31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.”
39 “Abraham is our father,” they answered.
“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41 You are doing the works of your own father.”
“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”
42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! 46 Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”
What makes a church what it is? What defines it? What gives it an identity? On a day when we are celebrating the Lutheran Reformation, it’s a good question for us to ask. A big part of the answer to that question has to be what the church teaches. It’s not uncommon at all, therefore, that if someone is checking out a church they will probably wonder, “What does your church say about… Where does your church stand on…”
Do you know how to answer those kinds of questions? I’ve come to realize over the years that the real question is not what we believe or teach about this, that, or the other thing, but how do we get to our answers, what process do we use to answer questions, how do we arrive at our doctrines, or what means do we make use of.
One of the huge things that makes our identity at Our Saviour’s (and throughout WELS) is that no matter what the question is, no matter what topic comes up we will always and ONLY listen to God speak through his Word; we will go to the Bible for the answer. It’s not going to be the Bible and popular opinion or philosophy. It’s not going to be the Bible and traditional writings or practices. It’s not going to be the Bible and churchly hierarchy. It’s not going to be the Bible and family ties. Jesus makes that clear. He says if we’re talking about the identity, the fingerprint, of a church, of his disciples, then it needs to be his words. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.” It’s the Bible, Jesus’ word, and that’s it.
That means when Jesus speaks, people should listen. But that hasn’t always been the case for churches and religious people. That was one of the huge problems going on for these Jews that we hear about in John 8. They had the Old Testament Scriptures. God had spoken his laws and promises through prophets and kings so that people would have everything God wanted them to have to recognize the real thing, the Messiah, the Savior, Jesus. God had said things like: he would be born of a virgin, in Bethlehem, he would stay safe in Egypt for a while, he would be perfect, he would save people, and he would be rejected by many – you know, all that stuff that totally happened when Jesus came. These Jews had even listened to Jesus for a while, but then they started to hear things that they didn’t like as much. So as time went on they plugged their ears because he wasn’t what they wanted. Instead, they focused on their ancestry to Abraham, as if your family line is what opens the doors to heaven. They left out certain details. They added traditions. They threw the truth away. When God spoke, they didn’t listen.
This kind of thing continued on. It happened in the Dark Ages, too. The people had the Scriptures. God spoke in the Old Testament, all his laws and promises. And then God spoke in the New Testament. The Word Incarnate lived here on earth. Jesus fulfilled every law and every promise for us. He died for our forgiveness. He rose to free us from death and hell. He sent the Holy Spirit to work through Word and Sacrament. But all of that was hidden away in monasteries and in the Latin language that common people couldn’t understand. It was hidden by traditions and decrees of men who wanted power and control. They threw the truth away. Not many heard God speaking.
This kind of thing still continues. God speaks in the Bible. He shows us our sin in the law so that people will realize that heaven cannot be earned, and then God shows us how he, himself, earned it for us in the person and work of Jesus. But people don’t want to admit that there is such a thing as absolute truth, or they tinker with it to make it sound more acceptable, or they hide some of the more offensive parts. The truth is still being thrown away. When God speaks, people still aren’t listening.
Plain and simple, this is called sin. And we aren’t immune to sin, are we? It’s a sin to plug your ears to even the smallest part of what God says. It’s a sin to think that you have it all under control. It’s a sin to say, “I’m a fourth generation Christian, I’ve been a member at this church for decades, I know plenty about God.” It’s a sin to hold man-made traditions on the same level as God’s Word. It’s a sin to put popular trends on par with God’s power. It’s a sin to go a month, a week, even a day without listening to his voice. There’s just so much of this kind of stuff in our lives. It pops up everywhere.
Jesus gives us a term for this, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” It’s true! We get entangled by half-truths that sound close enough. We get trapped by full-blown lies that seem to be so good because they work so well for other people. When God speaks, we get caught not paying attention.
Maybe we try to argue like the Jews. “Slaves! We aren’t slaves. We don’t fall into the same traps as those people.” They were lying. They must have forgotten about 400 years in Egypt, exile in Assyria, another exile in Babylon, and that at this time they were subjects of the Roman Empire. Later on, the Roman church lied, too. They were forcing people to take what traditions and church fathers said and what councils and popes decided as if it was from God himself. We often forget the times when we are dragged along by friends or family to say or do something we know is wrong, to “just let it go so there won’t be a disagreement,” or to plug our ears to God’s voice on a certain topic for a while.
Jesus goes on to describe what that slavery means, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” These Jews were holding onto their own ideas and so they weren’t children of God or of Abraham. Abraham listened to God’s truth, even when it was hard. He believed and trusted in God’s promises. These Jews were living a lie and so they belonged to the one who speaks lies. The Roman church was holding to their own ideas about the Bible and the church. They were living the same old lies and so they belonged to the one who speaks lies.
The same can be said of us. Too often, we are listening when the liar speaks. And he isn’t interested in your welfare. His lies won’t help you; he’s out to get you. He’s an evil master who wants to make your life miserable with a combination of guilt and pride. He’s a murderer, using the same stealth that brought death to Adam and Eve and this whole world.
But there is one person who does not belong to the devil and never has. There is one whose words do not imprison us to a life of lies. When he speaks, his words are truth. That means when God says that he spoke everything in existence in 6 24-hour days, it’s the truth. This world did not evolve from a big bang over billions of years. That’s a lie. That means when God says that plain old water can be so powerful that when it is connected with his Word the Spirit delivers forgiveness and faith, even to newborn babies, it’s the truth. Baptism is not some outward ceremony of dedication. That’s a lie. It means that when God says his Supper of bread and wine is also really and miraculously the body and blood of Jesus, and that this supper offers the benefits of Christ’s death, namely the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, it’s the truth. The Lord’s Supper is not just some representation meal to remember Jesus’ death. That’s a lie. This means that when God says salvation is a free gift of his grace, dependent completely and totally 100 percent on Jesus’ work and zero percent on our good works, it’s the truth. To think an ancestry, a life good works, a long list of religious traditions, or anything else we do can in some way help God save us or earn us his mercy, well, that is a lie.
When God speaks, it’s true. But how do we know that it’s the truth? Because he’s the perfect God, who cannot lie. But there’s another reason: Jesus. 2000 years ago he actually walked on this planet. It happened. It’s true. The Bible is not the only record we have of Jesus’ life and times. There are other sources that acknowledge Jesus’ life. Even the most skeptical of unbelievers admit that he was a Jew who lived in Palestine and died a Roman death on the cross. Because those are true facts.
After Jesus died, he rose from the dead in the most stunning accomplishment of history. And for a period of 20-40 years, there was no New Testament to prove it. People didn’t have the written record yet. Do you know what they did have? Their eyes and ears. They had the testimony passed on by eyewitnesses. And during that time, almost a half century, people still believed that Jesus was God in flesh living in Palestine, that he had died on a cross as the perfect sacrifice for sins, and that he rose from the dead on Easter to defeat death and open the doors to heaven. Thousands and thousands of people believed it to be true. Even the most skeptical people admit that many, many people believed the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They don’t know why and they might not agree, but they can’t ignore the facts that before that New Testament was written this good news spread like only the truth can.
Those facts of Jesus are still the facts now. Nothing has changed. If we have a God who loved us so much that he would come to save this world, if he really did live, die, and rise for us, then you would expect him to be a God who also speaks to us. You would expect that God would want people to know him and you would expect that he is fully capable of pulling it off. When God speaks through the Word, we would expect it to be the truth from cover to cover, on the big things, on the small things, and on the historical dates and names. When God speaks, we would expect it to be everything we need to know, not a good starting point, not something that needs additional information. You’d expect it to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me. You’d expect that revelations and the verbal inspiration that authored such a book to stop at some point, so that we would know that God gave us everything we need. You would expect that when God speaks it is crystal, perfectly clear, not confusing, not subject to many interpretations. You would expect that if you open up this book and read it, taking it at face value, that you would understand that God loves you, that Jesus saves you, and that you have a new life to live for him. Finally, you would expect that if God speaks in this book that he would ensure its survival. And he has. There are 5300 copies that have made it down through the years. There is no other book translated into as many languages as the Bible. This Bible, these words of God, it’s the truth just as much now as it was before it was written down. And that’s how we have arrived here today.
It was 499 years ago that these facts found a lowly monk in Wittenberg, Germany named Martin Luther. He wasn’t much, but this message, this truth is. And because of that fact, this lowly German monk was willing to take a stand for the truth. He didn’t want lies to continue to imprison people with guilt or pride. He didn’t want a church to hide it any longer. It wasn’t his power that accomplished such a great thing, it was the power of God. When God speaks, it’s the truth. And so a lowly monk took on the task of speaking it, even when the big church told him not to, even when it threatened his life. And do you know what happened? This truth spread like God was carrying it from heart to heart. People were released from the guilt and pride of sin.
And this truth spread to you and me. Here we are in a Lutheran church, where the truth is present and where God’s power is working. If that’s true, then there’s one more thing you would expect, that we would love to hear it. If that’s true, then when that one day a week rolls around, just two hours a week, you’d expect that his people would love to be there. If that’s true, then the things you’d expect to hear in the homes of his people would not just be the news, sports, or funny sound bites but also and most importantly the voice of the God who speaks. You’d expect that we would obey what he says. You’d expect that our whole lives would be built on the foundation of his truth, not his words and popular opinions, not his word and politics, but his pure Word. You’d expect that the truth would be our greatest treasure because it tells us the we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. And you’d be right, because when God speaks the truth sets you free.