By J.R. Miller
The title of this passage is suggestive. People who live in sin--do not think that they are slaves--they often think they are the only free men, and that Christians are the slaves. But in all this world, there is no bondage so terrible as the bondage of sin. The salvation of Christ is not merely the taking away of sin's penalty--if this were all, it would be very incomplete. This would leave us unchanged in heart and life, loving still the old things and the old ways, not disposed to live the beautiful life of holiness, not having the love of Christ in our hearts. The salvation of Christ not only changes our relation to sin's penalty, setting us free--but brings us into God's family, making us God's children. It includes also the breaking of the power of sin over the life and the exaltation of the believer into the full liberty of Christ.
The passage begins by telling how we may be Christ's disciples. "If you continue in My Word--then you are really my disciples." It is not enough to begin; abiding, persevering, is the test. A disciple is a learner, a pupil. It is not enough for one to enter a school. Mere enrollment will not make anyone a pupil. The pupil must continue in the school all through the long course, studying subject after subject, until he has mastered the whole curriculum. The same is true in business and in all callings. Life is a school. The course is a long one. It is not finished in a day--but fills all the days of one's life. The lessons, too, are long ones.
The man who is faithful, who persists and perseveres unto the end, is the only one who succeeds. Missing lessons anywhere in the course leaves a blank. Many begin well, with diligence and earnestness--but lose interest in a little while, let their courage falter, and fail in their course. They grow weary and give up. This is true of many in all lines of work. A writer, speaking of the failure of some ministers to succeed, says that they enter the ministry with great enthusiasm and promise--but after a little while settle down into apathy, lose their enthusiasm, and soon are heard of no more. It is true also in Christian life. There are thousands who begin to follow Christ--but who, when discouragement comes, give up and sink back again into the world. Jesus told His enthusiastic followers that an ardent beginning was not enough--they must continue unto the end.
Abiding in the Word of Christ is given as the essential thing in discipleship. To abide in Christ's Word--is to obey Him, to do His commandments, not for a day or two only--but faithfully, all through life. It is not enough to know the will of Christ--we must do it. He said that if we are His friends, we will do whatever He commands us. Obedience, therefore, is a test of discipleship, and obedience must be patient and continuous. It must be without break. It must look to the little things of duty. Dropped stitches in the web make breaks, and then the garment unravels.
There is another way in which we may abide in the Word of Christ. Many of His Words are promises. The forests in summer days are full of bird's nests. They are hidden in the trees, in among the leaves. The little birds know where they are, and when danger comes, when a storm arises, or when night draws on; they fly at once each to its own nest and hide away there in safety. So the promises of Christ are hidden in the Bible like nests in the trees, and there we may fly in any danger or alarm, hiding there until the storm is past. There are no castles in this world so strong, so impregnable, so safe--as the words of Christ. "Heaven and earth shall pass away," said the Master, "But My words shall never pass away" (Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33).
Jesus then told His disciples how they could be made free from sin's bondage. "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." Chris is a deliverer. He came to open prisons and lead captives out to liberty. There is a story of a stranger who entered an oriental city, and as he walked through the marketplace he saw many birds in cages. His face grew sad, and by and by he asked the price of one of the birds, and paying for it, opened the cage door. The bird flew out and, rising a little way in the air, caught a glimpse of its native mountains far away, and then flew swiftly toward them. The traveler then bought the other cages, one by one, and set the birds free, until all of them had been liberated. That is what Christ, our Liberator does for His people in their captivity. He sets them free, breaking their chains, opening their prison doors, that they may fly away toward home and safety.
It is the truth, Jesus says, that make men free. So long as they are ignorant of Christ and of His power to liberate them--they remain in bondage. But when His emancipating Word comes to them, they are free!
The Jews resented the suggestion that they were in any sense slaves. "They answered him, We are Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man." How deceived they were--they imagined themselves free, when at that very hour Roman soldiers stood guard about their city! But it is the same with spiritual slaves. It is a great privilege to have good ancestry; it is good capital with which to start in life; but beyond a certain point it does not count for anything. Every man must bear His own burden. In the end, everyone must stand for himself. These people were depending upon their fine ancestry. Sin plays strange tricks with men. Insane people sometimes deck themselves out with tinsel, and imagine that they are some great personages. The devil puts similar notions into the heads of His deluded followers, making them think they are free--when in reality they are pitiful slaves.
Jesus very promptly assured the rulers of the people that they were not free men. He said to them, "Whoever commits sin, is the slave of sin." Sin makes slaves of those who follow it. Everyone is the servant of some master, the only question being who the master is. Christ asks His disciples to take His yoke and to come under bondage to Him. His is not the bondage of compulsion--but of love and joy. Christ is a blessed Master. His yoke is easy; serving Him lifts one up to eternal glory. What sort of master is sin? What does sin do for its slaves? What life did it ever ennoble, lift up, or bless?
There is a fable of man to whom the devil came, ordering a chain of a certain length. Coming for the chain at the appointed time, he ordered it made longer, and went away. When at last it was finished, he came again, and with it bound the poor man who had fashioned its links at his bidding. So sinners are everywhere building their own prison walls and with their own hands fashioning chains to bind them forever. There is only One in all the world who can set men free from the bondage of sin--Christ Himself. "If the Son therefore shall make you free--you shall be free indeed." There is not another one who can do this for us. He breaks the chains of personal enslavement on all who follow Him, putting His grace into their hearts and enabling them to overcome evil habits and conquer their evil nature. Sin begins with threads, and weaves ropes and cables around its slaves--until they are bound hand and foot in chains they have no power to break. But even those who are thus bound, Christ can set free. We all need Christ as liberator, emancipator, for we all have chains of some kind forming about us, chains of habit, of desire, of passion, of disposition, which will bind us and drag us down as slaves, unless we come to Christ and have Him free us from our bondage and make us free indeed!
Jesus told the people further that day that, while they were genealogically Abraham's seed, yet they were continually doing inappropriate things, things which the children of Abraham should not do. They were seeking to kill Him, because His Word was not allowed to have free course in them. This was not the work of free men. Love is the law of freedom, and love was not in their hearts while they were so bitter against Him. He told them that if they were really Abraham's children they would do the works of Abraham. Their doing the works of the devil--proved that they were the devil's children, and not God's.
It was not complimentary to these rulers, church dignitaries, to be called children of the devil--but Jesus read their hearts and saw murder and falsehood there under all their religious appearances and their boasted godly ancestry. Wherever these feeling and intentions are found--they indicate the devil's work. As the fruit of the Spirit in the heart is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, meekness, gentleness and kindness; so the fruit of the devil's indwelling are hatred, malice, envy, jealousy, and bitterness. If our lives have only the devil's characteristics, we cannot make claim to being God's children.