“The truth will set you free” is a common saying in academic circles that want  to promote academic freedom and the power of learning. Many universities have  this statement emblazoned on a sign near the entrance of a building. But “the  truth will set you free” did not originate in academia; Jesus said it in John 8:32. In context, Jesus’  statement has nothing to do with classroom learning. In fact, John 8:32 speaks of a higher form of knowledge than is  capable of being learned in a classroom.

Jesus had just finished a  speech at the temple where He delineated differences between Himself and His  listeners. “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not  of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe  that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (John  8:23–24). The result of Jesus’ message was that “even as he spoke, many  believed in him” (verse 30). Then, in verse 31, Jesus begins to speak just to  those who had believed.

“Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you  are really my disciples’” (John 8:31).  True discipleship is more than intellectual assent; those who are “really”  followers of Christ will “hold to” His Word. That means they will not only  accept His teachings as truth, but they will also obey His teachings. Action is  proof of faith (cf. James  2:17).

True disciples of Jesus believe that He speaks the truth  about God and the Scriptures. They also know that He is who He claims to be.  Back in verse 25, the people asked Jesus who He was, and He responded, “Just  what I have been telling you from the beginning.” There may be a tinge of  exasperation in His response; He had repeatedly made known that He was the  Messiah, the one they had anticipated for many years.

Verse 32 begins  with, “Then you will know the truth.” “You” refers to those who are true  disciples of Jesus. True disciples will know the truth. More than that, their  eyes are opened to a greater understanding of the truth (cf. 1 John 5:20).

The  truth Jesus’ disciples receive brings with it freedom. Jesus continues, “And the  truth will set you free” (verse 32). At that point in history, the Jews were  under the rule of the Roman government. Even though Rome gave them an  exceptional amount of autonomy, they were keenly aware of the Roman presence  around them in the form of soldiers, governors, and empirically appointed kings.  When Jesus said the truth would set them free, however, He was not talking about  political freedom (though the following verses indicate that’s how the Jews took  it). Jesus provides the best commentary for His own statement in verse 34. Jesus  explains, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Being a  slave to sin is the ultimate bondage.

The freedom Jesus offers is a  spiritual freedom from the bondage of sin—that is, release from the  lifestyle of habitual lawlessness. He continues with an analogy: “Now a slave  has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever” (verse  35). The people would have understood Jesus to mean that they were not members  of God’s family, despite their biological relationship to Abraham (verse 37),  because they were slaves to sin. If they were to become disciples of Jesus, they  would know the truth of their condition and the truth about Christ, and Jesus  would set them free. Believers would be freed from their bondage and brought  into the family of God.

Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6).  Knowing the Truth will set one at liberty—free from sin, free from condemnation,  and free from death (Romans 6:228:1–2).  Jesus came to proclaim liberty to the captives (Luke 4:18).  “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but  living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16,  ESV).