READ : John 8:32-36
I have two questions for you today. Both of them require some thought, even some heart searching. The first is, are you a genuine disciple of Jesus Christ? The second, have you tasted real freedom? Before you answer, listen to these words of Jesus about those very issues. I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 8, beginning at verse 31:
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.” 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’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
First, think with me about the matter of being authentic disciples. We ought not to answer that question about ourselves too quickly. Not everyone who seems to be a follower of Jesus really is one. It’s not necessarily that many are hypocrites, pretending to be something they are not. They simply haven’t gotten far enough along the road to be given the name disciples. There was apparently a large group of people around Jesus in the early days of His ministry who were at least interested in becoming His disciples. Their initial response to His teaching had been positive. They were open and accepting toward Him. In the light of what they saw and understood, they believed. Jesus recognized in them the beginnings of faith.
Still, it wasn’t yet the full-orbed trust He was looking for. It was said of some who had believed in this initial way that the Lord “did not trust himself to them,” because He “knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). Apparently, people like this aren’t disciples yet, not full-fledged followers. Rather, they’re like what we would call “inquirers.” They’re on the way. Let’s say they are adherents, attendees, candidates, if you will, for further light.
There’s nothing wrong, nothing blameworthy, of course, about being where they are. The beginning steps they’ve taken have been surely in the right direction. But they still have a distance to go. They haven’t yet realized all that discipleship will involve.
We were noticing a couple of broadcasts ago that some in this category had left the circle of Jesus’ followers and gone back home. Maybe they didn’t understand. Maybe they were frightened. Maybe Jesus’ exclusive claim offended them. Maybe they weren’t ready to be radically and totally His. At any rate, they went back and showed by that that they weren’t as yet real disciples.
What will it take to get people like them into the inner circle? What will make them followers, not only in appearance but in reality? Here’s Jesus’ answer, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” He seems to be saying, You have made a good start. You’ve done well in listening to My word, responding to My call. It’s good that you’re here, that you’ve come this far.
His key word, though, is “continue” or “abide.” Those who keep on going are the real disciples, especially those who continue in Jesus’ word. They keep on listening to what He says, giving Him their careful attention. They keep on meditating in His Word, savoring it, internalizing it. Better still, they go on obeying it, translating it into life, working it out in practical ways. They’re like that happy believer celebrated in the first psalm, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (vv. 1-2).
For the first disciples around Jesus, that meant careful attention to His oral teaching. For us it means the regular hearing and studying of His written word in the Bible.
It seems that Jesus can’t say enough about the attitude of people toward His words. “If you abide in me,” He says, “and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). That is, having His words abide in us is the secret of effective prayer. Again, He says, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). There it is. Keeping His word is the secret of fellowship with the Lord, the sign of our love for Him. And here we learn that abiding in His Word is also the key to discipleship.
It’s striking to remember that those who went back and walked no more with Jesus were people who had difficulty with His words. “This is a hard saying,”they complained, “who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). The ones who stayed said to Jesus, on the other hand, “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Let’s settle it in our minds then. There is no real discipleship, no following Jesus for the long haul, without steady, loyal listening, without hiding His word in our hearts and living it out in our daily walk. We have to believe Him and obey Him. There’s no other way.
Now for the part about freedom. Jesus says that when we continue in His Word, we’ll not only be genuine disciples. We will know the truth and the truth will make us free. That apparently sounded a bit insulting to Jesus’ first hearers. They answered, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How is it that you say `You will be made free’?” This was a touchy point. The Jews groaned under the yoke of imperial Rome, but they never saw themselves as, in any sense, slaves. They had a certain amount of self-rule left to them and prided themselves on it. They were free members of God’s covenant people, their citizenship guaranteed by descent from Abraham. They said to Jesus, “We are God’s free men and women. What do You mean by calling us slaves?”
Jesus had in mind another kind of slavery, a deeper kind. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Everyone who goes on repeating some evil, everyone involved in a continuing pattern of sinful behavior, shows himself or herself to be enslaved. Sin is clearly the master. Sin is in control. The sign that we aren’t free is that we can’t stop.
We don’t like to admit this about ourselves, do we? Addicts tell us they can break off the habit any time they want to. The chronic smoker can easily give up cigarettes – if he or she chooses. The drug user has his habit under control. The shoplifter can quit this thieving business any time. That’s the theory. That’s the claim. But those who observe such people see no evidence of that. As I was preparing this message, news had just come that the leader of the Bosnian Serbs had signed a peace treaty. Sure, he and his soldiers will stop the hostilities. That’s the word, the theory. But such agreements haven’t amounted to much before. The world is looking for some evidence that the fighting and the horror really will stop.
We all have to face this about ourselves, don’t we? If we keep on doing something we know is harmful, shameful or wrong, we’re trapped, we’re caught. Something has gained the mastery over us and reduced us to a kind of slavery. When that evil snaps its finger, we jump. When it cracks the whip, we cringe.
In the history of human slavery, there were slaves who succeeded in running away, in recovering their freedom, but a slave to sin can’t flee from his master. The real enemy is within. We take ourselves with us wherever we go, wherever we flee. And if we remain slaves, continue under the power of sin, says Jesus, we shut ourselves out from God’s household.
So we need, if we’re going to be free, a power greater than our own. We need a great Emancipator, someone to break our shackles and throw open the prison doors. Jesus says the truth will do that. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. A little further on, He says that He, the Son, will do it. “If the Son shall make you free, you will be free indeed.” He is the truth. And when we know the truth as it is in Jesus, we find the chains breaking.
This is another of Jesus’ tremendous claims. When people are enslaved to sin, caught up in a web of deceit or hate or lust from which they cannot break free, He claims the power to release them. No one, according to Jesus, is hopelessly trapped.
We know the whole story of how that happens, that delivering work, when we see Him dying for the sins of the world and rising again on the third day. By His poured-out life, bearing our sins, He wins forgiveness for us. And by taking us down with Him into death and raising us with Him to newness of life, He makes us inwardly free. In His death we die to the tyranny of evil. In His resurrection, we rise to a new life in obedience to God.
It isn’t that followers of Jesus are no longer tempted or that they never stumble and fall. But in His death and rising, the ruling power of sin over them has been broken forever. We may succumb again and sometimes do, but we don’t need to. There is power in the risen Jesus to make us free indeed.
ALL IN CHRIST
Now isn’t it remarkable that Jesus talks in the same passage here about discipleship and about freedom? It’s hard for us to see how those two go together. Discipleship? That means denying yourself, doesn’t it, taking up your cross, following Jesus. It means serving, obeying, suffering, possibly dying, giving yourself up for Christ and the gospel.
Then there’s freedom. Doesn’t that mean doing what you really want to do? Making your own decisions, going your own way, doing as you please? Well, that may sound like freedom, but according to Jesus, it isn’t the real thing. We’re never so caught, so enslaved, as when we’re living for ourselves, going our own way, “King Self” turns out to be the worst master we can ever serve.
Do you know why knowing the truth makes you free? Because knowing the truth as it is in Christ means knowing God’s great love for you. It means grasping that His service is perfect freedom. Being set free by Christ means that something happens inside of you when you meet Him. By His Spirit, He begins to change things around.
You know how most of us are on the inside: scattered, divided. Over here is what we ought to do and over there is what we want to do. Often what we end up doing is an unsatisfying mixture. But Jesus does something about that divided self of ours. He changes our wants, reshapes our ambitions, transforms our values. More and more, what the Lord wants for our lives is what we begin to want. His vision for us becomes our goal too. We begin to taste what it is to be whole human beings, free men and women. We find ourselves wanting to do what we ought to do, and here and there, even able to do it! That is freedom!
It doesn’t happen overnight, of course. You don’t get rid of all your hangups in one dramatic moment. But you do know that something real is happening within you and that you’re on the way.
Maybe that sounds like a dream to you. It seems impossible that you could ever tear yourself loose from the monster that holds you. It must have seemed that way to a young gang leader named Tom Skinner who once heard about Christ through a radio broadcast right when he was planning a full-scale gang war. Then and there he committed himself to the Lord. But how could he ever get out of that gang? It could cost him his life even to try. But he faced the gang members that night, told them what had happened in his life, and urged them to make the same decision. Then Tom turned around and walked away. Strangely, no one made a move to stop him. Some of the gang members testified later that it was as though something held them back from harming him.
I like to think of his experience as a kind of parable for us all, a map that shows us the road to freedom. Let’s say you’re in Tom’s shoes. Let that gang stand for anything that has a grip on your life, that has you trapped, that’s keeping you from being the person you ought to be. Whatever it is, in the name of Jesus Christ, you can face it. You can say No to it and walk away free.
Surprising, isn’t it, you continue in Jesus’ words and become His disciple. You’re gripped by His love and serve Him with a grateful heart. Then, amazingly, you find out how it feels to be free. May that be true for you and for me!