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. 

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