This passage occurs on Reformation Sunday (last Sunday in October).
This passage lays out the fundamental convictions of the Reformation: That the normal human condition is bondage to sin; that in Christ, through faith, we are freed and Christ abides in us. Worth noting in the Greek is the word μενω, which appears throughout the Gospel of John; justification is not here seen as simply forensic (ie, Jesus declares you righteous as if in a courtroom) but as ushering in the new creation: Jesus abiding in us. Worth also considering is the household nature of δουλος, or slave; not simply the worker, but also the lower member of the family.
To put it more bluntly, a sermon that talks about how the Jews have laws but we have Jesus misses the point. All humans are bound to sin. The American congregation in 2021, in an age in which freedom means personal liberty, needs to here the hard truths of John's Gospel: our natural freedom is to serve sin. This true freedom is not about doing our own will, but serving Christ. A good sermon, I believe, will help people see the false narrative about a) what freedom is (individual autonomy) and b) the power of this freedom (ultimately to isolate ourselves from God and others); but a great sermon, I believe, will show people what real freedom looks like (Christ abiding in us, that gives us the strength, courage and faith to overcome all manner of obstacles).
1. μενω : (8:31; 35, meaning “abide.”)
This word is translated here
as “belongs” or “stays” which are probably fine, but the important thing to
remember is that this word appears throughout the Gospel of John repeatedly; “abide in me…”
One might argue this concept of "abiding" is the most important in the Gospel. Furthermore, when Jesus says that
the "son abides forever" (vs. 35) this son-ship ultimately will
include us, who are invited to also abide in the Father's house forever
(basically, all of John 14 and 15).
Some more theological commentary on verse 31 for Reformation: The Reformation idea of "Justification" is often presented in "forensic" terms, i.e., a courtroom metaphor. God is judge and in Jesus Christ we are declared innocent, regardless of the content of our deeds, which inevitably fall short of God's glory (Romans 3:23). While this metaphor has Scriptural warrant (see John 8:50) and preaching power, it also has its limits. Both Paul (in Romans) and Jesus in John's Gospel move beyond simply forensic justification to new creation. We are not simply declared free of our sins, but we are made new in Christ. While other passages in John's Gospel delve more into this, in this passage in John's Gospel, we are "disciples" (vs 31) who receive a new status in the family (vs 35; see rest of John's Gospel).
I realize I am stepping into a 500+ long inter-Lutheran argument about justification. My point is to invite preachers to give at least a second thought to preaching only about forensic justification on Reformation Sunday, as if this is only what Paul, John and Luther taught. Luther himself talks quite a bit about the new creation and when talking about justification, also describes it in terms of marriage or love between the believer and Christ. As he writes in the Small Catechism:
"all this...in order that I may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true."
Grammar note on verse 31.
Verse 31 is a conditional phrase. Greek can set up conditional phrases in a variety of ways, often with ει or εαν. They mean different things.
εαν is really the Greek word for “if." "ει" may be listed as meaning "if" when we memorize our first Greek words, but actually ει simply sets up a conditional sentence. In other words ει can mean "if" but also "since" or even "In fact, not in this case." εαν leaves “the probability of activity expressed in the verb left open.” (BDAG). In this case, abiding in Jesus' word may or may not happen.
2. ελευθερος: (8:32;36, meaning “free”) and δουλος: (8:34;35, meaning “slave”)
My sense of the Greek word
for free is that it aligns itself with the idea of being unencumbered,
much the freedom “for” as the freedom “from.” But before we get into what this might mean, let's consider "slave."
Slavery provided the gas of the Greco-Roman economic engine. People became slaves through various means: captivity from war, kidnapping by slave hunters or debt. Slaves existed in all parts of the empire.
Slavery could be quite brutal, especially for slaves that engaged in mining. However, slaves often were attached to households and gained a certain amount of responsibility. Such slaves often helped raise the children (even educated them in manners), administer property, earn money and even sign legal contracts. Some slaves even owned other slaves. Even after manumission, the freed person would often pledge themselves to the former master or to a patron.
The slave was not simply the bottom of the macro social and economic structure, but the bottom of the micro social and economic structure, the household. This afforded some degree of comfort, security and even opportunity for advancement. However, there was nothing glorious about slavery. Regardless of their particular status in the house, the slave did the work that allowed the masters of the house to participate in civic life. See: http://paulandgreece.com/thessa/slave.htm
How one puts "freedom" and "slavery" together is crucial. This passage likely has the potential to emphasize either a Jewish vs Christian (law vs Gospel) distinction or to emphasize our freedom over and against society's structures. However, the New Testament suggests that while 1st century Judiasm may have been caught up in its own legalism, all sorts of legalism and other bondages existed then and now; furthermore, while we could say: "We had laws, Jesus comes to break laws, now we are free from these laws" the New Testament paints a more complex picture.
In fact, when the audience with Jesus says they have never been slaves, this is not true historically (see Exodus!); but it may be true theologically in that they never were slaves to God in they way they should have been. This is perhaps a link to our "audience" today, that will protest that we've never been slaves before either. Yet we find ourselves addicted all the time to so many things: our phones, our money, our status, our jobs, our kids' soccer teams, etc. I think we can easily expose that our "liberty" is far less than we thought.
But I think the real preaching challenge is helping people understand the true nature of freedom. This passage only lightly suggests what the Gospel of John and the New Testament more fully reveal: freedom is serving -- being a slave to -- Christ. How is service freedom? How does the truth about Jesus -- sins are forgiven, the dead are raised, the new creation is dawning -- accomplish this freedom?
Sentence breakdown: John 8:35
The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.
Greek: ο δε δουλος ου μενει εν τη οικια εις τον αιωνα, ο υιος μενει εις τον αιωνα
First step is to divide up the sentence into smaller parts: divide at the comma!
Second, look for the verb in the first part of the sentence. In this case the verb is μενει. You have to work a little hard because here you have the negative particle, “ου”. So you have your verb: ου μενει which means “does not abide.”
Then you look for your subject. How to find a subject? Look for nominative definite articles: ο, το, η. In this case, again, you have to take it one step further because you have the word δε in front of δουλος. But now you have your subject (you can ignore “de” for now): “ο δουλος” which means “the slave”
So now you have: “The slave does not abide.” The rest of the sentence until the comma are two prepositional phrases: “εν τη οικια” and “εις τον αιωνα” which mean “in the house” and “into forever.” Test yourself: Why is the first example in the “dative” and the second example in the “accusative” case?
Do the same with the second half of the verse: First, find the verb; then the subject (hint: Look at the articles.) Once you’ve done this, you can plow right through: The son abides into forever.
When Greek doesn’t have participles or subjunctive phrases, it’s really a matter of finding the subject and verb; figuring out what the small words mean; conquering the prepositional phrases…and then presto, you’ve got English.