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John 8:12-59
Bob DeGray
March 9, 2003

Key Sentence

The Light of the World Reveals People in Defiant Need.


I. Ignorance (John 8:12-20)
II. Sin (John 8:21-30)
III. Slavery (John 8:31-36)
IV. Paternity (John 8:37-47)
V. Eternity (John 8:48-59)


        An old story tells of a desert nomad who awakened hungry in the middle of the night. He lit a candle and began eating dates from a bowl. He took a bite from one and saw a worm in it; so he threw it out of the tent. He bit the second date, found another and threw it away also. Reasoning he wouldn't get any dates if this continued, he blew out the candle and quickly ate the rest. Sometimes light reveals more than we want to see, tells us more than we want to know. In the same way the light of life in Jesus sometimes reveals more than we want to know about ourselves and our situation. In John 8 verse 12 Jesus declares himself to be the light of the world, but in the rest of the chapter that light reveals more than the people want to know. The light of the world reveals people in defiant need - but Jesus can meet the need.

I. Ignorance (John 8:12-20)

        Let’s walk through the text, and notice the contrasts between Jesus, the light of the world, and the defiance and need of the people. John 8:12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." 13The Pharisees challenged him, "Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid." 14Jesus answered, "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. 15You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. 16But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. 17In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. 18I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me." 19Then they asked him, "Where is your father?" "You do not know me or my Father," Jesus replied. "If you knew me, you would know my Father also." 20He spoke these words while teaching in the temple area near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his time had not yet come.

        Last week we studied the woman caught in adultery. If we assume that episode wasn’t originally in John, then Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world comes right after his cry ‘if anyone is thirsty let him come to me.’ Both took place during the Feast of Tabernacles, in which light, like water was a key symbol. There were four huge lamps in the temple courtyard that were lit every night during the feast. ‘Men of piety and good works’ danced there through the night, holding burning torches and singing praises. Some sources say that the light from the temple area cast its glow all across Jerusalem. In this context Jesus declares ‘I am the light of the world.’ John has long prepared us to recognize Jesus as the light. In the prologue he told us that his life was the light of men which shines in the darkness. He picked up that theme again in chapter 3 where he told us that “light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

        The contrast of light and dark goes back to the Old Testament, to the beginning when God said ‘let there be light’, to the pillar of fire which guided the people of Israel. It goes back to the Psalms in which Israel sang ‘the Lord is my light and my salvation’. It goes back to the prophets: Isaiah reported that the Servant of the Lord was to be a light to the Gentiles, that he might bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth, that in the age to come the Lord himself would be the light for his people.

        Jesus is the fulfillment of all these promises, so that “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but have the light of life.” By contrast, those who don’t follow remain in darkness. The rest of the chapter, while not using the light metaphor, shows this contrast between Jesus as the light and the defiance and need of those in darkness. In the next verses, for example, we see their ignorance and his knowledge. The Pharisees challenge Jesus for making grand claims with no witness but his own. He responds that he knows what he’s talking about, he knows where he comes from and he knows where he’s going. They don’t have a clue because they judge by human appearances. Jesus judges with God’s insight: “my judgments are right because I am not alone. I stand with the Father who sent me.”

        But the Pharisees are willfully dense. They say ‘where is your father?’ despite the fact that Jesus has talked about God as his father throughout his ministry. Jesus exposes their ignorance: "You do not know me or my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also." The contrast here is between those know the one the light reveals and those who don’t - in relationship, not just with head knowledge. We come to this relational knowledge by faith and we grow in it by spending time with God and Jesus – getting to know them by daily exposure to who they are and what they do. One evidence I’ve had of this kind of knowledge is a sense, in particular situations of ‘isn’t it just like God to do it this way.’ That sense was one of the reasons I felt so strongly we ought to buy this building. We need to know Jesus through his word.

II. Sin (John 8:21-30)

        Another thing revealed by the light is sin. Verses 21 to 30. Once more Jesus said to them, "I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come." 22This made the Jews ask, "Will he kill himself? Is that why he says, 'Where I go, you cannot come'?" 23But he continued, "You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins." 25"Who are you?" they asked. "Just what I have been claiming all along," Jesus replied. 26"I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from him I tell the world." 27They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father. 28So Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him." 30Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him.

        This crowd didn’t understand Jesus in chapter 7 and they don’t now when he says he’s going where they can’t go. Its ironic: they think he might kill himself to get away from them, whereas they will kill him to get rid of him. The real reason they can’t go where he’s going is that they are from below and he is from above. This is the contrast between righteousness and unrighteousness, between the purity required to be in God’s presence and the impurity of heart that keeps people out. Every human ever born has been ‘of this world’, that is having a sinful nature and expressing it by sinning. But sin separates us from God. Isaiah 59:2 “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you.”

        The Pharisees are caught in a common sin, unbelief. Verse 24: “if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.” The unbelief of unbelievers rejects the life Jesus offers. And what must we believe? Jesus literally says ‘believe that I am.’ This is the same ‘I am’, ego eimi, that is common in John. Sometimes it has no overtones at all, as when the blind man in chapter 9 is asked if he is the one Jesus healed and he says ‘I am’. But often Jesus makes this phrase significant. He’s already said ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the light of the world’. Sometimes he uses the phrase as a clear claim to deity. At the end of this chapter Jesus will say ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ There the Jews know it’s a claim to deity – blasphemy in their eyes. Here in verse 24 the same bare claim is made, but the context softens it a bit, so that the Jews may have heard what our translations say: ‘I am who I claim to be’ or ‘I am he’ or ‘I am the Messiah’.

        He uses the phrase again in verse 28: “when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am” - the NIV adds “the one I claim to be” When he says ‘lifted up’, Jesus means his crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation. John explains that explicitly when Jesus uses the phrase again in Chapter 12. And when Jesus says ‘know’ he means heart knowledge obtained by faith. Some of these needy and defiant people will someday recognize the saving deity of Christ. In fact, John tells us that even as this discussion was going on many in the crowd put their faith in him. This is, of course, exactly what they should do: only those who believe receive eternal life and escape the penalty of sin. But as Jesus explains the implications of believing, it becomes clear that few in the crowd have truly believed.

III. Slavery (John 8:31-36)

        We begin to see that in verses 31 to 36: 31To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." 33They answered him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?" 34Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

        Jesus presents a basic truth about believing: believing in Jesus means believing his words. Like the crowd that believed because of miracles in chapter 2 or those who followed for bread in chapter 6, some in this crowd are fickle: they like some of what Jesus has to say; they’re not willing to hold to everything. But how can you be a believer and reject what you say you believe? Only those who hold on to Jesus’ words will “know the truth and the truth will set you free.” They myth of our culture is that freedom is found in the absence of moral restraints. But those thus freed are slaves to their sinful natures and desires. True freedom is found in obedience to the truth, clinging to Jesus through his word, which sets us free from the sin that enslaves us.

        Jesus makes this clear even as the people show themselves to be both defiant and deeply in need. “We have never been slaves to anybody.” What a dumb thing for Jewish people to say! They were slaves in Egypt when God rescued them. They were slaves of everyone who ever wore a crown in the Middle East: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and in the first century, the Romans. They have been slaves, but that’s not the slavery Jesus is talking about. He says “everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” He’s saying ‘you may think you’re free because you’re descendants of Abraham and God’s chosen people, but you’re really in bondage to sin.’ He’d say to us today: ‘you may think you’re free because you live in the land of the free. You may think you’re free because you’ve done away with slavery and abhor it. But you are still slaves to sin.’ All the New Testament writers reinforce this truth. Peter says simply “a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.” Sin effortlessly masters us. Paul says in Romans 7 “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin”.

        Let me read from Romans 6. Notice how in tune Paul is with Jesus: “Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey__whether slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You’ve been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” Jesus says ‘If you hold to my teaching you are my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’. Paul says “Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If you have not yet trusted in Jesus, his word is calling you to recognize your slavery and put your faith in him to rescue you. As Jesus said, if you do not believe he is the one who rescues, you will die in your sins. Faith is the key response. But even after you believe you can be in slavery to sin if you do not consciously and daily make yourself a servant of righteousness, thus taking hold of the fact that if the Son sets you free from slavery to sin you are free indeed. The call of these verses is that you and I not remain defiantly needy, but that we let this truth about Jesus set us free, so that our minds can be set on what the Spirit desires instead of enslaved to what the sinful nature desires.

IV. Paternity (John 8:37-47)

        If we remain in slavery to sin, we remain children of Satan, no matter how much we want to think we’re children of God. John 8:37: I know you are Abraham's descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38I am telling you what I have seen in the Father's presence, and you do 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 the things Abraham did. 40As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41You are doing the things your own father does." "We are not illegitimate children," they protested. "The only Father we have is God himself." 42Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. 43Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. 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. 45Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! 46Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don't you believe me? 47He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God."

The crowd claimed they were free as descendants of Abraham. Jesus addresses that claim, acknowledges it as true physically but questions it morally. He says it’s a huge contradiction to claim descent from Abraham and kill the one who brings truth from God. Abraham received truth from God that changed history, but his descendants won’t receive truth at all. Abraham showed hospitality to God’s messengers - these people want to kill Jesus. Yet they claim their father is God. Jesus points out that if they had God as their Father they would love the one he sent.

        This simple phrase offers a good test of faith: do we love Jesus? Can you honestly say ‘I love you, Lord!’ and do you live like someone who is head over heels in love? Are you entranced with who he is and what he is like, enough so that you want to be just like him? Or, like these Jews, does your behavior show that you are still like your original father, the devil. Jesus says these people take after him and want to do the kinds of things he does. In their desire to kill Jesus they are imitating Satan’s status as a murderer from the beginning. This is probably a reference to the fall of Adam, by which Satan brought death to the entire race. He delights in murder and he gravitates to lies. In the Garden he lied to Eve. God had said that if they ate the fruit they would surely die. Satan said ‘You will not surely die.’ He’s a liar, and the father of lies and wants nothing more than that we believe lies about Jesus. That’s why Jesus says “because I speak the truth you don’t believe me.” To have God as father we need to love the truth and believe in Jesus. Satan’s children reject the truth and believe the lies Satan tells, lies that make us proud and self-righteous and deceived into thinking we’ve earned the freedom that the Son only gives as a gift.

V. Eternity (John 8:48-59)

        So far the light of the world has revealed a number of worms. The crowd thinks they have knowledge, but are really ignorant of Jesus. They think they are pure, but unless they believe they will die in their sins. They think they are free, but are slaves to sin. They think they’re already children of God, but in reality are still children of the Devil. But all this truth, rather than bringing them to their knees before Jesus, makes them more defiant. John 8:48 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. 50I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death." 52At this the Jews exclaimed, "Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if anyone keeps your word, he will never taste death. 53Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?" 54Jesus replied, "If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55Though 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 keep his word. 56Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad." 57"You are not yet fifty years old," the Jews said to him, "and you have seen Abraham!" 58"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" 59At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

        John began his Gospel by saying “In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the word was God.” The deity of Christ is always an issue for those who follow him. Can we accept the fact that this man was and is God? It’s a life and death issue for us and these Jews. In their defiance, completely ignoring their need, they resort to name calling: Jesus is a Samaritan. He’s demon possessed. Both the Samaritans and the demons were known as blasphemers. The crowd suspects that Jesus is a blasphemer. But Jesus knows that he is really honoring the Father, and that the crowd by dishonoring him is in effect mocking the Father who sent him.

        So in verse 51 Jesus takes the argument back to its starting point by asserting that ‘if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.’ Those who hold to his teaching are his disciples and they alone gain eternal life. But the crowd is now committed to defiance. If someone as great as Abraham died and if people as great as the prophets died, then how can this nobody they’re listening to offer an escape from death. “Are you greater than our father Abraham?” Jesus answers their defiance in verse 56: “your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” ‘Yes, I’m greater than your father Abraham. He was looking for me and for the day of my coming and when he saw me he rejoiced.’ This may be a reference to the fact that Abraham named his child ‘laughter’. When Abraham saw Isaac he knew that the promise of a Messiah was certain, so he rejoiced. Or he may have rejoiced in heaven when Jesus became flesh to be that Messiah.

        But these defiant Jews can’t cope with the thought that the ultimate fulfillment of all Abraham’s hopes and joys is the person of Jesus. So they interpret Jesus’ words in a literal way, as if Jesus had claimed to be Abraham’s natural contemporary. That claim they could readily dismiss - it was obvious that Jesus was not yet fifty, while a contemporary of Abraham’s would be thousands of years old.

        Does Jesus back off? Does Jesus ever back off? There is one who was a contemporary of Abraham and yet is still powerfully alive. “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was I am.’ If Jesus wanted to claim only that he existed before Abraham, it would have been easy to say, ‘Before Abraham was, I was.’ Instead, using the phrase already seen in verses 24 and 28 he says ‘Before Abraham was born, I am.’ There can be no doubt this is a claim of deity. First of all this exact Greek phrase was used by the ancient translators of the Bible in Isaiah and other places when God said things like ‘from ancient days I am He.’ Second, the phrase has strong echoes of the name God gave himself in Exodus. He is the Lord or Yahweh and he explains that his name means ‘I am that I am.’ He is the self existent, eternally active one. And when Jesus calls himself ‘I am’ he is echoing that claim to existence and action, and thus making himself God. If there could be any doubt as to what this phrase means, it is erased by the action of those who hear it. Convinced this man is a blasphemer, they attempt to apply the punishment of blasphemy without benefit of trial: they take up stones to stone him. But it’s not yet time, and so Jesus somehow, probably supernaturally, slips away from this death threat, and away from the temple.

        Little boys, including my son Michael, find it fascinating to lift a rock and see what’s living in the dirt, in the dark, under it. Typically whatever grubs or bugs or roly poly’s you find are quick to flee. But in our passage today Jesus has lifted the rock allowing the light of the world to shine into the people’s darkness. What has been revealed? Defiance - these grubs don’t flee - but also tremendous need. They are ignorant and need to know the Son. They’re sinful and need to believe the Son. They’re in slavery, and need to be set free by the Son. They are children of the devil and need to love the Son in order to become children of His Father. They are mortal and need to escape from death by the power of the eternal ‘I Am.’

        But these contrasts between what they are and what Jesus offers are true of us as well. Even as believers we bluster defiantly to cover up our need. Jesus promises us: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” He’s offering us real life worth living, but we insist on stumbling around with our eyes closed, living in the same pitiful way people do who are still in the dark. They were ignorant. They didn’t know him. We need to know him, from the heart and with our minds, and we can know him through his word. But we complain that we don’t have time, that we don’t know enough to get involved in Bible study. How are you ever going to know him if you don’t take hold of his word? Jesus says “If you hold to my teaching you are really my disciples.”

        He says “then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Another way that we are like that crowd is that we won’t admit to being in slavery. Even after we’ve trusted Christ that liar Satan wants to make us slaves to sin. Our chains have been broken, we’ve been set free, but if we don’t turn from sin and passionately serve the one who saved us we will continue in voluntary bondage to sin. Sin is powerful and will control our lives unless someone more powerful is given control. Only he whom the Son sets free is free indeed. We need no longer be in bondage.

        Which leads to the third application. We need to know him. We need to recognize our slavery and receive his freedom. But prior to those two things we need to believe that he is. He says “if you do not believe that I am, you will die in your sins.” On a head and a heart level we need to believe that God loved us so much that in the person of His Son he became man, that Jesus was and is the great ‘I Am’, infinitely powerful, infinitely loving, actively self sacrificing, so that through him and his death we can be truly be freed from the penalty and punishment of sin. Rather than take up stones to attack this one who claims to be God we need to fall down and worship him for who he is and what he has done. We need to believe that he is.

        Finally, and maybe this is the most important point, we need to love him. He says “If God were your Father, you would love me.” I’m not just talking about words, although some of us need to say the words ‘I love you’ to Jesus more often. But I’m talking about passion. The same powerful energy that drives romantic love among people ought to be ours for Christ because of who he is and what he has done. The one who rescues us from sin, sets us free, gives us light and life is worthy to receive our heart and soul and mind and strength. Let us be resolved not to be defiant toward him, grudgingly admitting that perhaps he meets our needs, but to be passionate toward him and about him.