“You can’t handle the truth!” (Aaron Sorkin, A Few Good Men)
The 1992 film “A Few Good Men” has been outstripped in popularity by its more famous “one-liner” spoken by Colonel Nathan R. Jessup. Even if you’ve never seen the film1 you’ve probably heard the line above quoted at some point or other – because it speaks of the sometimes devastating nature of truth. Sometimes we don’t like hearing what we’re told because it’s true.
The light has come into the world
It’s that kind of penetrating exposure that Jesus claimed to be bringing into the world when He came. Back in John chapter 3, He claimed to be bringing the kind of light that would either drive away the wicked, or draw in those who are doing good. “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:20-21)
It’s this idea which we should be thinking of when John records Jesus’ announcement in 8:12:
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
It’s an extraordinary offer – comparable to many other offers He had made thus far, but nonetheless amazing! And so, as we continue following the discussion which began in chapter 7 (and skip the weird addition in the middle), we’re intrigued to see how the people will respond.
The conversation was on edge. There was clear confusion amongst Jesus’ hearers (v19, v22, v25, v27). And yet, as Jesus continued to shine the light of truth into their conversation, something seemed to click. With a feeling of great excitement, we read those extraordinary words, “many believed in him” (v30).
Joy! Excitement! Many believed!
Except we shouldn’t jump the gun. John has already recorded occasions in Jesus’ life when belief wasn’t such a good thing2. The question isn’t simply “how did people respond”, but as we’re increasingly seeing – how did they go on responding?
Questioning their heritage
The conversation turned sour almost immediately afterwards. Jesus repeated almost exactly the same offer as before, but with a particular emphasis on abiding in His words to experience freedom.
If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (v32)
And yet the crucial need to stick with Jesus was the very thing they failed to do. In spite of this beautiful offer, the original audience responded with offence. They refused to accept that they might be enslaved, and in a terrible moment of extraordinary irony, they objected that they had ‘never been enslaved to anyone’ (v33) 3.
As Jesus continued to issue His offer, He continued to simultaneously shine the light of truth on their lives. They were turning away, and it was revealing something profoundly true about themselves.
I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. (v37)
If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. (vv39-40)
As a reader, we’re being shown clearly that the Jewish claim to be ‘descendants of Abraham’ is increasingly untenable. While descended from Abraham by blood, they appeared to have inherited none of his characteristics. And yet Jesus had a bigger blow to cast in the conversation.
Children of the devil
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. he was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him (v44)
If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God. (v47)
Jesus’ logic was deeply unsettling, but hard to refute. Their persistent resistance to Jesus demonstrated that they weren’t the ‘godly people’ they claimed to be. The family traits they demonstrated exposed their true paternity. But rather than being the children of God they would like to claim (v41), their preference for lies and hatred of Jesus showed that they were children of the devil.
It’s not easy for me to write that. I realise that anyone could stumble across these words and find them deeply offensive. But I guess I need to highlight a few things:
- These are Jesus’ words. I’m not making up things in order to cause trouble; it’s the gritty truth that Jesus chose to speak about, and which John included in his biography of Jesus. I’m sure there’s plenty of other things I’d put in first, but Jesus chose this, and I’m not about to question Him on it.
- These are true of everyone in their natural state. Even though Jesus is clearly making the indictment against the specific audience in front of Him, earlier parts of His conversation broadened ‘slavery to sin’ to include ‘everyone who practices sin’ (v34) – that’s me as well as you. I’m not pointing the finger, I’m making a confession. Our natural state is of slavery to sin, children of the devil. And that’s a problem that I don’t pretend to have worked my own way out of.
- Jesus offers a way out. Ever since the beginning of John’s account, it’s been plain that Jesus is offering the most amazing adoption ever. “To all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (1:12). It’s the same offer Jesus makes in this chapter: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (8:36). We don’t have to stay children of the devil forever; we can be children of God. And Jesus is the one who offers the way.
The offer was plain and our need is great. So what would they do?
What do you do with the light?
The response of the Jews in this section was extreme and alarming. Jesus went on to make one of the clearest claims to divinity in the whole of the Bible: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (v58)4. And the response of those He had been talking to? “So they picked up stones to throw at him” (v59).
They stand as a clear example of what not to do. They couldn’t handle the truth. They couldn’t deal with the reality that Jesus exposed in their lives. And that demonstrates to us the great danger of flirting with Christianity and then cutting loose when Jesus says hard things.
Perhaps you’d have preferred Him not to say what John recorded in this chapter. Perhaps there are other things which Jesus says which you know are hard, and you’re tempted to turn away from Him. Jesus encourages you nonetheless to come to Him for life – to abide in His words5, and so receive the freeing truth that He has to offer. We don’t always like the diagnosis that we’re given; but when it comes from the lips of someone as good and kind as Jesus, we know that it’s for our benefit.
Believe in Him, believe that He is God, and have life.
And when others choose to reject Him? Don’t be misled. Rejection of Jesus isn’t a neutral position to hold. Just as the experts of Jesus’ day were hostile because they hated the truth, so in every generation there will be those who despise Him. Don’t assume their response exhibits fairness or impartiality. Children of the devil, like every one of us in our natural state, come fully loaded with bias against the truth. And as we’ve seen, it leads to murderous rage against Him.
John urges us to spurn such biased rejection and trust that Jesus is God.
Ultimately Jesus won’t let you sit on the fence. He urges us to come to Him – and to stick with Him. He never pretends that will be easy; on the contrary, there will be bitter pills to swallow. But He offers life. What are you doing with that offer?
One can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark, but one cannot forgive a man who is afraid of the light.6
More on John’s gospel will be published each Wednesday evening, with a bonus blog article thrown in on most weeks at some point before the next Wednesday. Feel free to share posts using the buttons below, and you can subscribe to the blog by using the sign-up form on the right.
- I’ve never seen the film ↩
- See, for example, John 2:23-25; and, more recently, notice how many people believed in Jesus in 6:34, but how few were left by the end of the chapter ↩
- The idea that the descendants of Abraham had managed to escape slavery wasn’t just wrong – it was laughable. Amongst the most significant periods in their nation’s history were their escape from slavery in Egypt, and being sent into slavery to Babylon. Even at this particular time, when Jesus was speaking, they were under a kind of slavery to the occupying Roman forces ↩
- If it’s not clear that this is a claim to divinity, then it’s helpful to realise that one of God’s names for Himself in Exodus is “I AM”. You notice it particularly in the jarring grammar of v58 – rather than saying, ‘before Abraham was, I was’ (which would already be a pretty grand claim to have lived most than 1500 years), Jesus said, ‘before Abraham was, I AM‘. It’s not because He’s struggling with grammar, but because He’s making the divine claim about Himself. The response of the Jews showed that they’d understood what Jesus was claiming, even if they didn’t accept it ↩
- If you’re not sure what that means, don’t worry – keep reading John’s gospel! He gives us a better idea in a few chapters’ time ↩
- Although frequently attributed to Plato, there is no evidence that he actually wrote it. Apparently it was first attributed to Dr M. Duane Sommerness in Tribune on 3 September 1952 (pg5, col 4). Click here for the attribution. ↩