To the Jews who had believed him, 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.
What does Jesus mean when he says that knowing the truth will set us free? A few verses later in John 8 he addresses the issue of freedom from sin, but here he seems to be talking about a wider freedom – a freedom from everything that might bind us and hold us in thrall.
The first thing to be said is that, while the Greek word alētheia (“truth”) generally just means “that which is not false”, it has a much more specialised meaning in John’s gospel. For John, “the truth” is the revelation delivered to the world in and by Jesus. There are two key verses to help us in our understanding of this: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14) and “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life'” (John 14.6). Jesus is full of truth – so full of truth that he is the truth. Everything about him – his words, his looks, his actions and reactions, his decisions, his emotions, his teaching, his disputes – everything – is a revelation, an expression of the truth. But the truth about what?
First and foremost, the truth about God. Archbishop Michael Ramsey once said: “God is Christlike and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.” How well put! And what it means is this: If we have been entertaining any images, thoughts or ideas of God (whether from the Old Testament or elsewhere) that do not match up with the Jesus who steps out from the pages of the New Testament, then those images, thoughts and ideas must go. We must get rid of them because they are either less than “the truth” or contrary to “the truth”; and if they are contrary to the truth they are a lie.
Secondly, the truth about the Kingdom of God. In Jesus we see life being lived not only as life was meant to be lived but as one day life will be lived, on Planet Earth. He reveals the Upside Down Kingdom to which we all belong by belonging to him – the kingdom which will be the only kingdom in the new heaven and new earth of the age to come. His life of love-driven, self-denying, joy-filled service and sacrifice stamps the word “LIE” on everything that promotes and endorses the pursuit of power, prestige and possessions, that applauds fame and celebrity, that exalts might and spurns weakness, that marginalises and rejects the defective, the impaired, the disabled, the helpless and the hopeless.
And it is in knowing these truths – coming face to face with the reality of God as we find him in Jesus and the reality of the Kingdom as we see Jesus living it – that we are set free. “To know” here is ginoskō which means “to recognise and become acquainted with something.” It is not head knowledge but heart knowledge. Knowing intellectually that God is like Jesus and that life in the Kingdom of God is life as Jesus lived it does not have the power to set us free. We have to know it at the core of our being – to know it existentially.
But how do we move from head knowledge to that kind of heart knowledge? If we go back to our text in John 8, it tells us that it will come about as we “hold on to Jesus’ teaching” – except that that is something of a paraphrase. In the Greek, the text reads, “If you abide in the word which is mine … you will know the truth.”
Abide is menō which means “to remain, continue, dwell” while “word” is logos. Logos is another of those words which, for John, always carries a special meaning. For him, it signifies a great deal more than just a spoken word and carries the sense of that which expresses the very being of the speaker himself. So it was that John could say that “The word (ho logos) became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1.6). In other words, the human being we call Jesus was a complete expression of the immortal and invisible God. The word became flesh and dwelt among us and now we are to “abide in the word” of the Word-Become-Flesh. We are to make our home in every expression of Jesus – his actual words, yes, but also his actions, his relationships, his reactions, his demeanour. In short, we are to live, breathe, eat and drink Jesus; and the promise is that, when we do that, the penny will drop – the truth about God and about the Kingdom will dawn within our hearts. We will suddenly see everything with new eyes – we will see things as they really are. And that is when the chains fall off and we begin to live our lives in accordance with and in recognition of that ultimate reality which John calls “the truth” …
That is when when we start to know the truth and when the truth begins to set us free!