John 8:31-58. Free from what and for what?


When reading a passage like this, I like to make a note of the key words within it as I read. These are the words I noted as I read it: obey, truth, freedom, slave, sin, family, devil, lies, glory, death, pre-existence, I AM. 12 words. I think that the passage hinges on one statement though: verse 32: you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free, which contains two of my twelve words.

Free from what?

The first question this raised for me then, was "free from what?" To say that we will be set free by knowing the truth is to say that we currently need freeing. So from what? Unlike Jesus' audience, we do not live in an occupied country, we do enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of expression and freedom to come to worship. So how are we not free? It is, as we are frequently reminded, a free country.

Well, the country may be free, but what of its inhabitants - us? Jesus' audience insisted that they had never been slaves - conveniently overlooking Rome, Babylon and especially Egypt, the freedom from whose slavery the festival of Tabernacles (which they were all in Jerusalem for) celebrated, not to mention possibly the most important festival of all, Passover. But Jesus isn't bothered about historical slavery - He's bothered about the here & now slavery, as he tells them in verse 34: slavery to sin.

Sin, like all addictions, becomes its own reason for existence. Whereas once it was a pleasure, now it's the norm. Think of those foodstuffs advertised as "sinful". The word implies a guilty pleasure (and not the kind from listening to old Duran Duran albums, which requires a different kind of repentance altogether). The implication of the advert is a one-off enjoyable treat. But how long before the one-a-month cream scone habit becomes one-a-week, then one-a-day, then???

Sin is addictive. Individually it starts because it's pleasurable - in a group it starts because it's the norm. How often do we hear people protest that they can't be sinners because they're "no worse than anyone else"? It's that kind of thing that causes MEPs to use their expenses in ways that are not against the letter of the rules, but are certainly against the spirit. Everyone else is paying their partner 8000 a year to open three letters a week, so you can, too. It's the norm. It's no worse than anyone else. That doesn't make it right, of course, otherwise they'd not be so reticent to disclose where their expenses went, would they?

OK - MEPs expenses, cream scones and even Duran Duran albums are examples that we're unlikely to have followed. Likewise heroin, embezzlement, brothel patronage and so on. But sin isn't just the headline stuff. When Jesus challenged the crowd about to stone the woman taken in adultery "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" He didn't say "let he who's never committed adultery" or "he who has never stolen" or even "he who has never owned a Duran Duran album" but "he who is without sin". Sin is, as I once heard it described, anything that comes between you and God. It's a simple definition that actually makes it very difficult to define empirically. One man's sin is another man's treat, so to speak. Paul writes about this kind of thing in 1 Corinthians 8 when he's speaking about food sacrificed to idols and says "be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling-block to others". In other words, some things may not be sinful for you, but they are for others, and vice-versa. The reason the Salvation Army are historically tee-total is because of their work with recovering alcoholics - the idea is that if you don't drink, you'll never offer them one. Makes sense, as does the BBC radio guidelines to presenters to never swear, the idea being that if you don't do it off-air, you'll never accidentally do it on-air. Both find their root in Paul's meat and idols advice.

So is sin only relative? Well, yes and no. There are some absolutes: murder being pretty high up the list, for example. But there are some things that one person will have no problems with whereas for another it damages their relationship with God. I enjoy abseiling but could probably give it up anytime God asked, but I once had a big argument with Him about getting my hair cut (in the days when I had some, that is). For some it would have been no big deal, but for me it was and it got between me and Him until I gave in.

But there are, as I said, absolutes. Just as there is absolute truth. And one of those absolute truths is Jesus: Son of God. Messiah. His death on the cross paying once and for all for our sin. The absolute truth that sets us free. The truth is embodied in Jesus' teachings, as He tells us in verse 38, and in being His disciples - i.e. following the teaching, not just knowing it. The crowd assumed that being children of Abraham was enough. Do we assume that reading the Bible is enough? Going to church is enough? Or are we following the truth all the way to discipleship? This isn't a faith verses works thing - grace is sufficient for our salvation and there's nothing we can do to make it more or less so. But freedom comes from the truth. And we can get more free, just as we can get less free.

Free for what?

So if we're free, what are we free for?

One important thing to note is that this freedom is for the here & now. I was talking to a 14-year-old lad outside St. Johns Bransholme one Sunday afternoon and he was telling me what was wrong with the church (he didn't have long enough for me to tell him what I thought on this one) but also how Christianity was for old people who are afraid of dying. And Jesus does make reference to this kind of freedom in verse 51: freedom from the fear of death - it's a common view that that's what Christianity is about: pie in the sky when you die. And I told this lad that, when I was his age, I thought exactly the same as he did. When I was 17, I changed my mind. I discovered that it's not only pie in the sky when you die, but also cake on a plate while you wait. Just as Jesus doesn't want part of our lives, but all of them, so he doesn't want to set us free from one thing, but from everything. This freedom is freedom from the fear of death - but that's only part of it. The freedom that the truth brings is freedom for the here & now. Freedom from slavery to sin - the slavery that ruins so many lives. (Footnote: I originally mis-typed that last line and it read "the slavery that ruins so many livers", which may be one aspect, of course).

When Jesus sets us free from being slaves to sin, it's not just so we can be ex-slaves, though. Ex-anything doesn't say enough about where or what we are now. If I meet a complete stranger in Liverpool one day and say to him "I'm ex-Kettering" (something to be proud of as they won their league instead of having to go through the play-offs) it doesn't tell him anything about where I live now. Ex-slaves have no permanent position in the family. They are nowhere. Jesus sets us free, as he tells us in verses 35 and 36, not to be ex-slaves but sons. This isn't genderist language, but principled language. Sons had a permanent place in the family, they took on the Father's business, they carried on the work that he did, they were permanent. The key point is that the freedom Jesus offers us is not just to break the cycle of sin, but to replace it. To move out of slavery, not into nothing, but into sonship. To move from permanently lost, to permanently found. To not be "ex-sinner" but "now-saint".


So let's see how many of my keywords I hit. The 12 were: obey, truth, freedom, slave, sin, family, devil, lies, glory, death, pre-existence, I AM. I think I hit 7 out of 12. I missed the devil and lies - a sermon in itself, really, and pre-existence and I AM - likewise. So today I resisted the temptation to preach three sermons in one and stuck to just the one.

The key point again: Jesus' truth sets us free from slavery to sin, not to be ex-slaves, but to be children of God. To move from one to the other, not getting lost in nowheresville, but progressing by becoming more and more free, to sainthood. "Saint Paul" - it's got as ring to it, don't you think?

And yes - I do own a Duran Duran album. But only one.

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