Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Diagnosing the Problem

“Behold, we are slaves this day ... behold, we are slaves.”

“We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.”

You can’t solve a problem unless you know what it is.

John 8:33 records a very strange statement, the second one I have quoted above. It appears to have been made not specifically by the Pharisees or Sadducees (though there may have been some of these present, of course), but more generally, by men who had just made a public confession of belief in Christ.

The statement was this: “We have never been enslaved to anyone.”

Setting the Scene

The context is a situation in which Jesus has been teaching in the temple treasury, and “all the people” have come to hear him. We may reasonably take it these were devout Jews, some more learned than others, including other teachers and religious leaders.

So the Lord engages in a short but famous dialogue with his audience concerning his own authority and his relationship to his Father, which includes both the statements “I am the light of the world” and “the truth will set you free”. His words are provocative, even deliberately inflammatory. “You judge according to the flesh.” “You know neither me nor my father.” “Where I am going, you cannot come.” “You are from below; I am from above.” “Unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins.”


Despite the harshness of the Lord’s critique, John records that “As he was saying these things, many believed in him.” Well, why not? The apparent alternative was death and estrangement from God. The Lord’s conviction was evident, his speech persuasive, and the issues at stake absolutely critical. For a Jew in that situation, provided that salvation from death in one’s sins could be obtained without giving up anything he already had, why not take it? Why not add one more article of faith to the beliefs you already claimed to possess, and be all the more confident before God? If this fiery prophet turned out to be speaking for God, it would be prudent to be safely in his camp, rather than on the wrong side of history. And, after all, he had yet to be officially denounced by the religious authorities ...

“Sounds good; I’m in,” said many. And rightly so.

More to Discipleship

But that wasn’t the end of it. Now Jesus addresses these new “believers” directly and tells them there is more to discipleship than just saying the words “I believe”:
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
It was not enough then to simply say, “I follow Christ.” That isn’t the end of it now, and it wasn’t the end of it then. It is necessary to “abide” in his word. To continue to believe him even as he says things which are even more difficult, not to mention living out the things you have professed to believe in. After all, if we are truly believers, we have trusted in a living Person, not in a few propositions about God with which we happen to agree. And if we truly trust someone, then we trust him when he says things which are difficult, hurtful or hard to believe, and we trust him even when the things he tells us to do stand to cost us a great deal.

And this is exactly what Jesus had just done. He’d told them they needed to be free. He’d told them they were captives, and that only his word could deliver them from captivity.

That one is tough to swallow, and this was their reply: “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.”

That’s an incredibly strange statement. What on earth would inspire them to say something so obviously untrue?

Three Possibilities

There is considerable debate about what they meant exactly. There are several possibilities.

1. The Historical Position

If we take their words at face value, and if “never” means never, then it is a claim that the Jewish people have never been enslaved in their entire history going all the way back to their identification with Abraham.

That is transparently false, of course. No Jew could forget that Israel as a nation was born in Egypt during a period of oppression in which the people were put to forced labor by their hosts. Later, in the land of Canaan, they were oppressed by the Philistines and other surrounding nations. Subsequently, the kings of Assyria afflicted them and took the northern tribes into captivity. Still later, the king of Babylon did the same with Judah. Even when the Jews returned to Jerusalem during the period in which the Medes and Persians were the dominant world empire, they were not independent actors, but simply the citizens of a nameless Persian province, which later came under the thumb of first the Greeks, then the Romans. In fact, if we are speaking historically, the Jewish people had been slaves for the better part of their national existence.

It seems highly unlikely that an entire crowd of Jews had forgotten this, though some expositors do take this view. They figure that it was simply a rash, reflexive, rhetorical statement made by proud men. Cyril of Alexandria said this:
“In no respect then was the speech of the Jews sane: for besides being ignorant of their truer bondage, that in sin, they utterly deny the other ignoble one and have an understanding accustomed to think highly about a mere nothing.”
So that’s one way they might have meant it, even if they were completely wrong.

2. The ‘Glass Half Full’ Position

Others take the position that the Jews were not necessarily forgetful or rash, and that they were making a rational-but-incorrect argument. So when they said “never”, they were probably not referring to their entire history, but rather to a more optimistic, “glass half full” view of their current state as citizens of two provinces in the Roman Empire. Their “never” may have meant “The people of this generation in front of you have never been slaves in a technical sense,” rather than “Israel as a nation has never been enslaved in its entire history.”

Here’s one commentator who takes this position:
“During these years, while the Jews were under Roman rule, they were not without freedom. To quote from the Wikipedia article on Romans in Jerusalem:

‘During the 1st century BCE, the Herodian Kingdom was established as a Roman client kingdom and in 6 CE parts became a province of the Roman Empire, named Iudaea Province.

Julius Caesar formulated a policy of allowing Jews to follow their traditional religious practices, a policy which was followed, and extended, by Augustus, first emperor of Rome, reigned 27 BCE-14 CE. This gave Judaism the status of a religio licita (permitted religion) throughout the Empire.’

So they had some political freedom, religious freedom, and some were Roman citizens (like Paul, Acts 22:28). This is the type of freedom they are referring to.”
Again, this is certainly a possibility, but it is also a very poor argument and a strange and very limited definition of slavery. If this is the argument these Jews were making, they were certainly moving the goalposts. Under Rome, the Jews may have had certain freedoms, but only within a very restrictive framework. Matthew calls these people “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. Even their leaders had to admit to Pilate that “it is not lawful for us to put anyone to death”. Caesar was Lord, and even if the Jews were disinclined to concede it, they were slaves to Rome.

3. Spiritually in Denial

There is also the remote possibility that some of these new “believers” were astute enough not to take the Lord literally. Perhaps when they said, “We are offspring of Abraham,” they spoke not just genetically but spiritually. Some commentators take this position too:
“Contextually, they responded by saying, ‘We are children of Abraham ...’; therefore, they are the children of the promises of God through Abraham, and assert this ‘right’.”
Perhaps. But if so, the Lord quickly corrects their error: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”

But regardless whether these believing Jews were making one of these three arguments or some other, they were flat-out wrong. They could not admit their spiritual condition, and they could not admit even to themselves that despite making a profession, they were still in opposition to the one they claimed to believe. “I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you,” the Lord continues.

It’s a reminder to us that it is possible to believe without repenting, and to believe without obeying. Demons do it all the time. But repentance and true salvation never happen unless we know who and what we are. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” It is necessary to recognize our own inability to control our fates, our lives and even our own minds and bodies in order to surrender to the one person who can enable us to be free.

A Startling Contrast

In contrast to this brazenly self-righteous defense of their own autonomy by the professing believers of Jesus’ day, the first quote at the top of this post comes from a group of humble Jews gathered in Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah, made in the middle of a chapter-long confession of personal and national guilt:
Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.”
These men and women realized that while, in their case, the manifestation of slavery that afflicted them was very much literal, the underlying problem was spiritual. So they sought relief through humble confession and willing obedience. They correctly self-diagnosed, and they sought the only real help available to them.

Did their children continue for long in obedience to God’s word? Well, that’s another story. But unlike the first group of Jews, at least this generation understood their real problem.

And you can’t solve a problem unless you know what it is.

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