Jesus addressed a group described as “the Jews who had believed in him” (John 8:31). Yet the speech which follows may seem odd given this description of the audience. C.H. Dodd captures the tension with these words, “A group of Jews described as believers are accused of attempted murder and roundly denounced as children of the devil.”*
Yet, the description of the audience needs to be noted: “they had believed.” There was a point in their past in which they had come to believe in Jesus as the Christ. But observe this commitment in their past was not enough. Jesus’ instructions make a great deal of sense given this audience.
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, ESV)
What does it mean to abide? The standard Greek lexicon states it is used “of someone who does not leave a certain realm or sphere: remain, continue, abide” (BDAG, p. 631). This is the person who continues to believe in and practice the teachings of Jesus. Only such persons can be described as “truly my disciples.”
What is the benefit of this continued relationship with Jesus? “…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” But what kind of freedom is envisioned? Jesus makes this clear in 8:34-36. It is freedom from sin. It is to no longer be enslaved to sin. Earlier in this section of speeches Jesus had said, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24, ESV).
But what was true of this audience as Jesus addressed them:
- They were seeking to kill Jesus, 8:37, 40.
- They were not able to hear Jesus’ words, 8:43.
- They are acting like the Devil’s offspring, 8:44.
- They do not believe Jesus, 8:45.
Believing is not something I check off my list. It is not enough for it to be true of my past. Believing in Jesus must be something that continues, abides, and remains. These “Jews who had believed” are a warning example of starting off right and finishing wrong.
If continuing and present evidence for belief is missing, it would be a sad epitaph to have said, “they had believed.”
*As cited by George R. Beasley-Murray, John, p. 132.