Obedience, Truth, and Freedom Mark Genuine Belief

John 8:31-36 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 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’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.


Our passage for this morning is the continuation of a longer dialogue (which covers all of chapters 7-8) between Jesus and different groups of Jews and Jewish leaders. It took place over a couple of days at the Feast of Booths, just six months before Jesus’ crucifixion. Throughout the exchange, Jesus taught things that were significantly different than the prevailing understanding of the Jews of His day. Over and over and over, Jesus would teach, the Jews would push back, Jesus would correct their misunderstanding, and insodoing, Jesus would uncover yet another misunderstanding of the Jews.

The question ever before Jesus’ hearers was: Would they conform their understanding to Jesus’ teaching or would they dismiss Jesus for not conforming to theirs? The majority rejected Jesus, choosing instead to go along with the current consensus.

Throughout this prolonged interaction, however, there were several “breakthroughs of belief.” That is, there were several places where Jesus’ hearers seemed to come to a place of acceptance. For instance, in 7:31 we read, “Yet many of the people believed in Him, they said, ‘When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?’” In 7:40 it says, “When they heard these words, some of the people said, ‘This is the Christ.’” And our passage from last week ended with this, “As he was saying these things, many believed in him” (8:30).

What we see in the Feast dialogues, is consistent with the rest of John’s Gospel up to this point as well. A significant number of people are said to believe in Jesus. What we’ve also seen consistently up to this point, however, is the fact that not all belief is the same, and not every kind of belief leads to salvation. There is unbelieving belief and true belief.

Unbelieving belief accepts some aspects of Jesus’ teaching or authority, but rejects it at a foundational level. Unbelieving belief, at its core, sees oneself—not Jesus—as the ultimate judge of truth. It says, in essence, “I’ll give you that, Jesus (whatever “that” happens to be), but I’m reserving judgment on the rest.” That kind of belief, held by so many, is useless. In fact, it’s worse than useless; it is deadly in that it keeps people from recognizing their unbelief!

What, then, is true belief; or saving belief? In our passage for this morning, Jesus clarifies this yet again. His clarification comes in the form of a three-part lesson. First, genuine belief, the kind of belief through which the Father’s saving grace flows, is the kind that abides in Jesus’ word. Second, abiding in Jesus’ word means knowing truth. And third, knowing and abiding in the truth is the only path to true freedom. We’ll look at each of those things in order that we might understand, believe, and live as we are made to do. Let’s pray and dig in.


Before we get to what it means and looks like to abide in Jesus’ word, let’s take just a minute to consider what’s going on here. Have you ever been in a situation where you were the lone voice for something you really believed in. Everyone else was against your idea; or at least not willing to speak up for it. If so, you know how lonely of a place that is to be. And if so, you know how much even one voice of support can mean. The relief and joy and encouragement that comes from hearing someone join you in the struggle is hard to explain. But what if you somehow found out that one voice of support didn’t really understand, and if they did, they wouldn’t really be on your side. In my experience, the temptation to cling to their partnership, even while knowing that it is a mirage, is significant.

Some form of this is what happens every time someone wants to be baptized or become a member that might not be ready. It happens when you speak up for Jesus in class or on a sports team. It’s also what happens often when we’re faced with the choice of addressing or ignoring the sin of another Christian. It’s easy to just go with the flow and hard to take a stand. Going along with things keeps a (fake) form of peace and standing firm almost always stirs up strife. Therefore, finding someone, anyone, to join our side, even if they only appear to agree with us, is a huge temptation.

That’s what Jesus was faced with. While He stood, mostly alone, with almost everyone angrily against Him, out from the crowd came a few voices of support. If Jesus weren’t Jesus, He might have been tempted to accept some flattery and fake followers to save face with the crowd. He could have tried to build a fake coalition to help Him get out of hot water. At the very least, He might have allowed the people who claimed they believed to believe they believed just long enough to get away from those who were about to try to stone Him…if Jesus weren’t Jesus. But Jesus is Jesus and so He was entirely unwilling to dabble in even the tiniest lie. Praise Him for this, Grace!

Instead, therefore, caring more about the glory of the Father and the good of His hearers than His own reputation and life, Jesus refused to allow unbelieving believers to remain comfortable in their unbelieving belief.

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him [those from v.30], “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

All three parts of Jesus’ lesson are in those two verses. Again, we’ll look at each, beginning with v.31 and the fact that genuine belief is the kind of belief that abides in Jesus’ word.

Whatever kind of belief the people of v.30 had, Jesus felt the need to clarify the fact that the only kind of belief that matters is the kind that results in abiding in Jesus’ word. To abide, in this sense, means to remain, continue, stay, reside in Jesus’ words. In other words, genuine belief in Jesus, the kind that pleases God and connects us with His saving grace, is the kind that hears Jesus’ words, understands them, cherishes them, and lives in light of them no matter what. Genuine belief does not pick and choose which of Jesus’ words to believe, which to obey, or when to obey them. Of course, no one does this perfectly, but unbelieving belief makes a conscious decision not to accept all of Jesus teaching, while genuine belief truly longs and fights to obey every word and repents quickly when it falls short.

It’s somewhat like following a training plan for a race. You “abide” in the training plan in the sense that it’s always in your mind. You trust that by following it, it will help you get what you’re after. It’s always your intention to conform to it, it’s discouraging when you can’t, and you do what you can to get back on it ASAP whenever something gets in the way.

Abiding in Jesus’ word is somewhat like that, but also significantly different! The words of Jesus (unlike a running training plan or anything else) are perfect in every way. For all who have ears to hear, they are the words of life. They are the pathway to eternal joy. They are the description of how to live an abundant life. They describe the very heart and will of God. They tell us who God really is as well as who we really are. They warn us of danger and tell us how to escape from it. They correct us, rebuke us, equip us, and train us in righteousness. They are living and active, and therein always, perfectly able to prepare us for every good work required by God. They are sweeter than honey and more precious than gold. Nothing on earth comes within a million miles of them in wisdom, power, truth, beauty, or goodness.

To abide in Jesus’ word, therefore, is to recognize these things in the ever-increasing depth of our being. To abide in them is to increasingly live entirely in light of them, no matter the cost, in full assurance that the reward is infinitely greater. And in these ways, therefore, abiding in Jesus’ word is different than abiding in any and everything else.

On a very practical level, Grace, this means that we cannot abide in Jesus’ word if we do not read the Bible. Read your Bibles, every day. Read them carefully, prayerfully, thoughtfully, humbly, corporately, and with an unquenchable desire to be entirely transformed by them. On a very practical level, test every thought, feeling, and action in your life against Jesus’ words. Leave no stone unturned. Learn to ask the questions the Bible asks, understand the answers the Bible gives, do the things the Bible commands, believe the things the Bible says, and feel the things the Bible describes. Let go of every remnant of worldly wisdom, desires, and actions. Abide in Jesus word, and therein know that your belief in Jesus is real and you truly are His disciple.

Let me say one more thing about this. To abide in Jesus’ word in this way is a gift from God. We cannot muster it up on our own. We would not even want it on our own. That’s why the men and women listening to Jesus speak we’re primarily marked by unbelief and unbelieving belief. God had not yet given them that gift. Seek that gift with all your heart and you will find it (Matthew 7:7-12).

All of that leads to the second of Jesus’ three lessons on genuine belief.


Jesus declared to the skeptics, unbelieving believers, and genuine believers present, that genuine belief is marked by abiding in His word. And then He also said, 32 and you will know the truth…”. This is absolutely critical.

Advertisements are constantly before us and their central message is this: “If you buy our product, you’ll be better off.” That may or may not be true, but as long as you believe it, you’ll be willing to purchase the product. What’s more, as long as you believe it, you’ll be glad to abide in that product (remain in, continue with, stay with it). That’s why certain brands have staying power long after their products are surpassed in quality by lesser known brands or brands without the same marketing dollars or celebrity endorsements.

The question Jesus’ hearers need to ask, including you and me, is what makes Jesus’ words different than the promises of the advertisers that bombard us virtually every minute of the day. I gave a number of examples above, but they are all rooted in one thing: Jesus’ words are entirely true, eternally true, truly true. To hear Jesus’ speak is to hear truth. Therefore, to abide in Jesus words is to know and abide in that which is true.

Christianity is not some fairytale or spiritual lesson or religious parable. Christianity is a description of the truest truth and its implications for the world. Abiding in Jesus’ word isn’t primarily the right thing to do because God has the best marketing campaign or because He has the power to punish us if we don’t. It is the right thing to do because Jesus’ word is truth, and because everything that contradicts it is ultimately a lie.

The simple fact is this: to have found a word of Jesus is to have found truth. True disciples abide in Jesus’ word, and abiding in Jesus’ word is abiding in truth. This reality is at the heart of the famous passage later in John’s Gospel. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). We cannot be reconciled to God by believing lies. Jesus is the truth.

As the Jews listened to Jesus’ words, whether consciously or not, they were evaluating them on all kinds of levels; not the least of which was whether or not they rang true. And Jesus made it clear that what He said was true whether they recognized it or not, whether they believed it or not, and whether they cared about it or not.

That is what you are I are faced with when we come to the Bible as well. It is true for all people for all time and, therefore, our response to it will shape everything about us and the lives we live. In particular, by rejecting it as untruth, we will remain dead in our trespasses and sins and will forever live out of sync with our design and Designer. But if we receive it as the truth it is, it will lead us to trust in Jesus, abide in His word, live as we were made to live (now and forever), and show that we are His true disciples.


The third lesson Jesus taught in the first two verses of our passage is that “the truth will set you free.” This idea needs a bit more unpacking. To abide in Jesus word, to abide in truth, is in large measure to submit to Jesus and to obey His commands.

If you think about it for a minute, you’ll realize that that idea is pretty counterintuitive. We often think of obedience as a lack of freedom. To be commanded by another to do something is, it seems, to surrender our freedom for the sake of obedience. We are either obedient to someone or something outside of us or we are free. Isn’t that how we usually think of this? How, then, do we make sense of Jesus’ statement that abiding in/obeying His word will set us free?

The key is in understanding the fact that freedom isn’t what we think it is. True freedom is not the ability to choose between two alternatives. True freedom isn’t the ability to make our own choice, unhindered by anything outside of us. True freedom, rather, is the God-given ability to rightly choose that which is best.

Grace, I know this is a bit philosophical, but Jesus was being a bit philosophical, so we need to do our best to follow His logic. I’ll do my best to state it plainly.

If you and I are faced with two choices—one that would be best and one that would be less than best—the only thing that would ever compel us to choose the not-best thing is a lack of freedom. The two primary “freedom-lacks” that cause us to choose something other than that which is best are: 1) a lack of knowledge of that which is best, and 2) a lack of appreciation for that which we know to be best.

Imagine the person who had two plates put in front of them. One had the healthiest, most delicious meal possible on it (probably Jake’s smoked brisket and Meister’s fresh cut french fries.) and the other had maggot-infested kale. What is it that would allow that person a genuine choice between the two plates? That is, what is it that would cause them to desire the maggot-infested kale to have any appeal at all? And the answer, according to Jesus, is not freedom, but a lack of freedom. To desire maggot-infested kale over the healthiest, most delicious meal possible means the person either doesn’t understand the choice in front of them or has something wrong with them that keeps them from wanting what’s best for them. In either case, they are not free.

As non-Christians we always, entirely, lack both the knowledge of that which is best and an appetite for it. We are not born free. We are born slaves to sin. Like many standing before Jesus in our passage, all non-Christians fail to see that which is best and even when it’s standing in front of them, they lack proper appreciation for it.

But even as Christians, we often struggle with a lack of both. That’s because as Christians, we have been freed in one sense, and are still being freed in another (that’s what sanctification is). That’s why situations arise all the time where we struggle to know what is best in a given situation (a parenting dilemma or marriage struggle or work problem or friend conflict), but even when we do know, our flesh often creeps in and chokes it out.

In order to help you see the staggering glory of this teaching of Jesus, let me bring it back to the text. Jesus’ true disciples, He said, abide in His word. To abide in His word, Jesus said, is to abide in truth. And to abide in truth, is to be free. In other words, true freedom is always rooted in truth and truth is always rooted in Jesus. That’s Jesus argument.

Again, it’s hard to explain how truly life-changing this is if we are to grasp and live in light of it. There is no freedom apart from Jesus because Jesus is true and Jesus is best. Come to Jesus, today and know the kind of freedom you were made to have, the kind that knows what’s best and desires it above all.

This leads us to a familiar place and a familiar question. How would those who heard these words respond? Were they eager to abide in the truth and freedom of Jesus’ word or in the lies and slavery of their own wisdom?


As has often been the case in John, the answer comes quickly and disappointingly.

33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.

This really is an odd response from the Jews. Saying they had “never been enslaved to anyone” is as false as it gets. They’d been enslaved to many nations. In fact, one commentator wrote (Carson, PNTC, 349), “There was scarcely a major power whom the Jews had not served: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, [and] Syria…had all held the Jews in political captivity.”

Perhaps, then, rather than “we” referring to the Jewish people as a whole, they simply meant themselves—those physically present to hear Jesus speak. That would be comically false as well, for they were currently under significant Roman rule and impression.

By referring to themselves as “offspring of Abraham,” and in light of Jesus’ response to them, we know that they had spiritually captivity in mind. It’s curious that they didn’t say, “and have never been slaved to anything,” but nevertheless, they believed themselves to be spiritually free already by virtue of being offspring of Abraham and, therein, participants in the covenant promise God made with Abraham.

Genesis 17:1-7 … the LORD appeared to [Abraham] and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 … And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations… 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

Again, the Jews understood themselves to be reconciled to God and spiritually free based on that everlasting promise. And for that reason, they denied Jesus’ premise that they had anything to be freed from. Therefore, they wondered, 33 How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

And in response to that, Jesus sought to help them understand a key piece of the gospel and the true meaning of being one of Abraham’s offspring and an heir of the covenant God made with him.

34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

The two keys to Jesus’ reply are: 1) The person who is characterized by sin (“practices sin”) rather than righteousness, is a slave to sin and must be freed from it if they are to be free. That’s what Jesus accused the Jews of doing. That’s the heart of v.34. And 2) Only Jesus (the “son” who “remains forever”) can set the slave free, for only Jesus is true and truly best. What’s more, the freedom Jesus offers is of the permanent type (“forever”), bringing those who abide in Him into the family of God as beloved sons and daughters. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” That’s the heart of vs.35-36.


This really is a remarkable passage. In it we find that abiding in Jesus’ word is abiding in truth. And we find that abiding in truth is the only path to true freedom. The Jews standing before Jesus failed to understand this, believing themselves to already possess both the truth and freedom. Jesus’ words were meant to help them, and us, recognize that they had neither. Until abiding in Jesus’ word is the great cry of our heart, we remain enslaved to the sin we inherited from Adam. As the apostle Paul helps us to see (Romans 9:8), true children of Abraham, and true heirs to the covenant God made with him, are not his physical descendants, but his spiritual descendants; those who trust in God as Abraham did. And as Jesus helps us to see here, trusting in God as Abraham did means abiding in Jesus’ word, the word of truth. And those who do are Jesus’ true disciples and are free indeed.

Grace, consider these things carefully. And consider especially the question before the Jews in this passage: Will you abide in Jesus, in truth and freedom, or will you abide in Adam, in lies and bondage? Just as Jesus stood before those in John 8, His word is before us today, beckoning us come to Him, for He is truer, freer, and greater than everyone and everything else and He offers us the chance to share in those things with Him as His true disciples.