There are many controversial issues in which it really doesnt matter if you or I are wrong. It would be nice to be right, but if were wrong there is no great price to pay. But there are a few topics in which what you or I decide is a matter of life or death. On these we must be right, or at least as right as we know how to be. On these we cant afford to let others do our thinking for us.
Most of us would agree that when it comes to the important questions of life we certainly do need to think for ourselves, but in practice, thinking for ourselves is much easier said than done. There are powerful tides of public opinion that rise up around us and try to carry us with them. Were told were welcomed to think independently as much as we want, but we soon discover they meant that so long as we come up with the right conclusions. To be out of step with public opinion on issues that really matter can actually become quite dangerous. Independent thinkers who cross certain lines will be warned to conform, and then if they persist in charting a different course, threats will follow. In time that person is likely to be mocked, shamed, fired, relationally abandoned or even physically attacked.
So on the one hand, each of us has an obligation to ourselves to investigate the important issues carefully, so we can make an informed decision. But on the other hand, if in doing so we discover that the opinion of our surrounding culture is wrong, we put ourselves at risk. It will be dangerous to express the unpopular truth weve discovered. To follow our conscience, sooner or later will require courage.
Reacting to Jesus announcement (Jn 7:40-52)
This scene is full of confusion. That temple courtyard is swirling with opinions and so is the meeting room where the religious leaders have gathered. There are some who believe in Jesus and others who do not, and those who do not have based their decision on false information. They wrongly assume Jesus was born in Nazareth. To make matters worse, the religious experts agree with them, and the one religious expert who doesnt agree lacks the courage to say so.
Listen to all the voices in this account. Each is saying something different. Each person or group has a different opinion. People are arguing among themselves. Even those who are positive toward Jesus arent sure who He is. Some think Hes the second Moses (prophet), others think Hes the promised Son of David (Messiah). Those who reject Jesus say they are doing so because the Bible proves that He cant be the Messiah since He was born in the wrong place. Everyone knows He was born in Nazareth, but the prophets said the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2).The religious experts agree, and as the debate rages on, no one checks the facts.
A critical thinker
A critical thinker is someone who is willing to challenge the ideas that are presented. They dont passively accept something simply because everyone else says its true. They dont follow the crowd. They evaluate the evidence for themselves and are confident enough in their own judgment to come to a different conclusion if thats where the evidence leads.
Returning empty handed (vs32, 45, 46)
In this passage the bravest group of critical thinkers is the guards. They had been given an assignment: Arrest Jesus and bring Him here so we can question Him (v32). But when they stood at the edge of the crowd and listened to Him, they were deeply moved by what He said and couldnt bring themselves to seize Him. They returned empty handed. For that to happen, they not only used their own judgment to evaluate Jesus, but after coming to a different conclusion from the religious experts who had sent them, they decided to disobey their orders, surely knowing they might be punished for doing so. That required much courage.
When they returned, their leaders insulted them and then asked how they dared to form an opinion on their own. They were supposed to follow, not think for themselves. Were not told what happened to these men after that, but apparently what didnt happen was that they changed their opinion about Jesus and went back to arrest Him. Jesus would not be arrested for another six months. It seems these brave men insisted on making a decision about Jesus for themselves.
Nicodemus was one of the experts in that room full of leaders, but he didnt openly advocate for Jesus. Instead he tried to slow their rush to condemn Him by questioning the process. He said, Our law does not judge a man unless it hears from him beforehand, and knows what he is doing (literal). In other words, we cant determine Jesus guilt before we have interviewed Him and evaluated the evidence carefully. And of course he was right (Ex 23:1-3, 6-9; Dt 17:6; 19:15). Anyone searching for a just decision would know that, but most of that group wasnt searching for justice. They had already decided to kill Jesus and were merely looking for an opportunity (Jn 5:18; 7:1). They responded to Nicodemus caution by insulting him. They asked if he too were an ignorant peasant from Galilee like Jesus. They suggested he go and study the Bible until he discovered that the northern region of Israel, called Galilee, had never throughout all of Israels history produced a prophet, let alone be the birthplace for the Messiah. By the way, that statement isnt factual. At least Jonah and possibly Nahum were from Galilee, and Isaiah specifically identified the tribal regions of Zebulum (Nazareth) and Naphtali (Capernaum) as places that would see the Messiahs glory (Isa 9:1-7).
Later on Nicodemus would indeed take a bold stand for Jesus (Jn 19:38-42), but in the dangerous atmosphere of that meeting room, he tried to straddle the fence, with the result that he failed to protect Jesus and ended up looking foolish in his attempt. Some issues are so important they force a person to choose.
So what are the issues that really matter? What are the questions to which I dare not give a wrong answer? Which truths require me to be a critical thinker and be willing to walk away from the crowd or outrage my superiors, if theyre wrong? For me its the answers to these important questions:
Is there a God, and if there is what does He require of me?
Is there life after death, and if there is what must I do or believe to enter that place?
Where can I find the answers to these questions?
Critical thinkers wont be passive and let someone else answer those questions for them. They wont let someone else decide their destiny. Its too important! Others may be partly to blame if I end up separated from God forever, but that wont change the fact that Ive ended up separated from God forever. Blaming someone else wont change the verdict. Either I repented and believed accurately in this life, or I didnt. How I arrived at that decision becomes immaterial.
Each of us has to trust something or someone in order to answer the questions that really matter, and Ive decided to trust the Bible. I want to know what this book says, so I study it line by line. To the best of my ability I try to let it speak without imposing my preferences on it. And as the process continues I come to conclusions. I become convinced that I know what it says, at least about those important topics. And it doesnt take long to discover that the Bible challenges many of the opinions of my culture. If I use the Bible to critically assess the values and assumptions of my culture, I soon discover that I cant follow the crowd, I cant trust the experts and even religious leaders can be severely wrong. If I make carefully informed decisions for myself I will soon end up in conflict. It seems nothing has changed over the past 2,000 years.
Probably the primary reason I teach progressively through the Bible, rather than come up with my own topics, is because I dont want to be responsible for misleading you, especially when it comes to answering those most important questions. For that matter, I dont want to be misled myself. So basically I do three things week after week. I study the text and ask: What does it say? What does it mean? What does it mean to me (us)? Were letting Moses and the prophets, Jesus and the apostles:
Teach us about God and explain what He requires of us.
Prove to us that there is life after death and explain what we must do and believe to enter that place.
Give us Gods answers to those questions.
If you and I happened to have lived back then and happened to have been standing in that temple courtyard when Jesus spoke those words, If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water (literal) (Jn 7:37-38), if we found ourselves surrounded by a swirl of opinions about Him, to which of those many voices would we listen? Which group would we follow? Who would we let make that life or death decision for us?
That temple courtyard was so similar to the world we live in today. Like the crowd, people around us have many different opinions about Jesus, some of it based on totally false information. Like the religious leaders, there are people who feel threatened by Jesus and want to condemn Him. Like Nicodemus, there are people who know the truth but lack the courage to speak what they believe. But there are also people like the guards who have listened to Jesus carefully, felt the witness of the Holy Spirit, and have chosen to believe and boldly make a stand. The question is: Which one am I? Which one are you?
1) Here are some attitudes we saw at work in the passage today: confused, hostile, intimidated, courageous. Most of us have had seasons in our lives when weve had each of these attitudes. Pick one and tell us about why you felt that way.
2) What sort of things does our society say about Jesus?
3) Each of us has to trust something or someone to answer the important questions of life. Who or what do you trust?