I’m not exactly sure why humans have a tendency to talk past each other. Perhaps our minds get stuck on an idea, and we can’t move from it. Or perhaps our agenda pushes us past listening to what someone is really saying. Some of this is becasue spoken or written words rarely convey our fullest intentions and feelings. We can hear what someone is saying, but not precisely feel what they are feeling. Listening requires a large degree of turning down our inner voice and increasing the effort to decode all that someone is trying to say.
In John 8:21-30, Jesus is having a discussion, and it’s pretty apparent that one side is talking past the other. “Then He said again to them, “I go away, and you will seek Me, and will die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come.” So the Jews were saying, “Surely He will not kill Himself, will He, since He says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” And He was saying to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” So they were saying to Him, “Who are You?” Jesus said to them, “What have I been saying to you from the beginning? “I have many things to speak and to judge concerning you, but He who sent Me is true; and the things which I heard from Him, these I speak to the world.” They did not realize that He had been speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. “And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” As He spoke these things, many came to believe in Him.” (John 8:21–30, NASB95)
Two phrases occur several times in Jesus’ answers. He repeatedly declared I AM and spoke of being “from above.” Jesus also repeatedly warned that they are at risk of “dying in their sins.” Here’s the interesting thing that I see. The folks speaking with Jesus never asked clarifying questions. Although one question that gets close is verse 25, “Who are you?” But without hearing them speak, it is hard to determine if they were seeking a true answer or being sarcastic. Jesus was giving them fantastic insights, but they couldn’t hear them and didn’t understand all that He was saying.
The “I am” construction is a central theme to John’s gospel. Many a book and sermons have been based on the “I am” statements of Jesus. In case it is not clear, Jesus’ “I am” statements link Himself with the same God that Moses encountered at the burning bush when God revealed His name. Several times over on John’s gospel, Jesus reveals word pictures to understand more fully His character and purpose. “I am the light of the world” and “I am the bread of life,” for example.
In this section of verses, Jesus repeats the phrase “die in your sins” three times. Nowhere else in the Bible is this construction used (at least not that I can see). Other verses, however, do connect death and sin. For instance, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23, NASB95) Neither in this section does Jesus expound on what that means. And somewhat startling in my thoughts are why didn’t the folks ask Jesus what He meant by that phrase.
We know from the rest of scripture that unless our sins are forgiven in Christ, we will be judged and condemned to eternal separation from God. Call it hell, death, or eternal judgment. What that exactly looks like is as mysterious as what eternity in heaven will be like. We have glimpses but far from the full picture. That gap of understanding is like the difference between seeing a billboard picture of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful erupting and standing near it when it goes off.
Here’s the good news. Jesus plainly said, “unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” We don’t have to die in our sins. All that is required is that we believe that Jesus is God the Son. Yes, other specifics come along, but the central core following Jesus is this one thing – to believe in Jesus and that He is one with God the Father. That is the bright line every person must choose to cross or walk away from.