Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 8:31-36
Reformation Day

Other texts: 

You may also want to consider the lectionary texts for Proper 26A on Matthew 23.1-12 or for Proper 25B on Mark 10.46-52 or for Proper 26C on Luke 19.1-10. Here is a PDF handout of a brief presentation on the John 8.31-36 text by MGVHoffman.

October 31 (or the Sunday before) is the Festival of the Reformation for Lutherans. It is the date in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" on the Castle Church doors at the University of Wittenberg calling for debate. While John 8:31-36 is the assigned gospel for this festival, one might also look at the gospel for Proper 26 -- Jesus and Zacchaeus, as an example of someone who is made righteous by grace.


O'Day [John, The New Interpreter's Bible] has this brief outline that includes our text.

The section 7:1-8:59 deals with Conflict in Jerusalem

The sub-section 8:31-59 is a debate between Jesus and his Jewish opponents

While I will concentrate on our text, I will be making some references to the larger context of 8:31-59.


Who are "the Jews" in v. 31?

They are described in v. 31 as tous pepisteukotas = "the ones having believed" -- a perfect participle, which usually denotes a past action that has continued effect in the present. Such a verb can be translated with a perfect, e.g., He has believed; or with the present, e.g., She believes. So, generally we would assume that these are Jews who have believed in the past and are presently believing in Jesus -- but how does their "faith" relate to the polemical discourse that follows our lesson (vv. 37ff.)?

Two suggestions: (1) Some translators have understood the perfect as an aorist (and there are other instances where this is done) and placed the believing in the past -- "Jews who had believed in him" (NRSV) = they used to believe, but now they don't. (2) Another approach is to state that these Jews are believing in Jesus, but that somehow their faith is flawed -- e.g., they believe something about Jesus, but they don't know or believe the whole story.

Either of these views can be supported by the grammar of the next line: ean (if) + a subjunctive meinete (continue) can denote (according to A Greek Grammar of the New Testament -- with my translations):

  1. a general condition: "If you continue in my word" (something they are already doing)

  2. something impending: "If you would continue in my word" (something they are not presently doing)

  3. and occasionally something impending in the past: "If you had continued in my word" (something used to do, but they no longer are doing)

I think that there is a parallel between v. 31b and v. 37c where both are concerned about a relationship with "my word". The verb in v. 31 is meno which implies a remaining in the same place or state over a period of time -- "to continue, to stay, to live". The same word is used twice in v. 35 about a slave not "remaining" in the household (or family) forever and the son who "remains" forever. Perhaps a difference is implied between relating to Jesus' word as a slave -- something one is forced to do, or as a child -- as a loving response to the love received through Jesus' word.

The verb in v. 37 is choreo, which originally meant, "to make or have room for". It is used by John of the stone jars "having room for" or "holding" 20 or 30 gallons (2:6). It is used by Mark of the place that was so full of people that there "was no room for" the paralytic and his friends to enter (2:2). If a person "makes or has room" for another person, they "welcome" or "accept" them. The same is true about "welcoming" or "accepting" a word. The word also means "to move from one place to another place" such as the food that moves from the mouth to the stomach (Mt 15:17). So some ways this verse could be translated are:

(I prefer translating en with "among" when followed by a plural "you" -- it is "among" the group, rather than "in" an individual.)

However this phrase is translated, I think it says the same as v. 31b, there is no lasting relationship with Jesus' word. That is the root of the problem. That is why their faith has died or become flawed. That is why the offspring of Abraham seek to kill Jesus.


Note also that the word for "word" is logos -- and volumes could be written about the many meanings of this word especially as used in the Gospel of John. Besides the two instances in chapter 8 mentioned above, it also occurs in v. 43, with the verb "to hear"; and in vv. 51 & 55 with the verb "to keep".

Let me suggest a few variations in translating "my logos".

  1. It could refer to the actual words and statements that Jesus has spoken.

  2. It could refer to the "logic" or reasons behind Jesus' statements.

  3. It could refer to the revelation of Jesus himself.

With all of the discussion today about whether or not we can actually know the words of Jesus, I am more inclined to stress Jesus' logic or his presence over his actual statements. This is what I think M. Luther did. He sought the logic of "justification by faith through grace" behind all the words of scripture. (Even though I believe that this is the logic behind our Christian faith, I don't think that this is the logic behind all the words of scriptures.)


Part of Jesus' logic in the following verses is that one's "father" is known by one's actions (vv. 39-47). Those who claim to have Abraham or the one God as father, need to act in ways similar to Abraham or God. There is a place for orthopraxy (= correct actions). It is in John where Jesus indicates that the world will know that we are his disciples (children of God) by the way we love one another (13:35). In contrast, the Jewish logic in our text centers on the biological connection between Abraham and themselves (v. 33) and their orthodox (= correct praise) confession in one God (v. 41).

One's actions may be done in order to get something from another, like saying, "Please." Or they may be done as a response to what another has done, e.g., saying "Thank you," without parental prompting. Or, they may be done as a witness to others -- actions speak louder than words. The world knows what we believe by our actions more so than by our words.

One's actions may be as slaves or as free children. This is the only place in John were the word group eleuther- = "free," "to free" is used (verb vv. 33 & 36; noun vv. 32 & 36). The word implies that one is no longer dominated by something or someone -- one is not a slave.

What dominates the unfree? In typical Johanine fashion, the Jews misunderstand what Jesus is talking about. They understand it in the political realm: "We have never been in bondage," they respond. They don't need to be set free. (As I recall Jewish history, there was that lengthy time of bondage in Egypt.) I think that many Americans would have a similar reply to the need to be set free: "We are already free! We live in the land of the free and home of the brave."

Jesus seems to imply that we are dominated in some way by sin (v. 34), but is it just sin that has us in its grip? As far as I can tell, during our lifetimes, we will never be free from sinning.

Could we be freed from "continually commiting sin"? (poieo = "do," "commit," is in the present tense). Even though we will sin, we can talk about being freed from continuing to sin -- or perhaps freed from the domination of sin. I think this is the paradox presented in 1 John where there are verses that state that those born of God do not sin (or "do not continue to sin" -- present tense verbs -- 3:6, 8, 9; 5:18); along with verses that indicate that we do sin (1:8-10; 5:16). The two times in John when Jesus gives the command, "Do not sin." It is a present imperative, which could be translated, "Do not continue to sin" (5:14; 8:11).

Or could we be freed from the fear of punishment for our sins? In Hebrew the same word is used for "sin" and "punishment for sin". Jesus makes it clear in ch. 9 that there is not a connection between sin and punishment, but that text also indicates that such a connection was assumed by his disciples (and probably the community at large).

This view of freedom is illustrated well in the following quotes from Robert Capon in Between Noon and Three.

If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the sons of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has had a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch. She has been so afraid we will loose sight of the laws of our nature, that she made us care more about how we look than about who we are; made us act more like the subjects of a police state than fellow citizens of the saints. [p. 148]

The law of retribution reigns supreme in our fantasies precisely to keep us off the main question of our lives: What would you do with freedom if you had it? [p. 6]

St. Paul had not said to you, "Think how it would be if there were no condemnation"; he has said, "There is therefore now none." He had made an unconditional, not a conditional statement -- a flat assertion, not a parabolic one. He has not said, "God has done this and that and the other thing, and if, by dint of imagination, you can manage to put them all together, you may be able to experience a little solace in the prison of your days." No, He has simply said, "You are free. Your services are no longer required. The salt mine has been closed."

It is essential that you see this clearly. The Apostle is saying that you, and Paul, and I have been sprung. Right now; not next week, or at the end of the world. And unconditionally, with no probation officer to report to. But that means that we have finally come face to face with the one question we have always thought we were aching to hear but that we now realize we have scrupulously ducked every time it got within a mile of us. It was the question I raised in the very first chapter, and it has been lurking all along: What would you do with freedom if you had it? Only now it is posed to you not in the subjunctive but in the indicative: You are free. What do you plan to do? [pp. 117-118]

I recall from my ancient college days as a psychology major that the fear of failure was one of the strongest motivating forces in human beings. The fear of making mistakes or sinning (or of not being perfect) can hold us in bondage -- so, to quote Luther in a letter he wrote to Philip Melanchthon following the Diet of Worms:

"If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says [2 Peter 3:13], we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells .... Pray boldly – you too are a mighty sinner." (Luther's Works, Vol 48, p. 281-282, boldface added)

A crude paraphrase that I have used: "Get off your butt and do something -- even if it's wrong. God can forgive it." We should not let the fear of failure or the fear of making mistakes control our actions. There is a recent motto that is used in the business world that goes something like: "Make sure that you generate a sufficient number of excellent mistakes."

On the other hand, this is not giving one permission to go around sinning all the time (as if anyone needs to ask for permission to sin!). We also need to avoid sinning. If we follow Luther and understand "sin" as self-centeredness, then those who are doing self-centered things become slaves to themselves -- their own wants and desires. Often this is how people may understand freedom -- doing whatever I want to do. But that definition of freedom is actually slavery to one's self. Being set free means having our desires and centeredness turned away from ourselves. Giving is more important than getting; and at the extreme, dying for others is more important than preserving one's own life. While such self-giving can become a bondage or slavery to other persons (i.e., co-dependency, which should be avoided), it can be done as a free response of love -- not something one has to do, but as a result of being connected to Jesus' word, of honesty caring for another person. This honest caring can only happen when one is free not to care.

It is only when someone is free to say "yes" or "no" that either response is most meaningful. Neither the compliant child or spouse who feels forced to say "yes" to every request nor the rebellious ones who are compelled to say "no" to every request are free. Both reactions are signs of enmeshment -- to use a family systems term. They are bound by their roles of compliance or rebellion. They are not free. They are bound to act (as reactions) to what someone else has said or did.


One other word group that needs attention is alethe- = "truth," "true". A form of the word is used three times in 8:31, once in 8:40, twice in 8:44, and once in 8:45 & 46.

In ancient Greek the word originated as the negation of letho (later form, lanthano), which means "to hide or conceal." So alethe- meant "non-concealment" -- what is seen or felt or thought is disclosed as it really is rather than concealed, falsified, or suppressed. The opposite of "truth" in the NT is often "lying" -- concealing something about reality (see John 8:44-46). By NT times, the word group also carried the Hebrew concept of 'ameth (which is related to our word "amen") -- "what is firm or sure, and thus reliable", e.g., a "true" friend = one who is reliable, genuine, trustworthy.

If we plug in some of the other English words related to these terms, perhaps some different pictures may emerge -- especially if we also state the opposites:

true disciples false disciples
real disciples phony disciples
genuine disciples hypocritical disciples
honest disciples dishonest, lying disciples
sincere disciples insincere disciples

The key difference is the close and continual connection between the disciple and Jesus' word. This makes perfect sense if we understand mathetes = "disciple" in its original sense as "learner". In ancient days "students" followed and listened to their teacher as they walked hither and yon -- so the term also came to mean "follower". However, it could be argued that if one is no longer "learning" from the teacher or the teacher's words, they are no longer being "disciples".

The connection between Jesus' "word" and "truth" is further enhanced since both logos and aletheia can refer to "revealing reality". Through remaining or welcoming Jesus word, we know the reality about God and this reality is what frees us. We do not have to fear divine punishment. If we sin, and we will, the word assures us of forgiveness, not punishment for those who believe.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364