How To Be Certain About Christianity

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 7:16-17

About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?” Then Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”

John 7:14-17 nrsv

I have on my desk today an agonizing letter from a young man, a listener. He’s struggling with doubts about the Christian faith. Listen to his concern: “There are so many conflicts within the Bible. It bothers me so much I almost give up on trying to figure it out. My heart is wanting to believe, but my mind has so many questions.” He ends his letter by observing, “I’m the kind of person who cannot accept something without truly believing in it.” He wonders if I can give him some helpful evidence, some convincing proofs about particular doctrines that trouble him.

Well, I’ve tried to address his questions. I’ve cited some biblical evidence. But I’m realizing that this young man may need more than intellectual arguments. He may need to grapple with an even deeper issue. I’ve been thinking in that connection this week about some remarkable words of Jesus. They deal with our certainty in matters of faith. Listen. I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 7, verse 17: “Anyone,” says Jesus, “who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own” (NRSV).

How can we know about these things which are such an intense concern for this young man who wrote to us? Jesus says we come to know, to be certain, by resolving to do the will of God. That’s the road, He says, to certainty in matters of faith.

Let’s look at the setting of these words of Jesus, beginning in chapter 7, at verse 14: “About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “Where does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?” Then Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me; anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”

THE SOURCE OF HIS TEACHING

The question at issue is, Where does Jesus’ teaching come from? Did He get it from other people? Those who heard the Lord often puzzled over that. They said, “How does this man have such learning when he has never been taught?” It was well known that Jesus had never been under the instruction of a Jewish rabbi. He had not gone to the school of Hillel or Shammai, or any other. He was considered by the authorities, as a result, to be one of those “common people,” as they said, “who do not know the law.” To them He was an ignorant country bumpkin from little Nazareth out in the country. Jesus had never sat at the feet of one of their accredited teachers. He had never gone through the schools and been officially endorsed as a rabbi.

And in the eyes of Jesus’ contemporaries, that was the only way in which one could legitimately teach. They saw Jesus’ efforts to interpret the law of God in public as highly presumptuous, precisely because He hadn’t been formally trained and certified for it. He was like, in their eyes, a man today hanging out his shingle as a physician without ever having gone to medical school, or like someone presenting himself as 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 all, to say the least, impressed. How could He quote the Old Testament Scriptures at such length, and so confidently? How could He carry on prolonged discourses about spiritual things in the manner of the rabbis? 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 about.

Sensing the puzzlement in the crowd, Jesus responded to their basic question, “My teaching,” He said, “is not mine, but his who sent me.” Note that, “My teaching is not mine.” It’s as though He had said, “I didn’t originate it. I’m not the source of it. Don’t credit Me for what I’m teaching. Don’t believe it merely because I say so. I don’t offer it on My own authority.”

That denial was crucially significant. If Jesus had said that He was self-taught or that He needed no teacher, He would have been discredited on the spot. People of His time and culture did not value originality in matters of religion. The rabbinic method was always to cite some past authority for what was taught. Rabbis would frequently quote one teacher after another to establish a point. If Jesus had said, “This is my insight. I know it to be true and you must believe it,” He would have been ridiculed and rejected.

Isn’t it thought-provoking that Jesus makes no claim to being original? He’s no creative genius. He isn’t the least bit interested in presenting a novel idea or founding a new school. He denies flat out that He is a self-made man, a self-taught teacher.

On the contrary, He says, “my words represent the teaching of the one who sent me.” This is the Father’s word, He says. It reveals His will. What Jesus teaches comes from God and rests on His authority. Jesus has not been schooled by rabbis nor is He a brilliant religious innovator. Rather, He has learned from the Father in heaven. He is a God-taught teacher. That’s how He consistently presented Himself.

But it’s precisely this that we need to be sure about, isn’t it? Jesus dealt with tremendous issues, the ultimate questions in human life. For example, in what we call the beatitudes, He explained what true happiness is. According to Him, the truly blessed ones are the poor in spirit, people who know their spiritual need and those who mourn over the sins and sorrows of this world. The happy ones, He continues, are the meek, people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who show mercy, those who are pure in heart. Now is that simply Jesus’ opinion or is it the very truth of God? Is it God’s perspective on genuine happiness?

Further, Jesus told us to do things that are not common in this world, like loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, praying for those who persecute us. Was that simply an idealistic whim occurring to the man Jesus of Nazareth? Or could it be 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 the living God. He even insisted that He Himself was the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one could ever come to God or dwell in the Father’s house except through Him. Now what about those teachings? From anyone else, they would sound like the wildest fabrications. Were they that? Were they misguided dreams of Jesus about His personal grandeur? Or did they express God’s estimate of who Jesus is? Does Jesus placing Himself at the center of human destiny represent delusion on His part or God’s revelation? Pretty important issues, wouldn’t you say? How can we be sure?

THE KEY TO BEING SURE

Listen again to Jesus’ response, “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.” Jesus is saying here to our listener, and to us, 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. or a certain level of education. This is not meant to disparage the training of the mind. Jesus simply says that it’s not the central issue here.

In other words, we can study this question exaustively, debate it at length, write learned papers about it, but still not come to clear and settled conviction. It can’t be decided finally on the intellectual level.

That’s hard for many of us to accept. We like to think that we can figure things out for ourselves. We’ll look at the evidence. We’ll listen to the arguments. Then we’ll make our decision, and that will decide it. We’re capable of making up our own minds, we say. Jesus’ teaching has to make sense to me, has to meet my standards of judgment. If it passes that test, if my intellect gives assent to it, if it seems to me the best way of accounting for all the facts, then I will accept it.

But Jesus doesn’t let us get away with that. He inserts a disturbing element here. He says that our power to understand, to grasp truth, depends on the way we live. He claims that there’s a moral element in our intellectual decisions. He says that we’re only going to know what God’s word is and what God’s will is when we make the decision to obey Him.

Remember Jesus’ parable about the two sons? Their father said to the first one, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” But the son said “No, I won’t do it” (see Matt. 21:28). Afterward, he had a change of heart. He went to the vineyard and worked. When the father went to his second son and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today,” this boy replied, “I’m going, sir, I’ll do it” (see v. 30). But he apparently thought better of that later and decided not to go. Jesus asks His hearers, “Which of the two did the will of the father?” (v. 31). The answer was obvious: “the first.”

It seems clear that the real issue here was not intellectual agreement. The first son quarreled with the father’s word and said he wouldn’t accept it. The second agreed with it entirely, thinking it a great idea. But in performance, the roles were dramatically reversed. One did what the father had said and the other did not. And that was what finally mattered.

George MacDonald, mentor of C.S. Lewis, and 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, “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.”

Think about Jesus’ parables. How do we understand the message in these stories from life? According to MacDonald, we don’t discover it from the balcony but down on the road, not in the ivory tower but along the way in our life pilgrimage. In other words, it’s while you’re seeking to do the will of God that the meaning of a parable dawns upon you. As long as you’re merely puzzling over it, trying to figure it out, the mystery remains.

The problem for many of Jesus’ hearers was not that they lacked the intelligence or training to see that His words came from God. Their difficulty was that they were like that second son in Jesus’ parable. They had said they wanted to do God’s will, but at significant points in their lives they were bracing themselves against it. When God came to them in Jesus Christ, calling for their obedience, they resisted.

Those of us who try to bring the gospel to others in classes and conversations often encounter a barrage of intellectual questions. As we listen to these over a period of time, one after another, we begin to sense that they form a kind of smoke screen over moral issues. Here’s someone who says he cannot believe the Christian message because he doesn’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Or she cannot follow the Lord 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 this the real issue? Is this what is keeping a person from faith? Or is it much more practical? Is the resistance to believing in the high balcony of intellectual debate or down on the dusty road of moral choice? According to Jesus, that’s where it is, down there. He says that people do not accept His teaching as divinely inspired, do not receive His words as coming from God, chiefly because they’re not willing to obey. They refuse at some concrete point to do what God wants them to do.

Could that be true for you today? On the surface, you have an intellectual problem but down underneath, maybe there’s an unwillingness to surrender the controls of your life to God. There’s some pattern of living you know to be wrong but are not yet willing to abandon. Jesus says, as long as that’s the case, no arguments will convince you, no evidences or proofs will lead you to change your mind. But when you become willing to do what the first son did, that is, to change, to go and do what God wants, then the intellectual fog will dissipate and the light of God will break through.

Here’s the big question again: Is Jesus’ teaching merely His idea or is it God’s truth? You and I will answer that, He says, not just with our heads but with our hearts, not only with our minds but in our daily living. If we’re ready today to respond gratefully to the Father’s goodness and to go out into the vineyard to do what He wants us to do, then we’re going to know.

So here’s my counsel to you, friends. Try doing what Jesus says. Try living for a while as if it all were true. Try putting your life on the line that way and see what you discover. That’s how to find certainty about the Christian faith.