The Greek philosopher, Socrates, was known for a method of teaching that used questions to stimulate thinking and to draw out knowledge and discussion on a particular subject. Jesus, on occasion, also used this method. Let’s try it on Jesus’ statement, “Unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). By questioning the Biblical text, we can use both the immediate and wider Biblical context of the statement to help supply answers.
Who is the “you” Jesus is addressing in John 8:24? Of whom is Jesus’ statement true? The Pharisees only, or everyone?
What does die in your sins mean? We know from the Bible that sin leads to death. What is meant by death? Is death physical, or spiritual? Are the people Jesus is speaking to, already spiritually dead if they do not yet know him or believe the truth he speaks? By death, does Jesus mean you cannot enter into God’s kingdom of heaven? He says he is going to his Father and they cannot find him if they die in their sins (8:21-22). If so, to die in your sins means not being able to join Jesus in his world. He reminds those he is speaking to that he is not of this world, but is from above (8:23).
How does Jesus say we are freed from sin and death? By believing that “I am he”. I am means what? Who is he? In another place he said, I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). How is he the way to be freed from sin and death? Is he referring to his death on a cross (John 8:28)? By saying he is going away, is he also implying his resurrection from the dead as proof of his Lordship, proof of the truth of his claims and teachings?
“Unless you believe”, he says. What does believe mean? We know Jesus is claiming to be the one who can save us, but what does it mean to believe in him? Define believe. For example, if I believe someone who says, “I will meet you there at 8pm”, I will make an effort to show up at that time. If I believe someone who says, “You should try that restaurant, it’s a good one”, I would likely try it. If I believe my kid saying, “I’m not lying”, I stop accusing and support them and their truth. If I believe someone who says, “I can fix your car”, I let them do it and am grateful they met my need. Does believing mean to act on what they say, to trust them? Believing gets us into a deeper relationship with the one we believe. In cases like these, if we say we believe someone, but do not act on what they say, we are choosing to remain separate and to be the determiner of our own way of living. We fail to get into a relationship of honoring, respecting, trusting, and knowing that person.
If Jesus says, “Believe me that I am your savior”, either we act on it, seeking him and what that involves, or we ignore it and go our own way. Believing in someone moves us into action and relationship with the person we believe, to whatever greater or lesser degree that involves. We allow whatever they say or do to have input into our lives. Once I believe Jesus is my savior, I become attached and do not want to go away from him. He frees me from sin and death (John 8:31-32). He becomes everything to me in terms of his friendship, promises, commands, comfort in sufferings, guidance, and hope. All my “saving” is bound up in reliance on him. I am grateful, for without him I die in my sins and am lost to a world of my own making, a world separated from his.