Question: "What does it mean that ‘the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32)?"
Answer: “The truth will set you free” is a common saying in academic circles that want to promote academic freedom and the power of learning. Many universities have this statement emblazoned on a sign near the entrance of a building. But “the truth will set you free” did not originate in academia; Jesus said it in John 8:32. In context, Jesus’ statement has nothing to do with classroom learning. In fact, John 8:32 speaks of a higher form of knowledge than is capable of being learned in a classroom.
Jesus had just finished a speech at the temple where He delineated differences between Himself and His listeners. “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:23–24). The result of Jesus’ message was that “even as he spoke, many believed in him” (verse 30). Then, in verse 31, Jesus begins to speak just to those who had believed.
“Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples’” (John 8:31). True discipleship is more than intellectual assent; those who are “really” followers of Christ will “hold to” His Word. That means they will not only accept His teachings as truth, but they will also obey His teachings. Action is proof of faith (cf. James 2:17).
True disciples of Jesus believe that He speaks the truth about God and the Scriptures. They also know that He is who He claims to be. Back in verse 25, the people asked Jesus who He was, and He responded, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning.” There may be a tinge of exasperation in His response; He had repeatedly made known that He was the Messiah, the one they had anticipated for many years.
Verse 32 begins with, “Then you will know the truth.” “You” refers to those who are true disciples of Jesus. True disciples will know the truth. More than that, their eyes are opened to a greater understanding of the truth (cf. 1 John 5:20).
The truth Jesus’ disciples receive brings with it freedom. Jesus continues, “And the truth will set you free” (verse 32). At that point in history, the Jews were under the rule of the Roman government. Even though Rome gave them an exceptional amount of autonomy, they were keenly aware of the Roman presence around them in the form of soldiers, governors, and empirically appointed kings. When Jesus said the truth would set them free, however, He was not talking about political freedom (though the following verses indicate that’s how the Jews took it). Jesus provides the best commentary for His own statement in verse 34. Jesus explains, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Being a slave to sin is the ultimate bondage.
The freedom Jesus offers is a spiritual freedom from the bondage of sin—that is, release from the lifestyle of habitual lawlessness. He continues with an analogy: “Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever” (verse 35). The people would have understood Jesus to mean that they were not members of God’s family, despite their biological relationship to Abraham (verse 37), because they were slaves to sin. If they were to become disciples of Jesus, they would know the truth of their condition and the truth about Christ, and Jesus would set them free. Believers would be freed from their bondage and brought into the family of God.
Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6). Knowing the Truth will set one at liberty—free from sin, free from condemnation, and free from death (Romans 6:22; 8:1–2). Jesus came to proclaim liberty to the captives (Luke 4:18). “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16, ESV).
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