John 7:53, to John 8:11.
We are now arrived at a section of our Gospel, the external condition of which is to the reflecting mind a solemn evidence of human unbelief, here as daring as usually it appears to hesitate. No evangelist has suffered as much in this way, not even Mark, whose close disappears from two of the most ancient manuscripts. But as we saw that the angel’s visit to trouble the waters of Bethesda was unwelcome to not a few copyists of John 5, so here again incredulity indisposed some to reproduce the story of the adulteress. This is plain from some copies (as L
Δ), which leave a blank-a fact wholly inexplicable, if the scribe had not been aware of a paragraph which he knew to exist, but for reasons of his own thought fit to omit. Others, again, transposed it to another place, as the cursives 1, 19, 20, 129, 135, 207, 215, 301, 347, 478, etc., to the end of the Gospel (and 225 after John 7:36), and even to another evangelist, as 13, 69, 124, 346, and 556, though alien in tone from all but John, and suiting no place in John but here, where the mass of authority gives it. A (probably), BC (probably), TX, with many cursives and ancient versions [as Syrsin pesch], simply omit the passage; DF (defective) GHKU
Γ (defective), more than 330 cursives, and many versions have it. It is marked by an asterisk, or obelus, in EMS
ΛΠ, etc. The variations of the copies which do give it are considerable. This brief view of the evidence may suffice for the general reader, as it is more than enough to prove the peculiarity of the case externally.
As regards the internal evidence, some have alleged against the passage its entire diversity from the style of the Gospel elsewhere; and this, not merely in words and idioms which John never uses, but in its whole cast and character, which is said to savour more of the Synoptic Gospels.
All this, however, fails to meet the positive weight of truth in the passage; and its fitness at this very point of the Gospel is utterly unaccountable in a forgery or a tradition. The Lord is displaying the true light in His Person, as contrasted with others who boasted in the law. We have seen their conscienceless discussion in the preceding chapter.154
“And they went each to his home, but Jesus went to the mount of Olives” (John 7:53; John 8:1). Afar from man’s uncertainty and contempt, the Son of God retired to enjoy the fellowship of the Father. Thence He returns for service. “And early in the morning He came again to the temple, and all the people were coming unto Him; and He sat down, and was teaching them” (verse 2). The Lord’s habit in this respect, recorded by Luke (Luke 21:37, 38; Luke 22:39), is a strange reason for discrediting John’s mention of this particular instance. Nor does any reason appear to question that it was not merely “the crowd” (
ὄχλος), but “the people” in a large sense (
λαὸσ), which here flocked to the Lord’s teaching in the temple.
“And the scribes155 and the Pharisees bring to Him a woman taken in adultery, and having set her in (the) midst, they say to Him, Teacher, this woman was taken in the very act of adultery. Now in the law Moses charged us to stone such:156 Thou, therefore, what sayest Thou? But this they said proving Him, that they might have (whereof) to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger was writing on the ground” (verses 3-6).
Such is man at his best estate when he sees and hears Jesus, but refuses the grace and truth which came by Him. They were not ignorant men, but learned in the Scriptures; they were not the crowd that knew not the law, but possessed of the highest reputation for religion. Nor could there be a question as to the guilt and degradation of the woman. Why they brought her, and not her paramour, does not appear. But her they brought in the hope, not only of perplexing, but of finding ground of accusation against, the Lord. It seemed to them a dilemma which allowed of no escape. Moses, said they, bade the Jews stone such as she. What did Jesus say? If He only confirmed the decree of the law, where was the grace so much boasted of? If He let her off, did He not evidently set Himself in opposition not only to Moses, but to Jehovah? What profound iniquity theirs! No horror at sin, even of the darkest dye, but an unfeeling perversion of the exposed adulteress to entrap the Holy One of God.
But if the Lord wrote on the ground, it was in no way as if He heard them not. Rather was it to give them time to weigh their guilty question, and guiltier motive, while their hope of entrapping Him betrayed them more and more to commit themselves as He stooped to the ground.
“And when they continued asking Him, He lifted Himself up and said to them, Let Him that is without sin among you first cast the stone at her;156a and, again stooping down, He was writing on the ground. But they, having heard [it],148 kept going out one by one, beginning from the elder ones until the last; and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in (the) midst” (verses 7-9).
Thus did the Lord show Himself the true light which lightens every man. Occupied with the law in its condemnation of the adulteress, and, indeed, far more essaying to condemn the Lord Himself, their darkness is laid bare by these few solemn words. God judges sin, not gross sins, but all sin, be it what it may be; and the Judge of quick and dead was He Who thus searched them through and through. It was no question of the law for either now: they shrank abashed from the light, even though Jesus stooped down again, and was writing on the ground. Assuredly He heard their question, and discerned their iniquitous aim, veiled as it was; and now they heard Him, and cowered before His all-scathing words of light. Convicted by their consciences, but in no way repentant, they sought to flee, ashamed to see His face, Who stooped once more, and thus gave them time to retire, if they refused to bow with broken spirit and heartfelt confession.
This, however, is not the object of the passage to illustrate, but the supremacy of Divine light in Jesus, let Him be ever so lowly, and in presence of the proudest. And they were going off, one by one, beginning at the elder until the last, beginning at those who dreaded most their own exposure-an exposure which the youngest could not bear, only less ashamed of their fellows than of Jesus, Who had awakened the feeling. How awful the contrast with their own sweet singer, who, spite of his sins, could say by grace, “Thou art my hiding-place!” (Ps. 32:7.)-hiding in God, not from Him, and having before him One Who could and would cover all his iniquities, and impute nothing. Vain, indeed, is our effort to cover our sins, or to escape from His presence. But unbelief trusts itself, not Him, and betrays the will to get away from His light, as it may for a little season, till judgment come. How will it be then? It will be theirs to stoop in shame and everlasting contempt, when evasion cannot be even for a moment, and all is fixed for ever.
Jesus then was left alone, as far as the tempting scribes and Pharisees were concerned, and the woman in the midst; for “all the people” appear to have been around, and He addresses them in a subsequent discourse, which seems to be founded on this very incident, as giving occasion to it (see verse 12 and following). “And Jesus lifting Himself up, and beholding no one but the woman, said to her, Woman, where are they, thine accusers? Did no one condemn thee? And she said, No one, Sir. And Jesus said to her, Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more” (verses 10, 11). It is the mistake of Augustine, as of others in modern no less than ancient times, that we have here “misera” in the presence of “Misericordia,” which is much more true of the scene at the end of Luke 7.
Here the Lord acts as light, not only in the detection of His self-righteous and sinful adversaries, but throughout. There was no need, however, for His exposure of the woman caught in the very act of sin. Hence the ignorance of the scribes who left out the tale was as glaring as their impiety was without excuse. There is not the least semblance of levity in dealing with her evil. The Lord simply brings out the fact that her accusers retreat from the light which convicted their conscience, when the law had utterly failed to reach it; and as they could not condemn her, because they were sinners no less truly than herself, so He would not. It was not His work to deal with causes criminal any more than civil. But if grace and truth came by Him, He is none the less the true light; and so He abides here. As we do not hear of repentance or faith in the woman, so we have no such words from Him as, “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” “Thy faith hath saved thee,” “Go in peace.” He is the light still, and goes not beyond “Go and sin no more.” By and by He will act as a King, and judge righteously; on their own showing, He speaks as a “teacher,” not a magistrate. And it was a question of sin, but most unexpectedly of theirs as well as of hers, if they face the light of God.157
The words of our Lord are utterly lowered by such as infer that, either to the accusers or to the accused, He restrains sin to that offence against purity of which the woman was guilty. He means any and all sin as intolerable to God, Who is light, and in Whom is no darkness at all.158
The Lord continues His teaching of the people, but not without allusion to the incident which had just occurred, or rather to the character in which He had dealt with it. Nothing can be more evident than the True Light which was then shining and lightening every man. It is the more striking because the word “light” does not occur in that transaction; but the fact is thoroughly in harmony with what immediately follows.
“Again159 therefore Jesus spoke to them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth Me shall in no wise walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (verse 12). His rejection by the Jews always brings Him out in a still larger character of blessing and glory to others. In our Gospel, however, the Spirit speaks of what He is personally or independently of all circumstances and above all dispensations. He is “the light of the world.” His glory, His grace, could not be confined to Israel. He is come to deliver from Satan’s power and to give the enjoyment of God and the Father. Hence, whatever be the darkness of men-and it was now profound among the Jews-”He that followeth Me shall in no wise walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” The Christian is not only called out of darkness into God’s wonderful light, but he becomes light in the Lord, a child of light, and he walks in the light, being brought to God Who is light; and in the light, as John says, we have fellowship one with another, for in him is life as well as light; or, as He says here, His follower has “the light of life.” He has Christ, Who is both.159a.
So energetic a testimony rouses the pride and enmity of those who listened. They could not but feel that He spoke of a privilege and blessing which they did not enjoy. “The Pharisees therefore said to Him, Thou bearest witness of Thyself; Thy witness is not true” (verse 13)160. They turn His own words in chapter 5:31 against Himself, but most unfairly. For there He was speaking of testimony alone and human, such as vanity gives itself; here, as He proceeds to show, He has the very highest support in God Himself. “Jesus answered and said to them, Even though I bear witness of myself, my witness is true; for I know whence I came, and where I go, (but)149 ye know not whence I come or150 where I go” (verse 14). They were wholly ignorant of the Father as of the Son. They never thought of heaven. The Lord had the constant consciousness of the truth of His Person and mission; and His witness was inseparable from the Father’s. As He says elsewhere, “I and My Father are one”-not more true in Divine nature than in testimony to man. He never lost the sense for a moment whence He came and whither He was going away, whereas they had no true idea of either. They were in utter darkness, though the light was there shining in Him.160a How truly then He could say, “Ye judge according to the flesh, I judge no one. And if also I judge, My judgment is true,151 because I am not alone, but I and the Father152 that sent Me” (verses 15, 16).
Self is the source and object of all the activity of the flesh, according to which the Jews were judging. Christ brought love as well as light into the world. He was judging none; He was serving all. This made Him intolerable to the self-complacent. Yet is He to be the Judge of all. In His resurrection God has given the pledge that He is to judge the world; even as in His own Person He is the fitting one to do so, being Son of man as well as Son of God. “And if also I judge, My judgment is true, because I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent Me.” It was an admitted principle that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word should be established. To this the Lord here appeals, “And in your law too it is written that the witness of two men is true” (verse 17).161 How much more, then, the testimony of the Father and the Son!” I am He that testifieth concerning Myself, and the Father that sent Me testifieth concerning Me” (verse 18). Of this, too, the Lord had spoken before in chapter 5, but they had not heard to receive it, only to despise Him.161a
“They said to Him then, Where is Thy Father? Jesus answered, Ye know neither Me nor My Father. If ye had known Me, ye should have known My Father also” (verse 19).162 Such ignorance of the only true God and of Jesus Whom He sent is death, eternal death; and the more solemn, because it was said not to the heathen, but to Jews who had the oracles of God. These things they were saying because they knew not the Father nor the Son; as the hour would come when they would think to render God service by killing Christ’s disciples. Their sayings and doings betrayed their state of utter alienation from and ignorance of the Father. All that followed of persecution and hatred, whether for Christ or for the Church, was but the consequence. “These words He spoke in the treasury, teaching in the temple; and no one seized Him, because His hour was not yet come” (verse 20)163. Their malice was as manifest as it was deadly; and it was against the Father as much as the Son.
But, spite of will, they were powerless till the time was come. Then was He given up to their murderous iniquity; then, too, still deeper counsels were in accomplishment through the sacrifice of Himself. If on the one hand He was cut off and had nothing of His Messianic rights in the midst of the Jews in the land, He was on the other to suffer for sins, Just for the unjust, to bring all who believe to God, to be glorified on high, and to have a bride given Him associated with Himself in His supremacy over all things. But this would carry us into the Apostle Paul’s teaching. Let us pursue the line given to St. John, where we behold the Word become flesh, and His Divine glory shining through the veil of humiliation, and in this chapter particularly, first as light convicting, then as the light of life possessed by His followers; but if His word were rejected, no less was He the Son Who alone can make free-yea, the I AM-let men avail themselves of His manhood to scorn and stone and crucify Him as they may.
The next discourse turns on our Lord’s announcement of His departure-a truth of the most solemn import, especially for Israel responsible to receive Him as their Messiah.
“He153 said therefore again to them, I go away, and ye shall seek Me and shall die in your sin:154 where I go away, ye cannot come. The Jews therefore said, Will He kill Himself because He saith, Where I go away, ye cannot come? And He said to them, Ye are of the things beneath, I am of those above; ye are of this world, I am not of this world. I said therefore to you that ye shall die in your sins; for, unless ye believe that I am (He),164 ye shall die in your sins” (verses 21-24).
The departure of Jesus after His coming is the overthrow of Judaism and the necessary condition of Christianity. We must not be surprised, then, if our Lord again and again recurs to it, to its moral associations and consequences, and, above all, to its bearing on Himself personally, ever the uppermost thought of our Evangelist. He was going, and they should seek Him and die in their sin. They sought amiss, and found Him not. They sought a Messiah that they might gratify their ambition and worldly lusts; and such is not the Messiah of God, Who is now found of those that sought Him not, after having spread out His hands all the day to a rebellious people that walked in a way anything but good, after their own thoughts. But God is not mocked, and he who sows to the flesh reaps corruption: if it be not public judgment, it is none the less the recompense of evil into the guilty bosom. “Ye shall die in your sin.” They were rejecting Christ and cleaving to their own will and way. There was no fellowship between them and Him. “My soul loathed them, and their soul also abhorred Me.” (Zech. 11:8.) The issue would make it still more apparent: “Where I go away, ye cannot come.” They could not follow Him.
The Lord was going to heaven, to His Father. Their treasure was not there, nor therefore their heart, as both were on His part. So, too, as grace attracts the heart of the believer to Christ, faith follows Him where He is; and He will come and bring us there in due time, that where He is there we may be also. Unbelief clings to self, to the earth, to present things; and so it was and is with the Jews: “Where I go away, ye cannot come.” They were rejecting the only One Who could wean from earth or fit for heaven, meeting them in their sin that they might not die in it, but live through Him. But Him they would not have and are lost, and proved it by their utterly false estimate of Him and of themselves, present or future, as we see in what follows. “The Jews therefore said, Will He kill Himself because He saith, Where I go away, ye cannot come?” There was nothing too evil to impute to Him Whom they more and more hated.
But He tells them out more. “And He said to them, Ye are of the things beneath, I am of those above; ye are of this world, I am not of this world. I said therefore to you, that ye shall die in your sins.” Here the Lord solemnly unveils the sources of things. To be of this world now is to be not merely of earth, but from beneath. Such is the Jew that rejects Jesus, Who is not of this world, but of the things above. Therefore should they die in their sins: their nature evil as their works, and they refusing the only light of life, how else could they end? “For, unless ye believe that I am (He), ye shall die in your sins.” The truth shines out fully from a rejected Christ-not only His personal glory, but their subjection to Satan, who employs them to dishonour Him. But His rejection is their everlasting ruin. They die in their sins, and have as their judge Him Whom they refused to believe on for life eternal.
“They said therefore to Him, Who art Thou? Jesus said to them, Absolutely155 that which I am also speaking to you” (verse 25). Jesus is not merely the way and the life, but the truth. He is, in the principle of His being, what also He speaks. A less expected answer could not be, nor one more withering to the thoughts of themselves and of Him. He alone of all men could say as much; yet was He the lowliest of men. His way and words were in perfect accord; and all expressed the mind of God. It is not merely that He does what He says, but He is thoroughly and essentially what also He sets out in speech. The truth is the reality of things spoken. We cannot know God but by Him; nor can we but by Him know man. Good and evil are displayed and detected only by Him, and He identifies Himself with His speech.
As the fourth Gospel pointedly employs
ἐν ἀρχῆ, ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς (and in two cases
ἐξ ἀρχῆς), there is the less reason for confounding the single occurrence of
τήν ἀρχὴν with any of them. The Lord uses the phrase prominently in answer to the question, “Who art Thou?” raised by the contemptuous unbelief of the Pharisees. He had already declared Himself the light of the world, but that they knew neither Him nor His Father, and should die in their sin because of their unbelief. He had not yet in terms disclosed His eternal Being as in verse 58, but is gradually rising to this from the incident which so fittingly opens the chapter. The law of death in man’s hand is powerless before the Light of Life, Who is from above, and not of this world. He is the Word of God. He, and He alone, when challenged, could say, “I am absolutely [kuinoel]164a, altogether, what I speak also to you.” His speech thoroughly expresses Himself. Essentially [Afford], precisely [Godet], What He is, He also speaks. These alternatives, suggested by various interpreters, differ no doubt in degrees of accuracy; but substantially they agree in identifying the Lord with His utterance also, for He is the truth. They seem better than “originally,” which means little more than “at first,” or “at the beginning,” and, though often legitimate, looks quite out of place when applied to Christ, the Faithful Witness, Who is “the same yesterday and today and for ever.” He alone could say that He was wholly what He also speaks. Mr. McClellan is right in holding that Christ’s speech reveals His eternal Being, but does not “originally” fail to convey it?
If the Sanscrit root helps us, it implies “worth, merit, fitness, dignity, and worship”; and “beginning” is secondary. Certainly
ἀρχὴ appears in philosophic usage as “a principle,” whether of being or of thought; and in ordinary application as a “first place,” estate, or office, and even materially as in Acts 10:4; Acts 11:9. Thus, “at the first,” or “originally,” is the sense in Herodotus (i. 86, 140; ii. 28, 148; iv. 59; viii. 128, 132), when contrast with the present is intended. But an exclusive force appears with the negative even more frequently still (as in i. 192; ii. 95; iii. 16, 39; iv. 25, 28; vi. 33; vii. 26; ix. 57). On its very first occurrence (i. 9), how could “originally” assure Gyges? Did not the king mean that his own contrivance was to screen him absolutely? So Larcher understood in his learned version (i. 8, note a, ed. 1802). Dean Blakesley’s view was “to begin with,” which would be almost absurd, and certainly inadequate, for our text. To assume that only in negative sentences the absolute sense occurs is mistaken, at any rate, in later Greek, as the reader may see in the following references to “Dion Cassius “ (vol. i. 96 [Fr. Peir. ci.], ii. 342 [xlv. 34], iii. 688 [lix. 19], iv. 52, [lxii. 4] ed. Sturz. Two cases, at least, might be added of
We may dismiss, then, among many untenable proposals, the renderings of “Wiclif and the Wiclifite” (iv. 280, Oxford, 1850), following the Vulgate, with which go Syrhcl. and the Gothic, and with slight variations Augustine of old, and Fritzsche and Wordsworth of late. Not so, held Cod. Veron., but “Imprimis,” as Cod. Corb, “de superioribus,” though it is hard to say what they meant. Nor can the interrogation stand with “at all,” as Chrysostom, Cyril. Alex. (and so Lucke and Ewald), and the R.V. margin [as Westcott]; nor with “from the beginning,” as Meyer. The more prevalent construction of the A. and R.V., like the Sah. Memph, Syrpesch., slights both the sense and the tense of
λαλῶ, with the place and force of
καὶ, through the first fault of misrendering
τὴν ἀρχήν. The Aeth. Arab. Arm. differ from these and from one another, but afford no help, as far as I can judge. “Absolutely [or, In principle] what also I speak to you,” reflects justly the language, the order of the words, the grammar, and above all the bearing of the context, and of this sentence in particular. There is no need, therefore, of connecting the end of verse 25 with the beginning of 26, as Bengel, Raphelius, and Wakefield suggested, who otherwise rather confirm the true import, as does the
ὄλως of Euth. Zig.
Such was the One the Jews were then rejecting. They have then and there lost the truth. Impossible to have the truth apart from Jesus, Who adds, “I have many things to speak and to judge concerning you; but He that sent Me is true, and I, what I heard from Him, speak these things unto the world” (verse 26). He was a servant though Son, and uttered what the Father pleased as needed truth, not according to the affluence of what He had to say and judge respecting the Jews.
It is impossible to know the Father but by receiving the Son; and Him they rejected, as they did even to the cross. “They knew not that he was speaking to them of the Father. Then said Jesus (to them),156 When ye shall have lifted up the Son of man, then ye shall know that I am164 (He) and from Myself do nothing, but, even as the Father taught Me, these things I speak. And He that sent Me is with Me: He157 left Me not alone, because the things pleasing to Him I do always” (verses 27-29).165 It is the actual truth presented by God which tests the soul. A former testimony, however true, does not provoke opposition in the same way. Often, indeed, unbelief avails itself of the past to strengthen its present antagonism to what God is doing. Thus the Jews avail themselves of the unity of God to deny the Son and the Father, for they knew not of Whom Jesus was speaking. His cross might not convince them divinely or win their heart to God; but it would convict them of deliberate and wilful rejection of the Messiah, and prove that what He spoke was spoken from the highest authority. As He was sent, so was He taught. The Father was with Him too, for Christ was doing always the things that pleased Him. If we know this in our measure, how much more fully and unwaveringly was it true of Him Who did not sin, neither was guile found in His mouth!
How solemn it is to weigh the force of “When ye shall have lifted up the Son of man, then ye shall know that I am (He) and from Myself do nothing, but just as My Father taught Me, these things I speak!” For the Son of man is alike His title as the rejected Messiah, and as the appointed Judge of living and dead. So He was crucified, and so returns for the kingdom of universal glory as in Ps. 8 and Dan. 7. How terrible to know this too late, when pride shuts out repentance to the acknowledgment of truth!
It is an encouraging fact that a time of unbelieving detraction may be used of God to work extensively in souls. “While He was speaking these things, many believed on Him” (verse 30). But faith, where divinely given, is inseparable from life, exercises itself in liberty, and is subject to the Son of God; where it is human, it soon wearies of His presence, and abandons Him Whom it never truly appreciated, for licence either of mind or of ways in rebellion against Him. Hence the urgency of the Lord’s solemn appeal. Continuance in and with him is of God.
“Jesus therefore said to the Jews that had believed Him, If ye abide in My word, ye are truly My disciples; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.165a They answered Him, We are Abraham’s seed, and have never been in bondage to anyone: how sayest Thou, Ye shall become free? Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say to you, Every one that practiseth sin is a bondman of sin. Now the bondman abideth not in the house for ever; the son abideth for ever. If therefore the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed. I know that ye are Abraham’s seed, but ye seek to kill Me because My word maketh no way166 in you. I speak what I have seen with My Father, and ye therefore practise what ye have seen158 with your159 father. They answered and said to Him, Our father is Abraham. Jesus saith to them, If ye are160 Abraham’s children, ye would practise the works of Abraham; but now ye seek to kill Me, a Man who hath spoken to you the truth which I heard from God: this Abraham did not practise. Ye practise the works of your father. They said (therefore)161 to Him, We were not born of fornication; we have one father, God.167 Jesus said162 to them, If God were your Father, ye would have loved Me, for I came forth from God and am come; for neither have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. Why do ye not know My speech? Because ye cannot hear My word. Ye are of your163 father, the devil, and ye desire to practise the lusts of your father. He was a murderer from (the) beginning, and standeth168 not in the truth, because there is no truth in him: whenever he speaketh the lie, he speaketh out of his own things, because he is a liar, and the father of it. But because I speak the truth, ye believe Me not. Which of you convinceth Me of sin? If164 I speak truth, why do ye not believe Me? He that is of God heareth the words of God; for this cause ye hear (them) not, because ye are not of God” (verses 31-47).
To abide in His word, then, is the condition of being in truth Christ’s disciple. Others may be interested greatly, but they soon grow weary, or turn ere long to other objects. Christ’s disciple cleaves to His word, and finds fresh springs in what first attracted. His word proves itself thus Divine, as it is faith which abides in it, and the truth is thus not only learned but known. Vagueness and uncertainty disappear, while the truth, instead of gendering bondage, like the law, makes the soul free, whatever its previous slavery. There is growth in the truth and liberty by it. Law deals with the corrupt and proud will of man to condemn it on God’s part, as is right; the truth communicates the knowledge of Himself as revealed in His word, and thus gives life and liberty: privileges unintelligible to the natural man, who hates the sovereign grace of God as much as he exalts and loves himself, while he despises and distrusts others. Man’s only thought, therefore, of obtaining righteousness is through the law. They know not the virtue of the truth, and dread liberty as though it must end in licence; while at the same time they are proud of their own position, if it were inalienable, and God were their servant, not they bound to be His. Hence the Jews answered Jesus, “We are Abraham’s seed, and have never been in bondage to anyone: how sayest Thou, Ye shall become free?”
Far from this was the truth. Even outwardly, not to speak of the soul, the Jews were, and had long been, in servitude to the Gentiles. So Ezra (chapter 9) confessed at the evening sacrifice: “Since the days of our fathers we have been in great trespass to this day; and for our iniquities we, our kings, our priests, have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, and to captivity, and to spoil, and to confusion of face, as it is this day. And now for a little space there has been favour from Jehovah our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a nail in his holy place, that our God may lighten our eyes, and give us a little reviving in our bondage. For we are bondmen; yet our God has not forsaken us in our bondage, but has extended mercy unto us before the kings of Persia,” etc. So, again, Nehemiah (Neh. 9): “Yet many years didst thou forbear with them, and testifiedst against them by Thy Spirit through Thy prophets; but they would not give ear; and Thou gavest them into the hand of the peoples of the lands.... Behold, we are bondmen this day, and the land that Thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we are bondmen in it; and it yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom Thou hast set over us because of our sins; and they have dominion over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure; and we are in great distress.”
Thus men of conscience felt when they lay under conquerors milder far than the Romans who now ruled. It was not that the Jews to-day were lightened, but that they had grown so used to the yoke as to forget and deny it altogether. And if it were because of God’s righteous government externally, much less did they estimate aright their true state before God, as the Lord Jesus was bringing it out now. Their haughty spirit was nettled at His word, which lay bare their thraldom to the enemy. “We are Abraham’s seed, and have never been in bondage to anyone: how sayest Thou, Ye shall become free?” Jesus in His answer brought in the light of God, for eternity indeed, but also for the present. “Verily, verily, I say to you, Every one that practiseth sin is a bondman of sin.” How true, solemn, and humiliating! No bondage so real, none so degrading, as that of sin: could they seriously deny it to be theirs? Truly unbelief blinds to moral state, and even to plain facts. Only grace delivers, and through the truth believed.
But the Lord intimates more. None under sin is entitled to speak of permanence. Such a one exists only on sufferance till judgment. Bondage there was none when God created and made according to His mind; nor will there be when He shall make all things new. The bondman, in every sense, belongs only to the transitory reign of sin and sorrow. So says the Lord: “Now the bondman abideth not in the house for ever.” Another and contrasted relationship suits God’s will; “the son abideth for ever.” But there is infinitely more in Christ. He is not merely Son, but “the Son.” He is the Son in His own right and title, as God and when man, in time and in eternity. He is therefore not “free” only, as all sons are, but such is His glory that He can and does make free in virtue of the grace which pertains to Him alone. Thus it is not only the truth which sets free, where law could only condemn, but the Son also gives and confirms the same character of liberty according to His own fulness. It is a question of what suits not them merely, but Him. He could make free those who hear Him and abide in His word, and nothing else but free. It is worthy of Him to deliver from sin and Satan; and “if the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” He frees after a Divine sort. He brings into His own character of relationship out of the bondage to sin, which the first man made our sad inheritance. The last Adam is a quickening spirit and a Deliverer. Let us stand fast in His liberty, and be not entangled again with any yoke of bondage, as the Apostle exhorts the Galatians against that misuse of the law, whatever its shape. (Gal. 5:1.)
To be Abraham’s seed, as the Lord lets the Jews know, is a sorry safeguard. One might be of Abraham, and be the worst enemy of God. Such were the Jews then, who were seeking to kill Christ because His word had no hold in them. Every one acts according to his source; character follows it. So our Lord deigns to say, “I speak what I have seen with My Father; and ye therefore practise what ye have seen with your father.” To be of Abraham does not save from Satan. To hear the Son, to believe on Him, is to derive one’s nature from God and have life eternal. They boasted most of Abraham who were still in the darkness of unbelief and the enemy’s power. Hence “they answered and said to Him, Our father is Abraham. Jesus saith to them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would practise the works of Abraham; but now ye seek to kill Me, a Man Who hath spoken to you the truth which I heard from God: this Abraham did not practise. Ye practise the works of your father.” It was allowed already that they were descended from the father of the faithful; but did they bear the family likeness? Was it not an aggravation of their evil that they stood in contrast with him from whom they vaunted themselves sprung? Abraham believed, and it was counted to him for righteousness. They believed not, but sought to kill the Man, albeit the Son of God, Who spoke to them the truth which He heard from God the Father. Whose works were these? Certainly not those of Abraham, but of a very different father. They were corrupt and violent.
The Jews felt what was implied and at once take the highest ground. “They said therefore to Him, We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, God. Jesus said to them, If God were your Father, ye would have loved Me, for I came forth from God and am come; for neither have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. Why do ye not know My speech? Because ye cannot hear My word. Ye are of your father, the devil, and ye desire to practise the lusts of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and standeth not in the truth, because there is no truth in him: whenever he speaketh the lie, he speaketh out of his own things, because he is a liar, and the father of it. But because I speak the truth, ye believe Me not. Which of you convinceth Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do ye not believe Me? He that is of God heareth the words of God; for this cause ye hear (them) not, because ye are not of God.”
The case is thus closed as regards the Jews. They were of the devil beyond all doubt, as this solemn controversy proved. It is really the conviction of man as against Christ, in every land, tongue, age. He turns out no other when tested by the truth, by the Son; however circumstances differ, this is the issue, and it comes out worst where things look fairest. If there was a family on earth which might have seemed farthest removed from impurity, it was the Jews; if any could claim to have God as their Father, they most of all. But Jesus is the touchstone; and they are thereby proved to be God’s enemies, not His children; else they would have loved Him Who came out from God, and was then present in their midst, Who had not come of His own mere motion, but at God’s sending. He came, and was sent in love beyond man’s thought or measure; and they rose against Him in hatred, seeking to kill Him.
The Jews did not even know His speech, such utter strangers were they to Him, and the God Who spoke by Him. The reason is most grave: they could not hear His word. It is through understanding the thought, the scope, the mind of the person speaking that one knows the phraseology; and not the inverse.169 If the inner purpose is not received, the outer form is unknown. So it was with Jesus speaking to the Jews; so it is pre-eminently with the testimony in John’s writings now. Men complain of mysticism in the expression, because they have no notion of the truth intended. The hindrance is in the blinding power of the devil, who is the source of their thoughts and feelings, as surely as he is the adversary of Christ. Men’s judgments flow from their will and affections, and these are under the sway of His enemy. And as he pushes on men, especially those who are most of all responsible to bow to Christ, as the Jews then were, to practise the lusts of their father, so violence follows as naturally as falsehood. For Satan was a murderer from the beginning, and stands not in the truth, because there is no truth in him, the great personal antagonist of the Son.
Jesus alone of men is the Truth; He is not only God, but the One Who reveals God to Man. In Him is no sin, nor did He sin, neither was guile found in His mouth.170 He was the manifest opposite, in all respects, of the devil, who, whenever he speaks falsehood, speaks out of his own store, because he is a liar and the father of it. Jesus is the truth, and makes it known to those who otherwise cannot know it. “But because I speak the truth, ye believe Me not.” How awful, yet how just, God’s judgment of such! For we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth; and what can be the end of these things but death and judgment?
Finally, the Lord proceeds to challenge them, in order to lay bare their groundless malice. “Which of you convinceth Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God heareth the words of God: for this cause ye hear them not, because ye are not of God.” He was the Holy One, no less than the Truth, and surely both go together. And thus were they convicted of being, in word and deed, in thought and feeling, wholly alienated from, and rebellious against, God. They were not of God, save in haughty pretension, which only made their distance from Him, and opposition to Him, more glaring. Instead of convincing Christ of sin, they were themselves slaves of sin; instead of speaking truth, they rejected Him Who is the Truth; instead of hearing the words of God, they hated Him Who spoke them, because they were not of God but of the devil. Terrible picture, which the unerring light failed not to draw and leave, never to be effaced, of His adversaries! To be not of God is to be wholly without good, and left in evil, exposed to its consequences, according to the judgment of Him Who will not, cannot, change in His abhorrence of it. Such were and are the rejecters of Jesus.
There is nothing a man so reluctantly admits as evil in himself; there is nothing he so much resents as another’s saying evil of him, and leaving him no loophole of escape. So was it now with the Jews whom the Lord denied to be of God, as they heard not His words. Never had their self-complacency been thus disturbed before. The scorn of the heathen was as nothing compared with such a libel, which was severe in proportion to its self-evident truth. For the ground taken was indisputable. Who could doubt that he who is of God heareth the words of God? How solemn, then, to face the fact that One Who spoke as none ever did declared with holy calmness that therefore they did not hear, because they were not of God! Conscience might wince, but refused to bow. Will, ill-will, alone declared itself, save, indeed, that it was animated from beneath.
“The Jews165 answered and said to Him, Say we not well that Thou art a Samaritan, and hast a demon? Jesus answered, I have not a demon, but honour My Father, and ye dishonour Me. But I seek not My glory: there is One that seeketh and judgeth. Verily, verily, I say to you, If anyone keep My word, death he shall in no wise behold for ever” (verses 48-51). Thenceforth the Jews, unable to refute, and unwilling to confess, the truth, betake themselves to insolent retort and railing. They justify and openly repeat their application of “Samaritan” to Him; for what could more prove enmity in their eyes than to refuse their claim to be pre-eminently God’s people? If He declared them to be of their father, the devil, they did not scruple to rejoin that He had a demon. He was, they dared to imply, outside the Israel of God and the God of Israel. Yet was He the true Israel and the true God.
No Christian, then, has ever suffered worse in this way of dishonour than Christ. The disciple is not above his Lord, and can expect no exemption. And none are so prone to reproach others falsely as those who are themselves really slaves of the enemy. But let us learn of Him Who was meek and lowly of heart, and now calmly repudiates their taxing Him with a demon. Not so, but He was honouring His Father, they dishonouring Him. Yet was there no personal resentment as on his part who courts his own honour now, or seeks to injure when he can such as insult him.171 “But I seek not My glory: there is One that seeketh and judgeth.” He leaves all with His Father, Himself content to serve, able and ready to save. “Verily, verily, I say to you, If anyone”-let him be the vilest of His foes-”keep My word, death he shall in no wise behold for ever.” Such an utterance was worthy of all solemnity on His part, of all acceptation on theirs.
“The Jews therefore166 said to Him, Now we know [learn, perceive] that Thou hast a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets; and Thou sayest, If anyone keep My word, he shall never taste of death. Art Thou greater than our father Abraham who died? and the prophets died: whom makest Thou Thyself? Jesus answered, If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing: it is My Father that glorifieth Me; of whom ye say, He is our167 God; and ye have not known Him, but I know Him; and if I should say, I know Him not, I shall be like you a liar; but I know Him, and keep His word. Abraham your father exulted to see My day, and he saw and rejoiced. The Jews therefore said to Him, Thou art not yet fifty years old,172 and hast Thou seen Abraham?168 Jesus said to them, Verily, verily, I say to you, Before Abraham was, I am. They took up therefore stones to cast at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out from the temple,169 going through the midst of them, and so passed by” (verses 52-59)
Unbelief reasons from its own thoughts, and is never so confident as when completely wrong. So the Jews, misinterpreting the faithful sayings of the Lord Jesus, avail themselves of it triumphantly as the proof that Abraham and the prophets could not be of His school; for they, beyond controversy, were already dead. He must be possessed, therefore, to speak thus. Did He set up to be greater than they? Whom did He make Himself? Alas! it is here that man, Jew or Gentile, is blind. Jesus made Himself nothing, emptied Himself, taking a bondman’s form, becoming a man though being God over all, blessed for ever, and as the humbled man exalted by God the Father. If the eye be single, the whole body is full of light. So it was with Him Who came here and became man to do the will of God, in Whom He could and did confide to glorify Him. His path was one of unbroken fellowship as of obedience. He never sought His own glory, He always kept His Father’s word; He could say, from first to last, I know Him; in all leaving us an example that we should follow His steps. We may learn of Him that, if it be the grossest presumption for men of the world to affect the knowledge of God the Father, it is the greatest wrong in a child of His to deny it. “If I should say, I know Him not, I shall be like you a liar.” But He that claims to know Him keeps His word, and herein gives the testimony of reality along with that claim. The Spirit of truth is the Holy Spirit, and where he communicates the truth, He also effectually works in holiness according to God’s will.
But the Lord did not hesitate to meet their challenge of Abraham, and lets the Jews know that the father of the faithful exulted to see His day (as ever, I presume, His appearing in glory),170 and saw and rejoiced. It was, of course, by faith, like the not seeing or tasting death in the context; but the Jews took all in a mere physical way, and on their arguing from His comparative youth to the denial of Abraham’s seeing Him, the still deeper utterance comes forth, “Verily, verily, I say to you, Before Abraham was, I am,” the ever-subsisting One.173
It was said: the good confession before the Jews, the truth of truths, the infinite mystery of His Person, which to know is to know the true God and eternal life, as He is both. Such He was, such He is, from everlasting to everlasting. Incarnation in no way impeached it, but rather gave occasion for its revelation in man to men. He Who was God is become man, and as He cannot cease to be God, so He will not cease to be man. He is the Eternal, though also a man, and has taken manhood into union with Himself, the Son the Word, not with God only, but God too. “Before Abraham was (
γενέσθαι), I am” (
εἰμί). Abraham came into being. Jesus is God, and God is. “I am” is the expression of eternal subsistence, of Godhead. He could as truly have said, Before Adam was, I am; but the question was about Abraham, and with that calm dignity which never goes beyond the needed truth, He asserts it, and no more; but what He asserts could not be true, were He not the ever-present and unchanging One, the I AM before Adam, angels, and all things; as, indeed, He it was Who created them. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that has been made.
Not to know Him is the fatal ignorance of the world; to deny Him, the unbelieving die of the Jews, as of all who assume to know God independently, and to the exclusion of His Divine glory. And it is death while they live, eternal death, soon to be the second death, not extinction, but punishment in the lake of fire. Meanwhile unbelief can with impunity show its spite. “Then took they up stones to cast at Him; but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple.” The remaining words are probably taken from Luke 4:30, though many witnesses (ACELK
Δ, etc., with some very ancient versions)171 insert them.
147 [Cf. Introductory Lectures,” pp. 461-477.]
148 The clause translated, “and being convicted by their conscience,” in the Text. Rec., and supported by EGHKS, etc., is omitted by still better authority.
149 FHK, many cursives, etc., omit
Λ, very many cursives and ancient versions [as Syrsin], instead of
καὶ with the rest and Text. Rec.
ἀληθὴς and eleven other uncials, most cursives, etc.;
ἀληθινὴ BDLTX, etc.
152 pmD omit
πατήρ [as Weiss and Blass; W. H. Bracket].
153 Eleven uncials, and the cursives, versions, etc., invert
ὁ Ἰησοῦς, contrary to BDLTX, etc. [Syrsin], Orig. Cyr.
154 All the old English versions, too, are wrong, save the Rhemish, which has “your sinne.”
155 The Authorised Version is here faulty, like many others, ancient and modern. It is true that
ἀρχὴν with or without the article, may be used in ordinary Greek for “at the first,” or “formerly.” So in the Sept. of Gen. 13:4; Gen. 43:18, 20, etc.; and thus Nonnus understood the language of our Evangelist in this place. Not the temporal sense, however, of the word is meant in the present remarkable phrase, but that of archetypal character, or first principle. Thus, Tyndale (1534): “Even the very same thinge that I saye unto you”; and Cranmer (1539), only changing “saye” into “speake.” After them the Rhemish followed the strange and ungrammatical rendering of the Vulgate, “Principium qui et loquor vobis,” It is hard, if not impossible, to understand “qui” here; yet “principium” is not so far from the truth, as if the phrase had been confounded with “ab initio.” Indeed, the old Cod. Vero. has “Initium quod loquor vobis,” as Cod. Brix. “Principium quod et loquor vobis” The Geneva Version misled the translators of 1611 into a sort of double rendering, “Even the very same,” which would be a good enough version of
τὴν ἀρχὴν, but they added also “from the beginning,” which necessitated a false representation of
λαλῶ as if it were
156 BLT, etc., omit
αὐτοῖς, which is read by the great body of the witnesses [and so Blass],
157 Some good authorities [and so Blass] prefix
καὶ, “and,” others add
ὁ πατὴρ, “the Father,” at the end of the clause, and so Text. Rec.
ΓΔΛ, etc., Text. Rec.;
ἠκούσατε corr BCKLX, etc. [W. and H., Weiss, Blass].
159 The great majority read
ὑμῶν, but not BLT, etc.
ἑστε BDLT, etc.;
ἦτε Text. Rec. following the great mass [as Syrsin],
161 Text. Rec. adds
οὖν with fifteen uncials, but not the oldest.
162 The authorities are pretty equal for and against reading
οὖν, “therefore,” as given in Text. Rec. [W. and H., Weiss, Blass omit].
163 Text. Rec. omits
τοῦ, contrary to all good witnesses.
δὲ is added by many uncials, etc., and followed by Text. Rec., contrary to the best MSS. and versions. [Syrsin has it.]
165 A dozen uncials and most cursives, etc. (and so Text. Rec.) add
ούν, “therefore,” contrary to the oldest, BCDLX, many cursives and versions.
166 Fifteen uncials and most cursives, etc., read
οὖν, “therefore,” but not BC, etc., with some very old versions [as Syrsin].
167 BpmDFX, etc.,
ὑμῶν (and so Text. Rec.), contrary to the rest.
168 [Syrsin Shows “has Abraham seen thee?” so corr.Bpm ]
169 Here end BD and some of the oldest versions [as Syrsin], the rest adding substantially as in Text. Rec.
170 [“It was the day when the promises would be accomplished, and very naturally he who had the promises looked for the time when they are to be made good in Christ.”-”Lectures on the Gospels,” p. 476, note.]
171 [But not Syrsin.]