They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
(John 8:33-38 ESV)
The Jews Jesus was talking with in John 8 truly believed they were the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy to Abraham, “And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6 ESV) That’s why they word their claim the way they do. But they are forgetting their covenantal history.
In fact, the offspring of Abraham had been enslaved. The enslavement in Egypt is one of the most critical moments in the history of Israel. It teaches us that slavery doesn’t always happen all at once through conquest. More often slavery comes about through a series of small decisions and acquiescences. We give a little here, a little there. As Frost says, “way leads on to way,” and finally there arises a generation that did not know Joseph (the model of faith), and the slavery begins.
These Jews were slaves to sin because they were trusting in Abraham, that is they were trusting in the covenant of circumcision – a physical thing – for their salvation. They were ultimately trusting that the Law would be on their side. Law never makes a person free. Where laws are multiplied, freedoms are limited. Sons and daughters don’t live under law in their parents home, though parents sometimes feel like they have to “lay down the law” to their teens. In reality, the honor of living as a son or daughter is knowing the blessing of your parents and living in that blessing. And it isn’t just knowing you will one day inherit from them. It is a blessing to step into the world around you with a good name. It is a joy to maintain that name. Slaves are a function on behalf of a good name. But they cannot enjoy it as their own.
Interestingly, Jesus does not dispute their claim. “I know that you are offspring of Abraham,” he says. So sadly, he recognizes that though they were Jews in the flesh, they were not Jews in the spirit. At the root of it, they were believing rumors.
A rumor is something you’ve heard that might be true. Rumors were all they had embraced about God. They had heard that he was an avenger, a punisher of sinners, a stern task master whom they needed to obey 100% or they’d be thrown out on their ear. Jesus says, “you do what you have heard from your father.” They were acting on rumors, and their whole existence was based around assiduously keeping the whole body of rumors they had heard. But in all of it, they had no personal experience of God.
Jesus says, “I speak of what I have seen with my Father.” One of the key things that marks the parent-child relationship is that children go where their parents do and pick things up that they see their parents doing. Not so with slaves. Slaves are assigned a task and do that, and only that. Children are always learning what they are seeing. It is a doing WITH, rather than a doing FOR.
Today, just for today, put away all the rumors you’ve heard about God, and listen to the voice of Jesus only. Someone suggested to me yesterday that it would be a fascinating exercise to do a Bible study that was restricted to “just the stuff in red type” – just the words of Jesus. That’s what you need to do. Listen carefully today to Jesus and you will hear, even at the distance of 2000 years, what he hears from his Father.