“So they picked up stones to throw at him . . .” John 8:59
Flashback . . . about fifteen minutes.
Things were going so well. But things went south quickly. Who were these people ready to stone Jesus? The answer may be surprising. It would be easy to say it was the Jews. Of course it was the Jews, they were in Jerusalem in the Temple. Look again.
To whom was Jesus speaking?
“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him . . .” John 8:31 (emphasis added)
How did a group of people who had believed Jesus go from friend to foe in less than fifteen minutes? If you read John 8:31-59, you’ll see that the conversational tide turned on Jesus pretty quick. It’s probably the topic that set things on a southward direction. Jesus said:
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32
He started out talking about freedom. What’s so bad about that? Here’s the rub. No one likes being told that they aren’t free. Especially Americans. So these Jews and Americans have something in common. They love freedom. Never mind that these Jews were currently being oppressed by the Roman Empire. In fact they hadn’t really been a sovereignly free country for over four hundred years, steadily oppressed to varying degrees by one empire after another. Assyria, Babylon, Persians, Greece, and now Rome; each of these empires laid claim to Israel’s territory. These Jews had lost perspective. They were not free.
But they misunderstood. Jesus wasn’t talking about oppression from the Romans. Jesus was talking about slavery to sin.
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.” John 8:34-36
How does it feel to be told you’re a slave? It’s insulting, especially if your people have historically been slaves. If you’re particularly religious, to hear someone say you’re a slave to sin can be rattling as well. It shakes your whole system. But here’s the truth. Plain as day, Jesus is telling us that if we are practicing sin, making a lifestyle of it, whether that sin is pagan disregard for all of God’s commands or religious performance idolatry that disregards one command against idolatry (and thereby breaking all of them…), you are a slave to whatever you practice.
It is us, the church folks, who need to remember that when God’s judgment arrives, everyone on that day will be surprised by the verdict.
Church folks, what are you practicing? You (and I) are the hardest to reach with this because to varying degrees we are convinced of our rightness. We are convinced that our judgments are correct because the Bible says so. We are sure that our moral choices will lead us to the blessed life or our best life now. Have we become slaves to our ideologies and points of views? If it isn’t Republican, or if it isn’t conservative, or if it isn’t traditional, or if it isn’t expressly Christian, do we pile it on the trash heap of our prejudged ideas? It is us, the church folks, who need to remember that when God’s judgment arrives, everyone on that day will be surprised by the verdict. In judgment of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46), everyone is taken aback by the judgment they receive. Remember that it is only the mercy of God’s grace toward you that makes you a sheep, therefore be merciful and gracious in your judgments.
So these people, who had just believed Jesus, were immediately getting their feathers ruffled by his teaching. But he doesn’t stop at freedom. The Jews insisted that their heritage, being descended from Abraham, is what made them children of God and not slaves. After all, the promises of God were given to Abraham and his descendants. But Jesus replies:
“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. You are doing the works your father did.” (John 8:39-40)
If there’s ever a question about who you belong to, check your actions. You will behave like the one you love. If you love your parents, whether they’re right or wrong, in many ways you will pattern your life after their behavior. That’s why you always adopt the behaviors of the people you choose to let in. It is written, “Do not be deceived: bad company ruins good morals.” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Jesus points out that because they were seeking the kill him, they could not be Abraham’s children.
“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. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
The Jews were not shaken. They held on to their religion, to their heritage, to their ancestral claims to Abraham. And when push came to shove, Jesus finally cut to the quick, right to the heart of their idolatry.
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)
This is the root of all their idolatry. They had set up Abraham and the Law as the source of their salvation. And when Jesus laid the axe to the root, they all felt their life draining away, and picked up stones to defend their life. Belief in Jesus requires you to lay the axe to the root of your life. Where ever you have been finding peace, satisfaction, and security must be uprooted and given over to Jesus. He must become the source, the roots of your life. That’s why Paul describes our salvation as being a wild olive shoot grafted into the God’s olive tree (Romans 11:17-24). You were cut off at your original roots and grafted into a new root where you are nourished.
Don’t judge the ones picking up the stones. You and I are one of them. Jesus is always threatening to our old roots. He is always laying the axe to our old way of finding satisfaction and peace. He is always demanding that we be nourished by our new roots. Our reaction is often stone the guy swinging the axe. It is a sure sign of maturing in our faith when we close our eyes, find something to bite down on, and say to Jesus, “Chop away.”