Tuesday, May 28, 2013

When Ignorance is Not Bliss (John 7:25-31)


In a 1742 poem entitled Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, Thomas Gray concludes, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.”[1] And thus was born one of those mantras that we often hear and believe without examination: “Ignorance is bliss.” We sometimes hear it put this way: “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” But is it really true? A number of years ago, I went on a mission trip to Kenya. Every day, we would walk through waist high grass going from village to village. It was surreal and beautiful, and I was just excited and exhilarated to have that experience. UNTIL … one evening a local herpetologist came to do a demonstration at our hotel and began to show us the black mamba and the green mamba. He told us that we could be killed within seconds if we were bitten by one of these snakes. I asked, “Where do these live?” He told me they live all around in the high grasses of the area. Suddenly, the thought of walking through high grass was no longer appealing to me. The knowledge of the risk produced anxiety and fear. But, the risk was always there; I just didn’t know it before. Because I was ignorant, I could be blissful. But go back to Thomas Gray’s original words: “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” Let me ask you, was I better off knowing, or not knowing, about the risks of the mambas? Was it folly for me to be wise, when I had been, in the words of Jackson Browne, “a happy idiot” before? The fact is, what you don’t know could just kill you. Ignorance may be bliss in some instances, but it is never folly to be wise. What you don’t know can destroy you, so we need to be corrected when the things we think we know are not true, and informed when we are blissfully unaware.

In the text that we have read in John 7 today, the word “know” occurs seven times in the English translations. This entire text is about “knowing.” There are some things that the people claim that they know. But Jesus says that they really don’t know; they are mistaken and misguided. The same could be said of many people that we know and love, maybe some of us as well. Many people think they know some things about Jesus, but what they claim to know about Him is not true; and then there are other things that they just simply do not know about Him. And in this case, ignorance is not bliss, and what they do not know will hurt them. Spiritual ignorance is dangerous, destructive, and deadly. Jesus speaks to it here in this passage.

I. Ignorance of Jesus is not bliss.

In a 1988 Vice-Presidential debate, one of the most memorable lines of recent political history was uttered by the Democratic candidate, Lloyd Bentsen. When the Republican candidate, Dan Quayle, said that he had as much experience as a congressman as “Jack” Kennedy had, Bentsen famously said, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”[2] It was a really great line – maybe the greatest line ever spoken by a losing candidate in a debate.  Well, in our text here, you have this group of people who are essentially saying, “We know Jesus, and we know something about the Messiah, and frankly, Jesus, you are no Messiah.”

Notice that they say, “We know where this man is from.” They think they’ve got Jesus all figured out. They know Him, they know where He’s from. In that society, no one had a “last name.” And, there were not very many “first names” in circulation either. Think about how many Marys, James, Simons, and Johns there are in the New Testament. And there were a lot of Jesuses walking around Jerusalem (I’ve often wondered, is the plural of Jesus supposed to be “Jesi”?). So how could you specify which person you were talking about? People were referred to either by the place where they were from or by the name of their father. For instance, you find Simon bar Jonah – Simon, the son of Jonah (or John). There is also Mary Magdalene, meaning Mary from Magdala. And then you have Jesus – known far and wide as Jesus of Nazareth. So these people say, “We know where this man is from.” It’s His “last name.” He’s from Nazareth. So He can’t be the Messiah. They knew that the Messiah wouldn’t be from Nazareth. In fact, Nathanael gives voice to a common prejudice of the day when he says, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” So, is Jesus the Messiah? They are thinking, “No. We know Him. And He’s no Messiah.”

Notice Jesus’ response in verse 28. The Bible says that He “cried out.” He spoke loudly so that all could hear Him. And He said, “You both know Me and know where I am from.” Now, here is where we need an original audio recording of this. It would be nice to know what kind of inflection Jesus placed on His words as He said this. He could be just acknowledging the truthfulness of their statement. The only thing is—as He is about to tell them—they really didn’t know Jesus, nor did they know where He was from. So that can’t be it. It seems best to read these words as a kind of question, like, “So you think you know me and where I am from, huh?”

We all know people who think they have Jesus figured out. They think they know all there is to know about Him. Oh yeah, they know He’s this and that kind of person, and that He would say this kind of thing but not that kind of thing, and do this but not do that. You can just hear Jesus saying to them, “So, you know me, do you?” But in the next words that He speaks, He demonstrates that they do not really know Him. He says, “I have not come of Myself but He who sent Me is true.” The word “true” here carries the sense of “reality,” meaning something like, “He really is the one who sent Me.” So Jesus says, “If you really knew Me, you would know that I have not just meandered down here from Nazareth, but that I really have been sent to you from God, My Father.” And He would say the same to everyone who thinks they have Him figured out. If the Jesus they claim to know is not the one who has come from His Father on a mission to rescue sinners from perishing, then they do not know Him at all. You may think that what you do not know cannot hurt you, but if what you do not know is Jesus, this ignorance is dangerous! To not know Him is to not know salvation, for He alone can reconcile us to the God who created us and who will exercise judgment over us at the end of all things. In this case, what you do not know could very well lead to your destruction.

II. Ignorance of Scripture is not bliss.

Last Sunday afternoon, I had the privilege of preaching in a special service at another church here in Greensboro where one of my dear friends serves as pastor. I am always a little uncomfortable in those situations, especially when it comes time for the introduction of the guest preacher. Sometimes, people can lay it on pretty heavily. One of the church leaders introduced me by talking about how impressed he was when he visited my office and saw all of my books. He talked about how knowledgeable I must be because I own all of these thousands of volumes. I was just kind of squirming in my seat while he was going on and on about this. I didn’t want to appear unappreciative of his very kind words, but I also wanted to make something very clear to the congregation. When I came up to preach, I said, “Folks, I want you to know that it really doesn’t matter how many books I own or how many of them I have read. What really matters is whether or not I know this one book – the Bible. Because this is the only book that holds forth the promise of eternal life and reveals our God in all of His splendor to us.” If you do not know the Scriptures, no matter what else you do know, this is a dangerous kind of ignorance.

The people who were talking about Jesus in our text today were ignorant of the Scriptures. How do we know this? We know this from verse 27. They say, “We know where this man is from; but whenever the Christ may come, no one knows where He is from.” This statement reveals that they have formulated their beliefs on traditional ideas, not on the revealed truth of God’s word. Where did they ever get the idea that no one would know where the Christ was from? One of the rabbis had once said, “Three things come wholly unexpectedly: the Messiah, a godsend, and a scorpion.”[3] On the basis of this and other rabbinic speculations, it was a widely held opinion of many that the Messiah would burst on the scene from “parts unknown,” with no traceable lineage whatsoever. Had they known the Scriptures, they would have known that this belief about the Messiah, no matter how widely held, was false. The Scriptures had foretold much information, and with detailed specifics, about the origin and heritage of the Messiah.

Had they know the Scriptures, they would have known plainly, among other things about the Messiah, that He was to be born in Bethlehem. In Micah 5:2, the Word of God declares, “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth from Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” Even the priests and scribes under Herod the Great understood this. In Matthew 2, when Herod summoned them and asked where the Messiah was to be born, they said, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet.” Then they proceeded to quote Micah 5:2. But, the crowds did not know this because they did not know their Bibles. In fact, had they known the Scriptures, they would have known that although He was to be born in Bethlehem, “His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” They would have known that the Messiah was more than just a man, but that He was the eternal God in the flesh, as Isaiah said, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given … His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6). They would have known with specific insight much truth about the Messiah. But, since they didn’t know the Scriptures, they did not recognize the Messiah standing right in front of their eyes. Their ignorance was not bliss!

Still today, there are so many who are ignorant of God’s Word. Many of them have placed their confidence in the unreliable traditions of what we call “folk religion.” Just like the people here in this passage, they have knit together a web of beliefs from strands of old wives’ tales, cultural proverbs, things they heard some preacher say, and fables from children’s literature. Let me illustrate how folk beliefs form by asking you a couple of questions: (1) How many wise men came to visit Jesus when He was born? (2) Do people who die get wings and become angels? Now, if your beliefs are based on the pictures you see, the stories you read, and what you’ve grown up hearing, you will say, “I know that there were three wise men, and that of course, people who die become angels.” But when you go to the Scriptures, you will see that we are not told how many wise men there were, and angels are not the spirits of dead humans, but are an entirely different kind of creature.

Now, those are two somewhat silly examples of biblical ignorance, but the matters become more severe when we begin thinking about Jesus Christ and the redemption of humanity from sin. So for instance, some may believe that Jesus was just a nice man who died a tragic death, in a way not dissimilar to Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King. But, when we come to the Scriptures, we find a Jesus who was more than just a good man – He is fully God as well as fully man; and His death was no accident or tragedy. It was the fulfillment of His divine mission to become the sin-bearer for humanity. He died as a sacrificial substitute for your sins and mine, and rose from the dead victorious over sin, death, and hell, so that we could be forgiven of our sins and have eternal life with Him forever in Heaven. And yet, countless people, even those who own Bibles and carry them to church every Sunday, somehow think that they will be saved by being nice and friendly. They think that they can impress God on the day of judgment with their deeds, and that He will let them into heaven because they were good people. In a 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 16% of Americans knew that Protestant Christians believe that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone. More alarmingly, only 19% of Protestants knew this! That’s less than one of every five Protestants! To put that into perspective, 22% of Atheists knew this. Meanwhile 81% percent of Protestants (4 out of every 5) knew that Mother Teresa was Catholic.[4] What does this tell us? It tells us that our churches are filled with people who do not know their Bibles! If we knew the Scriptures, we would know that we cannot be saved by our own good works! The Bible teaches us plainly that all of our righteousness is but filthy rags before the holiness of God. All of us are sinners who need to be rescued and ransomed from sin by the payment of the price of Christ’s blood shed on our behalf. And those who turn to Christ in repentance and faith, and only those who do this, will be saved.

In a debate with the Sadducees, the Lord Jesus said in Mark 12:24, “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God?” Repeatedly, He confronted the religious leaders of Israel with a simple challenge: “Have you not read …?” What would He say to us today? What would He say about the fact that less than 1 in every 5 Protestants even know how to be saved? Would He not say, “You do not know the Scriptures or the power of God! Have you not read …?” If one does not know the Scriptures, they may think that their ignorance is bliss, and that what they do not know cannot hurt them. But an ignorance of Scripture invariably becomes the root of ignorance of Jesus Christ, our only hope of salvation. The Bible points us to Him. It presents the full revelation of who He is and what He has done. As Paul told Timothy, these “sacred writings” are “able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:15-17). Ignorance of Scripture is not bliss; it is a dangerous predicament, for apart from the Word of God, we have no promise of redemption from sin and eternal life.

III. Ignorance of God is not bliss.

In 1 Samuel 2, we read about Israel’s spiritual climate in the days between the time of the priest Eli and the rise of the godly Samuel. The priesthood had fallen into the hands of the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas. The Bible says this about these men: “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men; they did not know the Lord” (1 Sam 2:12). No wonder there was such spiritual darkness pervading the nation! If the priests did not know God, how could the nation follow Him? Though there were times of revival over the following centuries, they were brief and soon enough the leaders went astray again and the people followed, to their own destruction. Around the time of the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians, the Lord spoke through the prophet Hosea, saying, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos 4:6). Later, when Babylon stood on the threshold of conquest in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the Lord spoke through Jeremiah, saying that those who handle the law “did not know Me” (Jer 2:8). The Northern and Southern Kingdoms were both laid waste by foreign powers under the providence of God, who seemed pleased to chasten His people under the heavy hand of pagans rather than see them languish under their own spiritual leaders who, in spite of their outward piety, did not really know God.

During the Babylonian Captivity, the religion of Israel underwent many changes. With no temple, there was no sacrifice. With no sacrifice, the priesthood faded from prominence, and the scribe rose to a position of authority. The scribes led the nation of Israel by creating a system of law-keeping that focused on external appearances. A person was viewed as righteous if they did the right things and didn’t do the wrong things, and those dos and donts were found, not in Scripture, but in layers of tradition laid upon the Word of God through the scribes. The Pharisees had their origins in this movement, and by the time of Jesus, the nation was back in the same situation they had been in so many times before. Their righteousness amounted to the performance of a man-made list of religious requirements, while inside, the hearts of so many were still hard and dead in sin. Their religious leaders, Jesus said, were “blind guides of the blind,” and all were at risk of falling into a pit of destruction (Matt 15:14). The reason: they did not know God. Jesus says that here in verse 28. “He who sent Me is true, whom you do not know.”
The allegation would have been alarming to the religious leaders as well as the common people. There was not a nation under the sun so zealous for God than Israel. Yet, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 10:2-3, “they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God's righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” Because they had tried to establish their own righteousness through the deeds of their own doing, they had discarded the knowledge of God. It was a shameful tragedy. After all, as Paul says in Romans 9:4-5, Israel had been the witnesses of God’s glory, and the recipients of His covenants, His Law, His ministry, and His promises. The great people of God throughout history had been their forefathers. And yet, in spite of all these gracious spiritual privileges, they found themselves now in the pitiable condition of being ignorant of the very God for whom they claimed to be zealous. And this ignorance is not bliss. What they don’t know can destroy them.
Today we find ourselves surrounded by untold millions who do not know God. Many of them are like the Jews of whom Paul spoke – they are zealous for God, but it is a zeal without knowledge. And while we could talk about the multitudes who are enslaved to all sorts of godless and false religions in the world, I think the greatest danger of all is that which confronts the person who occupies a pew in a Christian church every Sunday and yet does not know God. Religion for them is a matter of dressing up, showing up, signing up, and paying up, but in their heart of hearts there is a deep ignorance of God Himself. Having resorted to a self-righteousness of religious duties, they are cut off from the knowledge of God. Could it be that the reason that we are not making a larger impact for Christ among the 5.8 million lost people in North Carolina (60% of our state’s population)? Is it because, within our very churches, the pews are filled with people who do not know God? I wonder if that is why America finds itself today, in the almost prophetic words of Robert Bork nearly 20 years ago, “slouching toward Gomorrah.”  In Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales, in the tale of the Parson, we read these words: “If gold shall rust, what shall poor iron do? For if the priest be foul in whom we trust, what wonder if a layman yield to lust?” I think of that line nearly daily as I see the news of the increasing spread of darkness in our nation, and I wonder, “How can we expect our nation to return to God when the pulpits and pews of America’s churches are filled with people who do not know God?” Have we become blind guides of the blind?
What then is the solution? Well, if you don’t know someone, you need someone who knows that person to introduce you to Him. Jesus says to the crowd, “You do not know God, but I know Him, because I am from Him, and He sent Me” (vv28-29). If they want to know the God of whom they are ignorant, Jesus can impart that knowledge if they will hear and believe Him. Here is one of many places in the Gospels where the Lord Jesus says clearly that the only way to know God is through faith in Him. In John 14:6, He says that no one comes to the Father but through Him, and in verse 7 there He says, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also.” If you do not know God, there is only one place to meet Him, and that is in the person of Jesus Christ. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” To behold Him is to know God. Jesus said, “This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
The response to Jesus’ words on that day was predictable. Verse 30 says that the crowd of people sought to seize Him. So angered were they by His very exclusive words that they joined the effort to put Him to death. But they could not. John says that “no man laid his hand on Him, because His hour had not yet come.” He had come on a divine mission from the Father, a mission that would ultimately lead Him to Calvary’s cross where He would die for sinners. But nothing, not even a violent mob, could preempt God’s sovereign purpose. Try as they may, the cannot silence the voice of the Son of God. It rings out still today, calling those who do not know Him, those who do not know Scripture, those who do not know God, to come to Him and find life. And on that day, verse 31 says, “may of the crowd” did just that. They “believed in Him,” and they were saying, “When the Christ comes, He will not perform more signs than those which this man has, will He?” In other words, He has done all that we should expect from one who claims to be the Messiah. What further evidence, beyond what Jesus has said and done, do you need to believe in Him? If you never have before, you can today. If we don’t know the Scriptures, and we don’t know the Lord Jesus, we cannot know God. And if we do not know God, our ignorance is anything but bliss, and what we do not know can be devastating. You can know Him as your turn to Him in repentance and faith today. And where those who do know Him live for Him and speak for Him, there is a light shining in the darkness, bringing truth to those who perish in ignorance – not knowing God, not knowing His word, not knowing the Christ who is mighty to save. We who know Him today were once ignorant as well. Our ignorance was not bliss! We were perishing in sin. If you know Him, remember what it was like to not know Him, and let that memory of our former ignorance compel us to bring the knowledge of God in Christ through His Word to all who still perish in spiritual ignorance. What they don’t know can destroy them. May we know Him make Him known by living in His truth and speaking it in love to as many who have ears to hear.

[1] http://www.thomasgray.org/cgi-bin/display.cgi?text=odec. Accessed May 23, 2013.
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senator,_you%27re_no_Jack_Kennedy. Accessed May 23, 2013.
[3] Cited in Robert H. Mounce, “John,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke – Acts, Vol. 10 (Revised Edition; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 10:462.
[4] http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey-Who-Knows-What-About-Religion.aspx. Accessed May 24, 2013. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Judging with Righteous Judgment (John 7:14-24)

We are surrounded by many voices on all sides, saying many different and opposing things. It’s true of politics, with those on the right saying one thing, those on the left saying the absolute opposite, and we have to figure out who to believe. It’s true of social issues, with one side loudly shouting that they are in the right, and the other side shouting just as loudly that we ought to side with them. With so many voices swirling around, it can be hard to know whose voice to believe. I once saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that said, “I just do what the voices in my head tell me to do.” A man walking beside of her had on a matching t-shirt that said, “I just do what the voices in my wife’s head tell me to do.” Well, I mean, at least they were making it work, you know.  

There are plenty of voices competing for our attention in matters of religion as well. There are people on one side saying God is there and people on another side saying that He is not. Well, either He is or He isn’t, and it seems that there is a lot riding on the matter. There are people on one side saying that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and people on another side saying that He isn’t. If heaven is what the Bible says it is, and hell is what the Bible says it is, I can’t think of a more important matter to resolve in your mind than this. Which voice you believe can determine where you will spend an infinite eternity! Who should we trust? Who should we believe? Who is telling the truth? Is anyone telling the truth? It seems that today, the more popular question is, “Why does it even matter?” Well, I should say that when it comes to some issues, it matters a great deal. And it never matters more than when it comes to spiritual matters.

In our text today, we find a crowd of people “stuck in the middle.” On the one side is Jesus. He’s teaching in the Temple during the midst of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. What’s He saying? Well, we aren’t told what He was saying, but whatever He was saying, it provoked the religious authorities, who were already angry and incensed over the things Jesus has said and done. So over here, you have Jesus saying, “I am telling you the truth, and you should believe Me.” And over there, you have these leaders saying, “No, don’t believe a word He says! We are telling the truth and He is lying.” And here’s this whole crowd of people stuck in the middle trying to figure out who to believe. And given the nature of these matters – who God is and what He is like; what it takes to get to heaven; and things of this sort – it’s kind of a big deal to figure out who we should believe. That means that a judgment call has to be made.

Now, in our day, we like to say that we shouldn’t be judgmental. Once upon a time, the most beloved Bible verse among average people was probably John 3:16. These days, it seems that it has been usurped by Matthew 7:1 – “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” The only thing people today are comfortable judging is judgmentalism. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong, except saying that something is right or wrong, then that is just wrong. You might have discovered that it is absolutely impossible to live for ten minutes in this world without making judgments. You go through life just like everyone else does, deciding that some things are true and some things are false, some things are right and some things are wrong, some things are good and some things are bad. But do we do with Jesus’ words that we should not judge lest we be judged? It’s really interesting that in that entire context of Matthew 7, Jesus is talking about making judgments. You’ve got to make judgments about the logs in your own eye and the specks in your brother’s eye. You’ve got to make judgments about what things are holy, and who are the swine that you should not give the holy things to; what things are pearls and who the dogs are that you should not throw them to. You’ve got to decide what are stones and what is bread, what are fish and what are serpents, before you give them to your children. You’ve got to make a judgment about which gate to choose, the narrow one or the broad one. You’ve got to make a judgment about who are sheep and who are wolves, and who are wolves in sheep’s clothing; who are the true prophets and who are false prophets, what is good fruit and what is bad fruit. He goes on to talk about how He will make a judgment between those who know Him and those who do not. And Matthew 7 concludes with a parable about building your house on a rock or on sand. You’ve got to make a judgment about whether or not you are building your life on the solid rock of His word or the shifting sand of other ideas. So, after saying “Do not judge, so that you will not be judged”, Jesus speaks for 28 verses about the necessity of making judgments.

We have to wonder, could we have misunderstood what Jesus meant? I think we have! It seems that Jesus is condemning a judgmental spirit that is always out to condemn others without realizing our own daily need for God’s mercy. This is the person who sees himself or herself as self-righteous and everyone else who doesn’t live up to their standards as wicked. This is the person who is on a relentless hunt for heretics, oblivious to their own false beliefs and character flaws. In short, He’s condemning people who think like the Pharisees and religious leaders of Israel instead of people who have Gospel-saturated hearts. If we recognized our own need for mercy, we would be more inclined to give it to others. That is Gospel-living! But nowhere does Jesus say that we should naively go through life accepting every voice and moral choice as good and valid. He says the opposite of this on so many occasions!

And He says it here. There’s a crowd of people caught in the cross-fire between Himself and the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and Jesus is not telling the crowd, “Well, who’s to say who is right and who is wrong? Let’s just live and let live, and agree to disagree.” No, on the contrary, He is saying, “OK folks, I am saying one thing and they are saying another, so which one are you going to believe?” Jesus says in verse 24, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” There is a moral and theological discernment that is demanded in order to make sense of the swirling opinions surrounding us on all sides. We are not to make these judgments based on external appearances only. This is a very serious and severe matter. We must examine the matter carefully, spiritually, and biblically, and then based on our understanding of God’s truth, we have to make a judgment. So, how do we do that? How were they to determine which side of the argument to believe? Jesus gives them three criteria to use to determine whether or not they should listen to Him with faith and obedience, or reject Him and side with the religious officials.

I. What are His credentials?  (vv15-17)

When someone makes a claim about something, it should be a natural instinct for us to wonder what authority they have to make such a claim. Often we see and hear celebrities in the news spouting off about matters of national politics, global economics, and social issues, and we should ask, “On what grounds do they make these claims? Why should we listen to them?” Does the fact that someone knows how to play the guitar mean that we should listen to them about who to vote for in the election? Just because someone is a good actor, should we side with them on the issue of marriage laws? That is kind of what is going on here. Jesus was becoming something of a celebrity in that day. The previous verses indicate that everyone in Jerusalem was talking about Him. So when He stands to teach in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, saying things that contradict the long and strongly held opinions and traditions of the Jewish religious leaders, these leaders begin to question His credentials.

We read here in verse 15 that the Jews were astonished. Using context as our guide, we know that “the Jews” here refers to the Jewish authorities – those political and religious leaders in Jerusalem who held the nation under the control of their own traditions and interpretations of the Law; the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priests, the scribes, the Sanhedrin. And we know that the kind of astonishment that these people felt was not the kind that accompanies faith. No, they were astonished that He had the audacity to stand and teach in the temple. They say, “How has this man become learned, having never been educated.” Basically, what they mean is, “You can’t believe a word He says, because He hasn’t even been to rabbinical school.” When the traditional rabbis of that day taught, they would undergird their claims and arguments with quotations of rabbis and scribes that had gone on before. They would often boast of how they had studied under someone of prominence. Before He was converted to be a follower of Jesus, the Apostle Paul had studied under the esteemed Jewish rabbi Gamaliel. And as an accommodation to this traditional method of teaching, when Paul proclaims his own testimony to the hostile crowds at the Jerusalem temple in Acts 22, he says, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today.” He said this because he knew there would be people in the crowds saying, “Why should we listen to this jackleg preacher?” So, just as one of their rabbis would do, Paul gave his credentials: “I am a graduate of Gamaliel Seminary.” He knew that would open the ears of some of them. But Jesus never studied under any other rabbis. He never quoted them. He never appealed to them for the support of His claims. Rather, Jesus said things like, “You have heard it said … but I say to you….” He always appealed to His own divine authority to substantiate His claims. And when He spoke, it was as if He was saying, “You have all these teachers, with all these letters after their names, and all these degrees from prestigious institutes who have learned under renowned scholars. Well, I say that you should not believe them, but believe Me instead.” It is not hard to imagine the astonishment of the religious leaders and their outrage at this.

So, Jesus, if you want us to take you seriously, tell us where you got your diploma and who you studied under and what famous teachers influenced your thinking? Or are you just making this stuff up and pulling it out of your own head? Jesus responds to their question by saying, “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me.” Do you see what He is doing here? He is saying, “No, I didn’t attend your seminaries or study under your scholars. But I was sent here by God, My Father, from heaven, and I appeal to Him as the only authority I need. You want me to appeal to a great scholar for proof of My claims? OK, fine, I appeal to the God who sent Me.” Now, we might think this is some kind of sledgehammer argument that Jesus is trying to make: “You say this but I say that, and God told me to say it, so there!” But Jesus knows better than this. He knows that this kind of “God told me” reasoning is invalid. It didn’t take me long as a pastor to discover the kind of folks that I affectionately call the “God told me” crowd. I would say something in a sermon or in a meeting, and someone would immediately counter with “Well, God told me ….” And they would expect me to just roll over and play dead because they threw out the “God told me” card. But here’s the thing, and this is what Jesus is saying to the leaders here: If you are going to say “God told me,” then what God told you better line up with God has revealed in His word. Otherwise, God didn’t tell you that.

Jesus says in verse 17, “If anyone is willing to do His will,” that is, the will of His Father, God, who sent Him, “he will know of the teaching whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.” This is a fascinating statement. Where do we discover God’s will? It is revealed in His Word. And these Jewish officials prided themselves on the possession and meticulous study of the Mosaic Law. It was not that they did not what the Word said. Jesus says that their problem is that they have not committed themselves by faith to the doing of God’s Word. They have set themselves up as intellectual referees over God’s Word, and God’s Word to them is not what it says, but rather what they say that it means. The Word of God had become for them an artifact of academic analysis, and not the life-giving breath of God that not only sets out what to believe, but also how to live. If they were committed to believing God’s word rather than merely analyzing it, and doing God’s will rather than merely trying to expound upon it, then they would understand that the things that Jesus was saying to them were perfectly in line with what God had revealed. But this would also require a confession that they had missed the boat! And this is something that their pride made them unwilling to do.

Now there are many points of practical application here. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is an epistemological reality here that we have to comprehend. What is truth and how can we know it? People talk about this as if there were some sort of ivory tower that we could climb, and from it we could gain a bird’s eye view of “reality” from the outside that would enable us to decide truth from falsehood. But the thing is, we cannot get “outside” of reality in order to study it. We study it from within it. And so what Jesus is saying here is that divine revelation can only be assessed from the inside.[1] As we accept God’s word as truth by faith, and commit ourselves to practicing it, that truth authenticates itself in our hearts as the Spirit of God affirms it, and we begin to see the truthfulness of it play out in our experiences. As C. S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[2] As we believe and do God’s Word, we see the truth of it, and the truthfulness of all that corresponds to it.

Second, this tells us that the mere focus on “credentials” is a matter of external judgment, not righteous judgment. For instance, there are some who make certain assumptions about me based on the churches that licensed and ordained me, the schools from which I graduated and the degrees I hold. I was told when I came to this church by someone, “I read your resume, so I know that you are this-and-that kind of person and that you will do such-and-such.” To some, that was maybe a bad thing, and to others a good thing. But, my credentials on paper do not really say anything about the person I am. One of the most popular writers of our day on the subject of the Bible and the Christian faith is a man who holds a prestigious position at a prestigious university, a PhD from Princeton Seminary (magna cum laude, no less), who studied under the foremost New Testament scholar of the last century. And yet, this man is not a believer! He rejects the claims of Christ and the authority of the Bible. If we judged him by his credentials, we might think that we should believe every word he says. Jesus here warns us to beware of that kind of thinking. Before we believe what a man says about God and the Bible, we must ask where he stands with the God of the Bible. I would rather take the word of an elderly widow who has spent her lifetime on her knees before God and worn out the pages of her Bible with her own tears than this man, because her teachings come from God. Don’t believe what I say simply because I have an advanced academic degree. Rather, be like those Bereans of whom Paul said that they “received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” What Jesus says of Himself here is true of everyone else in the world: Don’t accept or reject someone’s claims just because of the credentials they present. Check the Scriptures – the very Bible that you have committed yourself by faith to believe and to obey – and see if the things being said resonate with God’s revealed truth.

Jesus is saying here that if you want credentials, He can give them to you. His teachings come from God, and if you were committed to believing and doing what God has revealed, you would recognize that. That’s part of judging with righteous judgment. It is rooted not in credentials alone, but in commitment to believe God’s word and do His will.

Now, the second issue we see here about judging with righteous judgment is …
II. What is His motive?
Some years ago, I was in the market for a vehicle. I was talking to some folks in the church we were serving at that time, and one of the members was a salesman for a local dealership. He told me how the make of vehicles that he sold was the finest on the road and certainly the best option available to us. Now, another guy in our church was a mechanic, and not knowing what the other guy had said, he told me, “One thing I can tell you for sure is to stay away from this particular kind of car (the same one the salesman told me I should buy) because before you get 60,000 miles on it, you’re going to need major repairs.” Well, who do I believe? I have to look at motive. The one guy has a vested interest in me buying that car, because he’s going to get commission and sales credit for it. Now, the other guy, might have reason to agree – he knows I am going to bring it to him when it breaks down, and he’s got a guarantee of future business if he encourages me to buy a clunker. But in spite of that, out of love for me, he warned me against it, even if it means that buying a better car means less business for his garage. So I took the mechanic’s advice because I trusted his motives.

Well, Jesus says here that part of judging with righteous judgment involves examining the motives. Who should we believe? Jesus or the religious authorities? Jesus gives a litmus test for motives here in v18. He says, “He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but He who is seeking the glory of the One who sent Him, He is true.” In other words, “Am I out to promote Myself and bring glory to Myself? Do I have a vested interest in saying these things?” I mean, the things that Jesus was saying were about to get Him killed! If He was really interested in self-promotion, He’d change His tune a little and say things that were easier on the ears. But Jesus never altered His message for the sake of popular opinion. He was not seeking His own glory. Rather, He was seeking the glory of His Father, who sent Him. So, He had to speak the truth of the Father at all costs, even at the cost of His own life. Had Jesus been seeking His own glory, He would have taken His brothers’ advice earlier in this chapter, and gone into Jerusalem to do a little miracle-working sideshow. But He came in secret, and was doing no miracles here, just teaching people the words of His Father. Though in His divine nature, Jesus was all-glorious and had every right to seek and promote His own glory, this was a right He never exercised. We see Jesus in humility and meekness, going to “the least of these,” interfacing with the poor and the desperate rather than pandering to the rich and powerful. And this He did because He sought the glory of His Father rather than His own. He spoke powerfully and truthfully the Word of the Lord, even when it was not popular, even when it got Him in trouble, because He could do nothing other than that. Anything other than this would have not glorified His Father.

Now, there is a veiled accusation here. In contrast to Jesus, whose glory were the religious leaders of Israel seeking? While Jesus said of Himself that birds have nests and foxes have holes, but He has nowhere to lay His head, some of these guys had gotten rich, and all of them had gained power, by virtue of their position. They had a vested interest in keeping Israel under their thumbs. Jesus says of them in Matthew 6 that when they give, they sound a trumpet so that everyone will know how much they gave and they will be honored by men. When they pray, they make sure everyone can see them and hear them. In Mark 12 He says that they love to walk around in long robes and receive respectful greetings in the marketplaces, and to be invited to hold the seat of honor at banquets. When Mark records for us the story about Jesus seeing the widow who gave her last mite to the temple, it was not in order to guilt you into giving more money. It was to illustrate the fact that these charlatan priests and religious leaders were fattening their own pockets at the expense of the poorest of people. Jesus said that they “devour widow’s houses.” Who’s glory are they seeking? It should have been evident to all that they were seeking their own glory.

What did Jesus have to gain, personally, by saying the things He said and challenging the religious institution of Jerusalem in the way that He did? If these things were not true, He had no motive to say them. He was not seeking His own glory. But what did the religious leaders stand to lose if the people started believing Jesus? In short, everything: their wealth, their power, their prominence! Jesus threatened their livelihood and luxury, and therefore, out of concern for their own glory, they had a great motive to silence Him. Jesus’ only motive was to glorify His Father.

What can we draw from this? First, we should beware of people who are only telling us what they want us to hear. The prophets of Israel warned the people against those false prophets who were crying out, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. There are people on television today telling you that God’s greatest desire for you is to be healthy and wealthy, and then they tell you that if you believe that, you can prove it by sending your money to them. There are few people in the world who have ever gotten rich off of preaching the pure, unadulterated truth of God’s word. A few years ago, when I was preaching through Mark, I came to a text that I didn’t want to preach. I knew that if I preached that text faithfully, it would anger people, that some might leave the church, and the very people whose tithes and offerings pay my salary. What could I do? Could I adulterate God’s word to be more palatable to the audience? If I were interested in my own glory, that is exactly what I would have done. But if I know that I have to stand before God and give account for my life, my doctrine, and my ministry, then I have to tell the truth, regardless of the outcome. The same is true for you. There will be times that you have to take unpopular stands. You will face a great temptation to water down the truth in order to please people. But, if you are intent on seeking the glory of God, you know that you cannot do that. You will have to stand firm and speak truth. But you won’t do that if you are seeking your own glory. You will say what you have to say to tickle itching ears and make yourself look better in the eyes of others. I’m so thankful Jesus didn’t do that. We can have full confidence in His word, knowing that He spoke the truth of God, even at the cost of His life, so that we can know God’s truth and be set free. If you are going to judge righteously, you won’t look at the external things, like your own self-interests or those of another. You’ll look at the motives underlying the issues, and you will trust the one who speaks with a pure motive.

III. What is His character?

We have to remember that the antagonism toward Jesus that we see on display here is not something new. In the early verses of this chapter, it says that they were seeking to kill Him. Why would they want to kill Jesus? Well, we have to go back a few chapters to His last visit to Jerusalem and the surrounding region to find out why. In chapter 5, Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years. Well, what could be wrong with that? He did it on the Sabbath – the day of rest which God had prescribed for humanity in His Law. The religious leaders of Israel had been so obsessed with keeping the Sabbath Law that they had determined 39 categories of work which were forbidden. Bottom line, you couldn’t do anything, at all, on that day. And by healing the man, they claimed that Jesus had broken the Sabbath. By commanding the man to arise and carry his mat, they claimed that He had also led the man to break the Sabbath as well. And then, as if that weren’t enough, Jesus claimed that He had the right to do that because He was God. And John 5:18 says, “For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.”

So, the accusation is that Jesus is a lawbreaker – He has broken the Sabbath law, and the blasphemy law. Now, we have to ask, “Is the character of Jesus consistent with the accusation?” Or, is that Jesus is within the Law, and those who are opposed to Him are the lawbreakers? Notice what Jesus says in v19: “Did not Moses give you the Law?” They would all readily affirm this. They prided themselves on possessing the Law of God that came to them through Moses. But Jesus says, “and yet none of you carries out the Law.” He turns the table on them. “You all pride yourselves on having the Law, and yet none of you keeps it perfectly.” Then in verses 21-23, He gives them a comparative case study to illustrate that He has not violated the Law. He says, “I did one deed, and you all marvel.” Of course, He has done many more deeds than one, but there is one that is at issue. What is that one deed? He healed a man on the Sabbath.

He says in v22 that “Moses has given you circumcision.” They would all affirm this. But notice that Jesus exposes their biblical ignorance and says, “No, it not from Moses, but from the fathers.” Circumcision was in the Law of Moses, yes, but it came into practice long before Moses, with Abraham. Now, he says, “on the Sabbath you circumcise a man.” No one would deny this. The Law of circumcision said that a male child had to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. But what if that fell on the Sabbath? Well, the scribes and priests and rabbis had wrestled with this question over the years and had concluded that circumcision, because it predates the Law, also takes precedence over the Law, so it was permissible to circumcise on the Sabbath. They did this all the time. Probably every Sabbath, some Jewish baby was being circumcised somewhere. No one had a problem with it. But Jesus asks, “Are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath?” Now, had this man’s life been in jeopardy, the scribes and priests and rabbis had made a special exception clause. It was permissible to save a life under necessary and urgent conditions on the Sabbath. The Law didn’t say that, though. It was an inference that they made from the Law based on their own opinions and traditions. But, this man had been paralyzed for 38 years. What was one more day? Why couldn’t Jesus just wait another day? If He had, there would be no turmoil. But Jesus is saying here that if it is permissible to perform a procedure on a baby that is not life or death, simply so that the circumcision law would not be broken, why should He not also be permitted to make a whole man well on the Sabbath? You can’t say it is because his life was not in danger – the Law never said that; it’s a man-made exception clause. And who’s to say – perhaps Jesus knew that this might have been the man’s last day of life if he were not healed. But the point is that they care more about the minutia of their own opinions and traditions, all in the name of pseudo-piety, than they do about the well-being of their fellow man. If they truly loved their neighbor as themselves, which the Law also commanded, they would rejoice that Jesus had not passed up the opportunity to good for a suffering man on the Sabbath. That is, if they really cared about the Word of God and their fellow man. So, no, Jesus is no lawbreaker.

Yet on the other hand, what about the religious leaders of Israel? Are they lawbreakers? When Jesus asked them, “Did not Moses give you the Law, and yet none of you carries out the Law?”, there would have been an instinctive protest from these officials. They would insist that they were not lawbreakers. But in order to prove His point, Jesus said, “Why do you seek to kill Me?” I mean, look, the matter of whether or not it is lawful to make a sick man well on the Sabbath might come down to an interpretive difference, but how hard is it to understand Exodus 20:13 – “You shall not murder”? That’s pretty clear-cut, isn’t it? Ah, but they think their killing of Jesus is justified because He is a lawbreaker. But He has just shown them that He is not a lawbreaker. It is them who are guilty of breaking God’s law. He speaks truth; He is seeking the glory of the One who sent Him; and, unlike them, v18 says “there is no unrighteousness in Him.” They are out to kill an innocent man.

Now, in verse 20 the crowd chimes in. They say, “You have a demon!” This is probably not the same kind of thing that the rulers will say about Him later when they accuse Him of being in league with Satan to do the miracles He performed. There’s probably nothing theological about this statement. You could just read this to mean, “You’ve lost your mind!” They say, “Who seeks to kill you?” This is not the leaders denying that this is their intent. This is the crowd, expressing their own disbelief. For the most part, they don’t know that the leaders are out to kill Jesus. Verse 25 indicates that some of the people were aware of the plot, but the bulk of the crowd could not imagine that someone was trying to kill Jesus! Now, don’t you think if the religious leaders had a firm capital case against Jesus, they would have made it known in order to win the support of the crowd? We know from other passages that they were plotting stealthily for fear of an uprising among the people, because they knew that many people thought highly of Jesus. But here, the tide of opinion seems to be shifting. Here’s a guy we used to think highly of, but now He’s gone a little kooky – He thinks everyone’s out to get Him. You know, its only paranoia if everyone is not really out to get you. But here, Jesus hasn’t gone crazy. He knows about the plot to kill Him; its just that the crowd doesn’t.
Well, what are we saying here? That to judge righteously, we have to examine the character of a person. Should the people believe Jesus, or should they believe the religious authorities of Israel? Well, what does the character of their lives say? Jesus demonstrates reverence for God’s Law, but overlooks the man-made traditions surrounding the Law in order to help His fellow man. The authorities would rather be enslaved to the minutia of their own opinions rather than demonstrate concern for another human being, and should anyone threaten their authority or influence over the people, they secretly begin to plot murder.

Now the question comes down to us: Will you side with Jesus or against Him? Will you side with the One who speaks truth, or with those who tell lies about Him? Will you side with the One who seeks the glory of God alone, or with the one who seeks his own glory? Will you side with the one in whom there is no unrighteousness, or with those harbor evil in their hearts? You may wonder, “Well, when will I ever have to make a decision like that?” It will happen more often than you may think. Every time you open the pages of God’s Word, you may find yourself wondering, “Should I believe this? Should I do it?” And of course there will be those who say, “Oh no, don’t believe that, and don’t do that.” Or maybe it is more subtle. When those uncomfortable passages of Scripture come up, we may wonder if we can tweak it or tinker with it to make it suit our own lifestyles and preferences. But Jesus says that if we are committed by faith to believe and do what His Word says, then we will know the truth of it. And then also, every time the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed anywhere in the world, He is on trial, and the judgment is called for. Will we believe Him to be who He claims to be and submit ourselves to Him as Lord? Or will we side with those who say that He is not what He claimed, and that His Word cannot be trusted. Unaware, or perhaps unconcerned with, their own sin multitudes turn away from Him and rally their voices together to crowd out the gospel from our lives. Were they alive in that day, they would have joined in on the plot to put Him to death, even though there was no unrighteousness in Him. But herein lies our only hope. The fact that this perfectly sinless and righteous Jesus was willing to embrace death when He could have escaped it is our hope of glory. Because we are all sinners, from birth prone to untruth, prone to self-glorying, prone to lawbreaking, none of us has a hope of being found acceptable before God and entering heaven. But in the death of the righteous One, the Lord Jesus, He has borne our sins for us that we might be forgiven and made new, made righteous, made whole before God. Just as Jesus healed that paralytic man on the Sabbath, He is still in the life-changing business, and He can change your life today if you turn to Him in faith. Judge Him with righteous judgment and see if He is worthy of your faith. Because, my friends, the day is coming when He will judge you with righteous judgment. He will not merely look at the external matters of your life. He will examine your heart – is there truth therein? Is there purity of motive therein? Is there righteousness therein? Apart from Him, none of these things can be found in any of us. Ah, but in Him, and only in Him, do we find these things imparted to us as we trust Him by faith.

But, don’t take my word for it. Take His word for it. His teachings are not His own, but those of His Father who sent Him. If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching whether it is of God or whether He speaks from Himself. He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but He who is seeking the glory of the One who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 312-313.
[2] C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 140.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What Do You Say About Jesus? (John 7:11-13)

Every year, TIME magazine publishes a list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In order to compile this list, they conduct on online survey in which people choose from a list of candidates and select whether they think that person should or should not be included on the list. Examining this list every year gives us a pretty interesting snapshot of our world and our time. This year’s poll results were released last month, and the person who received the most votes for inclusion also received the most votes for exclusion – in fact, he got more votes to exclusion than he did for inclusion. His name is Mohamed Morsi. Do you know who he is? Since last June, he has held the office of president of Egypt. The person with the second most votes for inclusion was Markus “Notch” Persson. Do you know who he is? He is the creator a video game called Minecraft. If you want to know about that game, just ask my kids. Third on the list was a guy named Kim Dotcom, who created a controversial website called Megaupload. So of the top three vote-getters for inclusion in this list, none of them are people whose names are what we might call “household words.” In fact, you have to drop down to the sixth name on the list to find someone nearly universally recognizable – Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea. Twelfth on the list is Barack Obama, coming somewhat embarrassingly behind martial arts actor Jackie Chan and the Korean one-hit wonder pop star Psy. Well, what do you have to say about Mohamed Morsi? What about Markus Persson? What about Kim Dotcom, or Psy? Maybe you’ve never given them a passing thought. I’m facebook friends with some of you, so I already know what you have to say about Barack Obama. But when we think about the most influential people in the world, I wonder if we might be overlooking the most influential person who ever lived – Jesus Christ. Two thousands years after His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ is still having more of an impact on the world than anyone on TIME magazine’s list. And though there are, sadly, still some places in this world that you can go where the people have never heard of Him, most people in the world have heard at least something about Him, and would have something to say about Him. Though we may have widely differing views about President Obama, Kim John Un, or anyone else on TIME magazine’s list, ultimately those opinions do not matter for eternity. What we have to say about Jesus Christ does. Life and death, heaven and hell, all depend on what we say about Him.

The late James Montgomery Boice describes an incident that took place when the staff of his radio program, The Bible Study Hour, went out into the streets of Philadelphia and asked people, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Among the responses were things like, “Jesus Christ was a man who though he was God.” Some said, “I think that’s something that you have to decide for yourself, but he had some beautiful ideas.” Some said, “He is the one that we look up to as our leader,” while others said, “He is an individual who lived 2,000 years ago, who was interested in the social betterment of all classes of people.” Others said, “He was well-liked; he meant well; he was a good man.” But Boice says that the really interesting thing about this survey was that no one said, “I couldn’t care less.”[1] Everyone surveyed knew that Jesus is someone who matters in history, and had something to say about Him. Of course you realize that not everything everyone has to say about Jesus is true. As R. C. Sproul points out, “people are prone to declare their belief in a Jesus who has nothing to do with the Man depicted in the biblical record.”[2]

Several decades ago, the German liberal theologian Ernst K√§semann argued that we really cannot know anything about the historical Jesus; He may not have existed, for all we know. But K√§semann suggested that the name “Jesus” has become a symbol of human liberation from all forms of oppression. Therefore, if a person believes in the liberation of people from political, racial, or even sexual oppression, then that person really believes in Jesus.[3] That’s just absurd. But that is the kind of radical redefining that takes place among people who have this haunting suspicion that they ought to think positively about Jesus, but the Jesus they meet in Scripture is at odds with their ideology. So, rather than changing their ideology, they attempt to change Jesus into something that fits into their theology. And I regret to say that fifteen years of pastoral ministry has convinced me that even in the pews of Bible-believing, evangelical churches, there are many who do not know what to say about Jesus, or worse, say utterly ridiculous things about Him. And then there are those who say nothing about Him when it matters most.

When we come to this brief text that we have read in the seventh chapter of John today, we find several groups of people saying many different things about Jesus. John says that there was “much grumbling among the crowds concerning Him.” Jesus was the buzz in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles. Everyone had something to say about Him. Some of them were saying the same things that people still say about Him today. As we look at what they were saying, we’ll be reminded of things that our friends and family members, public officials, and outspoken groups in our day say about Him. But the most important thing is not what any of them say about Jesus. The most important thing is what YOU say about Him, and whether or not you will say it when it matters most.

I. Some say, “Where is He?”

These days, you will often hear someone say that they are seeking Jesus. But in most, if not all cases, what they are seeking is something that only Jesus can provide, and they are hoping to find it somewhere other than Jesus. After all, if they can acknowledge that they are seeking Jesus, then finding Him will not be difficult at all. He is not playing hide and seek with humanity, as if He did not want to be found. Nothing would please Him more than to be found by you. Jeremiah 29:13 says, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” The fact that someone can say that they are seeking Jesus, but have not yet found Him only confirms what Paul said in Romans 3:11, “There is none who seeks for God.” As C. S. Lewis said, “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’” But, as a former atheist, Lewis said, “To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat. … I had always wanted, above all things, not to be ‘interfered with.’”[4] And Jesus Christ is a great interferer. To truly seek Him is to invite interference with your life. To find Him is to find that interference invading you from all angles.

In verse 11, we read that “the Jews were seeking Him.” Now, that’s not nearly as positive a statement as we might think at first glance. First, by “the Jews,” John means the Jewish authorities – the Pharisees, the chief priests, the Sanhedrin (Jerusalem’s ruling council). They were not seeking Jesus because they thought Him to be the great destination of life’s spiritual journey. Rather, they had a score to settle with Jesus because He had interfered with them. On His last visit to Jerusalem, recorded back in Chapter 5, Jesus had healed a lame man the Sabbath. When they asked Him what right He had to violate the Sabbath by performing miracles on the Sabbath and making this lame man arise and carry His mat on the Sabbath, Jesus simply pointed to His own divine authority. And John 5:18 says, “For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He was not only breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” That is why John 7:1 says that Jesus could go about freely in Galilee but not in Judea. Galilee was under a different jurisdiction. They could not lay hands on Him there; but if He ever returned to Judea, it was their intent to seize Him and put Him to death. They knew that it was His custom to come to Jerusalem for the feast, so they were on the lookout for Him. Verse 10 tells us that He had not come publicly, but in secret. But they knew He had to be there, so they were asking, “Where is He?” Literally, the Greek text reads a little more antagonistically. They are asking, “Where is that man?”, as if they so despise Him that they are unwilling even to speak His name. Which man are they seeking? That one, the one going around meddling with our beliefs and practices and claiming to be God in the flesh. They say, “Where is that man? We want to find Him. He must be around here somewhere, and if we can get ahold of Him we will shut Him up forever!”

This is what some still say about Him. If they have any interest in discussing Christ at all, it is only to raise an argument in order to squash it. We see it in the militant and aggressively anti-Christian movement that calls itself “The New Atheism.” One of the chief spokesmen of that movement is Richard Dawkins of Oxford University. He claims that a serious case could be made that Jesus never really existed at all, though he is reluctant to say that he believes this. And Dawkins also says that if Jesus did exist, “somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today.”[5] This is the same man who believes that all religious belief is the product of a “virus of the mind” that infects the brain of some people.

Unfortunately, Dawkins is not alone in his attack on faith in general and Christian faith in particular. Another New Atheist, Sam Harris, proclaims that the Jesus of Scripture is violent and the God who is His Father is evil. Another, the late Christopher Hitchens added his voice to Harris and Dawkins in agreeing that training up a child in Christian belief is the equivalent of spiritual child abuse. According to this movement, the hope of the human race has to be found in the intellectual extermination of all religious belief. Though New Atheism is not the only movement seeking to silence the voice of Christ in the world, it is of late the most influential one. A surprising number of these critics of Christ in the world today are people who grew up in Christian families and churches. We might wonder, “What happened?” And it is a distinct possibility that in some cases, like with the rulers of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, the Jesus that they came to know was a great interferer. He was met as One who wanted to meddle with their deeply seated beliefs and their cherished behaviors – and not just to meddle, but to entirely overhaul. Rather than bowing the knee to Him as Lord, it became more expedient for them to vehemently renounce Him altogether. But, in all of their vehemence, there is the accidental admission of a singular and undeniable truth: Jesus Christ cannot be ignored. Say what you will about Him, but you must say something about Him. It is a matter of life, death, and eternity.

II. Some say, “He is a good man.”

For the last 2,000 years, the most commonly held opinion about Jesus is the one that is expressed by this group we meet in verse 12. These were saying, “He is a good man.” You have heard this; maybe you have said this. By this statement, those in the crowd are saying something like: “He teaches positive ideals; He lives a good moral life; He has done good things for some people. Thus, He is a good man.” Now, there is truth in this statement, but not the whole truth. Jesus was a good man, but He is so much more than a good man; He is the God-Man. He is fully God, and fully man; not half-and-half, but all-and-all. Remember that this is why the Jewish leaders want to kill Him: He claimed to be equal with God. Now if He truly is God, incarnate in the flesh as a man, then we must recognize that He is certainly a good man. But if we only see Jesus as a good man, and do not recognize Him as God in the flesh, we come up against a serious intellectual and moral conundrum. Good men, who are only good men, do not go about saying the kinds of things that Jesus said. If the things Jesus said are not true, then Jesus is not only not God, He is also not good. He is at best a compulsive liar; at worst, a dangerously deranged madman; a megalomaniac who is plagued with delusions of grandeur.

John Stott said that the “most striking feature of the teachings of Jesus is that He was constantly talking about Himself.” And what is astounding is the kinds of things that Jesus was saying about Himself. Jesus spoke of God as uniquely His own Father. He used a word for God that no one else used. When He spoke to the Father, He called Him abba, a term of intimacy and affection similar to the way a child calls his or her father, “Daddy.” To people of that day, referring to God with this kind of familiarity would have been considered irreverent at best, blasphemous at worst. And Jesus said that if you believe in Him (that is, if you believe in Jesus) then you will be given the right to call God your abba, your Father, as well. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Jesus taught others that the entire Old Testament was written to prepare people to recognize Him as the promised Messiah and to place their complete faith and trust in Him (Luke 24:27). He said that Moses wrote about Him (John 5:46), as did the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:21), and that Abraham believed in Him (8:56), but also even that the Spirit of God and God the Father gave their testimony Him. He commanded others to follow Him, to abandon their families, their jobs, their possessions, and if necessary their lives for His sake. Most astoundingly, He claimed to have the ability to forgive sins, which everyone knows that only God can do. But, you see, He also claimed to be God. He said that God’s Kingdom was His kingdom and that to believe in God was to believe in Him, and vice-versa. He even received the worship and faith that others bestowed upon Him, rather than rebuking them for blasphemy.

Now, you have to say something about those claims. If they are true, but only if they are true, then you can say that He is a good man, but you have to also say that He was so much more than that. You would have to say that He is the God-Man, because that is precisely who He claimed to be. But if those things are not true, then by no means can anyone say that Jesus was a good man. Stott says, “The claims are there. They do not in themselves constitute evidence of deity. The claims may have been false. But some explanation of them must be found. We cannot any longer regard Jesus as simply a great teacher, if He was so grievously mistaken in one of the chief subjects of His teaching, namely Himself.”[6]

Yet, we are surrounded by vast multitudes today who want to insist that Jesus was simply a good man, and nothing more. And that is the one thing that is absolutely impossible to say about Him. These are not the things that good men say unless they are true. And if they are true, then He is a good man, yes, but the God-Man also. I want you to be prepared to explain that to people in your life who think Jesus is just a good man. You must be able to explain to them that this is not an option. If He is good, then He is God. If He is not God, then He is not good. It is as simple as that. Some of you here today perhaps have not recognized this about Jesus. You have a generally positive outlook on Him as a good man, but you have never recognized that He is God in the flesh, who has come down to make atonement for your sins through His death on the cross. I want you to see the absolute folly of that. He cannot be merely a good man. If He is not the God-man, then we have nothing positive to say about Him whatsoever. He was deranged, or else evil, and intent on leading the world astray by His psychotic ramblings about Himself. And we find that there are some who say even this about Him.

III. Some say “He leads the people astray.”

Most of us never had the experience that some Christians around the world have. For many of us, the happiest day of our parents’ lives was the day we gave our lives to Jesus Christ. Here on Mothers’ Day, some of you are able to remember how, like Timothy in the New Testament, we were nurtured in the faith by a godly mother (2 Tim 1:5; Acts 16:1). However, for many in the world, it was not this way; perhaps a few here today can relate. For them, becoming a follower of Christ was something that saddened or shocked their families. Their families were convinced that they had been deceived into believing something false that runs against family tradition or cultural beliefs. Just a few years ago, some of us were involved in a situation with a young international student who found himself in this dilemma of wanting to believe in Christ, but fearful of his family’s reaction to the decision. They were convinced that he’d come to America and fallen into the hands of ill-intentioned Christians who were trying to brainwash him. It is something I have seen this on every international mission trip I have ever been on. For some of us, perhaps, it was not that our parents were concerned that we had become Christians, they just feared that we might somehow be duped into becoming a religious fanatic. I’m not sure how you can be anything other than a fanatical follower of Jesus, unless you have not truly comprehended who He is or what He has done for you, but that is a big fear of some. If you start talking too much about Jesus or spending too much time at church, start doing risky things like traveling to third world countries to share the gospel or reaching out to homeless people, they think you’ve been somehow led astray.

In Jesus’ day there were many who believed that He was out to lead people away from truth – a “truth” that was defined and explained by the religious traditions of Israel and enforced by powerful religious authorities like the Pharisees and Sadducees – into great error. They said of Jesus that He was a charlatan, a conniving trickster, out to gain a following for Himself by leading people astray. This is the polar opposite of those who said He was a good man. This view of Jesus sees Him as the worst possible kind of man.

Now, it must be admitted, that if Jesus was a deceiver, He was a very good one. He managed to live His entire life without anyone being able to point a finger of blame at Him for any wrongdoing. He was able to perform miracles that authenticated the things that He said. And, He had been able to draw a vast multitude of followers to His side. How could He say and do all of these things if it were all merely a smokescreen for some ulterior motive of deception? After all, even Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees and a ruler of the Jews, came to Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (Jn 3:2). Was he deceived as well? How could they explain this? Well, actually, they couldn’t! That’s why eventually they had to resort to saying that He does these things by the power of Satan—that He is demon possessed. It was obvious that He had power, but they did not believe that He could have power from God, so it must be from the devil. Yet, the ironic thing is that Jesus said that it was the Pharisees and religious leaders of Israel who were leading people astray. He said it was them who had lost the true meaning of God’s Word and were seducing people to abandon the truth. He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt 23:15). Well, who’s deceiving whom? In the minds of many, Jesus was the deceiver. And this was a crime punishable under the Law by death (Deut 13:1-11).

Later on, this would become one of the most prevailing opinions among Jewish people about Jesus. The Babylonian Talmud says that Jesus was crucified on Passover Eve because He was a deceiver who practiced sorcery and led Israel astray.[7] The Church Father Justin Martyr of the Second Century noted that the Jews “dared to call Him a magician and a deceiver of the people.”[8] And this is still an opinion held by some today.
But more often, we hear this spoken, not of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, but of His Church. Anti-evangelism laws are on the rise across the globe, and recently there has been renewed discussion in the freedom of American military personnel to share their faith with others. How dare we claim that our beliefs are the exclusive truth and seek to seduce others to follow Jesus? We must have evil motives, they say. We must only be interested in getting their money, or in gaining strength for our movement so that we can have more political or cultural sway. But, these types of statements are not new for the followers of Christ. In the Fourth Century, the North African Bishop Augustine wrote, “If to seduce is to deceive, Christ was not a seducer, nor can any Christian be. But if by seducing you mean bringing a person by persuasion out of one way of thinking into another, then we must inquire what the way of thinking is that you are calling them from and to. If from good to evil, the seducer is an evil person; if from evil to good, he is a good one. If only we were all called, and really were, that sort of seducers!”[9] 

It is not we who aim to deceive. Deception is not what Christ is seeking to do to the world! Rather, Christ has come to announce that the world has been deceived in a myriad of ways by the father of all lies, the devil. Through false belief, corrupted belief, through immorality, through oppressive regimes, and a host of other means, Satan has blinded this world to the truth of Christ, and thus the world replete with deceived people. Christ has not come to deceive, but to deliver from deception. And this is the mission of His church. And if we are going to be faithful to this mission, then we must speak for Christ – openly, publicly, boldly, courageously. And though everyone at the Feast of Tabernacles had something to say about Jesus, speaking openly, publicly, boldly, courageously about Him was something that no one was willing to do.

IV. No one wants to say anything openly about Him.

Notice in verse 13 that John writes, “No one was speaking openly of Him for fear of the Jews.” Again here, “the Jews” refers to those powerful religious and political leaders who controlled every aspect of life in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. So fierce has their hatred of Jesus become, that they will not only persecute those who publicly identify with Him, but there is a fear among the masses that they will come hard and heavy after any and all who, “by their topic of conversation, make Jesus a more important figure” than they wanted Him to be.[10] No one was willing to speak above a hushed tone about Jesus because they were afraid of finding themselves on the wrong side of the authorities. They knew that they were out to kill Jesus; they did not want to find that a cross was awaiting them too. But, if you are a follower of Christ, you have not been called to avoid or escape that cross. You have been called to embrace it. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Lk 9:23; cf. Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34).

For most of us, we have lived our entire lives without this fear or threat. We’ve never had to plan or prepare for a day which could be our last simply because we speak publicly a word about Jesus. But I fear that the present trajectory of our world and, indeed, our nation, casts a shadow of this cross across our lives. The days could be drawing near when speaking publicly and boldly for Christ in America will be a criminal act, as it is in much of the world, and has been for the last 2,000 years. Already, if you speak publicly about the sinfulness of homosexuality, the truthfulness of the Bible, or the exclusivity of Christ, you can expect to be shunned by the world around us. Can the day be far off when it will not be more severe? And yet, I do not say this to inspire panic in your hearts. I say this to encourage and embolden you. Could it be that the days are coming in which God will give American Christians the same opportunity to demonstrate with the ultimate testimony the preciousness of Christ? Our season of exemption from the experience of the majority of Christians in the world and throughout history may be ending within our lifetimes. But if we should see it happen, we must say what we have to say about Jesus openly, publicly, boldly, courageously, no matter the cost. Because in that day, everyone will still be saying something about Christ. Only those who have been redeemed by His cross will be able to give the true testimony that He is who He said He is – the God-Man, by whose death and resurrection alone we may be saved from sin and granted eternal life in heaven in the presence of God. And we must say it loudly and clearly, all the more as those days dawn.

In the year 155, Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was arrested for being a follower of Jesus. When they came to arrest him, they found him resting in his home. Rather than trying to escape, he said simply, “God’s will be done.” He had a meal prepared for his captors and was granted an hour to pray in solitude. Taken into the arena, the Proconsul admonished him, “Reproach Christ, and I will set you free.” In response, Polycarp said with courageous confidence, “86 years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior? … You threaten me with a fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.” God forbid the day should ever come that we find ourselves in Polycarp’s place. But if that day should come, may God give us the courageous faith to say what must be said of Jesus Christ, and to say it boldly and fearlessly.

[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John [Volume 2] (An Expositional Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 554.
[2] R. C. Sproul, John (St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary; Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2009), 131
[3] Sproul, 131.
[4] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1994), 124-125.
[5] http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/10/24/richard-dawkins-jesus-would-have-been-an-atheist/ Accessed May 9, 2013.
[6] John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1971), 23-33.
[7] Cited in D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to Jesus (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 310 fn.1.
[8] Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, LXIX. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html Accessed May 9, 2013.
[9] Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 28.11.
[10] Carson, 310.