Read: John 8:30-59
The amazing thing about the conversation in today’s reading is that it begins with Jesus speaking to people who had just begun to believe in him, and ends with those same people preparing to stone him. (cf. vss. 30, 59) It’s enough to make me wonder what some people really mean when they say, “I believe.”
Jesus had been having an ongoing argument with certain Jews for the last four chapters. (5-8) The Pharisees continued to complain that Jesus should not be healing people on the Sabbath. Many objected to his claim to be the Son of God, the bread of life, and the source of living water. They continued to demand evidence in support of every assertion he made..
Some people described him as a prophet or even the messiah. Some wanted to make him king, whether he wanted to be or not. But others could only see the hometown boy, whose family they all knew. Nothing special. Some at least acknowledged him as a good man; but others complained that he was a deceiver. A few wondered how he could have acquired such learning without a formal education. But the officers sent to arrest him were stopped by the power of his words and were unable to fulfill their assignment. Some even said he was demon possessed.
Through it all, Jesus never lost his composure, and he never backed away from his claims. “My Father is working until now, and I work” (5:17) “You search the scriptures . . . it is they that bear witness about me.” (5:39) “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” (5:46) “I am the bread of life.” (6:35) “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” (7:37) “I am the light of the world.” (8:12) “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know . . . “(8:28)
At that point, John tells us that many of these people began to believe in him. (5:30) But what does that really mean in this case? It appears they were beginning to be attracted to at least parts of Jesus’ message. Today, it would be the same thing as hitting “like” on someone’s Facebook post, before scrolling down to the next post Maybe they liked the promise of never ending fountains of water, or bread that lasts forever. They might have sensed the need for the light he promised to bring, not considering what that same light might expose in their own hidden corners.
Whatever, this could not have been the deep-down life changing surrender Jesus looks for in anyone who would be his disciple. And let’s be clear, that’s exactly what he wants for all of us—to become his disciples. Nothing less. Disciples are not only faithful church attenders, they are learners. They are copiers. Unashamed imitators. They are followers. A disciple’s whole ambition is to become like his/ her teacher. (Luke 6:40) Disciples don’t pick and choose among the master’s teachings. They accept all of it—in totality. Their life purpose is to live according to the principles they’ve learned. That’s why we can see an immediate red flag after the first thing Jesus said to his new “converts.”
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (v. 31-32) To which they immediately replied, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (v.33)
In the first place, they weren’t willing to face the reality of their own history, or their current situation. Had they forgotten about Egypt? And exactly what did they think all those Roman soldiers were doing everywhere they look around town? And what about Pilate? Or Herod? Who did they think they were kidding?
But that wasn’t even their biggest problem. Like most of us, these people were completely unaware of their slavery to their own sin. So, Jesus told them, “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (v.3) That’s the worst kind of slavery. It’s the slavery of our minds and our emotions. It’s the slavery that saps our will to resist. We are bound by invisible chains that we are unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge, let alone break.
Psychologists tell us that everything we do is based on a simple principle. We want to avoid pain, and increase pleasure. The problem is, many things may be pleasurable in the beginning, but destructive in the end. It’s like a poison pill with a sugar coating. We become addicted to the “sugar high,” completely unaware of the accumulating destruction within. On the other hand, most of the beneficial disciplines in life aren’t pleasurable at all in the beginning. I’m thinking about things like doing your homework when you’re young, or paying your taxes when you’re older. All of this is complicated by fear, of course. We may be afraid of the very thought of losing some (guilty) pleasure. Or we may be afraid of the consequences of being caught, so we compound our problems with a lie. These are the things addictions are made of. It could be anything. Theologians call this the “sin nature.” It means we all sin more quickly and more easily than we do good. That’s why Paul could confidently assert, “All have sinned . . . “ (Romans 3:23)
Years later, Paul described this condition. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. . . . but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15-24)
“Who will deliver me?” Paul asked the question these people should have been asking. Instead, they continued to throw up defenses and deny their own guilt. Rather than asking who will deliver them, they continued in effect to ask Jesus who he thought he was to accuse them in the first place. In their minds, they didn’t really need deliverance. This single fact disqualified them from truly becoming Jesus’ disciples. They were not abiding in his words. (cf. v. 31) They were not willing to receive his correction.
Before long, they were reduced to name calling. “Are we not right in saying you are a Samaritan (feel free to substitute any racial slur here) and have a demon?” (v.48) Remember these are the same people who had earlier made a profession of faith. But they were not true disciples. By this point, they weren’t even believers. As Jesus continued to assert his claims, they continued to be ever more resistant.
The decisive moment came when Jesus asserted that he had the power of eternal life. “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (v. 51) Their reaction was immediate and intense. In their minds, all these extravagant claims only confirmed their earlier suspicion that Jesus must have a demon. After all, they reasoned, if Abraham and all the prophets had died, why should Jesus think he was better than them? “Who do you make yourself out to be?” they wanted to know. (v. 53)
Without realizing it, they had just asked Jesus the most life changing question anyone could possibly ask. In reality, it’s the first question any potential disciple should ask. I believe it’s the very question he had been drawing them toward all this time. He had been deliberately provoking them with increasingly disturbing claims. Finally, when they couldn’t stand it any longer. They had to know. “Who are you?” I can imagine that Jesus might have let those words hang in the air for just a few seconds, for maximum effect.
In reality, he had been answering this question all along. We can read them in the “I AM” statements John has sprinkled throughout these pages. For example, he had already declared, “I Am the bread of life.” (6:35) He also said, “I Am the light of the world.” (8:12) Later, he’ll add statements like “I Am the door” (10:7) and “I Am the good shepherd.” (10:11) Other similar statements will follow. Look for them as you continue to read this gospel.
We may understand these statements on two levels. First, they are a collection of descriptions of what Jesus has come to be for all of us. He is our source of life, and light. He is our way of entrance into the Kingdom of God. He continues to lead and feed and protect his people, as a shepherd does for his sheep. In short, everything we really need may be found in him. Without him, we’re wandering around lost, in the dark. Hungry. Thirsty. We would be like the people who were talking to Jesus that day. Except, of course, they wouldn’t admit it.
But there’s a deeper meaning Jesus is intending here. He has deliberately chosen to use an emphatic form for these statements that would have caused his hearers to stop and think. They would have asked themselves, “What did he just say?” He said, “I AM.” And they would have remembered the sacred name God revealed to Moses. “I AM who I AM. . . . Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14) In this way he was hinting, Hey, do you remember the one who spoke to Moses at the burning bush? That was me!
But the people seem to have been missing the meaning of most of what Jesus had been trying to tell them. So, he had to be more direct. After they made the point that Abraham had died, as did the prophets, Jesus, in effect, says, speaking of Abraham, “Your father, Abraham, rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” (8:57)
Ready . . . aim . . .
They all stepped immediately into the line of fire. “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” (8:57) Jesus’ reply was immediate. He had been waiting for this moment. I think he must have smiled as he said simply, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (8:58) His meaning was unmistakable. This was more than a claim to be more than two thousand years old. His use of the present tense verb implies that he has existed, and continues to exist without interruption throughout that entire period. Beyond that, he chose to use the verb form that identifies him with the one Moses had met at the burning bush, just before the Exodus. He was openly declaring himself to be the eternal “I Am.”
In that moment, the people should have fallen before him to worship him as Lord and God. Instead, they began to pick up stones. They could not—they would not believe what he had just told them. But because it was not yet his time to die, he quickly hid himself and walked out of the Temple.