Had they delved deeper...February 11, 2018, Speaker: Rev Enoch Keong (John 7:1-24) Part of the John sermon series, preached at a Mandarin (Sunday) service
Title: Had they delved deeper…
Preacher: Rev Enoch Keong
The story in today’s text brings us to a time of celebration. But as far as Jesus and the people around him were concerned, it was more a time of misunderstanding and confusion rather than celebration. Everyone in the story had an opinion about Jesus. His family members thought that all he wanted was to gain popularity and tried persuading him to flaunt his special powers in public. The public on the other hand was a mix of people who either find him deserving of praise, or otherwise death.
As usual, Jesus did not make it easier for the people in the story and us readers with the kind of responses he made; he just let the confusion compounds and multiplies.
What we will be doing this morning is to figure out where everyone in the story was coming from, including Jesus. When we get beneath the confusing atmosphere and learn of the individuals’ intentions, we should also through the exercise gather an even clearer picture of Jesus – and ourselves – especially in terms of our devotion to the Lord.
Let’s begin with the brothers, who urged Jesus to go and show himself to the world. In case we think that the brothers of Jesus were being sarcastic or spiteful, there is good reason to believe that these brothers weren’t poking fun at Jesus. At the end of chapter 6, Jesus lost a great following in Galilee after he had told those followers that they are to feed on his fresh and drink his blood. We can imagine the brothers, on hearing about something so demoralizing that had happened to their eldest brother, looked at him with a sense of regret, and tried to give him sound advice by saying, “Go to Judea, the Festival of Booths is happening, a lot of people will be there. You can perform miracles. Go, show them what you’ve got, and win back some new disciples to cushion your losses.”
Good intention. But to John, the brothers did this simply out of disbelief. But in what way had these brothers clearly demonstrated that they did not believe in Jesus? Simply this, what they did is a duplicate of Satan’s temptation at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Much like Satan, they were encouraging Jesus to be self-seeking.
These brothers are people who knew Jesus for 30 years, what was it that caused them to think that Jesus was seeking after popularity? What could have caused them to misread him to such an extent? Could it be because that the brothers were ‘of the world’? When one is of the world, one’s outlook, thoughts, perceptions, understanding and actions will be shaped and controlled by what the bible labels as ‘of the world’. I suppose this is very much where the brothers were coming from – a motivation based on worldliness.
The next group to highlight in this scene of confusions is the Jews. This group sought to kill Jesus for healing on a Sabbath day a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years (5:1-17). Less we think that everyone in Judea was ready to throw stones at Jesus, ‘Jews’ herein refers to the religious leaders and not the crowd. The crowd that attended the feast probably had no idea of the malicious intent of the religious leaders, which explains why they retorted by shouting at Jesus, "You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you? (v.20)"
Jesus was however not wrong to have addressed the crowd concerning the issue, because both the crowd and the religious leaders did share the same mindset. Both thought that it is correct to circumcise but then wrong to heal someone on Sabbath. I am sure we all know how such an understanding came about: Sabbath was to be a day of rest from work, yet a baby boy is to be circumcised on the 8th day which can fall on the Sabbath. And then, to circumcise someone is to do work. The Jews were in a fix. Their solution was to move the law of circumcision up the ranking, so that it looks important enough to be practiced legally on Sabbath. A rabbi once said, "Great is circumcision which overrides even the rigor of the Sabbath." 
To Jesus, these people were not being conservative or narrow to have approved circumcision and disapproved healing on Sabbath. They were simply not keeping the Law of Moses (vv.19). We will explain later as to why it is so. But for now, I believe enough is said for us to see where the group is coming from. They thought that outward religiosity would make them sacred¬ people or God’s special people, and so they tried every way to live out every article of the law. But sad to say, they were wrongheaded.
We would be equally wrongheaded if we look upon Jesus’ brothers and the crowd in Judea as characters in some bible stories that are unrelated to us. We may not like this, but characters in the bible are often telling of who we ourselves are, and I guess it is the case here.
Jesus’ brothers’ concerns were success and fame. They probably wanted to vindicate the family’s honor, which was why they asked Jesus to quickly win back disciples. Success and fame, I guess, is also very much what we are concerned with. Try asking an average Christian what they are stressed about this week. And guess how many would say that they are stressed for not doing enough evangelism? Or couldn’t find enough time to intercede for others? Of course, there are such Christians around, but I believe they belong to the minority. For most of us, myself included, I guess our stress is often over something that we hope to see achieved, either by ourselves or through others around us. We are concerned with success, which is not at all wrong when it is put in proper perspective.
The same should also be said concerning fame. But then, we are hearing in recent times stories about people feeling stressed over the need to post something Instagram-worthy just to gain more ‘likes’. It sound like the kind of stress that Jesus’ brothers would have felt had they carried smartphones, since success and fame are the things that they were going after. Friend, could we also be going after the same things?
The group in Judea might help us see something else about ourselves. John tells us that in Judea, it was a one-against-all situation. It was Jesus alone against a big crowd. What made Jesus stood out like a sore thumb? In a word, it had to do with purity of motive in faith practices. The Jews’ concern is to look right before God for their own sake and for other reasons. Jesus also wanted to look right before God, but it was for God’s glory, period.
Friends, I believe the Lord would also put to us today the question on purity of motive. And if that’s the case, should we still come to church for service and take part in ministries when our motives are not as pure? Is it permissible for us to wish to gain something through serving God? I believe we have our answer to such questions in the story of the prodigal son. Allow me to first give the answer and then use it to reframe for us the question on purity of motive. The prodigal son who went home basically to find food, and the older son who was angry because he thinks that he alone deserves the best; both sons, the father accepts. And from the way that the Father nudges the older son to be as happy as he is at the end of the story (Lk 15:31-32), we get the sense that the Father is asking him – and therefore also us – to feel what he feels, to see that he sees, to do what he is doing. Do we come to church with such motivations, no matter how much of such motivations we have today? This is how I would reframe the question on purity of motive, and I like to think that it is a question the Lord would put to us.
There is of course only Jesus who alone is consistently pure in his motive. We will now continue with the story to see where Jesus was coming from for doing what he did.
Jesus, who said that he won’t go the feast, went to Judea privately after the brothers had set off. Is Jesus being fickle minded? No, and we shall see why. Remember the time when Jesus was 12 years old, and was nowhere to be found in the big group travelling back from Jerusalem after the feast of Passover? The feast of the booths – in today’s story – is more popular in comparison. People from everywhere will flock to Judea to attend this yearly festival. In other words, the group going from Galilee to Judea would likely be larger than what we find in Luke 2. Had Jesus travelled with the big group, people therein who had either heard of or seen him performing miracles might just stage a triumphant entry. But it would be jumping the gun should that have happened, because "My time has not yet come…”; says Jesus to his brothers when they urged him to attend the feast. So, rather than being fickle minded, Jesus was actually adhering to the will of the Father. He wanted not only to fulfil his mission but to fulfil it by sticking to God’s timing .
We see from this how much Jesus was being in one with God. Had the brother delved deeper into understanding the way in which Jesus had been living his life, they would probably not have given him their advice.
And how then did Jesus exhibit this oneness with God at The feast of the Booths? He sticks to his mission by talking straight to the Jews who could have hurled stones at him. We mentioned earlier that the Jews weren’t pure in their motives. The motives of these Jews would have been pure had they delved a little deeper into the intent of the Sabbath law and apply it accordingly. Sabbath is a time set apart for worship, but Sabbath is also a time for people to rest, recover from their weariness, be healed and be made whole once again. God had in mind healing when he instituted the Sabbath law. Hence, the Jews were not keeping the Law of Moses simply by taking umbrage against Jesus for healing the paralytic. In fact, they were actively robbing the Sabbath law of its force. And Jesus chose to call a spade a spade.
By the way, the Jews see circumcision as a perfecting act. In other words, circumcision is viewed upon a sign pointing to a person being made whole or complete. And what did Jesus do? He healed the paralytic and let the disabled man be made whole. Jesus was therefore sticking to God’s original intent; he brought about fulfillment to the sign of circumcision. So, the Jews weren’t wrong to perform circumcision on Sabbath; but the irony of it all is that they actually didn’t have to perform creative reinterpretation of the law to justify their practice. Both circumcision and healing are legit. Had they delved deeper into understanding God’s intent, they would have got it.
Had the Jews delved deeper, had the brother delved deeper; would we delve deeper?
Although Jesus was a family member and not the Christ in the eyes of the brothers back then, the reason for both groups to not have delved deeper was one and the same: they were happy and satisfied to have some form of religiosity rather than to be faithful pilgrims. Pilgrims in the Old Testaments are people that take a journey to God’s temple, people who brave the mountainous trails with all its inherent dangers in order to be near to God, people who sing God’s praises along the way and focus on God as they journey toward the temple to worship him. Friends, do we see ourselves as pilgrims? People who make worshipping God their business, people who delve deeper and deeper in their journey of knowing God.
From this morning’s sharing, we see that everyone in the story choose to stick to something. The brothers stick to their worldliness, the Jews stick to their outward religiosity, and Jesus stick to God’s timing and intent. And may we add, pilgrims are the ones that stick to a journey set apart for God.
Friend, we are again in the season of Lent, a season where the church is called to slow down, to take pauses intentionally, in order to reflect, pray and fast. If our choice is to be more like Jesus in sticking to giving to God the glory, and like a pilgrim sticking to travelling a journey set apart for God, may we join the saints in this season of Lent to set aside time intentionally to read, pray and reflect; aiming at being known even more by the Lord and to know him much more.
May God help us in our pilgrimage.
Kostenberger A. J., John: Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament, Baker Academic: Grand Rapid, 2004. 234.
John 7:1–24 (Listen)
7:1 After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. 2 Now the Jews' Feast of Booths was at hand. 3 So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. 4 For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For not even his brothers believed in him. 6 Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. 8 You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After saying this, he remained in Galilee.
10 But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private. 11 The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, “Where is he?” 12 And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” 13 Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him.
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.”