The Text and the Context
This question must be restated to reflect the actual text: [ESV except as noted]
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him (πεπιστευκότας αὐτῷ)... (8:31)
You are of your father the devil… (8:44)
How does one explain how the Jews who had believed Jesus are of their father the devil?
In addition, John makes a distinction between πεπιστευκότας αὐτῷ (had believed Him - 8:31) and ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτόν (believed in Him – 8:30). Therefore the answer should reflect the significance of “had believed Him” in contrast to the other phrase and the meaning which flows from examining the two phrases in concert:
As He was saying these things, many believed in him (ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτόν). So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him (πεπιστευκότας αὐτῷ), “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (8:30-32)
- “as He was saying…” places this response in the present while the perfect participle πεπιστευκότας (had believed) points to an antecedent action1 as reflected in the ESV and other translations. [John 8:31] The temporal contrast of belief is between "these things" and something unidentified making "They had [in the past] believed Him" an ambiguous statement.
- The Temple location (8:2) means “many” [G4183-polys] who “believe in Him” are Jewish and there are two groups of Jewish people, one which may be smaller.
- Jesus addresses the second group with the conditional particle “if - ἐὰν” [G1437-ean] indicating they have a choice. This is an either/or condition where a choice to do what Jesus says will bring the result while failure to do will deny the result:
- “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” also means “if you do not abide in My word, you are truly not My disciples, and you will not know the truth and you will not be set free.”
Text and Context: Therefore as He was saying these things, many [who were Jewish] believed in Him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had [in the past] believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free [and if you do not abide in My word, you are truly not My disciples and you will not know the truth and you will not be set free]." (from 8:30-32)
Summary of the Answer
Those who had believed Him, πεπιστευκότας αὐτῷ, are deficient in their belief. Previous events at Capernaum point to two issues. One, belief may be partial: some of His teachings are believed yet His claims to divinity (and/or the heavenly things) were rejected. Another, the belief was past tense: they had in the past believed Him but, do not believe the things He just said.
Also Jesus indicates there is a deficiency of knowledge and discipleship by the need to abide in His word (also an issue in Capernaum). Abiding will lead to knowledge of the truth which will set them free (from their sins) also means if they fail to abide they will die in their sins. As this instruction is given specifically to those who “had believed Him” their current condition (as He was saying these things…) is deficiency of both knowledge (they do not know the truth) and discipleship (they are not yet His true disciples).
Someone is of their father the devil when their will is to do the desires of the devil and they put that into action. The dynamic of taking action is a requirement to be a true disciple or to be of the devil. When Judas betrayed Jesus he proved he was a devil (an issue first raised in Capernuam). Likewise at the Feast of Booths “the Jews” respond in a way showing three specific things which are of the devil:
- Deny Jesus is qualified to be The Christ
- Claim he is under the influence of the devil
- Attempt to kill Him before His hour and prevent Him from being lifted up and giving all who believe in Him the opportunity to have eternal life
This is not a simple opposition or rejection nor is it done in ignorance. It is an informed choice. In fact, one must be knowledgeable and act in opposition.
The Text: Believed in Him - ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτόν
Throughout the Gospel John uses “believed in Him” to describe people whom readers understand would be called Christians:
This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. (2:11)
For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (6:40)
He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first, and there he remained. And many came to him. And they said, “John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.” And many believed in him there. (10:40-42)
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, (11:45)
Also using the aorist tense (πιστεύων):
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (3:16)
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (3:18)
In describing the culminating events at the Feast of Booths, John uses a parenthetic statement to explicate the meaning of this phrase:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me (πιστεύων εἰς ἐμέ), as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him (ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτόν) were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (7:37-39)
In addition to the “believe in Him” there are other “believe in…” phrases used to describe the Christian: believe in His name (1:12); believed in the name (2:23); believe in the Son (3:36); believe in whom he has sent (6:29); believe in Me [πιστεύων εἰς ἐμὲ οὐ μὴ] (6:35, 11:26); believe in Me [πιστεύων εἰς ἐμὲ] (6:47, 7:38, 11:25, 14:12); believe in the Son of God (9:35); believed in Jesus (12:11); believe in the light (12:36); believe in God (14:1).
The phrase "believe in..." is used 44 times in the New Testament. The majority (35) are found in the Johannine works (John - 33 and 1 John - 2). [G4100 & G1519] As these were among the latest of the New Testament, John’s use can be gauged against what earlier writers established:
but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
(Matthew 18:6 also Mark 9:42)
To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:43)
And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” (Act 19:4)
For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Romans 10:10 NKJV)
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in Him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13 HCSB)
yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake (Philippians 1:29)
who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:21)
In each case, “believe in…” refers to Christians. Therefore, the textual evidence is the many Jewish people who ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτόν are true believers or Christians as they would be called.
The Context: Believed in Him - ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτόν
The events of the Feast of Booths are used to demonstrate opinions the people have about Jesus: He is a great teacher (7:15); has a demon (7:20); He is The Prophet (7:40); He is The Christ (7:41). Of the discussion in Chapter 8, Craig R. Koester says:
The third phase of the debate concerns Jesus’ divinity (John 8:12-30)... In this section the divine connotations of the “I Am” expression are made increasing clear. Jesus told his hearers, “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I Am” (8:24), and said that “when you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I Am (8:28).2
The immediate context of "as He was saying these things many believed in Him" means many believed in His claims to divinity. Therefore John also used the context to show the many [Jewish people] are Christians as they would later be called.
The Text and Context: Had Believed Him - πεπιστευκότας αὐτῷ
The phrase “had believed Him” is only used in 8:31.3 The singular use focuses the meaning to this specific setting and is intentional to do so. The ensuing discussion which leads to the statement about being of their father the devil has been deliberately introduced with this phrase placed in contrast with “believed in Him.”
The perfect participle places the action of “believed” in the past. This suggests a positive temporal contrast to those many who believed in Him “as He was saying….” However, a reference to a past belief in this setting also raises a question of their response to the claims to divinity just made. In other words, had they previously believed Him about His divinity (“these things”) or had they previously believed Him about some other things? The uncertainty of belief is heightened by the direction from Jesus to take action in order to “know the truth which sets them free.”
The Cambridge Bible for School and Colleges Commentary notes the implied deficiency:
Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him. Better, Jesus said, therefore, to the Jews who had believed Him. There is a change in the expression respecting their belief. In John 8:30 S. John uses the strong phrase ‘believed on Him;’ here he uses the much weaker ‘believed Him’ (see on John 1:12), as if to prepare us for the collapse of their faith. [John 8:31]
The Gospel also supports seeing this difference as an issue of belief and not membership in a group of people called “the Jews:”
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him (πεπιστευκότας αὐτῷ), “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples (8:31)
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him (ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτόν) (11:45)
“The Jews” had [in the past] believed Him and “the Jews” [later] believed in Him. As those with Mary came from Jerusalem (11:18-19), some may have been those who “had believed Him” at the Feast of Booths. After seeing Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, they are described using the stronger phrase, believe in Him.
A True Disciple
A primary point of what Jesus says concerns a person’s status as His true disciple:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in my word (logos – singular), you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (8:31-32)
The use of the pronoun “you” (ὑμεῖς - plural) is unambiguous: it refers to “the Jews who had [in the past] believed Him. At the same time, since Jesus is giving the criteria of a true disciple of His, the use is multi-valent: it applies to the reader or to anyone who wants to be His disciple.
The word disciple is used 74 times in the Fourth Gospel and is part of how the Feast of Booths is introduced:
Now the Jews' Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. (7:2-3)
There is a subtle yet significant aspect to this introduction:
… that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. (7:3)
As he was saying these things, many believed in him. (8:30)
Many believed in Him on the basis of His word, not His works.
The Feast of Booths is one of the three times of mandatory attendance at the Temple so the presence of His disciples should be recognized [as the subsequent event with the blind man confirms (9:2)]. However, the only reference to disciples from 7:2 to 9:1 comes at verse 8:31. In terms of discipleship the requirement to “abide in My word” is made the focal point.
The flow of the passage begins with Christology (8:12-30) and moves to discipleship (8:31) where the two belief phrases have been (purposely) inserted between:
The effect is to make belief the key response to the statement of divinity of Jesus and the primary motivation to become (and remain) a true disciple of Him.
This pattern going from Christological to discipleship is used throughout the Gospel. Koester says:
The fundamental structure of Johannine symbolism is twofold. The primary level of meaning concerns Christ; the secondary level concerns discipleship. The movement from Christology to discipleship is apparent in symbolic images throughout the Gospel. The clearest examples are the “I am” sayings of Jesus. The first half of John 6:35 reads, “I am the bread of life,” which makes a statement about Jesus. The second half reads, “He who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst,” which says something about the believer. Similarly, 8:12 begins, “I am the light of the world,” which is a Christological statement, and continues, “he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” which says something about Jesus’ followers.4
In addition to its placement within the pattern of Christology and discipleship, verse 8:31 shares a significant connection to the events in Chapter 6 because it was in Capernaum where the issue of abiding and His word (logos – singular) was first addressed:
Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (6:56)
many, therefore, of his disciples having heard, said, `This word (logos – singular) is hard; who is able to hear it?' (6:60 YLT)
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. (6:66)
Many disciples had already left (stopped abiding) over what He said. Those who had been disciples left over this “word.” Prior to this they had believed Him and had been His disciples. In reality, they were not His true disciples.
Those who had been disciples had believed Him until He told them of the requirement to eat His flesh and drink His blood. This single word was too hard for them to accept and rather than continue to abide with Him, they stopped being His disciples. Their choice manifested they had [in the past] believed Him yet did not believe they must eat His flesh and drink His blood.
At the Feast of Booths when Jesus says you must “abide in My word (logos - singular)…” to be a true disciple, He is speaking on the issue raised in Capernaum. For those ex-disciples the meaning “had believed Him” and the direction to abide in His word is obvious. It is a call to return and be a true disciple. This is true even if they were not present “as He was saying these things.” The fact there are ex-disciples demands Jesus explain who is a true disciple and as John later explains one who is not a true disciple (does not abide) is not and never was a disciple:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
(1 John 2:19)
The Immediate Response
The contrast between those who "had believed Him" and those who "believed in Him" raises a question of their current belief, an issue the response illuminates:
They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (8:33)
"They" challenge the accuracy of what He just told them. They also do not tell the truth. Historically, Abraham's descendants were slaves in Egypt, a fact the Feast of Booths commemorates. Some were held in captivity in Babylon; Judges also records periods during which they were not free in their own land, which is the current situation with the Romans. More importantly, as Jesus responds, a sinner is a slave to sin which also refers to what He just told them:
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. (8:34)
I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (8:24)
Unless they believe His claims to divinity, they will die in their sins regardless of whether they had [in the past] believed Him on other things.5
It may be argued “they” does not include all of “the Jews” and could include others who were present, but, clearly the pronoun must also be understood to refer to some of those who "had believed Him" to whom Jesus is speaking. Their response makes obvious the fact they do not believe what He just said. This can be phrased in the language of verse 8:30 to mean “as He was saying these things”, they did not believe Him. A fact Jesus will point out:
But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. (8:45)
Again the pronoun usages are multi-valent. For example:
May narrow the scope: “They” (some of the Jews) answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham… (8:33)
May expand the scope: “They” (others beside the Jews) answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham… (8:33)
The pronoun may reflect a smaller group who speak while simultaneously reflecting the reality of a larger group holding to what is stated by the few. The answer, “We are offspring of Abraham…” is an appeal which all Jewish people could make so it is also possible the pronoun reflects others who are not part of those who had believed Him. However, if this is how the pronoun is taken, it adds “non-believers” to the exchange. If “they” represents a mixed group it is only because some who had never believed Him are united in unbelief with those who had [in the past] believed Him. This understanding makes the impact on those who "had believed Him" completely negative as the primary characteristic of "they” is now unbelief as He was saying these things…
Had Believed What?
At the Feast of Booths, believed in Him is used in a contrary setting:
The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (7:47-51)
The Pharisees assume none of the authorities or Pharisees believed in Him. Yet when Nicodemus is included in this group (7:50) the reader knows this may not be true and it recalls the earlier visit during which Jesus said:
If I have told you (plural) earthly things and you (plural) do not believe, how can you (plural) believe if I tell you (plural) heavenly things? (3:12)
Placing Nicodemus in the picture recalls a single person speaking on behalf of himself and others (3:2) who may believe in His name because of the signs He did (2:23) yet do not understand the need to be reborn from above. Despite speaking only to Nicodemus, the plural form of the pronoun is mutli-valent as are the verbs “believe.” “You” is not just Nicodemus. It is all people.
Jesus identified two different areas of believing Him: earthly and heavenly. All four Gospels record those who rejected His heavenly teachings yet believed some of the earthly things He said. The “had believed Him” of 8:31 is generic and leaves open the question of what is believed as He was saying these things. It cannot be assumed to mean “they had believed Him when He taught heavenly things.” In fact, this issue drove “the Jews” to dispute Him in Capernaum:
So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (6:41-42)
“The Jews” did not believe this heavenly thing Jesus taught about Himself; they did not believe in His divine origin.
This same issue is central to His claim to divinity and the dispute which follows at Booths:
As He was speaking, many believed in Him:
So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. (8:21-23)
With those who had believed Him:
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word (logos – singular)… But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. (8:42-43,45)
The Gospel does not support understanding the Jews “had believed Him” to mean they had believed His claim of coming from heaven. In fact it refutes such a position.
As with other key aspects of this passage, “the devil” was first introduced in Capernaum:
Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” (6:70)
Judas, still “a disciple” at the time of the Feast of Booths, "is a devil." This is not a new issue and what follows in the treasury of Temple should be considered accordingly.6
Two statements in the exchange explain how someone is a devil:
You are doing the works your father did…. (8:41)
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires... (8:44)
Judas "is a devil” because his will is to do the devil’s desire and his actions (his works) are in accordance with the devil’s will.
In the exchange, it is possible all who respond may not be all of those who had believed Him. Nevertheless, this exchange elucidates the criteria which identifies who is of the devil. It applies to all who meet the criteria, not merely those who hear Jesus. Regardless of whom the statement is directed to and who responds if someone meets the criteria they are of their father, the devil. Obviously Judas meets the criteria regardless of whether he was present and listening.
Therefore when any person aligns their will with the devil's desire and acts accordingly, they are of their father the devil. For Judas this truth will be affirmed later (13:2); for some who heard Jesus, this is confirmed immediately:
The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”...So they picked up stones to throw at him... (8:48, 59)
When the pronoun use stops, it is clear at least some of "the Jews" who had believed Him understood the statement (about their father the devil) applied to them and their response is self-revealing. Calling Jesus a Samaritan denies the ancestry to be The Christ. Saying Jesus has a demon means Jesus is working for the devil. Trying to stone Him is doing the devil's work to prevent Him from being lifted up so that "whoever believes in Him (ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτόν) may have eternal life" (3:15).7 They are of their father the devil.
Since the Gospel was written retrospectively, John’s statement in the Epistle, 1 John has some relevancy to this question:
By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
(1 John 3:10)
It is after the Crucifixion and Resurrection when the phrase “children of the devil” is applied. After He was “lifted up” all people now have the ability to believe “in Him” to receive eternal life. The parallel made in the Epistle is the impact “The Word of Jesus” (My logos) in the world. If The Word results in a person believing in Him the person is reborn as a child of God and even though they remain in the world in the same physical condition, they are no longer of the world. However, if the Word does not produce the belief necessary to become a child of God, the person remains a child (unsaved) of the world. If such a “non-believer” actively opposes The Word they are doing the will of the devil and demonstrate they are a child of the devil.8
The will of the devil is to deny the Gospel of Jesus Christ. First, it was to prevent Him from being lifted up which will draw all people to believe in Him. When that failed it became opposing the Gospel and attempting to prevent people from believing in Him and His Crucifixion as the seminal point of belief.
Two things in John 9 bring together the hostility to the Gospel, the lack of belief in Jesus’ divinity and the issue of atonement for sins:
(His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.)
And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
“The Jews” would take action against Jewish people who claimed Jesus was the Christ (cf 1 John 2:22) because they knew God had spoken to Moses but they did not know where the man (Jesus) came from. A disciple of Moses dealt with sin by Levitical sacrifices and the Day of Atonement. In particular when Jesus says “you will die in your sins unless you believe I Am…” at the Feast of Booths, He is repudiating the Day of Atonement as the means of making atonement for sin.9
Finally, there is nothing to indicate one who is of their father the devil (or a child of the devil) cannot later become a child of God. The blunt statement “you are of your father the devil” in no way prevents or excludes this person from making a later decision to place their faith in Him (as the raising of Lazarus shows). It might initiate reflection to realize their true condition. This may be the implied ending to Nicodemus who later came out of hiding to bury Jesus and is clearly not doing the will of the devil. While it is not stated, undoubtedly some of those who heard what Jesus said at the Feast of Booths would stop doing the desires of the devil and become children of God on the day of Pentecost when His true disciples preached the Gospel and they chose to believe in Him.
1. Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax, Zondervan, 2000, p. 267
2. Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, Augsburg Fortress, 1995, p. 177
3. “Believed himself” or “himself believed” ἐπίστευσεν αὐτὸς is used in 4:53.
4. Koester p. 13
5. The statement “die in your sins” made at the time of the Feast of Booths alludes to the Day of Atonement, the annual event which falls 4 days before the Feast of Booth begins. Thus the “I Am” claim of 8:24 is: unless you believe I Am the One who takes away sin [and not in the Day of Atonement scapegoat], you will die in your sins.
6. Placing Jesus in the treasury (8:20) is a detail which also draws attention to Judas who was motivated by money and was paid from the treasury when he agreed to betray Jesus.
7. Majority and Received Texts read ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτόν while ἐπίστευσαν ἐν αὐτόν is currently accepted as original. Both forms establish a distinction with one who had believed him.
8. The criteria for being a child of the devil are never given. Simple rejection of the Gospel may be all that is needed.
9. The Feast which Jesus did not attend (7:8) was the Day of Atonement. Understanding Jesus' apparent lie in John 7:8