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John 8:21-59

Roger Hahn

John 8 is a difficult chapter to outline. The first eleven verses are part of the story of the woman taken in adultery - a story that interrupts the flow of John 7 and 8. Some commentators then treat John 8:12-59 as a single unit of thought. Others deal with 8:12-30 as a unit and 8:31-59 as a unit. Still others treat 8:12-20 separately, 8:21-30 as a unit, and 8:31-59 as the final section. This is the outline adopted by C. H. Dodd that was mentioned in Lesson 9. Dodd considered 8:12-20 the fifth dialog and 8:21-30 and 8:31-59 the sixth and seventh dialogs in a series of seven dialogs in John 7 and 8 built around the Feast of the Tabernacles. While Dodd's analysis is the most useful way to understand the two chapters, it does not sufficiently reflect the detailed development in John 8:31-59. A simple comparison of the number of verses in each of the seven dialogs shows that the seventh is more complex and developed than the previous six.

John 8:21-30 - The Sixth Dialog: Jesus' Challenge to Jewish Leaders

The fact that many scholars think of John 8:12-30 as a single unit indicates a clear connection between verses 12-20 and verses 21-30. There are several ways in which the connection may be expressed. It is possible to see the unfolding allusions to Jesus' death in verses 21-30 as the culmination of the Father's witness to Jesus mentioned in verses 12-20. It is also possible to see verses 21-30 as the fleshing out of Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees in verse 19 that they do not know either the Father or himself. It is also possible to see these verses as dealing with increasing urgency with the sin of rejecting the Light of the World, the title for Jesus given in verse 12. This intertwining of several concepts is a typical aspect of John's style of writing. We should not expect there to be only one strand of thought connecting these verses.

Barrett also notes that four themes are introduced in this section that will continue throughout chapter 8. Where Jesus has come from is alluded to or dealt with in verses 23, 26, 29, 42, 48, and 58. Where Jesus is going appears in verses 21-22, 28, 35, and 54. The identity of the Father is raised in verses 26-27, 38, and 54-55. Finally, the identity of Jesus occupies verses 23-26, 38, and 54-55. The affirmations concerning Jesus are often reversed when applied to the Jews. Jesus is from above; they are from below. Where he is going; they cannot come. God is his Father; even their claim of Abraham for their father is misguided, their father is really the devil.

There are a number of similarities between verses 21-22 and John 7:33-36. The parallels can be conveniently seen in chart form:

Chap. 7   Chap. 8
33b I am going away 21a
34a You will seek me 21a
34b You cannot come (where I am) 21c
35 Jewish Misunderstanding 22
36 They repeat Jesus' words 22

In both "misunderstandings" the Jews ironically reveal a truth. In chapter 7 they foretell the Gentile mission. In chapter 8 they stumble upon Jesus' sacrificial death.

There is a new feature in verse 21. In John 7:34 Jesus had said, "You will seek me and you will not find me." In verse 21 he says, You will seek me and you will die in your sin. The theme of seeking comes in both verses after it is too late. The painfully new feature of verse 21 predicts the death of the Jews in their sin. As Lindars notes, "They will not only fail to find him, but they will lose their own hope of salvation." The Greek text could be translated either, "You will die in your sin," or "you will die by [means of] your sin." In either case it is probably significant that "sin" is singular (though verse 24 has the plural). For John there is ultimately only one sin, that of not believing in Jesus. Both by means of refusing to believe and in the state of refusing to believe, the Jews will experience death. In conclusion Jesus notes that where he is going the Jews will not be able to come.

The Jews respond, in typical Johannine fashion, with a misunderstanding in verse 22. Surely he will not kill himself, will he? The question is constructed in Greek in such a way as to show that the author assumed the answer to be, "No! He will not kill himself." However, there are two ironies at work in verse 22. In fact, Jesus is beginning to talk about his death and the saving consequences that it will have. However, he will not kill himself. It will be the Jews themselves that kill him.

The question of verse 22 could be reworded this way, "Why can't we go where he is going?" Jesus gives the reason in verse 23. The Jews cannot follow him because they and he belong to two fundamentally different worlds. The Greek of Jesus' answer could be paraphrased, "Your source or origin is below; my source or origin is above." The following sentence restates it: You belong to this world; I do not belong to this world.

Here we find the most clearly negative meaning of the word "world" thus far in John. It will increasingly come to mean all that is arrayed against Jesus. John is not a Platonist who believes that the world is intrinsically bad. He uses the word to describe humankind living their lives out without regard to God. This comes very close to what Paul means by the word "flesh." Since the Jews live their lives without regard to God there is no way that they can go where Jesus is going. That is true whether one thinks of Jesus' return to the Father or simply of his way of obedience to the Father's will.

Since they live their lives without regard to God it is inevitable that they will die in their sins. Here Jesus and John shift to the plural, sins. The plural seems to describe the whole range of life events lived without regard to God. Yet, there is a remedy. If they will believe, salvation is possible. Here it is expressed negatively, If you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins. The Greek construction of "believe" here suggests the act of coming to faith. It does not imply on-going, continuous faith, but the moment of belief.

The content of belief is both old and new. Instead of stating that they are to believe in Jesus, verse 24 requires belief that Jesus is I AM. The use of this phrase, ego eimi in Greek, has been mentioned before. It has been used in John 6:35 and 8:12 with a predicate (object) - "I am the bread of life," and "I am the light of the world." It will be used in other predicate constructions in future verses in John. It was used without a predicate in John 6:20 when Jesus appeared to the disciples in the storm on the sea and said, "I AM; fear not." Scholars have discussed the meaning of the phrase at length. Though not all agree it is likely that there is an implied reference to Exodus 3:14 where God revealed himself as I AM WHO I AM. The use of I AM became one of John's characteristic ways of affirming the oneness of Jesus and the Father.

However, it is possible that Exodus 3:14 is not the passage directly on Jesus' and John's mind in this section. Many scholars point to Isaiah 43:10 as a closer parallel to the words of Jesus in this section. That verse reads, "'You are my witnesses,' declares the Lord, 'and my servant whom I have chosen, in order that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am He. Before me there was no God formed, and there will be none after me.'" (NASB) The Greek Old Testament contains this purpose clause, "In order that you know and believe and understand that I AM (ego eimi)." It is the combination of the verb "believe" and the use of I AM (ego eimi) in Isaiah 43:10 that causes scholars to believe that it was on Jesus' mind at this point. Though John does not develop it, the concept of Jesus as servant and especially as suffering servant would also arise from this background in Isaiah.

The connection to Isaiah 43:10 is not a denial of John's usual identification of Jesus and I AM as a significant title of God in the Old Testament. The last part of Isaiah 43:10 seems to be based on Exodus 3:14. The unique (and here important) part of Isaiah 43:10 comes in verse 11 where the speaker says, "I am God and beside me there is no one who saves." Verse 12 goes on, "I have proclaimed and I have saved." The point of Isaiah 43:10-12 is that I AM is a God of salvation. This appears to be Jesus' point in verse 24. As long as the Jews refused to come to faith in I AM - the one who saves his people - they will die in their sins. When the context deals with Jesus' death (verse 22) the meaning of Jesus is not just his identity as I AM, but his saving work as the "I AM . . . beside me there is no one who saves."

It is not surprising that the Jews cannot understand Jesus' statement about believing I AM. So they ask in verse 25, "Who are you?" Jesus' reply is hard to translate from the Greek text. It is grammatically possible to translate Jesus' reply as a question, "Why do I speak to you at all?" (NRSV). This would imply that Jesus was despairing of ever trying to successfully communicate with the Jews. While we might think that to be the case it does not fit in with the flow of thought on into verse 26.

As a statement his reply can be understood in two ways. First, it may mean, "From the beginning [I have been and] I am what I have been telling." Second, it could mean, "I am what I have been telling you from the beginning." The first option best fits the context here. Jesus has always been and now is I AM, which is exactly what he has been telling them. Thus the question of the Jews is not answered to their satisfaction, but it provides an opportunity for Jesus to further affirm his own identity.

After John's editorial comment in verse 27 that the Jews did not know Jesus was speaking to them about the Father, we come to the climax of this section in verses 28-29. "Lifting up the Son of Man," is John's way of referring to the crucifixion. This expression was used in John 3:14 with the same double meaning it has here. It can refer to Jesus' exaltation and thus his resurrection and Ascension. However, the context of John 3:14 clearly shows it can and does also mean the lifting up of Jesus on the cross. This reference to the crucifixion draws together all the threads of the argument of these verses. This is the meaning of Jesus' statement in verse 21, "Where I am going you can not come." The cross will confirm the identity of Jesus as the I AM and the suffering servant of Isaiah 43. The cross will make it clear that Jesus was not acting on his own initiative but was carrying out the will of the Father. The cross will make the saving work of Christ clear.

After this climax John notes that many people believed in Jesus after he had spoken these things. That note of belief and of new disciples also becomes the transition to the next section. The following verses are presented as a direct challenge to the one who had believed in Jesus.

John 8:31-59 - The Seventh Dialog: Jesus and Abraham

This is the final dialog in the series of seven dialogs built around the Feast of the Tabernacles found in John 7 and 8. It is longer than the other dialogs. It begins on the note of belief as a transition from verse 30. It ends with violent unbelief on the part of the Jews. However, the focal point of the dialog is on who is Jesus' Father and more specifically who is the Jews' Father. As Kysar points out, "Jesus begins with the exploration of the freedom of those who are children of truth (vv. 31-36) and out of that grows his charge that the crowd is not Abraham's children at all, as they claim, but children of the devil (vv. 33-47)." The dialogue concludes with Jesus' relationship to Abraham.

As this section unfolds the crowd becomes increasingly hostile and defensive. They claim that Abraham is their father in verses 33 and 39. On the other hand they claim God is the their Father in verse 41. They accuse Jesus of being both demon-possessed and a Samaritan in verse 48. They lash out that Jesus is less than fifty years old but still claims to have seen Abraham in verse 57. The final expression of their anger comes in verse 59 as they take stones with the intent of killing Jesus.

John 8:31-38 - The Freedom of Jesus and the Slavery of the Jews

Verse 31 begins by describing Jesus as addressing the Jews who had believed. Some scholars have objected that these cannot be authentic believers since a few verses later the crowd is accused of trying to kill Jesus. However, it appears that Jesus begins by addressing Jews who have believed and then the subject and audience shifts in verse 33.

Verse 31 defines authentic discipleship in terms of abiding in Jesus' word. The word translated "abide" ("continue" in NRSV) also means to "remain" or to "dwell." Beasley-Murray declares that the word, "signifies a settled determination to live in the word of Christ and by it, and so entails a perpetual listening to it, reflection on it, holding fast to it, carrying out its bidding." Back in John 5:38 we read of the word of God abiding in the believer. Bernard notes that it is really the same thing to abide in the word and to have the word abiding in oneself.

Abiding in the word of Christ will mean that the believer will know the truth according to verse 32. This is remarkably similar to verse 28 where it is said, "You will know that I AM." Knowing the truth is not knowing some abstract philosophical formula. Knowing the truth means knowing Jesus as the I AM - both in identity as the I AM of Exodus 3:14 and as the I AM servant Savior of Isaiah 43. This stands in stark contrast to Judaism where truth was defined as the Law and to Stoicism where truth was the Logos or the natural principle of the universe.

Furthermore, verse 32 indicates that once one knows the truth - Jesus - the truth will set free. Judaism believed that the truth - the Law - set free. Taking the yoke of the Law set one free from the yoke of worldly care. Freedom meant relief from worldly care. Stoicism believed that the truth - the Logos - set free. Living in accordance with the Stoic Logos brought freedom from the hassles and pressures of life. For Jesus the truth - knowing him - set free. That freedom was freedom from sin. As Barrett comments, the freedom of which Jesus speaks in verse 32 is a synonym for salvation from sin. We do Jesus a disservice when we reduce the freedom mentioned here to freedom from our inhibitions or freedom from the cares of life. His death purchased our freedom from the power of sin. All other freedoms flow from that and are derived from that essential Christian freedom. A similar thought is expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:17.

The Jews misunderstand Jesus' statement about freedom. If Jesus' words are true then this freedom can only be received as a gift. It can never be earned or possessed as a moral or political achievement. The Jews appeal to the fact that they were descendants of Abraham and that they had never been enslaved to anyone. Their claim to have never been enslaved is ironic. At that moment the Jews were suffering one of the most oppressive periods of their history under Roman rule. Some have understood their remark to mean that they had always had religious freedom. However, this misses the point. It is most likely that the Jews are ferociously affirming what Barrett calls their inward freedom of soul. Regardless of their political circumstances the Jews had always been fiercely independent. But to declare that independence with such prideful arrogance to Jesus exemplifies the very slavery to sin that verse 34 mentions.

Verse 34 states an important Johannine understanding. The one who is practicing sin is a slave of sin. The Greek construction does not indicate that a single or occasional sin constitutes slavery to sin. Rather it is the regular and on-going practice of sinning that makes one a slave of sin. Barrett makes an important observation, "John does not say that the soul is the slave of the body, but that the man who practices sin is, body and soul, the slave of sin. Sin is not a concomitant of matter as such but an alien power which takes possession of the will and makes use of the whole man."

A subtle shift is introduced in verse 35. The slave does not abide in the house forever, but the son does abide forever. The son is Jesus. He is free and he sets others free according to verse 36. The Jews had considered themselves to be free, but it was not authentic freedom. Since Jesus always acted in accordance with the Father's will, being set free by Jesus is to enjoy the true freedom of God.

Verses 37-38 begin the transition to the next section. Jesus acknowledges the Jewish claim to be descendants of Abraham, but he reaffirms his own relationship with the Father. The implication is that Jesus' words and actions demonstrate who his Father is. Likewise, the words and actions of the Jews will reveal their true father.

John 8:39-47 - The Father of the Jews

The Jews did not understand what Jesus was saying and so they again assert that Abraham is their Father. Jesus responds that if they were children of Abraham they would live lives consistent with Abraham. That is the meaning of doing the works of Abraham. However, their desire to kill him is contrary to what Abraham would have done. Jesus defined himself in verse 40 as a man who told them the truth that he had heard from God. Abraham had never rejected God's truth. The implication is drawn in the first phrase of verse 41, You are indeed doing the works of your father. Abraham cannot be their father.

The Jews sense that the conversation is heading in an uncomplimentary direction. They defensively reject the possibility of illegitimate conception and claim God as their Father. The irony is that if their rejection of Jesus disqualifies them as sons of Abraham by a much greater degree it disqualifies them as sons of God. Jesus immediately points that out in verse 42. The obvious conclusion is stated in verse 44. You are children of your father the devil. The character of the devil as a murderer and liar is all too clearly reflected in the Jews' attempt to kill Jesus and their refusal to accept his truth. The telling indictment is that the Jews wanted to do the will of their father, the devil. For John one's father is determined by whose will we desire to and choose to perform. This should cause us to carefully evaluate not only our actions, but also our desires.

Verses 45-47 continue to pressure the Jews. If Jesus' words are true then they ought to believe. Verse 47 declares that the true child of God hears the words of God. Once again the Hebrew concept of hearing being equal to obeying is at work. The true child of God obeys the words of God. That is true in general. It is especially true of Jesus. The way Jesus exemplifies that truth sharply contrasts with the disobedience of the Jews. God is not their father; they don't obey God.

John 8:48-59 - Jesus and Abraham

The climax of the seventh dialog comes in this section where Jesus' identity in relation to Abraham is developed. It begins on the down side with the Jews accusing Jesus of having a demon and being a Samaritan. The charge of being demon possessed appears in John 7:20; 8:52; and 10:20 as well as here in verse 48. The accusation that Jesus is a Samaritan is unusual and it is not clear what is meant. The Jews despised the Samaritans because they were a mixed race. Perhaps in the context of the discussion of being descendants of Abraham the Jews were trying to accuse Jesus of an impure bloodline. Some interpreters believe the Jews called Jesus a Samaritan to accuse him of being heretical or of being insane. No explanation is totally satisfactory.

Jesus' defense is that he is simply honoring the Father. Barrett graphically states, "The claims of Jesus are not arrogant or demented self-assertion but (as John constantly emphasizes) mere obedience to the Father." In verse 50 he is able to deny seeking his own glory. However, he goes to declare that God is seeking his (Jesus') glory. Once again Jesus provides a significant model for us. Many of the problems we encounter when criticized could be deflected if our only agenda would be obedience to the Father. If we were confident that we did not have to seek our own glory because God is taking care of our glory our lives could be much more relaxed.

Jesus turns the conversation to the issue of victory over death in verse 51. This picks up the theme hinted at in verse 35. It also sets up the angry response of the Jews. Abraham died, the prophets died. Who are you making yourself out to be? You are not greater than Abraham, are you? The question is constructed in Greek to show that they expected the answer to be negative. But that very question is the question John wanted to set up. For him and for us the answer is obvious. Yes, Jesus is greater than Abraham, which means that Jesus is greater than Judaism.

However, that answer is delayed. In verse 54 Jesus returns to the issue of glory. Glory that comes from glorifying oneself is worthless. Authentic glory comes from God and Jesus again affirms that God glorifies him. Though he does not repeat it the contrast with the Jews is clearly in mind. In John 5:44 Jesus had noted that the Jews sought glory from each other. The contrast is continued in verse 55. Jesus knows the Father; the Jews do not. In fact, Jesus' commitment to the truth requires that he reveal that he knows the Father. To say that he did not know the Father would make him a liar like they were.

Abraham comes back in focus in verse 56. Jesus' statement that Abraham rejoiced that he might see Jesus' day is not an egotistical remark. It sounds as if Jesus were saying, "Abraham surely was glad to know me." That is not the point. Jesus is claiming that the promise God made to Abraham finds its fulfillment in his own ministry. The promise of blessing, of descendants, and of being a blessing made in Genesis 12:2-3 is now fulfilled in Jesus. Abraham rejoiced at the first step of that fulfillment - the birth of Isaac. How much more he rejoices now at the fulfillment of the salvation history God had promised him. The typical Johannine pattern of misunderstanding appears again in verse 57. Jesus had spoken of Abraham seeing his day. The Jews angrily respond that Jesus claimed to have seen Abraham even though he (Jesus) was not yet fifty years old. However, this misunderstanding sets up verse 58, which in the Greek text starkly declares, Before Abraham was, I AM.

This statement appears to have been the goal of chapter 8. It pulls together the long discussion of Abraham found in verses 33-57 and the I AM confession found in verses 21-30. It also declares the pre-existence of Christ and the identity of Jesus as the I AM of Exodus 3:14 more directly than ever before in John's gospel (see "I am" in John's Gospel). It is a powerful statement about Jesus. It is a statement that cannot be ignored. One must either believe and follow Jesus or reject him and the statement of faith. The Jews choose to violently reject Jesus and, as verse 59 notes, they attempted to kill him.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you begin each day ask the Lord to speak to you from His Word and to make that Word meaningful in your life.

First Day: Read the notes on John 8:21-59. Look up the Scripture references.

1. Identify one or two new insights that were important to you.

2. Select a truth for which you see a personal application in your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.

3. What do the actions and the desires of your life say about your true father? Ask the Lord to make your will an expression of His will.

Second Day: Read John 9:1-41. Now focus in on John 9:1-7.

1. What did Jesus do for the man born blind and what did he require of the man?

2. What connection between sin and tragedy does Jesus declare in these verses? What connection do you think there is between sin and illness or handicaps?

3. Why do you think that Jesus repeated John 8:12, "I am the light of the world," in verse 5? How does it connect to this context?

Third Day: Read John 9:1-41. Focus in on John 9:8-17.

1. What is the reaction of the people to the healing of the blind man?

2. How does the reaction of the Pharisees differ from the reaction of the neighbors and previous acquaintances of the blind man?

3. The blind man concluded in verse 17 that Jesus was a prophet. If someone healed you of blindness what conclusions would you draw about your healer?

Fourth Day: Read John 9:1-41. Now focus in on John 9:13-23.

1. What insights do the parents of the blind man contribute?

2. Why do you think the Jewish threat to put those who confessed Christ out of the synagogue was so terrifying to the man's parents? What would be an equally frightening threat to you?

3. How would you respond to the comment of the Pharisees in verse 16, "This man is not from God, because he does not keep the Sabbath?" What is the relationship of Jesus and the Law?

Fifth Day: Read John 9:1-41. Focus in on John 9:24-34.

1. What appears to be the main theme or basic argument of verses 24-34?

2. The Jews tell the former blind man to give glory to God. How could he best give glory to God? Does his reply, in fact, give God glory? If so, how?

3. Reflect on your answer to question 2 and your own life. How can you best give glory to God? Are you doing it? If not, what needs to change? If you are, how does your pattern of giving God glory relate to the blind man's pattern?

Sixth Day: Read John 9:1-41. Now focus in on John 9:35-41.

1. Pick one or two words that best describe the former blind man's response to Jesus.

2. What do you think Jesus means in verse 39?

3. Ask the Lord to reveal areas of life in which you are blind. Ask him to become the light that causes you to see in those areas. Jot down some of the areas in which you sense that the Lord wants to deal with you.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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