In John 8:59, a crowd wanted to stone Jesus. Today I’m going to start there and work backwards for a while. Why, you might ask, would I do that?
Careful writers often proofread from end to beginning. They have worked on their draft for so long they know what it’s supposed to say.
So they read the last paragraph, then the previous paragraph, and so on to the beginning. It shows what they otherwise might easily miss.
Reading familiar Bible passages from the end to the beginning can also show details we have probably read past before.
Who wanted to stone him? And why?
What Jesus claimed about himself
In John 8:58, Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” The Jews had said, “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham?”
So we see “the Jews” opposed Jesus. Which Jews? After all, Jesus was a Jew, and so were all his followers.
But Jesus didn’t say “I was before Abraham was.” He said, “I am before Abraham was.” “I am” is nothing less than the sacred name of God (Exodus 3:14), which pious Jews didn’t even pronounce for fear of taking it in vain.
This discourse begins in v. 12. Here are the statements Jesus made about himself that use that phrase:
- I am the light of the world (v. 12).
- I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me (v.18).
- I am going away . . . Where I go, you cannot come (v.21).
- I am from above. . . If you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins (vv. 23-24).
- When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be (v. 28).
Jesus, in other words, claimed to be God. And these Jews, whoever they were, found it unacceptably shocking. If they believed he was telling the truth, they should have fallen on their faces to worship him. But, of course, a human can’t be God. Can he?
What Jesus claimed about his opponents
In v. 52, Jesus opponents took offense that he claimed to be superior to Abraham. Abraham and all the prophets had died.
And so they asked, “Who do you think you are?”
As if he hadn’t been trying to tell them for quite some time.
Both before and after that question, Jesus said that he was not trying to glorify himself. The Father would take care of that.
But in v. 48, the Jews had concluded that Jesus was a Samaritan and demon-possessed. After all, he had just told them they could not hear what God says. For the good reason that they didn’t belong to God.
In v. 44, he told them that they were of their father, the devil. Let’s stop there a while.
These days we like to use stirring phrases like “the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God.” All humans are just one big family. We might not be one big happy family. We can admit we’re dysfunctional. But, we claim, God is father of us all.
That’s not what Jesus said.
If God is our Father, we share his character. Some people share the devil’s character. He is their father. So there is not one human family, but two. There is not one Father of everyone. There are two fathers.
According to the doctrine of original sin, we originate in the devil’s family. That’s why Paul’s epistles say we can become God’s sons by adoption. And that’s sons, not sons and daughters.
Under any legal system familiar to Paul’s readers, daughters had no right of inheritance. The New Covenant obliterates distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female (Galatians 3:28). All believers are equally sons of God and the bride of Christ.
What else does John say about these opponents?
But who are these Jews of whom Jesus declared the devil was their father?
Backing up little by little, we read that they claimed not to be illegitimate children in v. 41. Apparently Jewish society already knew the story of Jesus’ virgin birth. Other verses besides this one throw the charge of illegitimacy in Jesus’ face.
In that same verse, they claimed God as the only father they had. But in v. 39, they claimed Abraham as their father. Jesus had already rejected that claim in v. 38. They further claimed that, as Abraham’s descendants, they had never been slaves to anyone.
Now really. Abraham’s offspring committed gross sin for centuries until God called on Babylon to sack Jerusalem and carry people into captivity. They returned to Jerusalem not as an independent nation, but as clients of the Persian empire. The Greeks displaced the Persians, and then the Romans displaced the Greeks.
No one in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time went for a whole day without seeing Roman soldiers. And Roman soldiers could compel them to drop whatever they were doing to obey Roman orders.
Here’s the point of working backwards. John 8:31 begins, “To the Jews who had believed him.” Jesus spoke to the people in general in v. 12 and specifically answered Pharisees in v.14. In v. 19, the Pharisees asked Jesus where his father was. We nearly always see Pharisees in opposition to Jesus. It shouldn’t surprise us that they’d ask this apparent bastard to identify his father.
Being the devil’s children
So we see that for most of the chapter, Jesus addressed a mixed crowd, some of whom were Pharisees. In v. 30, John tells us that “many put their faith in him.”
But the next verse is addressed to Jews who had once believed in him, but no longer did. And he told them the truth would set them free, but only if they held to his teaching.
We must look earlier to account for how these people could stop believing Jesus.
John 6 begins with Jesus at the height of his popularity. He had just fed the 5,000.
A crowd of people caught up with Jesus, and he told them they were just looking for more free food. But that kind of food eventually spoils. He said to work for food, not look for a handout. And not just any food. Food that the Son of Man could give that wouldn’t spoil (6:26).
This message became central to his teaching. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (6:53). He offended a lot of people with that statement. And he never once apologized to anyone for being offensive.
“From that time on, many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (6:66).
They wouldn’t follow him to hear his teaching. But apparently they could follow him to oppose him. Having rejected his teachings, they could only take offense at him. In 8:31, then, we see that Jesus is unwilling to compromise, but still trying to help these people understand his message.
The devil didn’t become father to these people when they rejected Jesus. We all start out as his children. We remain in bondage to him until we decide to accept Jesus, as opposed to hanging out with him. Turning away from Jesus, these former followers chose not to accept the freedom Jesus offered.
The devil’s children in the modern church
Too much of the modern church doesn’t hold to Jesus’ teaching. As a result, too much of the modern church is in bondage to sin.
But it’s not politically correct to talk about sin any more. Some people might get offended.
Not only that, segments of the church now actively endorse sexual immorality and other behaviors the Bible calls sin. And they accuse people who adhere to biblical standards of being judgmental and unloving.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20)
Today we have ordained clergy, including some in the highest positions of denominational leadership, who proclaim that the Bible is a very flawed book and can’t express the love of God.
By what standard, then, do they discern what does express the love of God?
Jesus warned his disciples how the world would treat them in John 15:18-25. Included in the world are those religious leaders who demanded his crucifixion. The passage serves as a warning of how the worldly church treats those who stand firm in obedience to truth.
Remember it was to former believers that Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). They didn’t hold to his teaching, and so didn’t know the truth that would have set them free from the fatherhood of the devil. They ended up wanting to stone him.
Today, former followers of Jesus within the church still pay him lip service. But if they don’t want to hold to his teaching and know the truth, in their heart they’re set to stone him.
The stoning of the blasphemer. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Jesus separating the sheep from the goats. Source unknown
Christ preaching at Capernaum. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
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