“Appearances vs Right Judgment; Death vs Life”
November 3, 2019
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
Our Scripture reading this morning is from the Gospel of John, chapter seven, verses fourteen through twenty-four.
Jesus is teaching in the temple at the Feast of Tabernacles. The Jewish leaders have decided to try to put Jesus to death because of his teaching and behavior – they were especially incited when he healed a man on the Sabbath back in chapter five. Jesus has avoided Judea for this reason, but now he has come back. He has not yet identified himself to the crowd, and now he begins teaching in the temple.
And so, with that context in mind, we come to John chapter seven, verses fourteen through twenty-four.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
7:14 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.”
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Lord, your testimonies are wonderful;
therefore our souls cling to them.
The unfolding of your word gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple.
Therefore we long for your word
and your commandments.
Turn to us now and be gracious to us,
as is your way with those who love your name.
Keep our steps steady according to your promise,
and let no iniquity have dominion over us.
Redeem us from the oppression of the world,
that we may keep your precepts.
Make your face to shine upon us, your servants,
and teach us your statutes.
Grant all of this, we ask, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:129-135]
In the paragraph we are considering this morning Jesus contrasts two opposite forms of judgment … and ties up within them, two opposing ways of applying God’s law. One, he says, is characterized by “appearances,” and the other is characterized by “right judgment.”
And to fully understand what is going on here, we need to appreciate how Jesus’s words grow out of the events recorded in John chapter five.
Back in John five Jesus healed a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. He performed this miracle in Jerusalem – one of the great signs he performed, showing who he is.
But the response of the Jewish leaders was not to marvel at the sign, or to consider what it meant, or to reflect on what God was doing … their response was to attack first the man who was healed and then Jesus, because Jesus performed this miracle on the Sabbath and told the healed man to carry his mat home on the Sabbath.
And their response is so hostile, that we read in John 5:18 that by the end of it, the Jewish leaders were seeking to kill Jesus.
Jesus, in our text this morning, brings them back to those events. We considered together the points Jesus makes concerning the Sabbath, back when we looked at John 5:1-17. But here in John chapter seven, as he returns to those events, Jesus’s argument has even broader application for how we use God’s law as a whole.
And he does this by drawing a contrast between judging by “appearances” and judging by “right judgment.”
So what then are the differences between those two approaches to God’s law, and what do they mean for us?
The pattern that emerges in our text is that the judgment by appearances seeks its own will, not God’s will; it seeks its own glory, not God’s glory; it does this all in a way that turns God’s law upside down; and it leads not only to death … but even to murder.
Let me say that again. The judgment according to appearances seeks its own will, for its own glory, in a way that turns God’s law upside down, and leads to death and even murder.
Let’s see how that is laid out in our text.
First, the judgment according to appearances seeks its own will. Jesus lays this out in verse seventeen. The Jews marvel at his teaching and wonder where it came from. And Jesus says, “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.”
Jesus is saying that those who truly desire to do God’s will will be able to discern that Jesus’s teaching is from God the Father. The implication is that the Jewish leaders who are attacking Jesus, who are claiming that his works and his teachings are contrary to God’s law – they must not be seeking God’s will, but their own will.
And of course there’s a terrible irony in this. The leaders are arguing about God’s law. They have spent much of their lives studying God’s law. They hold their positions as keepers of God’s law. They act as judges towards others based on God’s law. But … at root, they are not actually committed to God’s law. Because they are primarily concerned with their own will, not God’s, and what else is God’s law other than an expression of God’s will?
And so despite their position, despite their education, despite the thing they claim to have committed their lives to, these men are doing the opposite of what they profess. They are hypocrites. They are guilty of the judgment by appearances because they engage with God’s law and will on a superficial level, so that they can do their own will at a much deeper level.
So first, the judgment according to appearances seeks its own will.
Second, the judgment according to appearance seeks its own glory. And that comes out in verse seventeen. Jesus says, “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.”
Now, Jesus’s statement is primarily about how they evaluate him – how they evaluate his words.
But once again, there are implications for his opponents. If Jesus is speaking what he received from God the Father, and is thus seeking the Father’s glory … and the Jewish leaders are opposing him … then they must not be speaking from God but from themselves … in which case they must be seeking, ultimately, their own glory, not God’s.
And this is exactly what we see if we reflect on the Jewish leader’s response to Jesus’s works.
Why are the Jewish leaders so upset by the claims and the mighty works of Jesus? Why are they murderously angry with him?
Well … it’s out of fear that they are losing glory because of Jesus.
For one thing, when Jesus comes doing miraculous works, then the people pay more attention to Jesus than to them.
But it’s not only about the glory of attention – it’s also about the glory of authority. The Jewish leaders had forbidden works like the carrying of one’s mat on the Sabbath, but Jesus had commanded the healed invalid to carry his mat home – defying the Jewish leaders, and so taking the glory of their authority. More than that, the Jewish leaders had forbidden miraculous healings on the Sabbath, unless the healing was necessary for the survival of the one being healed. But Jesus had defied them, healing a man in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. This detracted from the leaders’ glory even further.
And then, when Jesus identifies himself as the Son of God, claiming a place far above that of the Jewish leaders, he threatens their glory even more.
In the Jewish leaders’ response to Jesus, it becomes evident that their chief concern is their own glory – and so what drives their response to Jesus is that he is reducing their glory in the eyes of the people.
And once again, the dark irony of this should strike us. It’s deeply perverse to use God’s law in order to accomplish one’s own will. But it’s just as twisted – maybe even more so – to use the law of God in order to boost one’s glory with other people. It’s in many ways, the opposite of what the law was given for.
The law is given so we know how to love God – how to rightly relate to him, and grow in our relationship with him.
To take the law … intended to help us love God … and to use it to gain glory and esteem from other people … is like a man doing something for his wife or his children … but the primary reason he’s doing it is not because he loves them … but because he hopes to shape how other people will think of him when they see his actions. What should be an act of loving someone else becomes an act of using someone else in a hollow display of love … and so the leaders have done with God.
The judgment according to appearances seeks its own will, and it does it for its own glory.
Third, the judgment by appearances turns God’s law upside down.
Jesus directs the people to consider the law of God. He introduces this in the beginning of verse nineteen, and then in verses twenty-two and twenty-three he points to a specific aspect of the law. The Old Testament law dictated both that a male child born into the covenant community was to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, and that the seventh day of the week was to be a day of rest.
The question that leaves is what happens when those two days coincide?
The answer, which no Jew would dispute, was that you were to circumcise the boy on the Sabbath. And Jesus says that they would do this “so that the law of Moses may not be broken.”
Jesus’s point is that there is an order to the details of the law of God, all arranged around its intention – its goal.
And this is in many ways obvious. Think of our civil laws, for example.
If I walk up to a man on the sidewalk, and grab his shirt with one hand, and pull out a pair of scissors with the other, and cut right up the middle of his shirt with those scissors, then I have broken the law. I’ve destroyed his property.
On the other hand, if a man is lying unconscious on the sidewalk and paramedics arrive, and in the course of their examination and treatment they need to cut open his shirt, no one would dream of charging them with destruction of private property.
In fact, if any paramedic told us that they couldn’t treat someone because treatment would require cutting the patient’s shirt, and destruction of property is against the law … we would say that that paramedic had completely misunderstood the nature of the law and of their job. They would have misordered their priorities by placing the state of the patient’s clothing over the state of the patients health or life.
Now … on some level the Jewish leaders acknowledged the need for such order in the law.
They acknowledged it in the law Jesus is appealing to regarding circumcision. They knew that the spiritual blessings of circumcision should not be denied to a covenant child on account of the Sabbath.
They acknowledged it also (on some level) in regard to people’s needs and the Sabbath, because they admitted that works to save a life could be done on the Sabbath.
But in many more ways they missed the right order, and therefore misordered the law. And one such case was the healing that Jesus performed on the Sabbath.
But Jesus says that the right ordering of the law would make it plain that Jesus should have healed the man. Blessing others – making them physically well – is not forbidden on the Sabbath!
In outlawing such a deed, the Jewish leaders had misordered the law – they had turned it upside-down, reversing its proper order.
And in some ways, this should not surprise us. By seeking their own will and their own glory first, they are already using God’s law for the opposite of its purpose. Now we see the same thing in the details of how they apply God’s law. They have taken minor issues and made them major issues. They have taken major issues and made them minor issues. They have twisted the law in order to use it for their own glory and purposes.
The Jewish leaders have misordered God’s law.
And so, the judgment according to appearances seeks its own will, for its own glory, by turning God’s law upside-down.
Fourth and finally, the judgment according to appearances leads to death … even to murder.
That comes out in verses nineteen and twenty, where Jesus reminds the crowd that the Jewish leaders are seeking to kill him for what he has done.
The murderous intent of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem towards Jesus first was identified in John 5:18, and it continues in John chapter seven.
And this, in many ways, flows from what we have said so far.
On one level it makes sense practically. If you are seeking your own will and your own glory and someone else gets in the way of that, then they must be destroyed. And if not literally destroyed, as they are seeking here, then they must be socially destroyed, as is so often the case. And so the Jewish leaders seek not only to remove Jesus as an obstacle to their own glory, but to degrade him before the people in an effort to elevate themselves above him. That seeking their own glory first leads people to attack and seek to destroy others makes practical sense.
But it also makes sense in the bigger picture. If God’s law is meant to bring life and spiritual wellness to those it is applied to, then when it is turned upside down, when it is used in the opposite way it was made to, then we should not be surprised when it leads to the opposite result it was meant to – when it produces death instead of life.
In his argument in John chapter seven, Jesus has laid bare the pattern of the Jewish leaders who are opposed to him, and in doing so, he has laid out a pattern we must step back and look for in our own lives.
Jesus has told us that the judgment by appearances, seeks its own will, for its own glory, in a way that turns God’s law upside down, and leads to death and even murder.
Jesus lays out for us the pattern of the judgment by appearances.
And then, at the very same time – in contrast to the judgment according to appearances that leads to death – Jesus holds out what he calls the judgment according to “right judgment.”
And the pattern of right judgment that emerges in our text, is that right judgment seeks God’s will, not its own; seeks God’s glory, not its own; it does all of this in a way that uses God’s law rightly; and the result is that it restores people to true and full life.
Let me say that again. The judgment according to right judgment seeks God’s will, for God’s glory, in a way that uses God’s law rightly, and results in people being made well.
And we can see that in the same verses that we saw the judgment according to appearances.
So, in verse seventeen, Jesus contrasts those who seek God’s will with those who seek their own, and says that those who evaluate Jesus and his words rightly are evaluating them rightly because at root, they desire to do God’s will, not their own will. Those who exercise right judgment are not looking out primarily for their desires, but have declared themselves servants of God, and so seek to do his will.
Then in verse eighteen, he says that those who seek the truth, who do what is right, seek not their own glory, but God’s glory. Whereas the Jewish leaders were fighting viciously over glory – over esteem among the people – Jesus says that those who exercise right judgment are not primarily concerned with their own glory, but with the glory of God.
And we should note that growing out of that is a reversal of other priorities. Things that matter a great deal to those who seek their own glory will matter very little to those who seek first the glory of God.
And so in verses seventeen and eighteen we see that those who use right judgment seek God’s will for God’s glory.
And then, in verses twenty-two and twenty-three we learn that the judgment according to right judgment does all this by using God’s law rightly.
Jesus points out this right use of God’s law with the case of circumcision on the Sabbath. Circumcision for males in Israel, which has since been replaced by the rite of baptism for all the people of God, was a rite of cleansing, a rite of formal admittance into the people of God, a rite that set one apart from the world, a rite that by restoring one to the family of God was part of making one spiritually well. It was a significant blessing, and as such it was to be administered on the Sabbath if that is when the eighth day fell. That is rightly ordering the law.
And in a similar way, Jesus’s work of blessing and restoring the man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years was a great blessing, and a sign of God’s care – a work from God of making someone well and restoring them to a certain fullness of life, and so it should not have been withheld on the Sabbath, which is itself supposed to be a day of blessing from God.
Jesus uses the law rightly, as God intended it to be used.
And finally, at the end of verse twenty-three, Jesus explains that the judgment according to right judgment does all this in a way that makes people well and whole.
Right application of the law to God’s people does not kill, but brings fullness of life. Right application of the law to God’s people makes them well. That was true in the case of circumcision on the Sabbath – by that rite a Jewish boy entered into a greater fullness of life. And it was true with Jesus’s work of healing as well. It restored the man to fullness of life and worship among the people of God. Judgment according to right judgment makes people well.
Now, as we consider that, we should note two important things in how Jesus explains and applies these truths.
First, we should note that Jesus has not contrasted law and grace, but he has contrasted a perverse and misordered use of the law versus a right use of the law.
It is common in some circles to oppose God’s law and God’s grace. And so some would be tempted to read this passage and see the Jewish leaders as representing strict adherence to the law, with Jesus standing opposed to the law and in favor of grace instead.
But we need to note that that is not what is happening here. Jesus defends his actions not by pushing the law of God aside, but by appealing to it. He points them to the laws regarding Sabbath and circumcision to show that he is applying the law as God intended it to be applied, and they have twisted and perverted the law and its application.
The law, then, is a gracious gift. Of course the law by itself is not the fullness of the gospel. It is the work of Christ that saves us – not the law or our perfect obedience to it. And for those who reject Christ and his work for them, the law points to their rebellion and uncovers their sin, leading to God’s judgment of them.
But for those who embrace Christ by faith, the law is a gracious gift. It both helps us see our sin more clearly, that we can know our need for Christ and confess our sins to him, and it shows us how to live rightly. It points us to wholeness, to spiritual wellness, to the fullness of life that God intends for his people.
So first, we need to see that Jesus is not opposing law and grace … he is opposing a wrong view of the law with a right view of the law.
Second, we need to appreciate that Jesus looks to the Scriptures for his understanding of spiritual wellness – for his understanding of true life and human flourishing.
It is increasingly common for Christians to try to discard an element of God’s law because they claim it is contrary to full life – to human flourishing. They look at an element of God’s law, they point out that following that law will keep people from living a truly fulfilled life, and then they say that since God’s will is for his people to be blessed and fulfilled, and to flourish, then we must have misunderstood the law, or the law must be referring to something different from what it seems to be, or for some other reason we must discard that law now.
Key in such arguments is to smuggle in a definition of human flourishing from the surrounding culture. We come to the text with assumptions about what a good and fulfilled life must look like – and then we base our interpretation of God’s law on those assumptions.
But notice again that Jesus does not do that here. He looks to the law for an understanding of human flourishing and fulfilment. He looks to the rite of circumcision, which brought true human flourishing by formally admitting one into the common life and the worshiping life of the people of God. And then he draws a parallel to the healing he performed – which also restored the man healed to the common and the worshipping life of the people of God. The man healed is now well enough to participate in the life of God’s people – working among them, serving them, bringing sacrifice, participating in temple worship, and so on.
Jesus makes that connection by turning to the Word of God. Jesus allows the Word of God to define human flourishing, not the culture around him.
And that is important because more and more Christians struggle with, or even oppose, the commands of God because they do not lead to our culture’s definition of human flourishing. Instead, they often seem to have a cost. The law of God often calls for sacrifice. And in our culture’s understanding, human flourishing and self-sacrifice are opposed to one another.
But human flourishing as the Word of God defines it, human fulfillment as the Word of God defines it, fullness of life as the Word of God defines it includes sacrifice. It includes pain. It has costs. It is not the life of ease – it is not the path of least resistance. The Bible has a much more complex – a much deeper and richer understanding of true and full human life than our culture or any other culture can or will come up with on its own. Circumcision hurts. Those healed by Jesus faced interrogation and sometimes costly opposition from the Jewish leaders. The path to fullness of life has costs – it includes sacrifice. But it is still the true path to life.
Jesus does not define human flourishing or fullness of life according to the culture around him, but according to the Word of God. And we must do the same.
So, what we see in our text is that the judgment according to appearances seeks its own will, for its own glory, in a way that turns God’s law upside down, and leads to death and even murder.
On the other hand, the judgment according to right judgment seeks God’s will, for God’s glory, in a way that uses God’s law rightly, and results in people being made well.
How then does all this play out in our lives?
I think there are a number of ways we can answer that … but to get specific, let’s ask how these two different patterns described by Jesus play out in how we relate to those close to us, and in how we relate to ourselves.
Let’s start by thinking of those close to us. Maybe let’s start by thinking of our children.
And before those of you who do not have children tune out, this will apply to you too in a way as well, so don’t go anywhere.
But let’s start with parents: When your kid messes up – in a way that is big or small … when they disobey, when they do something they should not, when they sin in an ordinary or extraordinary way … what is your initial response? What is your strongest response?
I would suggest there are three types of responses which often come to us the easiest. One is frustration for how their sin or error hurts or inconveniences us directly. Another is anxiety and embarrassment over how their sin or error will make us look to other people. And a third is fear of how their sin might get in the way of our plans of worldly success for our children.
Do you see those patterns in how you respond to your children – whether they are young, teenagers, or even grown?
When your young kids start throwing fits before bedtime, or your teenager starts yelling at you in a disagreement, or your adult child is shirking their responsibilities … is your first response – is your strongest response – frustration or anger over how their sin will negatively affect you?
And when your young child makes some noise during the church service, or throws a tantrum in the narthex, or your teenager gets in trouble at school, or your adult child acts in a sinful way that becomes publicly known … when these things happen to you, is your first response – is your strongest response – distress and concern over what others in the church will think of you?
And when your young child is resistant to your direction, or your teenager is refusing to use the gifts God has given her to her full potential, or your adult child is making foolish or selfish choices with his resources … is your first response – is your strongest response – fear of how this will get in the way of your hopes for their worldly success – their achievements, their finances, their career?
Here’s what I want us to notice about all of those responses: Each of them is primarily concerned with our will and our glory. Each of them is primarily concerned with getting what we want, and getting esteem and glory for ourselves from people around us.
Each of those is a judgment according to appearances. And as such, it turns God’s law upside down – it misorders our priorities.
Now – it’s not that we shouldn’t desire to be blessed rather than frustrated by our children … it’s not that we shouldn’t desire a good reputation for us and our children … and it’s not that we shouldn’t desire success in this world. Those are not bad things. But they should not be primary things for us. They shouldn’t be our first concern or our greatest concern. They should be secondary things. And when they become our primary concerns – when they become our primary responses to our children’s sin, then we are turning God’s law upside down, seeking our own will and our own glory first, and, as we learn in our text this morning, we are using judgment that will lead to death.
When we as a church, through our actions, teach our covenant children that what most upsets us about their sin is its inconvenience to us, or the embarrassment it brings on us, or the ways it gets in the way of worldly goals, then those are the priorities they will learn to put first. And putting such things first – putting them before their relationship with God – will lead to spiritual death.
And so we each need to ask ourselves how we respond to the sin of those younger than us, and if it follows the judgment of appearance.
And instead of that, we must pursue the right judgment that Jesus holds out to us here: a judgment that seeks God’s will for God’s glory above all – a judgment that uses God’s law rightly and leads to life – a judgment that is an act of love.
That means that when a child in our family or our congregation sins, our chief concern is God’s chief concern – which is restoring them to right relationship with God and the people of God, and helping them grow in obedience for the sake of their relationship to the Lord.
It means that we are more concerned with our children being welcomed as children into our worship, than whether they make noises that can be a slight distraction. It means we are more concerned for how the Lord esteems such children, than for how others might esteem them.
That is the judgment according to right judgment. That is the application of God’s law that rightly orders our priorities. That is the application of God’s law motivated by love. And that is what we are called to do.
And of course children are just one example. We can, and should, extend the same way of thinking to our spouse, or our siblings, or our parents, or our close friends.
In our close relationships, we must judge according to right judgment – not appearances.
But in addition to our relationships, the same truths apply to how we think of ourselves and our own sin.
You have a besetting sin – you have a number of sins that you struggle with. Your calling is to seek all the help that could be beneficial as you battle those sins. Your call is to use God’s law rightly, to seek his will for your life and his glory, by battling sin and seeking the resources – the means of grace – that he has provided for you.
How often do you fail to seek out the help God has provided for you, out of devotion to your own will or concern for your own glory?
How often have you failed to battle sin in your life or in your heart – whether greed, or lust, or anger, or gluttony, or drunkenness, or sloth, or discontentedness, or envy, or vainglory – how often have you failed to battle such sins because you just didn’t want to? Because to do so was contrary to your will … and so you disregarded God’s will?
Or how many times have you wanted help in battling these sins, but you failed to pursue help because it would mean that others would learn about your sin … and you feared so much for how that would affect your esteem in their eyes – you feared so much for your own glory, that you chose not to seek help against your sin. How often when battling sin have you chosen your own glory over God’s?
When battling our own sin, we must judge by right judgment, which brings life … not by the judgment of appearances that leads to death.
When we look at how we have treated others or how we have treated our own sin, we can easily see the pattern of the judgment of appearances that leads to death.
And that should lead to at least two responses. One, which we have been speaking of, is repentance.
We must repent. We must see our sin, and seek to repent of it. We must seek to use God’s law as it was intended – to use it as Jesus does – to use it to bring life, not death, both to ourselves and to God’s people around us.
Repentance is one key step in our response.
The other is thankful trust in Christ.
We often fail to use God’s law in the lives of others the way we should. We often fail to use God’s law in our own lives the way we should.
And so thanks be to God that our salvation does not rest on our ability or our perfection. Thanks be to God that the salvation of our children, or our relatives, or our friends, or our own souls, does not rest on our perfect obedience.
Thanks be to God that it instead relies on the perfect obedience of Christ. And just as he does here, Christ pursues each of his people perfectly, for the glory of God, rightly using the law of God, in order to bring life.
In the gospel, in the Scriptures, by his Spirit, Christ reaches out to those around you with right judgment and saving, healing ministry … even when you fail to.
In the gospel, in the Scriptures, by his Spirit Christ reaches out to you with right judgment and saving, healing ministry … even when you fail to rightly minister to yourself.
Christ’s faithfulness should give you hope. Christ’s faithfulness should give you peace.
But Christ’s faithfulness should not lull you into complacency. Instead, it should call you to a renewed desire to join his work. Because if Christ is working in such a way, you are not called to rightly apply God’s law on your own, but you are called to cooperate with the work Christ is doing for the good of his people.
What we should recognize is that our text this morning gives us not just a picture of the ugliness of when God’s law is misused … but it also gives us a picture of the beauty of when God’s law is rightly used. In Jesus we see the beauty of the law lived out. In the invalid who Jesus restored we see the beautiful fruit of when God’s law is followed rightly, and when God’s people are motivated by love for God and God’s people. In Jesus’s person and work we see the beauty of holiness, and therefore the beauty of the law.
And so, trust in Christ. And as you do, strive to use his law as he has called you to use it – for the glory of God and the good of his people.
Approach your life and the life of those around you with right judgment: seek God’s will, through the right use of God’s law, in order to bring life and wholeness to your own life and the lives of those around you, all for the glory of God your Savior.
This sermon draws on material from:
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971.