The Bible’s View
What “Truth” Will Set People Free?
WHEN in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths of the year 32 C.E., Jesus made a statement that has become famous world wide. The Gospel account by John reports it in this way: “Jesus went on to say to the Jews that had believed him: ‘If you remain in my word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”—John 8:31, 32.
What did Jesus mean by “the truth” that would set people free? Was he talking about true teaching as opposed to lies? Or did the Son of God have something else in mind?
We will be better able to identify the truth mentioned here by considering the manner in which those Jewish hearers of Jesus needed to be ‘set free.’ To that end, let us pay close attention to the context in which these well-known words are found.
Concerning the response of Jesus’ hearers, John relates: “They replied to him: ‘We are Abraham’s offspring and never have we been slaves to anybody. How is it you say, “You will become free”?’” (John 8:33) Though they had been subject to Gentile kingdoms for centuries, the Jews viewed their fleshly descent from Abraham as a guarantee that they were actually free. The Bible commentary by John Peter Lange explains:
“Because they were Abraham’s seed [offspring] . . . , they claimed, according to Jewish theology, not only freedom, but even dominion over the nations. . . . these words [that they never had been slaves to anybody] can only mean: Often as we have been under oppression (under Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrians), we have never acknowledged any oppressor as master, but have always submitted only from necessity, reserving our right to freedom, and striving after it. . . . And to this day it stands among the fifteen benedictions which should be said [by Jews] every morning: ‘Blessed art Thou, that Thou hast not made me a slave.’”
But Jesus pointed out that his hearers were indeed slaves. In fact, their slavery was worse than subjugation to Gentile powers. “Most truly I say to you,” continued Jesus, “Every doer of sin is a slave of sin.” (John 8:34) He knew that his listeners were habitual ‘doers’ of things contrary to the will and law of God. The basic reason for this is that by inheritance all humans are sinful; that is, they fall short of fully reflecting godly qualities of personality. (Rom. 3:23) This sinful condition results also in aging and death. (Rom. 5:12; 6:23) Fleshly descent from Abraham could not give them freedom from slavery to sin.
Refusal to admit their slavery put the Jews in a dangerous position. Jesus explained: “The slave does not remain in the household forever; the son remains forever.” (John 8:35) A slave had no inheritance rights and could be dismissed at any time. (Compare Genesis 21:8-14; Galatians 4:30.) Only “the son” actually born or adopted into the household would remain “forever,” that is, for as long as he lived. Since the Jews to whom Jesus spoke were indeed slaves, they were in danger of being expelled from the household of God’s worshipers.—See Matthew 8:11, 12; 21:43; Romans 11:15, 17, 19.
What now is “the truth” that can bring freedom from enslavement to sin? Jesus identified it in his next words: “If the Son sets you free, you will be actually free.” (John 8:36) That freedom-giving truth was regarding “the Son,” Jesus himself, the only-begotten Son of the God who is the source of all freedom. (2 Cor. 3:17) The same point is made at John 1:17, which states: “The undeserved kindness and the truth came to be through Jesus Christ.”
In what sense did “the undeserved kindness and the truth” come through Jesus Christ in contrast to God’s law through Moses? The Law served as a tutor leading to Christ. (Gal. 3:23-25) It contained shadows or prophetic pictures that attained fulfillment in Christ. In this regard, the apostle Paul writes: “Let no man judge you in eating and drinking or in respect of a festival or of an observance of the new moon or of a sabbath; for those things are a shadow of the things to come, but the reality belongs to the Christ.” (Col. 2:16, 17) Accordingly, “the undeserved kindness and the truth came to be through Jesus Christ,” because Jesus put the things foreshadowed by the Law into the realm of actuality, “reality.”
How can Jesus Christ as “the Son” set people free from sin? The ‘shadows’ of the Mosaic law included sin-atoning sacrifices. (Lev. 4:20, 26) Concerning the reality that those sacrifices foreshadowed, the apostle John writes: “He [God] loved us and sent forth his Son as a propitiatory sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) Jesus could offer his human life as a sin-atoning sacrifice because he was perfect, sinless, and a Son of God. Since sin entered the world by the disobedience of one perfect man, it could be removed by another perfect man who pursued a course of full obedience to God, his Father. The apostle Paul writes:
“If by one man’s trespass many died, the undeserved kindness of God and his free gift with the undeserved kindness by the one man Jesus Christ abounded much more to many.” (Rom. 5:15) “So, then, as through one trespass [that of Adam] the result to men of all sorts was condemnation, likewise also through one act of justification [by Jesus Christ] the result to men of all sorts is a declaring of them righteous for life. For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were constituted sinners, likewise also through the obedience of the one person many will be constituted righteous.”—Rom. 5:18, 19.
As regards Jesus Christ, the one to whom “the reality belongs,” the sacrifices under the Mosaic law pointed to him. The Scriptures further state: “[Men under the Mosaic law] are rendering sacred service in a typical representation and a shadow of the heavenly things.” (Heb. 8:5; compare 10:1-4.) “For if the blood of goats and of bulls [presented on the Day of Atonement] and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who have been defiled sanctifies to the extent of cleanness of the flesh, how much more will the blood of the Christ, who through an everlasting spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works that we may render sacred service to the living God?” (Heb. 9:13, 14) “This man [Jesus] offered one sacrifice for sins perpetually.”—Heb. 10:12.
What, therefore, is “the truth” that can set people free? That truth revolves around Jesus Christ who is the fulfillment of the typical system of sacrifices under the Mosaic law. Since Christ’s sacrifice brings freedom from sin and its consequence, death, Jesus himself could say: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.”—John 3:16.