John 8:25-31 – the Prophet like Moses

(These notes were prepared for a series of teachings on John’s gospel given in Pretoria during 2008 and 2009.)

“Who are you?” they asked.
“Just what I have been claiming all along,” Jesus replied. 26 “I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.”
27 They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father. 28 So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” 30 Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him.
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.”

In response to the question, ‘who are you?’ Jesus affirms that he is the Prophet like Moses promised in Deuteronomy 18:

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account. 20 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death.”
21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.

Jesus identifies himself as this prophet on the basis that:

  1. ‘The One who sent me is true and what I heard from Him – these things I tell the world’ (verse 26). In other words, Jesus is speaking those words that the Father has put in his mouth – all the Father has commanded him to say.
  2. ‘If you do not believe that I am he, you will die in your sins’ (verses 21 & 24). Jesus confirms that God will hold them to account for their unbelief, or as Peter rendered it in Acts 3:23, ‘anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people.’
  3. ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.’

From John 12:32 we know that the ‘lifting up’ speaks of ‘the manner of death he was going to die’. The ‘you’ in this instance would be the Pharisees who would become responsible for his death. Jesus’ third and final claim provides the evidence required by Deuteronomy 18:22: ‘If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.’

By saying in the Father’s name that he would be crucified at their behest – Jesus is thus providing the Pharisees with the means by which to establish beyond doubt that he was indeed who he claimed to be, namely the Prophet like Moses. If, however, what he proclaimed concerning these things, did not take place, then his prediction would be ‘a message that God had not spoken’ and they would be vindicated in their unbelief. Since his prediction would prove true, Jesus would later – on the basis of this truth – draw all men to himself.

The prophecy is made all the more astounding by the fact that Jews were not crucified at the time Jesus made his prediction. When the Sanhedrin imposed the death penalty under Mosaic Law it was by stoning or strangulation. But the Talmud records,

“Forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin abandoned [their normal place in the judicial precinct of the Temple] and held its sittings in Chanut. ‘Why,’ asks Rabbin Nachman ben Isaac. ‘Because when the Sanhedrin saw that murderers were so prevalent that they could not be properly dealt with judicially, they said, ‘Rather let us be exiled from place to place than pronounce them guilty …'” (Tractate Avodah Zarah 8b).

Thus, sometime between the arraignment of the adulteress before Jesus in the Temple courts (John 8:1-11) and the death of Jesus, the Sanhedrin gave up its powers to impose capital punishment, making it necessary for the Rabbis to go cap in hand to the Roman authority to condemn Jesus on their behalf – hence crucifixion becoming the type of death that he would suffer.

It is not sufficient, though, to look at the mere circumstance of Jesus’ death for the fulfilment of his prophetic word. In an earlier pronouncement to Nicodemus, Jesus elaborated with an allusion to Israel’s history:

‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.’ (John 3:14-15)

The event spoken of happened in the early days of the Exodus:

They travelled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
 (Numbers 21:4-9)

The venomous serpents ‘personified’ God’s verdict on sin, namely death (John 6:23). But, by the brazen serpent lifted up, God turned the expression of sin into a symbol of mercy. Jesus prophesied that men would look to Calvary as the Israelites looked upon the brazen serpent – as an acknowledgment of the horror of sin, so that, by faith in what was given for its remission, they might be healed and receive life.

Earlier, Jesus taught: ‘For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’ (John 6:40)

Before that Isaiah prophesied:

‘See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him –
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond human likeness –

so will he sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?’
(Isaiah 52:13 – 53:1)

Verse 30 tells us that many believed in him for what he said. It was his increasing popularity that would eventually force the hand of the religious establishment: ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ (John 11:48)

Is this perhaps a lesson for the end times – i.e. that the forces of darkness will play their trump card in response to a resurgence of biblical truth?

In verses 31-32 Jesus repeats the lesson of John 7:17, where he said: ‘if anyone chooses to do God’s will,’ i.e. has resolved to be obedient without counting the cost, ‘he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.’ But this time he speaks to believers:

‘To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’

Thus, ‘if you continue in my word, i.e. live in obedience to what I say, then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’.

The offer of eternal life which Jesus had already made several times during the Feast of Tabernacles and earlier, is now subjected to this important qualification. What Jesus offered was not for those who merely believed that he was the Messiah, but for those who continued in his word.

Why do you call me, `Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? (Luke 6:46)

How easy to think of Jesus as a life-giving encounter, rather than a life-giving relationship! We will obtain our freedom from sin and the new life in Christ by a process, no matter how dramatically that process may start. Belief must lead to obedience (‘those who love me obey what I command’). Obedience is what causes God’s faithfulness to become known to us – i.e. known from actual experience, not just conceptually. Once we know the truth in that way, then we are truly freed as we persist in that relationship by a cultivated and matured faith.