Tuesday, October 01, 2013

John 8:31-36 - The True Disciples of Jesus

Do you know who Joseph Cosey is? In the late 1920s, he became notorious for his expert skill in forgery. Cosey began to earn quite a living forging signatures of significant historical figures like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, but his claim to fame was his nearly exact replicas of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington’s signatures. So prolific was Cosey that, among the many documents and pictures of Lincoln and Washington bearing signatures that are in circulation today, a good number of them are actually fakes produced by Cosey, or copies of Cosey’s fakes. An original Cosey document is worth quite a bit of money because of his notoriety in the forgery trade. Cosey’s skill at counterfeiting signatures teaches us the importance of distinguishing the real from the fake, and his success at it reminds us that the task of identifying the genuine article is sometimes extremely difficult. When it comes to historical memorabilia, the stakes can be pretty high. But the stakes are infinitely higher when it comes to the difference between genuine disciples of Jesus and counterfeit believers. Nowhere is it more important to know the difference between the genuine and the fake than when it comes to this.

It has been a month since our last look at John’s Gospel, so let me remind you of the preceding context. In verses 21-30, Jesus was speaking about His departure from this life through His crucifixion. He spoke directly to the Jewish crowd gathered around Him at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles, warning them of the tragic reality of what it means to die in one’s sin. And as a result of His pointed words there, verse 30 says, “many came to believe in Him.” That sounds like a good cause for rejoicing! People are believing in Jesus! And now in verses 31 and following, Jesus turns His attention to those Jews who believed in Him there and makes it very clear that not all who profess to believe in Him are truly His disciples. This passage teaches us that just because a person experiences some attraction to Jesus, or professes some measure of faith in Him, they are not necessarily truly born-again followers of Christ. Some are just faking it.

We’ve seen this before in John’s Gospel. In Chapter 2, after Jesus turned the water in to wine, John 2:23 says, “many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing.” But the very next verses say, “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” Jesus did not have any faith in their faith. He knew it was just a superficial kind of faith. We might even call it counterfeit faith. Then again in Chapter 6, after another series of miracles and bold statements, Jesus had amassed a large number of followers. But when He began to speak about the hard truths of being His followers, John 6:66 says that “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” They had demonstrated that their faith in Him was not genuine because it was only shallow and temporary. These, like the ones in Chapter 2, were counterfeit disciples. But now a new crowd of people have attached themselves to Jesus. They have come to some level of belief in Him. And once again, Jesus speaks to them of the hard truths of what it means to be His disciple. And the words He spoke on that occasion are particularly relevant to us today.

According to the Gallup organization, 77% of Americans surveyed in 2012 (more than 3 out of every 4!) claimed to be Christian.[1] Now let me ask you: when you look around at our society, does it really look like we live in a nation where 3 of every 4 people are truly disciples of Christ? If 3 of every 4 people in America were really true disciples of Christ, would we be facing the moral degradation that we see in our nation on issues like abortion, homosexuality, divorce, sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol addiction, and other things of this nature? You see, so many times, we want to withdraw from our culture and retreat into the holy huddle of the Church building and complain about the spiritual and moral decay “out there,” but the statistics and realities we see around us indicate that the real root of the problem may in fact be “in here.” Might it be that significant percentages of those who think they are Christians really and truly are not, and that this is a contributing factor to the culture’s spiritual and ethical tailspin? There has never been a greater need for the Church of Jesus Christ to understand the difference between false believers and true disciples. And there is no time better than the present for every person who professes faith in Christ to do as Paul admonishes us in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” So what is a true disciple of Jesus Christ? In this text, Jesus identifies the distinguishing mark of a true disciple and the unique blessings of a true disciple.

I. The Distinguishing Mark of a True Disciple (v31)

If I were to ask you, “What is a true disciple of Jesus?” what would you say? I imagine that at least some of you would say, “A person who believes in Jesus.” And yet here, Jesus is speaking to a group of people who, at least on some level, do believe in Him, and He says that some of them may not in fact be true disciples. He says that there is a distinguishing characteristic that serves to identify a true disciple, and you might be surprised to know that this characteristic is not simply saying that you believe in Him.

He says, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine.” Notice that this is not a condition of being a true disciple. He is not saying, “If you continue in My word, then you will become a true disciple.” He says, “If you continue in My word, then you ARE truly disciples of Mine.” The difference is subtle but significant. Put one way, the impetus is upon us to perform our way into the Kingdom of God. Do this in order to become that. That is about as far from the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as you can get. In fact, I would say that if you have ever walked away from hearing me or Pastor Jack preach in this pulpit and thought we said that the key to being a Christian was working harder, trying harder, and doing better, then you grossly missed the point. Jesus isn’t saying, “If you try harder and do better, you can become My disciple.” Rather He is saying that if you have truly become His disciple by faith – that is, if you faith in Him is genuine – then this will be true of you: you will continue in His Word. That is NOT “do this to become that.” It is “You are this, therefore this is true of you.” A true disciple is distinguished, not by his or her verbal claim to believe in Jesus, but by the reality that is present in his or her life that they continue in His Word.
So what does it mean to continue in His Word? Your English translation might read here “continue” or “hold to,” but the Greek word that originally occurs here is most literally translated “abide” (as the New King James has it). The great commentator Matthew Henry said of this that it means “to dwell in Christ’s word, as a man does at home, which is his centre, and rest, and refuge.”[2] The life of the true disciple is lived out in the sphere of Christ’s word. It has to do with perseverance. Jesus is saying that it is not enough to begin well; what matters is that we continue on and finish the course of our lives in faith and obedience to His Word. The mark of the true disciple is that he or she remains committed to the truth of Jesus Christ and His word throughout their lives. There should be an appetite for the Word of God in a true disciple, and a desire to read it, hear it, understand it, apply it, and obey it. That appetite should continue and even increase throughout the days of our lives. This is not what makes a person a Christian; rather it is what proves that a person is a Christian. Anyone can say that he or she believes in Jesus, and by that, they mean any number of things. They may simply mean that they believe that He existed; they may mean that they agree with and even appreciate the things that He said. But the true disciple is one who has a personal relationship with Jesus that begins with a complete and total surrender to Him as Lord and a personal trust in Him as Savior and continues abiding in His word throughout life.

A true disciple does not merely believe that Jesus lived and died, or even that He actually rose from the dead. A true disciple believes that Jesus did this for me: that Jesus lived to satisfy the righteous demands of God’s law on my behalf, so that I can be covered in His righteousness, since I am unable to be righteous on my own effort; that Jesus died to bear the full penalty of my sins for me so that my sins are removed through the blood He shed on the cross; that Jesus rose again for me, so that I can have eternal life through Him. And as a result of this, I commit myself to Him by faith, trusting Him alone to save me, and yielding my allegiance to Him as my Lord and King. It is a personal relationship, knowing that He is with me, that He speaks to me through His Word, and that He loves me and cares for me, and invites me to commune with Him through prayer and worship, and desires for me to live to bring Him glory. His word feeds my soul and instructs Me in living for His glory. The true disciple never outgrows his or her need to continue abiding in the Word of God. It is the milk that feeds us in our spiritual infancy, the meat that sustains us as we mature in the faith, and the bread that gives life to us as we digest it. 

If a person claims to be a believer in Christ, and does not have an appetite for God’s Word, and is not continuing in His Word, Jesus says that they are not a true disciple. What then are they? They are a false believer. You might wonder if there could be such a thing! There is. Jesus tells us this plainly in many places in the Gospels, but nowhere more clearly than in the parable of the sower and the soils.

In Mark 4, Jesus talks about a sower who sows his seed, and the seed lands upon different kinds of soil. Some of it falls on the hard packed ground beside the road, and is eaten by the birds. Some of the seed falls into stony ground, where there is not much soil. It springs up quickly, but it is scorched by the sun because it lacks roots to sustain it. Some of the seed falls into thorny ground, and as it begins to grow, it is choked out by the weeds and thorns. But some of the seed falls into good soil, and it grows up and produces an abundant crop. Jesus explained the parable to His followers, saying that the seed is the Word of God. The seed that fell by the road represents those who hear the word, but immediately the word is taken away by Satan. Their hearts are hard to the word of Christ, and the seed does not penetrate them. The seed that fell in the rocky soil, which bloomed immediately only to be scorched by the sun represents those who immediately receive the word with joy, but who fall away when affliction or persecution arises. The seed that fell in the thorny ground only to be choked out by the thorns as it began to grow represents those who initially receive the word, but who turn away from Christ because of the worries of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things. None of these are true disciples of Christ, even though initially some of them professed to believe in Him. It is the seed that lands in good soil and grows to produce a bountiful harvest that represents the true disciple. The true disciple endures and perseveres through persecution and affliction. The true disciple is not led astray from Christ by worldly enticements. The true disciple abides in the Word and continues walking with Jesus even though life gets hard and the world attempts to entice them away with many temptations.

It is likely that we have known many who came to Christ with much enthusiasm initially, but who began to suffer some affliction in their lives and turned away from Christ because of it. Some might have cowered to intimidation and persecution and gave up on Jesus in order to protect themselves, their reputations, their social status, and the like. Some might have decided that there were other things in life that were more important to them than Jesus – they opted to pursue wealth, possessions, relationships, or pleasures that they did not think they could obtain by walking faithfully with Jesus. Maybe some of you find yourselves in these descriptions. Do not rest in a false assurance that things are well with you and God because you once prayed a prayer when you were a child. Perhaps you have watched your children or other loved ones wander away from Jesus in ways like this. Do not assume that because they prayed a prayer or were baptized upon joining the church that they are genuinely saved! Remember that Jesus is here talking to people who had “believed in Him,” but their belief in Him was superficial and shallow. Some of these will pick up stones to kill Him before this very chapter ends! They demonstrate that they are not true disciples of Jesus because they do not continue abiding in His Word.

These are uncomfortable truths for us to wrestle with, because many of us have been taught for a long time that proverbial Baptist expression, “Once saved, always saved.” Perhaps you think I am saying something contrary to that, but in reality I am not. It is true that if a person is genuinely saved, he or she is forever secure in Christ. But, what I am saying – in fact, what Jesus is saying here – is that not everyone who professes to believe in Him is genuinely saved. So how can we know? Genuine faith bears a distinguishing mark – a person who is a true disciple of Jesus will continue to abide in His Word. Our abiding does not save us; our salvation produces the abiding. One of the surest ways of knowing that you genuinely belong to Christ is that you sense within yourself a continuing and increasing appetite, a hunger, a sense of dependence on Christ and His Word. This is the distinguishing mark of a true disciple.

II. The Unique Blessings of a True Disciple (vv32-36)

Now that Jesus has distinguished between the counterfeit believer and the true disciple, He goes on to speak of two particular blessings that the true disciple will receive. In verse 32, He says that the true disciple, the one who abides in His word, will “know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Now, when He says that the true disciple will “know the truth,” this is not to say that no one else in the world can know anything that is true. There are true facts that can be known by anyone, regardless of their spiritual condition. But there is a truth, we might call it “Truth” (with a capital “T”), that can only be known by the follower of Jesus. And the significance of this Truth is so great, that all other truths pale in comparison to it. It is a Truth that, if one does not know it, it matters very little what else one does know; and if one knows this Truth, then it matters very little what else he or she does not know. This Truth is not an intellectual concept or a philosophical proposition, but is an actual living Person. In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” So, He is saying that He Himself is Truth, and to know Him is to have eternal access to God the Father. Everyone who is attempting to approach God in any other way, or to know God in any way outside of coming to Him and knowing Him through Jesus Christ, is basing their life and all eternity on falsehoods. God’s truth is revealed and is moreover incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, if we want to know God and come to Him, we must come to Him and know Him in Jesus Christ.

Being Truth in the flesh, Jesus is true and trustworthy.  Because He is true and trustworthy, then the things He says are, by necessity true, and the things which He says are true are true indeed. And in John 17:17, Jesus prays to the Father, saying, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” So, knowing Truth involves knowing God Himself through Jesus Christ (who is God’s true Living Word), and through the Bible (which is God’s true Written Word). It is that Word in which we abide as a result of being His disciple. The true disciple, even though he or she may be uneducated and ignorant of many things in this world, knows a Truth that far outweighs all other truths. He or she knows God – they do not merely know facts about God, but they know God in a personal and relational way, because He has been revealed in Christ and in Scripture. Some of you have known godly people like this – some of you are godly people like this! I have spent time with some of the most precious saints of God, who by modern standards never received more than a middle school education, and who are completely unaware and unconcerned with matters of philosophy, science, or politics. But, they have a wisdom that the world does not know, because their lives are anchored in this ultimate Truth. They know Christ Himself, and walk with Him faithfully. They know God’s Word, and they know how to apply it to their lives in every situation that comes their way. That is not to say that all Christians are uneducated and ignorant, though the world sometimes would have us believe that. In fact, some of the most well-educated and brilliant people I have known are completely sold out to Jesus. Their intellect shines all the more because it is fixed upon the Truth of Christ and His Word. They know the Truth because they are truly disciples of Christ who are abiding in His Word. That is a unique blessing reserved for true disciples.

But Jesus goes on to say that there is another unique blessing for His true disciples: they are set free as a result of the Truth that they know. What is this freedom that Jesus is speaking about? The context helps us to understand.

When Jesus speaks to this group of people about the Truth making them free, notice how they respond. Almost immediately, they demonstrate their unwillingness to abide in His Word. It offends them, and they want to get out from under His Word. That is enough to suggest that they are not truly committed to Him. They protest and object to His Word about being made free, and they claim that they do not need this. They say, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone!” This is a bold-faced lie. Almost their entire history has been one of bondage. They were enslaved in Egypt, conquered by Assyria, deported by Babylon, subservient to Persia, engulfed by Greece, and at the time of this conversation they were living as conquered people under the iron fist of Rome. But, Jesus doesn’t dwell on their lie. The kind of freedom He is talking about can be experienced even by people who are enslaved, controlled, and dominated by other earthly powers. There is an enslavement that is harsher than physical or political slavery.
You and I live in a land that cherishes “freedom.” Since 1776, we have been an “independent” nation, free from the control of other powers. But not everyone in America was free. In the saddest chapters of our nation’s history, multitudes of people were enslaved to taskmasters who treated them inhumanely. In the 1860s, this form of slavery was abolished, but still not all were free. Since the 1960s, great strides have been made in civil rights, but still not all are free. The kind of slavery and freedom that Jesus is speaking about has nothing to do with the personal or political liberties that a person or a nation enjoys. Even in a free land with laws protecting the rights of free people, many are still enslaved and in need of being set free in the way that Jesus speaks of it here.

He is talking about freedom from sin. Notice in verse 34, He says, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” Because every human being is born in sin, we are all born into slavery. Every human being can sing the words of Charles Wesley: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night.” But only the true disciple of Christ can sing the rest of the words: “Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free. I rose, went forth, and follwed Thee!” The truth of Jesus Christ sets us free from this enslavement. But, even among those who are truly disciples of Christ, who have been set free in this way, we still sin. Does that mean that we have not truly been set free? No. When Jesus speaks of those who “commit sin” and are thus “slaves of sin,” He speaks with a present tense participle that indicates a person who “continues in sin.” They are not “continuing in His Word,” but rather “continuing in sin,” meaning that they are willfully engaging in ongoing patterns of sin with no regard for turning from it in repentance. This pattern of sin demonstrates that the person is enslaved; but the practice of such sin also strengthens the bonds of their slavery. But do we not all continue to sin in some way? Indeed we do. But when a person who has been set free from sin commits a sin, there is a difference. It is a momentary lapse – a forgetting of one’s true state. Old habits die hard. We are accustomed to following our corrupted desires, because for much of our lives it was the only way we knew to live. In that moment of sin, we forgot that we were free to follow our new Master (Jesus) rather than following our old master (sin).

It’s like this: on April 29, 2004, the last Oldsmobile that would ever be made rolled off the assembly line. There would be no more Oldsmobiles ever manufactured. But, all of the Oldsmobiles didn’t disappear from the road on that day. We still see them driving up and down the road, even though the Oldsmobile factory has been shut down. But with every passing year, you will see fewer and fewer of them on the road. You see, when Jesus sets you free from sin, He shuts down the sin factory in your life. You are no longer a product of that assembly line, you belong to Him. But you still see the reminders of that old factory riding around in your life. The sins that a Christian commits are like Oldsmobiles – relics of a defunct factory. And you will still see them until you are perfected and glorified in the presence of Jesus. But hopefully, as you abide in the Word of Christ, you will see fewer and fewer of them because He is shaping and sanctifying you as you walk with Him as His disciple.

When a Christian commits a sin, its different than when an unbeliever continues in sin. For the Christian, there is the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit’s conviction. He pricks our conscience and sounds the alarm in our lives that something is not right. He reminds us that we have forgotten that we have been set free. This drives us to confession and repentance and we are freshly cleansed by the blood of Christ as we turn to Him with a contrite heart. But the one who continues in sin operates with abandon and the Holy Spirit’s conviction is not sensed by them at all. They are continuing in sin because it is all they can do; they are slaves to sin and they are merely doing the bidding of their master. Jesus says that He is able to set us free from this, and because He is not a slave, but the Son of God, He is able to transform the slaves of sin into sons and daughters of God who have full access to the Father and to His dwelling place. “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever” Jesus says in verse 35. If He were merely God’s servant, God’s slave, He could not make us eternal promises about liberation. But because He is God’s Son, and abides with Him forever, He is able to set us free forever from the enslavement of sin! By His death, we are freed from the penalty of sin. He bore it for us. By His indwelling life, we are freed from the power of sin. A greater power dwells within us, and we can overcome sin. And ultimately, praise God, when we see Jesus face to face in heaven, we will be free for eternity from the very presence of sin, never again to see or experience it or its heinous effects. Some people misunderstand what it means to be free in Christ. They think it means that we are free to sin. No, we were already free to sin. In fact it is all we could do! But now, we are free to live for Christ! We are free to not sin, and to choose each moment of each day to live for His glory as we abide in His word.

To be free in this way is to be free indeed. It is to be free in a way that no earthly power can overcome. You might spend the rest of your life in prison, or in slavery to an earthly master, or under the subjection of a foreign power; but you will be free indeed and free forever because the Son has made you free. That is why, though we are glad we have the rights and privileges of freedom in America, we understand that this is not the main thing. It is a waste to be free in this way and yet still enslaved to sin! It is also why, though we are concerned about oppression and social injustice around the world, we understand that democracy and liberty can only do so much to help a person. The greatest need of people who live under oppression is the Gospel of Jesus Christ because He can set them free in a way that far surpasses the limitations of their political and personal freedoms.

The audience to which Jesus was speaking claimed to believe in Him, but in fact they were not true disciples. They were not continuing in His Word; they were in fact continuing in sin. Their attitudes and actions over the rest of this chapter demonstrate that. Rather than abiding in His word, they tried to argue with His word. Instead of knowing the truth, they were entrapped in lies. Instead of seeing their true spiritual condition, they boasted of their ethnic superiority. They did not think they needed to be set free because they were the descendants of Abraham, and falsely believed that because the Jews were God’s chosen people, that they were automatically right with God. The Bible never promised this to them. The conditions of redemption were the same in the Old Testament as in the New. Human beings bound to sin had to be reconciled to God through repentance and faith in God’s saving promises. In the Old Testament, those promises pointed people forward to the saving work of Christ on the cross. In the New Testament, the promises point us back to His saving work on the cross. Being a biological descendant of Abraham was never sufficient to make anyone right with God. They were enslaved to sin, and blinded to their true condition by a false assurance.
The same might be true of many who think they are Christians today. They think that because they recited the words of a prayer as a child, or were baptized, or joined a church, that they have become Christ’s true disciples, and have truly been set free. But their lives lack the distinguishing characteristic of a true disciple – they are not continuing to abide in His Word. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Jesus is still in the business of setting people free who turn to Him in repentance and faith as their Lord and Savior. Do you know Him? Do you have a personal relationship with Him? How can you tell? You ought to see the distinguishing mark in your life. Are you abiding in His Word? You ought to see the unique blessings in your life. Do you know the Truth of Christ and of God’s Word? Have you been set free: free from striving to please God with your own efforts; free from trusting in false assurances and from pretending that you have something you really don’t have; free from marching to the orders of sin in your life and free to walk in holiness as you grow in Christlikeness? These things demonstrate to us whether we are truly His disciples, or if we are just counterfeit Christians.

What a glorious reality it is to abide in the Word of Christ and to walk in truth and freedom as His true disciple! If you have never experienced this in your life before, I pray you will – even today! And if you have, will you ask God to show you how you can share these truths with others so that they too can know the truth and freedom that comes from following Christ and abiding in His Word? When the Lord Jesus came into the world, He was beginning an abolitionist movement to rid humanity of its enslavement to sin. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” Will you join Him on this mission to abolish the slavery of mankind to sin? Will you proclaim with Him freedom to those who are oppressed?

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/159548/identify-christian.aspx. Accessed September 25, 2013.
[2] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 1969.

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