Judging Jesus

John 7

5 March 2006

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


What's the most important question you've ever been asked?

For Judith Keppell, the original winner of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, it may have been "Which king was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine?" . (It's Henry II, by the way, but there are no prizes today for getting that.)

For my wife, Penny, it was probably a question I asked, "Will you marry me?" . She botched the answer first time round, but I gave her another chance and happily she got the right answer second time—and won the prize.

Likewise, a clergyman a few months after that asked me, "Will you take this woman to be your wife?" . I got that right first time.

I'm sure we can all think of exam questions, or job interview questions we've faced that would have affected our lives drastically if we'd given a different answer.

Some questions are life-changing, aren't they? And our passage today, John chapter 7, confronts us with one of those life-changing questions: the question of "who is this Jesus?" The question of Jesus' identity is woven through the chapter, and everyone has an opinion.

The scene is set in verses one and two. Jesus had been up in Jerusalem some months earlier in chapter 5 when he had healed a man on the sabbath. Since then he had returned home to Galilee, knowing that the religious leaders in Jerusalem were on the look out for him to kill him if they found him.

But now the Feast of the Tabernacles has arrived, which was the greatest of the three major Jewish festivals each year. It took place in the autumn and every devout Jew who was able would go up to Jerusalem for the week. Whilst there they would spend eight days remembering and celebrating God's provision for them whilst they had been wandering in the desert centuries earlier. So they lived for the week in booths they made out of branches. It was a kind of camping holiday; a first-century Keswick Convention.

This year there was more excitement than usual. There was a stir; a buzz about the place, verse 12, Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about himref. Jesus had made quite a splash last time he'd been in Jerusalem, and the people were keen to know what he'd get up to this time. Verse 11, Now at the feast the Jews were watching for him and asking, "Where is that man?"ref. But all the time the real question was, "Who is that man?"

And between verses 1 and 24 we find at least five different answers to that question.

There were Jesus' brothers in verse 3 who saw his work only in worldly terms. "You need to go up to Jerusalem if you want to be someone important" , they told him. "You'll never get anywhere hanging around in Galilee" , verse 4. Jesus for them was potentially a great leader, a public figure—they'd seen his life and his character and his power, and concluded that he was destined for greatness. But they were completely unaware that he had his own agenda, set by his own Father, verse 8 I am not yet going up to this Feast, because for me the right time has not yet comeref. Verse 5, Even his own brothers did not believe in himref.

In verse 12 we find some of the crowd saying "He is a good man"ref, but equally others are saying "he is a bad man" , No, he deceives the peopleref. So that's three views.

In verse 15 we find a fourth: he is a great teacher. Jesus began to teach and The Jews were amazed and asked "How did this man get such learning without having studied?"ref

And a fifth view is displayed in verse 20, where some clearly think he's mad: "You are demon-possessed" the crowd answered.ref

Five views of Jesus. What do you think of him?

It's a well-rehearsed observation that if you'd actually listened to Jesus' teaching so far in John's gospel, you'd have been pretty much bound to end up at either the third or the fifth views—that Jesus is either bad or he is mad.

Let me explain what I mean. Last week we looked at chapter 6 where Jesus claims some truly extraordinary things. Just have a quick look with me. Chapter 6 verse 35 Then Jesus declared, I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.ref Verse 38 I have come down from heaven...ref Verse 44 No-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.ref Verse 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.ref

Are these really the words of a great teacher? Are these really the words of a good man? Since when has promising false hope been counted great teaching? If I said these words to you, you would hardly conclude that I was good. No, these can only be the words of a liar or a lunatic, can't they? Those who said so in the crowd had to be right. It's the only logical conclusion. Unless, and only unless, the words are true. Unless he really is God in human flesh.

So, the people had a wide range of views of him then, and people have a wide range of views of him now.

Something I've done this week as a response to studying this chapter is to ask a various people I've come across how they would answer the question "Who is Jesus?"

I just want to make two quick observations arising from the conversations I've had this week.

My first observation is that Jesus is still causing a stir even two-thousand years on. Everyone I spoke to had a view about him; no-one was reluctant to discuss him. One person I spoke to said "it's funny you should ask, I was just discussing who Jesus was with some friends last night" . Another said "That's a very timely question, I've just been reading a book about this stuff. Perhaps we can talk about it." Just as in first century Jerusalem people have a whole range of views, but Jesus is still very much news.

My other observation is how good it was to be simply talking with people about Jesus! I've talked to many of these people before about church or the Bible or theology or ethics, but never really about Jesus himself. I have to say it was a shear pleasure, and if I make one resolution it will be simply to talk to people more about Jesus. Even when they try to deflect me on to the Da Vinci Code I will get back to Jesus as quickly as I can!

But what are we to do in response to this plurality of views? The modern approach is to say it's perfectly all right. You have your view, I have mine, and that's absolutely fine. When we talk about Jesus with people, should we buy into this and affirm them in their view, whatever it is? Is it really OK for us each to have our own answer to the question of Jesus' identity?

Well, look at verse 24 and see how Jesus himself responds to this plurality of views about him. To those who seek to impose their own view on him Jesus replies Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgementref. There is a right view, Jesus says; don't be content with a wrong one.

We should not be content with superficial answers to the question of who Jesus is, like the five views views we've seen here. Jesus urges us to make a right judgement about him, and in this chapter he shows how to begin to do that. And that really brings me to the main part of what I want to say today, everything up to now has really been introduction!

For the rest of the time we have I want unpack for you what Jesus says about how to form a right answer to the question of who he is: how to make a right judgement about him. If you are already a believer in him, then these will be important guidelines to bear in mind as you talk to others about him. If you are not a believer, then I'd ask you to listen to what Jesus has to say: he is after all the expert on his own identity.

Don't stick to theory

First, don't stick to theory. We find in verse 16 that making a right judgement about Jesus means being prepared to put into practice what we learn of him. If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out if my teaching comes from God or if I speak on my own.ref

Making a right judgement about Jesus is not about accepting a set of intellectual propositions. They truth that Jesus teaches is always truth to be obeyed. At the end of Jesus' most famous bit of teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, he says that the one who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rockref. The one who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.ref

You see, the challenge of Jesus in verse 17 gets to the heart of our motivation in seeking him. We have a choice, it says. When you learn a truth about Jesus, what are you going to do with it? Are you willing to put it into practice, or are you just going to file it away? Do you want true knowledge of him, or an accumulation of facts about him? Are you prepared to let what you learn change your life, or are you just playing games with God?

I once read a book on how to play tennis written by John McEnroe's coach. It might have been a good book, but I'll likely never know because I haven't played tennis since. The truth about Jesus is far too important to leave undecided, and the only way to be sure of the truth of Jesus' teaching is to give it a try. Then you can make a right judgement about him. Don't stick to theory.

If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.ref

Notice that there's a lovely promise here for the true seeker: you don't need to know all the answers; simply choose act on what you do know and you will soon be given more light. Begin to do what you already know from the gospels. Start to live by what you learn, and you'll soon find out if it's true or not. God is not hiding! He loves to reveal himself to people, but he reveals himself on his own terms, not ours.

Don't suspend your thinking

Don't stick to theory, and, second, don't suspend your thinking. We find in verses 25 to 29 that making a right judgement about Jesus means laying aside our prejudices and preconceptions.

In these verses we find some in the crowd again debating his identity. They are wondering why the authorities haven't yet arrested him, and are speculating that perhaps they have concluded that he is the Christ: that is the Messiah, the saviour. Which is of course, exactly what he is.

However, they quickly dismiss this speculation because verse 27 we know where this man is from; when the Christ comes no-one will know where his is from.ref

There are two misconceptions in this statement: a factual one and a theological one. First their theological error is that they've bought in to the myth popular at the time that the Messiah would remain hidden until he suddenly rose up to do his liberating work. In their view, the fact that Jesus was well-known meant he couldn't possibly be the Messiah. Interestingly the correct theological view is given in verse 42 of the chapter Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?ref

But the people of verse 42 shared the same factual error with those of verse 27: they thought that Jesus came from Galilee, whereas of course he was born in Bethlehem. This is a lovely ironic touch by the writer, John, which highlights beautifully their inability to see beyond their prejudices and check out their facts.

Of course, given the extent of their prejudice it is not surprising that they are completely unable to hear Jesus' teaching in verses 28 and 29 that where he really comes from is the presence of God himself.

We see these prejudice displayed, particularly by the religious leaders, in a number places in this chapter. We see them continuing to cling to a false understanding of the Sabbath laws and refusing to listen to what Jesus has to say about them. We see them stubbornly holding to wrong facts in verse 52 where they declare that no prophet comes from Galilee. They tell Nicodemus to look into it whilst failing to do so themselves. Had they done so they would have quickly found that actually both Jonah and Nahum came from Galilee.

And so on, and so on. They had made up their minds about Jesus, and they weren't going to let the evidence spoil a perfectly good theory. They were full of pride and full of prejudice.

This could easily have been a description of me before I became a Christian. I'd never read the Bible, but I knew it was wrong. I'd never listened to a Christian, but I knew they were weak and feeble-minded. I'd never looked into the resurrection, but obviously it couldn't have happened. And I wasn't shy of telling anyone who'd listen.

So what changed? Do I still believe we're all weak and feeble minded? Well, thankfully I didn't take my own advice and somehow ended up reading the part of 1 Corinthians chapter 1 which says simply the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdomref. I had thought I was wise, but the shear clarity and sense of this verse hit me forcibly. In short, I realised that I was not cleverer than God after all. In the face of this revelation all I could do was to kneel before him and repent. And you see the result before you today.

We will never be able to make a right judgement about Jesus until we are wise enough to rid ourselves of our prejudices.

What are the preconceptions that you cling to? Where have you suspended your thinking?

In a matter this important we can't rely on hearsay, and half-remembered Sunday school lessons. Read the gospels for yourself; make up your own mind about who Jesus was. Take the arguments to their logical conclusions: is he lunatic, liar or Lord? Is he mad or bad, or is he the Son of God?

Don't suppress your thirst

If you want to make a right judgement about Jesus, don't stick to theory, don't suspend your thinking, and finally, don't suppress your thirst.

We've come now to the climax of John chapter 7 and the climax of the Feast of Tabernacles in verse 37.

On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him."ref

It's important for our understanding to realise that this shout of Jesus did not come out of nowhere, but is closely connected to what was going on at the Feast of Tabernacles

The feast was an occasion both for looking back and for looking forward. As I said earlier, it looked back to the time when God sustained the Israelite people in the desert after they had left Egypt and were wandering for 40 years. In particular the people gave thanks for God's provision of water throughout their time there.

The way they did this was by a ceremony that took place every day for seven days. Each day a golden water jar would be filled from the pool of Siloam and carried in procession led by the High Priests up to the temple. The choir would sing from the Psalms, trumpets would be sounded, and the priests would process with the water around the altar. Finally the water would be poured out before the Lord.

Pouring the water in the temple was very significant because this was also a ceremony that looked forward. It looked forward to a future day that Ezekiel had foreseen when a river of God's blessing would flow out from the temple to fill the whole earth. And Zechariah had spoken of it too, On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from their sin and impurityref, On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem...ref

Every day for seven days this amazing spectacle had taken place, but on the last day, the eighth day it all stopped. And on that day Jesus stood up and declared If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.ref

With this background it could not be clearer what he is claiming, could it? Jesus is claiming the he himself is the very thing they were looking forward to. He is the fulfilment of the prophecies they were celebrating. He is the one through whom God would pour out his blessings on the world.

His invitation is to all who are spiritually thirsty—all who have a soul thirst. He says, come to me and drink. I will refresh you. I will sustain you. I will cleanse you.

The Bible's teaching is that we are all running on empty; every one of our wells is dry. Spiritually speaking we are living in a desert, and we have no way to quench our thirst.

The extraordinary thing is that most of us, most of the time, suppress that thirst. We smother it under so much day-to-day activity, so much running after fulfilment elsewhere, like the woman at the well whom we met in chapter 4 of this gospel. Often it's only when we face life's problems that we find how empty our own reservoirs are.

However, Jesus' reservoirs of living water are far from empty. They are overflowing. And his promise to the one who comes to him is that the living water will flow out of his or her heart as well. Far from being spiritually parched, Jesus can make our hearts a spiritual oasis that not only sustains us but blesses the world as well.

Notice how different this is from traditional religion. Jesus is not asking us to keep some rules or try a bit harder. If you are following the rules of a religion and finding it hard going and spiritually unsatisfying, that is because you are trying to transform yourself from the outside in, which can never work. Jesus, in total contrast, offers you transformation from the inside out. Do you think that Christianity is rule-bound and restrictive? How wrong you are! There is only one rule: come to Jesus, let him transform you from within.

If you suppress your thirst you will never truly know who Jesus is, because you will never know the transformation he brings by his Spirit living within you. You will always be an outsider, subject to the rules of religion, rather than transformed by the Spirit of Christ and enjoying a daily relationship with him. That is true knowledge of Jesus.


I just want to finish by noting what it says in verse 43, Thus the people were divided because of Jesusref. He divided people then, and he divides people now.

This being a church on a Sunday morning, It's to be expected that most of us will be in the position of the start of verse 41. We will be able to say with confidence, He is the Christref, the Saviour. I hope that from this chapter what you've gained is a real encouragement, as I have, to continue to talk to others about Jesus. If my observations are anything to go by, he's still very much causing a stir.

There will also be people here who are fascinated by Jesus, but don't feel ready to commit themselves to a view. Please keep working on it! There is no more important question that you'll face. But remember the challenge of Jesus to make a right judgement. Don't stick to theory; don't suspend your thought; don't suppress your thirst. To make a right judgement about Jesus we must come to him on his terms, not our own.

And there may be some here today who know the thirst in their souls, and are ready to take up Jesus' invitation to come to him and drink. If that's you, you don't need to suppress your thirst any longer. Today you can have streams of living water flowing from within you.