2.11 John -- Abraham's Children
John has a long passage (Jn 8:31-59) about the sons of Abraham. This is not mentioned by any of the other Gospel writers. It is an important teaching because Jesus makes it clear that genealogy is irrelevant to spiritual identity and to the era of the New Covenant. He is speaking to Jews who had believed in him:
"If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:31-32).
This saying did not go over very well, because his audience felt insulted.
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?" (Jn 8:33)
This was pure racial arrogance. These people were proud of their heritage, the fact that they knew their pedigree back many generations. They were literally the seed of Abraham, and heirs of God's promise that through him all nations would be blessed. Among the mass of humanity, their race was a superior caste of men, picked by God to rule and reign in the Messianic kingdom. The last thing a teacher would ever attack was the linchpin of Jewish personal and national identity -- the lineal descent from Abraham. This is exactly what Jesus went after.
He replied that, far from being free, anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, and a slave is not a part of the family. Wham! -- talk about a body blow. He knew what he was doing, and he knew they would be greatly offended:
"I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word....If you were Abraham’s children...then you would do the things Abraham did" (Jn 8:37-39).
He wasn't saying this just to insult people -- after all, this audience consisted of his followers -- but to show them their real need. These people loved the miracles, the healings, the signs and wonders, the teachings. But they did not know they needed a savior, they did not think they had to be born from above. They believed they were alright with God -- they had observed the commandments (mostly), and made offerings when they sinned. They considered themselves part of God's People, and they were, in an Old Covenant sense. What they didn't understand was that the status of the Righteous Jew did not transfer automatically into the New Covenant.
Jesus showed them what their real need was, and it wasn't a matter of racial descent:
"If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (Jn 8:36).
Only Jesus could provide them with what they truly needed: the living water, the living bread, rebirth out of Israel and into the Kingdom of God.
The problem the Jews faced was the other side of the Samaritan woman's dilemma. She had said, "Our fathers worshipped on this mountain" -- too bad for her it was the wrong mountain, according to the Scriptures. She had the wrong religious tradition. Jesus tried to get her to see that true worship is not a matter of geography but of the heart. The Jews worshipped in the prescribed manner in the proper location. Jesus tried to get them to see that true worship is not a matter of family inheritance:
"If you were Abraham’s children," said Jesus, "then you would do the things Abraham did" (Jn 8:39).
The Jews were judging by the wrong standard -- the flesh, while God was looking at spirit. Whether or not they were literal descendants of Abraham was irrelevant in God's eyes. In fact, their deeds proved that they were not spiritual sons of Abraham. Then whose sons were they? Jesus did not mince words:
"You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire" (Jn 8:44).
If this is how Jesus talked to his friends, no wonder they kept leaving him! This is strong language. None of the other Gospel writers record this conversation. Did John invent it? Yet he was one of Jesus' inner circle, one of those who knew him best.
It is surprising that no one in the crowd protested, "You make us sound no better than a Gentile, even one of those filthy Samaritans." And this is, indeed, the point he was trying to get across. In terms of the "true worship in spirit and truth," the Jews were no better off than the pagans. Both groups stood on equal ground in terms of the New Covenant: they needed to be born of the Spirit, and drink of the living water. But the Jews had no awareness of their need. When Jesus said that anyone who committed sin was a slave to sin, he was not insulting them, He was being truthful, showing them their real condition. But they took offense at this, instead of acknowledging in humility their need for atonement and deliverance.
The idea that Jesus was just badmouthing them and using crude language is wrong. Just as he led the Samaritan woman to an awareness of her true condition and her remedy, he did the same to his Jewish followers. Just as he exposed her secret sins ("you have had five husbands..."), so he exposed the false consciences of his followers. And just as he brought her to a point of readiness for the revelation of his Name, so he did the Jews. In the remarkable conclusion to this interchange, Jesus said to them,
"Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad."
"You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!"
"I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I AM!" (Jn 8:56-58)
This is a mind-blowing statement, an in-your-face declaration of his divinity. But where the Samaritan woman responded to Jesus' revelation by running home and bringing all her friends and neighbors, Jesus' former friends picked up stones to throw at him. Their hearts were not ready to receive him in his true nature.
This brings us back to John 1:
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it (Jn 1:5).
An alternate reading is "overcome" it. Both meanings are correct. Neither the Samaritan woman nor the crowd of followers understood Jesus. Yet the unworthy woman received him, while the righteous mob attacked him. The advent of Jesus Christ is as if one turned on a light in a dark room. It exposes what is there. Some objects reflect the light, others cast shadows. The light "tests" the nature of each object in the room. Jesus' coming tested the hearts of men in two ways -- it revealed their hidden nature, and forced them to decide to come to the light or to repel it. In the first case, no living man stands righteous in New Covenant terms -- "all men have sinned," Paul and evangelical Christianity remind us. In the second case, one has to decide whether to hold on to one's privileged status under the Old Covenant, or let go of that, acknowledge the darkness within, and receive the new birth Jesus offers. Since the Samaritan woman had no status in Judaism, it was easier for her to enter the Kingdom of God. But even for her, it was not pain-free. In order to "worship in spirit and truth," she had to give up the "mountain of her fathers."
For Jew and Gentile, the cost is the same: to enter the Kingdom of God one must leave the natural community, the neighborhood, the clan, the race.