The battle between testimony and judgement, revelation and perception, is heating up. John continues with Jesus’s second self-defining “I am” statement in 8:12: “I am the light of the world.” This saying, like the first, is related to life. We have the bread of life and now the light of life, harkening back to 1:4. From 5:39 on, Jesus has been steadily orienting his listeners to his own person as the locus of life. And as in that passage, testimony (revelation) is of vital importance. Jesus’s opponents prove that they have been paying attention by throwing his own teaching (5:31; 7:18) back in his face: You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid” (8:13). Jesus’s response places the burden on his special relationship to the Father.
Here the confrontation becomes more direct, the adversaries asking pointed questions for the remainder of the chapter: Where is your Father? (v. 19), Who are you? (v. 25), and Who do you claim to be? (v. 53). The language of sin (vv. 21, 24, 34) appears for the first time since 1:29, in condemnation of those asking the questions but failing to hear the testimony already given. Although not part of the “I am” sayings list, the warning literally says, For unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins. Faith based on right judgement of perceived testimony is the requisite for the eternal life about which Jesus speaks. Unless we recognize the Father in Jesus, we are in dire trouble.
Jesus typifies this trouble in terms of the powerful social metaphor, slavery. Though the language has often been read through the existentialist lens that so often troubles our exegesis of Paul (especially Romans 7 and 8), I’m advocating a different take here. He says to the Jews who had believed in him that if they continue in his message, they are truly his disciples. The result will be that they know the truth, and in turn the truth will make them free. Here the metaphor comes into play, and the response indicates how provocative the imagery was. The distaste for slave status is palpable.
Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, Jesus explains. This is not a statement about an ontological transfer wherein the personified Sin takes ownership of the sinner. It is an explanation of the status and consequences already at issue. The warning, “You will die in your sins,” is expounded through the metaphor. As the knee-jerk response, “We are descendants of Abraham,” demonstrates, the Jews are not expecting as Jews (that is, as people saved through covenant) for sin to be a problem, much less to result in slavery. This may account best for the strange denial of ever being slaves. We think immediately of Egyptian slavery, but the listeners were likely following Jesus’s line of reasoning and replying that they had never been slaves as a result of sin—they were, after all, children of Abraham.
The metaphor then shifts, making the Father the owner rather than Sin—a clear indication that we are not hearing a literal account of heavenly slave trade. The point remains the same, however, because it is not about being a slave to sin per se but rather living a slave’s existence—a terrible image of the kind of life that is not eternal in quality. The Son has the authority to make the household’s slave truly free, thus to address sin and give the status and life otherwise unavailable. The metaphor is clearly a jumble, but that did not keep the listeners from following the argument. Their reply is clearly about the legitimacy of their relationship to Abraham and thus ultimately to God, for that is what is at stake in eternal life. Jesus brings it full circle, then, testing their claim against their recognition of himself.
Again they understand the implication of this move, so the question becomes, “Are you greater than our father Abraham?” (v. 53). The discussion ends, therefore, with another “I am” statement not on the usual list: “Before Abraham was, I am” (v. 58). If there is any doubt about what he was suggesting by the word choice, the move to stone him immediately indicates that everyone present heard the implication.