v.1 The concerted effort on the part of the religious leadership to rid itself of Jesus was concentrated in the capital and so long as the Lord stayed in Galilee, though he faced opposition, it did not pose the same direct threat to his life. His decision to remain in Galilee for this reason was part of his strategy to delay that final confrontation with the religious authorities that would lead to his death until the time was right. It was not fear on his part, for he would later throw himself into the maw of those forces waiting to kill him. But he knew there was a right time, a time appointed for his death, and that hour had not arrived.
v.2 The Feast of Tabernacles was associated with the harvest of grapes and olives, just as Passover and Pentecost, earlier in the year, were associated with the harvests of barley and wheat. The Feast ran for seven days in the Jewish lunar month of Tishri, which falls in our September-October. The time in question, therefore, is about six months after the previous Passover when the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand occurred and about six months before the cross. The “after this” with which chapter 7 begins indicates only sequence, not the immediate proximity of events. This happened after that. According to Josephus, among the Jews of that time, Tabernacles was the most popular of the three principal feasts and it brought Jews flocking to the capital in huge numbers.
v.3 By far the most natural understanding of this reference to Jesus’ brothers, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary notwithstanding, is to the other children of Mary and Joseph, born after Jesus, their firstborn. At this time they were not converted as the Synoptic gospels also tell us. After the resurrection, however, they are found among the followers of the Lord. James and Jude who wrote letters now found in the NT were among them.
It appears that his brothers were saying to him that if he wanted to stanch the defection of disciples from his cause and movement – they can’t have been unaware of recent developments and the large number of disciples who had deserted him – then he should take his miracle show to Jerusalem and take advantage of the enormous crowds that would be gathered in the capital for the feast. Furthermore, if he were to win the nation to himself, he would sooner or later have to take on the capital and the temple and make an impact there in the heart and center of Jewish religious life.
v.5 John ascribes the brothers’ advice to their lack of faith. They were superficial disciples only. They did not grasp the true significance of their elder brother or what he had come into the world to do. They were thinking in the same worldly way about Jesus’ miracles that had led the great crowds to be so enthusiastic about him after the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, only to lose interest in the Lord after he explained more fully who he was and what he had come to do.
v.6 In other words, they had advised Jesus to take the path they would have taken in his shoes. But, of course, they had no real inkling of the Lord’s purpose and calling.
v.8 The word “yet” was probably not in John’s original. It looks very much like a scribal addition meant to resolve the problem created in v. 10 by the fact that after seeming to say that he wouldn’t go to the feast, the Lord went anyway. But even without the “yet” there is no real problem. The Lord did not tell his brothers that he would never go to Jerusalem, only that he would not go to feast when they thought he should nor for the reason for which they urged him to go. He himself at the end of v. 8 even suggested that when the right time, when God’s time comes, he would go.
As Calvin put it, it was not right for the Lord to rush headlong into danger, but, at the same time, “He did not turn aside a hair’s breadth from the course of his duty.” Calvin drew the moral for us from the Lord’s example: “We must always beware that we do not for the sake of life lose the purpose for living.”
v.11 “The Jews” here clearly is a reference of the religious leadership, as opposed to “the crowds” in v. 12 who were, of course, Jews as well. They thought that the Feast of Tabernacles would draw Jesus out of Galilee and into the net they planned to close around him.
v.13 The antipathy of the authorities is so pronounced that it is obvious to the public. The people knew that to speak positively about the Lord Jesus would be to incur official wrath and like vast multitudes who would follow them in the world, they were more concerned for their own skins than for the truth or the glory of God.
I suppose there is not a book in the New Testament more often recommended to seekers than the Gospel of John. One reason for that is, of course, that it is book whose explicit purpose is to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ. But, another reason, I’m sure, that we think of the Gospel of John as a book for seekers or brand new Christians is that it strikes us as such a gentle book. It is the gospel of the four gospels that seems to us to breathe the spirit of the love of God and of Christ’s love. John refers to himself, we remember, as the disciple whom Jesus loved. It is John, in his first letter, who writes that “God is love.” And, of course, it is in this Gospel that we read, “That God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In John, we think, we get the clearest presentation of Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners and we get it in the most winsome, winning, attractive way. And, I would say, that is all certainly true.
But true as all that is, we have already discovered that the Gospel of John is full of hard sayings. Time and again we encounter in this Gospel statements that must be very hard for people who are not yet Christians to read without offense. John shows us Christ and his sacrificial love for us, to be sure, but he also shows us Christ saying things that drove people away from him and doing things that offended large numbers of his countrymen. Apparently, we cannot have the happy and wonderful truth without the hard, difficult, and demanding truth. We cannot even have the one without the other in this most gentle of all the Gospels.
It is, of course, true that many people have fashioned a view of Jesus Christ that is all gentleness and no offense. Liberal Protestant Christianity in the later 19th and early 20th century attempted to do that. It taught that Jesus was a rabbi who went around teaching the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. The problem with that view of Jesus was, of course, that it could not account for the fact that Jesus was murdered at the instigation of the religious authorities. As Archbishop William Temple once observed, “Why anyone would have wanted to crucify the Christ of liberal Protestantism has always been a mystery.” Do-gooders may sometimes prove a nuisance, but they hardly pose such a threat as to require their extermination. But nothing could be clearer from the Gospels and, even especially from the Gospel of John, than that in the mind of the Jewish religious leadership Jesus posed a direct threat so grave that he had to be exterminated.
What did they perceive to be the problem? Well the gospels make it clear that the largest part of the problem was envy. They were jealous of his popularity, of his power, of the authority of his teaching, even, dare we say it, of his goodness. They gnashed their teeth at the sight of the immense crowds that rushed to see him wherever he went. They may not have said much publicly – like anyone else they would have known how it would have sounded – , but they hated the sight of those whom he had healed, the people who had been possessed of demons now walking about sound in mind and cheerfully giving thanks to God and Jesus for their deliverance. They hated goodness itself because it did not serve their own interests. It was so obvious – the envy that motivated the religious leaders against Jesus – that even Pontius Pilate could see it, according to the Gospel of Mark!
Now, to be sure, they would never have put it that way to themselves or to anyone else. They would never have admitted, even to themselves, that they were eaten up with pride and jealousy. Their antipathy for the Lord Jesus they saw in terms of his assault on cherished Jewish doctrines and laws – he didn’t take their view of how the Sabbath should be sanctified (which was the occasion of the first indication in the Gospel of a plot to kill him, that in 5:18), he didn’t observe any number of the rabbinical additions to the law of Moses, and he was outspokenly critical of a religious life framed in terms of obedience to rules and regulations, which was the religious life they observed themselves and taught others to observe. He was loyal to Moses and the law of Moses, of course, but not to their interpretations of that law or applications of it.
Later they would speak of the threat he posed to the public order and to Rome’s willingness to allow the Jews a measure of self-government. But, that is an old ploy. Controversies that are really about power and position are always posed in terms of good order instead.
Still, all of the popularity that the Lord had enjoyed with the crowds, his extraordinary accomplishments in healing the sick, might not have produced such hostility or envy except for the fact that the Lord Jesus presented himself as the enemy of the Jewish religious establishment and over and again represented them as wrong, as wicked, and as dangerous to the well-being of the people.
This is precisely what Jesus said again here in v. 7. He told his brothers that the world – that is the unbelieving world of the Jewish opposition to him – did not hate them because they did not confront it, they did not condemn it, they did not criticize it publicly. “The world cannot hate you because you are in agreement with it and accepting of it,” Jesus said. “But I am not.” He called the world evil and it hated him for it. He told men who were proud of their goodness that they were, in fact, sinful and bad. And, by and large, someone who does that can expect to be the object of scorn and their hatred. Men and women do not like to be told that they are evil. They bitterly resent those who say they are. And, if the accusations are true, as they were in Jesus’ case, they resent it all the more.
Over and again in the gospels we discover that the first difference between those who come to Jesus and believe in him and those who refuse to come and instead take offense at him is that the first group knows they are bad and acknowledges that they need God’s mercy and the other group – whatever they may say for public consumption (for even the proudest man rarely is stupid enough to declare that he thinks himself better than others) – they do not really think themselves bad and they do not really wonder if God could be merciful to people as sinful as they are. No Pharisee would ever write, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”
Some of the immortal scenes of the Gospels have exactly this theme. The immoral woman who wet the Lord’s feet with her tears is contrasted with proud Simon the Pharisee complaining about the Lord consorting with such a person as she was! She loved, Jesus said, because she had been forgiven much. Simon didn’t feel any particular need for forgiveness. Or the tax collector who stood at a distance in the temple and prayed, “Lord be merciful to me a sinner,” while the Pharisee, in his private thoughts was saying to God, “How glad I am that I am not as that tax collector.” Or Peter falling to his knees when first he saw the power of Christ on display, “Lord, depart from me for I am a sinful man,” – the Lord hadn’t said anything to Peter about his sins, but finding himself in the presence of the Son of God, all Peter could think of was his unworthiness – while Herod jailed John the Baptist and later executed him for having the temerity to criticize in public his incestuous marriage.
As the Lord made clear many times in his ministry, he came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. It is not, he said, the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. By which, as the context makes clear, he meant not those who were actually healthy or actually righteous, but those who thought themselves healthy and thought themselves righteous, namely the supposedly devout people to whom Jesus was preaching. When in Luke 15 the Savior gave his parable of the lost sheep and told how the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to look for the one sheep who is lost, it is obvious in the context that the ninety-sine sheep are not the saved, but the Jews who think themselves saved, the self-righteous and the proud, whose pride and self-righteousness render them indifferent to Christ and to his salvation. It was the Lord’s peculiar use of “righteous” and “healthy” that Blaise Pascal was referring to when he wrote “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who believe themselves sinners, and the rest, sinners who believe themselves righteous.”
And there, brothers and sisters, is our problem. We cannot get started with our friends and our neighbors and our workmates, we cannot get started telling them of Jesus Christ and how he can save them without telling them in one way or another that they need to be saved, that they are sinners, that God’s wrath rests upon them, that they are so habitually sinful that they could never in themselves make themselves good enough for God. That is not a popular message, but it is the essential first step in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was for Christ and it must be for us. If one does not think he needs saving from his sins, then Jesus Christ can be of no great importance. If one is healthy and righteous as so many think, then there is nothing particularly newsworthy in the Good News, the Gospel, because it offers a remedy only to a phantom problem. As the Lord said, it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Those who think themselves healthy won’t move heaven and earth to find the doctor.
In our day when popular psychology has made it virtually a heresy to accuse people of being bad, many Christian pastors have decided that, whether or not it is true that human beings are as comprehensively sinful as the Lord Jesus said they were, it is impolitic and counter-productive to say so. We will never make progress, so they think, by being so negative.
This movement away from the Lord’s own method of telling the world that it was evil and needed his salvation, was already well underway in the 1920s and 30s. J. Gresham Machen, with what I think was a remarkable foresight, predicted the outcome.
“The fundamental fault of the modern church is that it is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin…. But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than he.” [Christianity and Liberalism]
As James Stewart, the great Scottish preacher, put it more bluntly, “Christianity is not for the well-meaning; it is for the desperate…” [The Strong Name, 151] And as C. S. Lewis observed – no doubt on the strength of his own experience as well as his reading of the Bible – “The Christian religion…does not begin in comfort; it begins in…dismay… In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.” [Mere Christianity, 39]
When a person falls under the spell of divine grace and comes to see the truth about himself, to see herself as God sees her, this badness, this sinfulness, this evil – the word the Lord used – is something we see with the clearest sight. We know we are proud and have no real reason to be. We know we don’t love God very much and that we do not love our neighbors with anything like the devotion we lavish on ourselves. We know that we are selfish beyond our power to describe: self-absorbed, self-pitying, self-serving. We know how little interest we have in others, for their own sake, how little sympathy we have for others. We know how little we do what is truly good and how even the best we do is tainted by the impurity of our motives. We know how ungrateful we are for the indescribably great mercies God has lavished upon us. We all know ourselves to be as William Cowper, the great poet described himself:
When I would speak what thou hast done
To save me from my sin,
I cannot make thy mercies known,
But self-applause creeps in.
And, something more. We know now how insidious pride really is. It comes in a thousand forms, it expresses itself in every conceivable state of mind. Alexis de Tocqueville made this point in regard to those ancient enemies: the English and the French. “The French,” he said, want no one to be their superior. The English want inferiors. The French man constantly raises his eyes above him with anxiety. The English man lowers his beneath him with satisfaction. On either side it is pride, but understood in a different way.”
Today we might say that the person with an inflated self-image and the person with a low self-image are both equally proud in thinking so much of themselves and seeing the world so much in terms of themselves. Both are, as the Bible says human beings are at the root, lovers of themselves. They are all, as Augustine described them, homo incurvatus in se, “man curved in on himself.” How subtle pride is. It rages even in the heart of the man or woman who is torn by the thought that he or she is a nobody. And this pride, this self-love, this self-worship is then the root of all other sins as we seek before all else, our own pleasure, our own power, our own glory, our own peace and prosperity, no matter God’s will, no matter the welfare of others.
It was pride that brought Satan down from heaven to hell. It was pride that took root in the heart of Adam and Eve in the Garden. It was pride that led those people who had so long awaited the coming of the Messiah to put him to death when he appeared among them.
And it is that pride that first prevented them from receiving the truth about the Lord Jesus. To do that they had to admit that they were bad, sinful, guilty, helpless. This they would not do. And it is that same pride that stands in the way of eternal life for so many today. Oh, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen pride block the truth from entering the heart. I’ve seen it ruin and destroy a soul. I’ve seen it preventing a soul from uttering a desperate plea to Jesus for help and mercy even in the very last moments of a person’s life. That damned pride! So foolish, so dishonest, so poisonous.
I want you to hate pride as you see here what it led to, what it must always lead to if not checked by the grace and the power of God. I want you to see it for the dishonesty that it is and the anti-God state of mind that it is. And I want you to see it for what it does as these people who had the Prince of Life among them, wished him dead because he was better than they! Here we see men being destroyed by pride. We see them willing to kill the one man who could raise them to everlasting joy simply to avoid having to admit the truth about themselves. And we can see that same pride, in all of its same ugliness and destructiveness all around us in the world today, if only we will look. The unkind remark, the looking down on others, the constant excusing of oneself, the defending of oneself, the offense one takes at criticism of any kind, however just, and on and on it goes. How self-absorbed everyone is. How much the world seems to revolve around him or her.
And what will we do if we can gain the hatred of pride as we should? I will tell you. We will, you and I, walk humbly with our God and show the world that humility – an honest reckoning with our sin and our need –is not the ugly thing the world imagines it to be, but a very beautiful thing, a liberating thing. We can ennoble the confession and the conviction of sin before the eyes of the world. We can show them ourselves that acknowledging the evil that is in our hearts and lives is the path to the most peaceful, happy, and fruitful kind of life, because it is the path to the forgiveness and the mercy and the blessing of God.
The world thinks that humility and humiliation are the same thing and that a humble person is a weak person, probably a kind of pathetic, defeated person who is always telling you that he or she is a nobody. But that isn’t humility, nothing like it. If you met a truly humble person, you would probably only think that he or she was a cheerful, attractive sort who seemed to care, genuinely care, about you and what you had to say. And then, if you thought about him or her still more, it would occur to you that what was different about that person is that he didn’t seem to be always thinking about himself, she didn’t seem to be taken up with herself. He, she was free from that self-absorption that peeps out of every pore of most people.
We cannot overcome the pride that rages in a human heart. We can tell people about and show it to them, but we cannot make them admit the truth about themselves. We cannot convince them that they are in desperate need of the mercy of God in Christ though there is no fact easier to prove in all the world. Only the might of God can overcome a power so great as the pride of man.
But, we can adorn the humble spirit. But will we? Do you and I not see the same thing in ourselves still that we can see in the Jews of Jesus’ day? The envy, the defensiveness, the lust to vindicate ourselves, the hatred of those who rise above us, who prosper, at least in our minds, in some fashion at our expense. How quick we are to defend ourselves when we are criticized. How slow really to admit the truth when it reflects poorly on us. And, how much our minds and hearts still so completely revolve around ourselves – our pleasures, our desires, our needs, our wants, as if we really were the center of the universe. How easily angered we are when things do not go well, as if we deserved better.
Pride being the first and the bottom sin of all sins, it is also the sin that lasts the longest in the Christian’s life. It was the sin that was first to live in our hearts and, alas, it is the sin that is last to die. “That which first overcomes man,” said Augustine, “is the last thing man overcomes.” [Cited in Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, 282] I know it is so with me! I find it everywhere I look in my heart and life. And the wise and more sharpsighted I become, the more of it I find.
Well, we stand in our text this morning before men being destroyed by their pride. Should it not make us hate that pride and hate the fact that so much of it remains in us. Shouldn’t that terrible sight of men hating the Son of God because he told the truth about them, make us stand against the pride in our own hearts with might and main, confess it as the evil that it is, seek to root it out of every corner of our lives, work very hard at placing others before our selves – not only because it is good and right to do so; not only because that is what Jesus Christ did for us that we might live – but because nothing better lays the axe to the root of our pride than living in defiance of it. And, we can over and over again, in all kinds of ways, give glory to God and to Christ our Savior for being so good to us when we were and are so bad to him and rejoicing before the world and one another in that great love with which we have been loved in defiance of our unloveliness.
Everyone is unlovely, whether they will admit it or not. It is ours to show how life-giving that admission is, that honest reckoning with our own evil, if only that admission brings us then to seek mercy from God and find in the Son of God forgiveness, love, joy and life.
Look at the Jews here and see again how poisonous pride is and renew your determination that you will not be proud; that you will not live your remaining years in this world in pride before God and man. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up!