What does Jesus mean by “the truth will set you free,” and what does that freedom look like?

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Our group’s main text for this study was in John 8 (most of the chapter is included for context):

12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. 16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. 17 In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. 18 I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” 19 They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20 These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.

21 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.

31 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. 37 I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”

39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

Being a disciple of Jesus includes abiding in His word (verse 31). Trusting in His Word and resting in its truths brings freedom (verse 32). First, we are freed from the consequences of our sin at the point of belief and salvation; that is we are freed from the wrath of God. But this freedom is about more than our salvation and going to heaven. This freedom is also for this life. We are gradually freed from the rule of sin in our lives as we understand the gospel, allowing it to impact our lives and produce obedience in us. Seeking freedom is a continuing journey throughout our lives on earth. The more we know the gospel truths (His word) and trust in them, the more we can realize our freedom. Slavery results when we feel we need to do something to contribute to being justified before God, as the Pharisees were trying to do in the John 8 passage.

Just after creation, Adam and Eve were living in a state of freedom in the Garden of Eden. God’s creation was good (Genesis 1:31) and Adam and Eve were living without shame (Genesis 2:25). When they chose to disobey God, they introduced death and slavery to sin into the world (Genesis 2:17, Romans 5:12-18; 6:16). When Moses brought the law from God, the law acted as a guardian, protecting the heirs of God, though those heirs were still enslaved (Galatians 3-4). But when Christ came, He redeemed those under the law so that, through faith, we can receive the full rights as sons and heirs of God (Galatians 4:5). Jesus refers to this freedom for sons and heirs in our John 8 text (verses 34-36) and also in Matthew:

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” (Matthew 17:24-27 ESV)

There was a tax obligation among the Jews to support the temple. When Peter was approached regarding this tax, Jesus pointed out to Peter that sons are free from tax, presumably referring ahead to our status as sons of God and the freedom that comes with that status. We are no longer slaves to sin. We have died to sin (Romans 6:7). We have been set free from sin and death in Christ. The old self was crucified, along with slavery to sin (Romans 6:6). We have been raised with Christ to live in freedom (Romans 6:4-5).

What does that freedom look like? When we were in slavery to sin (without Jesus), our hearts were ruled by sin. “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34). Jesus sets us free at the point we trust in Him for salvation by transforming our hearts. There is still sin in the human condition, but the Spirit enters in to bring truth and light and life. Sin no longer dominates a heart transformed by faith. The Spirit gives us power to obey (Galatians 5:16-17). The more deeply we understand the gospel and the more we treasure Jesus, the more we can function in our freedom — freedom from the guilt of sin, the penalty of sin, and the power of sin.

This is the continuing journey of moving toward freedom. And that journey begins with abiding in Jesus’ word so that we may know the truth (John 8:31). What does it mean to “abide?” The Greek word used in this passage is “meno.” This means to stay, abide, continue, dwell, endure, be present, remain, stand, tarry. This sounds like a bigger commitment than just reading the Word. It sounds more like a commitment that we simply can’t live without it.

We also noted that, elsewhere in John, Jesus told us to abide in Him.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. (John 15:4 ESV)

Abiding in His word is believing, continuing and living in all that Jesus is and all that He taught. The way He reveals Himself to us is through His word. If we want to know Jesus, it requires knowing His word – the Bible. When we live a life centered on His word, we will know the truth. Jesus Himself stated (in prayer to the Father), “Your word is truth” (John 17:17) In fact, Jesus described Himself as the truth (John 14:6) and John referred to Jesus as the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus, the truth, and the word of God are connected in some very deep ways. Knowing and trusting Jesus and His word gives us the freedom to choose to obey Him out of our love for Him. That love comes from a full understanding of the gospel — that the freedom we enjoy in Christ is free to us through faith, but Jesus paid a very heavy price for us. Our freedom is only possible because of His sacrifice (Romans 6).

Part of the freedom of the gospel is remembering that all the truths of His word apply to other believers as well. Others are also free from condemnation — not only from God, but from us as well. Faith in Jesus and the transformation the gospel brings allows us to release others to live under the gospel. We can be free from seeking condemnation and judgment for others who have wronged us. Forgiving others leads to a tremendous amount of freedom.

Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37 ESV)

During our study of John 8 we noted from verses 51-53 that Jesus did not define death the same way the Pharisees did. Jesus says, “if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (There’s the importance of His word and our obedience again). The Pharisees argue back that Abraham had died. They obviously don’t understand death the way Jesus does. Death is separation. When a loved one dies, the living family members are separated from that person. The deceased is actually living on beyond this earth, but the separation is real. In the same way, we can be physically alive, but spiritually dead, and therefore separated from God (Romans 6:16). Paul’s discussion in Romans 6 presents death as a separation from the power of sin and from slavery to sin.

In 2 Corinthians Paul states:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18 ESV)

The Spirit of the Lord resides in us as people of faith (1 Corinthians 6:19). And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom which transforms us:

  • Freedom from condemnation (Romans 8:1)
  • Freedom from guilt and regret (2 Corinthians 7:8-10)
  • Freedom from sin (Galatians 5:16-17; Romans 8:2)
  • Freedom from spiritual death (Romans 6:23; John 8:24,51)
  • Freedom from the old covenant (the law) (Galatians 5:18)
  • Freedom from blindness to the gospel (1 Corinthians 2:10-13; John 8:12)
  • Freedom from Satan’s lies (John 8:32,44-47)
  • Freedom to rest (Hebrews 4:9-11)
  • Freedom to forgive others (Luke 6:37)

To experience this freedom, we need to be abiding in Jesus and His word. This has to include a posture of humility before Him. The Pharisees relied on their laws and their status as descendants of Abraham for justification before God. But Jesus called that slavery. When we slip into operating out of self-reliance rather than relying on Jesus and what He has done for us, we are not continuing in His word, and therefore failing to walk in the full freedom Christ has granted us. We can only enjoy full freedom when we are fully humbled before Him and His word.

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