John 8:21-30 So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” 22 So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” 23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” 25 So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. 26 I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” 27 They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. 28 So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. 29 And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” 30 As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
In this passage, as John makes clear in the opening words, we have another public teaching of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles. Hopefully, as we’ve made our way through the Gospel, you’ve noticed that a central component of the Christness of Jesus was His teaching. Insodoing, Jesus corrected (sometimes centuries, or even millennia old) lies or misconceptions, revealed mysteries that had been hidden for ages and generations, and offered His hearers the chance to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. Above all, though, in His teaching, Jesus offered the fullest revelation of God and therein invited all into repentance, worship, and fellowship with God.
As Jesus taught these things, people wondered. They wondered who this man was. They wondered what to do with Him. They wondered what to make of His unique authority and insight. They wondered how to respond to His claims, rebukes, and commands. And they wondered what to do with all of this in light of the prevailing, condemning sentiment of the religious leaders.
And as Jesus’ own words make clear, the outcome of their wondering was of no small consequence. To believe Jesus (and believe in Him) meant life. But to disbelieve or reject Jesus was to die in sin. Jesus put His glory and the glory of the Father on display for all to receive, and so the decision was ever before His hearers—believe in Jesus and be reconciled to God or reject Jesus and remain dead in trespasses and sin.
At its heart, this is a passage on the various glories of Jesus and the various responses of those who witnessed it. We see Jesus’ glory in His certain knowledge of the future (both His and that of His hearers), His heavenly origin, destination, obedience, and affections, His offer of salvation through His sacrificial death, His consistent and entirely divine teaching, His divine nature, and His perfect pleasure. And we see the various responses of the crowds in the confusion of most and belief in some. The main takeaways for us are to pursue the glory of Jesus in faith and declare it to the world that the world might not die in sin.
JESUS’ TEACHING (21)
In these few verses, John records a back and forth between Jesus’ teaching and the crowd’s response. Four times, Jesus taught and the crowd responded. Much of the content of Jesus’ teaching is familiar, even as much of the response of the Jews is familiar. Jesus’ first statement is especially familiar, “I am going away and you will seek me…Where I am going, you cannot come” (21). In 7:34, Jesus said, “You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.”
In both cases, Jesus’ main point was that He would soon return to the right hand of the Father and as long as anyone (and especially the proud Jews and Jewish leaders) refused to believe Him and trust in Him, they could not join Him in the Father’s fellowship.
Here, though, Jesus added something a bit more pointed, “and you will die in your sin.” As we’ve seen, Jesus did not come to earth to condemn people to death. Rather, Jesus came to make sure everyone knew that they were already dead in their sin, so that He might save them from it. Jesus will expand on this in v.24 and offer a bit of hope also, but the simple, shocking truth is that we are all born into sin and we all sit under its wages—death.
Jesus, the long-promised Christ, presented Himself to the offspring of Abraham, the children of the promise, to be received in faith. Rather than receive Him in gladness and hope, however, most despised and rejected Him. And Jesus’ message to them was that He would only be with them for a little while longer. He was about to go to a place that only the faithful can follow. Therefore, as long as His hearers remained in their unbelief, and continued to seek the Christ in someone other than Him, they would remain dead in their trespasses and sins.
Marvel with me at this revelation of Jesus’ glory. Jesus knew that the will of the Father was for Him to return to the Father’s side once His mission was accomplished on earth. He knew that this group of hard-hearted Jews was lost in their pride and unbelief. He knew that they were only growing in their desire to kill Him. And yet He continued to offer Himself to them that they might find life! Like the Jews of John 8, having heard Jesus’ teaching and seen His glory, we can’t not respond to it. Doing nothing is doing something.
THE RESPONSE OF THE JEWS (22)
Given this teaching and revelation of glory, the right response should have been (and still is) belief, repentance, worship, and obedience. Instead, the Jews responded to Jesus’ teaching here, much as they did in chapter seven. In both cases they were confused at best and mocking at worst. In seven they wondered if Jesus was leaving to go teach among the Greeks. Here, they wondered if Jesus would kill Himself (v.22). More than likely this was a kind of slight on Jesus. Suicide was considered one of the worst sins a person could commit. To suggest that Jesus would do such a thing was less a genuine question and more a subtle attack on His character. Ironically, of course, Jesus would willingly lay His life down, but it would be at the hands of these men, not His own.
Instead of marveling at Jesus’ glory, the crowds mocked in disbelief. We’re certainly seeing that kind of response in increasing measure all around us today. Our culture is swiftly moving from mild guilt-inducing indifference to explicit hostility. And yet, we need to keep two things in mind. First, while the shift toward greater hostility “out there” might make our lives harder in some ways, dead in sin is dead in sin. It is the same sovereign grace of God that must enliven the most outwardly rebellious heart and the heart of the unknowingly unbelieving homeschooler. And second, while we must care about and for those “out there,” our first concern ought always be for our own hearts. We ought always look to strain the camel of functional unbelief from our own eye before we can properly focus on the (ever growing) gnat of angry unbelief in the world around us.
In other words, while it’s often easy for us scoff at the faithless response of the Jews in passages like this one, and easy to scoff at the growing and destructive unbelief of our culture, our first impulse should always be to recognize that but by the grace of God, there go I.
JESUS TEACHING (23-24)
As the crowd and leaders responded in confusion and mockery, Jesus’ next teaching cut to the heart of why they responded as they did. Jesus not only taught the truth, He also taught on why so many reject and even scoff at the truth.
23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”
In these few words, Jesus painted a brilliant picture of the vast chasm between Him and His hearers.
They, Jesus said, were “from below,” “of this world,” and “dead in their sins.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because these things are largely echoes of John the Baptist’s words from chapter 3. And again, the heart of it is that rejecting Jesus is the universal mark of those who are fallen, allies of the flesh and the devil, in (conscious or unconscious) rebellion against God, and at enmity with God. Collectively, that’s what Jesus meant by “from below,” “of this world,” and “dead in sin.” Of course, this is the opposite of what Abraham’s children believed about themselves, but as Jesus taught over and over, sincerity and zeal are not the same as rightness.
In glorious contrast, Jesus was “from above” and “not of this world.” Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the only Son of God, the eternally begotten of the Father, wasn’t, isn’t, and never will be marred by sin or deserving of death. He is eternally perfect in every way. Every single thing in heaven and earth holds its proper place in Jesus mind and heart.
“I spoke the truth to you, but you do not receive it. That’s because we have different origins, different fathers, and, therefore, different desires and vantage points. You cannot see clearly because you are blinded by your sin. You cannot hear my words for what they are because you are friends with evil and dead and deaf to the things of God.”
In spite of all of these things, Jesus offered a glimmer of hope and therein another display of His glory. Rather than declaring them reprobate, Jesus said, this is where you are from and this is where you are headed, but one thing can change all of that: “unless you believe that I am he”. If you continue in unbelief, you will continue in death. But if you believe that I am he, that changes everything.
The two things to see, are (1) that belief in Jesus (not doing better or trying harder or keeping a higher percentage of the law) is the means of receiving the saving grace of God, and (2) curiously, the specific belief in Jesus that serves as a conduit of grace, is “believing that I am he.” In a way that will become clearer in vs.48-59, Jesus was here claiming to be God. Consider the words of the Father in Isaiah 40:10, “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.”
At this point, owing to a bit of grammatical ambiguity, it wasn’t entirely clear to the crowds what Jesus meant. Any and all ambiguity is gone by v.58, but we know now, what the crowd was soon to find out: Jesus is God! Again, marvel at this glory, Grace Church. Jesus put His glory on display for His first audience through His spoken word. And He is putting it on display today through His written word. Just as His first hearers needed to respond, so do we. We are all either of the world or, by grace, of God; from below or, in Jesus, from above; dead in our sin or, through believing that “I am he,” alive to God. And our rescue from the former into the later is entirely owning to the fact that the man Jesus is also divine. Amazing glory!
THE RESPONSE OF THE JEWS (25)
Again, with eyes to see and ears to hear, the crowd ought to have been filled with awe, conviction, belief, and worship. Instead, these sayings led the crowd to wonder aloud, “Who are you?” (25). They suspected Jesus was claiming something truly staggering, but they weren’t yet sure, so they asked Jesus to clarify.
Again, Jesus was breaking every mold. He didn’t fit into any boxes anyone had. Everything about Him caused those around Him to have to recalibrate in their confusion. In some cases (as we’ll see in v.30) they recalibrated to belief. In most, however, they recalibrated in anger at the audacity of Jesus to claim the things He claimed (Christ claims and divine claims).
Grace, while most in this crowd asked the question with blind eyes and hard hearts, this is the right question! To truly understand Jesus—His nature, claims, works, and mission—is to have your sensibilities continually shaken (or destroyed) and realigned. If you read your Bible and don’t regularly find yourself asking of Jesus, “Who are you?,” then you’re not reading or considering carefully enough. As non-Christians, our minds are in complete incongruity with Jesus. And even as Christians, the transformation of our minds is a life-long work of the Spirit.
Pursuing Jesus is to constantly discover new wonders about His glory. Many of us experienced that many times last summer as we read “Gentle and Lowly,” for instance. Considering the heart of Jesus for us as we hope in Him but struggle with sin was awesome. In different words, I often wondered, “Who are you, Jesus? I thought I knew you, but your glories go deeper and higher still!”
As we’ll see, some in the crowds had that same reaction (“many believed in Him”), but according to Jesus’ words, many more didn’t. All, however, upon hearing Jesus’ teaching wondered, “Who are you?!”
JESUS’ TEACHING (25-26)
In answer to this question, Jesus essentially told the crowds that He hadn’t waivered on His claims. From the start of His ministry, Jesus’ message about Himself hadn’t changed.
Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning.”
Expanding on and clarifying that idea, Jesus went on to reiterate a few more of the things He’d already said.
26 I have much to say about you and much to judge,
The “much to say” part seems plainly in keeping with John’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry, but what about the “much to judge” part? Isn’t that a contradiction with 8:15 (“I judge no one”)? There is, of course, no contradiction in (any of) Jesus’ words. In this case, as Jesus explained in the very next clause, the words He spoke (all of them), were from the Father. Whatever truth, encouragement, correction, or judgment that came from His mouth was from God.
but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.”
“Everything I say and all the judgments I make are true, since they are directly from the Father.” This too is a familiar refrain for Jesus in the face of the continual assault of confusion, skepticism, and persecution He received whenever He taught—”If you have a problem with me or my words, your real problem is with God, since I am here entirely according to His will”.
Again, what glory! Jesus was sent personally and directly by God. What’s more, everything He said to the world was spoken to Him by the Father. O, that we would follow in His seps. For we too have been sent by God to speak the truth in love to the world (Matthew 28:18-20), and we too have been given the words to share with the world. May we see the glories of Jesus, may we learn the words of Jesus, and may we take them boldly to the ends of the earth!
THE RESPONSE OF THE JEWS (27)
That’s what the crowd ought to have done, but in a final confused response (this time narrated by John rather than spoken by the crowd), the crowd failed once again to understand what Jesus really meant. Once again, John noted the disorientation of those who heard Jesus speak. That is, he wrote, “27 They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father.”
Reading between the lines, the Jews who heard Jesus speak must have wondered who sent this man and why is He functioning a spokesman. Who is He talking about? As Jesus said, this message was the same as He’d proclaimed from the beginning. Back in 5:30 He said, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
This is yet another reminder that the issue most definitely wasn’t about the clarity of Jesus’ teaching. It was about the lack of spiritual understanding of those who heard His words.
JESUS’ TEACHING (28-29)
In response to their confusion, 28 …Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.
In essence, Jesus told the crowd that what was unclear presently would be made clear soon enough. They would hand Him over to be crucified (“when you have lifted up the Son of Man”), and then at least some of their confusion would lift. At the very least, when that happened, they would know that Jesus was from God, as was His teaching. It might be too late for some by then, but nevertheless a time of greater clarity was not far off.
And then, in one final word from the Father, Jesus said, “29 And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”
This was the verse that stood out to me the most this week. Here, the inexhaustible glory of Jesus is (for me at least) easiest to see. Jesus made two claims that are unspeakably awesome. He claimed that the Father was always with Him and that His entire life—all He thought, felt, said, and did—was a pleasure to the Father.
Grace, in case some part of that isn’t already clear to you, those things ought to be the cry of every heart…always in the presence and pleasure of God, always doing the things that are pleasing to God! Whatever else you are chasing, stop. Whatever else you long for in greater measure, stop. Whatever else you’ve placed your hope in, stop. Whatever else you imagine heaven to be like, stop. Having the Father eternally and unwaveringly with you, and living in a manner entirely pleasing to God is the highest aim and greatest reward anyone could ever receive. Jesus lived perfectly in that, from eternity past until eternity future, and by believing in Him we can join Him in that. O what glory!
THE RESPONSE OF THE JEWS (30)
Finally, at this point, on some level at least, “many believed in him” (v.30). John doesn’t clarify the nature of the belief—whether it was unbelieving belief or genuine belief—but Jesus’ final words seem to have penetrated hard hearts to some extent. May that be the case for us as well, and through us as we declare this good news to the world!