“Glory, Fear, and Disordered Relationships”
October 27, 2019
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
Our Scripture reading this morning is from The Gospel of John, chapter seven, verses one through eighteen.
This morning we leave the events of John chapter six – which we have spent the last six weeks on, and we jump about six months ahead to the events of John chapter seven. [Carson, 305]
John chapter seven occurs during the Feast of Booths (or Feast of Tabernacles) – a seven-day festival held in September or October. Many Jews are gathering in Jerusalem for the festival – according to Josephus this feast was, at the time, the most popular of the three annual feasts held in Jerusalem. [Carson, 305]
Jesus has been making staggering claims about things of ultimate significance. And now Jesus, his brothers, and the crowd gathering, will each have to decide how they will handle those claims of ultimate importance which Jesus has been making.
And so, with that context in mind, we come to John chapter seven, verses one through eighteen.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
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.
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, you are our hiding place and our shield,
we hope in your word.
Help us to turn from all false ways,
and keep instead the commandments of you, our God.
Uphold us according to your promise, that we may live,
and let us not be put to shame in our hope.
Hold us up, that we may be safe
and have regard for your statutes continually.
For we know we will one day stand before you and give an account,
and so, with that in mind, help us now to attend to your word.
Grant this in Jesus’s name. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:114-117, 120]
Our text this morning shows us how different people handle matters of ultimate importance. Jesus, in his ministry, has been making claims about eternal reality – about God, about human nature, about eternity, about judgment, about eternal life. And now we come to a major feast in the life of Israel. And the question that emerges is how different groups will handle these topics.
We are told that the leaders of the Jews had responded with intense hostility – they were trying to kill Jesus. The world – which, somewhat strikingly in this context includes the descendants of Israel – the world is hostile to Jesus and his claims. So how will others respond to that?
And the first group we come to with that question in our text are Jesus’s brothers. Jesus had brothers – the sons of Joseph and Mary, all born after Jesus. And we are told two things that at first seem to be a contradiction. In verses three and four Jesus’s brothers urge him to go to Judea for the feast, and perform great works publicly – perform the kind of miracles he had been doing in Galilee, only now do it for a larger audience on a larger scale. Go to Judea, they tell him, and perform the kind of miracles that will get people’s attention, and in that way compel them to believe and support you – “show yourself to the world” they say. The first thing we are told is that this is what they urge Jesus to do.
The second thing we are told, in verse five, is that Jesus’s brothers did not believe in him.
Now – how do those two things go together?
Well, it is possible that Jesus’s brothers were being sarcastic. [Morris, 395] But more likely, I think, they believed that Jesus could perform mighty works … but they did not yet grasp and believe the significance of who he was.
And part of how we can see that they did not grasp it, was their focus on gaining recognition and glory from the world. It seems that the primary thing in the minds of Jesus’s brothers was not the nature of Jesus’s mission, it was not the nature of what God the Father had called Jesus to do, but it was what the people thought of Jesus. The people’s esteem of Jesus is the primary concern the brothers have, and they try to give him advice on how to get the esteem of the people: go to Judea and perform some miraculous works, and the world will glorify you. That is their message.
And implied in that is that the brothers are waiting for that to happen before they fully engage with what Jesus is doing, and what is going on through him. Jesus is making claims of ultimate significance, but his brothers are holding back on fully engaging with those claims until he first wins over the crowds – until he first gains the esteem of the people.
That is how one group – how Jesus’s brothers, at this point – are handling the claims that Jesus is making about things of ultimate significance.
A second group that emerges is the people – the crowd of Jews going to the festival. And we come across them in verses twelve and thirteen. In verse eleven we read that the Jewish leaders were looking for Jesus, and then we read “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.’ Yet for fear of the Jews” – meaning the Jewish leaders – for fear of the Jewish leaders “no one spoke openly of him.”
Jesus has been making claims of ultimate importance – about ultimate spiritual realities. And the people knew of them. And they even had some opinions about them. But what I want to draw your attention to is verse thirteen. Though the people knew of the claims Jesus was making about things of ultimate importance … they did not speak of them openly. And why not? For fear of the Jewish leaders. And we need to notice that the fear that they had was likely fear of rejection and exclusion. We read in verse one that the Jewish leaders were seeking to kill Jesus … but we do not read that they were seeking to kill anyone who supported or discussed Jesus. Jesus’s own brothers, we read in verses seven and eight, have no fears for their safety in going to the feast, despite their association with Jesus. And so, the fear of the people would seem not to be of violence but of exclusion – that as others will be, they too might be put out of the synagogues or excluded by the Jewish leadership. Jesus comes making claims of ultimate significance, and the people avoid openly engaging with it – they avoid openly speaking of it – because they fear exclusion from the worldly powers that be.
Jesus’s brothers’ concerns and the people’s concerns seem somewhat different – and their actions can look opposed to each other. But what I want us to notice is that the same principle was operating underneath the actions of both.
Both the brothers and the people saw their relationships to other people – their relationship to the world – as of primary importance. And so, both subjugated matters of ultimate spiritual importance to concerns for worldly glory and acceptance.
What we see in the brothers and the people is that when someone’s primary desire is for human glory, and their primary fear is of human rejection, then they will fail to rightly engage with the most important things of human life.
In Jesus’s brothers, and in the crowd in Judea, we are reminded that when our primary desire is for human glory and our primary fear is of human rejection – and of course those are two sides of the same coin – but when our primary concerns are about human esteem, then we will fail to rightly engage with, or even to openly speak of, the most important and ultimate things of human life.
That is what we see here in our text – the brothers have been faced with claims of ultimate reality, and they are still primarily concerned with human glory and esteem, which keeps them from truly engaging with the claims Jesus is making. And since desire for human glory and fear of human rejection are at root the same thing … we see the same dynamic at work in the crowd. The crowd fails to speak openly of Jesus’s claims for fear of human rejection.
We can see these dynamics play out in our text in the brothers and in the people … but we can also see the same dynamic play out in our culture, and in ourselves.
Writing in the mid-90s, author David Foster Wallace set a significant portion of his largest novel among the residents of a drug and alcohol abuse recovery house. And a significant portion of those characters’ discussions and interactions take place in meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Asked in a later interview why he chose that setting, Wallace explained that he wanted his characters to have honest conversations about ultimate things – about things like their relationship with God. But he also realized that in our current culture, it was completely implausible to have typical characters just sit around and talk about those kinds of things. As he thought about this, Wallace decided that the only place where realistic characters could be portrayed as having earnest, sincere, and personal conversations about God and ultimate spiritual reality, was in the context of programs like AA. And so, he set much of his novel there. [Lipsky, 82]
In an essay on Dostoevsky, Wallace dove into this tendency in our culture further. He addressed it specifically regarding novelists, but his words could apply to anyone in our culture. “There are,” he writes, “certain tendencies we believe are bad, qualities we hate and fear. Among these are sentimentality, naïveté, archaism, fanaticism. It would probably be better to call our […] culture now one of congenital skepticism. Our intelligentsia distrust strong belief, open conviction. Material passion is one thing, but ideological passion disgusts us on some deep level.” [Wallace, “Dostoevsky,” 272]
Wallace goes on to explain that when people do express open and sincere thoughts on matters of faith and ultimate reality, they generally do not provoke others to “outrage or denouncement, but worse – one raised eyebrow and a very cool smile” … along with maybe “a dry bit of mockery.” “People would either laugh or be embarrassed for us.” he writes. [Wallace, “Dostoevsky,” 273-274]
In one of his novels Wallace continued to engage with this assessment of our culture. One of his characters, an earnest young man, reflects on how confounding it is to him that everyone he knows over the age of ten “finds stuff that is really real uncomfortable, and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only be mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.” He contrasts this with the drug and alcohol abuse recovery house he has been spending more time in. He likes it there, he says, because “it’s very real […] and he once heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.” [Wallace, Infinite Jest, 592, 591]
Another character in the same novel laments to himself how “the presence of Americans could always make him feel vaguely ashamed after saying things he believed. [He felt an] aftertaste of shame after revealing passion of any belief or type when with Americans, as if he had made flatulence instead of had revealed belief.” [Wallace, Infinite Jest, 318]
Strong belief – especially serious religious belief – is seen as naïve in our culture. A bit later Wallace notes how the great fear for most people is exclusion from others – being cast out by other people for some offense, some wrong. And, he says, “naïveté is the last true terrible sin in the theology of [modern] America.” [Wallace, Infinite Jest, 694]
We do not live in first-century Palestine during the earthly ministry of Jesus. We do not have the Jewish leaders over us who are trying to put an end to Jesus. But thousands of years later, our situation is not unlike Jesus’s brothers, and that crowd.
We too are often concerned with esteem from others more than anything else – we crave their approval and glory, and we fear their rejection. In our culture such rejection is not done through exclusion from the synagogue, but through exclusion from the realm of the respectable, the realm of the sophisticated, the realm of the honorable. And such realms exclude the open and direct talk of things of ultimate reality: of God, and humanity, and eternity. And so, because our primary desire is for human glory and our primary fear is of human rejection, we often fail to engage in or even speak openly of the most important and ultimate things of human life.
And the insanity of that should strike us. What could be more important to our existence than whether we have a personal Maker? What could be more important than the question of how our Maker relates to us? What could be more important than the question of whether we have souls that exist beyond our bodily death? What could be more important than the question of whether and how we can attain eternal life? There is nothing more important than such questions! And they nag at every human being at some level – we all whisper in our hearts about these ultimate questions from time to time. But like the crowd in verse thirteen, out of fear of human judgment or rejection, we rarely speak openly about them.
In our culture we see how the concern for human esteem keeps us from openly discussing or focusing on the most important things of human existence.
That is true in the world – it is true in our culture. But it is true among Christians as well. It is true within the Church.
It looks different in the Church … but the dynamic can be similar. Often in the Church we speak of spiritual reality … but we find ways to keep it at arm’s length. We keep it from sounding like it’s really real, even if we believe on some level that it is.
Helmut Thielicke described this as speaking of God in the third person instead of in the second person – referring to God as “him” (the third person, grammatically), rather than speaking to him as “you” (the second person grammatically). Thielicke says this is a shift “from a personal relationship with God to a mere technical reference.” [Thielicke, 33]
For Christians, we might think of this by asking how you speak about God with other Christians. To put it bluntly, when you speak about God with other Christians, do you talk like he’s really real – do you talk like he’s actually right there in the room with you. Or do you speak of him like an absent party? Or an object of study? Or an abstract idea?
Do you have other Christians that you speak with openly about your relationship to God? Or do you get embarrassed by the idea – even with other Christians – and fear what they will think of you? And so, do you tend to speak of issues of ultimate significance only in abstractions and technical theological discussions? Do you speak to anyone openly about God being the most important thing in your life? Or is your preference more to speak with fellow Christians in the narthex after worship about work, or child rearing, or financial planning, or sports, or colleges, or public policy – is that your preference over speaking with fellow Christians about where your relationship with the Lord is right now?
Christians, why do we prefer to discuss temporal matters far more than eternal matters – even when we are talking to one another?
Is it not because we too are often concerned with the esteem of human beings more than anything else? Because we too fear being seen as naive, or overly simple, or unsophisticated?
Is it not because our desire is for human glory, and our fear is of human rejection, and this keeps us from openly speaking of the most important and ultimate things of human life?
Is it not because we too are like the crowd in verse thirteen?
When our concern for human esteem is primary, then our desire for human glory is primary. And when our desire for human glory is primary, our fear of human rejection is primary. And when our fear of human rejection is primary, it will keep us from openly speaking of and engaging in the most important and ultimate things of human life – the things of God and eternity. Those things will be made secondary.
We see that in the approach Jesus’s brothers take. We see it in the crowd gathered for the feast of booths. We see it in our culture around us. We see it in our own lives.
That is the problem in our text. What then is the solution?
The solution, unsurprisingly, is found in the words and the deeds of Christ. The solution is found in Jesus.
What we see in our text is that out of a desire for God’s glory above all else, Jesus openly engages with things of ultimate importance, and so must we.
Our text shows us that because he desires God’s glory above all else, Jesus openly engages with things of ultimate importance, and we must do the same.
We see this emerge in how Jesus handles his situation, and then how he describes what he is doing.
As we saw earlier, from a human perspective, there are two good options for how Jesus could handle the situation he faces. The first is the path suggested by his brothers. He could come to Jerusalem in a big public display, perform miraculous works for all to see, and he would soon have the esteem and the glory of the world.
Another option is that which the crowd adopts. He could keep quiet, he could avoid notice. This won’t get him the glory of the world, but it would at least spare him from the hatred of the world.
Both of these options would seem to make sense from a worldly perspective.
But what we see is that Jesus does neither. Jesus enters Jerusalem privately, but then he makes his way to the temple – arguably one of the most noticeable places he could be during the festival – and he begins not to perform miracles, but to teach.
Rather than keep out of harm’s way, as the crowd does, Jesus steps out before them in the temple. Rather than wow them with mighty works, Jesus does no miracles – he only teaches.
Why does Jesus do this? Why does he act this way?
Well, he tells us in verse eighteen. He is not seeking his own glory, but the glory of God. He is not seeking the esteem of the world, but to serve God the Father faithfully, and so to receive esteem from the Father.
Jesus is chiefly concerned with his relationship to God the Father, and so his timing and his decisions are based not on what will achieve worldly esteem for him, but what will help him best fulfill the mission that God the Father has given to him.
In Jesus’s perspective, his relationship to God the Father is so important, is so significant, that his relationship to the world’s esteem pales in comparison. And so, he does not feel the need to parade into Jerusalem with a grand display of miraculous signs, because he is primarily concerned with the glory of the Father, not with receiving glory from the world.
And likewise, he is willing to make himself vulnerable to the hostility and the rejection of the world, as he gets up to teach in the temple, because in his perspective, how God the Father views him is so much more significant than how the world views him.
And so, Jesus pursues not what is popular or expedient or safe, but he pursues that which is most important – what is ultimate.
Out of a desire for God’s glory above all else, Jesus openly engages with things of ultimate importance.
Now … Jesus is a model for us. He is a model for you. You should handle these things more like Jesus does. That is a major point and we will get to it in a moment.
But before we get there, we need to recognize what Jesus was pursuing for the glory of God. What was the mission of ultimate importance that Jesus pursued, spurning worldly glory and accepting worldly rejection in the process? What, at the command of God the Father, did Jesus pursue so single-mindedly that he was willing to take on the scorn of the world?
And the answer is: his people. The answer is: you.
Take a look at verse seven. What was it about Jesus’s open engagement and speaking of things of ultimate importance that brought the hatred of the world upon him?
It was that he testified that their works were evil.
And why did he testify that the world’s works were evil? What was the point of that testimony?
The point was that some might hear and believe. The point was that some might repent and come to Jesus. The point was that some might put their trust in Christ and be saved.
In seeking the glory of God the Father who sent him, Jesus was willing to receive the hate, scorn, and mockery of the world, so that he might save those whom the Father had given to him.
So as we recognize the many ways that our desire for human glory, and our fear of human rejection cause us to fail to rightly engage with the most important things of human life – the things of God and eternity … and as we recognize that out of a desire for God’s glory above all else, Jesus openly engages with things of ultimate importance, in order to save us – as we see how he takes on the rejection, the scorn, the violence and the mockery of the world that we are so often unwilling to take on for him … we should have at least two responses.
We should be ashamed for our sin. And we should be overwhelmed with gratitude for his grace.
We should be ashamed because even after Christ has taken on so much pain and rejection in order to draw close to us, still, so often, we have failed to accept any pain, sacrifice, mockery, or rejection from the world in our pursuit of him.
We should rightly be ashamed of this.
And at the same time, we should be overwhelmed with gratitude. Because even as we failed, even as we acted so cowardly, even as our relationships and priorities were so disordered that we valued the fleeting esteem of the world over the eternal esteem of Christ our Maker – even though all of that is so, Jesus still did what he did. He still came. He still spoke the truth that we might know him. He still received the scorn, and the hatred, and the cross of the world in order to draw us to himself.
We have sinned. We have fundamentally disordered our priorities and our relationships. But Jesus has come and saved us anyway.
We should wonder at his grace.
And as we wonder at his grace, we must refuse to stay as we are. We should be convicted in our hearts and determined not to continue to value the esteem of the world over the esteem of Christ.
Jesus was not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters, though he had every reason to be. In light of that, in light of his goodness and in light of our failures, how can we possibly be ashamed to call him our Lord?
And so, we must put the esteem of Christ as the primary concern in our lives, over and above the esteem of this world. Which means that out of a desire for God’s glory above all else, we must openly engage with things of ultimate importance. Out of a love for God and a desire for his glory, we too must openly engage with things of ultimate importance.
Now – what does that look like?
Briefly, let me mention how it changes our relationship to God, our relationship to the world, and our relationships in the Church.
First, it changes our relationship to God because his glory, and the esteem he holds us in, become the most important motivating factors in our lives. When we think about how the world’s esteem is too powerful in our lives, we often respond by trying to care less about what the world thinks – but that is really the second step we must take, not the first. The first step is not to diminish your concern for the world’s opinion of you, but to expand your concern for God’s opinion of you.
God, the Maker of the universe, has an opinion about you. The One who designed the cosmos, who made stars and planets and nebula and galaxies – the one who designed the atom and the cell, who wrote the laws of physics, who holds the expanse of the universe in his hands, who is sovereign over all of history – that same One has an opinion about you. What could possibly be more important in your life than that? What else really is there to be worried about in life besides that? Take some time this afternoon and reflect on that. Jesus did what he did because he rightly saw the magnitude of the God the Father’s esteem, and there was nothing more important to him than that. Take some time today to reflect on the significance and implications of the fact that the Maker of the heavens and earth has an opinion about you.
Our text first affects our relationship to God.
Second, our text should affect our relationship to the world around us. Because as we recognize the significance of God’s opinion of us, then the opinions of the world – the glory the world can give and the rejection it can enact – should begin to take on their proper perspective.
It’s not that those things don’t matter. It’s not that they don’t hurt. But they need to be seen in perspective.
Because the world wants you to prefer it to God. It wants you to care more about its opinion than His. In our culture, the world wants you, out of deference to it, to not even speak earnestly and openly of things of eternal significance – of God, or of heaven, or of hell – because to do so would already be a threat to the world’s supremacy in your life. The world would like you, like the crowd in verse eleven, to fear its opinion so much that you dare not even speak of those things openly.
That’s what the world wants from you. And you, like Jesus in verse fourteen, must rebel. You must rebel. You must refuse to live as if the world’s esteem is the most important thing. You must live in light of the reality that nothing matters more than the glory of God and his relationship to you. And only if you believe that will you be willing to engage with the things of ultimate importance, even if it costs you the esteem of the world.
The truths of our text change our relationship to God, they change our relationship to the world, and finally, they should change our relationships in the Church.
Do you have someone – do you have a brother or sister in Christ – whom you can speak to about God, like God is really real? Do you have a fellow Christian whom you can speak to about God as if God is actually in the room while you are talking? Do you have a fellow believer whom you can speak openly about the most important spiritual realities in life, without using irony or pretention as a buffer?
If so, that is wonderful – invest in that relationship. Consider seeking similar relationships with others.
But if not … then ask yourself why not.
Maybe you have had trouble connecting with other Christians here. If that is the case, I am sorry. I know it can be hard. But can you identify someone you might proactively pursue a relationship like that with? Can you identify someone you can work towards talking to about the most important realities in life?
Or maybe you are already well connected here … but none of your relationships are “like that.” Ask yourself why that is. And then consider who you might be able to have such a relationship with, and pursue that.
If God is real, and if he is the most important thing in life, then ask yourself how that should change how you speak to your friends. Ask yourself how it should change how you speak to your spouse. Ask yourself how it should change how you speak to your kids.
If fear of their discomfort keeps you from speaking about the most important things in life … then ask what it will look like for you to lovingly follow in the footprints of Jesus in that relationship, and out of love for God to engage with them about the most significant things of human life. Because you need that. And they need that.
We look and sound far too much like the world in this area. We must repent. We must take steps to become people who speak openly about the things of God.
Of course, none of this means we exclude wisdom. Jesus displays caution and wisdom in this text.
He does not go up on the first day of the feast and speak openly, because he knows it will lead to a bad result. He comes up later in the feast and then teaches, because he knows it will yield a better result.
The key in understanding that, though, is that for Jesus in this text a “bad result” and a “better result” are not primarily determined by what people think of him, but of how well he serves the mission God has given to him.
We can speak openly of ultimate things in a way that unnecessarily puts non-Christians off from it – that is true. And our text does not call us to do that.
But it does call us to consider how often our hesitation has nothing to do with what is best for the purposes of God or for the good of the other person, and has everything to do with our fear of people thinking badly of us.
Use wisdom in how you introduce the subject of God to non-Christians. But make sure it is godly wisdom – not worldly wisdom.
Jesus, out of love for God the Father, treated us as if we mattered to him – he was willing to experience the rejection of the world so that he might draw us to himself and to the Father.
Let us be people who treat Christ as if he truly matters to us. Let us be people who are willing to experience the rejection of the world – whether the raised eyebrow and the condescending smile, or the open criticism and denouncement – let us be people who are willing to experience such rejection from the world, not because we are so self-possessed and self-motivated that we do not care what they think, but because we are so captivated by the weightiness of the esteem of God, that the esteem of the world pales in comparison.
This sermon draws on material from:
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Lipsky, David. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2010.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971.
Thielicke, Helmut. A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Translated by Charles L. Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962.
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. New York, NY: Back Bay Books, 1996. [An important disclaimer: While I have drawn from this work in this sermon, I would not recommend this book for most readers. It contains disturbing content that many would find troubling, and caution and wisdom must be exercised by Christians in knowing what would be profitable for them to read and what they should personally avoid.]
Wallace, David Foster. “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. New York, NY: Back Bay Books, 2006.