Christ here gives fair warning to the careless unbelieving Jews to consider what would be the consequence of their infidelity, that they might prevent it before it was too late; for he spoke words of terror as well as words of grace. Observe here,
I. The wrath threatened (John 8:21): Jesus said again unto them that which might be likely to do them good. He continued to teach, in kindness to those few who received his doctrine, though there were many that resisted it, which is an example to ministers to go on with their work, notwithstanding opposition, because a remnant shall be saved. Here Christ changes his voice; he had piped to them in the offers of his grace, and they had not danced; now he mourns to them in the denunciations of his wrath, to try if they would lament. He said, I go my way, and you shall seek me, and shall die in your sins. Whither I go you cannot come. Every word is terrible, and bespeaks spiritual judgments, which are the sorest of all judgments; worse than war, pestilence, and captivity, which the Old-Testament prophets denounced. Four things are here threatened against the Jews.
1. Christ’s departure from them: I go my way, that is, “It shall not be long before I go; you need not take so much pains to drive me from you, I shall go of myself.” They said to him, Depart from us, we desire not the knowledge of thy ways; and he takes them at their word; but woe to those from whom Christ departs. Ichabod, the glory is gone, our defence is departed, when Christ goes. Christ frequently warned them of his departure before he left them: he bade often farewell, as one loth to depart, and willing to be invited, and that would have them stir up themselves to take hold on him.
2. Their enmity to the true Messiah, and their fruitless and infatuated enquiries after another Messiah when he was gone away, which were both their sin and their punishment: You shall seek me, which intimates either, (1.) Their enmity to the true Christ: “You shall seek to ruin my interest, by persecuting my doctrine and followers, with a fruitless design to root them out.” This was a continual vexation and torment to themselves, made them incurably ill-natured, and brought wrath upon them (God’s and their own) to the uttermost. Or, (2.) Their enquiries after false Christs: “You shall continue your expectations of the Messiah, and be the self-perplexing seekers of a Christ to come, when he is already come;” like the Sodomites, who, being struck with blindness, wearied themselves to find the door. See Rom. 9:31, 32.
3. Their final impenitency: You shall die in your sins. Here is an error in all our English Bibles, even the old bishops’ translation, and that of Geneva (the Rhemists only excepted), for all the Greek copies have it in the singular number, en te hamartia hymon—in your sin, so all the Latin versions; and Calvin has a note upon the difference between this and John 8:24; where it is plural, tais hamartiais, that here it is meant especially of the sin of unbelief, in hoc peccato vestro—in this sin of yours. Note, Those that live in unbelief are for ever undone if they die in unbelief. Or, it may be understood in general, You shall die in your iniquity, as Ezek. 3:19; 33:9. Many that have long lived in sin are, through grace, saved by a timely repentance from dying in sin; but for those who go out of this world of probation into that of retribution under the guilt of sin unpardoned, and the power of sin unbroken, there remaineth no relief: salvation itself cannot save them, Job 20:11; Ezek. 32:27.
4. Their eternal separation from Christ and all happiness in him: Whither I go you cannot come. When Christ left the world, he went to a state of perfect happiness; he went to paradise. Thither he took the penitent thief with him, that did not die in his sins; but the impenitent not only shall not come to him, but they cannot; it is morally impossible, for heaven would not be heaven to those that die unsanctified and unmeet for it. You cannot come, because you have no right to enter into that Jerusalem, Rev. 22:14. Whither I go you cannot come, to fetch me thence, so Dr. Whitby; and the same is the comfort of all good Christians, that, when they get to heaven, they will be out of the reach of their enemies’ malice.
II. The jest they made of this threatening. Instead of trembling at this word, they bantered it, and turned it into ridicule (John 8:22): Will he kill himself? See here, 1. What slight thoughts they had of Christ’s threatenings; they could make themselves and one another merry with them, as those that mocked the messengers of the Lord, and turned the burden of the word of the Lord into a by-word, and precept upon precept, line upon line, into a merry song, Isa. 28:13. But be ye not mockers, lest your bands be made strong. 2. What ill thoughts they had of Christ’s meaning, as if he had an inhuman design upon his own life, to avoid the indignities done him, like Saul. This is indeed (say they) to go whither we cannot follow him, for we will never kill ourselves. Thus they make him not only such a one as themselves, but worse; yet in the calamities brought by the Romans upon the Jews many of them in discontent and despair did kill themselves. They had put a much more favourable construction upon this word of his (John 7:34, 35): Will he go to the dispersed among the Gentiles? But see how indulged malice grows more and more malicious.
III. The confirmation of what he had said.
1. He had said, Whither I go you cannot come, and here he gives the reason for this (John 8:23): You are from beneath, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. You are ek ton kato—of those things which are beneath; noting, not so much their rise from beneath as their affection to these lower things: “You are in with these things, as those that belong to them; how can you come where I go, when your spirit and disposition are so directly contrary to mine?” See here, (1.) What the spirit of the Lord Jesus was—not of this world, but from above. He was perfectly dead to the wealth of the world, the ease of the body, and the praise of men, and was wholly taken up with divine and heavenly things; and none shall be with him but those who are born from above and have their conversation in heaven. (2.) How contrary to this their spirit was: “You are from beneath, and of this world.” The Pharisees were of a carnal worldly spirit; and what communion could Christ have with them?
2. He had said, You shall die in your sins, and here he stand to it: “Therefore I said, You shall die in your sins, because you are from beneath;” and he gives this further reason for it, If you believe not that I am he, you shall die in your sins, John 8:24. See here, (1.) What we are required to believe: that I am he, hoti ego eimi—that I am, which is one of God’s names, Exod. 3:14. It was the Son of God that there said, Ehejeh asher Ehejeh—I will be what I will be; for the deliverance of Israel was but a figure of good things to come, but now he saith, “I am he; he that should come, he that you expect the Messias to be, that you would have me to be to you. I am more than the bare name of the Messiah; I do not only call myself so, but I am he.” True faith does not amuse the soul with an empty sound of words, but affects it with the doctrine of Christ’s mediation, as a real thing that has real effects. (2.) How necessary it is that we believe this. If we have not this faith, we shall die in our sins; for the matter is so settled that without this faith, [1.] We cannot be saved from the power of sin while we live, and therefore shall certainly continue in it to the last. Nothing but the doctrine of Christ’s grace will be an argument powerful enough, and none but the Spirit of Christ’s grace will be an agent powerful enough, to turn us from sin to God; and that Spirit is given, and that doctrine given, to be effectual to those only who believe in Christ: so that, if Satan be not by faith dispossessed, he has a lease of the soul for its life; if Christ do not cure us, our case is desperate, and we shall die in our sins. [2.] Without faith we cannot be saved from the punishment of sin when we die, for the wrath of God remains upon them that believe not, Mark 16:16. Unbelief is the damning sin; it is a sin against the remedy. Now this implies the great gospel promise: If we believe that Christ is he, and receive him accordingly, we shall not die in our sins. The law saith absolutely to all, as Christ said (John 8:21), You shall die in your sins, for we are all guilty before God; but the gospel is a defeasance of the obligation upon condition of believing. The curse of the law is vacated and annulled to all that submit to the grace of the gospel. Believers die in Christ, in his love, in his arms, and so are saved from dying in their sins.
IV. Here is a further discourse concerning himself, occasioned by his requiring faith in himself as the condition of salvation, John 8:25-29. Observe,
1. The question which the Jews put to him (John 8:25): Who art thou? This they asked tauntingly, and not with any desire to be instructed. He had said, You must believe that I am he. By his not saying expressly who he was, he plainly intimated that in his person he was such a one as could not be described by any, and in his office such a one as was expected by all that looked for redemption in Israel; yet this awful manner of speaking, which had so much significancy in it, they turned to his reproach, as if he knew not what to say of himself: “Who art thou, that we must with an implicit faith believe in thee, that thou art some mighty HE, we know not who or what, nor are worthy to know?”
2. His answer to this question, wherein he directs them three ways for information:—
(1.) He refers them to what he had said all along: “Do you ask who I am? Even the same that I said unto you from the beginning.” The original here is a little intricate, ten archen ho ti kai lalo hymin which some read thus: I am the beginning, which also I speak unto you. So Austin takes it. Christ is called Arche—the beginning (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:8; 21:6; Rev. 3:14), and so it agrees with John 8:24; I am he. Compare Isa. 41:4: I am the first, I am he. Those who object that it is the accusative case, and therefore not properly answering to tis ei, must undertake to construe by grammar rules that parallel expression, Rev. 1:8; ho en. But most interpreters agree with our version, Do you ask who I am? [1.] I am the same that I said to you from the beginning of time in the scriptures of the Old-Testament, the same that from the beginning was said to be the Seed of the woman, that should break the serpent’s head, the same that in all the ages of the church was the Mediator of the covenant, and the faith of the patriarchs. [2.] From the beginning of my public ministry. The account he had already given of himself he resolved to abide by; he had declared himself to be the Son of God (John 5:17), to be the Christ (John 4:26), and the bread of life, and had proposed himself as the object of that faith which is necessary to salvation, and to this he refers them for an answer to their question. Christ is one with himself; what he had said from the beginning, he saith still. His is an everlasting gospel.
(2.) He refers them to his Father’s judgment, and the instructions he had from him (John 8:26): “I have many things, more than you think of, to say, and in them to judge of you. But why should I trouble myself any further with you? I know very well that he who sent me is true, and will stand by me, and bear me out, for I speak to the world (to which I am sent as an ambassador) those things, all those and those only, which I have heard of him.” Here,
[1.] He suppresses his accusation of them. He had many things to charge them with, and many evidences to produce against them; but for the present he had said enough. Note, Whatever discoveries of sin are made to us, he that searches the heart has still more to judge of us, 1 John 3:20. How much soever God reckons with sinners in this world there is still a further reckoning yet behind, Deut. 32:34. Let us learn hence not to be forward to say all we can say, even against the worst of men; we may have many things to say, by way of censure, which yet it is better to leave unsaid, for what is it to us?
[2.] He enters his appeal against them to his Father: He that sent me. Here two things comfort him:—First, That he had been true to his Father, and to the trust reposed in him: I speak to the world (for his gospel was to be preached to every creature) those things which I have heard of him. Being given for a witness to the people (Isa. 55:4), he was Amen, a faithful witness, Rev. 3:14. He did not conceal his doctrine, but spoke it to the world (being of common concern, it was to be of common notice); nor did he change or alter it, nor vary from the instructions he received from him that sent him. Secondly, That his Father would be true to him; true to the promise that he would make his mouth like a sharp sword; true to his purpose concerning him, which was a decree (Ps. 2:7); true to the threatenings of his wrath against those that should reject him. Though he should not accuse them to his Father, yet the Father, who sent him, would undoubtedly reckon with them, and would be true to what he had said (Deut. 18:19), that whosoever would not hearken to that prophet whom God would raise up he would require it of him. Christ would not accuse them; “for,” saith he, “he that sent me is true, and will pass judgment on them, though I should not demand judgment against them.” Thus, when he lets fall the present prosecution, he binds them over to the judgment-day, when it will be too late to dispute what they will not now be persuaded to believe. I, as a deaf man, heard not; for thou wilt hear, Ps. 38:13, 15. Upon this part of our Saviour’s discourse the evangelist has a melancholy remark (John 8:27): They understood not that he spoke to them of the Father. See here, 1. The power of Satan to blind the minds of those who believe not. Though Christ spoke so plainly of God as his Father in heaven, yet they did not understand whom he meant, but thought he spoke of some father he had in Galilee. Thus the plainest things are riddles and parables to those who are resolved to hold fast their prejudices; day and night are alike to the blind. 2. The reason why the threatenings of the word make so little impression upon the minds of sinners; it is because they understand not whose the wrath is that is revealed in them. When Christ told them of the truth of him that sent him, as a warning to them to prepare for his judgment, which is according to truth, they slighted the warning, because they understood not to whose judgment it was that they made themselves obnoxious.
(3.) He refers them to their own convictions hereafter, John 8:28, 29. He finds they will not understand him, and therefore adjourns the trial till further evidence should come in; they that will not see shall see, Isa. 26:11. Now observe here,
[1.] What they should ere long be convinced of: “You shall know that I am he, that Jesus is the true Messiah. Whether you will own it or no before men, you shall be made to know it in your own consciences, the convictions of which, though you may stifle, yet you cannot baffle: that I am he, not that you represent me to be, but he that I preach myself to be, he that should come!” Two things they should be convinced of, in order to this:—First, That he did nothing of himself, not of himself as man, of himself alone, of himself without the Father, with whom he was one. He does not hereby derogate from his own inherent power, but only denies their charge against him as a false prophet; for of false prophets it is said that they prophesied out of their own hearts, and followed their own spirits. Secondly, That as his Father taught him so he spoke these things, that he was not autodidaktos—self-taught, but Theodidaktos—taught of God. The doctrine he preached was the counterpart of the counsels of God, with which he was intimately acquainted; kathos edidaxe, tauta lalo—I speak those things, not only which he taught me, but as he taught me, with the same divine power and authority.
[2.] When they should be convinced of this: When you have lifted up the Son of man, lifted him up upon the cross, as the brazen serpent upon the pole (John 3:14), as the sacrifices under the law (for Christ is the great sacrifice), which, when they were offered, were said to be elevated, or lifted up; hence the burnt-offerings, the most ancient and honourable of all, were called elevations (Gnoloth from Gnolah, asendit—he ascended), and in many other offerings they used the significant ceremony of heaving the sacrifice up, and moving it before the Lord; thus was Christ lifted up. Or the expression denotes that his death was his exaltation. They that put him to death thought thereby for ever to have sunk him and his interest, but it proved to be the advancement of both, John 12:24. When the Son of man was crucified, the Son of man was glorified. Christ had called his dying his going away; here he calls it his being lifted up; thus the death of the saints, as it is their departure out of this world, so it is their advancement to a better. Observe, He speaks of those he is now talking with as the instruments of his death: when you have lifted up the Son of man; not that they were to be the priests to offer him up (no, that was his own act, he offered up himself), but they would be his betrayers and murderers; see Acts 2:23. They lifted him up to the cross, but then he lifted up himself to his Father. Observe with what tenderness and mildness Christ here speaks to those who he certainly knew would put him to death, to teach us not to hate or seek the hurt of any, though we may have reason to think they hate us and seek our hurt. Now, Christ speaks of his death as that which would be a powerful conviction of the infidelity of the Jews. When you have lifted up the Son of man, then shall you know this. And why then? First, Because careless and unthinking people are often taught the worth of mercies by the want of them, Luke 17:22. Secondly, The guilt of their sin in putting Christ to death would so awaken their consciences that they would be put upon serious enquiries after a Saviour, and then would know that Jesus was he who alone could save them. And so it proved, when, being told that with wicked hands they had crucified and slain the Son of God, they cried out, What shall we do? and were made to know assuredly that this Jesus was Lord and Christ, Acts 2:36. Thirdly, There would be such signs and wonders attending his death, and the lifting of him up from death in his resurrection, as would give a stronger proof of his being the Messiah than any that had been yet given: and multitudes were hereby brought to believe that Jesus is the Christ, who had before contradicted and opposed him. Fourthly, By the death of Christ the pouring out of the Spirit was purchased, who would convince the world that Jesus is he, John 16:7, 8. Fifthly, The judgments which the Jews brought upon themselves, by putting Christ to death, which filled up the measure of their iniquity, were a sensible conviction to the most hardened among them that Jesus was he. Christ had often foretold that desolation as the just punishment of their invincible unbelief, and when it came to pass (lo, it did come) they could not but know that the great prophet had been among them, Ezek. 33:33.
[3.] What supported our Lord Jesus in the mean time (John 8:29): He that sent me is with me, in my whole undertaking; for the Father (the fountain and first spring of this affair, from whom as its great cause and author it is derived) hath not left me alone, to manage it myself, hath not deserted the business nor me in the prosecution of it, for do I always those things that please him. Here is,
First, The assurance which Christ had of his Father’s presence with him, which includes both a divine power going along with him to enable him for his work, and a divine favour manifested to him to encourage him in it. He that sent me is with me, Isa. 42:1; Ps. 89:21. This greatly emboldens our faith in Christ and our reliance upon his word that he had, and knew he had, his Father with him, to confirm the word of his servant, Isa. 44:26. The King of kings accompanied his own ambassador, to attest his mission and assist his management, and never left him alone, either solitary or weak; it also aggravated the wickedness of those that opposed him, and was an intimation to them of the premunire they ran themselves into by resisting him, for thereby they were found fighters against God. How easily soever they might think to crush him and run him down, let them know he had one to back him with whom it is the greatest madness that can be to contend.
Secondly, The ground of this assurance: For I do always those things that please him. That is, 1. That great affair in which our Lord Jesus was continually engaged was an affair which the Father that sent him was highly well pleased with. His whole undertaking is called the pleasure of the Lord (Isa. 53:10), because of the counsels of the eternal mind about it, and the complacency of the eternal mind in it. 2. His management of that affair was in nothing displeasing to his Father; in executing his commission he punctually observed all his instructions, and did in nothing vary from them. No mere man since the fall could say such a word as this (for in many things we offend all) but our Lord Jesus never offended his Father in any thing, but, as became him, he fulfilled all righteousness. This was necessary to the validity and value of the sacrifice he was to offer up; for if he had in any thing displeased the Father himself, and so had had any sin of his own to answer for, the Father could not have been pleased with him as a propitiation for our sins; but such a priest and such a sacrifice became us as was perfectly pure and spotless. We may likewise learn hence that God’s servants may then expect God’s presence with them when they choose and do those things that please him, Isa. 66:4, 5.
V. Here is the good effect which this discourse of Christ’s had upon some of his hearers (John 8:30): As he spoke these words many believed on him. Note, 1. Though multitudes perish in their unbelief, yet there is a remnant according to the election of grace, who believe to the saving of the soul. If Israel, the whole body of the people, be not gathered, yet there are those of them in whom Christ will be glorious, Isa. 49:5. This the apostle insists upon, to reconcile the Jews’ rejection with the promises made unto their fathers. There is a remnant, Rom. 11:5. 2. The words of Christ, and particularly his threatening words, are made effectual by the grace of God to bring in poor souls to believe in him. When Christ told them that if they believed not they should die in their sins, and never get to heaven, they thought it was time to look about them, Rom. 1:16, 18. 3. Sometimes there is a wide door opened, and an effectual one, even where they are many adversaries. Christ will carry on his work, though the heathen rage. The gospel sometimes gains great victories where it meets with great opposition. Let this encourage God’s ministers to preach the gospel, though it be with much contention, for they shall not labour in vain. Many may be secretly brought home to God by those endeavours which are openly contradicted and cavilled at by men of corrupt minds. Austin has an affectionate ejaculation in his lecture upon these words: Utinam et, me loquenti, multi credant; non in me, sed mecum in eo—I wish that when I speak, many may believe, not on me, but with me on him.