Date: October 30, 2022
Festival: Reformation Day (Observed)
Text: John 8:31-36
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI, and CTKLC
Appointed Scriptures: Revelation 14:6-7; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
Sermon Hymn: LSB #656 A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“If you abide in My Word,” Jesus says, “you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” [v. 32]. These are words that may cause you offence or to wonder what Jesus is talking about because truth seems to be all we argue about these days. Our culture says, “Be true to yourself,” and, “You have your truth; I have my truth.” And many of us have bought into such moral relativism because we are also part of the culture. Yet these beliefs fall apart because if everyone can just make up their own truth, there can’t be any real or knowable truth. Such subjective truths, for example, show up in the political battlefield as we pit our so-called “rights” against each other. Whose rights are more important? Yours or mine? Well, everyone’s rights matter, we say, at least until your rights start to interfere with mine. Some are even beginning to say religious rights don’t matter as much as sexual rights.
And “being true to yourself” collapses upon itself as well because we can’t live up to our own standards, which is ironic. Realising we can’t—or don’t want to—live up to God’s standards set forth in the Law, we think we can resolve this by setting our own standards. And as soon as we find we can’t even live up to our own rules, we set the bar lower and lower until our backs finally break and we no longer have a moral backbone to stand with, so we shrink back more and more into the moral cowardice of moral relativism.
So, what Jesus means by “the truth will set you free” in an age when everyone can just make up their own truth can be confusing, even scandalous. The Jews to whom Jesus was speaking were confused and scandalised as well. Jesus strongly implies they’re slaves and they retort, “We’ve never been enslaved!” Well, that’s debatable. Their people have a long history of being slaves: Egypt, the time of the Judges, Babylon, and it is even arguable they’re political slaves during the Roman occupation of Jesus’ day, even though they weren’t slaves in the strict sense. But Jesus was not speaking about politics; He was speaking of the spiritual reality. “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin,” He says [v. 34]. You might be a free citizen in the Roman Empire—or the empire of the United States of America—but if you practice sin, you are a slave.
This is quite offensive, especially considering the tragic history of slavery in our own country. So, the notion that Jesus says we’re all slaves can be offensive. Yet, as Jesus says, you are not a slave to a master of a house, but to sin when you practice it. “The slave does not remain in the house forever,” Jesus says, because he’s not part of the family; eventually, the slave will have to leave the house and he receives no inheritance because he is not a son of the house. The only way a slave leaves the house is if he dies a slave or if a son of the house sets him free. A slave in Rome was more likely to die a slave than they were to be set free; setting a slave free was a social headache for the dominus of the house. Conversely, only sons remain in the house forever and therefore receive its benefits. Only a son of the house can use his freedom to set the slave free. As the Son of God, Jesus is the only one who is truly free—who truly has free will not to sin. Therefore, as the Son of God’s house, He sets captives of sin free. Christ alone brings emancipation from sin, and we see what this looks like earlier in the chapter.
At the beginning of John 8, Jesus was teaching in the Temple. The scribes and Pharisees thought this was another good opportunity to try and trick Jesus. So, they grabbed a woman they had caught in adultery, threw her at His feet, and said the Law of Moses demanded they stone her to death. “So, what do You say,” they asked [v. 5]. After all, they weren’t wrong! It’s written in Leviticus 20[:10] and Deuteronomy 22[:22, 24]! They had finally trapped Jesus! Or did they? The first thing Jesus does is begin writing something in the dirt with His finger. We have no idea what Jesus wrote, but some of the Church Fathers speculated He was writing down her sins. As the Jews continued to pester Him, Jesus finally said the famous words, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” [v. 7]. Certainly, He knew her sins, and He knew all their sins. In other words, He was say, “You all likewise deserve to die!”
So, no one threw a stone, and Jesus says to her, “Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, Lord,” she says, likely stunned she’s still alive.
Then He says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” [vv. 10-11]. Not only did He forgive her sins, but in forgiving her, He also set her free to stop doing that sin.
So, that’s what happens before our text today. What Jesus says directly after our text must also be considered. Speaking to the Jews, He says, “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 has nothing to do with 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” [v. 44]. In our text today, the Jews had clung to their genealogy of being Abraham’s offspring, and then Jesus says, “No, you’re children of the devil!” Why? Because if they truly were children of Abraham, they would believe in the truth of Jesus Christ—the son through whom Abraham finally became a great nation, who is the Son of David, and of whom the Law of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets spoke. Therefore, not to believe the truth spoken of Him in the Hebrew Scriptures is to be children of the devil, who is a liar. Anything the devil says, therefore, cannot be trusted, even if it makes some sense. Adam and Eve found that out real quick! “Did God actually say” might sound convincing, but it is a lie. “There’s your truth and my truth.” “Be true to yourself.” These might sound nice, but they are lies.
So, when we ask ourselves, “What is truth,” we must look at Jesus. Truth is one of many motifs throughout John’s Gospel. In our text this morning, Jesus says the truth will set you free, which is often misinterpreted in pop culture. Every movie or TV show that quotes, “The truth will set you free,” probably don’t realise they’re quoting Jesus. And the way they interpret this is usually, “If you tell the truth, it’ll set you free,” in the attempt to get a character to do the right thing and therefore be free of guilt and shame—and maybe not free from the worldly consequences of telling the truth, but at least your conscience will be free. But that’s not what Jesus means here. So, what is this truth Jesus is talking about? He doesn’t exactly say in our given text today; yet by examining the rest of John’s Gospel, it becomes rather obvious, but we’ll just briefly look at two other places.
First, near the end of the Gospel, Jesus tells Pilate just before He’s condemned to be crucified, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice,” and Pilate retorts sarcastically, “What is truth?” [18:37-38]. Clearly, he wasn’t listening. “Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice.” This brings us all the way to the beginning of John’s Gospel account, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word [God] became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” [1:1, 14].
The Word of God is God Himself, who became flesh, full of grace and truth, who revealed Himself to be the Son of God the Father in Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary. Jesus is the Son who sets free those who are enslaved to sin. Therefore, Truth is not a simple platitude, a belief system, or even honesty, but a person. And Truth has a personal name: Jesus, which in Hebrew means “Yahweh saves.” And we have seen how He saves, that is, how He sets sinners free like the woman caught in adultery: He forgives sins and gives these former sinners the freedom to sin no more—to deny their former masters.
So then, what enslaves you? Think through the Ten Commandments, if you don’t know… Or maybe your own conscience is your worst enemy? No matter how many times you repent, perhaps you hear that small voice in your head, “God didn’t actually forgive you. He can’t. Your sin is too great. You keep falling back to it over and over again. How can He keep forgiving you for being so weak and stupid? Why would He?” Brothers and sisters, such thoughts are whispers from the devil, and remember: he is a murderer and a liar. He wants nothing more than your death and he loves to use your conscience against you to do so.
Now, the subject of the Christian’s conscience is a good reminder to pause for a moment and ponder the reason we celebrate the Lutheran Reformation today. Well, there are many reasons, but the most important is the Gospel of Jesus Christ taught in its purity and truth. In 1520, just three years after Luther sparked the Reformation with his 95 Theses that challenged the legitimacy of indulgences, Luther wrote a treatise called The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Luther had observed that just as the Jews were carried away from Jerusalem into captivity under the tyranny of the Babylonian Empire, so Christians’ consciences in Europe had been carried away from the Scriptures into captivity under the tyranny of the Papacy, particularly in their misuse of the Sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper.
Luther aimed to set the Christian conscience free from the tyranny of the Papacy whose traditions abused the Sacrament. They required the penitent to rely on their ability to enumerate every sin they’ve ever committed for assurance of forgiveness, the ability to make satisfaction for sins through good works (because apparently Christ’s sacrifice didn’t satisfy God enough), and submission to the Pope for salvation. Instead of this, Luther argued that the Christian should rely on the promise of the Word of Christ in the Sacrament, and that their assurance of salvation depends rather on the death and resurrection of Christ as expressed in the Second Article of the Creed, “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven,” etc.
The Christian’s conscience was his worst enemy; Christians were held captive by the failure to confess every sin ever committed. Instead, Luther desired Christians to cling to the truth of Christ’s words, “This is My body, this is My blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” On these words, Luther writes in the treatise, “Let this truth stand, I say, as the immovable foundation on which we shall base all that we have to say… Christ, who is the truth, truly says that this is the new testament in His blood, poured out for us” [AE 36:37]. The freedom given to us in the Gospel of Christ’s body and blood meant so much to Martin Luther that he changed his last name from Luder to Luther that comes from the Greek word, ἐλεύθερος (eleutheros), which means “free,” and Jesus uses its verbal form when He says, “the truth will set you free.”
So, what is the truth that sets you free? The truth is Christ Himself. “Your Word is truth,” Jesus prayed just before He was betrayed, because He is the Word made flesh, who is therefore Truth enfleshed [John 17:17; cf. 1:14]. The devil is a liar and a murderer; therefore, everything he speaks is a lie and concerns only death. Anything that gets you to look away from Christ is Antichrist and a lie of the devil. Conversely, Jesus is the Word made flesh, whose Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life; therefore, everything He speaks is truth and concerns only life. He promised the truth will set you free. How does He do this? By giving you His body and blood in the Supper for forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
Sure, you and I break the Ten Commandments every day. Sure, the devil whispers those quiet thoughts, but he is a liar; his words don’t make it true. But Jesus’ words are truth because He is Truth in physical form. Therefore, when He speaks truth, He makes it happen. “Let there be light,” He spoke in the beginning, and there was light. “This is My body, this is My blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” He says. Therefore, when you consume Jesus’ body and blood—when you consume Truth and Life made flesh—you walk away from the Table with the truth of God’s Word inside your very body. The devil’s whispers may still linger afterward, but he cannot undo what God said in the Sacrament. The devil might even convince you, but God remains convinced that you are innocent, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb [Rev. 7:13-14]. Therefore, after you leave the Table and you hear the words as from Christ Himself, “Depart in peace,” go, and from now on sin no more, for the Son of God has freed you from your former taskmasters in the life and truth of His body and blood for the forgiveness of all your sins to dwell in the house of the Lord forever, to whom belongs all the glory. Amen.