This passage is one of my favorites about Jesus. If you haven’t read it lately, I’d recommend it. It has Jesus speaking at length to the Pharisees about who he is. You can’t say Jesus did not try to make them understand. I think Jesus’ deity is clear from this passage, especially taken together with the miracles he did. The Pharisees seemed to be mystified about who Jesus was. They just couldn’t understand what he was saying about himself. It brings up something it took me a long time to realize about people. As a former teacher this seems like a really important thing about human nature that you are not taught in education courses. One of the reasons people may not understand something is simply that they don’t believe it, because they don’t want to believe it. Or they may not believe the person who says it. Not believing the truth blocks the understanding. Or perhaps you could say that the rejection of the truth in the will can block the mind. This is especially true in spiritual things.
Jesus was not speaking of himself and God the way prophets of the past had. He was claiming more about himself. The Old Testament prophets might have said something like “God is the light of the world” or maybe “Israel is the light of the world.” But Jesus said HE was the light of the world. No Old Testament prophet would have dared say “I am the light of the world.” The Pharisees criticized Jesus for acting like his own witness (see vv 14-18). So they were treating him like he was on trial and that his testimony would not be admissible evidence because it required someone else speaking for him. Jesus, being God and being sinless, could not call any other human being to be his defense. No other human being was worthy to be a witness for him really. So he called God the Father as his witness. He also pointed out that even if he did speak for himself and judge, it would be right. Jesus was without sin, after all. So who was qualified to accuse him? No one.
Jesus then points out how lost and confused the Pharisees really were. They did not comprehend their own spiritual condition. They seemed unable to face their own sin problem. The first way Jesus tried to communicate their lostness was in speaking about God as his Father. Jesus emphasized that the Pharisees did not know his Father. They thought they did, they knew something of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth I suspect. They didn’t understand he was speaking of God as his Father. Then he told them that he would go away and that where he was going, they could not come. Jesus spoke plainly to them that if they did not believe in who he was, they would die in their sin (v 24). This is the same quandry people are in today. They don’t realize that their eternal destiny depends on who they believe Jesus is. I think Jesus, without saying it explicitly, was clearly implying that he was the Messiah that the Jews hoped for. But the Jewish religious leaders generally wouldn’t consider this. There are times when people who do not believe the truth actually do know it inside but they will not admit it or accept it. I suspect that is what Jesus referred to regarding his death, when he said that “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me (ESV).” Saying “lifted up” is likely a reference to crucifixion. But people are responsible for what they are able to know about God. Knowledge of God comes with responsibility, even if you reject it.
Then Jesus said the most wonderful thing that is a great encouragement to Christians! “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32, ESV).” But his audience here was apparently primarily the Pharisees. The Pharisees had great knowledge of God’s word. Some of them may have been able to recite it at length. But that was not enough because they did not really accept and believe it. They did not really trust in the truth of God’s word, though they knew it. Their hearts and motives were not right and they had not really faced their own sin problem. They had not made it personal. The Pharisees failure to understand their sin problem is shown by their response to this statement from Jesus. They said (v 33) “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Then Jesus spelled out the sin problem everyone has so even the Pharisees should be able to understand. He told them “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Then he essentially told them He was able to change them from being a slave to being like a son in the Father’s house. The Son could set the slave free. That is what Jesus does for us.
Then Jesus goes on to tear down the thing they were trusting in to be right with God. They were children of Abraham. They were biological descendents of Abraham, but that was not enough. Jesus confronted them with their desire to kill him and pointed out that Abraham would not have done that. So even on the level of being Abraham’s “children” they fell short because they were guilty of something Abraham would not have done. At this point the Pharisees attempt to “escalate” the argument by attacking Jesus’ birth and parentage. This would be a scandalous thing in Jewish society to bring up. They claimed he was born of sexual immorality, probably assuming Mary was raped by a Roman soldier or something. They then go farther and claim God as their father. Jesus then points out that if God were their father they would love Him also, instead of wanting to kill him. Their hatred of Jesus speaks volumes. Jesus also escalates in response to them by saying that the Pharisees were of the devil and they were trying to do the will of the devil. Jesus goes on to say they were not of God. So they accused him of being demon possessed (a preposterous claim to make about Jesus). Then Jesus goes on to talk about Abraham being glad to see the day Jesus’ came. This reflects knowledge of the spirit realm apparently, something no one else could claim. Then Jesus makes the statement that made the Pharisees want to stone him, he said “Truly, Truly, before Abraham was, I am (v 58).” This statement implies Jesus existed before he was born as a baby, in eternity past. Furthermore, in this statement he uses the name God told Moses to refer to him with in speaking to the Israelites in Egypt, “I AM.” So in this Jesus is implying he is equal with God. Thus the Jewish leaders thought him guilty of blasphemy and worthy of death.
Jesus’ life and statements about himself do not make sense unless he was both fully God and fully man. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, you have to decide is Jesus a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. He didn’t act like a liar and he was too good and sensible to be a lunatic. I say he was and is Lord.