Sunday, February 27, 2011

Jesus' True Disciples, Word, Truth, and True Freedom (John8:31-36)

This is a personal summary of Rev Dr Stephen Tong's sermon on 30 January 2011 at STEMI Expository Preaching in True Way Presbyterian Church. It was preached in Chinese with English translation.

Passage: John 8:31-36

'When the Son of Man is lifted up ...' (v28). Many people observed that these words were unique. They soon realised that there was no other way, that Jesus must be the Christ. This was a natural reaction. Nicodemus was the first to believe this way. He had considered all matters about Jesus with the knowledge of Jewish law and traditions that he had. Because he was curious, he went to look for Jesus. His first words were, '... for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him' (John 3:2b). In other words, Nicodemus was not a materialist. He was an idealist with observations drawn from fact. He drew his conclusions with a pure conscience and objective view. This is the first group of people, present in every generation.

There were also people who had seen for themselves what Jesus did (and they did not lie to their own conscience), but could not dispose their upbringing or did not put what they heard into use. That is why there are many people who have come and gone to sunday service for years but still have not believed. The seeds of the gospel sometimes take a long time to grow. The regret is these people, coming to believe in Christ in their old age, have lost much time to serve God. This is the second group of people.

Just before chapter 8, we see another group of people. These people saw that what Jesus said, no one ever said before. They were sensitive enough and actually, very intelligent because they were able to recognise that this was 'something new'. It's a pity that they were not the experts of the law, who sent to arrest Jesus. Even those who were ordered to arrest Jesus were part of this group, as we see them in obeying their conscience said, 'Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks (John 7:46).'

Now in v31, there was yet another group of people. This was the group of people who believed in Jesus. To them, Jesus said that if they held on to his word then they were truly his disciples. This means that to follow Jesus, a unilateral decision made by the followers does not suffice, but also entails an acknowledgement from Jesus. This can be seen in the examples of people who claimed to be students of great teachers or musicians but are not up to the standards of the latter. To guard the latter's reputation, an acknowledgement is required. People cannot simply say they are students of so and so but do not attain the standard of achievements of their teachers, let alone an acknowledgement.

Next Jesus declared that they need to know the truth, and the truth will then set them free. Various philosophers in history studied about freedom and made their own definitions. Out of all of them, one is particularly noteworthy: Immanuel Kant. He said that freedom was not being able to do what one wanted, but it is 'the power to prevent myself from doing something that I should not do.' [See The Honor of Humanity Part 4 – Freedom for a detailed explanation]

Kant's statement might seem profound and novel, however about 1800 years earlier, Jesus had already said this. Freedom comes from the truth and is not constrained by the truth. In summary, Jesus made 3 points:

  1. If you follow my word, you really are my disciples,

  2. from my word you will know the truth,

  3. and the truth will set you free.

Sadly, those who heard this were not enlightened but hurt instead. The Jews were surprised and offended. They inaccurately answered that because they were sons of Abraham, they were never in slavery/bondage (In actual fact, they had been enslaved once in Egypt). The Jews' even had 3 thanksgiving prayers such as this:

  1. Thank God I am born a man, not a woman.

  2. Thank God I am born a master, not a slave.

  3. Thank God I am born a Jew, not a pagan.

All these reflect the sheer arrogance of the Jews. However Jesus did not see the need to argue whether the Jews had always been free. He directly answered in v34 that true freedom is the freedom from sin, not anything else, not even freedom in the political sense that people tend to think about. And he continued in v36 that truly, only if the Son calls one free, then he/she will be free indeed. This is the only way out. He was willing to be constrained that we may be freed and he was willing to die that we may receive life.

Jesus' Discourse with the Jews on Law & Death (Jn. 8:48-59)

John 8:48-59

It is unavodable that there is bipolar reaction against Jesus. Either people love him or hate him. Those who could only see his humanity wonder why he said what he said but those who could see his divinity understand. The Jews could only accept him as a man, son of Joseph and Mary, born in Galilee, whose brothers they knew. Yet Jesus spoke as if he was of divine origin so they could not accept it and this sparked hatred among the Jews.

Jesus asked “which of you can convict me of sin?” It is not an easy sentence to say. When Jesus asked this question, the people who were with him day and night were present, and the people who constantly tried to find his fault were present too. If he had any fault, they could easily jump at the opportunity to expose Him. He dared to ask the question because He is indeed sinless and nobody could point out his errors. Since that is the case people should just kneel down and worship him. But that is not what happened.

They were jealous and hateful, instead they answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” (Jn. 8:48). They accused that He was not a pure Jew therefore He could never be right. Samaritans were Jews who descended from mixed marriage after the Israelites were captured by Assyrians. The Jews despised Samaritans. The lineage of Jesus Christ could be traced to Abraham, showing that He is the true of Israelite – whether through the lineage of Joseph or Mary. But Jesus was not born out of Joseph’s relationship with Mary, therefore the Jews took this as an opportunity to insult him of having illegitimate birth.

“I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge.” He did not try to seek justice for Himself but submitted to God. When unjustly treated, most people immediately seek justice and take vengeance. A mature person does not care how people treat him, as long as God is pleased he is at peace.

Jesus continued, “Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.” (Jn. 8:51). This declaration is very bold and amazed the Jews. Jesus meant to teach them that they had the law but had failed to obey it, and the wages of sin is death. But salvation came from Him who gave Himself as a ransom. The Old Testament introduced the law which proves we are sinful therefore deserving of death, but in the New Testament we have the ministry of grace which save us from sin and death. Because of their arrogance, they could not understand Jesus’ words.

Their reaction, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”

These are stern words. The patriach and the prophets are so great but they died, they were appalled how Jesus could make such declaration that those who obey Him would not see death. In the first place, they did not know who Jesus was and saw Him as an unimportant figure. But Jesus knew He was speaking the truth. God the Father sent Him to the world, Word become flesh, to become a man born under the law, and die under the curse of the law to save those under the law. God the Father promised inheritance to the Son, which is the redeemed people of God. They die under the law but have eternal life in Jesus Christ. True hope is not in the law, but in the salvation of Christ. The law came from Moses but grace comes from Jesus Christ.

The Jews waited for the Messiah. The prophets wrote that Messiah would never die. The prophets wrote and they died but one day they would be resurrected. So the Jews never really understood. The patriachs and prophets would be raised to life.

Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me.” The glory of Jesus is related to His resurrection. The Jews thought the death of Jesus is also the end of His story. But with Jesus’ resurrection He is glorified forevermore. Jesus said the Father whom they claimed to be their God is the one who glorified Him.

Jesus said, “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 obey his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” (Jn. 8:55-56) Jesus was just declaring the truth. Their father Abraham looked forward to His day. They were surprised, “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham!” Abraham died 2000 years ago, they wondered how Jesus could claim He had seen Abraham.

Jesus declared, “Very truly I tell you,before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds. (Jn. 8:57-59) Here Jesus revealed His divinity. When He declared, “I AM”, He meant He was before Abraham, extracted from Ex. 3:15 when Moses asked for God’s name, and God said, “I am who I AM.” He is not constrained by time. He is, He was and He is to come. He always IS. He never changes. So He is God. Jesus told them He transcends history thus they could not treat him as someone who is not yet 50 years old. Jesus left them after He said this. If the Jews recognised who Jesus is, they would have grabbed hold of Him. But they never recognised Him so all His words never entered their hearts. The eternal word of Jesus Christ transcends all the words of the passing world.