In vs. 30 we get told how 'many believed in him'. And so in vs.31 he starts talking to them about what it means to be a true disciple. So, to take an analogy from the way we do things now, it's a little bit like they've come to an evangelistic event and signed the card/prayed the prayer/come forward to receive Christ. Αnd now those who've made a profession are attending the first session of 'discipleship explored', led by none other than Christ himself. However, by the time the first session is over (vs. 59) these recent 'converts' are trying to stone Jesus to death. If it happened in one of our churches you can bet that the week two would be led by someone other than Jesus.
The troubling thing is, all Jesus has done is lay it on the line for them about what true discipleship is, and in the process of what seems like a heated argument, exposed that whatever they were doing when they 'believed in him' these converts remained well and truly unconverted. He makes several statements about what it means to be a genuine follower, and they all add up to the same kind of thing.
vs. 31: 'If you abide in my word you are truly my disciples...'
vs. 43: 'Why do you not understand what say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.'
vs. 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.'
vs. 51: 'Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word he will never see death.'
True discipleship means committed, believing allegiance and obedience to Jesus and his teaching. If we have no space for his word in our lives then we've never really started out on the Christian life. As Jesus teaches them about his saving power (vs.32, 36, 51, 58) the Jews can't accept it. Even more outrageous to them is Jesus' suggestion that they are enslaved to sin and not really part of God's family (vs.34, 39). As they react like that to Jesus though that's exactly what they show themselves to be - the Devil's children not God's (vs.44-47).
Now, of course, we're not supposed to be copying Jesus' style with his hearers in John 8 - he could read their hearts and their minds in a way in which we can't (and Jesus himself adopts very different styles with different groups accordingly - compare this to his conversation with the Samaritan woman in ch4, or his own slow-to-believe disciples in ch14-16). But, I wonder if this passage does in fact raise issues for us over the nature of true disicpleship, issues that apply first and foremost to our own discipleship and then secondly to the kind of discipleship we call people to. Here are a few of the questions John 8 is making me ask.
- How does our 'just pray the prayer' practice fit with Jesus' 'if you abide in my word'?
- Do we look for the evidence of obedience ('keep my word') in ourselves and in those we disciple?
- How do we describe the human condition - are we 'slaves to sin' or does Jesus simply save us from loneliness and existential angst?
- Are we willing to take the offensive message of sin and judgment to 'nice, religious people'?
- Do we let people have assurance of salvation merely on the basis of an outward profession or intellectual assent and without any evidence of assent?
- How important is Jesus' divinity in our evangelism (vs.58) ?