Abiding in the teaching of Christ is the mark of true Christian discipleship. Those who do so will know the truth and the truth will set them free (John 8:31–32). Jesus spoke these words to some Jews who “believed” in Him after He proclaimed Himself the light of the world (vv. 12–30), but in today’s passage we get the first indications that their belief was not true, saving faith. In the dialogue that begins in 8:33 and continues to the end of the chapter, we learn just how far from true faith these individuals were.
First, we see that the Jews rightly recognized in Jesus’ comments about freedom in verses 31–32 a charge that they, in fact, were not free. So, they objected that they were children of Abraham and had never been enslaved to anyone. Given that the Romans were in control of the Holy Land when this exchange took place, the Jews were not talking about physical bondage. Instead, they spoke of spiritual bondage. It was a tradition among the rabbis that the descendants of Abraham were in a higher position spiritually than other people. The Jews, then, claimed the spiritual status of freemen, not that of slaves. They did not see themselves as in bondage to wickedness like the gentiles.
Of course, Jesus was also talking about spiritual bondage, and in verses 34–37, He charges that His audience was, in fact, enslaved to sin, the evidence being their practice of sin and their attempts to kill Him. In saying this, Jesus was revealing supernatural knowledge of their hearts; these Jews had not yet tried to kill Him, but they soon would make the attempt (v. 59). In any case, Jesus responded that as the Son in the household of God, He was already free and could set free anyone in bondage to sin (vv. 35–36). God the Son is perfectly free from sin, and He has the power and authority to release those who are in bondage. He does this when we believe in Him, sharing with us His freedom. John Calvin comments, “For what he possesses as his own by nature he imparts to us by adoption, when we are ingrafted by faith into his body, and become his members.”
Jesus brings true spiritual freedom. Mere physical descent from Abraham is not enough. To be free like Abraham is to do what Abraham did (vv. 39–40). To be free like Abraham is to be a servant of Christ. Augustine of Hippo says in a sermon on today’s passage that “our hope is this, brethren, to be made free by the free One; and that, in setting us free, He may make us His servants. For we were the servants of lust; but being set free, we are made the servants of love.”