In John 8:31 Jesus advances His famous, if puzzling phrase, “if you are my disciples then truth will set you free”. Later in chapter 8, we learn that the truth of which Jesus speaks sets us free from the destructive effects of sin. So, how exactly does this work?
First, we note that to know the truth to which He is referring, one must be a disciple of Jesus. Since the word ‘disciple’ is the latin translation of the Hebrew word for ‘student’, perhaps Jesus is referring to the truth of His teachings. Could He, in effect, be claiming that His teachings are the true and correct teachings of the Torah? Perhaps, but how does the right practice of God’s Torah set one free from sin? Doesn’t following the Torah mean adopting a “works righteous” lifestyle? Indeed, St. Paul tells us that practicing the nitty-gritty details of all the myriad ways we might sin enslaves, not frees, us.
The answer lies, I believe, in the 17th chapter of Leviticus in which the author reveals God’s theology of sacrifice. In this chapter, verse 17:11 is especially significant. Here is the RSV’s version,
For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life.
A straightforward reading of this translation tells us that blood is the essential requirement for atonement. Unfortunately, the translation above is incorrect (along with those of the KJV, NAB, NAU, NET, NIV, and the NKJ). The NET translation, however, gets it exactly right:
For the life of every living thing is in the blood. So I myself have given it to everyone on the altar to make atonement for your lives, for the blood makes atonement by means of the life.
In the Hebrew, the subject of the verb (have given) is repeated. In Hebrew, as in other languages notably English, to repeat the subject is to emphasize the subject over the object. We see this in English all the time. For example, when we want to emphasize “who” does something, we might say “My Wife – She Who Must Be Obeyed – ordered me to take out the garbage.” Here, the emphasis is clearly on who gave the order, not to whom the order was given (me) nor the object (the garbage). In 17:11 it is the subject of the sentence, God, that is being emphasized. So, while it’s true that sacrificial blood is used for the purpose of making atonement, the emphasis here is on the idea that it was God who gave the process to us.
The ancient Hebrews then, and Jews today, understood 17:11 as teaching that the importance of sacrifice was not its propitiatory effect. Rather, the verse teaches that penitence<ref>sacrifice, in the Bible, was viewed as a measure of one’s regret or sorrow for transgressing.</ref> is the means by which God expresses His grace to us. We see this reflected throughout the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. Thus, God shows His grace not only by granting forgiveness, but by providing sinners with the means of expressing their penitence in the first place. Hence, Paul’s teaching in Rom 5:8, “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this way: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
How does this apply to John 8:31?
To be free from sin is simply to know that God provides the means by which we can gain forgiveness and restore our relationship with Him. Consider the parent who knows his child will fail from time-to-time but stands ready to forgive. Thus, does God exhibit the grace that frees his children (us) to flourish in the face of our own failings. And the truth that is Jesus? The disciples knew that Jesus was the blood required for atonement, not just for them, or for me or for you, but for all humankind
Now, go and study