We have a tough challenge before us as we study John 8:31-38 for Sunday, April 24. The gospel of John is difficult text. When we add the problem of its narrative construction of “the Jews,” it becomes even more difficult. Our text comes from a longer discourse, Jesus’s “Tabernacles discourse,” that is difficulty factor 10 out of 10 on both counts. It means we will have a lot to think about and discuss, possibly including what we are supposed to do with really difficult texts like this. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We have turned to the gospel of John after several weeks in the gospel of Matthew. We might know about the gospel of John things like: it is very carefully constructed, around important sets of binary oppositions, like light/dark, truth/lies, freedom/slavery, low/high, love/hate; it is overtly symbolic; Jesus talks a lot, in long, cryptic, and almost mystical discourses; it presents a very “high” Christology – Jesus is explicitly divine, eternal, and heavenly, in addition to being a flesh-and-blood Son of God; it is the source of the seven “I am” metaphors for Jesus.
We might also know about the gospel of John that “the Jews” appear in it a lot, and that the text portrays this category in an unrelievedly negative way. The text also portrays “the Jews” as distinct from Jesus and his group. This ought to be our first clue that the gospel of John is not giving us unbiased historical reportage. If it were, Jesus and the disciples would be just as Jewish as “the Jews,” whoever they are. We need to recognize that category as serving a rhetorical function in this text, rather than being descriptive of “real life.” At a minimum, we should not draw any conclusions about historic Second Temple Judaism, or about real-life Jewish people then or now, from anything the gospel of John says about “the Jews.”
To the extent that this raises problems with our theology, we need to solve those problems in some way that does not require us to believe that the gospel of John’s references to “the Jews” are statements of fact about the actually-existing religions of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism or about any actually-existing Jewish people. Not to respect this criterion makes us complicit in atrocity. I am deadly serious about this. If I could say this in any stronger terms, I would.
The Uniform Series committee has done its best to snip our nine-verse text out of its context in Jesus’s “Tabernacles discourse.” That discourse takes up most of chapters 7 and 8, minus the famous episode of “the woman taken in adultery.” The text critics are pretty sure, at this point, that that episode was written by a different author and is not part of the original gospel text. It is noticeably different stylistically, and it breaks up the flow of Jesus’s response to his opponents’ comment that “no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (John 7:52).
[As an aside, Jesus’s response to that comment – “I am the light of the world” – should probably remind us that prophets may not have come from Galilee, but that the prophet Isaiah did speak of it. The evangelist Matthew quotes at length:
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,Matthew 3:12-16
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
The light of the world is the great light seen by the people who sat in darkness. Two gospels, one light.]
The occasion for this discourse is the Feast of Tabernacles, which seems significant for several reasons:
- First, the Feast of Tabernacles has messianic connotations (see Zechariah 14:16); it makes a fitting setting for a discourse in which Jesus says clearly – as clearly as he says anything in the gospel of John – that he is the Messiah and co-eternal with God (“I am”).
- Second, the symbolism of the Feast of Tabernacles – a harvest festival that featured ceremonies petitioning heaven for rain and sun – is the context for Jesus’s statements about “rivers of living water” and “the light of the world.” That is, Jesus in effect says, “here I am, that abundant water and that light you are asking God for, as requested.” Only, better.
- Third, the Festival of Tabernacles refers back to the experience of the children of Israel in the wilderness, when God dwelt in the midst of the people [in the Tabernacle]. God is once again dwelling in the midst of God’s people, in the person of Jesus. That is emphasized from the beginning of John’s gospel.
- Finally, the Festival of Tabernacles reminds us that the privileged place of worship of God has not always been the stationary Temple; it used to be the mobile Tabernacle. This insight further elaborates on the notion of worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” that Jesus has already discussed with the woman at the well, in John 4. Jesus is preparing his followers to be able to do exactly that, with their reception of the Holy Spirit in John 20.
We are focusing on a scant eight verses of this text, the ones in which Jesus says “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” and “If the son sets you free, you will be really free.” It would be remiss, no doubt, not to read these verses during a quarter in which we are emphasizing the Biblical themes of freedom and redemption.
We can’t go any farther without getting deep into the next paragraph, in which Jesus says the people he’s talking with are from their “father the devil.” This is arguably the most anti-Semitic verse in the Bible, certainly in the top five. It’s literally demonization, and in red letters. So, good on the Uniform Series committee for finessing that.
No part of John 8 is in the lectionary, making our text another one of those things you’ll never know is in the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees, be warned.
CLOSER READING: In v31, Jesus is said to be speaking to “the Jews who had believed in him.” Believing in Jesus sounds like it ought to be a good thing. If so, the positivity doesn’t last long. Jesus begins to sound like he is speaking to a group of opponents almost immediately.
In v31 Jesus also begins talking about “abiding” in his word. The concept of abiding will come up again in v35, where it is linked to slavery and freedom. It will surface again most notably in John 15, in Jesus’s discourse on the vine and the branches. Although, for that matter, the Holy Spirit also abides with the disciples in John 14:17.
V32 is Jesus’s famous statement that “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Since this statement is a continuation of the preceding verse, in which those who abide in Jesus’s word will truly be his disciples, the “truth” Jesus is talking about here seems to be himself. “Knowing the truth” is personal knowledge of Christ, rather than some impersonal awareness of cognitive content.
We probably read the people’s response in v33 as offended, but that might not be our only option. They might simply be confused or perplexed, or even curious. Their statement that “we have never been in bondage,” however, seems to deny familiarity with the Passover story. At least it denies their identification with that story. Should this surprise us? If this were real life, I would say “yes.” I suspect, however, this is another instance of John’s rhetorical strategy: appropriating useful elements of Second Temple religious symbolism for Christianity, by pointedly separating those religious ideas and symbols from “the Jews.” Passover and its symbolism is central to John’s presentation of the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Having “the Jews” deny their identification with it makes it more available for John’s community. 
Verse 34 offers a whole theology of sin and redemption packed into a single sentence. If we relate it back to verse 32, in particular, and then forward to verse 36 – “if the son sets you free, you will be really free” – we will begin to get a picture of Christian freedom from sin that some of us Reformation “the imperfection under which the faithful always labor” types may find startling. For really free people, sin would be just a bad memory, if that. It is certainly not an ongoing compulsion or imperative. A lot to think about here.
Verse 35, according to more than one commentator, reminds us that Abraham has more than one child. A contrast is being drawn between Ishmael – the slave child, who does not stay in “the house” of Abraham forever – and Isaac – the free son. Although, presumably, this also refers to Jesus the Son of God and to God’s house and to eternal life.
In v37, when Jesus says “you [pl.] are seeking to kill me,” we definitely seem to have left behind any conversation with people who are friendly to Jesus. The reason they seek to kill him might seem obscure – that Jesus’s word finds no place in them. But if Jesus had said “you’re not open to me,” we would probably feel like we understood him. They are too full of themselves and perhaps of their preconceived opinions to receive Jesus.
Verse 38 contrasts seeing and hearing. Jesus says what he sees, or rather has seen, in his proximity to the father – we assume, God. His opponents have heard things from the father – we assume, maybe, a reference to the covenant at Sinai. Jesus tells them they should do those things. The implication being, possibly, that they are not doing them.
 The indispensable reference on John’s rhetorical strategy is Adele Reinhartz, Cast Out of the Covenant: Jews and Anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John. Lexington Books/Fortress Academic/Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.
Images: Eagle of St. John, window of St. Bernadette Church, Lancaster, Ohio, by Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Church interior with Christ preaching to a crowd, Attributed to Cornelis van Dalem, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons