Let me join the chorus of welcome this evening especially if you’re here for the first time. You will see from the sermon outline on the back of the service sheet that we are looking this evening at John 8:31-59. That's on page 1074 of the Bibles in the pews. Do have that open in front of you if you can. We heard most of that read earlier – and that reading is printed out in the service sheet, so you can see it there too. We need to hear God speak rather than me, and the Bible is the word of God so if you’ve got the Bible in front of you then you can check out what I say is true.
My title is 'Where Do You Belong?' We need to know where we belong – otherwise we get lost. Horace did not know where he belonged. Horace is a pet tortoise – a Herman’s Tortoise to be precise. Last year, Horace wandered off from the garden where he belongs. That is a silly thing to do. It could have been fatal. His owner was worried he wouldn’t survive the winter away from his comfortable and spacious garden. Thankfully, Horace was found, and he had a microchip in his shell that enabled his home to be identified. He had been missing for eight months. In that time, Horace covered a distance of 1.8 miles.
Where do you belong? If you’re here for the first time, then no doubt in the back of your mind you’re asking yourself whether you belong here. If you’ve just arrived in Newcastle to start University, then I would imagine you’re wondering when you’ll have a group of friends among whom you can feel that you belong.
It’s not always so very easy to tell who is a friend and who is not. The one who says he’s a friend to start with doesn’t necessarily turn out to be a true friend in the long run. And that is true just as much of friends of Christ. That somebody says they have faith doesn’t necessarily mean that they do. Indeed, that uncertainty may sometimes affect our own hearts. Maybe you used to call yourself a believer, but now you’re not so sure. Maybe your parents are Christians and you need to settle the issue of whether you are. How do we know that our own faith is real? How can we be sure that we really do have a place in the family of God and belong here?
These are the issues that underlie the explosive encounter in this passage between Jesus and some Jews who at first appear to be believers.
What is the context of this debate (if that is not too polite a word for it - perhaps row would be better)? What’s going on here is that there is turmoil amongst the people over the issue of the identity of Jesus in the face of the claims that he’s making for himself. The questions everyone is asking are these: “Who is this man? Do I believe in him?”
And there’s a sense of faith or apparent faith in Jesus ebbing and flowing and swirling around amongst all those following him about. Some hate him, some love him. Some grumble, some trust. Some join him, others desert him. In 6:66 we are told that
many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
Then we get to 8:30 which says:
even as [Jesus] spoke, many put their faith in him.
And our passage begins at 8:31 with this:
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said...
So Jesus is speaking to Jews who say that they believe in him. But Jesus proceeds to tear their profession of faith to shreds. He exposes their faith as a sham.
Now as we hear Jesus challenging these false disciples the question we need to ask ourselves is this: Do we show that our faith is real? If you call yourself a Christian, does your life show that you mean what you say about believing in Jesus and following him? Because we have to remember that true faith inevitably shows itself in the way we live, and the kind of people that we are. We are not saved – we are not forgiven – by the way we live but by the death of Christ for our sins and by trusting in him. But real faith does change the way we live. As we ask ourselves whether our faith is real, can you feel the eyes of Jesus on us, just as he must have looked into the eyes of those Jews who had once believed him?
Well, as you can see from my outline, I have two questions for us from these verses. First, are you a slave – or have you been set free? And secondly, do you listen to lies – or do you love Jesus. These may be disconcerting questions. The gaze of Jesus on us may be uncomfortable. But we cannot avoid these issues. So:
First, ARE YOU A SLAVE – OR HAVE YOU BEEN SET FREE?
All the way through this hostile debate everything that Jesus says is matched by a counter assertion by these Jews. They make counter-claims about themselves and about Jesus which are in absolute contradiction of everything Jesus says.
So here Jesus says “You are slaves” and his protagonists reply “We have never been slaves”. Jesus says “Freedom is to be found through me” and they say, “We are already free”. Verse 31:
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered him,
We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?
That is a fine example of the blindness of unbelief that cannot see the truth even when it is stuck under their noses. “We have never been slaves!” But Abraham’s family - the Israelites - spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt before God rescued them. And at the time of Jesus they were under the mighty thumb of the Roman Empire. Verse 34:
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”
Unbelief makes us slaves to sin and blind with it. But faith in Christ sets us free from sin - and opens our eyes to the truth. Verse 36:
So if the Son [that’s Jesus] sets you free, you will be free indeed.
We so easily fall into the trap of thinking that if we throw off the shackles of how God wants us to live and abandon ourselves to whatever sin takes our fancy, that is freedom. No, says Jesus – sin enslaves. The so-called freedoms of university life – sex, drugs and drink – actually enslave and destroy true freedom. It is faith in Christ that brings real freedom.
That doesn’t mean that we cease to sin. Faith opens our eyes to the reality of sin in our lives that before we were blind to. It can be a painful and depressing sight. But a sensitive conscience is not a sign of slavery to sin. It is the beginning of the end of sin in our lives. The chains of condemnation fall away the moment we put our trust in Jesus. But the stones of sin are picked out of our lives one by one - gradually but surely.
Now the Jews insist again that Abraham is their father. Then they are stung by Jesus’ accusations that their attitudes and actions betray a quite different paternity - and then they claim (verse 41):
“The only father we have is God himself.”
But Jesus sees into their hearts and recognises a different influence. Verses 39-40:
“If you were Abraham’s children”, said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.”
Who is their own father? Jesus spells it out a bit later on – down in verse 44:
“You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
The stark reality is that we are caught up in unseen spiritual warfare between two unequal kingdoms. Ultimately there is no neutral territory - no nomansland. The alternative to faith in Christ is to be so under Satan’s influence that Jesus describes us as the devil’s children. As Paul puts it in Colossians 1:13:
[God the Father] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves...
Abraham was on the side of Christ. Those who have true faith “do the things Abraham did”. Abraham left behind his old life totally in obedience to God’s call. He gave up the worldly sophistication of a great city for an uncertain life wandering the Middle East. He was ready to give up his beloved son Isaac in obedience to God’s call. In other words his whole life was shaped by his faith. The spiritual battle is as real now as it was then. Where do you belong? The dominion of darkness – or the family of God?
So that’s the first question for all of us: Are you a slave – or have you been set free?
Secondly, DO YOU LISTEN TO LIES – OR DO YOU LOVE JESUS?
Where do we stand? Is what Jesus says the truth or not?
In a film I saw the other night there was a teenager who claimed to hate everyone including his whole family. Emblazoned on his t-shirt were the words: ‘Jesus Was Wrong’. If you are just starting your student life, then the most valuable thing you can do in the next three years or so is to settle that issue once and for all. Was Jesus wrong? Is what Jesus says the truth?
John’s Gospel is in no doubt. And the claim of Jesus is crystal clear. He speaks the truth. And only the truth he speaks can set us free. And what is more, the primary source of all denials that the truth is to be found in Jesus is Satan himself. So according to what Jesus says here, the issue for us is this. Do we open the door of our minds to the evil influence of the devil’s lies, which simmer away and then boil up in hostility to Christ and the life of faith? Or are we ready to shut our minds to Satan’s lies, and turn away from sin and evil, and leave behind everything that Christ asks us to leave, for his sake? Who do we belong to? Is it Christ? Or is it Satan? In the end, the way we live our lives will show how we answer that.
If you’re not yet clear whether Jesus is the truth, then our Christianity Explored groups are a great place to start. They’re designed to help people, in a relaxed, informal, and friendly way, to get to grips with who Jesus was, what he said, what he did, and what it all means for us today. They do that through video and discussion based on Mark’s Gospel. If you’re interested – or you know someone who might be – then make sure you’ve got one of the leaflets. The first Christianity Explored group for students starts on Tuesday 17 October.
Jesus says of these Jews that they have no room for his word. We need to make room for the word of Jesus in our lives. And then we find freedom. And then we will learn to love him. What none of us can escape is that Jesus gives us a stark choice. We either live our lives on the basis of lies – or we love him. Verse 42:
“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here”.
When Jesus looks into our hearts he is seeking a single-minded devotion to himself.
I am fascinated and inspired by the life of John Newton, the 18th Century slave trader who was converted to Christ, and who wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. In the early years of his Christian life he tended to think of God as a distant power who he must obey. But partly through the witness and friendship of a fellow sea captain, Newton discovered that God’s love could be warmer than he had dreamed possible. He began to find, as he later wrote, …
that the union of a believer with Christ is so intimate, so unalterable, so rich in privilege, so powerful in influence that it cannot be fully represented by any earthly simile. The Lord, by his Spirit, showed and confirmed His love and made Himself known as He met me at the throne of grace. He opened and applied His precious promises, and enrolled me to cry in prayer to the Father… Wonderful are the effects when a crucified, glorious Saviour is presented by the power of the Spirit, in the light of His Word, to the eye of faith. This sight destroys the love of sin, heals the wounds of guilt, softens the hard heart and fills the soul with peace, love and joy, and makes obedience practical, desirable and pleasant. The knowledge of His love to me produced a return of love to Him. I now adored Him and admired Him.
That’s a great example of the love that burns in a believer’s heart. Pray that that will increasingly be our experience too. If God is our Father, then we will love Jesus.
There in v 48 these Jews accuse Jesus of being possessed by a demon – which is no more than typical of the way that unbelief calls what is good evil and what is evil good. I remember talking to someone who had taken a friend who wasn’t a Christian along to a mission event that was dealing with the subject of the occult from a Christian perspective. This friend had an unhealthy interest in the occult. Afterwards the Christian asked his friend what he had made of it. He was taken aback by the reaction he got. His friend said he thought the speaker was a liar and a hypocrite. Unbelief calls what is good, evil.
Well, Jesus rebuts the charge that he is demon possessed, then he says (verse 51):
“I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death”.
What did he mean by that? After all, Abraham did indeed die. Was Jesus wrong? Jesus doesn’t get things wrong. He doesn’t mean that true Christians won’t die physically. Unless Christ returns first, we’re all heading for the grave. What Jesus means is that believers will never experience the second death – which is hell itself.
True believers have confidence that because of the death of Jesus they will not be condemned on the Day of Judgement. True believers have confidence that physical death is therefore the gateway into the loving presence of Jesus their Lord and Saviour. And that transforms our attitude to physical death. Its terrible bitterness is taken away. But that confidence, that assurance, is only ours when we have been set free and when as a result of our new freedom we love Jesus. If we remain slaves to sin and if we continue to listen to lies, then death retains its terrible, bitter taste.
It is wonderful thing to see the impact of the promise of Jesus in the heart of a dying Christian. I have seen with my own eyes the peace and joy of believers who have trusted Christ for decades as they lie dying. The suffering is real. But so is the confidence that they are going home to Christ.
Every one of us needs to face up to the fact that our death lies a short time ahead, and when we die we will come face to face with Christ. Ten days ago I read an account in one of the local papers of what happened to a 19 year old young woman from around here. The paper described her as “full of fun and full of life” and with everything to live for. This summer while she was on holiday she started to complain of feeling sick. She was told she had indigestion. A few weeks later, back home, she died of cancer.
We all know about death of course – in theory. But if you’re a student you probably still have that gut instinct that somehow you will be the first person in history death passes over so you’ll live for ever. And if that’s overstating it, then you do probably think there’s no way you’ll die young. And you’re probably right. But maybe not. I remember some years ago praying in this building with a student who had recently discovered she had a brain tumor. A short while later she died.
Whether or not we die young, though, life races by. And it is critically important that we take the opportunity now to make room in our lives for the word of Jesus. If what he says is true, then our eternal destiny depends on how we react to him. If we take him at his word and trust him, then knowing him brings victory over death.
Right the way through this fierce debate, everything that these false disciples say dishonours Christ. Their words and their behaviour are like a negative photographic image of the true disciple. Where they bring dishonour to Jesus, the true disciple brings glory to his name. So here, in verse 56, to the consternation of his hearers, Jesus says:
“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Abraham rejoices when he sees Christ by faith. But when nominal Christians hear Jesus claiming to be far greater than Abraham, they can’t stomach him any longer. Verse 58:
“I tell you truth”, Jesus answered, “before Abraham was, I am!” At this they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.
So because they will not glorify Jesus, they lose him. They no longer hear his word. They no longer see him. They are no longer with him. He withdraws from them. The light goes out of their lives.
How different it is when we acknowledge him as our Saviour and our King. The more deeply we surrender our lives to him, the more profoundly we experience the wideness of his mercy, and the depth of his love.
So let me ask each one of us: Do you show that your faith is real? Do you know in your own experience what it is to be set free by Jesus, rather than to be a slave to sin? Do you love Jesus and live to serve him rather than listening to the lies about him? Do you belong to him?
If you doubt it, then now is the time to make sure. Decide today to surrender your life to God. Believe in Jesus. And trust his promise:
… if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
If you’re already free – if you do already know what true faith is all about, then rejoice. Rejoice that you are a child of God. Rejoice that you belong in his family. Rejoice in your eternal destiny. And commit yourself afresh to spending your life in bringing glory to his name.