It’s one of the ugliest arguments in the gospel of John, indeed, in any of the gospels. By the end of it, Jesus will have called his opponents children of the devil, and they will have tried to stone him to death.
You wouldn’t expect that, given how the exchange begins.
In the conversation leading up to this one, Jesus declared himself to be “the light of the world” (John 8:12). People were confused, and tied themselves in mental knots. But some, apparently, believed (vs. 30). So Jesus turned to the ones who had believed in him and said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (vss. 31-32, NRSV).
That sounds like a word of encouragement and instruction to newbies. He’s telling them that if they really want to be disciples, they need to “abide” in his teaching. Then they will come to a deeper knowledge of the truth he speaks on the Father’s behalf — a truth that will set them free.
You’d hope that these people, who supposedly have already believed, would respond, “Great! We can’t wait! We want to be free!” A gracious offer deserves a grateful response.
But that’s not their reaction. Instead, they’re offended. They respond testily: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” (vs. 33).
Okay, let’s see. “Never been slaves to anyone.” Hmm. Oh, yeah, unless you count that whole Egypt thing. And maybe the Babylonian exile. And these annoying Romans. And all those other marauding nations that came between Babylon and Rome. But other than that, we’ve never been slaves to anyone else...so what are you suggesting? We’re children of Abraham! Don’t you dare insult us!
And this is the response of those who “believed”???
Actually, John’s already forewarned us that something like this could happen. Back in chapter 2, he wrote that many saw the signs Jesus performed in Jerusalem during the Passover, and “believed in his name” (2:23). And yet Jesus “would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people…he himself knew what was in everyone” (vss. 24-25).
Interpreters struggle to make sense of how people whom John describes as believers end up wanting to kill Jesus. Maybe we’re talking about different groups of people at different points in the chapter? Maybe what John meant is that they believed at one time, but don’t now?
One thing, however, seems certain. To say that someone “believes” guarantees nothing in terms of their attitude and conduct. And that’s a sobering thought for evangelistic work that focuses on getting people to “believe,” to sign on some cognitive or conceptual dotted line.
The people with whom Jesus was arguing desperately needed to be set free, beginning with being freed from the preconceptions that kept them deaf to the truth in the first place. Without that, the truth could only make them mad.