If this is troubling or confusing, our Lord highlights this duality or dichotomy of Abraham in one of His discourses with the Jews in John 8. The narrative account of this discussion begins at the conclusion of Jesus’ sermon declaring Himself as the Light of the World, again a statement on His authority from the Father, a veiled statement on his crucifixion, and His continual pleasing of the Father. After this, we read, “many believed in him.” John 8:30 Here we might be tempted to assume the addition of more disciples to those who had been following Jesus, but as we will see we need to let the context unfold as John 6 has already shown us the folly of false belief and presumptuous discipleship, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” John 6:66
As our account unfolds, it begins with Jesus addressing those Jews who had believed in Him.
31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32Contextually, this is extremely important as it shows Jesus’ awareness that those who ‘believed’ had done so in a shallow or superficial way. (Here we might recall Luke 8:4-15) We know this by His statement, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” The conditional statement here speaks to the genuineness of perseverance, knowledge of the truth, and the accompanying freedom that comes in Christ. As is typical in His discourses with the Jews of His day, Jesus’ audience is not satisfied with taking Him at His word. Instead, like children who delight in backtalking their parents, the Jews here have a reply.
33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” John 8:33On the surface, this is perhaps a surprising and disconnected reply to Jesus statement on genuine discipleship and freedom. In their objection to freedom, they rightly discern that this implies slavery, but wrongly discern that it implies physical bondage. In their objection, they appeal to the source of their heritage, Abraham. This is akin to what we might call today, having an ‘ace card’ in the hand, but clearly playing it too soon. Their reply is twofold: Offspring of Abraham; never been enslaved. We might summarize this as pride. Their rejection of enslavement does not imply that they have forgotten the Israelite enslavement in Egypt nor the captivities of Assyria and Babylon, instead they are asserting that they have not descended from a line of slaves.
As can be observed throughout the gospels, it is a dangerous thing to enter into a debate with our Lord. It simply never ends well for those who try to outsmart or trap Him. Like the Master that He is, Jesus clarifies His statement on freedom, concurs with the ancestral heritage rooted in Abraham, but then offers a twist or we might say introduces a theme found all the way back in Genesis 3:15.
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” John 8:34-38First we may observe the familiar repetition of truly, truly, which always indicates a doubling-down of truth that is about to come. In this case, the truth relates to the practice of sin and the bondage that it brings. As the apostle would so clearly write in his first epistle, Jesus here is describing the ongoing practice of sin as slavery. Further He states a clear distinction between slave and Son as each relate to the Master’s house. Then, with the authority of the Son comes the power to grant freedom to the slaves – “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” With this, Jesus has clarified that His opening remarks have little to do with ancestral slavery and everything to do with spiritual bondage to sin. This is important, as we ought to keep in mind the Jews respond with an appeal to both physical enslavement and physical descendance from Abraham. The former Jesus refutes by clarifying the spiritual nature of slavery that He has in mind, however the latter – physical descendance from Abraham, He affirms. Despite recognizing their physical relationship to Abraham, this is contrasted with the very strong statement that they desire to kill Jesus because His word is not truly in them.
As if this were not enough, in John 8:38 we now come to the mention of a major Scriptural theme which finds its roots in the garden, specifically that of the women’s Seed, the serpent’s seed, and the enmity between the two.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,This Jesus introduces by way of the eternal relationship between God the Father and God the Son, along with the Son’s Word concerning all that He has seen with the Father in contrast to the primeval relationship of the Jews and their father, which is neither recognized as God nor Abraham. Instead, they listen and do the words of their father. This statement by our Lord is meant to draw out and highlight their earlier claim to Abraham. Here it is difficult to tell whether the Jewish response interrupts the flow of Jesus’ discourse or whether Jesus has purposely been vague in identifying the father that He has in mind. Nevertheless, again, the Jews object with an appeal to Abraham.
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” Genesis 3:15
39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” John 8:39Having first pridefully asserted descendance from Abraham in rebuttal to the notion of slavery, here they assert it again to rebut the statement from Jesus that they do what they hear from their father. Again, the wisdom from our Lord in His reply:
Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, 40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47 Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” John 8:39-47This, His longest statement to them yet, is packed full of rebuke and strong condemnations of their motives. We begin with a counter to their argument of being Abraham’s offspring, ” ‘If‘ you were Abraham’s children.” This is striking and the heart of our study in this post. We have already seen Jesus affirm their physical descendance from Abraham. Now, we see Him contradict that, or at least apparently so. As the argument flows, we find another reference to them doing the works of their father. Naturally, unable to realize what is being spoken of, they rationalize that Jesus must be asserting they have multiple “fathers,” which is indicated by their statement on sexual immorality and then going higher than father Abraham all the way to God Himself, who they claim as their father. This of course draws the strongest rebuke from our Lord who in turn reveals that their father is neither Abraham let alone God, but is the devil himself bringing us full circle to the passage from Genesis 3:15 cited above.
This interaction should be crystal clear for us and cement the fact that while Abraham indeed had physical progeny through whom the line of Israel and the Jews leading to Christ was established there is indeed more, much more to Abraham’s offspring that includes spiritual descendance. It is through this line that the progeny of God in Christ is established. While one might share participation in both, as did Isaac and Jacob, it is clear from our passage above that the physical does not guarantee the spiritual and indeed the spiritual can and does fall outside the physical – as in the case of gentiles (Galatians 3:28-29).
The dichotomy observed in Abraham is not a human invention to support baptistic beliefs. Instead, it can be observed by going all the way back to Genesis 3, following the theme through Cain and Abel, through Noah to Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac, further through Jacob and Esau. Here with Abraham, we can begin to see more clearly the dichotomy which was pronounced in the Garden. Holding onto this allows us to understand more fully the nation of Israel and then specifically who God’s people are and how this naturally applies to our understanding of covenant theology. Passages supporting this include those in Romans 2:28-29; 4:11-25; 5:12-21; 9:6-33 along with Colossians 2:11; Phil. 3:3; and essentially the entire letter to the Galatians. As we’ve seen, the offspring or seed spoken of to Abraham was always speaking of Christ. It is in Christ that we are born again, spiritually, and become children of Abraham by faith and brothers with Isaac as children of the promise (Galatians 4:29).
Soli Deo Gloria