The religious world is a swamp, not an oasis. Just because people say they believe in God doesnt make it a safe place. Its full of confusion, deception, fraud and sometimes truth. So how does a person know which is which? Who should we allow to teach us? How do we know if what that person is saying is really from God?
The spiritual environment in the city of Jerusalem when Jesus ministered there contained all these elements. There was controversy. There were corrupt religious leaders who dominated the people. There were powerful religious traditions which had evolved over the centuries. There were rules that controlled everything, and oh, there was also truthGod-given, Spirit-revealed truth, all mixed together in a huge, confusing mess. John gives us a sample of some of the opinions people had about Jesus, and they sound just as muddled as opinions we hear about Him today (vs25-27, 31-32, 35, 40-53).
Even though two millennia have passed since Jesus had this dialogue with religious leaders in the temple courtyard, people are still asking the same question: How do I know who is telling me the truth about God? And the answer Jesus gave them then is just as true today. We too are living in a jumble of religious opinions, and we desperately need to know how to avoid spiritual deception. Lets go stand in that crowd and listen to Jesus.
Teaching in the temple (Jn 7:11-18) DBS (Sun-Sat)
Jesus taught His listeners, and us, how to avoid spiritual deception. He told a crowd filled with conflicting religious opinions how to discern truth, how to recognize whether or not a teacher or their teaching came from God. Its hard to imagine a gift our generation needs more. There are so many voices trying to tell us what to believe. So lets look carefully at this passage and ask: What tests should we apply to a teacher.
1. (v15) Dont look at a persons academic credentials: Listen to what theyre teaching. God looks for people who are yielded to Him. He chooses a teacher based on character, not outward appearance (1Sa 16:7). In Jesus case He had no formal rabbinic training, so the religious leaders automatically categorized Him in their minds as someone with nothing important to say. They equated a persons education with spiritual intelligence, so they were shocked as they listened to a man who understood the deep meaning of Scripture. Here was a carpenter explaining to them things they didnt understand. John says they were astonished. If you and I arent careful, we too can miss some of Gods best teachers.
2. (v16) Ask yourself: Is this something the teacher thought up, or does it come from God? Heres what makes this test possible: Gods ways are very different from our human ways (Isa 55:8-9). Hes holy, so He doesnt make place for the evil that comes out of our human flesh. Hes loving, so He calls us to selfless sacrifice at a level far beyond anything we want to do. He has predestined us to become His adopted children, so He calls us to live by standards that are much higher than our unbelieving neighbors. In other words, when a teaching is really from God its probably not something we enjoy hearing; it doesnt flatter us, or appeal to our lusts, or give us permission to hate, or encourage us to grow proud. Gods truth is uncomfortable, yet His ways must become our ways; His thoughts must become our thoughts. Teachers who want people to like them avoid such topics. Instead they tell people what they want to hear.
3. (v17) Prepare yourself: Jesus said a person must want to do Gods will before God will reveal His will to them. That statement bores down to the deepest motivation inside us. In other words, submission to God precedes revelation. This implies that it is possible for a person to love God and want to obey Him before they have much information about Him. Apparently humans have a lot of intuitive knowledge about the God in whom we live and move and have our being (Ac 17:28). Our human spirit is able to sense His presence and is aware of His character even when weve had no formal teaching about Him. And we make decisions about Him too. Some decide to come to Him, knowing that He will demand much change (Jn 3:19-21), while others decide to draw back from Him because they dont want to change. Our basic honesty, our willingness to do Gods will before we know what it is, Jesus says, is essential. Only to people like that does God give discernment, or maybe we should say, only those people like that accept His discernment and reject false teachers.
4. (v18) Watch your heart: People who teach things they invent in their own flesh do so to benefit themselves. Its often very subtle, and they may say they want all the glory to go to God, but after youve listened to them you find yourself becoming more and more dependent on that teacher rather than God. When they teach they always place themselves in a positive light; they are always the example of success; theyre usually clever or entertaining, and they lead you to believe that the power of God or the Word of God comes directly from them. In some cases they can produce a hypnotic-like spell which draws their followers under their control. So regardless of how many times a person says they want to glorify God, Jesus tells us to watch our heart. Which direction is it going? Is our respect, honor, admiration and love being drawn toward the teacher? Then what they are teaching isnt true. Its being invented by their own human spirit. Or is our respect, honor, admiration and love being drawn toward God? In that case, says Jesus, youll notice that the teacher is always reminding you of the things God has said to His people in the past (true), and he or she always encourages you to walk obediently in the standards God has revealed in His covenant-laws (righteous).
Theres one more test, but to understand it we first need to listen to Jesus teach.
Righteous judgment (Jn 7:19-24)
Probably in February or March of that year (Jn 5:1-9) Jesus had healed a man beside the Pool of Bethesda, and even though it was a sabbath day He told that man to pick up his pallet and carry it away. Both the act of healing and carrying away the pallet were considered by the religious leaders to be work, which means they violated the command to rest on the sabbath (Ex 20:8-11). For doing that they wanted to execute Jesus. Knowing their plan He spoke directly to them and told them that their determination to execute Him without a trial was prohibited by the Law of Moses (Jn 7:51; Ex 23:1; Dt 17:6; 19:15-21). Then He explained why He had not violated Gods Law. He compared healing that man to the act of circumcising a baby boy. He said, Youre willing to perform a surgery on a child on the sabbath, which is a form of work. You do it in order to protect the child from being excluded from the covenant of Abraham (Ge 17:9-14) and also to obey the command in the Law of Moses (Lev 12:3), even though the Law forbids you to work on the sabbath. In this case the Law expects you to break one command in order to obey a higher command. The spiritual need of that child to be rescued becomes more important than your need to rest. And God approves of this. He would be displeased if you did not rescue the child. Then at what age does God want us to stop rescuing people on the sabbath? (paraphrase). Then He asked, Are you outraged with Me because I made a man completely well on a sabbath? (paraphrase). The person He healed had been disabled for 38 years (Jn 5:5-9), and He tried to restore that mans relationship to God (Jn 5:14). Though it appears the man refused to repent (Jn 5:15), attempting to rescue his soul was more important than doing no work on the sabbath.
Now after listening to Jesus teach we can understand the final test. He said, Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment (v24). By this statement He was pleading with these religious leaders not to use the Laws of God in a superficial way but to look deeper and to try to understand why God wanted people to do certain things. If they did, they would discover that God gave His laws to bless people, not to prevent them from helping each other when someone was in genuine need. That means we should:
5. (v24) Look for teachers who remember the heart of God and understand why He wants us to obey His laws. Such teachers do not grow harsh or legalistic. Though they hold Gods standards high, they never forget that He gave us His laws, so He could have relationship with us. He was teaching us how to become like Him so that His presence could dwell among us. A trustworthy teacher will never forget that God loves people and wants to save them.
That day Jesus taught us how to avoid spiritual deception. He showed us what to watch for in ourselves and in those who try to teach us. These tests will protect us from being misled in the most important area of our livesour walk with God. Lets hear them once more:
1) Dont look at a persons academic credentials; listen to what theyre teaching.
2) Ask yourself: Is this something this teacher thought up, or does it come from God?
3) Prepare yourself: You must desire to do Gods will before He will reveal it to you.
4) Watch your heart: After you listened to that person teach, did you find yourself being drawn closer to God or the teacher?
5) Look for teachers who judge with righteous judgment. That means they never forget that God loves people and wants to save them.
One final observation
Jesus said these things so that people could test to see if He was truly sent from God. He boldly invited them, and us, to apply those tests to Him, and each of us needs to do that. We need to ask ourselves, When I apply these standards to Jesus, what do I conclude? Is He trustworthy, and is His teaching from God? What I learned today is that if I genuinely want to know the answer to that question, God will give it to me.
1) Name someone you know who doesnt have formal Bible training but has a deep understanding of God. Where did they get it?
2) Choosing to obey God before we know His will is a very scary thought. Have you ever done that? If so, why did you do it? How did it work out?
3) Have you ever found yourself putting your faith more in a person than in God? What set you free?