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“Chronicles of Unbelief”

John 7:1-53
Bob DeGray
February 23, 2003

Key Sentence

Unbelief walks many paths, but listening to Jesus leads to faith.


I. Even his own brothers did not believe. (John 7:1-9)
II. He deceives the people. (John 7:10-20)
III. We know where this man is from. (John 7:21-31)
IV. Where does this man intend to go? (John 7:32-36)
V. If anyone is thirsty, let him come. (John 7:37-44)
VI. Has any of the rulers or Pharisees believed? (John 7:45-53)


        Unbelief walks many paths. Here are some examples taken from the pages of the Moody Monthly column, First Person, in which people tell how they became believers. The paths of unbelief they walked are intriguing. Barbara Curtis: “My 15-year-old daughter asked to join a Bible Study. But one look at the workbook confirmed my fears that this group believed the Bible literally, not in the more evolved, metaphysical way I wanted her to understand. ‘True seekers know that Jesus taught the same message as all other spiritual masters,’ I told her ‘We only need to realize that we are each God and create our own reality.’”

        Victor Krutko, a Russian, writes “I was shocked this atheistic book acknowledged Jesus as a historical person. I’d been taught in school He never actually existed, though my objections to faith were really based on the place of Christians in society.”

        Kimerlea Ball “In my understanding Jesus was nothing more than a good man.”

        William E. March “My former girlfriend talked constantly about Jesus. He loved and died for me, she said. But I never listened. No God was going to tell me what to do.”

        Wanda Sanseri “I evaluated my life. Many things had provided pleasure, but no lasting security. Only Jesus could control the future. Could I trust him with my life?”

        Unbelief expresses itself in doubts about God and about Jesus: ‘Does he really exist? Is he good? Are his claims true? What will he demand of me? Can I really trust him?’ Questions like these are rampant in John 7 as the division in Israel between faith and unbelief grows. But these questions are important today as well. As we study John 7 we’ll find that unbelief walks many paths away from Jesus. But we’ll also find that listening to Jesus is the antidote for unbelief, and leads to faith.
I. Even his own brothers did not believe. (John 7:1-9)

        As we did last week, we’ll walk through this text a little at a time. Let’s begin with John 7:1-9 After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. 2But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near, 3Jesus' brothers said to him, "You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. 4No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world." 5For even his own brothers did not believe in him. 6Therefore Jesus told them, "The right time for me has not yet come; for you any time is right. 7The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil. 8You go to the Feast. I am not yet going up to this Feast, because for me the right time has not yet come." 9Having said this, he stayed in Galilee.

        In chapter 6 Jesus was in Capernaum, and it seems he remained in Galilee for quite a long time, avoiding Judea because the authorities there were out to get him. Probably a lot of the ministry given in the other Gospels occurs during this time. Eventually, however, Jesus’ brothers began to encourage him to go to the Feast of Tabernacles. This was the celebration of the late harvest - grapes and olives and things like that. It also remembered God’s provision for the people of Israel as they wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt. During this week-long feast the people would live in flimsy shelters - booths or tabernacles - on rooftops or in court yards. According to Josephus this feast attracted greater crowds than Passover or Pentecost. Jesus’ brothers urge him to go up to Jerusalem and make a name for himself at this Feast.

        The motivation for their comments is unclear. It’s possible the brothers were sincere and thought they were giving good advice to one whom they hoped would gain political greatness: “no one who wants to be a public figure acts in secret . . . show yourself to the world.” It’s also possible that as unbelievers and brothers, they were jealous and were hoping Jesus would get himself in trouble or stumble by exposing himself publicly. But Jesus tells them it’s not the right time. They can go to the feast any time they want, because they’re not constrained as Jesus was to do things according to the Father’s will in the Father’s timing. Furthermore they’re not public figures, hated by many of their peers. But Jesus was, because he had exposed the evil of the Pharisees position on things like healing on the Sabbath. The time has not yet come for Jesus to confront their hatred by the sacrifice of his own life.

        After the resurrection Jesus’ brothers did become believers. James became a key leader in the Jerusalem church. But at this time they don’t believe. Why? They admit they’ve seen his miracles. Why don’t they believe? One possibility is they’re trying to use Jesus to get ahead themselves. If Jesus succeeds in revolution, throwing off Rome, they figure they’ll get positions of authority. Disbelief often tries to use Jesus for human gain. The bad reputation the Christian church has battled with for years can mostly be traced to people out for personal gain, abusing authority. Paul warned Timothy about those who thought godliness was a means to gain. In our day media preachers and abusive priests and pastors have walked that road. When we use Jesus as a stepping stone we cannot at the same time submit to him and believe.

II. He deceives the people. (John 7:10-20)

        Another possible reason these brothers didn’t believe is simply familiarity. They grew up with Jesus, watched him work as a carpenter, knew he had spent his days the same as everybody else. In our culture we’d say they knew he put his pants on one leg at a time. They knew him as a typical person and could not quickly imagine something more of him. This theme of familiarity recurs a number of times in this chapter as a source of unbelief. In the next section Jesus does go to the feast and encounters some of these issues. John 7:10-18 10However, after his brothers had left for the Feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret. 11Now at the Feast the Jews were watching for him and asking, "Where is that man?" 12Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, "He is a good man." Others replied, "No, he deceives the people." 13But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews. 14Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. 15The Jews were amazed and asked, "How did this man get such learning without having studied?" 16Jesus answered, "My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. 17If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. 18He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.

        When Jesus did show up, quietly, half way through the feast, he found many were looking for him, both the leaders of the Jews and the crowds. Opinions were divided. Some said ‘He’s a good man.’ Others said ‘He’s a deceiver.’ Both these statements are forms of disbelief. To merely say Jesus is a good man, even a great moral teacher is to miss who he is. If you persuade people to conceive of Jesus as a good man, but only a man, you keep them from faith. Some of the people we heard in the introduction had just this kind of disbelief. C. S. Lewis’ response is still the best: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic _ on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg _ or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.” But part of the crowd accepted it.

        Another part considered him a deceiver. On several occasions the Pharisees accused him of having a demon, and later in this section the crowd will too. Among unbelieving Jews after the time of Christ a tradition was preserved that Jesus was executed on Passover Eve because he was a deceiver who practiced sorcery and led Israel astray. In recent years it has been fashionable to think that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, but that he and his disciples perpetrated a great ‘Passover Plot’ on the people. To call him a deceiver is a timehonored way of disbelieving in the Messiah.

        But as Jesus begins to teach and this crowd begins to listen, their unbelief cracks just a little. This is typical - unbelief flees when we listen to Jesus, what he really says, who he really is. It’s hard to maintain false pictures of Jesus when you are actually in contact with him, especially through his word. Like the crowds in the other Gospels, this group is astonished that one who had not studied under a famous rabbi could have such a command of Scripture. Jesus responds to their amazement by telling them that his teaching is not from him alone, but from the one who sent him, the Father. If he had spoken on his own it would be to gain honor for himself, but as it is he is at work to gain honor for the one sent him.

III. We know where this man is from. (John 7:21-31)

        So we’ve seen several instances of unbelief already: unbelief that stems from a desire to use Jesus and unbelief that comes from pre-judging him: he’s a good man; he’s a deceiver. We’ve also seen that when people actually listen to Jesus they’re attracted by his teaching. In the next section Jesus confronts these issues. John 7:19 to 31 19Has 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?" 21Jesus said to them, "I did one miracle, and you are all astonished. 22Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a child on the Sabbath. 23Now 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? 24Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment." 25At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask, "Isn't this the man they are trying to kill? 26Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Christ? 27But we know where this man is from; when the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from." 28Then Jesus, still teaching in the temple courts, cried out, "Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, 29but I know him because I am from him and he sent me." 30At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come. 31Still, many in the crowd put their faith in him. They said, "When the Christ comes, will he do more miraculous signs than this man?"

        It’s true that the leaders of the Jews were trying to kill him. After the controversy in John 5 about Jesus’ miracle of healing on the Sabbath, they resolved to do so. If you read the Gospels you find that Jesus has many good reasons why healing on the Sabbath is appropriate, but none of them make an impression on the Pharisees. Here he points out that Jews practice circumcision on the Sabbath. The law requires them to circumcise on the eighth day, even if it’s a Saturday. This, Jesus says, doesn’t break the law - so why shouldn’t healing, which restores the whole man be permitted on the Sabbath?

        Jesus then gives a general command: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” Jesus had given the appearance of violating the Sabbath, but on a deeper level his actions were lawful and his heart right. Isaiah 11 God said of the Messiah: “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but he will judge with righteousness.”Now Jesus tells us to use the same judgment, to evaluate people at the heart level, not by external appearances. It’s easy to look at someone’s mistakes or the ways they differ from you and choose to dislike or despise them. But when we look at their heart we may find love and faithfulness. In the same way when we look past another person’s slick exterior we may find a heart that is hard and desperately needs to change. We’re not to judge on appearances but on the condition of the heart.

        Hearing this discussion and command, the people of Jerusalem, in verse 25, once again begin to wonder if Jesus is the Christ. But they quickly fall into another common pattern of disbelief: “we know where this man is from; when the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from.” Disbelief says “I already know everything I need to know about Jesus.” As it may have done for Jesus’ brothers, disbelief can grow from familiarity, especially if what you know is in error. The liberal scholars of the last hundred years have fallen into disbelief because they think they know something about Jesus - that he was the good teacher or the poor revolutionary or the simple rabbi whose words were expanded by enthusiastic followers. This kind of false knowledge leads to disbelief.

        In the same way people raised in families and churches where there is knowledge of Jesus but little faith and no changed lives can be led to disbelief by this inadequate kind of knowledge. This crowd, for example thought the prophets taught the Messiah would appear out of nowhere to reign. Jesus, being known as a miracle worker who came from Galilee, didn’t fit the preconception so he must not be the Christ. Jesus responds by saying “If you’d been listening to my words you’d know where I really came from - the Father sent me. I’m his true representative, because I know him.”

        Hearing this, the crowd is once again in two minds about Jesus. Many rise up to do what their leaders had not done - seize him. But they couldn’t do it, because his time had not yet come. In some supernatural way he avoids their grasp. Others in the crowd, however, are drawn to faith by his words. When people really listen to Jesus their evaluation of him goes up. In this case their faith may still be somewhat superficial - they base it on the miracles he has done - but at least they’ve come that far. The antidote to disbelief for you and me is also time spent with Jesus. For us, of course, that means time spent in His word, watching him and listening to his teaching.

IV. Where does this man intend to go? (John 7:32-36)

        We’ve seen that unbelief follows several paths: there is unbelief that wants to use Jesus, and a number of different kinds of unbelief that are based on pre-judging who Jesus is. There is another instance of this in verses 32 to 36, and it is a very common one: 32The Pharisees heard the crowd whispering such things about him. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees sent temple guards to arrest him. 33Jesus said, "I am with you for only a short time, and then I go to the one who sent me. 34You will look for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come." 35The Jews said to one another, "Where does this man intend to go that we cannot find him? Will he go where our people live scattered among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks? 36What did he mean when he said, 'You will look for me, but you will not find me,' and 'Where I am, you cannot come'?"

        The human mind has a love-hate relationship with supernatural things, especially where they concern the future. Here Jesus makes a prophecy about the future and is met with a purely materialistic understanding that discounts any supernatural meaning.

        When the temple guards come, having been sent by the chief priests and the Pharisees in response to the growing division of the crowds, they are met with a prophetic word from Jesus. They’re trying to arrest him; he says “Wait a minute, do you realize I’m not going to be with you very long?” Jesus then speaks of his departure in words that are clear to anyone who has read the whole book. There is only a short time before he goes to the cross, after which he will return to the one who sent him. Death, for Jesus, is not the end, but the ordained path to the glory he had with the Father before the world began. But once Jesus is there, those with a purely mechanical, materialistic mind set will never find him.

        I call this disbelief ‘practical atheism’. God may exist, but I don’t permit that existence to impact in any way my understanding, expectations, or behavior. This crowd has a bent toward practical atheism: Where does this man intend to go that we cannot find him? Will he go where our people live scattered among the Greeks.” Practical atheism is characterized by worldly explanations of supernatural truths. ‘That’s just a fluke, not a miracle, that’s just a wild notion, not a leading from God, that’s just a human response, not the Spirit at work, you can’t be do something that irrational because the Bible says to.” This materialism is the signature unbelief of our age.

V. If anyone is thirsty, let him come. (John 7:37-44)

        But not everybody is closed to spiritual truth. Listen to the response in verses 37 to 44: 37On 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. 38Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." 39By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. 40On hearing his words, some of the people said, "Surely this man is the Prophet." 41Others said, "He is the Christ." Still others asked, "How can the Christ come from Galilee? 42Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?" 43Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. 44Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.

        For some reason the temple guards didn’t try to arrest Jesus until the last day of the feast, which included a major ceremony with water. In fact, each day a large flagon was filled from the pool of Siloam and carried in procession to the Temple. Hearing the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet, the pilgrims sang praises from the Psalms, and the priests processed around the altar. Every pilgrim waved a palm branch in his right hand and held citrus fruit in his left, crying ‘Give thanks to the Lord.’ Finally the water was offered to God with the normal drink offering, wine. The water and wine were poured before the Lord, to celebrate both the Lord’s provision of water in the desert and the promise that he would pour out the Spirit in the last days. In the midst of this ceremony Jesus proclaimed: "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."

        All that the Feast of Tabernacles anticipated, Jesus fulfilled. In Isaiah 55 God invites the thirsty to the waters, but Jesus says that he is the one who can provide the waters. In Isaiah 12 God promises that his people will joyfully draw water from the well of salvation. Jesus promises that the living water found in him will provide eternal life. The Jews knew the water they poured was symbolic of the Spirit and of life: Jesus presents himself as the one who will bring those promises to reality. The Scriptures we read this morning gave us a glimpse of how this water / celebration / Spirit theme ran through the Old Testament, so we can understand that when Jesus talked about being the source of living water, he was talking about being the source of the Holy Spirit, poured out into the heart and soul of every believer to bring new life.

        Even the crowd understood something of this, because they respond with the most positive statements we’ve heard: ‘this is the prophet’, ‘this is the Christ’. When Jesus gave them bread they thought he might be the prophet like Moses, who gave manna. If he promises them water he might be like Moses who gave water from the rock. Or he might be the Messiah. Most people thought of the Messiah and prophet as two separate people. But having listened to Jesus make these remarkable claims, they’re sure he’s someone important from God. That’s the effect of listening to Jesus.

        Not that disbelief has been completely conquered. The people who think they know where Jesus comes from continue to struggle. This crowd doubts Jesus because they think the Messiah has to come from the line of David and the town of Bethlehem. But it’s clear John knows Jesus’ earthly origin, though he never tells us. John probably had at least one of the other Gospels in front of him as he wrote. Furthermore, he was a partner with the other Gospel writers in the spread of the Gospel. So he knew that the knowledge of where Jesus was born was so widespread that he could insert the irony of the crowd’s words without fear of raising doubts about Jesus. Some people in our day don’t believe in Jesus because they think the facts they’ve learned eradicate his claims, though no such facts exists. People say ‘it’s proven that Christ didn’t rise from the dead, that he never lived, that his teachings were created later, that Paul made up Christianity.’ In fact none of these has the remotest basis in fact.

VI. Has any of the rulers or Pharisees believed? (John 7:45-53)

        As the chapter closes, we see one more instance of disbelief: some disbelieve because believing threatens their position. John 7:45-53 45Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, "Why didn't you bring him in?" 46"No one ever spoke the way this man does," the guards declared. 47"You mean he has deceived you also?" the Pharisees retorted. 48"Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law--there is a curse on them." 50Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51"Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?" 52They replied, "Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee." 53 Then each went to his own home.

        The temple guards spent too much time with Jesus - they became convinced he really was something special. If you spend time with Jesus you grow in faith. But the Pharisees are mired in disbelief - they haven’t spent any time with Jesus. They’re mired in pride so that they belittle these temple guards: “Has any of the rulers or Pharisees believed in him? No!” They absolutely despise the crowd who as Israel’s shepherds they were supposed to serve: “This mob that knows nothing of the law - there is a curse on them.” Because the people of the land were ignorant of the law and traditions, they were disdained. No wonder they flocked to Jesus.

        The Pharisees just exuded pride with every word. One of the funniest things in this text is their statement ‘has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No!’. But there is a ruler who has actually spent time talking with Jesus, though by night. It’s Nicodemus, and you can almost imagine him tentatively raising one finger to voice a mild objection: “Uh, does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?’ Last week at the end of the chapter we saw that Peter got it: he understood the need to come to Jesus and believe in him. This week it is Nicodemus who gets it. We’ve been saying all morning the antidote to disbelief is to listen to Jesus. Nicodemus has done that and he knows its power. That’s why he suggests ‘maybe we should listen to him and hear what he has to say’. But pride is one of the strongest forms of unbelief, and as the chapter closes we see that the Pharisees still don’t get it. They turn on Nicodemus and accuse him, basically of being ignorant: ‘look into it and you will find that no prophet comes from Galilee.’

        So where do you stand on all this? As we close I want to make two points: first, the kinds of unbelief we’ve seen are by no means limited to unbelievers. Even after you have trusted in Jesus you will still have moments of doubt that show up as disbelief. Second, the antidote for unbelief whether you are a believer or a seeker, is to spend time with Jesus. Spend time in the Gospels, time in prayer, time seeking faith. It is the words and acts of Jesus that lead people on the path to faith.

        What kinds of unbelief do you deal with? The kinds we’ve mentioned can be summarized as unbelief due to pride or unbelief due to prejudice. The unbelief of pride doesn’t want to give in to Jesus because he threatens us: we would need to think less of our possessions, of our position, of our advancement, of our selves and of our sin if we thought more of him and took the time to listen to him. The unbelief of prejudice occurs when we allow pre-conceived ideas to rule our thoughts about Jesus; he was just a man, we know where he came from; he was just a good man, a moral teacher like so many others; the miracles did were impossible, he must be a deceiver and a liar. The antidote for these disbeliefs is to spend time with Jesus, to set aside our ideas of who he is and get to know him as he really is, through the word, prayer and an honest seeking of faith. Like Nicodemus, who spent time with Jesus we need to humbly say to ourselves and to others that “we don’t condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he’s doing.” That’s the answer to unbelief.