39 “Our father is Abraham!” they declared.
“No,” Jesus replied, “for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example. 40 Instead, you are trying to kill me because I told you the truth, which I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. 41 No, you are imitating your real father.”
They replied, “We aren’t illegitimate children! God himself is our true Father.”
42 Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but he sent me. 43 Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It’s because you can’t even hear me! 44 For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t trust me! 46 Which of you can truthfully accuse me of sin? And since I am telling you the truth, why don’t you trust me? 47 Anyone whose life is rooted in God is living a life of listening to the words of God. But you don’t listen because you are not rooted in God.”
This is a tough passage to read. It seems so out of place in a Gospel where the primary focus is the love of God. Jesus doesn’t sound very loving here. One of the commentaries I’m reading warned to be careful with this passage, saying, “People have been killed here.” That is literally true. Christians have misused this passage for centuries to persecute Jewish people. And by persecute I mean kill. The most egregious example, of course, is the Holocaust, where good German Christians murdered millions of people on theological grounds. But the German interpretation of this passage wasn’t new or novel.
This sort of thing has also been used by Christians to torture and kill other Christians. Any time you can label someone else as a child or agent of Satan, it becomes much easier to wish them dead and then to bring that wish to reality if you have the political means. The whole thing reminds me of a recent book and promotion by John MacArthur, where the influential evangelical leader accused millions of Pentecostals and charismatics of blaspheming the Holy Spirit and doing the work of Satan to destroy the church. This also isn’t new or novel. Pentecostals have faced varied levels of persecution since the movement began in 1906. MacArthur wondered why God hasn’t struck us all dead yet, and the internet response has sounded much like this passage, which each side demonizing the other. (I’m not putting up links on purpose. I encourage you not to search for any of it.) The whole thing stunned me into silence. I wasn’t sure exactly what to say about any of it until I meditated on this passage (of all things).
The first thing to note here is who Jesus is talking to. The adversarial tone would lead us to assume he’s arguing with the Jewish religious leaders again, but that is not the case. Back in v. 30, John wrote: “Then many who heard him say these things believed in him. Jesus said to the people who believed in him…” Everything for the rest of chapter 8 is Jesus having (yes, a heated) discussion with some of his followers (can we take some comfort knowing that not even Jesus was exempt from bad church meetings). Any reading of this passage that villainizes Jews fails to even do the basic interpretive work of making sure who Jesus was addressing. These weren’t religious or political leaders, they were followers of Jesus. Once you realize that, you can begin to see that Jesus is really pleading with these folks, pushing them to understand what he is saying, trying to help them receive his teaching.
The second thing to note here is why John is writing this. Back when we started John, I explained about the Ebionites. Basically, Ebionites were people who trusted Jesus to a point, who accepted him as Messiah – so long as they got to dictate the terms of what that meant. Back in ch. 3, Jesus told Nicodemus that his followers can’t do this. Partial trust in Jesus won’t do because trust on your own terms is really just trust in yourself. To see the kingdom, to follow Jesus, requires a change so radical it can only be described as being born all over again, this time from above, that is, by the Holy Spirit. Things pertaining to the flesh have only to do with the flesh. They have nothing to do with the Spirit (in that they cannot control the Spirit). Jesus did not trust his partial followers. This stands as an indictment on them, the Ebionites John was dealing with, and us with our own Ebionite tendencies.
Americans are accustomed to having things on our own terms. American Christians are no different – even in our relations with our Christ. The American church in all its forms – liberal, conservative, emergent, evangelical, Protestant, Catholic, Pentecostal, what have you – has modeled Jesus after our own image and reduced his way of salvation (the way of the kingdom) to our own self-affirmation. We are Americans first and Christians second. We have a hard time distinguishing the difference between the kingdom of God and the American project. We’re not sure if they are different and even if they are, which one might be better. We are probably more Ebionite than the Ebionites ever were.
John was hoping his first readers would read this passage and think to themselves, “Is that me? Is Jesus talking to me? Am I trusting something else in addition to Jesus (e.g., Abraham, rationality, status, etc.)? Am I modeling Jesus after myself or the other way around? Have I understood what this whole God-man thing means and what implications it has for my life?” As I’ve written many times here, one of our most important interpretive tools is to put ourselves in the place of the bad guy. We don’t get to look over Jesus’ shoulder and say, “Yeah, Jesus, you tell them.” If we use this passage and an approach modeled after it to beat other people up, then we have missed the point entirely. We can only use this for self-examination. As followers of Jesus, we need to be aware that we are always at risk for recasting Jesus in our image, for making what he requires far too easy, for lying, for rejecting the truth, and even for killing people with theological (or at least economic) rationalization. But we can’t turn this awareness into a weapon without those dangers becoming a reality in our lives.
When another Christian accuses you or me of working for the devil or of being demonized, there really isn’t a good response. Any explanation we would give has been discounted at the outset as lies (devil = father of lies) and any tit-for-tat with the demon label lands us right in the crosshairs of our own criticism. What’s the solution to this conundrum? Jesus tells us in v.47: “Anyone whose life is rooted in God is living a life of listening to the words of God.” And what does God say to us? To argue our theological perspective with our accusers? No. God tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.