“The Truth will set you free.” These words of Jesus, quoted by the Apostle John in the eighth chapter of his Gospel, are some of the most powerful and yet most difficult to embrace in all of the New Testament. The Jews who first heard these words argued with Jesus: as God’s chosen people, they have never been enslaved by anyone and are already free! Their response was remarkably short-sighted—their ancestors had in fact endured centuries of slavery in Egypt, and they were at this time under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. Their response is also illuminating—if we are to appreciate Jesus’s words, we must be willing to admit that we are in need of the freeing power of Christ.
I am not certain that we appreciate our need of Christ’s freeing work in us and on our behalf any more than his original audience. Kay Arthur, author of Precept Bible study materials, has observed that the “5 W’s” used by journalists can be very helpful in pursuing a deeper understanding of Scripture. I would like to use the 5 W’s—Who, What, When, Where, Why—to deepen our understanding of this crucial passage and enable us to better apply it to our lives of faith.
There are two “whos” in this passage. First, is the Truth. Truth is not merely an inanimate fact or force. Jesus proclaims that He is the Truth. Jesus, as Lord and Creator of the universe, is the ultimate fact. But He is also a personal Savior and the only source of genuine, eternal freedom. The driving force of freedom is a Person, Jesus Christ. And, Jesus offers us, in personal relationship with Him, access to the freedom He offers and desires us to experience. We must interact with Christ in order for the Truth to have its effect, freedom. Freedom flourishes, then, when the two “whos” interact in concert. That interaction requires what many of the original hearers lacked: faith. By faith we—you and I—can be made free by the ultimate Truth, Jesus Christ.
The original hearers of Jesus’s offer of freedom clearly did not see any “what” attached to His words and could not envision any bonds that inhibited their freedom. They did not connect to Jesus as the Truth and so could not grasp their enslavement and need for freedom. Identifying the essential “what” in this passage requires us to ask this question: From what do we need to be made free? It is traditional in the evangelical Christian community to understand that Christ has freed us from the penalty and power of our sin. In dying on our behalf, Christ has paid the penalty of our sin, the veil was torn, and we have access to God by faith in Christ’s work on the cross. We are no longer counted as sinners but declared righteous. And although we are still in the world and struggling with our sin nature and all the temptations a fallen world offers, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit to empower us to overcome the power of sin in our lives as we are progressively sanctified.
While it would be impossible to overestimate the significance of these freedoms, it would be short-sighted to limit our concept of freedom-in-Christ to these doctrines. I would like for us to consider that as bond-servants of Christ, we have enormous freedom. We are free from the opinions and expectations of others, even (or especially) ourselves. We are called to follow and serve our Master, and no one or nothing else. This means that we are free from the definitions of success that surround us. The world would have us see success through the lens of ancestry, education, career, socio-economic status, fame, wealth, power. But lest we think that we in the church are immune to inappropriate parameters of success, we need to consider the subtle ways we absorb “Christian” definitions of success: Good Christians attend Bible college, go on missions trips, tithe, serve on multiple committees, teach Sunday School, have a lengthy quiet time first thing every morning, abstain from alcohol, card-playing, dancing, R-rated movies, never shop or go to a movie on Sundays, and are always willing to sacrifice their resources for the sake of ministry. Of course, our faith must be expressed in love, service, and obedience, and none of the above behaviors are necessarily inappropriate. But if we are serving an expectation of Godliness instead of following our Master as we grow a love relationship with Him, we will become enslaved to Christian duty and self-righteousness.
The “what” of freedom has limitless boundaries as the world provides limitless opportunities to become ensnared. We can be bound to substances, to relationships, to particular forms of entertainment and recreation (both appropriate and inappropriate); we can be bound by the past, by fear, by ignorance and prejudice, and by selfishness. No one on this side of the kingdom is immune. The freedom offered by Christ is not to be taken lightly.
The “when” and “where” of Christ’s words is a wonderfully refreshing concept. Although Christ uttered His proclamation of freedom in a particular location at a particular day and time in history, the truth of His statement applies to all times and to all places. God’s truth is universally true at all times and at all places. This is good news for us! Regardless of our circumstances, wherever we are, whenever we are challenged with bondage, Christ wants to make us free. The difficult part of the “when” and “where” is that these concepts themselves have a “when” and “where” to them. They represent a “here and now” as well as a “not until eternity in heaven.” We can access Christ as the Truth here and now, as we seek the work of Christ in us, but we will experience full freedom only in the end, in heaven. A reason to hope and persevere.
Finally, we look at the “why” of this passage. Why does Christ place value on freedom and make it a point to proclaim it and offer it to us? I think that there are many angles from which to view this question, but I believe there are two elements that are particularly significant to us in our everyday lives. First, the Lord loves us and wants the best for us. Bondage of any kind restricts and limits us. It prevents us from fully enjoying His creation and the world in which He has placed us. He desires our freedom so that we can fully embrace what He has for us. Second, the Lord is a relational God. The Trinity enjoys total intimacy, and we were created in His image, to share in that relationship, with Him and with one another. Again, bondage restricts our ability to fully engage in relationship, our capacity to love. If we are serving any master other than Christ, our heart is divided and we cannot fully partake of the nature of Christ and fully participate in His kingdom here on earth. Christ wants to make us free so that He can enjoy an undiluted relationship with us and so that we can experience the same with others.