Be Freed!

Free? or slave? These were crucial person categories in Jesus’ day.  Ordinary people seemed shocked then when Jesus said he could set them free. In John chapter 8 this offer of freedom is made clear.
In the era of Jesus, as for too many even today, freedom (of one or more kinds) was a current dream. The commercial slavery of Jesus’ day (and of recent times in the English speaking realms, and even in today's world) meant ownership of persons, as though a commodity. The Roman empire of the day was actually built on (and by), owned slaves. Cultures and societies knew they were under the heel of the Romans; many, many people had been made or born as slaves, or could easily be made slaves.  I suspect that most enslaved people died as slaves, even if it was possible for a price to be paid that they be set free, or for their owner to give them freedom.

In John’s Gospel chapter 8 there is a record of Jesus in a time of a rejected offer of freedom from him, along with failing apparent agreement or support; a time of “just a minute..!”.  (In the pericope there also arises an issue of just exactly what was the faith or belief in Jesus that was identified then.)

The notion of a popular figure setting people free was far from unprecedented. Not much earlier (see John chapter 6) there had been a mob push to acclaim Jesus the divine “king of the Jews” (Christ or Messiah). That would have put him at the head of a popular uprising aimed to set the people “free” (of ROME). Incidentally, the pages of the history of the time contain examples of just such upheaval. However, Jesus' kind of redemption by ransom was sadly unacceptable.

From verse 12
 on, John chapter 8 depicts fluctuating tensions in the Jerusalem Temple in a complicated Temple court interaction. We have an account of Pharisees in dispute with Jesus. They said his testimony was unsupported and should be discounted. Jesus said that his Father joined in his message. Oh? said they - where then is that father? To this Jesus replied that to know him (Jesus) was to know the Father. So, to reject one is to reject both.

The hearers appear to become wider group than the Pharisees - unsurprising in the temple courtyard. I wonder how they reacted when Jesus spoke of them dying unforgiven? Once more Jesus said to them, “I am going away. You will look for me, and you will die in your sin. You can’t come where I am going” (John 8:21, NIRV). The introduction of this fatal sin concept here in the account seems to be compressed and abrupt. Nevertheless, there was more said.

Just prior, Jesus had been saying that he is the light of the world (see earlier post) and that he truly was one with the Father. For some this was just too much to endure and they would hear no more.
He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:23-24, ESV). That was blunt. (What was the critical absent belief?)

Just a little further on we have: So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me.  And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.” (John 8:28, NRSV). Oddly enough, these words, and whatever else along those lines Jesus said, produced a positive “vibe” amongst the hearers. Whatever did they think he meant I wonder - could it have been something to do with that looked-for uprising?

Opposition to Jesus built in face of his either/or option, but he was undaunted, even if saddened. What he said about sin seems to have fallen on deaf ears. He made it plain just how he came to speak like this. He warned about neglecting God’s mercy. Listeners apparently took sides. It seems some part of the group claimed to be “with him”. Perhaps they were willing to accept what he said of himself - they “believed on” him.
Even while Jesus was speaking, many people believed in him. Jesus spoke to the Jews who had believed him. “If you obey my teaching,” he said, “you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth. And the truth will set you free.”
"If"? “Set FREE”? To those who "believed"? Now this was going too far. He was assigning people to either slavery, or, as the one alternative, to freedom - in his discipleship.
They answered him, “We are Abraham’s children. We have never been slaves of anyone. So how can you say that we will be set free?”
Jesus replied, “What I’m about to tell you is true. Everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave has no lasting place in the family. But a son belongs to the family forever. So if the Son of Man sets you free, you will really be free
(John 8:33-36, NIRV).

The opportunity was there to become real disciples, to settle the sin question. The atmosphere changed with Jesus’ message coming “too close to home”. What he said about himself, or to the prominent ones, could be accepted; questioning the salvation of "us" was not on.

In a way today it is not for our culture, the “problem of sin” was real to them. In fact, the concern that a god or gods could be offended and be vengeful seems to have been really widespread. (Even today,  the commonplace, "do to deserve this?", idea is really the same thing.) Hebrew daily Temple sacrifices and their texts (the Old Testament) constantly insisted there was a deadly separation from God which must be bridged (e.g., Isaiah 59:2). Offences had to be ended and mercy gained. We have a pericope about a “woman taken in adultery”, which in some ancient editions introduced John chapter 8. (It is a curious fact that in some documents the same pericope appears elsewhere in John, and even in Luke.) Assuming the pericope is authentic, the critical and remarkable point I see was that not even one solitary accuser could count himself as “without sin”. That demonstrates the outlook of the time (and perhaps accounts for the placement of the pericope in this disruptive location).  

When Jesus spoke about freedom in that client domain of Judaea the word might have been loaded and even provocative. (It is puzzling to me that the antagonists mention Abraham but ignore Rome, and all those before Rome who brought defeat, capture, dislocation, occupation.) Their retort to have never been under domination seems just absurd, even if they referred only to there being no mass deportation since about 586 BC (BCE). Did they perhaps mean just themselves and their own generation? Even that would be absurd. (About a century afterwards Rome would finally end Judaea with many deaths and much enslavement.) Did those speaking to Jesus actually mean their nation, the very one set free from Egyptian slavery in the long ago Passover? (Their texts referred to slavery in Egypt - like this: After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God [Exodus 2:23, NRSV].) Impossible! I wonder if their "blindness" to the historical and contemporary reality of enslavement and their illusory language of freedom is a kind of metaphor. It seems so, for they would entertain no need of a deliverer from sin or God's judgement on rebellion.

However, Jesus was speaking on another level, was he not; one they would not consider? As, with being determined to perfectly comply with God's Law, being a rebel before God, being enticed into rejecting God’s requirements, being set against God - carries not freedom, but rather enslavement to sin. Could they recognise the kind of freedom of which he spoke?
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me. I have come here from God. I have not come on my own. God sent me. Why aren’t my words clear to you? Because you can’t really hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil. You want to obey your father’s wishes. From the beginning, the devil was a murderer. He has never obeyed the truth. There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his natural language. He does this because he is a liar. He is the father of lies (John 8:42-44, NIRV). Anyone can ask God for ears to hear. These ears were controlled by their desires and thus welcomed untruths.

But did they actually think God was their Father? Perhaps the opponents were being deliberately obtuse but the mention of Abraham would allude to their claim that God was the Father of their nation. The respondents laid claim to the right ancestry and the right religion. Were they not God’s own people? The concept of the ancient Hebrew nation was that of one under God, even though a monarch (answerable to God) could be in place. Their true ruler was God, through God’s perfect and inescapable law. The theory held power despite the muddy waters of current and temporary (?) military/political structures. God’s unbending laws were in effect for their community. (Rome? At that time, up to a point Rome went "softly, softly”.)

You belong to your father, the devil.” Strong words of Jesus! And, these were apparently words to people who a short while before had believed (in) him! Clearly their second thoughts gave rise to a very different position. The chapter ends with (those) people ready to stone Jesus; then just what was the quality or nature of the belief they had apparently claimed?

ADDENDUM 11/02/24: Jesus was not speaking to a whole nation nor ethnic community. Jesus spoke specifically to those in front of him that day. I call it repugnant, tragic and absurd that Jesus' criticism should be used as a basis for evil mob violence, or individual malicious crime.

Jesus did not cease saying that he offered the way to escape the due consequences of rebellion against God (i.e., of sin). At another point he said that in fact he is the door to safety; an escape to freedom and life for those who will, but at the cost of his life.
Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved.[a] They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.
(John 10:9-16, NLT).
Jesus is the portal through which anyone may safely enter God’s presence. There are dangerous opponents. He is the one who lays down his life that others may be safe. He is the one who unites all who belong to him, regardless of slavery, race, age, sex, nationality or any other category. It is a question of accepting the offer; not a question of achieving the standards of God’s Law. or of applying the ritual to wash away failings.

For some the meaning of the freedom gift was hard to accept. Who needed such a gift? It ran against the accepted idea of “doing the right thing”. Paul had grappled with this contradiction and come through, so he could write:
Christ has set us free! This means we are really free. Now hold on to your freedom and don’t ever become slaves of the Law again.
… And if you try to please God by obeying the Law, you have cut yourself off from Christ and his wonderful kindness. But the Spirit makes us sure that God will accept us because of our faith in Christ. If you are a follower of Christ Jesus, it makes no difference whether you are circumcised or not. All that matters is your faith that makes you love others….
My friends, you were chosen to be free. So don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do anything you want. Use it as an opportunity to serve each other with love. All that the Law says can be summed up in the command to love others as much as you love yourself
(Galatians 5: 1, 4-6, 13-14, CEV). Accept the gift and be made free, rather than labour on and achieve somewhat. Though it is very clear (God’s) Law can not be the Saviour, that Law does have relevance to those who freely put their faith in Christ, the Saviour. "Free to be me"? Free rather to be in harmony with the freedom giver.

The cost of freedom for his followers was met by the Good Shepherd. As he said also: just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, NRSV).

The other Gospels do not relate this "free" explanation of Jesus’ plan and invitation. In fact the word only appears in Matthew 17 re being “non-taxable”! The description in John otherwise stands alone. Only John has the verb. (John also is the only one who recounts the earlier ill-advised move for an uprising; an uprising which would surely have been doomed.)

Peter, and especially Paul (as above), make a lot of mention of that freedom Christ alone can bring. Early believers may actually have first encountered the fact that Jesus is the one who sets free in the letters of Paul or Peter. If then, as seems likely, the letters from Paul were already known by the first readers of John, those readers, like you, had a fuller picture of the use of the concept and the offer. An offer which still stands.

As to the other slavery (military, political, economic, social, inherited) the same letter of Paul has this treasured line, which I am sure fits the subsequent passage (which I quoted above):
There is no longer Jew or Gentile,[a] slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28, NLT).
How could invidious distinctions stand? Distinctions, whatever the considerable importance they are given, make no difference to God. What does matter is being Christ's follower, accepting his offer, as is clear above, and elsewhere.

A caution - no room for complacency: Even in Australia, (poor) people effectively live under conditions of enslavement. Many reports appear in the news from elsewhere and from here.  In December 2017 the Australian Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade made a report, "Hidden in Plain Sight", recommending for Australia a “Modern Slavery Act”.

Update: NSW Parliament lists "Modern Slavery Bill, 2018" before it now (for NSW).

Scripture quotations marked (CEV) are from the Contemporary English Version Copyright © 1991, 1992, 1995 by American Bible Society, Used by Permission.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NIRV) are taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL READER'S VERSION®.Copyright © 1996, 1998 Biblica. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of Biblica.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Note: I retain in the publishers' text the references to footnotes where they occur. You can check them out by viewing the text on-line. Often they are replicated in different translations.

Text courtesy

AL 15/04/2024

No comments: