Easy. The truth. We’ve heard it a thousand times. It’s a figure of speech used even by those who have never read the Bible.
“The truth shall set you free”
But does the Bible really say that? And what does it mean? The truth about what? And free in what sense?
- Does this mean that once we find out the truth about what someone has been doing behind our back we will somehow be ‘free’?
- Or say we hear the truth about what motivated the killer in Connecticut to slaughter a room full of children. Does that knowledge free us in some way?
This phrase is actually the end of a long and important statement. We can’t make sense of it all by itself. Pulling text out of context causes problems, and pulling incomplete statements out is even worse.
Here is the relevant portion from John 8:31-36:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Some important details to pull from this:
Who is he talking to?
Verse 31 starts out with “Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him”. What is this all about? For this we need to back up to verse 12. Jesus claimed to be God. He called himself the light of the world. He said his Father had sent him. He said he was not of this world. He said if they didn’t believe these things, they would all die in their sins. He said, “you’ll know these things are true when you have lifted up the Son of Man”. (Note: Son of Man is a clear reference to Daniel 7:13-14. This was Jesus’ favorite name for himself, and one that clearly pointed to his divinity.)
The Pharisees called this blasphemy, and it was… if it wasn’t true.
At the end of this discourse, John tells us “As he was saying these things, many believed in him.”1
Now we move on to verse 32 with Jesus addressing those Jews who had been convinced by his claims and did not follow the belligerence of the Pharisees.
The Big If
We must not miss Jesus’ opening phrase. Jesus is making a conditional statement. This is key. The conditional statement goes something like this: Jesus says “If you do this, the following will be true. There is a condition and a consequence. If you fulfill the condition, you ought to expect the result.
So what is this big condition? If you abide in my word. In short, everything after this goes out the window if this condition is not satisfied. You might as well stop reading here. Nothing else matters if you do not abide in his word. So, what does this mean?
He says “my word”, not “my words”. If he said “my words”, we might think he if referring to the case he just made above. In saying “my word”, it appears he is referring to the whole of his testimony. And if we’re believing everything he said, that means we are believing that he was God.
He also said “abide” rather than merely “believe”. Believe sounds somewhat passive, as though we are merely giving a factual nod to an assertion. Abide sounds active, like we are daily living as though the belief we have has implications for our life.
So here we have Jesus’ condition to those who believed his statements: “Nodding your heads is not enough. The way you live your lives must line up with what you say you believe, because if I’m God everything changes.”
Ok, let’s presume you do abide in his word. What consequences will result?
#1 – You are truly my disciples.2 Not just ‘you are my disciples’. Lots of people say that. If you abide in my word, then you’re not just a talker – you actually are a disciple.
#2 – You will know the truth.3 What is the truth? At a minimum, truth refers to the message of the Gospel – the only true religion of Christianity. Ultimately, Jesus himself is truth. What does it mean to ‘know’? Think more in terms of knowing a close friend than in terms of knowing your multiplication tables. This is not awareness of facts; this is experiential. One commentary says “You shall have a constant experimental knowledge of its power and efficacy.”4 Wuest’s Expanded Translation says, “you shall know the truth in an experiential way”. Why will we know the truth? Because we are truly his disciples. How do we come to know this truth? By being his disciples. And just as “my word” ultimately refers to Jesus, ultimately “the truth” is a reference to him as well5.
#3 – The truth will set you free. Free from what? At a minimum, knowing the truth (of the Gospel) will free us from error and ignorance. Ultimately, knowing the truth (who is Christ) will free us from the bondage of sin and death.6
Putting it all together
So, we started with the simple phrase “the truth will set you free”. We’ve seen that context shows the simple phrase falls short of conveying the original intent. So what was the original intent? Putting it all together, we have Jesus saying something like this:
“To those of you who resonate with the things I’ve said, keep this in mind. That is not enough. You’re missing the point. I’m not here to convince you to agree with me; I’m here to persuade you to reorder your life. I am God. Let that sink in. That means that the things I have told you ought to carry some weight. If you really believe that I’m God, your whole life will be affected. Your relationships will be different. Your motivations will be different. You will be different. You will be my disciple. You will begin to look like me. Tuck these things away and you will be saved from emotional hurts; you will be saved from the latest false religious craze; and you will be saved from hell.”
Sure, the “truth will set you free” is a nice catchphrase, but isn’t Jesus’ actual message far more meaningful? Jesus made a conditional statement: we are to be faithful disciples. He never said “The truth will set you free” as if it were some sort of promise we could claim. Claiming is not biblical, and this is not a promise. This is a principle that holds true for those who meet Jesus’ conditions of following him faithfully.