True Freedom

Passage : John 8:31-47

The great cry of our culture is the cry of William Wallace’s martyrdom in Braveheart


Indeed, freedom is probably the only shared moral value of western culture: authority is automatically suspect for nobody should have the power to tell others what to do – as eminent philosopher Charles Taylor puts it in ‘A Secular Age’, ‘let each person do their own thing…one shouldn’t criticise the other’s values, because they have a right to live their own life as they do’; so justice appears to be done when an oppressed group is given freedom from constraint.

This is familiar from cries for political freedom such as Brexit celebrated by many on Friday night,

or the cry for sexual freedom such as our London Pride march and the rainbow colours which signify a cry for freedom to have sex with whoever we love,

or in a cry for personal autonomy such as a pro-abortion rally where the banners shout, ‘my body my choice’!

Though freedom doesn’t always deliver happiness e.g. time will tell if freedom from Brussels to sell bananas with abnormal curvature, use halogen light bulbs, measure in feet and inches and negotiate trade deals with the world free from European tariffs will improve the lives of many in our nation; and some personal freedoms don’t deliver the benefits they promise e.g. an article in the Spectator in Nov. 2017 entitled, ‘Divorce is a disaster: Don’t let’s make it easier,’ Rod Little writes,

‘It is true, whether we like it or not: children are best brought up by their genetic mum and dad, who are married, not merely cohabiting. They are the ones who have the best outcomes. No matter how inconvenient this fact night be as regards our wish to have sexual intercourse with as many people as humanly possible, it is still nonetheless a fact. And we should not ignore it simply because it cramps our style a little and does not give us the non-judgmental freedom we crave.

And some personal autonomy is unjustly damaging to the rights of others e.g. the supreme example is abortion where a 200K defenceless and voiceless children are destroyed each year in this country, usually, not always but usually, to satisfy the desires of their parents for freedom from responsibility for someone else! In reality, different freedoms conflict with each other: if I want to have any close friends I will have to surrender my freedom to ignore their birthdays and sad days; if I want the freedom of being a champion athlete I will have to surrender my freedom to eat what I like; if I want the freedom of a good income to purchase goods and enjoy holidays I will have to surrender my time to study and work hard; real freedom is about wise strategic choices of beneficial constraints: real freedom is not just liberty from negative constraint but also positive liberty for doing something good – choosing constraints that will help me become who I was meant to be – a person who will be good for other people. (Do Read Keller: Making Sense of God and Fuller – Be True to  yourself) This is the better life promised in Jesus in this part of John’s gospel – John chs.1-11 describe the arrival of God the Son to reveal his father; chs.12-21 describe the departure of God the Son to glorify his father => for his stated aim in writing this gospel is Jn.20:30: “…that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” – a spiritual life – a better life in Jesus. After ch.1 introduced Jesus and chs.2-4 show he’s the MESSIAH for all nations now chs.5-11 show he’s the SON of God who gives life –  but the religious establishment increasingly hate him because their power and influence over people is threatened

My teaching is the truth which can set you free! (31-32)

To the Jews who had believed in him Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

John has recorded in the previous verse that many believed Jesus’ preaching; now he records Jesus warning that a real disciple is not someone who is briefly convinced, but someone who holds to his teaching – lit. ‘remains in my word’ – who keeps on living in obedience to the teachings of Jesus through opposition – unlike the spineless C. of E. Archbishops who as you may have read, issued a great statement a week ago upholding Jesus’ view of marriage saying, ‘marriage – that is the lifelong union between a man and woman, contracted with the making of vows – remains the proper context for sexual activity’ and, ‘sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are regarded as falling short of God’s purpose for human beings,’ for which I signed a letter of thanks to the Bishop of Southwark, and then after just one week of worldly criticism, apologised for their statement! If they are truly disciples of Jesus they will now need to apologise for their apology when the House Of Bishops ‘Living in Love and faith’ document is released later this year. Real disciples of Jesus keep holding on to Jesus’ teaching whatever it costs; Jesus often distinguishes between false and fickle faith that falls away under pressure and real faith that follows Jesus through thick and thin; and if we truly are remainers in Jesus, ‘then you will know the truth’ – because as we live by the Word of the Word, we will know, not just academically in our logic but experientially in our lives, the truthfulness of the one who is the Truth i.e. true not only conceptually but in reality – his teaching is the best way to live – both in this creation and into God’s renewed creation; in fact, Jesus’ teaching is the truth which sets us free – true freedom is found in following Jesus: true freedom is not living without any constraints (e.g. a child without loving discipline running wild on the streets in a gang is no more free than a goldfish liberated from its fishbowl onto the carpet – it’s not flapping its fins with joy but because its dying – it needs water to live in as a child needs clear boundaries to flourish); but neither does all religious discipline bring freedom – for Paul calls religious discipline that forbids marriage and food demonic because it makes our heavenly Father seem a tyrant and causes misery to those who live by it and often erupts encourages the spiritual abuse of religious bullies! True freedom is the freedom to be who we truly are – which is not what we choose to be, but what we were created by God to be –      

John reports a series of reactions to Jesus for the rest of the chapter: the first three concern his audience which we’ll look at today – the last three concern Jesus and we’ll consider them next week; first, Jesus says…

You are enslaved by sin! (33-38)

“They answered him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’

When Jesus offers freedom, he is implying his hearers are in bondage – and these religious people are quick to insist that they’re free because they’re descended physically from Abraham, the father of faith, who travelled from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan – and claim they are slaves to no-one! They sound like one of us in London today, ‘Hey! Don’t you tell me I’m a slave – I’m free – I do what I like! No-one tells me what to do! I’m free!’ This sounds absurd on the lips of Jewish leaders, since the nation of Israel had been enslaved by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and now Rome; so presumably they mean they have zealously practised their faith for centuries – but their sense of inherited privilege has blinded them to their own true condition which Jesus now exposes:  

“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.

What a bombshell this is – indeed what a liberatingly honest truth this is! Sin enslaves us: we are addicted to sin – we can’t stop sinning! Like Alcoholics Anonymous Jesus is saying the road to freedom begins with admitting – Hi, I’m Richard, and I’m a sin addict! Like the horror of physical slavery, all of us are in bondage to our sin: whether to bitterness, or envy, or lust, or, pride, or greed, or gossip – we were all once slaves – to sin! We have all been slaves of sin – unable to do what we want to do! The familiar cry of the flirty husband who has an affair at work, or the nagging wife who feels alone in her marriage, or the thoughtless son who wonders why his siblings ignore him, or the narcissistic daughter who never gets enough attention, ‘I can’t help who I am,’ really means I’m enslaved by my sin! Our culture screams that we cannot be expected to change, except, the freedom to sin destroys good things we long for: my freedom to be promiscuous destroys my wife’s trust; my freedom to nag destroys my husband’s friendship; my freedom to forget my siblings birthdays means I don’t know them very well; my freedom to spend forever cultivating my selfies means I am constantly anxious about what other people think about me! What hope of freedom is there? Jesus says…

‘35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ – in the Roman Empire slaves could be bought and sold at their master’s will – but the Son will always be the Son and has permanent authority in his Father’s house; so if Jesus, the Son of God, sets us free from sin, we will be free to stay in God’s heavenly family forever!

Jesus is offering real freedom: not liberty to do whatever our sin-crazed souls desire, but freedom from sin to be what we created to be: children of God; when we studied Romans we saw that this freedom is like Jesus opening the filthy prison cell in which we once lived: wallowing in the filthy darkness of sin, unable to escape into the sunshine of real life, confined in the condemnation of God’s law; when we turn to the Son of God for freedom, since he has died on a cross to endure the punishment of shame and pain and hell that we deserve, our debt is paid and Jesus is able to open the door of the dingy cell in which we trapped, lead us out into the bright sunshine of life with him – and when we stupidly rush back into the filth of sin, he keeps returning to patiently remind us that we don’t belong there anymore – until one day, he will return, to lock the door behind us and take us away to his home in heaven when we shall be free from heaven forever! What a wonderful day that will be! But his audience hate his implication that they’re enslaved…

“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.”

Although they are physically descended from Abraham, their inability to recognise his teaching which he received from being in God the Father’s presence, reveals that they have the nature of a very different father…the tensions level is about to go to DEFCON 1…

You are not the true children of Abraham! (39-41)

“39 ‘Abraham is our father,’ they answered’ – the conversation is becoming aggressive – the religious leaders insist they are the children of the great patriarch, Abraham, who, though a wealthy businessman, when instructed by God, packed up his entire life and left Ur for Haran, though Hebrews 11 insists he had no clue yet where he was going; when he arrived at Haran, God made his foundational gospel promise of a nation, land and blessing for all nations (Gen.12) – which was essentially the promise of God’s Kingdom, the gospel; these leaders were living in that place and assumed they were descendants of Abraham – perhaps as some of us might assume that because we are children of Christians and assume we are Christians, that we are! But…

‘If you were Abraham’s children,’ said Jesus, ‘then you would do what Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things.’ i.e. your hostility to me, God’s Son, is nothing like Abraham’s obedience to God’s commands! Just as those of us who assume we are Christians need to ask if our lifestyle is one of obedience to God’ word or not? These men wanted to kill Jesus – just as we may try to get rid of Jesus and his teaching in a thousand subtle ways e.g. there are many who claim to be Christians who clearly don’t believe Jesus’ teaching – and though they would be horrified to hear us say it. Aren’t actually Christians e.g. the stats I’ve mentioned before indicate that of C. of E. clergy, 20% don’t believe God created the world, 25% don’t believe Jesus died for our sins, 33% don’t believe Jesus rose bodily from the dead and 50% don’t believe Jesus don’t believe Jesus is the only way to be saved – so since the resurrection of Jesus is part of the gospel, at least a third of the C. of E. clergy aren’t actually Christians; and we will have the experience of many who insist they are Christians, but if they’re not actually living by the teachings of Jesus are not; but isn’t this arrogant – how can so many be deceived? Jesus explains…

“You are doing the works of your own father” – Jesus is about to explain how so many can claim to be gene children of Abraham, but disagree with us about basic gospel issues – and prepare to be shocked…

Your father is the devil who murders and lies! (41-45)

“‘We are not illegitimate children,’ they protested. ‘The only Father we have is God himself.” Jesus has denied that Abraham is their father and suggested they are the children of another father! Deeply offended, they protest that they are illegitimate and fatherless – probably raising a common scorn about Jesus’ own origins since his mother Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit before Joseph married her – and he also didn’t look like Joseph because Joseph wasn’t his father – so, since they refused to believe Jesus was from God they had to assume Jesus was illegitimate; but speaking of their spiritual ancestry proudly maintain that their Father is God himself! They are about to be publicly exposed as imposters by the real Son of God…

“Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me”

…the real children of God will always love the true Son of God for they share the same Holy Spirit – Jesus now reveals why his opponents cannot recognise him…

“Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.”

…i.e. you are spiritually deaf to my words (you understand the vocabulary but you cannot grasp their meaning) because your origin is not God as you believe, but the Devil! The Devil is the “Father of lies” who has lost all grip on reality; he is the rebellious angel that has been hurled down from heaven “filled with fury because he knows his time is short” and now “leads the whole world astray” (Rev.12). Jim Packer describes Satan as “ more cruel, more malicious, more proud, more scornful, more perverted, more destructive, more disgusting, more filthy, more despicable, than anything our minds can conceive”.  – indeed you belong to him – as we all once did for Paul says the devil is, ‘the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient’ (Eph.2) and we all once lived under ‘the dominion of darkness’ (Col.1) Jesus continues to diagnose the symptoms of their spiritual sickness, more deadly than the Corona-Virus or Ebola will ever be – from which all humans suffer until Jesus rescues us…

“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. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!’”  

…The Devil delights to inflame human sin even to the point of murder – as he has since his lies brought death to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden – and was inflaming the murderous thoughts of these Jewish leaders as he continues to inflame the hatred of the liberal intelligentsia of our nation trying to remove Jesus and his teaching from schools and universities and from media of all kinds; he tells lies because he can’t do anything else – he is nothing but a liar! So the Devil inflames murderous hatred and false slanders against Christ and his followers. Jesus presents a binary choice: two ways to live…

Whoever belongs to God hears what God says (46-47)

“’Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.’”

…i.e. you can’t prove me guilty because I haven’t done anything wrong! So the question is – if he’s telling the truth why do so many disbelieve? The answer is that those who belong to God do hear what he says, but those who don’t belong to God don’t! As in ch.6 – from among a rebellious humanity who deserve hell, God has chosen some for salvation but not all – as he puts it in ch.6, ‘this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last dayNo-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them and I will raise them up at the last day’ (6:39; 44); so if you want to be saved and to know you are elected for salvation in the referendum that really matters – the one between the father and the Son before the foundation of the world, hear what God says in the Bible and come to him – come to church, come to a connect or growth group or KG group, read the Bible with a friend or with your wife or family at the tea table or on your own each morning over your corn flakes; and if you can’t do that – the reason is that you don’t belong to God! Let’s pray!

More about the author :

Richard Coekin

Richard is married to Sian and they have five grown-up Children and a dog called Hudson. He is the Senior Pastor of Dundonald Church and CEO of Co-Mission Church planting initiative in London and has a Bible teaching ministry in parliament. He is the author of several books most recently, Ephesians for You, the reluctant Evangelist, Faith for Life and has a Bible Ministry in Parliament. He is passionate about Jesus Christ, rugby, ski-ing, and the moment when Julia Roberts says “indefinitely” in the film Notting Hill (in that order).

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