John 8:21-47, Human Blindness to the Divine Presence
[September 11, 2011] Last week we saw that when Jesus announced, “I am the Light of the world,” He was showing how He fulfilled an aspect of the Feast of Tabernacles. During the Feast of Tabernacles, the Temple was illuminated to celebrate the coming of the light of the divine Presence (the Shekinah) to the Temple of Solomon and the pillar of cloud and fire to the Tabernacle of Moses. The Feast of Tabernacles connects this to the blessing of the Promised Land, to which Israel in its exile looks forward when the Messiah comes. When Jesus forgave the adulteress, He enacted a parable of when “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).
In 8:13-19, the Pharisees demanded to know the veracity of the claims that He made with respect to Himself, but Jesus told them that they were incapable of knowing for they judged things “according to the flesh” and therefore could know neither Him nor the Father. However, if they knew Him, they would know the Father also.
“You will Die in Your Sin” (John 8:21-24)
Again Jesus says, “I am going away, and you will seek Me and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” He said this earlier in 7:34. The Feast of Tabernacles recalls Israel’s wandering in the desert as a result of their unbelief. They could not enter the Promised Land of God’s Sabbath Rest because they hardened their hearts and refused to believe God’s word (Numbers 13—14; Psalm 95; Hebrews 3—4). As a result, the entire generation—with the exception of Joshua and Caleb—died in their sin. As God was present within Israel, manifested by the pillar of cloud and fire over the Tabernacle, Jesus is the Tabernacle of God in their midst, again, and He is the divine Presence over the Tabernacle. “Unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.”
When Jesus speaks of where He is going, He is speaking of the cross (see John 13:33). As He goes to the cross, He will enter the “process” of death whereby He will go to the Father. He will bring His humanity to the throne of God, into the divine glory (17:24) which was His as the Son of God before the worlds were created. When He breathes the Holy Spirit into His believers on Easter Day, His humanity will already have been glorified. Thus He comes to His believers, for He does not leave us as orphans. But those who do not believe will no longer see Him (14:18-19).
Those who believe, in fact, will participate in His transformed humanity for they will have the Holy Spirit and He will abide in them and they will abide in Him. In other words, He becomes the Promised Land to them, and He becomes both the Temple in the Land and the Presence of God within the Land and the Temple.
Those who do not believe will continue to wander in the wilderness until they die in their sins. Jesus is speaking pointedly to the Jews. They can escape their exile now by believing into Him. But let us not forget the lesson in 8:7, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Last week, relying on Romans 3 and 11, I applied this to the Gentiles. From a Biblical point of view, the Gentiles have always been in the wilderness of ignorance and sin. They did not have to go into “exile.” All Gentiles, unless God shines His light upon them, will die in their sin.
“You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” If Israel has disobeyed—by their unbelief—it is so that God can “shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (Romans 11:31-32). There is mercy to both Jew and Gentile if they believe that Jesus is “I AM,” the first-person “face” of God.
By our unbelief—whether we are Jews or Gentiles—we demonstrate that we are “of this world” and thus, metaphorically, “from below.” When Jesus speaks of the “world” in this way, He means neither the creation nor the sum total of the human race as such. The world is an artificial structure manufactured not by God but by humanity. In fact, it is manufactured by humanity as an attempt to insulate itself from God. It is the collective soul of humanity, something into which we are born when our identities take shape. Individually we construct ourselves, our identity, as part of the world. We cannot separate ourselves from the world. The world, however, is not amorphous. In this case, the whole is a big deal greater than the sum of its parts, for the whole acquires properties and powers which the parts alone do not. In other words, the world functions as a gestalt (“a physical, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from its parts,” so Webster). Jesus and His apostles speak of Satan as the ruler of the world and sin as the property of the world that enslaves all who are a part of the world (that is, everyone). In this chapter, not only does sin enslave, it also blinds us to what is not the world.
Just as our physical eyes can only see physical things, the eyes of our soul only sees what is soulical, and only the eyes of our spirit can see what is spiritual. If we are “of the world,” then we can only see things in terms of the world. We are blind even to the beauty of the creation. We certainly cannot perceive anything divine, though we often think we can. The so-called divine is often just a projection of the person themselves—for example, their superego, or what they perceive as their most noble characteristics, or what they want God (read, their parent) to be. But God can only be known spiritually and the world by definition has excluded that perception.
“Who Are You?” (8:25-27)
When Jesus says, “Unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins,” though the pronoun is missing, His words can be understood to mean, “Unless you believe that I am He.” The people therefore ask, “Who are You?” Jesus’ words (egō eimi in Greek) can have this much ambiguity, but nowhere else in the Gospel according to John do they (unless one counts 9:9; though even this is not really an exception). This particular phrase, as John has designed his gospel (seven times used absolutely—as here—and seven times with a predicate) always has the sense of God’s exclusive self-identity (as in Isaiah).
Jesus answers, “Altogether that which I also tell you.” His speech—as J. N. Darby says in his footnote—presented Himself. He is who He says He is, and all that He says presents who He is. His words reveal Himself, if one has the ears to hear.
“He who sent Me is true.” Jesus means by “true” more than truthful. He means that He who sent Him is reality as opposed to the illusory lie that is the world. “What I have heard from Him, these things I speak to the world.” Jesus’ speech presents this reality and therefore it is different than whatever the world says. It is different than everything else that the people “of the world” hear. It does not participate in the unreality of the language of the world. Among other things the world is a system or network of beliefs that people buy into in order for the world to function. It functions very well, considering it is all an illusion (though it has always failed and is failing catastrophically as we speak, though our thinking still only recognizes various symptoms; it is ultimately, by its very nature, self-destructive). Yet, the world cannot perceive Jesus’ words because He speaks what He has “heard” from above, that is, outside of the “bubble” of the world.
“When You Lift up the Son of Man” (8:28-30)
The lifting up of the Son of Man refers to the cross (see 12:33) and therefore continues the thought of verse 21. “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM.” The term Son of Man refers to the victorious figure of Daniel 7:13. These words make the cross the means of His victory by which He overcomes the world (as in Daniel 7:14; see John 12:31). In the Gospel according to John this is how the cross is viewed, as the means of His glorification. He goes forth to the cross like a warrior, not like a victim.
In Exodus, after a series of words that foretell this, God tells Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue after [Israel]; and I will glorify Myself through Pharaoh and through his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am YHWH” (Exodus 14:4; see verse 18). In the same way, the cross and resurrection—the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of the resurrection—are the means by which God will glorify Himself in the Son and the world will know that He is “I AM.” The world will not see the resurrected Christ, but because the resurrected Christ defeats the world, they will know objectively the truth of His revelation. It will be demonstrated.
When Jesus says, “I do nothing from Myself, but as My Father has taught Me, I speak these things. And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him,” He is speaking of who He is as the Son of God and as the Word made flesh. As the Son of God, He is the word and the image of the Father and everything He says and does expresses the Father. As Son, nothing is independent of the Father. The Father and Son are not two gods but they are the One God (together with the Holy Spirit). As such, they coinhere, that is, they mutually dwell in each other. Never is the Father without the Son nor the Son without the Father. Moreover, this is what we see in the Incarnation. Jesus, within the limits imposed by space and time, is the Son of God and thus the embodiment of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Person of Jesus is the Person of the Son of God. His “I” is thus the “I AM” of the one God. His “Me” is the expression of the Father in the Son. His embodied Presence is the embodiment of the mutually indwelling Trinity.
“When Israel saw the great power which YHWH exercised against the Egyptians, the people feared YHWH; and the believed in YHWH and in His servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31). As a foreshadowing of the birth of the church when the Son of Man is lifted up, “many believed into Jesus” when He spoke these things.
Our Slavery and the Truth that Shall Set Us Free (8:31-36)
Those who believed in YHWH and His servant Moses soon fell away. They worshiped the golden calf at Sinai and refused to believe at Kadesh-barnea. The Book of Numbers records their repeated rebellions after that. Jesus spoke to those who “believed Him” (as opposed to those who “believed into Him” in verse 30), telling them, “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Their incomprehension and rejection of what He says shows that they are not truly His disciples, but are like the Israelites in the way they believed at the Red Sea.
When Jesus says, “If you abide in My word,” the word that He speaks of is the presentation of Himself through His words—that is, His self-revelation. “My word” does not refer to anything other than the revelation of Himself (Christians have a tendency to read morality into everything; His word must refer to Jesus’ ethical teachings—it does not): if you abide in the revelation of who I am. This has been the subject of the Gospel according to John up to this point and will continue to be through chapter 12. Jesus came into our realm to present Himself as Life, as the Light of Life, as the Bread of Life, as Living Water, and so forth. Now He presents Himself as the divine Presence, as God’s exclusive “I Am” spoken to us. Only if we abide, remain, stay, dwell in the revelation of His Person are we truly His disciples. If we are Christians only for what we perceive are His ethical teachings or for tribal identity, we are not truly His disciples.
To be truly His disciples, then, requires that the eyes of our spirit be opened to know Him. Then we shall perceive reality, that is, we shall know the Truth: the truth of God, the truth of ourselves, the truth of creation, and the truth of the world’s falseness.
This eye-opening to know the truth liberates us from the bondage of the world, and thus our bondage to the powers of the world that captivate us and enslave us to their will. The powers of the world depend on our acceptance of, or belief in, an illusion. If the unreality of that illusion is exposed, the grip that it has on us loosens and begins to break away.
The people do not recognize their enslavement. The world has taught them that they are free—free-will and all that. With enough money we can consume whatever we want. Our appetites can be limitless. Freedom is to have what we want. In the world we are always given options, yet these “options” hold a monopoly over us from which we cannot escape. Our desires give us the illusion of free will. But while we think we can have what we want (or are angry because we cannot have what we want), we do not recognize how our wants have been manufactured and manipulated. What we think we want is not what we really want, and our surface desires are often a reaction to various stimuli. Our desires precede our will to choose. If our desires—or at least what we think we desire—have been manufactured by the world (that is, from outside of us), the will that responds to those desires can hardly be called free.
In fact, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.” Sin goes even deeper than these manufactured desires. Of course by “sin” Jesus does not mean breaking the Ten Commandments. Nor does Jesus mean the violation of Halakah, the over six hundred commandments in the Torah. Sin is the root of our problem. It is our original impulse to be independent of God, to live our lives without God, to identify with our soul as if it existed independently of spirit, as if it were a thing in itself. To commit sin in this sense ruptures our relationship with God; it alienates us from God and immediately subjects us to the powers of the world. We all have made this choice and therefore we all have become slaves of the world. Our socialization, from the moment we acquired language, took place within the matrix of the world system.
The revelation of Jesus Christ sets us free of this by the shining of its light. “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall by no means walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (8:12). “If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.” The promises of the world to give us freedom only give us more options within the world. Technology is a good illustration of this. It promises so much, yet it can never deliver what it promises without enslaving us even more. The freedom that it offers is never freedom from the illusion of the world; technology only digs us deeper into it.
Genetic Origins (8:37-47)
The people say they are Abraham’s seed and have never been enslaved to anyone. They are thinking quite literally. Jesus acknowledges this level of truth: “I know that you are Abraham’s seed.” Physically, historically, that is true—but only on that level. To recognize only that level, however, and thus to separate body from spirit, is to “judge according to the flesh” (8:15). Reality is more than that. Reality includes the interior as well as the exterior, the spirit as well as the body. The spirit of all living things comes from God. Our physical origin is from the bodies of our parents. Our soul also has an origin. It originates in the world. Jesus’ soul, though human, did not have this origin, for He never bought into sin (as described above).
So Jesus explains to the people that their behavior demonstrates that their interior “genetic” origin is not Abraham, for Abraham believed God, nor is it God (for “if God were your Father you would love Me”). The reason they do not understand Jesus’ speaking is because of their inability to hear His revelation, and that has to do with their origin. Their father is the devil, the “mind” behind the world as a gestalt. The devil—as the mind behind the world as a system—is against life and against truth (reality). “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks the lie, he speaks it out of his own possessions; for he is a liar and the father of it.” God did not create the world, for it is based on a lie. As opposed to the creation, the world does not actually exist in the creation. It certainly has a destructive affect on the creation, but it exists only in the souls of human beings, and it exists as a lie, as something false. It is the power of nothingness, in other words, that is, of the chaos which God did not create. It is that which is not God and which God does not will. Its power exists simply because of people’s willingness to believe it, which gives it its substance.
Contrary to the common notion that all human beings are the children of God, Jesus says the opposite. We are the children of the devil. As living bodies, as bodies enlivened by a spirit, we are indeed the offspring of God, for “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28-29). However, inwardly our spirits are alienated from God by sin, and while God has not withdrawn our spirit as long as we are still alive, we live in our souls, and not only so, but we live encased within the false self of the constructed soul. Our father is the devil. We are not the children of God!
The Bible clearly teaches—though we may disagree of course—that we are not the children of God until we are born from above. No one is born of God until they are given the gift of God’s life, the gift of eternal life, which is given to those who believe into Christ. “As many as received Him, to those who believe into His name, to them He gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a male, but of God” (1:12-13). Only what is born of the Spirit is spirit (3:6). We must be born of God to be His children.
As part of the world, we are children of the devil and act like it. His genetic imprint is in all that we do. The destruction of the creation all around us is this mark. This is not to say that all that we do apart from a layer of Christian religion is devilish, and that those who do not believe in Christ are nothing but devilish. They are still creatures of God who express His image. The world seeks to be all consuming, but it is not. It always strives towards totalitarianism, that is, it always strives to be the totality. But the goodness of creation seeps through into our lives and into our works everywhere. The love between two people, friendship, and art as such: these things express the image of God and the goodness of our createdness which never leaves us. It is because of this goodness that God loves us (as Calvin himself points out), and God does love us.
The world, however, still has us in its bonds from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This secondary origin of our selves, the origin of our constructed (not our natural) soul, is the devil who gives it his own genetic coding, so to speak. It is because we live in our souls, this soul, that we cannot perceive or hear the truth and therefore do not believe. “He who is of God hears the words of God.” Only when we have a tertiary beginning in God can we hear the words of God. This tertiary beginning brings us back to our created origins, and therefore it restores our childlikeness. It does more, however. It gives us the gift of eternal life, that is, the divine life which has neither beginning nor end but is always a present that is inclusive of all time, a life that overcomes death in all its forms. This life is the divinization of our createdness— without change or confusion yet without separation or division. So it restores our createdness but gives it what it never had but for which it was always destined, its divinization or participation in Godness, the divine essence and nature.
The word, through the Holy Spirit, gives us this new birth and brings about faith in the word. We believe; it is our own act. Yet we did not make it happen or bring it about. Our believing is the result of the Holy Spirit bringing life and light into our spirit enabling us to see with the eyes of our spirit.
“He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.” Unless the Holy Spirit gives light and life to our spirit, we simply do not hear the speaking of God. We are still the children of the world whose father is the devil.