Father and son
In the next part of the gospel of John, the word “father” appears over a dozen times.
It deals with those crucial issues which caused many to reject and resist Jesus Christ as the Messiah, while at the same time bringing others to faith in Him. The issues dealt with in this passage are those with which many in our culture struggle today. Let’s learn what the Word of God has to say to us about “fathers,” “sons,” and “freedom.”
This is a passage which dovetails with John 2:13–22, where Jesus drives corrupt businessmen from the temple. These Scriptures disprove any myths that Jesus was weak, timid, passive, or soft.
In this exchange with the Pharisees, Jesus pulls no punches. Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and their followers, continue to resist Jesus’ preaching. They rely on arrogance and insults, to which Jesus responds with blunt, unfiltered condemnation. This culminates in Jesus making an overt statement of His own divinity, punctuating the debate by declaring ”before Abraham was, I am!’
Follow the series on John here
- Follow Jesus
- Jesus’ Authority
- Looking for Truth, He Must Become Greater
- Living Water, The Second Sign
- No More Lame Excuses, Testimonies about Jesus
- Supernatural Overflow, Walk on Water, I Am the Bread of Life, Do not be driven by selfishness
- Trust God’s timing, ”Right Judgement”, ”Who is the Jesus you trust?”, Rivers of living water,
- A stones throw away, I am the light of the world
Dispute Over Whose Children Jesus’ Opponents Are
31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.”
39 “Abraham is our father,” they answered.
“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41 You are doing the works of your own father.”
“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”
42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! 46 Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”
Jesus’ Claims About Himself
48 The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”
49 “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. 50 I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
52 At this they exclaimed, “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. 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”
54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 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. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds. John 8: 31-59
The Father and Son continues
However, the last post left you to believe – there are those who “believed” in Jesus were expressing saving faith. However, the Bible distinguishes between those who believe in a shallow, superficial sense from those who express legitimate faith in Christ. Verse 31 explains one of the ways to know the difference: those who truly submit to Christ “abide in [His] word” (John 8:12; John 5:38; 1 John 2:14).
The conversation Jesus has now is still mostly aimed at the Pharisees, but it actually includes all of the hostile crowd which has now gathered.
The truth will set you free
The most enticing aspect of sin is the promise of freedom. Even from the first temptation, in the garden of Eden, man has assumed that defying God is a way to control his own destiny. In fact, the opposite is true. Nothing enslaves like sin—it corrupts our thinking, controls our actions, and destroys our peace. Worst of all, it separates us from God (Ephesians 2:12 – “remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world”) and condemns us to an eternity of loneliness and shame (Matthew 8:12 -But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”).
This is a theme Christ will return to often in His teachings. No other claims are true, and nothing but truth can really free us.
The truth can hurt or provide comfort
Comforting lies are never as beneficial as loving truth. Even when the truth is not what we want to hear, we can’t expect to make good decisions or correct choices when we’re operating under the control of a lie. As Christ stated earlier in this dialogue, He—alone—is the “light of the world,” the one and only means to apprehend truth. True freedom is found in the forgiveness of sin and service to God, and this is only found when we accept Jesus.
However, the information being discussed here is not the same kind of knowledge for which Jesus offered human evidence. Those were issues such as eyewitness to miracles and the content of the Scriptures. Here, as Jesus will respond next, only one person has ever actually seen the truths being claimed, so only that person can speak of them.
The “they” referred to is a collection of Jewish religious leaders and their followers. Jesus is debating them in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:1–2). Prior to this moment, Jesus has claimed to be “the light of the world” (John 8:12) and therefore the only source of spiritual truth.
Later, He will clarify that those who have not accepted this truth are still slaves to sin (John 8:34). The response from the hostile crowd is not merely bizarre, it demonstrates a lack of insight.
The “freedom” Jesus has spoken of is spiritual: those who reject Christ are still enslaved to sin. This results in both eternal damnation and earthly consequences (Romans 1:26–27 – “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”). The people who remark back about their freedom seem to think that if they are not actual slaves, in a social sense, they have no need to be freed. In this way, their reaction proves that they do not understand the point Jesus is making.
The absurd side to this argument is that it ignores both Israel’s history and her current situation! In the past, Israel was often subjugated to other nations—the entire book of Judges describes the nation’s cycles of sin, oppression, and rescue. At one point, the vast majority of the Jewish people were carried off into captivity (Daniel 1:1; Esther 2:5–6). And, most obviously, the nation of Israel had been enslaved by the nation of Egypt prior to the events of the book of Exodus. At the very moment these words were spoken, Israel was under the absolute control of the Roman Empire. It’s mind-boggling that they could claim to have “never been enslaved to anyone.” Then again, so is their inability to recognise their enslavement to sin.
We’re all slaves to sin
Jesus uses the phrase translated as “truly, truly,” or “very truly.” This is from a doubled use of the Aramaic word amēn. Used at the end of a statement, as many cultures do in prayer even today, it suggests a hope that the words will be fulfilled, or that they are true. Used at the beginning of a statement, it is a claim to absolute, original, first-hand knowledge.
It’s important to realise what Christ is saying here, and what He is not saying. . Without question, Jesus is pointing out that sin is a mark of following darkness, instead of His light (1 John 1:5-10).
What Jesus is not saying is that all sin, at all times, should be interpreted to mean that the sinner has no relationship to Christ. The Greek of this phrase makes this nuance much easier to understand than any English translation. The exact phrasing used is pas ho poiōn ho hamartia doulos ho hamartia. Literally, this means “everyone who keeps practicing sin is a slave of sin.” In other words, Jesus is now speaking of a habitual, persistent sin. Those who are free in Christ may stumble into darkness, but they do not perpetually “walk” in it (John 8:12).
Enslaving nature of sin
Jesus explains the enslaving nature of sin, as compared to the freedom He offers in salvation. He has already claimed to be the one and only source of spiritual truth (John 8:12), and that accepting this truth would rescue a person from sin and spiritual slavery (John 8:31–32). His noting that those who habitually practise sin are slaves to sin—these are not people who have been “set free.” He draws out the distinction between a household servant and an actual son of the house.
Slaves—from the Greek term doula–meaning a “bondservant”—were the equivalent of employees in the ancient world. They lived in the master’s house, and had a certain kind of relationship with the master. However, they were not actually part of the master’s family. Eventually, these bondservants would leave, or be dismissed. Only the actual children of the master had a permanent right to live in the home. The classic example of this is found in Genesis 21, where Ishmael, Abraham’s son through the servant Hagar, is dismissed from the home; his son Isaac, through his wife, remains. This, according to Jesus, applies to our spiritual relationship to God.
Specifically, Jesus is referring to the crowd’s earlier claim to being the children of Abraham. As Jesus will soon point out, His critics may be “in the house” of Abraham, but they are not really “children” of Abraham, since they are not spiritually part of God’s family.
The son sets you free
John 8:36 – “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” is one of the most inspirational phrases in all of Scripture. While sin enslaves us, true freedom is found only in Christ. Sin deceives by promising freedom when all it does is control and corrupt us. Those who don’t have faith in Christ are bound by sin (Romans 6:18), and subject not only to slavery but to spiritual death. Those who find Christ, the one and only source of spiritual truth (John 8:12), will be “truly” free.
The Father’s will
When Jesus claims to be doing the will of His “Father,” these critics responded by laying claim to their ancestry through Abraham. Christ’s reply is that biological fatherhood is not as important as spiritual fatherhood. Jesus has just used the example of a household servant, who is not a permanent part of a family, in contrast to a son, who is always guaranteed access to his father (John 4:15–16). This was an analogy to the difference between those who merely know “about” God—including the spiritually obstinate Pharisees—in contrast to those who truly know God because they know Christ.
So, the “real” children of Abraham are those who obey God, by accepting Christ (Galatians 3:26 – “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith”). This is the subtext behind the rest of Jesus’ dialogue with the crowd.
Spiritually the sons of God
Jesus’ analogy highlights the difference between a household servant and the master’s son. One is not a permanent part of the family, while the other is guaranteed a place with the master. The “true” sons of Abraham, then, are those who are spiritually the sons of God—a status only available to those who trust in Christ.
Jesus is aware that the religious leaders of Jerusalem, and their followers—called “the Jews” here in the gospel of John—are the descendants of Abraham. However, they are not really part of God’s family, since they don’t accept the message of God. That message includes Christ (John 6:29). Since they reject Jesus, they also reject God, and cannot claim to have His truth, or His light, inside them. Jesus’ challenge to their spiritual arrogance has led them, not only to reject Him, but to attempt to kill Him.
This leads Jesus to continue the analogy of “fatherhood,” by making a brutally condemning remark – Jesus will suggest that the people opposing Him are following the example of their spiritual father…who is neither God nor Abraham. Rather, according to Christ, their father is the Devil (John 8:44)!
As the man given a promise by God, Abraham represents an anchor point for the Jewish understanding that they are God’s chosen people. In trying to dispute Jesus’ claims to spiritual truth, the religious leaders of Jerusalem have misinterpreted His references to His “father.” Their claim, in response, was to profess their descent from Abraham. As Jesus has pointed out, however, being a part of God’s family is driven by faith and spirit, not by genealogy. The “true” children of Abraham are those who obey God, which includes following His son, Jesus Christ. As Abraham followed God, so too will his spiritual children.
After claiming that the people opposing Him are not really sons of Abraham, Jesus now begins to refer to “your father,” meaning the spiritual father of these obstinate critics. While Jesus comes by the will of God and does what His Father wants Him to do, the people who seek to kill Him are acting in the example of their father. Jesus will subtly make this point several times before outright naming the true spiritual father of His enemies: the Devil.
Unsurprisingly, this escalation leads Jesus’ critics to resort to insults, accusations of insanity and another attempt on His life.
The critics, seemingly confused about the meaning of this, once again state that they are children of Abraham. This repeated reference might also be a subtle insult to Jesus, by hinting at His scandalous birth. Later, this subtlety will be gone and the crowd will outright accuse Jesus of being an illegitimate child.
Here, Jesus takes a slightly different approach. In the prior verse, He spoke to the hostile crowd about “your father,” meaning someone other than Abraham or God. Here, He begins to point out that the actions of these critics prove their real spiritual state. They don’t do as Abraham did, so they are not Abraham’s children. Instead, their actions imitate the Devil, their true (spiritual) father.
The conversation takes a nasty turn. Prior to this, the crowd’s attacks on Jesus have been somewhat formal. They have disputed His claims, condemned His words, and even tried to have Him arrested or killed. At this moment, though, they resort to outright personal insults. The statement “we were not born of sexual immorality” is a direct slur against Jesus, whose birth was a subject of some controversy. In short, the critics are smearing Jesus’ reputation by calling Him an illegitimate child.
Jesus’ response shows that He is not the passive, soft, weak-eyed cartoon character so often imagined. Instead, He forcefully repeats His claim that these men reject Him because they reject God—they are the spiritual children of Satan (John 8:44)! This turmoil will escalate until Jesus once again claims to be God incarnate, at which point the crowd will resort to violence.
Jesus’ critics have adamantly resisted His teachings. Since Abraham believed God, and these men do not, they are not part of Abraham’s spiritual family. Instead, they are the children of some other father. So far, their conduct has been marked by violence (John 5:18), deception (John 7:21–24), and hypocrisy (John 8:1–11). They reject the message of Christ because they do not want to hear it (John 8:43). They’ve even insulted Jesus’ family by insinuating that He is an illegitimate child—a “son of fornication” (John 8:41). Here, Jesus completes His statement about the true spiritual father of these critics, in spectacular fashion.
In no uncertain terms, Jesus states that these hateful enemies are, in fact, the spiritual children of the devil. He refers to murder, resistance to the truth, and lies—all of which were part of His earlier criticism of these men. This is not a soft, timid response on the part of Jesus. This is an open, overt rebuke delivered against religious leaders who are leading others to hell (Matthew 23:15). Contrary to the caricature of Jesus as a fragile mystic, passages such as these prove His ability to present righteous strength.
Jesus sinless life
Jesus now brings out another major piece of evidence which supports His claims: His sinless life. If the religious leaders had a single incident which they could use to accuse Jesus of immorality, they would have already brought it out. This is why they resorted to cheap tricks and challenges—they had no other “dirt” to throw. Here, Jesus brings this up directly: none of these men can accuse Him of any sin!
This ties into the hypocrisy of their rejection. If Jesus is attested to by miracles, displays a sinless life (Hebrews 4:15), and speaks the truth, why would they not believe Him? The answer will be repeated: they are not of God and do not want to hear.
The men opposing Jesus sink even lower in their approach. The Jewish people saw Samaritans as despised half-breeds. This cultural hatred was a major reason why Jesus’ actions in the Samaritan town of Sychar were so controversial (John 4:1–9). Calling Jesus a “Samaritan” combined two insults into one: mocking His birth and accusing Him of heresy. Referring to someone as demon-possessed was, in that day, equivalent to calling them crazy. Unable to give reasonable answers to His teaching, those opposed to Jesus are resorting to petty insults. Unfortunately, this tactic is still common in debates today, where mocking and slurs take the place of actual discussion.
Jesus vs His critics
Jesus makes an important distinction here, which further shows the difference between Him and His critics. Everything Jesus did in His earthly ministry was intended to glorify God the Father. And, Jesus always pointed His mission, His words, and all of the credit for those accomplishments to God (John 8:50). The Pharisees, like other religious leaders of that era, were more interested in their own power and prestige than in the truth (Matthew 20:25; Luke 11:43; Matthew 23:6). Since Jesus’ message conflicts with what they want to believe, they refuse to understand it (John 7:17). This is why Jesus was comfortable in saying that they were, spiritually, the children of the devil, not of Abraham (John 8:44).
Recently, this same hostile crowd has resorted to petty insults. These critics have insulted Jesus’ birth and accused Him of being insane. This only goes to prove the point Jesus has made over and over: those who reject the One sent by God are also rejecting God (John 3:36). To dishonour Jesus is to spit in the face of God the Father.
God being the judge is brief and often overlooked. However, in the context of this conversation, it is extremely important. The men arguing with Jesus at this moment are beyond reason (Matthew 7:6) and have begun to use vile insults (John 8:41; 8:48). Jesus’ remark defers judgment for those actions to God (Romans 12:19). Instead of becoming flustered or enraged, Jesus shrugs those slurs off and leaves the consequences to God.
One way to Salvation
Jesus’s words here are in contrast to those who do not “hear,” “walk,” or “believe” according to His message. Those who “keep His word,” in this context, are those who express saving faith in God’s Son. Those who reject Christ, however, are condemned to spiritual death.
The critics once again invoke the superiority of their ancestors. The question asked is phrased in such a way that it expects a “no” answer. This is like asking “you don’t think…do you?” in English. Jesus has claimed that those who follow God, by accepting His teachings, will not “taste death” (John 8:51). These men are challenging that by pointing out—in their confusion—that Abraham and the prophets died. Is Jesus claiming to bring a superior message?
However, in this case, Jesus is speaking of a consistent message from God. This is one that Abraham, and all the other prophets, were aware of. Jesus is about to follow the crucial question asked here—”who do you think you are?”—to a spectacular and outrageous conclusion.
These men, who hypocritically protect their own power instead of following the truth, do not know God.
In other words, these men haven’t even encountered or learned about God, while Jesus has personal, direct knowledge of Him. The gulf between Christ’s understanding of God and their understanding is not just intellectual, and not just spiritual. The difference is fundamental: Jesus knows God because He is God. This is a point Jesus will make very directly in the closing of this passage.
Jesus clarifies by saying that Abraham’s faith looked forward to the Promised One—and Jesus is that One. Therefore, when Jesus claims to bring a message which frees men from death, that message includes those who came before Him, such as Abraham. In making this statement, Jesus implies that He witnessed Abraham’s life in a direct, personal way.
Jesus responds to disbelief from His critics. He indicates that Abraham looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, and “rejoiced” to see Jesus’ day finally arrive. His word choices, in the original Greek, imply a kind of knowledge that is inborn, innate, and natural. This led His critics to jeer: “you’re not even fifty, how can you have seen Abraham?”
Jesus answers with what some refer to as the “hidden ‘I AM'” statement, since it’s not typically counted among the others. Ironically, this is perhaps the most direct of all of Jesus’ uses of this phrase. The meaning is certainly not lost on His critics. When Jesus claims the title of “I AM,” everyone listening knows exactly what He means: that He is God (John 10:33). Those who suggest that Jesus never actually claimed to be God should consider the reaction of the religious leaders to His words, shown in the next verse. They are so enraged that they attempt to stone Jesus (John 8:59) right then and there.
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