This article was originally written for 1517.
The Gospel of John is filled with an assortment of decisive Scriptures which showcase the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ. The scene in John 8 is, perhaps, the most formative of them all, containing Jesus’s penetrating declaration of his mission as the “light of the world” (John 8:12) and the life-giving mantra of his entire ministry as heaven’s Deliverer: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). These words are, to be sure, naturally appealing to the human ear. When you hear that word — freedom! — you are likely inundated with all manner of red-white-and-blue iconography. (Or, perhaps you have visions of Braveheart.)
“Let freedom ring,” though, isn’t only an inherently American ideal as much as it is inherently human. It may be a core tenet of American religion and patriotism, but people everywhere are born with an innate aversion to authority, which seeks expression in ways both great and small. From swiping the forbidden cookie to marshaling mobs against the powers that be, mankind insists on continuing Eden’s deception that we can be “like God” (Gen. 3:6). That no one can, in fact, keep chains on us because we are “born free.”
Jesus’s freedom is different, though. It isn’t meant to indicate that the moorings which tether men and women to what is true, beautiful, and holy are unfastened, liberating them to do anything they please. Rather, Jesus’s freedom proclaims something much truer and much deeper. Indeed, appealing as these words may be, they are brimming with the truth of the gospel that’s as potent as it is piercing. What, then, does this “genuine freedom,” which Jesus comes preaching, genuinely mean? What does it entail? What makes us “free indeed”?
One of the prevailing failures of the religious elite of Jesus’s day was their stubborn insistence that Jesus was counterfeit. They could never admit that Jesus was who he said he was — precisely because that would change everything; that would upend their accepted and venerated orthodoxy. The obstinacy of the Pharisees is exhibited at almost every turn in John 8, in which the Lord Jesus ushers them to confess his deity. The Pharisees repel Jesus’s provocations, though, casting aspersions on his identity, integrity, and mission. For instance, immediately after Jesus’s self-description as the “light of the world” (John 8:12), the Pharisees accuse him of bearing false testimony. “The Pharisees therefore said unto him, Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true” (John 8:13). This eventually leads Jesus to make the assertion that those who follow him “shall know the truth, and the truth shall make [them] free” (John 8:32).
This was, certainly, a most troubling statement in the Pharisees’ ears, on two accounts. First, it suggests that they don’t know truth. For those who were so committed to storied truth of the law, this wasn’t only obnoxious, it was offensive. The notion that those devoted to upholding Mosaic truth didn’t actually know the truth was preposterous. But, furthermore, inherent in Jesus’s words is the notion that they weren’t actually free but captive to something or someone else. This sentiment they certainly take umbrage with, responding, “We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?” (John 8:33). The offense of Jesus’s words leads them to make that curious claim that they were never anyone’s slaves. “We were never in bondage to any man,” they protest.
How should we make sense of this rebuttal? Were the Pharisees really that blind to the historical slavery that plagued their ancestors? It’s hard to imagine that such scrupulous students of Israelite lore and law could be so ignorant of a past that was riddled with such burdensome seasons of bondage (at the hands of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans). Some suggest that the Pharisees’ hatred of Jesus had so filled them with indignation that they turned a blind eye to their own past. Perhaps that is so. I think, though, that their contention that they were “Abraham’s seed” reveals what they were really meaning and thinking.
You see, by appealing to “Father Abraham,” they were making the bold claim that they were “free indeed” because of their bloodline. Their lineage as the people of promise had preserved them from spiritual bondage. They were genealogically free. Therefore, they didn’t need a deliverer. They didn’t need spiritual liberation. And they especially didn’t need it extended to them from a lowly carpenter’s Son from Nazareth, of all places. They were free already, according to words and laws of Moses, so they presumed. To which, I imagine, Jesus just smirking and shrugging his shoulders at the mulish unbelief on display. He, then, presses the matter further:
I know that ye are Abraham’s seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father. They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham . . . Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. (John 8:37–40, 44–45)
Try and fathom the outrage that coursed through those Jewish veins. This Galilean Teacher has just intimated that those whose entire lives revolved around the meticulous maintenance of the truth of the Pentateuch weren’t, actually, living like sons of their great Pentateuchal patriarch. Their true father, according to Jesus, was “the devil” himself. He’s the progenitor they were imitating. No wonder by the time Jesus is done teaching they take up stones in order to kill him (John 8:59). Such, though, is the deeper meaning behind Jesus’s assessment of their enslavement. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34). The Pharisees were lying to themselves in saying that they “were never in bondage.” Sin had blinded them to the fact that they were enslaved by sin. They were in bondage and didn’t even know it.
This, I would say, is the truest, most accurate description of the human experience. We are born into a world that’s fractured, that’s polluted by sin and strife. Things are worse than they appear. “The condition of the natural man is far, far worse than he imagines,” notes A. W. Pink, “and far worse than the average preacher and Sunday school teacher supposes.”1 We are bound in sin’s prison (Isa. 61:1). We are slaves to the “old man,” the nature of which is entirely “corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (Col. 3:9; Rom. 6:6; Eph. 4:24). We are “by nature the children of wrath” and disobedience, mobilized by none other than the “prince of the power of the air” himself (Eph. 2:2-3). Jesus’s assessment, then, is entirely accurate. We are of our “father the devil,” following his deceitful will of lust, lies, and murder (John 8:44).
There’s no question that these words of the Lord Jesus are coarse, at best, going down like a vinegar-acid cocktail. Who wants to admit that they are bound in indentured subservience to Satan himself? But, you see, inherent in the freedom Jesus preaches is the freedom to accept that most humiliating truth: that you aren’t “free indeed” and are, in fact, in need of rescuing. And it’s precisely the acceptance of our bondage that sounds the first hopeful tones of liberation. To believe otherwise renders Jesus’s gospel null and void. “To believe that their present condition is not slavery,” writes Rev. Alexander Maclaren, “makes men hopeless of ever gaining freedom, and the true gospel of the emancipation of humanity rests on the Christian doctrine of the bondage of sin.”2 Before you can ever believe the good news, you have to accept the bad news first.
The bad news is that you and I are condemned already (John 3:18–19). We are the “servants of sin.” But, according to Jesus, that’s actually a good thing — because servants aren’t permanent. “The servant,” he says, “abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever” (John 8:35). Household slaves didn’t hold lifelong positions. They were interchangeable. Their place in the manor was unstable, untenable, and erratic. A son, however, held an enduring position in the house. “The Son abideth ever.” The son and heir is “free indeed” because his status as a “son” isn’t subject to change. The prodigal’s father examples this truth quite palpably, welcoming his wayward boy when he returns home not as a servant but as a resurrected son (Luke 15:20–24). The writer to the Hebrews, however, makes this point even clearer:
For every house is builded by some man; but he that built all things is God. And Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken after; but Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end. (Heb. 3:4–6)
The Pharisees, you see, as keepers of the law, were living as servants. Those who followed Jesus, however, were following “the Son” who “abideth ever.” He is the only begotten of the Father whose status doesn’t change. And, what’s more, he is the Son who makes men free. “If the Son therefore shall make you free,” Jesus says, “ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). The good news here proclaimed by Christ is the announcement that those in bondage are delivered by none other than the Son himself. Such is his mission. He was sent for the express purpose of proclaiming “liberty to the captives” (Isa. 61:1; cf. 45:13; 49:25; Luke 4:18–19). He has come to set the prisoners free (Ps. 146:7). He has come to be the great Spoiler of Satan’s house (Mark 3:27), the Assailant of the stronghold of darkness who frees all those who are ensnared by the blinding allure of the “prince of the power of the air.”
Satan may have effected his sinful allure over the whole world. He may appear as a “strong man,” formidable and terrible in might and power. But there’s a Stronger Man on the scene — and he is none other than the Son of God, Yahweh in the flesh. The “I am” is here (John 8:58; cf. John 8:24–25, 28; Exod. 3:14; Deut. 32:39; Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12). The Light of the World has dawned to usher those who sit darkness, who are imprisoned by their own rebellion, into the “light of life” (John 8:12; Ps. 107:10–16). The freedom Jesus brings to bear is the genuine freedom to no longer bumble about in the dark depravity of our own sin but to walk after him as “disciples indeed” (John 8:31). Those who repent and believe the good news, then, are the “spoiled goods” of Jesus’s conquest over the “strong man” (Mark 3:27).
“Free indeed,” therefore, means we are free to accept the truth about ourselves — precisely because of the truth of who Jesus is. He is the plunderer of Satan’s house. He is the intruder, the invader of the devil’s dark domain who spoils Satan’s scheme by being spoiled himself. He remedies our brokenness by being broken himself (1 Pet. 2:24). He abolishes death by “tasting death for every man” (Heb. 2:9; 2 Tim. 1:10; 1 Cor. 15:25–27). He subsumes sin by being made sin itself (2 Cor. 5:21). He is the world’s strongest man, whose shoulders bore the weight of sin, death, and hell for you and me and everyone in the world. He is the Son who has come to make you “free indeed” by dying to make you his “disciples indeed.”
Arthur W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John, Vols. 1–3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 2.41.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 10:1.344.