John 7:1-24 – not as they expected

(These notes were prepared for a series of teachings on John’s gospel given in Pretoria during 2008 and 2009.)

After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. 2 But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near, 3 Jesus’ brothers said to him, “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. 4 No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For even his own brothers did not believe in him.
6 Therefore Jesus told them, “The right time for me has not yet come; for you any time is right. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil. 8 You go to the Feast. I am not yet going up to this Feast, because for me the right time has not yet come.” 9 Having said this, he stayed in Galilee. 10 However, after his brothers had left for the Feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret. 11 Now at the Feast the Jews were watching for him and asking, “Where is that man?”
12 Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.” Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.” 13 But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews.

14 Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. 15 The Jews were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?” 16 Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. 17 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. 18 He who speaks on his own does so to gain honour for himself, but he who works for the honour of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. 19 Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
20 “You are demon-possessed,” the crowd answered. “Who is trying to kill you?”
21 Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all astonished. 22 Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a child on the Sabbath. 23 Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath? 24 Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.”

On his first visit to Jerusalem, Jesus provoked the anger of the Jews by healing the lame man at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath day (see John ch.5). The plot on Jesus’ life was not simply for Sabbath breaking, but for the fact that it was by doing a wonderful miracle that Jesus induced the lame man to pick up his mat and carry it on that day. This linked Jesus in the minds of the Pharisees to the warning of Deuteronomy 13:

‘If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death …’ (verses 3 – 5).

Knowing the intentions of the Pharisees, Jesus had to be careful about his next visit. But, every male in Israel had to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year: ‘Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place He will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles’ (Deut. 16:16).

Having avoided Judea since the previous Feast, Jesus was once again obligated to go up. It was evidently his intention to go, but neither in the manner nor for the purpose that his brothers suggested.

Jesus’ brothers were the sons of Mary and Joseph, being James, Joseph, Simon and Jude, according to Matthew 13:56. They wanted Jesus to emerge from obscurity (doing his miracles in remote parts of the Galilee) and prove himself at this national gathering for the Feast of Tabernacles. This idea was however spurned by their unbelief, as we are clearly told in verse 5: ‘for even his own brothers did not believe in him.’

What is it that they did not believe?

Jesus’ brothers did not doubt his powers to work miracles – a common, but wrong understanding of ‘lack of faith’ – since it was these very miracles they wanted him to do before a larger and more influential audience. The expectation that God should prove Himself beyond the point where faith is necessary, is itself an indication of unbelief. God will not relate to man in this way, as it explains in Hebrews 11: ‘without faith it is impossible to please God.’ Instead, God requires of us to diligently seek Him and to know Him by His faithfulness to His word!

But this is not the most important aspect of the brothers’ unbelief. Verse 5 says that they did not believe in him. Evidently his brothers did not believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Jesus had clearly said: ‘truly I say to you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does’ (John 6:19). We can safely say that if Jesus’ brothers had believed this, they would not have been so presumptuous – offering their own advice on what Jesus should be doing to advance his ministry! If they believed him, they would have allowed him to wait on his Father and to do as he was shown.

We know from 1 Cor 3:19, that the ‘wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.’ Jesus later rebuked Simon Peter: ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’ In his response to his brothers, Jesus explains: ‘the right time for me has not yet come … for you any time is right.’ (Understand the same from Jesus’ response to Mary at the wedding in Cana: “‘Woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My time has not yet come'” – John 2:4).

Jesus’ ministry would eventually lead to his death, but that could only come once his work on earth was done. For his brothers any time was right, because they did not have his mission to fulfil. Their coming and going would have no consequences – no one would hate them for what they would say or do, because they would not speak the Word of God. In Jesus’ case, the world would hate him, because he would expose its sins. Thus, for Jesus, timing was critical.

We must learn from Jesus’ interaction with his brothers. Paul wrote to the Galatians: ‘Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.’ (Galatians 1:10). We will not serve God while being swayed by human opinions.

‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts [says the Lord].’ (Isaiah 55:9)

It is worth pausing here to consider what the New Testament means when speaking of ‘the Jews‘. While in modern usage the term is used for any descendant of Jacob, the term is clearly associated with the tribe of Judah (i.e. ‘Jew‘ is derived from ‘Judah’). When Judah returned from its exile in Babylon, many of the scattered Israelites from other tribes returned with them and settled in their territory. The broader use of the name ‘Jew’ was probably from that time. The New Testament, however, often uses the term in its narrower sense, referring specifically to the residents of Jerusalem and Judea, and particularly to those loyal to the sect of the Pharisees – the prevailing religious authority of that time.

At the Feast in Jerusalem (from verse 10 of our passage), there is a controversy over Jesus, and the people are divided. The critical question remains: Is Jesus the Prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy 18:18, in which case we must do whatever he says, or is he a deceiver of the people by miracles, as warned of in Deuteronomy 13? This is the question over which the people were divided.

As Jesus had come quietly to the Feast, he waits until it is half over and then begins to teach in the Temple courts. The Jews are amazed, not at his wisdom or at the content of his teaching, but at the fact that he should be able to teach at all, for he had no apparent tutor. In response to their amazement, Jesus reasserts his claim at being the Prophet like Moses: ‘My teaching is not my own. It comes from Him who sent me’ (verse 16). I.e. God Himself was his instructor, as it is written: ‘I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.’ (Deut. 18:19)

Jesus proceeds to reveal the motive for their unbelief: anyone who desires to obey God would know that his teachings come from God (verse 17). The same idea is found in John 8:31-32 where Jesus says: ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth …’. In other words, ‘if you obey, then you will know.’ Conversely, those who had already resolved that they would not obey – that they would not do what God was commanding through the mouth of the Prophet, would promptly find a reason to reject him.

God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. He will not permit anyone to know Him, who is not willing to do what He says! This comes back to the essence of the relationship that God desires with man: ‘without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.’ (Hebrews 11:6)

Paul teaches the same to the believers in Rome:

‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.’ (Romans 12:1-2)

‘First set your hearts on obedience – then you will know and approve God’s will.’

After posing this challenge, Jesus begins to defend himself against the implied charge against him – that of deceiving the people by miracles to follow after other gods. In verse 18, he raises a point that the Jews would have understood very well: ‘He who speaks on his own does so to gain honour for himself, but he who works for the honour of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.’

There were differences in understanding and interpretation among the rabbis, and they would build a reputation for themselves based on their teaching. Certain rabbis became renowned and others would train under them and begin to teach and expound in the name of their tutor. Those who spoke in their own name would be concerned about their own reputation, while those who spoke on behalf of another, would be concerned with his reputation. In light of this, how could Jesus’ motive be to draw the people away from YHVH their God – as specified in Deuteronomy 13 – if he never claimed to speak anything on behalf of himself or another? But only of Him?

This was his first defence. Now comes the second: ‘Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?’ (verse 19)

If the motive to deceive was lacking, the only possible charge against Jesus could be for breaking the law. But was there a single man in all Israel who had never desecrated the Sabbath day? On what basis would they condemn him to death for something that every other Jew had also done?

Besides which, certain acts which would technically break the Sabbath law, were permitted because of their greater importance: ‘I did one miracle, and you are all astonished. Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision … you circumcise a child on the Sabbath. Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath?

Solomon taught in his wisdom: “Do not say to your neighbor,
‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’ when you now have it with you [to give to him today]’ (Proverbs 3:28).
Part 2.