these “proclaimed children” of Abraham's had even a small of amount of that kind of faith, they would understand the truth about Jesus. There is an amazing incongruity to all of this. The worst bondage is the kind that the prisoner himself does not recognize. They may claim to know God and love God, but their hearts are far from Him. The Pharisees and other religious leaders believe that they are free – instead, they are in bondage to their "father," Satan.
These religious leaders cannot refute Jesus’ statement, so they attack Him. This is a proven tactic for debaters -- if one side is losing the debate, it becomes personal. As we come to understand in Jesus' dealings with the Samaritan woman, the Jews considered Samaritans to be second-class citizens. So, for a Jew to be called a Samaritan would be a huge insult, but this is what they say about Jesus...that He must be a Samaritan. They add to the insult by saying that He is demon-possessed. Jesus does not dignify the slurs with an answer…they are dishonoring Him, but He is honoring His Father. He tells them that they will die in their sins, because of their unbelief, still He invites them to trust His Word and “never see death.” They understand that Jesus is claiming to be God by proclaiming Himself “Lord over death”…and this convinces many of them, further, that He has a demon. Jesus’ final statement in v.58, “Before Abraham was…I am” is powerful and divine, another affirmation of His divine Sonship. The Jewish leaders receive it as such, and seek to kill Him, but Jesus is able to slip away, since it is not yet His time.
I had the opportunity to participate in a men’s retreat several years ago. At the beginning of the retreat, the leaders gave each one of us a softball sized rock to carry around for the entirety of the weekend. Predictably, the rock became a burden…and a burden it was supposed to be, physically and symbolically. We were to write any sins that we were struggling with on the rock, which once again, signified the burden that our sin had on us. At the end of the retreat, we all took our rocks out to an open area and tossed them into a large open grave. After we all had relieved ourselves of our burden, each of us took scoops of dirt and buried them…a poignant moment. What a relief it was to be set free from the burden…both physical and spiritual.
This is what Jesus came in order to do -- set us free from our burden. From the Garden of Eden, humans have had the burden of sin weighing them down. Jesus died on the cross, was buried, and then raised from the dead so that He could take that burden from us and set us free. If only the Jewish leaders had taken up Jesus’ offer. But, the most difficult people to win are those who do not realize that they have a need…and the Jewish leaders were altogether self-sufficient. It is remarkable how many people…how many believers, even…choose to continue to carry their burdens around rather than be set free and to live free in Christ. The greatest prison is one without bars…it is an unrepentant heart. When people stay in such a state for long, they become desensitized to their struggle and to sin and cannot see Jesus. This was the case with the Jewish religious leaders. We have every opportunity to choose freedom and choose life. We can allow Jesus to tear the bars away and live in our hearts.