Faith and Obedence

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 7:17

The Jews marveled at it, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me; if any man’s will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. He who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but he who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.

John 7:15-18 rsv

Here’s a key question for anyone who has ever heard the Christian message. What about the teaching of Jesus? Was it His or God’s? Did it represent His opinion, His creative genius, or did it express the will of the Almighty? Did it rest on Jesus’ independent authority or was it backed up by the Lord of the universe?

That question takes on special significance because of the kind of teaching Jesus gave. It dealt with matters of tremendous import for you and me. For example, in what we call the Beatitudes, Jesus taught about what true happiness is. According to Him, the truly happy ones are the poor in spirit, people who know their spiritual need, and those who mourn over the sins and sorrows of the world. The happy ones, He says, are the meek, the people who hunger and thirst after righteousness, those who show mercy, those who are pure in heart. Now is that simply Jesus’ opinion or is that the truth of God?

Further, Jesus told us to do some things that are highly unusual in this world, like loving our enemies, like doing good to those who hate us, like praying for those who persecute us. Was that simply an unrealistic idea that occurred to Jesus of Nazareth? Or is it what our Creator wants from us?

Again, think of Jesus’ claims about Himself. He said that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him. He claimed that people who had seen Him had seen God. He even insisted that He was Himself the way, the truth, and the life and that no one could ever come to God, or ever dwell in the Father’s house, except through Him. Now what about those teachings? From anyone else, they would sound like the wildest megalomania. Were they the misguided dreams of Jesus about His own grandeur? Or did they express God’s estimate of who He is? Pretty important issues, wouldn’t you say?

Now listen to a passage of Scripture in which this very question is being raised. It’s from John, chapter 7, beginning at verse 14: “About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and taught. The Jews marveled at it, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me; if any man’s will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.”

WHENCE JESUS’ TEACHING?

Let’s focus first on the question of Jesus’ countrymen. “How is it that this man has learning when he has never studied?” Or literally, “How is it that this One knows the sacred writings, not having been instructed?” Jesus, you see, had never received the formal training associated with becoming a teacher of the Torah. He was considered by the authorities to be one of those “common people who did not know the law.” He was to them an ignorant country bumpkin from Nazareth. He had never sat at the feet of one of the accredited rabbis. He had never gone through the schools and been officially endorsed as a teacher. And for Jesus’ contemporaries, that was the only way in which one could legitimately teach. They saw Jesus’ claim to interpret the law of God in public as a blasphemous impertinence, precisely because He hadn’t been formally trained and certified for it. He was like a man today hanging out his shingle as a physician without ever having gone to med school, like someone pretending to be a lawyer who had never been admitted to the bar.

But when people heard Jesus teach, whether they were highly educated or unschooled, they were, to say the least, impressed. How could He quote the Old Testament Scriptures at such length and with such confidence, in such a convicting way? How could He carry on a prolonged discourse about spiritual things in the manner of the rabbis when He had never been to the schools? Where did He get this insight, this wisdom? What was the source of His teaching and the authority behind it? That’s what everyone was wondering.

Jesus sensed the puzzlement in the crowd and responded to their basic question, saying this: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” Look first at the denial here: “My teaching is not mine.” It’s as though He said, “I didn’t originate it. I’m not the source of it. Don’t give Me credit for what I teach. Don’t believe it because I say so. I don’t offer it to you on My own authority.”

That denial was very much needed to clear the air. If Jesus had said that He was self-taught or that He needed no teacher, He would have been discredited immediately. People of His age and culture did not prize originality in matters of religion. The rabbinic method was to cite authority for all important teachings. They would quote one rabbi after another to make a point. If Jesus had said merely, “This is My insight and I know it is true, and you’d better believe it,” He would have been laughed to scorn.

But Jesus makes no claim whatever to originality, to creative genius. He isn’t the least bit interested in presenting a novel idea or founding a new school. He denies flatly that He is a self-made man, a self-taught teacher.

On the other hand, He says, “My words represent the teaching of the One who sent Me.” This is the Father’s word. It’s a revelation of His will. It comes from God and roots in His authority. Jesus has not been schooled by the rabbis, nor is He a brilliant innovator. He has learned from the Father. He is a God-taught teacher.

But someone objects, “Isn’t this precisely the matter in question here? Jesus claims to be giving God’s teaching. He says that God has sent Him and that God is speaking through Him. But how do we know that? What proof does He offer? How can anyone be sure that what Jesus says is God’s truth?”

HOW CAN WE BE SURE?

Here is Jesus’ response. Listen carefully: “If any man’s will is to do his will [that is, God’s will], he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” How will you know? Jesus says, “You will know in this way, when you seek with all your heart to do God’s will.”

Jesus is saying here that the real difficulty in accepting His words as God-taught is not intellectual. To come to the conviction that Jesus speaks from God doesn’t require a certain I.Q. It isn’t a gospel only for those of above average intelligence nor is it a message which only learned people can hope to evaluate. Jesus does not, of course, disparage education, the training of the mind, the accumulation of learning. He simply says that’s not the crucial issue here. Whatever education we may have received is neither a help nor a hindrance in resolving this particular question.

In other words, people can study the matter exhaustively, debate it endlessly, write learned papers about it, but that will not bring them to a clear and settled conviction. It can’t be decided finally on the intellectual plane.

Now that’s hard for many of us to accept. We like to think that we can figure everything out for ourselves. We’ll look at the evidence. We’ll listen to the arguments and then we’ll make our decision and that will be it. “We can make up our own minds,” we say. “What Jesus says has to make sense to me, has to meet my standards of judgment. If it passes the test, if my intellect gives assent to it, if it seems to me the best explanation of the facts, then I’ll accept it.”

But Jesus won’t let us get away with that. He inserts a disturbing element here. He says that our power to understand, to grasp truth, depends upon the way we live. He says that there’s a moral element in our intellectual decisions. He says we’re only going to know what God’s Word is and what God’s will is when we choose to obey it.

We were reading recently in our Words of Hope staff devotions Jesus’ parable about the two sons. Remember that one? There was this father who said to the first son, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today,” but the son said, “No, I’m not going to do it.” Afterward, he had a change of heart; he went and worked for his father. When the father went to his second son and said, “Son, go to work in the vineyard today,” this boy replied, “I go, sir. I’m your man. I’ll do it.” But he apparently thought better of that later and decided not to work. Jesus asks His hearers, “Which one did the will of the father?” The answer was inescapable, “The first, of course.” But on the intellectual level, it had seemed at first that the opposite was true. The first son quarreled with the father’s word and said he wouldn’t accept it. The second agreed with it entirely, thought it was a great idea. But in performance, the roles were reversed. One did what the father had said, and the other didn’t. And that was what finally mattered.

George MacDonald, one of my favorite authors, calls obedience “the opener of eyes.” He argues that it’s when we do what we are told to do that we come to understand. Listen again, “He who does that which he sees shall understand. He who is set upon understanding rather than doing shall go on stumbling and mistaking and speaking foolishness.” One of the wisest of the ancient Greeks put it this way: “Obedience to truth known is the King’s highway to that which is still beyond us.”

How, for example, do we understand the message of one of Jesus’ parables? We don’t discover that in the balcony but on the road, not in the ivory tower but along the way in our life pilgrimage. MacDonald says, “When the pilgrim of the truth comes on his journey to the region of the parable, he finds his interpretation. It’s not a fruit or a jewel to be stored but a well springing by the wayside.” In other words, when you get to the point in your doing of the will of God, then the light will come on what it means.

From this standpoint, you see, understanding comes as the fruit of a believing obedience. The great church father Augustine was strong on this point, “Do not seek to understand that you may believe,” he says, “but rather to believe that you may understand.”

The problem with many of Jesus’ hearers was not that they didn’t have enough intelligence or training to recognize that His words came from God. Their problem was that they were like that second son in Jesus’ parable. They had said that they wanted to do God’s will but at significant points in their lives they were bracing themselves against it.

Those of us who try to bring the gospel to other people in classes and conversations often encounter intellectual questions that seem to form a smoke screen over moral issues. There’s someone who says he can’t believe the Christian message because he can’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity or because she has a problem with predestination or because the origin of evil still seems unexplained. I’ve learned to wonder in such cases: Is that the real issue? Is that what is keeping a person from faith? Or is the issue much more practical? Is my resistance to believing up in the stratosphere of intellectual debate or is it down on the battleground of moral choice? According to Jesus, that’s where it is. He says that people do not accept His teaching as divinely inspired, do not receive His words as words from God because they are not willing to obey. They are not willing at some concrete point to do what God wants them to do.

Could that be true for you today? On the surface, there’s an intellectual objection but down underneath maybe there’s an unwillingness to give over the controls of your life to God. There’s some pattern of living that you know to be wrong but you aren’t willing yet to abandon. Well, Jesus says, as long as that is the case, no imaginable arguments will convince you, no evidences or proofs will make you change your mind. But when you are willing to do what the first son did, that is, to change, to lay down your arms of rebellion, to go and do what God wants you to do, then the intellectual fog will begin to dissipate and the light of God will break through to you.

Well, here’s the question again. Is Jesus’ teaching merely His idea or is it God’s truth? You’re going to answer that, He says, not just with your head but with your heart, not only with your mind but with your life. If you’re ready today to respond gratefully to the Father’s goodness and go out into His vineyard to do what He wants you to do, then you’re going to know. So here’s my advice to you: Try doing what Jesus said. Try living for a while as if it all were really true. Try putting your life on the line and see what you discover. God bless you.