Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32b, ESV). That statement from today’s Gospel lesson has become a proverb in western culture—perhaps even a bit of a cliché. “The truth will set you free.” It sounds like a marvelous maxim. But which truth? Whose truth? “What is truth?”, as Pontius Pilate quipped at Jesus’ trial (John 18:38). In our post-modern age of moral relativism, nobody seems to believe in absolute truth anymore. Truth is subjective. You have your truth, and I have my truth, so “just do you,” okay? What’s true for you is not necessarily what’s true for me, especially in our time of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
But into this world of bad news and fake news comes the Good News of the eternal Gospel. “If you abide in my word,” Jesus says, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
This assertion confused Jesus’ audience—“the Jews who had believed in him.” Jesus’ words did not compute for the descendants of Abraham, the chosen people of Israel. “We’ve never been slaves! So how can you say that we ‘will’ be free?! Aren’t we free already?” (cp. 8:33).
Ironically, by referring to history, they revealed ignorance of both their own history and their present condition. After all, the Hebrew people (Abraham’s offspring) were slaves in Egypt for 430 years until God raised up the prophet Moses to free them from slavery and lead them to the Promised Land. And even as they argued with Jesus, they remained under the thumb of Rome, paying taxes to an occupying foreign power. How could they say that they had “never been slaves”?
Yet Jesus didn’t quibble about that. The real problem was their spiritual condition and the terrible truth that they were slaves to sin: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:35-36).
I wish that I could say that Jesus’ won over his audience by this wonderful declaration. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it went. If you read on in John 8, you see the conversation quickly degenerates into a nasty argument and an escalating exchange of verbal insults.
Jesus accuses his hearers of trying to kill him (8:37-38).
They hold forth yet again, “Abraham is our father” (v. 39).
Jesus suggests that if they were truly Abraham’s children, they would do and believe the things Abraham did and believed—which they don’t—thereby insinuating that they have a different father.
Next they hint that Jesus is an illegitimate son born out of wedlock (v. 41). No doubt this was a jab against the fact that his mother Mary was not married but only betrothed when she conceived the Savior.
Jesus replies that they are murderers and liars just like their father… the devil! And just to round things out, he states explicitly, “You are not of God” (v. 47).
It only goes downhill from there. Next they accuse Jesus of being a Samaritan and demon-possessed. Jesus asserts that God is his Father and that he himself is the great I AM, Yahweh, the Lord (v. 58). “Them is fighting words,” as they say, and for this, they pick up rocks to stone him to death.
Remember: these are the people who, at the start of our Gospel lesson, “had believed in him,” but who, by the end of the chapter, are ready to kill him. Just another day in the life of our Lord!
What went wrong here? Did Jesus press too hard? Since he fired the opening salvo, should we blame him for the situation?
No, all Jesus did was tell them the truth. He showed them the truth about themselves and proclaimed the truth about himself. He gave them Law and Gospel. But they would have none of it.
In order to be set free, we must first admit the truth about who we are and believe the truth about who Jesus is. And what’s true of Jesus’ hearers in our Gospel lesson is true also of us: we are sinners. None of us is righteous—not even one. We all sin and fail to measure up to God’s expectations. Sin is so core to our fallen nature, that we are slaves to sin. Despite our fairytale belief that all people are basically good, we are utterly depraved—hopelessly and helplessly lost. Our spiritual father is Satan (the devil). And so we do the things our father does: lie and murder. We would be completely lost, doomed, and damned to hell were it not for Christ.
That is the sobering truth of our human condition. But that truth by itself cannot save us. That truth would drive us only to despair if it were not for the second, greater Truth: Jesus.
Jesus is the Truth that sets us free. In remarkable parallel statements, Jesus says, “The truth will set you free” (v. 32) and “the Son sets you free” (v. 36). Jesus is the truth That sets us free. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). His Word is truth (John 17:17). And so we can depend on him and believe everything he says about himself. According to Christ’s own words in John 8, he is the Son of God (vv. 38, 49, 54). He is eternal (vv. 35, 58). He is the great I AM (v. 58), which is the divine name revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jesus is Lord, and he remains forever because he lives forever, having died on the cross to set us free from our bondage to sin. He breaks every chain. He comes to preach Good News and sets the prisoners free (Luke 4:18). He redeems us from sin, death, and the power of the devil so that we can have a new Father, a heavenly Father, instead of remaining children of perdition.
There is only one truth: Jesus. And the truth will only set you free if you align yourself with God’s truth, as revealed in the words of Holy Scripture. Because the Bible shows us two things: the truth about ourselves and the truth about Jesus. The Bible shows us our sin and shows us our Savior.
Jesus tells us the truth about himself and ourselves because he is the Truth. He speaks of what he has seen and speaks his Father’s Word. If you abide in his Word, you are truly his disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. In Christ alone, you are free! In the name of Jesus, Amen.