(1) It is an instructive example of the way in which the artificial division into chapters often mars the sense. that one verse of this section is found at the close of the last chapter, and the remainder in this.
Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.—The Mount of Olives is nowhere mentioned by St. John. In John 18:1 he describes the locality, but without this name (see Note there). His habit, moreover, in giving topographical details of Palestine is to explain them for his Greek readers. (See Note on John 4:5.)
But what sayest thou?—The question is, like that about the tribute money (Matthew 22:17), a snare in which they hope to take Him whatever answer He gives. If He answers that she should be stoned, this would excite the opposition of the multitude, for a lax state of morality had practically made the laws against unchastity a dead letter. The immorality of Rome had spread through the provinces of the empire, and although the Jews were less infected by it than others, the court of the Herods had introduced its worst forms, and Christ Himself speaks of them as “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39. Comp. James 4:4). To have pronounced for a severe law against common forms of sin would have been to undermine popular support, and it is this only that the rulers had to fear. To have pronounced for capital punishment would moreover have brought Him into collision with the Roman government, which reserved to itself the power of life and death. (Comp. John 18:31; John 19:7.) Had He uttered a word in derogation of the majesty of the Roman empire, the charge of treason—in which case to be accused was practically to be condemned—would at once have been brought against Him. (Comp. Notes on John 19:12; John 19:15.) It is clearly the more severe view that the form of the question is intended to draw forth. “Moses said, in express words, . . .; what dost Thou say? You surely will not differ from Moses?” But if He had taken the laxer view, then this, like the Sabbath question, would have been a charge of breaking the Law. He would have been brought before the Sanhedrin as a false Messiah, for the true Messiah was to establish the Law.
An alternative interpretation may be suggested. They had quoted the Law, and asked for His opinion. They were themselves the interpreters of the Law. He claimed no such office. (Comp. Luke 12:14.) He stoops down and writes, and the action intimates that the Law of God was written on tables of stone, and its decrees were immutable. They, by their technical interpretation and tradition, were making it of none effect. He came to fulfil it. The majesty of duty is sinned against by these refinements of casuistry. They are now daring to violate the sacredness of law by making it the subject of a question by which they hope to encompass His death. The solemn silence, as He stooped down in that Temple and wrote upon its pavement, must have spoken in a power greater than that of words.
He that is without sin among you.—The word rendered “without sin” is frequent in the classical writers, but is found in this place only in the New Testament. It takes here a special meaning from the context, and is to be understood of the class of sins of which her sin was an instance. (Comp. the word “sinner” as used in Luke 7:37.) Of the immorality among the Jewish rulers, which gives force to these words, evidence is not wanting. Still the wider meaning is probably not excluded. They who ask this question about the Seventh Commandment were themselves breaking the Sixth and the Ninth. It is to be noted, in the application of this answer, that our Lord does not lay down sinlessness as the necessary condition of fitness for taking part in the punishment of guilt. This would be to nullify law, for there could be then no human executive power. He is not speaking in a case brought before the appointed tribunal, but in a case where men assume to themselves the position of judges of another’s guilt. In the judge, while he wears the robe of justice, the individual man ceases to exist, and he becomes the representative of God; but these can now speak only as men, and condemn her only by the contrast of a higher purity. (Comp. Notes on John 10:34 et seq.)
Let him first cast a stone at her.—The Received text and some MSS. (not including the Cambridge MS.) read “the stone,” the stone referred to in John 8:5. “Let him first” means “let him first of you”; not “let him cast the first stone.” This was the duty of the witnesses. (See marginal reference.) We must not take the words to express permission only; it is an imperative, expressing command.
There is a strange addition at the end of the verse, in one of the older MSS. of this section, showing how men have tried to give a definite meaning to the action of writing. It reads, “and wrote on the ground the sin of each one of them.”
Beginning at the eldest.—Literally, beginning at the elders; but our version gives the right sense, and prevents the possible mistake of understanding the word to mean the elders of the people. So “the last” should probably be taken, not of the lowest in official rank, but of the last who went out.
And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.—The scribes and Pharisees had probably stood close to Him. The woman was at some little distance, naturally shrinking from their gaze; but there is a crowd of people, including the disciples, around her, for they are in the Temple, and before this interruption He was engaged in teaching the people (John 8:2). Her accusers had “set her in the midst” (John 8:2), where she now stands. The whole scene is pictured with the minute detail of an eye-witness, who remembers how the persons were grouped, how the accusers went out one after another, and then, how Jesus was left alone, apart from the crowd, but that the others were still present.
Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.—Or, more exactly, and be no longer a sinner. There is no expression of forgiveness or peace as we find in other cases. (Comp. Matthew 9:2; Luke 7:48.) He does not condemn her, for “God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). His words must have come to her as words of mercy in contrast to the angry words of those who dragged her before Him. He does not condemn her, and yet by these words she must have been condemned more truly than by any words of accuser. He does not condemn her; and yet the very words which bid her go are the condemnation of her sin. (Comp. John 5:14.) As in the case of the woman of Samaria (John 4), there is something in the tone and manner of dealing with this woman which goes beyond all words; and as we read the narrative the heart completes the picture, and we feel it preserves for us a real incident in our Lord’s ministry of mercy. It is a mark of truthfulness that the narrative tells us no more. It has not the completeness of an apocryphal story. We feel we should like to know more. She passed from His presence as her accusers had before. What came afterwards to her and to them? Did she, in obedience to the words now heard, go forth to a new life, rising through penitence and faith to pardon, peace, purity? Did they who shrink from His presence now, so learn His words as to come to that Presence again, seeking not judgment on others, but pardon for themselves? Over all the veil is drawn. We may not trace the history of lives known only to themselves and to God; but the lessons are patent, and remain to condemn every human judgment of another’s sin; to condemn every sin in our own lives; to declare to every sinner the forgiveness which condemns not.
(b)Jesus is Light (John 8:12 to John 9:41).
(α)He declares Himself to be the Light, and appeals to the witness of the Father and of Himself (John 8:12-20).]
(12) Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world.—Omitting the inserted section, this verse immediately follows John 7:52, but the words mark an interval, after which the discourse is resumed. Jesus had ceased to speak, but now speaks “again”; and St. John remembers that the words were suggested by some incident which occurred. It was “then,” or therefore, that He found occasion to utter this truth, because the outer form in which He may clothe it was present to their minds. Once again we shall find this mould, in which the truth shapes itself, in the ritual of the Feast of Tabernacles. On the eve of the Lesser Festival (see Note on John 7:14), and on each of the five nights which followed, there was an illumination in the court of the Temple to celebrate the “Rejoicing of the Water-Drawing.” Four large golden candelabra shed their light through the whole city. Then there was dancing and singing, and the music of instruments, which was continued through the night, until at daybreak the procession to the Pool of Siloam was formed. Once again, too, the ritual of the Feast of Tabernacles is a memorial of the wilderness life. As the water-drawing was bound up with thoughts of the water given in abundance to those dying of thirst, so this illumination was bound up with thoughts of the pillar of fire which was the guide of those who walked in darkness. And in this case, as in that, it is probably the absence of the incident on the last day of the feast which gives special force to our Lord’s words. Since the teaching of the last chapter, there had been an interval of, it may be, several hours. We may naturally think that the shades of evening were now drawing on. He is standing in the Treasury near to the court of the women (Note on John 8:20), where for the six nights last past there had been a great light, reminding those who could read its meaning of the greater light which illumined the footsteps of their fathers. On this night the light is not to shine; but the true Light, which was ever in the world, is now in His own Temple, speaking the words of light and life to His own people. There is a Light there whose rays are to illumine, not only the Temple, or Jerusalem, or Judæa, or the Dispersion, but the world.
He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness.—Strong and full of hope as these words are in the English rendering, the Greek is more emphatic still. The negative is in its strongest form, expressing “shall by no means,” “shall in no wise,” “walk in darkness.” The possibility is excluded from the thought. “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” If a man makes a false step in life, it is because he seeks other guides in his own thoughts or in subjection to the thoughts of other men. He that seeks to follow the true Light—to follow, not precede it; to follow always, not only when it coincides with his own will; to follow patiently and trustfully, step by step, wherever it may lead—cannot walk in darkness, for he is never without the presence of the Light. Here, as so often, stress is laid on the certainty and universality of the divine love on the one side, and the action of the human will on the other. There can be no doubt, “shall by no means walk in darkness”; there can be no limit, “he that followeth”; there can be no halting, “he that followeth.” The light ever points the way; it is he who day by day follows it who cannot miss the way. Perception of truth attends its practice. The true journey of this life is here presented as a constant activity; in John 7:37, the source of this action is found in a constant receptivity.
But shall have the light of life.—For the thought of “light” and “life” in contrast to “darkness” and “death,” comp. Note on John 1:5. The sense of the present passage is that he who follows Christ, not only has a light which guides his feet, but that through participation in the Messianic life he actually possesses that light in himself. He is no more dead, but has eternal life. (Comp. John 3:15.) He no more abides in darkness (John 12:46), but the Light which lighteneth every man abideth in him.
This verse is one of the many instances in which our familiar knowledge of the words of Jesus, in some degree, takes from the impression they would leave on us if we heard them for the first time. There is in them the calm assertion of conscious divinity, which in its very simplicity carries its own proof. It needed no formal proof, for He Himself knows it to be true; it needed no formal proof, for those who heard Him felt His words to be divine—“Never man spake like this Man.” “He taught them as One having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Comp. John 8:28.) The witness to the existence of natural light is the eye formed to receive its rays; the witness to the existence of the Light of the world is the eye of the spirit conscious of a night of darkness, which has passed into the brightness of the presence of the Sun of Righteousness.
For I know whence I came, and whither I go.—The requirement of two witnesses was based on the imperfection of individual knowledge, and the untrustworthiness of individual veracity. His evidence, as that of One who knew every circumstance affecting that of which He testified, was valid, for the perfection of His knowledge implied that He was divine. He and He only of all who have appeared in human form, knew the origin and issue of His life; He and He only knew the Father’s home from which He came, and to which He was about to return. For the same words, “I go,” or, I go away, as applied to His voluntary death, comp. John 7:33.
But ye cannot tell whence I come, and whither I go.—The Greek word for “cannot tell” is the same as that for “know” in the previous clause. For “and” most of the better MSS. read or. Making these corrections we have, But ye know not whence I come, or whither I go. The change of tense is to be noted. Speaking of His own knowledge, He refers to the Incarnation in the historic past, “I came.” Speaking of their continued ignorance, He refers to the coming as continuing in the present. Every renewed act and word was a coming to them from God. (See John 3:31.) He knew, in the fulness of knowledge, the whence of past coming and the whither of future going. They knew neither the one nor the other. They do not even know His present mission. Once again His present teaching takes up words uttered before. They had said, “When the Christ cometh no man knoweth whence He is” (John 7:27). He has, then, fulfilled their test. He had said, “Ye both know Me, and do know whence I am” (John 7:28); but that knowledge was of the earthly life only, and He now speaks to them of heaven.
This thought of the Pharisees, in their ignorance judging that which they knew not, suggests by contrast the thought that He. in perfect knowledge judges no one. (Comp. John 3:17.)
For I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me.—Comp. Note on John 5:30. Here, as there. He identifies every act of judgment with the eternal and unchangeable truth of the Father.
That the testimony of two men is true.—See Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15, and comp. Notes on Matthew 18:16 and Mark 14:55-56. The words are here quoted freely, and “two men” is substituted for “two or three witnesses,” which we find in both the passages in Deuteronomy. This prepares the way for the full thought of the “witness,” in the next verse. The requirement of the Law would be satisfied with the evidence of two men: He has the witness of two Persons, but each is divine.
The thought is closely connected with that of John 8:16. His judgment is not individual judgment, because of the union with the Father. His witness is not only individual witness, but that of the Father also. The whole passage should be carefully compared with the close of John 5.
It may be that to their scorn is added the desire to draw from Him express words on which to base an accusation. They perhaps expect an answer such as “My Father who is in heaven.” (Comp. the direct question in John 10:24, and the adjuration of the high priest, Matthew 27:64.) But the time has not yet come. His answer contains no words which they could lay hold of as a technical ground for blasphemy.
Ye neither know me, nor my Father.—He traces their ignorance of the Father to its true cause, i.e., to their neglect of the only means by which God could be known. This thought has met us already in John 1:18 (see Note there), and will meet us again in John 14:9; John 16:3. Here the Pharisees think they know Him, and ask “Where is Thy Father?” The answer is. that if they really knew the witness of one, they would know the witness of both.
(β)His return to the Father misunderstood by the Jews, and explained by Him (John 8:21-29).]
(21) Then said Jesus again unto them.—The best MSS. omit the word “Jesus,” and read, He said, therefore, again unto them. The word “therefore” connects the discourse which follows with something which has gone before, probably with the fact that no man laid hands on Him, for His hour was not yet come. He is still free to address the multitude, and after an interval does so. This interval is marked by the word “again,” but is not necessarily more than a short break in the discourse. We shall find reason for believing (see Note on John 9:14) that the whole of the teaching and work which is included between John 7:37; John 10:21, is probably to be placed on the last and great day of the feast. The persons addressed are the people assembled round Him in the Temple. Some of the officials take part in the discussion, for it is “the Jews” who reply in the next verse. We have to think, it may be, of men gathered together in small groups discussing what He had before said. Some are really inquiring with earnest hearts about Him. The rulers are trying to suppress the growing conviction of the multitude. There are thus two currents of thought and feeling. One is found in the honest hearts of the untutored multitude; they know little of argument, and dare not interpret the Scriptures for themselves, but in their rough-and-ready way they are grasping the truth; the heart of man is bowing before the presence of its God. The other is found in the priests and rulers to whom, as a holy and learned caste, the representatives of God to man and the interpreters of their Sacred Books, the people are in intellectual and moral bondage. They seek to bind with their fetters hearts that are finding their way to the truth. Some of these groups have moved on, it may be, and others have taken their place. Seeing a new audience near Him, Jesus speaks to them again; for it is not probable that the words of John 8:27 apply wholly to the same persons as those in John 8:19.
I go my way.—The rendering is a little tinged by the following thought. The Greek word is the same as in John 8:14, where it is rendered “I go.” There, as here, I go away is better. It was, let us again remind ourselves, the last day of the feast, and now its closing hours have come. That thronging multitude would be before the close of another day, leaving Jerusalem to spread itself through all the extent of Palestine and the Dispersion. He also is going away. Many of them will never see Him again. Before another Feast of Tabernacles He will, in a deeper sense, be going away. They will seek Him, but it will be too late. There is in all the discourse the solemn feeling that these are the last words for many who hear Him.
Ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins.—Comp. Notes on John 7:34; John 7:36. But here the result of the seeking and not finding is declared in the sadness of its fatal issue. “In your sins” is not quite exact, and is, perhaps, somewhat misleading. The Greek has the singular not the plural, and should be rendered “in your sin.” It points out the state of sin, rather than actual transgressions. This latter thought is expressed where the words are repeated in John 8:24.
Because he saith, Whither I go, ye cannot come.—Comp. Note on John 7:35. Then they had asked in scorn if He would go to the Dispersion and teach the heathen? If so, they certainly could not follow Him. Here there is the same scorn. If He intends to go to Hades, He will indeed be beyond their reach. They expect to go to Abraham’s bosom: between Him and them there will be the great gulf which no one can pass. (Comp. Notes on Luke 16:22-26.) Many expositors have seen here a reference to the deeper darkness which, in current Jewish belief, fell on the souls of those who had by their own act passed to the other world. This is supported by the speech of Josephus at Jotapata (Wars, iii. 8, § 5). Their words may imply, “If He is going to that depth, well may He say ‘Whither I go, ye cannot come.’” But if this meaning were expressed in their words, we should have expected some reference to it in the answer of our Lord; and if it be expressed at all it is in their words. It has no sanction in thought or word from Him.
“Ye are from beneath;” “ye are of this world.”
“I am from above” (not from beneath); “I am not of this world.”
We have thus the full Hebrew expression of one thought, and this is the thought which John the Baptist, from another point of view, taught his disciples in John 3:31. They are by origin and nature of the earth. He was by origin and nature from heaven. Of the earth, their feelings and thoughts and life were of the earth, and, by devotion to things of the earth, they are destroying the spirit made in the image of God, which is within them, and the link between them and heaven. He is from heaven in origin, and is divine in nature. He has come to reveal the heavenly and the divine to the earthly and the human. In Him, and in Him only, can their spirits find deliverance from sin, and find the true life; for in Him, and in Him only, the divine and the human meet.
If ye believe not that I am he.—The word “He” is not found in the Greek text, and this is marked by the italics in English; but they have been thinking and speaking of the Messiah, though the name has not been mentioned since John 7:42. It was the name ever first in their thoughts, and our version represents the generally received interpretation. It may, however, be doubted whether this interpretation gives to us the full meaning of the words “I am,” as used in this absolute way by our Lord, and as recorded in this Gospel. Within this same chapter they meet us again in John 8:28; John 8:58, and in the account of the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane we find them repeated. (See Notes on John 18:5 et seq.) The words had a sacred history which told of the revelation of Jehovah to Moses (Exodus 3:14). Uttered as they were by Him who had just claimed to be “from above” and to be “not of this world,” and uttered as they were within the precincts of Jehovah’s Temple, and in the presence of His priests and people, they may well have carried to their minds this deeper meaning, and have been intended as a declaration of His divine existence. The meaning then would be, “If ye believe not that I am, that in Me there is existence which is the life of all who receive it, ye must die in your sins.”
And Jesus saith unto them, Even the same that I said unto you from the beginning.—Almost every word of this answer is in the Greek capable of more than one meaning, and the true interpretation of the whole sentence cannot be decided with certainty. To discuss it with any fulness would be to encumber the page with details which would be unintelligible to the general reader; to discuss it with anything but fulness would be unsatisfactory to the student. There is little room for addition to the investigations which are now accessible. The full notes of Meyer and Stier and Tholuck may be read in English; and Dr. Moulton’s addition to his Translation of Winer’s Grammar (eighth edition, 1877, pp. 581-2), gives in a few words nearly all that can be said on the grammatical difficulty. After a careful consideration of the whole matter, it is believed, though not without hesitation, that the rendering, which is least liable to objection on any ground, is that which regards the answer as itself a question—“What I from the beginning am also speaking to you?” “You ask who I am. This has formed the substance of My teaching from the beginning, and is the substance of My teaching still.” (Comp. John 8:58.) “Can it be that you ask this?”
But he that sent me is true.—The words express a marked contrast to the words and thoughts with which He would come in contact, if He said and judged concerning them. They refer to the calm repose of the divine life in heaven, as contrasted with the misunderstandings and objections with which the manifestation of that life on earth had been encompassed. He turns from them to the thought of Him who sent Him, and who is true.
And I speak to the world those things which I have heard of him.—Better, I speak unto the world the things which I heard from Him. It is the truth brought into and announced in the world, and which was heard during the pre-incarnate life with the Father. (Comp. John 8:28; John 8:38.)
When ye have lifted up the Son of man.—Better, When ye shall have lifted up . . . (Comp. Notes on John 3:14; John 6:62; John 12:32; John 12:34.) Both the Crucifixion and Ascension are implied here. Now. for the first time, they are marked out as the instruments of the Crucifixion (comp. Acts 3:15), and therefore the means by which He will return to His Father’s throne.
Then shall ye know . . .—These words confirm the view that the teaching of these verses arises immediately out of their present ignorance. Then the veil will be removed. Then the death of Christ will be followed by His glory. As we read these words they impress us with that calm of assured certainty with which they are uttered (comp. John 8:12) before the events, and reminds us of the signal way in which they were fulfilled. (Comp., e.g., Notes on Matthew 23:39 and Acts 2:37.)
That I am he.—Comp. Note on John 8:24.
And that I do nothing of myself.—This is dependent on “know that” in the previous clause; as is the remainder of the verse, and probably the first clause of the following verse also. They will then know that He is divine, and that the acts and words which they cannot now understand are part of the divine life in union with the Father. Now they marvel and ask, “How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?” (John 7:15): then they shall know that according as the Father taught Him, He spake these things. Now they cannot understand the witness of the Father (John 8:19): then they shall know that He that sent Him was with Him.
For Ι do always those things that please him.—It would be less ambiguous to read, because I do always . . . The words furnish the reason for the presence of the Father in every act and moment of His life. All things done by Him at all times were in accordance with the Father’s will. In His human nature perpetual communion is conditioned by perpetual obedience. The same thought recurs in His words to the disciples in John 15:10. Comp. also, on the relation of the Son to the Father, Note on John 5:19.
Emphasis should be laid here upon the pronoun, “for I do always.” It was true of His human nature, as distinct from all others, that no act, at any moment of life, had cast its shadow on the brightness of the vision of the Father’s presence. Later in this same discourse (John 8:46) He appeals to their knowledge of His holy life. Here, in words that none other in human form could ever utter, He appeals to His own consciousness of a life, every act of which was pleasing in the presence of God.
[(b) Jesus is Light (continued).
(γ)True discipleship and freedom (John 8:30-59).
Freedom by the Son’s word (John 8:30-36).
Natural and ethical sonship (John 8:37-47).
Eternal life by the Son’s word. The Son’s eternity (John 8:48-59).]
If ye continue in my word.—Or, If ye abide in My word. Comp. Note on John 15:7, where we have the opposite form of the thought, “If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you.” See also for this idea of abiding, Notes on John 5:37-38. His word was the expression of the eternal truth of God, and He therefore was the one great Teacher. Every other must sit as a disciple at His feet, and continue in daily learning and in daily living to grasp the truth which, in that word and that word only, was revealed to man.
Here, as very frequently, part of the force of the sentence is expressed in the emphasis of the pronoun, “If ye continue in My word.” “Ye, on your part, ye who now believe, but have not the courage to rank yourselves openly among My disciples.”
Then are ye my disciples indeed.—The insertion of “then” does not improve the rendering—“If ye continue in My word, ye are My disciples indeed.” The words imply that He who reads the heart has no confidence in this momentary conviction, which will not stand the test of true discipleship, and all that this includes. (Comp. Notes on John 2:23-25; John 6:66.)
And the truth shall make you free.—Here, as in John 17:17, truth and holiness are spoken of as correlative. The light of truth dispels the darkness in which lies the stronghold of evil. Sin is the bondage of the powers of the soul, and this bondage is willed because the soul does not see its fearful evil. When it perceives the truth, there comes to it a power which rouses it from its stupor, and strengthens it to break the fetters by which it has been bound. Freedom from the Roman rule was one of the national hopes bound up with Messiah’s Advent. There is indeed a freedom from a more crushing foe than the legions of Rome. (Comp. Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30.)
We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man.—Their pride misinterprets His words, and expresses itself in a boast which passes the limits of historical truth. It had been promised to Abraham, “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies” (Genesis 22:17). This seed they were. This promise they interpret of national prosperity. Abraham’s seed in bondage! the thought is impossible. As in other cases (comp. John 7:52), they forget part of the facts of history, for they have never learned their lessons. The Egyptian slavery and Babylonian captivity are passed over. That very generation witnessed around them the insignia of Rome, paid taxes to Rome, used the coin of Rome, but it was the policy of the empire to leave to the subject provinces a nominal freedom; and it may be that stress is laid on the words “been in bondage,” which occur nowhere else in the Gospels. Those then living may have said with truth that they had never been in actual bondage, and the current expectation of the Messiah at that time may have led them to interpret the promise to Abraham specially of themselves.
Committeth sin.—The Greek word is a present participle, expressing the continuance of the deeds of sin. It means, not simply the committing individual sins, from which no man is free, but the state of the life which is sinful; the state which is opposed to doing the will of the Father, and is expressed in other words as “working iniquity” (Matthew 7:21; Matthew 7:23.) The truth is taught in the generality of a well-known maxim, but it has for them a special application. They claimed to be Abraham’s seed, and therefore free. Let their lives decide the question of their freedom. He could appeal (John 8:28-29) to a perfect harmony with the divine will, and therefore had a perfect freedom. For many of them the voice of conscience must have spoken in terrible words, and must have revealed the chain which had bound them, hand and foot, in the slavery of sin.
Is the servant of sin.—The word means bondservant, or slave. It has been rendered by “bondman,” and this brings out the connection of the word with that for “was in bondage,” in the last verse.
It is striking that we have this same thought in the letters of both St. Paul and St. Peter. (See margin.)
The Son abideth ever.—Better, for ever, as in the earlier clause. The Greek words are precisely the same. This contrast between the position of the slave, who is a chattel that may be bought or bartered or sold, and has no affinity with the members of the house, and no permanent right in it; and the son, in whose veins is the master’s blood, and who is heir of all things, is obvious and general; but here, again, the present meaning is special. They claim to be the seed of Abraham. Did they remember the history of Isaac and Ishmael? The son of the freewoman abideth in the house; the son of the bondmaid is cast out. Here, once again, too, we have the pupil of Gamaliel taking up and expanding this thought, showing that it was within the range of current exposition. Read carefully Galatians 4:19-31, remembering that the Epistle belongs to the middle of the half-century which separates the utterance of these words by Christ from their record by St. John.
The Greek word for “abideth” is the word which is rendered “continue” in John 8:31, and the Authorised version further obscures the connection by placing a paragraph division between these verses. If we read again John 8:31-32, noting the close connection between abiding, truth, and freedom; and the next verses, John 8:35-36, noting the connection between abiding, the Son, and freedom, we shall have, it is believed, a simpler clue to the meaning than any of the usual explanations.
Our version misleads by the use of the capital. The word “Son” in this verse, should be read “son.” The clause is the expression of a legal maxim holding good for all servants and for all sons, but here specially applied to the sonship in Abraham’s household. It is not before the next verse that there is the transference of thought to the Son in the household of the Divine Father. In this verse the thought is that if they were really the children of Abraham they would be of Abraham’s spiritual nature, abiding in his home, and inheriting the promises made to him. They had not continued in the spiritual freedom of sons, but had departed from the house and had become, spiritually, bondmen.
Ye shall be free indeed.—Or, ye shall be free in reality.—The word is not the same as that rendered “indeed,” in John 8:31. They claimed political freedom, but they were in reality the subjects of Rome. They claimed religious freedom, but they were in reality the slaves to the letter. They claimed moral freedom, but they were in reality the bondmen of sin. The freedom which the Son proclaimed was in reality freedom, for it was the freedom of their true life delivered from the thraldom of sin and brought into union with God. For the spirit of man, that in knowledge of the truth revealed through the Son can contemplate the Father and the eternal home, there is a real freedom that no power can restrain. All through this context the thoughts pass unbidden to the teaching of St. Paul, the great apostle of freedom. There could be no fuller illustration of the words than is furnished in his life. He, like St. Peter and St. John (Romans 1:1, e.g.; 2 Peter 1:1; Revelation 1:1), had learnt to regard himself as a “bondservant,” but it was of Christ, “whose service is perfect freedom.” We feel, as we think of him in bonds before Agrippa, or a prisoner at Rome, that he is more truly free than governor or Cæsar before whom he stands, and more truly free than he himself was when he was armed with authority to bind men and women because they were Christians. The chains that bind the body cannot bind the spirit, whose chains have been loosed. He is free indeed, for the Son has made him free.
But ye seek to kill me.—The difficulty of understanding these words to refer to those who believed on Him (John 8:30-31), have led to the opinion that others of the hierarchy answer in John 8:33. This seems unnatural, and is opposed to the words which immediately follow. As a party, they had been, and still were, seeking to kill Him. These believers, by their question in John 8:33, were showing the spirit which declined discipleship, were identifying themselves with His opponents.
Because my word hath no place in you.—Better, makes no progress in you, “does not advance, does not gain ground in you.” That meaning is established by undoubted examples, and is in exact agreement with the thought of the context. In John 8:31 the test was, “If ye abide in My word.” Their question proves that their faith was momentary. The word had but penetrated the surface of their thoughts, but they had not so received it as to allow it to advance into the mind and influence their conduct.
And ye do that which ye have seen with your father.—For “seen,” the better reading is probably heard. Here, as in the previous clause, some MSS. omit the possessive pronoun with “father,” but it is rightly inserted to express the meaning. The clauses are in direct opposition to each other, and this is shown by the emphatic personal pronouns—“I, on My part . . . My Father.” “You, on your part . . . your father.” The tenses of the verbs, too, are to be distinguished—“That which I have seen” (during My whole existence in eternity). “That which ye heard” (when ye became servants of sin). The cases of the substantives are also different—“I have seen with my Father” (signifying existence with. Comp. John 1:1). “Ye heard from your father” (what he directed).
Again, there is a word in the original which it is hard to represent in English, and which our version altogether omits. It is not simply “and ye do,” but “and ye therefore, or accordingly, do.” It is the same principle of union between Father and Son which directs His work, which is to reveal God, and their work, of which the seeking to kill Him is an instance.
If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham.—Almost all the better MSS. read, “If ye are,” for “If ye were.” This must mean, “If ye are Abraham’s children—but the supposition is excluded, for ye would do the works of Abraham, and this is opposed to fact.” They are the physical seed of the patriarch, but they are not the ethical children, for the true child would bear the moral impress of the father which would be seen in his works. The thought of the previous verse is again present here.
The distinction between “seed” and “children” is another instance of an idea which meets us in this section, and was developed in the writings of St. Paul. (Comp. Romans 9:7 et seq.)
A man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard (better, which I heard) from God.—The term “a man,” expresses His revelation, by means of human form, of the divine truth which He heard in the pre-human state (John 8:38). The crime of seeking to kill Him is aggravated by the fact that He was One who came to tell them truth, and that from God. They seek to destroy the human life which for the sake of humanity He has assumed.
This did not Abraham.—It is usual to explain these words by a reference to Abraham’s receptivity of the divine truth and messengers (see Genesis 12; Genesis 14; Genesis 18; Genesis 22); but they probably point to the whole course of the patriarchal life as directly opposed to the spirit of those who claim to be his children.
We be not born of fornication.—The meaning of this is to be found in the fact that the word became in the Old Testament prophets a frequent symbol for idolatry. Comp. Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 3:8-9; Ezekiel 16; Hosea 1:2 (especially), 4:12, and 5:7.) They, as distinguished from the nations among whom they dwelt, had maintained a pure monotheism, and had never been idolaters, or children born of spiritual fornication.
We have one Father, even God.—“We” is strongly emphatic, expressing their pride in the theocracy, and their spiritual superiority to other nations. There may be in this pride also a touch of the scorn with which they asked “Will He go unto the dispersion of the Gentiles?” (John 7:35), or with which they call Him a Samaritan, as they do in this very discussion (John 8:48). “Howbeit every nation made gods of their own, and put them in the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in their cities wherein they dwelt.” This is the historian’s account of the spiritual paternity of the Samaritans, and these Jews may well have felt their superiority in contrast with their neighbours. (See the whole passage in 2 Kings 17:26-41, especially John 8:30-31.)
I proceeded forth and came from God.—Better, am come, am here. His presence with them was the result of His proceeding from God. As the Son of God He had eternal fellowship with the Father. The Incarnation was not the mission of one whose existence was separate from that of God, but it was the mission of the Son who proceeded from the Father. (Comp. John 16:27 et seq.)
Neither came I of myself, but he sent me.—Literally, for not even of Myself am I come, but He sent Me; as opposed to the thought that His origin was distinct from the Father. His coming was not His own act, but was a mission from God to the world.
But if He is sent from God, if He is present with them from God, if He proceeded from the Father, it must be that all who are true children of God would recognise and love Him.
It is important to note here that in our Lord’s own words there is an assertion of the oneness of nature and of will with that of the Father, and yet the distinction of person is maintained. He is come from God, but He proceeded from the divine essence. He proceeded forth, and yet He was sent.
Ye cannot hear.—Comp. Note on John 6:60. The sense is, “Ye cannot hear, so as to receive and obey.” He supplies the answer to His own question. In the following verses (44-47), He expresses this answer more fully.
And the lusts of your father ye will do.—Better, ye desire to do, ye will to do. The verb is not an auxiliary, as it appears to be in our version, but expresses the determination of the will. (Comp. Notes on John 5:40; John 7:17.)
He was a murderer from the beginning.—Comp. Wisdom Of Solomon 2:23-24, “For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of His own eternity. Nevertheless, through envy of the devil came death into the world, and they that do hold of his side do find it.” So St. Paul, “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin” (Romans 5:12). The Fall was the murder of the human race; and it is in reference to this, of which the fratricide in the first family was a signal result, that the Tempter is called a murderer from the beginning (see Note on John 1:1). “Cain was of that wicked one, and slew his brother.” (Comp. Notes on 1 John 3:8-12, where the thought is expanded.) The reference to the murderer is suggested here by the fact that the Jews had been seeking to kill our Lord (John 8:40). They are true to the nature which their father had from the beginning.
And abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.—Better, and standeth not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. The word is not that which we have before had in the sense of “abide” (see Note on John 5:38), and the tense of the verb is present in meaning. The words do not refer to the fall of the devil, which is here implied but not stated, but to his constant character. He has no place in the sphere of the truth; it is not the region of his action and outer life; and the result of this is that there is no truth in the sphere of his thought and inner life. Had he been true, he would have come to stand in the light and life of truth.
When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own.—This is in contrast to the work of Christ (John 8:28; John 8:40) and to the work of the Holy Spirit (Note on John 16:13.) The Holy Spirit will not speak of Himself; He came to speak the truth which He heard from God. The devil speaketh a lie (comp. Genesis 3), and this is of his own (see Note on Matthew 12:35).
For he is a liar, and the father of it.—Better, and the father of the liar. This is probably the meaning of the Greek, and it can only be expressed in English by the repetition of the substantive. The verse ends as it begins, by a reference to the Jews whom He is addressing. They were of the nature of him whose spiritual children they were. The murderous thoughts in their hearts, and their non-receptivity of truth, plainly indicated who their father was.
The reader will hardly, perhaps, need to be cautioned against the old heretical rendering of the first and last clauses of this verse, by “Ye are of the father of the devil . . . for he is a liar, and also his father.” Still, as this view has been revived in some quarters in our own day, one word of reminder that it is no less opposed to the context and the teaching of this Gospel than it is to the whole tenor of Biblical truth and of rational theology, may not be misplaced. On the personality of the devil, which, if plain words have any meaning, is here implied in the words of Christ, see Notes on Matthew 4.
Ye believe me not—i.e., ye believe not what I say. It does not mean, Ye believe not on Me, but Ye accept not the truth which I speak. There is something startling in this sharp opposition of truth and unbelief. To speak the truth is commonly to command belief. The mind of man is so constituted that truth is the first object of its search. Here was perfect truth presented to men, and they refused to accept it, because it was the truth, and they were themselves children of him who was a liar.
If I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?—We may suppose that the last question was probably followed by a pause, during which any one might have answered the challenge. No one of all who had watched Him in Galilee and Judæa dared utter a syllable. Their silence is the seal to His own testimony. But if He is thought of by these as without sin, they cannot think of His words as untrue. They admit, then, that He speaks the truth, and yet they do not believe. On the absolute sinlessness of Christ, comp. 1 John 3:5; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:19; 1 Peter 1:22.
The rendering, “and hast a devil,” is one which, probably, cannot now be improved. Wiclif’s word here is “fiend,” which in this sense is obsolete. But every reader of the Greek must feel how little our English word can represent the two distinct ideas, represented by two distinct words here and in John 8:44. “Demon,” used originally for the lower divinities, and not unfrequently for the gods, passed in the Scriptures, which taught the knowledge of the true God, into the sense of an evil spirit. Thus the word which could represent the attendant genius of Socrates came to express what we speak of as demoniacal possession, and the supposed power of witchcraft and sorcery. Socrates is made to say, “For this reason, therefore, rather than for any other, he calls them demons, because they were prudent and knowing” (daēmones, Plato, Cratylus, xxiii.). The history of Simon Magus reminds us that the people of Samaria, from the least to the greatest, had been for a long time under the influence of his sorceries (Acts 8:9 et seq.), and it is probable that there is a special connection in the words here, “Thou art a Samaritan, and hast a demon.” (Comp. Excursus III. on Notes to St. Matthew’s Gospel, p. 185.)
I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.—There is a connection between all His works and words and the unseen world. It is the union of Father and Son, and His life had been the constant honouring of the Father, whose will it was His meat to do (John 4:31). Their works and words were as constantly—and this last calumny is an instance of it—dishonouring Him. The contrast suggests that this dishonour was not of Him only; but also of the Father whom He honoured, and whom they claimed as their God.
There is one that seeketh and judgeth.—Comp. John 5:45. The thought here is that though He Himself seeks not His own glory, the Father seeketh for the honour of the Son, and judgeth between Him and those who dishonour Him. The result of the judgment as to those who keep not His word is expressed in the next verse; and as to Himself in John 16:10.
Another interpretation of the phrase rendered “He shall never see death,” is “he shall not see death for ever”—i.e., “he shall indeed die, but that death shall only be in this world, it shall not be in the world which is for ever.” This is the thought in the collect in “The Order for the Burial of the Dead “. . . “our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life; in whom whosoever believeth shall live, though he die; and whosoever liveth and believeth in him shall not die eternally.”
The following are the only passages in St. John where exactly the same formula is used, and a comparison of them will make it clear that it means, as does the Hebrew formula on which it is based, that which we express by “never,” or “certainly never.” “by no means ever,” for the negative is in its strongest form (John 4:14, John 8:52 in this John 10:28; John 11:26; John 13:8). The first and last of these passages refer to subjects (“shall never thirst,” “shall never wash my feet”), which do not admit any possibility of doubt. The others are all parallel to the present text, in thought as well as in word. In all there is the fuller meaning that for the believer who now has spiritual life, and continues to live in communion with God, there cannot be death. “He shall never see death.” What we think of as death is but a sleep. (See Note on John 11:11.) Death has been swallowed up of life, and physical death is thought of, in its true sense, as an entering into life.
If a man keep my saying.—Better, If a man keep My word, as in last verse.
He shall never taste of death.—The expression is stronger than that which He had used, “shall never see death.” They use it to put in the strongest way their wonder at the impossible promise which He had uttered. It has occurred before in Matthew 16:28. (See Note there.) It occurs again in the New Testament only in Hebrews 2:9.
Whom makest thou thyself?—“If Abraham, who received God’s covenant, himself died, and if the prophets, who uttered the oracles of God, themselves died, what kind of person dost Thou assert Thyself to be that Thy word shall deliver men from death?” The same phrase occurs again in John 5:18; John 10:33; John 19:7.
It is my Father that honoureth me.—Better, as before, . . . glorifieth Me. This is the answer to their question, “Whom makest Thou Thyself?” The attribute of life in Himself, and the power to communicate this to those who kept His word, was the gift of the Father to the Son. (See Note on John 5:26.)
Of whom ye say, that he is your God.—Some of the better MSS., and most modern editors, read . . . “He is our God.” The identification of the Father with the God of Israel is important. It may be, as some have supposed, that the phrase, “He is our God,” belonged to common liturgical forms or hymns, and was thus frequently on their lips.
If I should say, I know him not.—The thought of their want of perception of God has led to the assertion by contrast of His own full intuitive knowledge of God. To assert this knowledge is to make Himself greater than Abraham and the prophets; but there is untruth in silence as well as in utterance, and His very truthfulness demands the assertion.
But I know him, and keep his saying.—Or better, His word, as in John 8:51-52. Again the positive statement is made in the certainty of His full knowledge, and this is followed by a statement of the observance of the same condition of communion with the Father which He had made necessary for communion of the disciples with Himself.
And he saw it, and was glad.—This is the historic fulfilment of the joy which looked forward to the day of Christ. Our Lord reveals here a truth of the unseen world that is beyond human knowledge or explanation. From that world Abraham was cognisant of the fact of the Incarnation, and saw in it the accomplishment of the promise which had brought joy to shepherds watching their flocks, as the Patriarch had watched his; there came an angel, as angels had come to him, and a multitude of the heavenly host, exulting in the good news to men. In that joy Abraham had part. The truth comes as a ray of light across the abyss which separates the saints in heaven from saints on earth. As in the parable, where Lazarus is in Abraham’s bosom, the rich man is represented as knowing and caring for his brethren on earth, so here the great Patriarch is spoken of as knowing and rejoicing in the fact of the Incarnation. The faculty of reason cannot explain how it is, but the faculty of faith can receive the truth that there is a “communion of saints,” and finds in it a comfort which robs separation of its bitterness, and a power which strengthens all the motives to a holy and devoted life. (Comp. Luke 16:19-31; Hebrews 12:1.)
Going through the midst of them, and so passed by.—These words are omitted in a majority of the better MSS. They were probably inserted in others to explain what was taken to be the miraculous disappearance. (Comp. Luke 4:30.) Here we are simply told that He “hid Himself and went out of the Temple, and this does not imply more than that He passed among the crowd which was around Him, out of the Temple, and thus avoided the stones which they had taken up to cast at Him.