Sermon, May 9, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church
We continue this morning to look at John chapter 7, which is the account of Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles. Last week we took a look at the first 18 verses, which you will remember had some surprising things in them—first that Jesus’s brothers did not actually believe in him even though they had constant access to him from the time they were children. Then the surprising way that Jesus goes to the feast, not the normal way which would have invited pomp and circumstance, exactly how his unbelieving brothers wanted him to go. And then the last surprise was Jesus, who went to the feast privately, not to make a fuss, going to the temple and beginning to teach.
And we unpacked the beginning of that scene last week, drawing a real distinction between Jesus and those leaders of the Jews that were there in the temple. All of the disagreements, all of the misunderstandings, all of the ways that they react to him, those are all symptoms of a single fundamental distinction between them. It was that they were seeking their own glory, while Jesus was seeking only the glory of the Father. They sought their own will, Jesus sought only the will of the Father, not even a mixture of the two. And as long as they are seeking their own glory, the conflict will remain, it can’t be set right. And so this conflict continues in the latter part of this encounter, what we will consider this morning. We are going to start with verse 14, and hear the start of this exchange again, and continue on to verse 24. So, John, chapter 7, verses 14-24. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word:
14 About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. 15 The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” 16 So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. 17 If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. 18 The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood. 19 Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” 20 The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?” 21 Jesus answered them, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it. 22 Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. 23 If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man's whole body well? 24 Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
The Word of the Lord.
Well, things are ratcheting up here, are they not? In the previous part of this discussion, Jesus, as we said, calls them out on their poor motives. They sarcastically say that Jesus can’t possibly be spouting anything but his own opinion, because he didn’t study with them. And Jesus retorts back saying that if you really were seeking to honor God, and not yourselves, you would know that everything I am teaching here is true. If you really knew God, you would recognize sound doctrine. He says it right there in verse 17:
17 If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.
And before we go on to the rest of the text, we should pause here a moment and dwell on this instruction from Jesus, because it is an instruction to all of us, we should be mindful of it every day. I mentioned this only briefly last week, but if our job is to seek only the will of God, where do we find that? Well, we find it here in the bible. That is the only thing that we can be sure of.
And we don’t have to have it all figured out all at once, our whole lives should be ones of learning, of unfolding, of trying to find out more and more about God from His Word. We try to sharpen our doctrine as much as we can, and there are still things that remain a mystery. It’s important for all of us, but especially for our children to be able to recognize sound doctrine, doctrine that aligns with what the scripture teaches, and that should be a lifelong pursuit. Jesus says here, if our wills are aligned with God, we will know what is sound and what is not. We will know what is true and what is not. And the path to aligning our wills with God’s will is to live in the Word, to study it diligently, to come together here on Sundays and other times to study it and unfold it together. When you step back and think about that for a second, it is kind of daunting, I feel like I don’t have enough time in my entire life to think as deeply about all of this as I should, to study as much as I should, if I am to align my will with God’s.
There is another side to it as well, that just as important as it is that we know what we believe, it is equally important to know what we don’t believe, the positive assertions and the denials. The words that we say in the Nicene Creed or in the Westminster Confession, or the Catechism, we should know not only what those things are saying, but also what they are not saying. We need to know them so well that we can recognize things that don’t align. I remember a pretty funny Babylon Bee article from a couple of years ago that was titled “Worship leader commits 47 heresies in 30-second prayer.” And the excerpts of the prayer that they wrote was full of prayer-sounding words, but just all jumbled up, like “Send the Father down in power now, and let your Son fill this place as we glorify the Spirit now, Lord Jesus.” And the article was hilarious, but I wonder if some of the humor was lost on many people reading it because they didn’t recognize what was specifically wrong with it.
That’s an extreme example, but I think there is a lot of bad doctrine going around a lot of churches in this country because people don’t know and don’t seek out exactly what the bible says. My words from this pulpit should be tested against scripture constantly. If I am out of line with scripture, let me know immediately.
So where does the bad doctrine come from? Most of the time it stems from one of the two systems that we use to form opinions and make decisions—one of those is logic, and the other is feelings. People allow their feelings to trump scripture constantly, do they not? Think back to the hard sayings of Jesus when we were talking about predestination a few weeks ago. The bible says it, so I must believe it. Sometimes a passage needs to be made more clear by referencing and analyzing it in the light of other teachings, but the result is the same. The bible is the bar by which we measure the bible, and we don’t do that by feeling our way through passages, we do it by hearing what God says and believing it. A great quote from Calvin on this issue, of aligning our will with God’s so that we can judge rightly:
“We must notice how Christ wants us to form judgments on any doctrine. He wants us to receive without argument what is from God, but lets us reject freely whatever is of man. For this is the only mark he sets out for us to distinguish doctrines by.”
Receive without argument what is from God, reject freely whatever is of man. That doesn’t mean that everything that is from man is out of line with scripture, but we can never elevate what a man says about God’s will and his scriptures to the point that it is treated with equal weight as the bible itself. Seek only the will of God, search the scriptures, and you will know true truth. Look through the letters of Paul to the churches, what was he talking about the vast majority of the time? Most of the time he wasn’t correcting behavior, he was correcting doctrine. What the churches believed about God was his primary concern.
So what of feelings? Feelings are very valuable, vital even, in this life of faith. What we were just talking about, taken to an extreme, can lead to a faith that is precise in its doctrine, but lifeless. If all I ever do is obtain an analytical knowledge of the bible, that does not save me. Even if I could write books and preach sermons that were completely in line with sound doctrine, that doesn’t save me. Even if I can recognize heresy whenever I hear it, that will not save me. I also need to love my Savior, I need to feel his love. It’s not enough to know about Jesus, because knowing him and trusting him are two different things. It is falling down on our knees in prayer and asking for the blessings of faith, that feeling, that knowledge that these words are true. So, both/and. Head knowledge and heart knowledge at the same time.
These are the kinds of people that Jesus is continuing to deal with in the rest of the passage, those with only head knowledge. They seek knowledge of the law for their own glory, not to know God. They want to follow all of the rules that they can, not because in doing so God is glorified, but because they are.
So in the latter part of the passage, Jesus continues to challenge them in that way, how they may know but don’t understand the law. What Jesus talks about is of course referencing the last time that he was in Jerusalem, when he healed the man who had been lame for over thirty years. If you remember, he healed the man by the pool of Bethesda, instantly, and then he told the man to take up his mat and walk. And so the man did.
When the man encountered the Jewish leaders, who knew that he had been healed, what should their reaction have been? They should have been amazed, they should have rejoiced in witnessing a miraculous healing. I know I would have been shocked at that, and would have said a prayer of thanksgiving. But they didn’t do that, did they? Their reaction was to be shocked that the man had been told to carry a mat on the Sabbath. And when they confronted Jesus about it, they were so angry that he had done a work of healing on the Sabbath, and caused a man to “sin” in their eyes by carrying a mat, they were so angry that they sought to kill him. Totally backwards.
And so Jesus is back in Jerusalem now, and he knows this is out there, and he confronts them on this point, that they claim to know the law, but then they don’t keep it. He says
19 Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” 20 The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?”
“You have a demon” was a common colloquial phrase at the time, meaning not much more than “you must be crazy.” Another great example of the warm and fuzzy Jesus that everyone thinks is represented in the gospels, but isn’t real, right? Right to their faces, Jesus goes after their dedication to their hero: You have the law of Moses, he says, but none of you keep it. You have such a high esteem for Moses and the law received through him, but you don’t keep it. You think they do, but you don’t. That stings a bit, doesn’t it? And then Jesus proves their hypocrisy by asking them why they seek to kill him. He says, even now you are planning to murder me, an innocent man. You are so mad at me over what you think was a violation of the fourth commandment, all the while you are planning to break the sixth commandment yourselves and murder me. Warm, fuzzy Jesus.
There is a mix of people in this audience, though, so they respond with shock, you’re crazy, who is looking to kill you? We know from the earlier in the passage that Jerusalem was full of muttering about Jesus, some positive and some negative, so there would have been a mixture of people there. But Jesus’s quarrel here is with the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders, who have all the head knowledge, they think, but do not actually understand the law.
After calling them out on seeking to kill him, Jesus doesn’t continue on that point, he goes back to their primary disagreement, that of the Sabbath.
21 Jesus answered them, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it.
That one work he is referring to is of course the healing of the lame man. They marvel at it, for all the wrong reasons that we’ve already mentioned. He goes on then to show that they are terribly inconsistent in their application of the Sabbath law that they accuse Jesus of violating. He says
22 Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. 23 If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man's whole body well?
He says that if you think what I did on the Sabbath was sinful, then you break the Sabbath all the time. An example, you have a law that says that a child must be circumcised on the eighth day, and that law predates Moses, it was given to Abraham. So every boy born on a Sabbath would by law need to be circumcised on the following Sabbath, and Jesus is saying you do that. You circumcise on the Sabbath. When those two things conflict with each other, circumcision wins. Jesus is not saying that they are sinning by doing that, he actually is affirming it, it is right that they circumcise on the Sabbath.
But then Jesus says, with that in view, “are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?” Circumcision is seen as the cleansing of a single part of the person, it is symbolically a healing act. So Jesus says, hey, that’s the same category, and what’s more, I healed not just part of a man, but his whole body. If I am guilty of what you accuse, then you are too. And then he closes the issue by saying:
24 Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
Jesus is inviting them to think bigger. He’s telling them that they don’t understand the Sabbath. They create all of these rules around the Sabbath and as he says, they are judging by appearances, not right judgment. This is where the passage returns to the theme of the whole encounter, that you are to align yourself with the will of the Father, that’s what you should be seeking. All of these statements point back to that, to humbly doing the work of the Father. In this one paragraph, he points everything back to the Father, over and over again:
My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.
The one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true
Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right (or righteous) judgment.
So we come to apply this to our lives, and we’ve already done a little of that, talking about how we should live in the Word so that our doctrine is true. In a lot of these stories, the application is simple, be like Jesus, don’t be like the Pharisees. That’s the simple way of looking at it. So what does that look like, what errors should we be watching out for and what in Jesus should we be earnestly seeking? Jesus and the Pharisees end up looking like a point-counterpoint. And that point-counterpoint shows us how we should approach this living in the Word, this seeking the will of God and receiving true doctrine from God. On one hand, in Jesus we have the perfect example of how to do that, how to live like a Christian. And on the other, we have the Pharisees who are screwing it up. So what do we see?
In the Pharisees, or the Jews, those who are seeking to kill Jesus, there’s one thing we don’t see, and that is a lack of time spent studying the scriptures, right? They actually are in them so much that it is this amazing evidence of their piety, but it is all useless. It’s the leaves on the fig tree that has no figs. They search the scriptures to create lists of rules for themselves, rules that will make them more pious. On the surface, that sounds good. We too should spend more time in prayer, more time reading God’s Word—do any of us really do it enough? But what is their heart as they approach the scripture? Their heart is what Jesus mentioned before, their heart is to increase their own glory. They follow rules to increase their standing with man, not with God. This approach is the root of so much legalism in the church, is it not?
I’ve mentioned this before, but I remember an assignment when I was in high school where we were to keep track of all of our time for a week, so that we could come back to bible class the next week and analyze our week, dividing it into “God” time and non-“God” time. Time spent on Christian things and time spent on non-Christian things. What a terrible assignment. I remember I was supposed to feel guilty because I didn’t have church on Wednesday nights and wasn’t part of a youth group. So my friends in the class were automatically ahead of me in that category.
That’s the heart of the Pharisee toward the law of God, always earning, always increasing their stature among men. When Jesus accuses them of breaking the Sabbath, that must sting pretty badly (we know it did, because it made them want to kill him), it must sting because they are trying to fill up their plus column, so you have to keep that negative column as empty as possible.
Contrast that with Jesus. We see in Jesus one thing that guides it all, humility. No glory for Jesus in these stories. He says over and again, the Father, the Father, the Father. He doesn’t want to do the will of the Father because it brings him any glory. It doesn’t raise his stature with men, in fact it will lead to him being killed, but he follows the Father’s will because it is the best will, the only way to life.
We talked about being serious about our doctrine before, how correcting bad doctrines was Paul’s main focus in the letters, and why is that? Because in the end it’s not about rules, it’s all about the Father. If you love God, if you are passionate about doing the will of the Father, then seeking to follow his law is what you love. Rules are not punitively imposed on you—don’t drink, don’t dance, etc. etc.—Christian disciplines come to you not as rules but as your greatest joy. Living in the scriptures, living a life of constant prayer, being with God’s family, dwelling on the promises of the future, that all becomes your greatest love, your greatest joy. It is your primary focus, everything else fades into the background. And all of that focus, all of that love does not come from within you, but is a gift from God, so we should pray fervently for that love, that passion to do the Father’s will.
There are these posters at the college that are meant to give people encouragement and life tips and what not. And the stated purpose of the posters, emblazoned on the top is the phrase “build a life worth living,” as if a life worth living is something that you build, that you assemble, that you plan for, that you work at. But the truth is there is only one life worth living, and that is one in humble service to the Father, just like Jesus. There are no real treasures here. If you’re not living a life united to Christ, a life focused on doing the Father’s will, you’re simply not living a life worth living. It’s not something you need to build, it’s something you need to accept. We see a lot of life-building in the Pharisees, our negative example, and we see only humble servanthood in Christ. That’s the life worth living and there is no other. So run to your Savior, fall at his feet, and lay down in front of him all of your sins, all of your earthly desires, your treasures, your feelings, everything, and say that’s the life I want. St. Patrick got it right, looking at this life, the one worth living,
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We come to you humbly this morning, knowing that we can’t do any of this by ourselves. Remind us of that constantly. This faith is not a partnership, where we both bring something to the table, it is servanthood. To you all the glory and to us all the humility. Hear our prayers and continue to teach us about yourself through your Word and through the Spirit opening our eyes to it. Bless us as we worship today in this place and as we do so with the rest of our lives. In Jesus’s precious name, amen.