Click here to learn more!
4. The woman caught in adultery 7:53-8:11
The textual authenticity of this pericope is highly questionable. Most ancient Greek manuscripts dating before the sixth century do not contain it. However, over 900 ancient manuscripts do contain it including the important early so-called Western text (uncial D). We have about 24,000 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament or parts of it. This number, by the way, contrasts strongly with the number of early copies of the writings of other ancient writers. For example, we have about 643 copies of the writings of Homer, 8 of Herodotus, 9 of Euripides, 8 of Thucydides, 7 of Plato, 49 of Aristotle, and 20 of Tacitus. Furthermore, the earliest copy of the New Testament that we have dates about 125 years after its composition whereas the earliest copy of one of the extrabiblical writings referred to above dates about 400 years after its composition.
None of the church fathers or early commentators referred to this story in their comments on this Gospel. Instead they passed from John 7:52 right on to John 8:12. Several later manuscripts identify it as special by using an asterisk or obelus at its beginning and ending. An obelus is a straight horizontal stroke either simple or with a dot above and another below it. Writers of ancient manuscripts used obeli to mark a spurious, corrupt, doubtful, or superfluous word or passage. Some old copies have this pericope after John 7:36 or John 7:44 or John 21:25 or Luke 21:38. Its expressions and constructions are more similar to Luke’s writings than they are to John’s. [Note: For a discussion of the evidence, see Hoskyns, pp. 563-64; B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, pp. 219-22. For an alternative view, see Zane C. Hodges, "The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11): The Text," Bibliotheca Sacra 136:544 (October-December 1979):318-32.]
"This entire section, John 7:53 to John 8:11, traditionally known as the pericope adulterae, is not contained in the earliest and best MSS [manuscripts] and was almost certainly not an original part of the Gospel of John. Among modern commentators and textual critics, it is a foregone conclusion that the section is not original but represents a later addition to the text of the Gospel." [Note: The Net Bible note on 7:53.]
The event described here may have occurred, though the passage may represent a conflation of two different accounts (cf. John 21:25). [Note: See Bart D. Ehrman, "Jesus and the Adulteress," New Testament Studies 34 (1988):24-44.] Perhaps it was a piece of oral tradition that later scribes inserted here to illustrate the sinfulness of the Jewish leaders (cf. John 7:24; John 8:15; John 8:46).
"It may be accepted as historical truth; but based on the information we now have, it was probably not a part of the original text." [Note: Tenney, "John," p. 89.]
Then did the Holy Spirit inspire it? Probably He did not. It is similar to some of the apocryphal stories, which some Christian traditions accept as inspired but which others do not. How should the modern Christian use this story? Some expositors do not preach or teach the passage publicly because they believe it is uninspired. However other Christians disagree and accept it as equally authoritative as the rest of Scripture. Roman Catholics accept it because it was in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation (late fourth century A.D.), which they regard as authoritative.
If I do not believe it was part of the inspired text of John’s Gospel, why have I bothered to expound it below? I have done so because most English Bibles contain this pericope, and many Christians have questions about it. It is possible that, though not a part of John’s original Gospel, the Holy Spirit inspired it, though this view has problems connected with it.
The introductory "But" (Gr. de) is only mild and contrasts Jesus’ action with that of most people in the temple courtyard. Some scholars have noted that Jesus spent His nights somewhere on the Mount of Olives during His final Passover celebration (Luke 21:37), but there is no evidence that He did so at other times. [Note: E.g., Ibid., "John," pp. 89-90; Carson, The Gospel . . ., p. 334.] However silence is never a strong argument. Jesus may have stayed there on His other visits to Jerusalem without the evangelists noting it.
This verse also sounds similar to the Synoptic Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ activities during His final few days before His crucifixion (cf. Luke 21:37-38). Yet we know that Jesus taught in the temple courtyard at other times as well (John 5:19-47; John 7:14-52).
This is the only place in John’s Gospel where the writer mentioned the scribes and Pharisees together, though their association in the Synoptics is common. This is one reason many scholars doubt that John wrote this passage. Jesus’ critics brought a woman whom they claimed to have caught in the act of committing adultery and placed her in the center of the group that Jesus was teaching. They addressed Him respectfully though hypocritically as "teacher." We can only speculate about what had happened to her partner in sin. Perhaps he had escaped, or perhaps the authorities had released him since their main interest seems to have been the woman. The Mosaic Law required that both parties involved in adultery suffer stoning (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Jesus did not challenge the scribes and Pharisees’ charge or try to prove it unjust.
Jesus’ critics were correct in their interpretation of the Mosaic Law (cf. Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-24). However the Jews of Jesus’ day apparently did not enforce this law often, especially in urban areas. [Note: Ibid., p. 335.] The writer said the authorities wanted to trap Jesus into saying something they could use against Him (cf. Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26). They appear to have wanted Jesus’ execution more than the woman’s.
If Jesus advocated not executing the woman, the lawyers and Pharisees could charge Him with teaching the people to violate the law. If He recommended executing her, He would contradict His own reputation for being gracious and forgiving (cf. Luke 5:20; Luke 7:47). Moreover He would alienate Himself from the Jews. That decision might have gotten Him in trouble with the Roman authorities too (cf. John 18:31).
There have been several suggestions about what Jesus may have written in the dust, all of which are guesses. Perhaps He wrote the words of Jeremiah 17:13 b: "Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the Lord." Perhaps He wrote Exodus 23:1 b: "Do not join your hand with a wicked man to be a malicious witness." [Note: Derrett, p. 187.] Perhaps he wrote the sins of the woman’s accusers. Jesus may have written the same words that He proceeded to speak giving a visual as well as an audible decision. Incidentally, this is the only record of Jesus writing that we have in the Bible.
If the account of this incident is complete, the writer must have felt that what Jesus wrote was secondary to His act of writing since he did not identify what He wrote. Perhaps Jesus was reminding the scribes and Pharisees that God had originally written the Ten Commandments with His finger (Exodus 31:18). Jesus’ act reminds the reader of this and so suggests that Jesus is God. As God gave the Old Covenant by writing with His finger, so God (Jesus) was giving the New Covenant by writing with His finger. Perhaps Jesus also wrote on the ground to delay answering His critics. This would have had the double effect of heightening their anticipation of His reply and giving them time to repent. The mention of this act here anticipates His doing the same thing again later (John 8:8).
When Jesus finally answered His critics, He cited passages in the Mosaic Law. Jesus lived under this Law and respected it. These verses required that in cases of stoning at least two witnesses of the sin, who had not participated in it, should be the first to throw the stones (Leviticus 24:14; Deuteronomy 13:9; Deuteronomy 17:7). Jesus did not mean that the accusers needed to be sinless. The law did not require that but that they be innocent of the particular sin of the accused. Jesus meant that they needed to be free from the sin of adultery or at least free of complicity in prearranging this woman’s adultery. They had asked Him to pass judgment, and now He was exercising His rightful function as the judge of humankind. Instead of passing judgment on the woman He was passing judgment on her judges.
Jesus’ reply put the dilemma back on His accusers’ shoulders. If they proceeded to stone the woman, they were claiming that they had not sinned. If they did not stone her, they would be admitting that they had sinned. Jesus now took the place of the woman’s defense attorney as well as her judge (cf. 1 John 2:1).
This is another enigmatic reference. It had the result of freeing Jesus’ critics from His convicting gaze. Perhaps the writer mentioned it to show that it was God who would produce conviction through Jesus’ authoritative words rather than through His physical eye contact (cf. Matthew 7:28-29; John 7:46). By writing on the ground again Jesus graciously gave the scribes and Pharisees another opportunity to rethink their decision and repent.
The scribes and Pharisees’ actions confessed their guilt. Evidently the older ones among them had the most tender consciences. They had plotted to kill the woman, but her crime only involved committing adultery. Adultery is no insignificant sin, but next to murder it has less severe consequences. Time and accumulated wisdom frequently increase one’s sense of personal guilt unless a person hardens his or her heart completely. Probably we should understand the text as implying that all the critics departed, which would have left Jesus, the woman, and perhaps other onlookers. This left the woman and Jesus with no accusers.
The action of the woman’s accusers was remarkable. Jesus’ words brought deep conviction to inveterate opponents remarkably soon. Moreover they ended up making a public declaration of their own guilt and dropping their charge against the woman even though she was evidently guilty of adultery.
Jesus’ addressed the woman respectfully (cf. John 2:4; John 4:21; John 19:26; John 20:13). He asked if no one who was condemning her remained. He did not ask her if she was guilty. Evidently she was. As the judge in her case, He showed more interest in her prosecutors than in her guilt. Without prosecutors Jesus dismissed the case. This was His prerogative as her judge. He only issued her a warning. She would have to stand before Him again in the future, but this was not the time that He wanted to pass judgment on her (cf. John 3:17). He gave her mercy and time to change her ways (cf. John 1:14). Thus He was not "easy on sin." The ultimate reason He could exempt her from condemnation is that He would take her condemnation on Himself and die in her place (cf. Romans 8:1).
"Law and grace do not compete with each other; they complement each other. Nobody was ever saved by keeping the Law, but nobody was ever saved by grace who was not first indicted by the Law. There must be conviction before there can be conversion." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:320.]
This incident is further proof that Jesus was more righteous and much wiser than the Jewish religious leaders who sought to kill Him. It is also another demonstration of His patience and grace with sinners.
"Reviewing the case, Jesus brought forth the judgment, ’Stone her.’ Unfortunately for the Pharisees, He had required, as the Law had stated, that the witnesses be qualified.
"The Pharisees who were accusing the woman, not for the good of Israel but to trap Jesus, were struck. They knew they were malicious. Thus they had to step down or else incur the punishment required of malicious witnesses-the very stoning they desired for the accused!
"Jesus pronounced the final decree. Since He was the only witness left, and the Mosaic Law required two, she was free. But the Prophet instructed her to avoid all guilt under the Law, since Deuteronomy 18:15 said the people were to listen to the Prophet. John 7:53 to John 8:11 shows in numerous ways that Jesus is indeed the Prophet of whom Moses wrote." [Note: Charles P. Baylis, "The Woman Caught in Adultery: A Test of Jesus as the Greater Prophet," Bibliotheca Sacra 146:582 (April-June 1989):184.]
Jesus’ role as the judge of human beings is quite clear in this incident, but His role as the coming Prophet may need clarification. Moses, the prophet through whom God gave the Old Covenant, had announced that God’s will for His people was that they stone adulterers and adulteresses. Jesus, the prophet through whom God gave the New Covenant, now announced a change. God’s people were no longer to stone these sinners but to show them mercy and leave the judging to God.
What if Jesus’ enemies had brought a murderer before Him? Would Jesus have said the same thing? I think not. God had made His will concerning the punishment of murderers clear in Genesis 9:5-6, the Noahic Covenant. The Mosaic Covenant continued the same policy, as does the New Covenant. The way God has told society to deal with adultery has changed. That is why we do not execute adulterers in the church age. But the way He has told us to deal with murderers has not changed; we are still to put them to death.
The context of the events in this paragraph continues to be the temple during the feast of Tabernacles (John 8:20; cf. John 7:14). Jesus was speaking to the Jews who had assembled there, some of whom were residents of Jerusalem and others pilgrims from other parts of Palestine and the world. This teaching may have taken place on the day after the feast, which was also a day of great celebration. [Note: Edersheim, 2:164.]
Jesus here made the second of His "I am" claims (cf. John 6:35). This time He professed to be the Light of the World (cf. John 1:4). The water of life and the bread of life figures represent what satisfies and sustains life. The light of life figure stands for what dispels the darkness of ignorance and death. Jesus was claiming that whoever believes in Him will enjoy the light that comes from God’s presence and produces life.
The light metaphor was ancient in Israel’s history. The Jews associated light with God’s presence. He had created light on the first day and lights on the fourth day of Creation (Genesis 1:3; Genesis 1:14-19). He had revealed Himself in a flame to Moses on the Midianite desert (Exodus 3). He had also protectively led the Israelites through the wilderness in a cloudy pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21-22; Exodus 14:19-25; Numbers 9:15-23), and He had appeared to them on Mt. Sinai in fire. These are only a few instances in which God had associated His presence with fire and light (cf. Psalms 27:1; Psalms 36:9; Psalms 119:105; Proverbs 6:23). Symbolically the light represented various characteristics of God, particularly His revelation, holiness, and salvation (cf. Ezekiel 1:4; Ezekiel 1:13; Ezekiel 1:26-28; Habakkuk 3:3-4).
Isaiah had predicted that the Servant of the Lord would be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6). God Himself would illuminate His people in the messianic age (Isaiah 60:19-22; Zechariah 14:5-7; cf. Revelation 21:23-24). However in Jesus’ day the light of righteousness was in mortal conflict with the darkness of sin (John 1:4; John 1:9; John 3:19-21). Many religions contain the light and darkness symbolism, but John presented Jesus as the true Light. It is particularly the aspect of light as revelation that constituted the focus of the controversy surrounding Jesus’ claim. The Jews considered the Old Testament and their traditions as authoritative revelation, the true light. They also spoke of Torah, the temple, Adam, and Johanan ben Zakkai, one of their leaders, as the light of the world. [Note: See Beasley-Murray, p. 128.] Now Jesus challenged that authority by claiming to be the true (final and full, cf. John 1:9) revelation from God (cf. Hebrews 1:1-3). He invited the Jews to "follow" Him as the true light (cf. the pillar of fire in the wilderness).
"More important to the immediate context, the theme of light is not unrelated to the question of truthfulness and witness in the following verses, for light cannot but attest to its own presence; otherwise put, it bears witness to itself, and its source is entirely supportive of that witness." [Note: Carson, The Gospel . . ., pp. 338-39.]
Part of the feast of Tabernacles was the lamp-lighting ceremony. Every evening during the festival a priest would light the three huge torches on the menorah (lampstand) in the women’s court (or treasury) of the temple. These lights would illuminate the entire temple compound throughout the night. People would bring smaller torches into the temple precincts, light them, and sing and dance sometimes all through the night. It was one of the happiest occasions of the entire Jewish year. [Note: Shepard, p. 352; Edersheim, 2:165-66.]
"Now the brilliant candelabra were lit only at the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles; there is dispute as to the number of nights on which the illumination took place, but none as to the fact that at the close of the feast it did not. In the absence of the lights Jesus’ claim to the Light would stand out the more impressively." [Note: Morris, p. 388.]
By the way, in chapters 6, 7, and 8 Jesus claimed that He fulfilled wilderness types of God: manna, water, and light.
". . . the Pharisees could not have mistaken the Messianic meaning in the words of Jesus, in their reference to the past festivity: ’I am the Light of the world.’" [Note: Edersheim, 2:166.]
Jesus’ testimony about Himself 8:12-20
5. The light of the world discourse 8:12-59
Following Jesus’ claim to be the water of life (John 7:37-38), official opposition against Him intensified considerably. The following sections of this Gospel trace this rising opposition. While some believed on Jesus, most of His own people rejected Him (cf. John 1:11-12). This section of the text deals with Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the World and the controversy it generated.
On another occasion Jesus had said that if He alone bore witness to His own identity His witness would not be admissible under the Mosaic Law (John 5:31). The Mosaic Law required at least two witnesses to guard against only one witness giving biased testimony (cf. Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15). The Pharisees now quoted Jesus’ statement back to Him. However they implied that because Jesus was bearing witness about Himself, without a second corroborating witness, His witness could not be true.
Jesus corrected His critics’ false conclusion. Even if Jesus was the only witness to His own identity, His witness would still be true. Frequently only one person knows the facts. Jesus’ witness was not false because it stood alone even though it was insufficient under Mosaic Law. The Pharisees had misunderstood Him. Consequently He proceeded to review His former teaching in somewhat different terms (cf. John 5:19-30; John 5:36-37).
Jesus claimed to offer true (Gr. alethes, cf. John 5:31) testimony because He knew His own origin and destiny (cf. John 7:29; John 7:33-34). His critics knew neither of these things.
The Pharisees were evaluating Jesus only by using the external facts about Him that they knew. They were going about the evaluation process in a typically human way (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:16). Jesus used "flesh" (Gr. sarx) here in a metaphorical sense meaning human nature. His critics should have considered the spiritual teaching about Jesus’ identity that the Father was providing through the witness of the Old Testament, John the Baptist, and Jesus’ miracles too. Jesus did not judge (Gr. krino) anyone superficially, and they should not either.
Another interpretation is that Jesus meant that He did not come to condemn anyone but to save them (cf. John 3:17). [Note: Bruce, p. 189.] However that view only involves Jesus playing with words to make a pun. He seems to have been contrasting His judging with the Pharisees’ judging. Another unlikely view is that Jesus meant that when He did judge people it would not be He that was really judging. Rather He would only be executing the Father’s will (cf. John 5:27; John 5:45). [Note: Blum, p. 303.] The problem with this view is that the Father has committed all judgment to the Son (John 5:27-29), and Jesus will judge eventually.
Jesus was not judging anyone then. That aspect of His ministry lies in the future. However even if He did judge then His judgment would prove right (Gr. alethine, valid) because in that activity also He would be acting under and with the Father (cf. John 5:30). As Jesus represented the Father faithfully by revealing Him, so He will represent the Father’s will faithfully by judging. He did everything and will do everything with divine authority.
Therefore Jesus was not really testifying alone. There was a second witness that the law demanded, namely, the Father.
Jesus’ reference to "your law" is unusual since in one sense it was His law. However, Jesus was in the process of setting aside the Law of Moses. The revelation that He brought superseded it, so in another sense it belonged to the Pharisees but not to Him (cf. John 7:19; John 7:51).
"No human witness can authenticate a divine relationship. Jesus therefore appeals to the Father and Himself, and there is no other to whom He can appeal." [Note: Morris, p. 393.]
Perhaps the Pharisees misunderstood Jesus. They were perhaps continuing to think on the physical level while He was speaking of spiritual realities. If so, we should not criticize them too much because Jesus’ teaching that God was His Father was new (cf. John 5:18). However their request was probably an intentional insult (cf. John 8:41).
"In the East, to question a man’s paternity is a definite slur on his legitimacy." [Note: Tenney, "John," p. 93.]
The Pharisees virtually admitted that they did not know Jesus’ origins, which they had claimed they knew earlier (John 7:27). Their inability to recognize Jesus as the Son of God showed that they really did not know God. If they had known Him, they would have recognized Jesus as His Son. The rest of chapter 8 deals with the theme of fatherhood.
John concluded his narrative of this encounter by identifying its setting (cf. John 6:59). The Jews apparently also called the court of the women the treasury because it contained 13 shophar (ram’s horn) shaped receptacles for the Jews’ monetary offerings (cf. Mark 12:41-42). [Note: Mishnah Shekalim 2:1; 6:1, 5.] Each one bore an inscription showing how the priests would use the gifts deposited therein.
The last part of John 8:20 makes the point that if they could these leaders would have arrested and executed Jesus immediately. However it was not yet God’s time for His Son to die (cf. John 2:4; John 7:6; John 7:30). Thus John stressed the Father’s sovereign control over the events that shaped Jesus’ ministry.
The main point of this section is the increasing animosity that the Jewish leaders felt toward Jesus.
Evidently what follows continues Jesus’ teaching in the temple when He spoke the words that John recorded in the preceding verses. The Greek word palin ("again" or "once more") indicates a pause but not a significant break in the narrative (cf. John 8:12). The content of His teaching in this verse recalls John 7:33-34.
When Jesus said He was going away He was speaking of His death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. The Jewish leaders would not seek Jesus personally, but they would continue to seek the Messiah. They would die in their sin (singular) of unbelief because they rejected Jesus. Jesus was going to His Father in heaven. These Jews could not come there because they had rejected Jesus.
Jesus’ claims about His origin 8:21-30
Jesus began to contrast Himself and His critics.
Jesus’ hearers wondered if He was speaking about taking His own life. In John 7:34-35 they wondered if He was talking about going on a mission to the Gentile world. In both cases they did not grasp that Jesus was speaking of spiritual rather than physical spheres of reality. However these people again spoke better than they realized. Jesus’ departure would involve His death, not as a suicide but as a sacrifice for sin. Consequently their words here are an ironic prophecy of Jesus’ death (cf. John 11:49-50). [Note: Hoskyns, p. 334.]
Jesus explained their reason for misunderstanding Him as being traceable to their origin. Jesus was from God above whereas they came from His fallen and rebellious creation below. The second contrast in this verse clarifies the first. To understand Jesus’ meaning His hearers needed new birth (John 3:3; John 3:5) and the Father’s illumination (John 6:45).
Jesus’ hearers would die in their sins (plural) unless they believed in Him. Only belief in Him could rescue them from this fate. Here Jesus viewed their manifold sins (plural) as the consequences of their sin (singular, John 8:21) of unbelief.
"The attitude of unbelief is not simply unwillingness to accept a statement of fact; it is resistance to the revelation of God in Christ." [Note: Tenney, "John," p. 93.]
They needed to believe that Jesus was "I am." In this context this phrase has heavy theological connotations (cf. John 8:28; John 8:58; John 13:19). It appeared enigmatic at first, but later Jesus’ hearers realized that He was claiming to be God (cf. John 8:59). The NIV "the one I claim to be" is an interpretation of Jesus’ meaning that is perhaps more misleading than helpful. Jesus was alluding to the title that God gave Himself in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:14; Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; Isaiah 43:10; Isaiah 43:13; Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 46:4; Isaiah 48:12). Essentially "I am" means the eternally self-existent being. [Note: See Charles Gianotti, "The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH," Bibliotheca Sacra 142:565 (January-March 1985):38-51.] Unless a person believes that Jesus is God, in contrast with less than God, he or she will die in his or her sins.
Jesus’ hearers did not understand what He meant at first. He responded that He was saying nothing different from what He had been saying about His identity since the beginning of His ministry. This was a new title, but it represented revelation that was consistent with what He had always claimed about Himself.
Jesus also claimed to have much more to reveal to His hearers. Part of that would involve judgment for their unbelief. However all of what He would say would be true because it would come from God. It would not be simply His own words spoken independent of the Father (cf. John 3:34; John 5:19-30; John 8:15-16).
John clarified for his readers that Jesus had been speaking about His Father when He mentioned the One who sent Him. John did not want his readers to suffer from the same confusion as those who originally listened to Jesus. Jesus had explained earlier that it was God the Father who had sent Him (John 5:16-30).
Lifting up (Gr. hypsoo) the Son of Man refers to His crucifixion, which John viewed as His exaltation (cf. John 3:14; John 12:23). The title "Son of Man" is messianic (Daniel 7:13-14) with emphasis on His perfect humanity. Jesus’ enemies would lift Him up. When they did, they would realize that Jesus was the self-existent God. Jesus did not mean that His crucifixion would convince all His critics of His true identity but that that exaltation would be the key to many of them believing on Him (cf. John 12:32). The Crucifixion would convince many unbelievers of Jesus’ true identity (cf. Acts 2).
"This concept of the death on the cross of one who was one with the Father is the great central thought of this Gospel." [Note: Morris, p. 398.]
Jesus again affirmed that everything He said came from and with the authority of His Father (cf. John 8:16; John 8:18; John 8:26). All that He said and did was the Father’s will, including the Cross. Jesus continually expressed His dependence on the Father and gloried in the Father’s presence with Him (cf. John 3:34; John 5:30; John 6:38; John 8:16; et al.). Even though His own rejected Jesus and crucified Him, the Father never abandoned Him. Jesus’ ultimate purpose was to please His Father.
John noted that, in spite of the confusion of many that resulted from Jesus’ teaching, others believed on Him because of these words (cf. John 7:31). God opened their understanding with His illuminating and life-giving words. However in view of the following verses, the faith of some of them seems to have been quite shallow.
The mark of a true disciple is continuation in the instructions of his or her teacher. A disciple is by definition a learner, not necessarily a believer in the born again sense. A disciple remains a disciple as long as he or she continues to follow the instruction of his or her teacher. When that one stops following faithfully, he or she ceases to be a disciple. He or she does not lose his or her salvation, which comes as a gift from God. Genuine believers can continue to be disciples of Jesus or they can cease to be His disciples temporarily or permanently. God never forces believers to continue following Him, though He urges us to do so (cf. John 21:15-23).
The disciples in this context appear to have believed that Jesus was a prophet or the Messiah as the Jews popularly regarded Messiah. They apparently did not believe that He was God (cf. John 7:39-41). They appear to have been unsaved in view of what Jesus proceeded to say about them. This then is another of the many passages in the Gospels in which Jesus taught the conditions of discipleship.
Some interpreters have sought to differentiate two types of believers in John 8:30-31. The first, they say, were genuine believers, which the Greek phrase pisteuo eis plus the accusative ("believe in Him" or "put their faith in Him") identifies. The second group was only professors, which the Greek phrase pisteuo plus the dative ("believed Him") in John 8:31 identifies. This linguistic distinction does not hold up, however. The first construction allegedly describing genuine faith describes spurious faith in John 2:23, and the second construction that supposedly always describes superficial faith describes genuine faith in John 5:24.
Other interpreters see John 8:31 as introducing Judaizing Christians, Jewish believers who genuinely believed in Jesus as their Savior but also believed that Christians need to obey the Mosaic Law (cf. Galatians 1:6-9). However there is nothing in the context to support this view. It deals primarily with Jesus’ identity, not the place of the Mosaic Law in the believer’s life.
Still others believe that Jesus was teaching that perseverance is the mark of true faith, that genuine believers will inevitably continue to follow Jesus as His disciples. [Note: E.g., John Murray, Redemption-Accomplished and Applied, p. 152.] This view contradicts the teaching of other Scriptures that view true believers as capable of not following Jesus faithfully. Many Scriptural injunctions urge believers to follow the Lord faithfully rather than turning aside and dropping out of the Christian race (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:18-20; 1 Timothy 4; 1 Timothy 6:11-21; 2 Timothy 1:6; 2 Timothy 1:13; 2 Timothy 2:3-7; 2 Timothy 2:12-13; 2 Timothy 2:15-26; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; 2 Timothy 4:1-8; Titus 3:8). This verse is talking about discipleship, not salvation, and rewards, not regeneration.
This last view misunderstands the teaching of Scripture regarding perseverance. The Bible consistently teaches that it is the Holy Spirit who perseveres within the believer keeping him or her securely saved. It does not teach that believers inevitably persevere in the faith but that believers can defect from the faith while remaining saved (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 1:15; 2 Timothy 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:16). It is the Savior who perseveres with the saints, not necessarily the saints who persevere with the Savior (2 Timothy 2:13). [Note: See Dillow, pp. 7-23.]
This view also incorrectly reads "believer" for "disciple" in the text. These are two different terms describing two different groups of people in relation to Jesus. Disciples may or may not be genuine believers, and believers may or may not be genuine disciples. Today we sometimes describe a believer who is also a disciple as a growing Christian and a believer who is not a disciple as a backslidden Christian.
The challenge to professing believers 8:31-47
Jesus next addressed those in His audience who had expressed some faith in Him (John 8:30).
Disciples who continue to abide (Gr. meno) in Jesus’ word (John 8:31) come to know the truth. Jesus’ words are truth because He is the incarnation of truth (John 1:14; John 14:6). This truth, Jesus’ words, sets people free when they understand His teaching. It liberates them spiritually from ignorance, sin, and spiritual death.
". . . their own tradition had it, that he only was free who laboured in the study of the Law. Yet the liberty of which He spoke came not through study of the Law, but from abiding in the Word of Jesus." [Note: Edersheim, 2:172.]
Many people misapply this verse. It occurs as a motto in numerous public libraries in the United States, for example, with the implication that any true information has a liberating effect. That is only true to a degree. In the context Jesus was speaking about spiritual truth that He revealed. Thus people in our day have the same problem with Jesus’ words as people in Jesus’ day. Many take them as referring to physical rather than spiritual things. It is spiritual truth that Jesus revealed that is in view here. Jesus was speaking particularly of the gospel.
Jesus assumed that His hearers were slaves, but they emphatically denied being such. They could not have meant that they had never been physical slaves since the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Syrians, and most recently the Romans had all enslaved them. Probably they meant that they had never been spiritual slaves. They viewed themselves as spiritually right with God because of their descent from Abraham with whom God had made a special covenant (cf. Matthew 8:12; Mark 2:17; John 9:40). They denied that they had any significant spiritual need for liberation. Here were superficial believers in Jesus, believers in His messiahship only perhaps, who were resisting His teaching. They were not abiding in His word and being true disciples of His (John 8:31).
Jesus proceeded to clarify what He meant. He prefaced His declaration with a strong affirmation of its truth (cf. John 8:51; John 8:58). Everyone who commits acts of sin becomes sin’s slave. The Greek present participle poion ("who commits sin" or "who sins") implies continual sinning rather than an occasional lapse. This is a general truth that applies to both believers and unbelievers. People who continually commit sin become the slaves of sin. Sin tends to become habit-forming and addictive. This type of slavery is more fundamental and personal than mere political slavery.
How does this revelation harmonize with Paul’s teaching about the believer’s relationship to sin that he wrote in Romans 6? In Romans 6, Paul explained that at regeneration God broke the chain that makes the believer the slave of sin. Sin does not have the power to enslave us that it did before we believed in Jesus. However believers can become sin’s slaves by practicing sin (Romans 6:16). We do not need to be its slaves any longer since God has broken its enslaving power over us. We are no longer its slaves, but we can still choose to live as its slaves by submitting to temptation. Sin gains power over us when we yield to temptation.
Similarly a heroin addict cannot break his or her addiction without radical treatment. The treatment can result in total rehabilitation, but the former addict can choose to become a slave again by returning to his or her habit. However he or she does not need to return since liberation has taken place. Another illustration is Israel in the Old Testament. Having experienced liberation from the Egyptians the Israelites chose to return to slavery under the Assyrians and Babylonians though they did not need to do that. By continually sinning they set themselves up for these strong enemies to take them captive.
These Jews thought of themselves as occupying a privileged and secure position as sons within God’s household because they were Abraham’s descendants. Jesus now informed them that they were not sons but slaves. The implication was that they did not enjoy a secure position but could lose it. This is really what happened because the Jews refused to receive Jesus (cf. Romans 9-11). They lost their privileged position in the world temporarily. Jesus was not speaking in this context about the loss of personal salvation but of the loss of Israel’s national privilege.
The son in Jesus’ explanation stands for Himself (John 8:36). The Greek word for "son" here is huios, which John consistently used to describe Jesus. He referred to believers as God’s "children" (Gr. tekna).
The Son of God also has the authority to liberate spiritual slaves from their bondage to sin and its consequences. Real freedom consists of liberty from sin’s enslavement to do what we should do. It does not mean that we may do just anything we please. We are now free to do what pleases God, which we could not do formerly. When we do what pleases God, we discover that it also pleases us. Hope for real freedom, therefore, does not rest on Abrahamic ancestry but Jesus’ action.
Jesus acknowledged that the Jews listening to Him were Abraham’s descendants but only on the physical level (cf. Romans 2:28-29; Romans 9:6; Romans 9:8; Galatians 3:29). Their desire to kill Him because they rejected His teaching did not reveal true spiritual kinship with Abraham. Abraham had welcomed God’s representatives who visited him with revelations from above (Genesis 18:1-22). Jesus’ hearers had not done that.
Jesus claimed to be God’s Son as the Jews claimed to be Abraham’s children. As their conduct showed, they were not Abraham’s true children, so Jesus’ words proved that He was God’s true Son. Jesus’ point was that conduct reveals paternity. He was hinting that their father was not God since they opposed Him.
The Jews stubbornly insisted that they revealed their ancestry to Abraham by doing as he did. By claiming Abraham as their father at this stage in the discussion they were saying that they were as good as Abraham.
". . . no principle was more fully established in the popular [Jewish] conviction, than that all Israel had part in the world to come (Sanh. x. 1), and this, specifically, because of their connection with Abraham. . . . Abraham was represented as sitting at the gate of Gehenna, to deliver any Israelite who otherwise might have been consigned to its terrors." [Note: Ibid., 1:271.]
Jesus proceeded to repeat the difference between them and Abraham (cf. Galatians 3:16-29). He also implied again that someone other than Abraham was their spiritual father.
The Jews rejected Jesus’ claim that they were not genuine children of Abraham. Their reference to fornication may have been a slur on Jesus’ physical paternity. Who was He with His questionable pedigree to deny their ancestry? They then claimed that on the spiritual level God was their father (Exodus 4:22; Deuteronomy 14:1-2). They apparently believed that Jesus surely could not deny that, though He disputed their connection to Abraham.
However, Jesus was not even willing to grant them that they were God’s children in the spiritual sense. How could they respond to Him as they did and still claim to be behaving as God? If they were God’s true children, they would love Jesus rather than try to kill Him. They would acknowledge that God had sent Him.
These Jews were having difficulty believing what Jesus was saying, specifically about Himself. Jesus identified the source of this difficulty as within them, not in His ability to communicate clearly. It lay in their inability to accept the truth that He spoke because of their presuppositions, prejudice, and parentage (John 8:44). Hearing here does not mean mere understanding but responding positively.
Finally Jesus identified the father of these Jews to whom He had been alluding (John 8:38; John 8:41). Their attitudes and actions pointed to the devil as their father for two reasons. They wanted to kill Jesus, and Satan was a murderer from the beginning of his career as a fallen angel. He indirectly murdered Adam and then Abel. Second, they had abandoned the truth for lies, and the devil had consistently done the same thing throughout history (cf. Genesis 2:17; Genesis 3:17). [Note: See Gregory H. Harris, "Satan’s Work as a Deceiver," Bibliotheca Sacra 156:622 (April-June 1999):190-202.]
In one sense every human being is a child of the devil since we all do the things that He does out of a sinful human nature. We usually think of this sinful behavior as identifying fallen Adam as our father, but Satan was behind the Fall. However the believer is also a child of God by faith in Jesus Christ. Consequently we are always either manifesting the traits of one of our spiritual fathers or the other. This is the result of walking either by the flesh or by the Spirit.
Liars not only speak untruth, but they also reject the truth. These Jews rejected Jesus partially because He spoke the truth. The only way children of the devil can believe and welcome the truth is if God draws them and teaches them the truth (John 6:44-45).
Obviously many of Jesus’ critics thought He was guilty of committing sin (cf. John 5:18). Jesus asked if any of them could prove Him guilty (cf. John 18:23). This was one of Jesus’ clearest claims to being God. Not one of His critics could prove Him guilty because He was not guilty. No mere mortal could risk making such an offer as Jesus did here.
The Qu’ran does not say that Jesus was sinless, but Muslims believe that He was sinless because the Qu’ran never says He sinned. They believe He was a sinless man, but not God.
"The perfect holiness of Christ is in this passage demonstrated, not by the silence of the Jews, who might have ignored the sins of their questioner, but by the assurance with which His direct consciousness of the purity of His whole life is in this question affirmed." [Note: Godet, 2:350.]
Jesus again claimed that His hearers did not accept His words because they did not belong to God.
Since the Jews could not refute Jesus’ challenge they resorted to verbal abuse (cf. John 7:52). Perhaps they called Him a Samaritan because He had questioned their ties to Abraham. This may have been a Samaritan attack against the Jews as well. [Note: Bruce, p. 199; J. Bowman, "Samaritan Studies," Bulletin of John Rylands University Library of Manchester 40:2 (March 1958):306-8.] Perhaps they also said this because He took a lax view of the tenets of Judaism as they understood them. This is the only record of this charge in the Gospels. However, there are several other instances of the Jews’ claiming that Jesus was demon possessed (cf. John 7:20; John 8:52; John 10:20). Perhaps these superficial believers concluded that only a demon-possessed heretic would accuse them as Jesus did. [Note: Edersheim, 2:174-75.] Jesus had claimed that their father was the devil, and now they accused Him of being the devil’s agent. This charge came after Jesus’ repeated statements that He had come from God, and it illustrates the unbelief of these "believing" Jews (John 8:31).
The violent response of Jesus’ critics 8:48-59
Jesus soberly denied their charge. His claims resulted from His faithfulness to His Father, not from demonic influence. Jesus’ aim was to honor His Father by faithfully carrying out His will. The Jews’ goal was to disgrace Jesus. They tried to do this by rejecting the testimony that the Father sent through Him.
Jesus did not try to justify Himself. He sought the Father’s glory, not His own. What others thought of Him on the human level was relatively immaterial. God’s approval was all that mattered to Him because God, not man, was His judge (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:2-5).
The central purpose of Jesus’ mission was not glory for Himself but glory for His Father through salvation for humankind. Jesus’ introduction of this strong statement shows its vital importance. Keeping Jesus’ word is synonymous with believing on Him (cf. John 5:24; John 8:24). The death in view is eternal death (cf. John 11:25).
"The assurance relates to life which physical death cannot extinguish, and so to the death of the spirit; the believer receives eternal life, i.e., the life of the kingdom of God, over which death has no power and which is destined for resurrection." [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 137.]
The Jews interpreted Jesus’ statements as referring to physical death. They did not believe that all people are spiritually dead because of the Fall. [Note: Edersheim, 2:175.] They judged that only a demoniac would claim that His words were more powerful than the revelations that Abraham and the prophets had received and passed on. Tasting death means experiencing death (cf. Hebrews 2:9).
If Jesus’ words had the power to prevent death, then Jesus must have been claiming to be greater than anyone who had died. The Jews’ question in the Greek text expects a negative answer. Certainly Jesus could not mean that He was greater than these men, could He? Ironically He was. They asked who Jesus was proudly claiming to be (cf. John 5:18; John 10:33; John 19:7). [Note: Morris, p. 416-17.] They missed the point that He had been stressing throughout this discourse and throughout His ministry, namely, that He did not exalt Himself at all. He simply did the deeds and said the words that His Father had given Him (John 8:28; John 8:38; John 8:42; John 8:50).
"Observe that this is more than asking, ’Who does he think he is?’ It is a case of what he is exalting himself to be." [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 137.]
Jesus rarely asserted His deity. He did not promote Himself. Instead He chose to live a godly life before people and let them draw their own conclusions as God gave them understanding (cf. Matthew 16:13-17). Yet He wanted people to believe in Him.
Jesus then refuted His critics’ accusation that He was glorifying Himself. Any glory apart from glory that God bestows amounts to nothing (cf. Hebrews 5:5). Rather Jesus said that it was the Father who was glorifying Him. Ironically His critics, who claimed to know God, failed to perceive that this was what God was doing.
"Their relation to God was formal; his was familial." [Note: Tenney, "John," p. 98.]
Jesus next identified these superficial believers as unbelievers. They had not yet come to believe that He was God even though some of them thought that He was a crazy prophet. For Jesus to deny knowing God would be as much a lie as His critic’s claim to know God was. The proof that Jesus really did know God was His obedience to Him.
Jesus knew (Gr. oida) God inherently and intuitively, but His critics did not know (Gr. ginosko) God by experience or observation. We should not put too much emphasis on the differences between these two Greek words though, since John often used synonyms without much distinction. [Note: Ibid.]
Jesus was, of course, referring to Abraham as the physical ancestor of His hearers, not their spiritual father. The occasion of Abraham’s rejoicing, to which Jesus referred, is unclear. The commentators have suggested various incidents in his life that Moses recorded (i.e., Genesis 12:2-3; Genesis 15:17-21; Genesis 17:17; Genesis 21:6; Genesis 22:5-14). I think the most likely possibility is Genesis 12:3, the prediction that God would bless the whole world through Abraham. In any case, Jesus said that Abraham anticipated His day. Jesus was claiming that He fulfilled what Abraham looked forward to. We need to be careful not to read back into Abraham’s understanding of the future what we know from revelation that God gave after Abraham died. Clearly Abraham did know that his seed would become the channel of God’s blessing to the entire world.
The Hebrew and Greek words translated "seed" (Heb. zera, Gr. sperma) are collective singulars, as is the English word. It is not clear from the word whether one or more seeds are in view. The Bible uses the phrase "seed of Abraham" to refer to four entities: Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16), Abraham’s spiritual children (believers, Galatians 4:6-9; Galatians 4:29), his physical descendents (the Jews, Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 12:7; et al.), and his physical and spiritual posterity (saved Jews, Romans 9:6; Romans 9:8; Galatians 6:16).
The Jews did not understand Jesus’ meaning because they disregarded the possibility of His deity. To them it seemed ludicrous that Abraham could have seen Jesus’ day in any sense since millennia separated the two men. Evidently they chose 50 years old as a round number symbolic of the end of an active life (cf. Numbers 4:3). Jesus was obviously not that old since He began His public ministry when He was about 30 (Luke 3:23), and it only lasted about three and a half years. According to Hoehner’s chronology, Jesus would have been in His mid-thirties at this time. [Note: Hoehner, p. 143.]
This was the third and last of Jesus’ solemn pronouncements in this discourse (cf. John 8:34; John 8:51). If Jesus had only wanted to claim that He existed before Abraham, He could have said, "I was." By saying, "I am," He was not just claiming preexistence but deity (cf. John 8:24; John 8:28; John 5:18; Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 41:4; Isaiah 43:13). [Note: See John A. Witmer, "Did Jesus Claim to Be God?" Bibliotheca Sacra 125:498 (April-June 1968):147-56.]
"It is eternity of being and not simply being that has lasted through several centuries that the expression indicates." [Note: Morris, p. 420.]
Jesus existed before Abraham came into being (Gr. genesthai).
The Jews understood that Jesus was claiming to be God. They began to stone Him for making what they considered a blasphemous claim (John 5:18; Leviticus 24:16). However, Jesus hid Himself because His hour had not yet come (John 2:4; John 7:6; John 7:8; John 7:30; John 7:44; John 8:20; John 18:6). Then He departed from the temple. He did not protest or retaliate, another indication of His submission to the Father.
This concludes Jesus’ light of the world discourse (John 8:12-59). The Light of the World now symbolically abandoned the Jews by leaving the temple and went out to humanity in general, which the man born blind represents.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on John 8". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29