IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 40, October 1 to October 7, 2001

A Sermon on John 7:1-13

By Rev. Russell B. Smith

In John 6:60-71 we saw that after hearing the hard things Jesus said, many disciples deserted him. We saw the differences between deserters and true believers. Deserters grumble while true believers trust; deserters rely on themselves while true believers rely on Jesus; deserters start strong while true believers finish strong.

Now we move to a whole new section. The next two chapters turn our attention back to Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles. In this section, John prepares us for what is to come by setting the stage. What we see is a Jerusalem abuzz with conversation and whispers. Jesus has caught the attention of the countryside, and everybody’s talking. The problem is that when everybody’s talking, very little substance is said. We see that even though Jesus speaks truth, people misinterpret him. This passage shows three types of people who misinterpret Jesus: the Advisers, the admirers, and the despisers.

First, some background data for you. Look at verse 1: “After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea.” We have here summarized in one verse what the other gospels focus upon: the Galilean ministry of Jesus. For those who wonder, “Why is the gospel of John so different?” here’s the answer: John was focusing on different things. He had his own story to tell and he didn’t want to spend a lot of time repeating what had already been said. So, what we have here is about a six-month time lag between chapter 6 and chapter 7.

Then we see the event that causes Jesus to come down from the north country of Galilee into Jerusalem: The Feast of Tabernacles. This feast was one of the three major annual feasts of Judaism. It memorialized the wandering in the desert. Pilgrims would come to the city and set up tents all around the outside walls. Inhabitants of Jerusalem pitched tents on their roofs and they would stay in these tents for seven days as a remembrance of wandering in the wilderness for forty years. All work in the city stopped, and there were daily religious activities such as the blowing of horns, a ritual of carrying water from the pool of Siloam, and a torchlight processional. In the meantime there was feasting and celebration and telling of stories. The historian Josephus tells us that this was the most popular of all the feasts, so it is reasonable to assume that the city would be packed with people.

Now throw into this mix the stories about this strange prophet who had been wandering in the north. When he had last been in Jerusalem, he had caused quite a ruckus, arguing with the leaders of Israel. Let’s admit it, we all know the tendency of people to gossip. Everybody has a juicy tidbit they want to share, or they want to prove that they’re in the know. You can just imagine the whispering going on. Everybody’s talking about Jesus.

In verses 3-5 we see how some people misinterpret Jesus. First, we see the advisers in the form of his own brothers. They’re giving him worldly wisdom: “If you’re going to be so great, you need to go where the people are. You need to make a big spectacle. Everybody’s talking about you. Now is your chance; step to the center stage and show them your stuff.” You see, his brothers are trying to advise him because they think they know better. Verse 5 says that they didn’t believe in him – certainly they knew he could work miracles. The point is that they didn’t believe in the significance of what he had come to do. So, they tried to put him in the mold of their own thinking. They assumed that he must have been thinking like they thought.

This is a common pattern. In its most extreme reality, we see it in the completely secular mind. The secular mind cannot understand those who are led spiritually. The self-seeking mind assumes that everyone must be the same way. Any show of religion is really just a put-on to advance some hidden scheme of power grabbing. I’ve been reading Tolkien’s classic work The Lord of the Rings. The story is a fantasy that tells of a great war between good and evil. The villain is the dark wizard Sauron who created a magic ring that gives the wearer immense power. Sauron lost the ring and was defeated in battle many years ago, but as the story begins he is rebuilding his strength, preparing to attack the forces of good. He has his minions searching for the ring. Meanwhile, the ring has fallen into the hands of the forces of good. They debate what they should do with it. Ultimately they decide that the ring is too dangerous to use – it will corrupt anyone who wears it. If they use it to defeat Sauron, the wearer will rise up and become a tyrant just as bad. They decide to destroy the ring, but the only way they can destroy it is by returning it to the fiery forge where it was made, deep in Sauron’s territory. Now here’s the catch – they are able to do this because Sauron never expects them to destroy the ring. Sauron expects them to use the ring against him, and he is prepared for that course. He cannot comprehend that anyone would willingly throw away so much power. He cannot conceive of such a mindset.

So it is with the secular mind. It cannot conceive of obedience to a creator God. It cannot conceive of a world that is not set up for its own enjoyment. Paul talks about this cognitive difficulty in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 where he paints worldly wisdom as foolishness. The wise, the seekers of penetrating knowledge, can easily miss the true wisdom that comes from God.

Thomas Jefferson is widely considered one of the greatest intellects ever to have lived. He is commonly pictured as a Renaissance man – a man of both science and letters; a man of cultivation, yet practicality; an accomplished architect, a statesman, a botanist, the founder the University of Virginia, and the author of the Declaration of Independence. However, his worldly wisdom afforded him little in matters of faith. Jefferson compiled his own gospel by taking scissors, cutting out the gospel passages he thought to be true, and pasting them in a book in the order he thought they belonged. It is interesting to note that he omitted most of the miracle stories and kept Jesus “ethical teaching.” In doing this he was a precursor to the contemporary Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who seek to advise Jesus on what he actually said or did by voting on its authenticity.

We do this today any time we disregard a section of Scripture because we think we know better. Remember what 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says: “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Scriptures are not a buffet from which we may pick and choose what we like. The Scriptures, all of them, are our basic instructions before leaving earth. We are not in a position to advise.

The second group of people who misinterpret Jesus is the admirers (John 7:11-12). These people think Jesus to be a good man, based on his ethic, but they don’t understand his divinity.

As an example of this type, consider another towering intellect: Benjamin Franklin. In a letter to Ezra Stiles dated March 9, 1790, Franklin said this, “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have ... some doubts as to his Divinity.”1 Do you hear that? Franklin is saying he thinks Jesus is a good man, but not fully the Son of God. To further hammer this problem out, listen to this list of doctrines that Franklin drafted in 1731 as a list of what should be preached.

“That there is one God Father of the Universe
That he is infinately good, poowerful and wise
That he is omnipotent
That he ought to be worshipped, by Adoration Prayer and Thanksgiving both in Publick and private
That he loves such of his Creatures as love and do good to others and will reward them either in this world or hereafter.
That men’s minds do not die with their Bodies, but are made more happy or miserable after this Life according to their Actions.
That Virtuous men ought to league together to strengthen the Interest of Virtue in the world, and so strengthen themselves in virtue.
That knowledge and learning is to be cultivated and ignorance dissipated. That none but the Virtuous are wise
That man’s perfection is in Virtue...”2

What’s missing there? Grace. Franklin and Jefferson both adopt Christian language, but they leave out the centerpiece of the Christian faith: grace. Radical grace. Grace that we don’t earn, but is bestowed upon us. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” We don’t come to God because we’re virtuous, we become virtuous because God has come to us. The admirers get the order all wrong.

So we’ve seen the advisers and the admirers. Now we turn to the despisers (John 7: 11-13). These are the people who say Jesus is a deceiver. They genuinely think Jesus is malevolent. They’re out there today. The kinder of them will say, “I don’t have a problem with Jesus, it’s his followers I can’t stand.” But don’t forget that Christ doesn’t immediately make his people perfect; he puts them in the process of becoming holy. Certainly there are Christians who do bad things. Certainly there are eras, such as the crusades, when the church authorizes bad things. What else should we expect from a sinful and fallen world where even the redeemed continue to struggle? What do we expect when Paul himself says in Romans 7:19, “For what I do is not the good I want to do, no, the evil that I do not want to do – this I keep on doing”; and later in verse 24, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

The problem that the advisers, the admirers, and the despisers have is their faulty picture of who humanity is and who Jesus is. They all think they are in a position of equality, as though they could dictate the terms. The challenge is for us to be clear on the nature of Jesus and his work. This is why we’ve been going through the gospel of John in such detail. It’s why we’ve been rediscovering Jesus.

In the next few weeks, we’ll see Jesus directly confronting in a new and different way. This is why it is important that we be established in what we’ve learned about Jesus’ identity. We saw that Jesus is fully God and fully man in chapter 1. We saw in chapter 2 that Jesus’ self-offering is the perfect completion of all the Jewish religious rituals. We saw that Jesus alone provides fulfillment through the metaphor of the bread of life. We saw that Jesus continually meets us in unexpected ways. We saw that Jesus continually reaches out to unexpected people. We saw that Jesus brings about new birth. We saw that Jesus makes the Holy Spirit available to us. We saw that we don’t earn our way into Jesus’ good graces, but he chooses us because he loves us. And that’s the truth. Amen.

1. Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography and Other Writings (Signet Classic Edition: 1961), p. 337.

2. Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography and Other Writings (Signet Classic Edition: 1961), p. 336.