The following is an excerpt from Discover the Bible (with a few minor edits primarily for continuity).
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (NKJV)
Have you noticed that even as the Ten Commandments are being removed from government and other buildings, that this phrase uttered by Jesus still seems to pop up all over, and never receives the criticism that other Bible quotes often get? “You will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Jesus told this to a group of His followers.
Today several prominent universities feature this quote on their campus, including: the University of Texas, Miami University (Ohio), the University of Virginia, and Johns Hopkins. This piece of wisdom even gains acceptance from one of the most anti-religious arenas, a public high school in Berkeley, California where it is prominently displayed on campus.1 A quick search of the internet reveals some of the ways people use the quote: a lawyer has it for his website heading; it’s the title of a blog about a murder trial; and it’s the headline of a news story about the 2008 Chinese gymnastics team.
There are typically two common misinterpretations that people have of what Jesus was saying here. One is more in line with how the schools see it, with the emphasis on knowledge. The thinking is that the knowledge of the truth allows you to have more freedom because your mind is released from its limited capacity you had before you knew. The idea is that the more you learn and know, the more freedom you will have. The other misinterpretation usually drops the first half of the verse and just goes with “the truth shall set you free.” This is the way the webpages are using it. The idea is something like: Coming clean will make you feel relieved (free) because you won’t have to hide (the truth) anymore. While there is some wisdom in both of these concepts,2 are either really what Jesus meant on this occasion? Is “filling their heads with more knowledge” what Jesus is instructing his followers to do? Is “setting our conscience free so we can feel good” the proper application of this passage?
We should look at the larger context to help us understand the meaning of the specific passage. So for a passage from the Gospel of John, we often will start with thinking about the larger context of the Bible, then the New Testament, then looking at other writings by John and finally considering any themes or related issues in other parts of this Gospel. However, for this chapter, let’s just look at the immediate context so we can see the significance of only having that information for helping us interpret our verse. John 8:31-36 (NKJV) says:
31 Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. 35 And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. 36 Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.
The first thing that should jump out at us is that Jesus doesn’t say “you will tell the truth” and the truth will make you free. He says you will “know” the truth. So, it’s knowledge of a truth that sets us free, not us telling the truth. That rules out the second common misinterpretation completely. Another thing we can see is that the emphasis here is not as much about knowledge as it is about freedom. The first part of the passage builds up to the culmination in verse 36. “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”
We are set free by the Son. Free from what? The context tells us. We see that Jesus sets us free from being a slave to sin (verse 34). How? We are set free because we have a knowledge of a certain truth (verse 32). Knowledge of what truth? Well again, let’s look at the context. Jesus tells the disciples what truth He is talking about. He says “if you continue in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine; and you will know the truth” (verse 31). It’s all found in the context.
First, notice that the promise is conditional. If we do something, then we get the result. It’s simple. If we follow in His teaching, then we will experience the result. But it’s not just “intellectual truth” or mere “mental assent” that Jesus is talking about. It’s an experiential truth. It is the truth that when we abide in His instruction and allow it to transform us, He will disciple us. It comes with the freedom of knowing that our sins are cast on the cross. It’s a freedom God wants us to experience in our lives through trusting in Him. And that is a truth worth plastering on our walls.
References / Bible nerd section
 Berkeley High School at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Allston Way
 Again, I say “some wisdom.” Telling the truth about something may set our conscience free because we’re no longer emotionally struggling with an issue. However, telling the truth doesn’t always set you free. For example, truth would not set the spies free when Rahab lied to protect them. The truth would have killed them. Rahab would have been condemned along with the rest of Jericho. And as far as the other way of looking at it, more knowledge doesn’t always set us free. It’s easy to think of a time in our lives when we learned something we wish we hadn’t. Contrary to being free, we are sometimes then captive to the new information.
Photo: Gray Brechin, http://livingnewdeal.berkeley.edu