We have in these verses,
I. A comfortable doctrine laid down concerning the spiritual liberty of Christ’s disciples, intended for the encouragement of those Jews that believed. Christ, knowing that his doctrine began to work upon some of his hearers, and perceiving that virtue had gone out of him, turned his discourse from the proud Pharisees, and addressed himself to those weak believers. When he had denounced wrath against those that were hardened in unbelief, then he spoke comfort to those few feeble Jews that believed in him. See here,
1. How graciously the Lord Jesus looks to those that tremble at his word, and are ready to receive it; he has something to say to those who have hearing ears, and will not pass by those who set themselves in his way, without speaking to them.
2. How carefully he cherishes the beginnings of grace, and meets those that are coming towards him. These Jews that believed were yet but weak; but Christ did not therefore cast them off, for he gathers the lambs in his arms. When faith is in its infancy, he has knees to prevent it, breasts for it to suck, that it may not die from the womb. In what he said to them, we have two things, which he saith to all that should at any time believe:—
(1.) The character of a true disciple of Christ: If you continue in my word, then are you my disciples indeed. When they believed on him, as the great prophet, they gave up themselves to be his disciples. Now, at their entrance into his school, he lays down this for a settled rule, that he would own none for his disciples but those that continued in his word. [1.] It is implied that there are many who profess themselves Christ’s disciples who are not his disciples indeed, but only in show and name. [2.] It highly concerns those that are not strong in faith to see to it that they be sound in the faith, that, though not disciples of the highest form, they are nevertheless disciples indeed. [3.] Those who seem willing to be Christ’s disciples ought to be told that they had as good never come to him, unless they come with a resolution by his grace to abide by him. Let those who have thoughts of covenanting with Christ have no thoughts of reserving a power of revocation. Children are sent to school, and bound apprentices, only for a few years; but those only are Christ’s who are willing to be bound to him for the term of life. [4.] Those only that continue in Christ’s word shall be accepted as his disciples indeed, that adhere to his word in every instance without partiality, and abide by it to the end without apostasy. It is menein—to dwell in Christ’s word, as a man does at home, which is his centre, and rest, and refuge. Our converse with the word and conformity to it must be constant. If we continue disciples to the last, then, and not otherwise, we approve ourselves disciples indeed.
(2.) The privilege of a true disciple of Christ. Here are two precious promises made to those who thus approve themselves disciples indeed, John 8:32.
[1.] “You shall know the truth, shall know all that truth which it is needful and profitable for you to know, and shall be more confirmed in the belief of it, shall know the certainty of it.” Note, First, Even those who are true believers, and disciples indeed, yet may be, and are, much in the dark concerning many things which they should know. God’s children are but children, and understand and speak as children. Did we not need to be taught, we should not need to be disciples. Secondly, It is a very great privilege to know the truth, to know the particular truths which we are to believe, in their mutual dependences and connections, and the grounds and reasons of our belief,—to know what is truth and what proves it to be so. Thirdly, It is a gracious promise of Christ, to all who continue in his word, that they shall know the truth as far as is needful and profitable for them. Christ’s scholars are sure to be well taught.
[2.] The truth shall make you free; that is, First, The truth which Christ teaches tends to make men free, Isa. 61:1. Justification makes us free from the guilt of sin, by which we were bound over to the judgment of God, and bound under amazing fears; sanctification makes us free from the bondage of corruption, by which we were restrained from that service which is perfect freedom, and constrained to that which is perfect slavery. Gospel truth frees us from the yoke of the ceremonial law, and the more grievous burdens of the traditions of the elders. It makes us free from our spiritual enemies, free in the service of God, free to the privileges of sons, and free of the Jerusalem which is from above, which is free. Secondly, The knowing, entertaining, and believing, of this truth does actually make us free, free from prejudices, mistakes, and false notions, than which nothing more enslaves and entangles the soul, free from the dominion of lust and passion; and restores the soul to the government of itself, by reducing it into obedience to its Creator. The mind, by admitting the truth of Christ in the light and power, is vastly enlarged, and has scope and compass given it, is greatly elevated and raised above things of sense, and never acts with so true a liberty as when it acts under a divine command, 2 Cor. 3:17. The enemies of Christianity pretend to free thinking, whereas really those are the freest reasonings that are guided by faith, and those are men of free thought whose thoughts are captivated and brought into obedience to Christ.
II. The offence which the carnal Jews took at this doctrine, and their objection against it. Though it was a doctrine that brought glad tidings of liberty to the captives, yet they cavilled at it, John 8:33. The Pharisees grudged this comfortable word to those that believed, the standers by, who had no part nor lot in this matter; they thought themselves reflected upon and affronted by the gracious charter of liberty granted to those that believed, and therefore with a great deal of pride and envy they answered him, “We Jews are Abraham’s seed, and therefore are free-born, and have not lost our birthright-freedom; we were never in bondage to any man; how sayest thou then, to us Jews, You shall be made free?” See here,
1. What it was that they were grieved at; it was an innuendo in those words, You shall be made free, as if the Jewish church and nation were in some sort of bondage, which reflected on the Jews in general, and as if all that did not believe in Christ continued in that bondage, which reflected on the Pharisees in particular. Note, The privileges of the faithful are the envy and vexation of unbelievers, Ps. 112:10.
2. What it was that they alleged against it; whereas Christ intimated that they needed to be made free, they urge, (1.) “We are Abraham’s seed, and Abraham was a prince and a great man; though we live in Canaan, we are not descended from Canaan, nor under his doom, a servant of servants shall he be; we hold in frank-almoign—free alms, and not in villenage—by a servile tenure.” It is common for a sinking decaying family to boast of the glory and dignity of its ancestors, and to borrow honour from that name to which they repay disgrace; so the Jews here did. But this was not all. Abraham was in covenant with God, and his children by his right, Rom. 11:28. Now that covenant, no doubt, was a free charter, and invested them with privileges not consistent with a state of slavery, Rom. 9:4. And therefore they thought they had no occasion with so great a sum as they reckoned faith in Christ to be to obtain this freedom, when they were thus free-born. Note, It is the common fault and folly of those that have pious parentage and education to trust to their privilege and boast of it, as if it would atone for the want of real holiness. They were Abraham’s seed, but what would this avail them, when we find one in hell that could call Abraham father? Saving benefits are not, like common privileges, conveyed by entail to us and our issue, nor can a title to heaven be made by descent, nor may we claim as heirs at law, by making out our pedigree; our title is purely by purchase, not our own but our Redeemer’s for us, under certain provisos and limitations, which if we do not observe it will not avail us to be Abraham’s seed. Thus many, when they are pressed with the necessity of regeneration, turn it off with this, We are the church’s children; but they are not all Israel that are of Israel. (2.) We were never in bondage to any man. Now observe, [1.] How false this allegation was. I wonder how they could have the assurance to say a thing in the face of a congregation which was so notoriously untrue. Were not the seed of Abraham in bondage to the Egyptians? Were they not often in bondage to the neighbouring nations in the time of the judges? Were they not seventy years captives in Babylon? Nay, were they not at this time tributaries to the Romans, and, though not in a personal, yet in a national bondage to them, and groaning to be made free? And yet, to confront Christ, they have the impudence to say, We were never in bondage. Thus they would expose Christ to the ill-will both of the Jews, who were very jealous for the honour of their liberty, and of the Romans, who would not be thought to enslave the nations they conquered. [2.] How foolish the application was. Christ had spoken of a liberty wherewith the truth would make them free, which must be meant of a spiritual liberty, for truth as it is the enriching, so it is the enfranchising of the mind, and the enlarging of that from the captivity of error and prejudice; and yet they plead against the offer of spiritual liberty that they were never in corporal thraldom, as if, because they were never in bondage to any man, they were never in bondage to any lust. Note, Carnal hearts are sensible of no other grievances than those that molest the body and injure their secular affairs. Talk to them of encroachments upon their civil liberty and property,—tell them of waste committed upon their lands, or damage done to their houses,—and they understand you very well, and can give you a sensible answer; the thing touches them and affects them. But discourse to them of the bondage of sin, a captivity to Satan, and a liberty by Christ,—tell them of wrong done to their precious souls, and the hazard of their eternal welfare,—and you bring certain strange things to their ears; they say of it (as those did, Ezek. 20:49), Doth he not speak parables? This was much like the blunder Nicodemus made about being born again.
III. Our Saviour’s vindication of his doctrine from these objections, and the further explication of it, John 8:34-37, where he does these four things:—
1. He shows that, notwithstanding their civil liberties and their visible church-membership, yet it was possible that they might be in a state of bondage (John 8:34): Whosoever commits sin, though he be of Abraham’s seed, and was never in bondage to any man, is the servant of sin. Observe, Christ does not upbraid them with the falsehood of their plea, or their present bondage, but further explains what he had said for their edification. Thus ministers should with meekness instruct those that oppose them, that they may recover themselves, not with passion provoke them to entangle themselves yet more. Now here,
(1.) The preface is very solemn: Verily, verily, I say unto you; an awful asseveration, which our Saviour often used, to command a reverent attention and a ready assent. The style of the prophets was, Thus saith the Lord, for they were faithful as servants; but Christ, being a Son, speaks in his own name: I say unto you, I the Amen, the faithful witness; he pawns his veracity upon it. “I say it to you, who boast of your relation to Abraham, as if that would save you.”
(2.) The truth is of universal concern, though here delivered upon a particular occasion: Whosoever commits sin is the servant of sin, and sadly needs to be made free. A state of sin is a state of bondage. [1.] See who it is on whom this brand is fastened—on him that commits sin, pas ho poion hamartian—every one that makes sin. There is not a just man upon earth, that lives, and sins not; yet every one that sins is not a servant of sin, for then God would have no servants; but he that makes sin, that makes choice of sin, prefers the way of wickedness before the way of holiness (Jer. 44:16, 17),—that makes a covenant with sin, enters into league with it, and makes a marriage with it,—that makes contrivances of sin, makes provision for the flesh, and devises iniquity,—and that makes a custom of sin, who walks after the flesh, and makes a trade of sin. [2.] See what the brand is which Christ fastens upon those that thus commit sin. He stigmatizes them, gives them a mark of servitude. They are servants of sin, imprisoned under the guilt of sin, under an arrest, in hold for it, concluded under sin, and they are subject to the power of sin. He is a servant of sin, that is, he makes himself so, and is so accounted; he has sold himself to work wickedness; his lusts give law to him, he is at their beck, and is not his own master. He does the work of sin, supports its interest, and accepts its wages, Rom. 6:16.
2. He shows them that, being in a state of bondage, their having a place in the house of God would not entitle them to the inheritance of sons; for (John 8:35) the servant, though he be in the house for awhile, yet, being but a servant, abideth not in the house for ever. Services (we say) are no inheritances, they are but temporary, and not for a perpetuity; but the son of the family abideth ever. Now, (1.) This points primarily at the rejection of the Jewish church and nation. Israel had been God’s son, his first-born; but they wretchedly degenerated into a servile disposition, were enslaved to the world and the flesh, and therefore, though by virtue of their birthright they thought themselves secure of their church membership, Christ tells them that having thus made themselves servants they should not abide in the house for ever. Jerusalem, by opposing the gospel of Christ, which proclaimed liberty, and adhering to the Sinai-covenant, which gendered to bondage, after its term was expired came to be in bondage with her children (Gal. 4:24, 25), and therefore was unchurched and disfranchised, her charter seized and taken away, and she was cast out as the son of the bond-woman, Gen. 21:14. Chrysostom gives this sense of this place: “Think not to be made free from sin by the rites and ceremonies of the law of Moses, for Moses was but a servant, and had not that perpetual authority in the church which the Son had; but, if the Son make you free, it is well,” John 8:36. But, (2.) It looks further, to the rejection of all that are the servants of sin, and receive not the adoption of the sons of God; though those unprofitable servants may be in God’s house awhile, as retainers to his family, yet there is a day coming when the children of the bond-woman and of the free shall be distinguished. True believers only, who are the children of the promise and of the covenant, are accounted free, and shall abide for ever in the house, as Isaac: they shall have a nail in the holy place on earth (Ezra 9:8) and mansions in the holy place in heaven, John 14:2.
3. He shows them the way of deliverance out of the state of bondage into the glorious liberty of the children of God, Rom. 8:21. The case of those that are the servants of sin is sad, but thanks be to God it is not helpless, it is not hopeless. As it is the privilege of all the sons of the family, and their dignity above the servants, that they abide in the house for ever; so he who is the Son, the first-born among many brethren, and the heir of all things, has a power both of manumission and of adoption (John 8:36): If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. Note,
(1.) Jesus Christ in the gospel offers us our freedom; he has authority and power to make free. [1.] To discharge prisoners; this he does in justification, by making satisfaction for our guilt (on which the gospel offer is grounded, which is to all a conditional act of indemnity, and to all true believers, upon their believing, an absolute charter of pardon), and for our debts, for which we were by the law arrested and in execution. Christ, as our surety, or rather our bail (for he was not originally bound with us, but upon our insolvency bound for us), compounds with the creditor, answers the demands of injured justice with more than an equivalent, takes the bond and judgment into his own hands, and gives them up cancelled to all that by faith and repentance give him (if I may so say) a counter-security to save his honour harmless, and so they are made free; and from the debt, and every part thereof, they are for ever acquitted, exonerated, and discharged, and a general release is sealed of all actions and claims; while against those who refuse to come up to these terms the securities lie still in the Redeemer’s hands, in full force. [2.] He has a power to rescue bond-slaves, and this he does in sanctification; by the powerful arguments of his gospel, and the powerful operations of his Spirit, he breaks the power of corruption in the soul, rallies the scattered forces of reason and virtue, and fortifies God’s interest against sin and Satan, and so the soul is made free. [3.] He has a power to naturalize strangers and foreigners, and this he does in adoption. This is a further act of grace; we are not only forgiven and healed, but preferred; there is a charter of privileges as well as pardon; and thus the Son makes us free denizens of the kingdom of priests, the holy nation, the new Jerusalem.
(2.) Those whom Christ makes free are free indeed. It is not alethos, the word used (John 8:31) for disciples indeed, but ontos—really. It denotes, [1.] The truth and certainty of the promise, the liberty which the Jews boasted of was an imaginary liberty; they boasted of a false gift; but the liberty which Christ gives is a certain thing, it is real, and has real effects. The servants of sin promise themselves liberty, and fancy themselves free, when they have broken religion’s bands asunder; but they cheat themselves. None are free indeed but those whom Christ makes free. [2.] It denotes the singular excellency of the freedom promised; it is a freedom that deserves the name, in comparison with which all other liberties are no better than slaveries, so much does it turn to the honour and advantage of those that are made free by it. It is a glorious liberty. It is that which is (so ontos signifies); it is substance (Prov. 8:21); while the things of the world are shadows, things that are not.
4. He applies this to these unbelieving cavilling Jews, in answer to their boasts of relation to Abraham (John 8:37): “I know very well that you are Abraham’s seed, but now you seek to kill me, and therefore have forfeited the honour of your relation to Abraham, because my word hath no place in you.” Observe here,
(1.) The dignity of their extraction admitted: “I know that you are Abraham’s seed, every one knows it, and it is your honour.” He grants them what was true, and in what they said that was false (that they were never in bondage to any) he does not contradict them, for he studied to profit them, and not to provoke them, and therefore said that which would please them: I know that you are Abraham’s seed. They boasted of their descent from Abraham, as that which aggrandized their names, and made them exceedingly honourable; whereas really it did but aggravate their crimes, and make them exceedingly sinful. Out of their own mouths will he judge vain-glorious hypocrites, who boast of their parentage and education: “Are you Abraham’s seed? Why then did you not tread in the steps of his faith and obedience?”
(2.) The inconsistency of their practice with this dignity: But you seek to kill me. They had attempted it several times, and were now designing it, which quickly appeared (John 8:59), when they took up stones to cast at him. Christ knows all the wickedness, not only which men do, but which they seek, and design, and endeavour to do. To seek to kill any innocent man is a crime black enough, but to compass and imagine the death of him that was King of kings was a crime the heinousness of which we want words to express.
(3.) The reason of this inconsistency. Why were they that were Abraham’s seed so very inveterate against Abraham’s promised seed, in whom they and all the families of the earth should be blessed? Our Saviour here tells them, It is because my word hath no place in you, ou chorei en hymin, Non capit in vobis, so the Vulgate. “My word does not take with you, you have no inclination to it, no relish of it, other things are more taking, more pleasing.” Or, “It does not take hold of you, it has no power over you, makes no impression upon you.” Some of the critics read it, My word does not penetrate into you; it descended as the rain, but it came upon them as the rain upon the rock, which it runs off, and did not soak into their hearts, as the rain upon the ploughed ground. The Syriac reads it, “Because you do not acquiesce in my word; you are not persuaded of the truth of it, nor pleased with the goodness of it.” Our translation is very significant: It has no place in you. They sought to kill him, and so effectually to silence him, not because he had done they any harm, but because they could not bear the convincing, commanding power of his word. Note, [1.] The words of Christ ought to have a place in us, the innermost and uppermost place,—a dwelling place, as a man at home, and not as a stranger or sojourner,—a working place; it must have room to operate, to work sin out of us, and to work grace in us; it must have a ruling place, its place must be upon the throne, it must dwell in us richly. [2.] There are many that make a profession of religion in whom the word of Christ has no place; they will not allow it a place, for they do not like it; Satan does all he can to displace it; and other things possess the place it should have in us. [3.] Where the word of God has no place no good is to be expected, for room is left there for all wickedness. If the unclean spirit find the heart empty of Christ’s word, he enters in, and dwells there.