SCRIPTURE: John 8:31-32
31 Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (NKJV)
When I was growing up, I remember hearing the statement, “The truth will set you free” and I wondered, “What does that mean, how does the truth make us free?” This was especially challenging for me when I considered the context of the statement. Usually, these words have been used as closing words to a session of excoriation or, in common vernacular, when the speaker was “telling someone off.” This was usually a time when the speaker was saying something that the listener did not want to hear — probably something embarrassing or hurtful. Also, I have read articles where drug or alcohol counselors told their clients that facing the truth that they have an alcohol or drug problem would set them free of it. Apparently, this passage is used in a variety of ways; however, this passage is believed to have originated in the Bible and it has quite a different meaning from the way it is used in other settings. Let us explore this passage to discover its true meaning.
The Context in Which It Was Said
The context of that passage was at a time when Jesus was attending the “Feast of the Tabernacle” which was one of the three annual feasts that all Israelite males were required to attend (Deut 16:16). Jesus was hesitant about attending since He knew the religious leaders were seeking to kill him. This was for the reason that earlier in the Scriptures, the Jewish religious leaders became angry with Jesus because he healed a man on the Sabbath day who had been sick for 38 years (John 5:5-15). Additionally, they also wanted to kill him for the reason that He said that God was his Father, making himself equal to God (John 5:18). Jesus said, though, that the world hated him because He “… testifies of it that its works are evil” (John 7:7). Nevertheless, He decided to attend this seven-day feast even though He went as it were in secret (John 7:10) and, in the middle of the feast, He began teaching in the temple court (John 7:14).
As Jesus continued to teach, his presence became more apparent. Consequently, the religious leaders gained awareness of his presence and issued orders to arrest him; however, his “hour had not yet come” (John 7:30). In the meantime, as He continued to teach, some said He had a demon (John 7:20), but a number of the listeners were fascinated by his teachings and believed in him (John 7:31, 8:30). At this point, the Scripture said: “31 Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
What Is The Meaning of This Scripture?
So, what did Jesus mean when He made that statement? The answer can be found in some of the surrounding texts. In looking at John 8:33, we can observe that the believing Jews did not quite understand what Jesus meant either. They thought He had reference to their physical freedom (as children of Abraham they were always free), but as we can gather from John 8:34, He was making reference to Spiritual freedom (“…whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.” — a slave is not free). For greater clarity to this particular passage, we need to examine the full Scripture. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind the context of the passage.
As we seek to accurately interpret this passage, it might be better understood if we would start at the end of the passage and work back up to the beginning of it. Here, the last part of the passage reads, “…the truth shall make you free.” Now there are a few questions we could ask, such as: What is this “truth” that is spoken of, how will it make you free, and what will it make you free from? In seeking an answer to the first question, the surrounding text provides us much information for formulating that determination. We know that “truth” is defined as the “Word” or “the Word of God” (John 17:17), and the Word of God is said to be the same as Jesus (John 1:1-2, 1:14, 1:17), and Jesus is identified as God (John 1:1, 10:30); hence, any of these can be substituted for “truth” in this passage. Therefore, it says that the “Word” or Jesus or God can make us free. So now we come to the word “free”. In the Old Testament times, which was the time of this passage, “free” meant free from slavery (Dictionary of the Bible, McKenzie, p. 288) — not under (or loose from) the bonds of slavery. This can be observed in the response of the Jews when Jesus first made this statement (John 8:33). Even so, Jesus’s response in John 8:34 made a sharp distinction between their carnal minded, worldly understanding of slavery and the Spiritual understanding; they were enslaved to sin. This, therefore, answered the third question. So what we have here is that the “Word”, the “Word of God”, Jesus, God can make us free from the bondage of sin.
That sounds extremely familiar to us and quite easy for us to grasp; however, it becomes a bit more complicated when we look at the preceding words: “And you shall know the truth …” What does it mean to “know” the truth? Here, Jesus tells us in John 7:16-18 that to “know” in this passage means to have the ability to determine or to recognize whether the words spoken are from God or from man; do they bring glory to God or glory to man.
Going back a bit further, let us notice the words: “…you are My disciples indeed”. Even though we understand these words to mean that you are truly my followers/believers/adherents, in John 10:7-10, Jesus expounds on his idea of a disciple in his analogy of the “True Shepherd” and the “Good Shepherd”: “…his sheep follow him for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him…” (John 10:4-5). In other words, Jesus says that his true disciples are dedicated adherents to his teachings and only his teachings. Next, we come to the first part of this statement, “If you abide in My word…” So what does it mean to “abide”? In the New King James Version of the Bible, this word is used; however, in the majority of the other versions of the Bible, the word “abide” is not used — the word “continues” is used instead. The word “abide” means the same as to continue — to continue with him or continue to follow him. In the parable of the “Good Shepherd,” that meaning is well illustrated (John 10:4-5).
Here is another word that we need to look at. It is probably the smallest word in the passage, but it is also one of utmost importance. It is the word “if”. This word renders the whole passage as conditional which means we have a choice in the matter. The promise of the remainder of the passage is contingent on whether or not we choose to continue with him. And finally, there is another important word that expresses contingency, which is “believe”. In theological circles, and in the Bible, to believe means to have faith in God. But throughout the Scriptures, faith is “the trustful human response to God’s self-revelation via His words and His actions” (Holman Bible Dictionary). So when the statement referred to “those Jews who believed Him”, it meant those who truly trusted him for being who He said He was.
So, now the elaborated version of our text says:
Then Jesus said to those Jews who truly trusted him for being who He said He was, “Contingent on whether or not you continue to follow the Word/the Word of God/My Word, you are truly my followers/adherents. 32 And you shall have the ability to determine or to recognize whether the words spoken are from God or from man and the Word/the Word of God/My Word will free you from the bonds of slavery/sin.”
Now, in relations to the context of this passage, what was Jesus actually saying to the Jews and to us? Let us remember that Jesus said the world hated him because He testifies of it that its works are evil. Jesus knew that what the religious leaders were teaching the people was not from God — it had no real truth in it and therefore, no spiritual value. They were simply teaching the laws and traditions made by man. Jesus said they dealt with triviality and ignored the weightier matters (Mark 7:6-8). Furthermore, the teachings were not done to glorify God, but to glorify themselves, whereas, Jesus knew that all things should be done for the glory of the Father (John 7:18).
Consequently, the Jews were suffering from one of the major consequences of sin — Spiritual blindness (John 3:19-21). They could not acquire the help they needed to grow spiritually since they could not perceive the concerns of the Spirit. In order for that to happen, they needed to be converted, therefore, requiring that they believe in him (John 3:18). For that reason, He said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
From what has been said, it is clear that the words “The truth will make you free” had an incredibly different meaning. However, in order to receive greater benefits from this search to discover the true meaning of the text, it would be helpful to explore some practical implications of this Scripture, as it related to the Jews in those days, but more importantly, for how it relates to us in these days. Nonetheless, in the interest of time and space, I believe that would be more effectively achieved in a subsequent post. So, be on the lookout for a “The Truth Will Set You Free, Part 2.” In the meantime, meditate on the elaborated version of the Scripture so that it might become embedded in your minds.
All glory to God!!
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all Bible Scriptures come from the New King James Version of the Bible.