John 8:31-36 Our text stands in the middle of a long conversation Jesus was having with Jews who were traveling with him to --and then attending-- the Feast of Tabernacles.
During this festival the Jews remembered all that God did for them during their years in the wilderness—how he led them night and day and fed them with manna from heaven and gave them water to drink. Every year they remembered and gave thanks to the great I AM, the LORD, for his mighty saving acts.
It is in this context, as they travelled along and attended the festival that Jesus said: I AM the bread of life. I AM the Light of the World. I AM the living water. And he capped it all off by saying, before Abraham was, I AM.
Hearing those words and understanding what Jesus meant, some of the unbelieing Jews in the crowd picked up stones to kill him for his supposed blasphemy. They knew he was identifying himself with the Savior God of old. But there were also some of the Jews, who, having heard his words, believed him and came to faith in him as their Messiah.
With believers and unbelievers surrounding Jesus, with his identity in question, the scene in our text is a microcosm of the world today. Jesus always stands at the center of time and history and surrounding him is every person on earth. And the only things that really, ultimately matters for each person is their relationship to Jesus: whether they reject him or receive him in faith as their Savior.
John said that he wrote his Gospel so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing in him have life in his name. God grant that saving faith in Jesus to each of us in this place today! The Bible says:
Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
In that great crowd of Jews around Jesus there were some who, having heard his words and teaching, came to faith that he was the Messiah promised by their prophets and sent by their heavenly Father. They came to faith through the Words of Jesus.
We must never lose our confidence that the Word of God has the power to accomplish its saving purpose in human hearts—calling those who are dead in sin and trespass to new life in God! So it is for every believer in every time and place that we have been born again by the living and enduring Word of God.
But it is also critically important that we hear these words of Jesus about the necessity of abiding in, remaining in his word if we are truly his disciples. In the church of Luther’s day we see what happens when that doesn’t happen, when there is a departure from God’s Word.
In large measure the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ was almost lost altogether as people in churches were told that their good works and their monetary offerings were what gained them heaven rather than faith in the Son of God. As we remember that history…
There is no cause for spiritual pride on our part because we are made up of the same stuff as-- the Jews who needed to hear these words about remaining steadfast in the Word of God-- and the church of Luther’s day that needed reforming by the Word of God.
Jesus’ call to remain steadfast to his word, and especially the Gospel truth that sets the sinner free, is needed more than ever because there is a world full of people who do not understand how desperate their own spiritual condition is apart from Jesus. The Bible says that:
They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
Here we hear the voice of those who rejected Jesus rather than receiving him. They rejected him because they didn’t think they needed him—after all, they were the descendants of Abraham! These were a religious people, doing religious things, making a religious claim and yet they were profoundly spiritually deceived.
So it still is today. Just in the last month or so I have encountered people who think they are going to be saved because, in their own words, they were heritage Lutherans—that coming from a long of Lutherans somehow makes you right in God’s sight.
I’ve encountered an elderly man who thinks he will be saved because he has lived an outwardly moral life. Martin Luther believed that he would be saved because he was a priest and a monk and fasted and made a pilgrimage to Rome.
But Luther-- and the misguided folks of our own day-- and the Jews of Jesus’ day-- all have to come to terms with the judgment of Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.
This is why there was no peace for Luther—he knew his own sin! This is what the person who has lived a long, outwardly moral life has to contend with: an equally long life of not meeting God’s expectations. This is what the so-called heritage Lutherans of our day and the Jews of Jesus’ day have to contend with: a family connection that does not save them but condemns them because they are actually children of Adam in his sin.
These words of Jesus powerfully speak to the natural human condition of all of us: that we were brought forth into this world in iniquity—that we are, by nature, poor sinful beings.
Please, please understand: no family connections of ours-- and no good works of ours-- and no religious affiliation of ours is ever going to deliver us from slavery to sin and death and the power of the devil. Only Jesus can do that. Jesus said:
The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Here’s the judgment of God on all of those who are by nature, slaves to sin: you have no lasting place in God’s house because you are not his child. No matter your good works, no matter your lesser guilt, no matter your religious claims, no matter your family heritage—slaves remain slaves until the Son sets them free.
That is exactly what Jesus came to do! He is the Son who was truly faithful to his Father in thought, word, and deed. He is the Son who held fast to his Father’s Words. He is the Son who took upon himself the form of a slave, being born in our likeness, and humbled himself into death, even death on the cross. He is the Son who forgave our sins, conquered our enemies, and showed in his resurrection that he has the power to set us free us even from death. He is the Son who has gone to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house so that where he is, we can be also.
We are free indeed from our sins; free indeed from Satan’s power; free indeed from the fear of death. Because we have been set free by Jesus we are no longer slaves to sin, but we are children of God, members of his family, and we will live forever in our heavenly Father’s house.
Now, you would think that hearing that Good News, everyone would receive it in faith and put their trust in Jesus—but they don’t. Jesus said:
I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you.
Jesus knew and understood that the people who stood before him had a physical, family connection to Abraham. What they didn’t know and understand is that was not enough to save them. It was not the family of Abraham that saved sinners-- but the faith of Abraham that saved sinners—faith in a Savior in whom all the world would be blessed.
That Savior stood before them and they should have rejoiced to see the promises of God fulfilled in the person of Jesus. But when Jesus finished speaking to the Jews around him at the feast, when he said he was their Savior God come in human flesh, the unbelievers among them picked up stones to put him to death. And so it this hatred has gone down through the years.
When Luther told the people of his day that all you had to do to be saved was believe in Jesus, he was excommunicated from the church and would have been burned at the stake if they could have found him. When the pastor tells people that being a heritage Lutheran won’t save you and neither will a life of good works, they become angry. When we the church tell our friends and neighbors that all religious roads don’t lead to a life with God we are called hateful and intolerant.
And so why is there this kind of visceral, hate-filled reaction to the saving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? Jesus tells us why:
I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
Two of our hymns today, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” are from a section of the hymnal called The Church Militant. In other words, the church in battle. There is a spiritual battle that rages around us and there is not one person on earth who is not on one side or the other in that spiritual battle.
Those who receive the words of our Lord Jesus Christ and abide in him have God as their heavenly Father and those who reject the words of Jesus have the devil as their father. There is no morally neutral, spiritual middle ground in this conflict, there are no non-combatants.
And so then we should not be surprised that the world hates the Gospel and the world hates the Christian who hold fast to it because they hated Jesus first. But neither should we be afraid and neither should we shrink back. In our Lord’s death and resurrection he stands victorious over our enemies and the gate of hell will not prevail against his church as we boldly proclaim that we are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone! Amen.