READ : John 8:31-32
Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
John 8:31,32 rsv
Here is a word for all who have shown some interest in Christ and His gospel. Perhaps you are a church member already, perhaps an earnest seeker or maybe you are simply willing to listen to the Christian message. It’s a word from Jesus to anyone who has made at least a beginning step toward Him. It’s His idea of what it means to be one of His authentic followers. Listen: “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, `If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’”
Notice – these were hearers who had already believed in Jesus. They had been attracted to Him, impressed by His teaching. They had shown openness to His staggering claims about Himself. They had made an initial commitment and seemed ready for more. Perhaps they would have called themselves at this point believers and followers. But Jesus is not ready yet so to name them. Something more is needed. If He is to regard them as genuine learners in His school, faithful followers, they must “continue in His Word.”
CONTINUING IN HIS WORD
Let’s think about what that means. What Jesus calls His “word” here is simply the sum of His message – what He taught about God and His kingdom, about His own person and mission, about sin and salvation, about the Father’s purpose for our daily living. These people have been responsive to what they have heard from the Lord thus far. Jesus encourages them to keep listening.
When He urges them to “continue,” the word means literally “to stay, to dwell, to abide.” He wants them to settle down in His teaching, to make their home in His word. In contemporary language we might say that He was calling for them to internalize what He had to say.
How does a person do that? Regular exposure is one key. If we are going to “live” in Jesus’ teaching, we need to become thoroughly familiar with it. For those to whom He originally spoke, that meant to stay in His company, to use every opportunity to sit at His feet and drink in His words. For us today, it means placing ourselves consistently under the preaching and teaching of the Bible, regularly attending a fellowship where the word of Jesus is proclaimed.
But it means also measuring that preached and taught message by the Scriptures themselves. Paul’s hearers in the first-century city of Berea were praised because they received the gospel from his lips “with all readiness of mind, searching the Scriptures daily, to see if these things were so.” They became students of the Bible in their own right. To continue in Jesus’ word surely means that. Just as an eager inquirer would have asked the Lord questions so as to understand Him better, so one of His learners today will be regularly listening to His word in Scripture, and always asking for further light.
What about memorizing the Lord’s words? Is that part of it? I believe so. In Jesus’ time, the students of a rabbi or teacher were expected to memorize extensively. The image of a model student was that of a sound vessel or container, one that wouldn’t leak a single drop. Everything poured into that student’s mind would be retained. That’s why Jesus and other teachers of His day made such large use of repetition. They wanted to be sure their disciples “got it straight,” and would be able to think about the truth at leisure and pass it on.
While I’m talking about that, let me commend to you as warmly as I can the practice of memorizing portions of the Bible. I began to do that very early in my Christian life, and I’ve been savoring the benefits of it ever since. Memorizing impresses the truth upon us. The simple practice of going over a verse of Scripture again and again seems to give it lasting impact. We see fresh dimensions to it. We sense more and more its weight and power.
We sometimes call memorizing something “learning it by heart.” That common expression conveys a deep truth. Memorizing helps us to internalize, to appropriate truth. And when the truth is God’s living word in Christ, the effects are profound. The psalmist rejoices: “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I may not sin against thee.” Paul writes of “the washing of water by the Word.” God’s Word memorized has cleansing, strengthening effects. It makes new people of us.
When you have memorized Scripture passages, the Spirit of God often brings them to mind afresh in situations where the truth especially applies. Your mind is illumined, guided, shaped by the Word. It becomes a light for your way and a bulwark against temptation. And, when you seek to communicate the Christian message to others, the truth long stored in mind and heart becomes readily available for use.
Continuing in the Word, dwelling in it, must mean also seeking to live it out. Jesus’ teaching is never meant to be matter for speculation, for idle examination, as so much mental furniture. It is always teaching for life, truth that leads to godliness. You grow in understanding the Lord’s Word only as you seek to apply practically what you already know.
Someone has said, “It’s not what I can’t understand in the Bible’s teaching that bothers me. It’s what I can.” Mysteries remain for all of us. We don’t grasp everything at once. But a marvelous, unfailing key to further light is the earnest effort to live by what we do see clearly.
Don’t expect to make progress as a learner in Christ’s school unless you honor the truth you already have. If you know about a step of obedience He has been gently pressuring you to take, launch out and do it. If you realize that He wants you to cut off a destructive relationship, to abandon a poisonous habit, to make a painful apology – whatever – take that difficult but necessary step first, and you’ll be surprised at how many things become clearer for you.
Now Jesus is inviting you and me to that kind of sustained response to His Word – regular listening, prayerful searching, memorizing, creative applying. That is “continuing” in His word. He doesn’t say “You must do this,” doesn’t lay it on us as a heavy requirement. He simply tells us what is involved if we are to be His genuine disciples. “If that’s what you want,” He says, “here’s the way.”
That’s not unreasonable, is it? We don’t call a freshman in high school an “educated” man, do we? He’s made a start, certainly, but he’s got a long way to go. We don’t call a sophomore in college a literary scholar because he or she has read one great novel. It’s the sustained interest, the prolonged study, that makes appropriate the title “scholar.”
So, when we think of what we are as Christians, we can certainly call ourselves “believers” from the first moment we trust in Christ for salvation, but we can only call ourselves disciples then in a limited sense, as enrollees in the Lord’s school. It’s the long haul that brings us the credentials that matter. It’s serious, steady concentration on the Lord’s Word that makes us truly “disciples.”
KNOWING THE TRUTH
Then, says Jesus, along that road of authentic discipleship, of continuing in His Word, we will “know the truth.” What does that mean? Isn’t it already evident that listening to Jesus will bring that? What new thing is He saying here?
With Jesus, truth is more than a concept, more even than accurate teaching. For Him it is something dynamic, even personal. He announces on some occasions that He Himself is the truth. He not only reveals God, He is personally God in the flesh. He not only teaches what is true, He has power to make others authentic, to transform them into what God has intended them to be.
Along this road of sustained listening to His Word, we come to know the Lord Himself. Our relationship with Him deepens and grows. We experience more and more His saving, life-changing power. We are made over increasingly into His image. At a deep, personal level, we are drawn close to Christ Himself.
That’s vital to see. The Christian faith is a body of belief, but more than that. It has a code of ethics, but this is not its living center either. The heart of Christianity lies in a personal relationship with God through Christ. We not only learn about Him and what He wants of us. Along that road of discipleship we become, wonderful to say it, the Lord’s friends. He becomes our portion, our joy, our strength.
WALKING IN FREEDOM
Now here is the last great word of this promise: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” You will know Jesus, the living Lord, and He will liberate you more and more from all bondage.
“What does that mean?” someone wonders. “Why do I need that?” Jesus’ first hearers wondered the same thing, “They answered him, `We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, `You will be made free’?” (8:33).
He told them that anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. In other words, when you give in to any evil – an unclean thought, a negative way of treating people, a habit you know to be wrong, the thing gains power over you. The more you let it have room, the more it begins to master you. Sound familiar? All of us know what that’s like.
But the good news is: If the Son shall make you free, you will be truly free. In Christ we find forgiveness – release from guilt. In Him we find power to say no – release from bondage. He enables us to walk free, as beloved sons and daughters of the living God. It doesn’t happen all at once. We have our times of stumbling, get caught again in some old snare. But increasingly, we find ourselves able to know liberty, to taste what it is to be free.
Isn’t it strange that we come to know freedom as we become committed to the lordship of Jesus? The more we subject ourselves to His loving reign, to the teaching of His Word, the more we find our fetters falling away. “Make me a captive, Lord,” as the hymn puts it, “and I shall be free . . . .”
Freedom means a lot more than “doing whatever I want to do.” It means being so transformed by the living Christ that I can begin to want what’s best, to want what He wants for me, and even discover the power to do it. “I shall walk at liberty,” says the psalmist, “for I have sought thy precepts.” In other words, “I’m trying to do Your will, Lord, in gratitude for Your grace, and I’m finding how it feels to be free.”
What an incentive that is to hang in there as Christians, to continue in the Lord’s Word! Think of what it means to know the Lord personally more and more, and to have Him break our shackles and open our prison doors. This word is calling each of us to some kind of real, deep response today. I hope you will want to say to Him something like this to make as your prayer:
Lord, I’ve made a start at believing. I’ve begun to go Your way. Help me now to follow through. Help me to keep on listening. Help me to search the Scriptures each day, asking for light. I want, Lord, so to continue in Your word that I’ll more and more know You. I want to make that my supreme concentration in life. And as I do, I trust that You will more and more make me truly free!