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Jesus Tells Us How to Discern God's Truth (a study of John 7:14-29)

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

You can't discern the truth if you don't have all of the facts.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 7:14-29

Jesus raises the tension with the Jewish leaders by publicly calling out their hypocrisy in regard to how they have condemned Jesus' actions. If anyone truly knew God, they would know that Jesus is speaking God's truth. But since they reject Jesus, it proves that they do not know God. Jesus gives no one a "middle of the road" way out.

"I know him because I am from him, and he sent me.” (7:29)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

What Sins Do We Try to Justify?

In this week's passage, Jesus confronts the Jewish leaders for saying that it's okay to violate the Sabbath law in order to perform a circumcision (and it is), but it's not okay for Jesus to heal a person. And that makes me think about all of the blind spots I have with respect to "little" sins. What are the sorts of sins you "write off" as not being a big deal and/or try to justify as being okay? We all have them.

[Warning: watch out for "oversharing". This is supposed to be a very short intro; there's a lot to cover in the passage.]

By the end of this lesson, I hope that we all realize that Jesus wants us to take even the little things seriously (because nothing is truly "little"). That's how we grow in our knowledge of God.

What If Jesus Is "Just a Good Teacher"?

I'm taking these next two topics from the setup verses in John --

11 The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, “Where is that man?” 12 And there was a lot of murmuring about him among the crowds. Some were saying, “He’s a good man.” Others were saying, “No, on the contrary, he’s deceiving the people.”

Can Jesus just be a "good teacher"? There are a lot of people who try to believe that. They know some of the things Jesus said, and they like them, so they claim Jesus is a good teacher (and nothing more).

Do you see that tendency among people you know? What does it look like? How does it show up?

Most importantly, how can you prove that people are wrong for trying to think that way?

There are lots of ways to show people that they cannot simply believe that Jesus is nothing more than a good teacher. I'm going to focus on one thing Jesus said the same day as this week's passage (see below for what I mean):

8:23 “You are from below,” he told them, “I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 Therefore I told you that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I am he, you will die in your sins.”

If Jesus is a good teacher, what do you do with this? People like certain things that Jesus said, like "do not judge", but then they ignore lots of other things Jesus said. People love to quote "The truth will set you free" (8:32), but they ignore what Jesus said earlier in chapter 8.

(Some people have "solved" this by deciding for themselves what Jesus actually said. I'll let you decide as a group what the problem is with that method.)


This Week's Big Idea: "Discerning the Spirits"

The Jews in this week's crowd were interested in what Jesus was saying, but they had questions and concerns. And they were right not to want to be deceived! We don't have to look far to see that false teachings can cause incredible damage to a church. And Jesus gives the safeguard against this in our passage:

16 Jesus answered them, “My teaching isn’t mine but is from the one who sent me. 17 If anyone wants to do his will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own."

When we get to that part of the lesson, I'll ask you to "discern" what Jesus means by this.

But before we get into the lesson, I want to point out two things that the rest of the New Testament develops in more detail (Pentecost has to happen for them to make sense).

When Jesus ascended, God sent the Holy Spirit to indwell every believer to (among other things) help us understand the Bible. This expresses itself in two primary ways:

  • something Paul calls "the mind of Christ" (see 1 Cor 2)

  • and something Paul calls "the gift of spiritual discernment" (see 1 Cor 12)

As a Christian, we can read the Bible for ourselves. We don't need anyone to tell us what it says. But we also know that the Bible is "deep" -- we don't understand everything we read in it. That's why Paul uses the pronoun "we" a lot when talking about how the Spirit helps God's people know God's truth. God wants us to talk through His truths together. One person by himself can be pretty easily led astray by a well-placed lie of Satan. But a group of 50, 100, all prayerfully trying to understand God's Word? Are they all going to be led astray? When we study God's Word together, prayerfully calling on the Spirit to help us, we will be led into knowing the truth.

Note that I am not saying that the majority can determine truth! I am saying that God's people can together discern what God has already spoken as truth.

A special help God gives us is this spiritual gift of discernment. I'll let a cute and quick article on give us some explanation what this means:

(Just because you're hyper-critical doesn't mean you have the gift of discernment.) Sometimes truth is hard to discern! But we can have faith that in our church, God will always have someone who is able to hear through the "noise" and know that the Spirit is saying.


Where We Are in John

This Week's Video Installment

So much has happened since last week's passage! In chapter 6, Jesus openly confronts the crowd who wants to see Him perform more miracles -- Jesus didn't come to be a sideshow; He came to save people's souls from damnation. You can't just dabble in Jesus and like some of His teachings -- you have to believe that He is God and Savior.

Well, this proves to be too much for a lot of the people who had been following Jesus around. They aren't willing to take that step (this is what Kierkegaard called the "leap of faith"; all Christians are aware that they have made their decision to be all in or all out on Jesus).

Jesus asks His disciples if they are going to stick with Him, and this is where we get Peter's rallying cry,

“Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life." (6:68)

Well said, Peter.

After that, the Jewish leaders decided that Jesus was a blasphemer who needed to be removed. So Jesus stayed in Galilee, far from the limited reach of the Jerusalem-based leaders.

And then we have this very strange goading by Jesus' younger half-brothers (James, Joses, Simon, Judas, Matt 13:55). John the author makes it clear that Jesus' half-brothers don't believe in Him (yet), but their taunt is still pretty ridiculous:

  • they tell Him to show off His miracles in Judea, and

  • they tell Him to go public.

Jesus had just spent the previous chapter explaining why those two approaches were meaningless and self-defeating, so we can be sure that His half-brothers weren't paying close attention to Him.

However, Jesus does go to Jerusalem to the Feast and Tabernacles/Booths in secret.

The Feast of Tabernacles was a pretty big deal. It started five days after the Day of Atonement, and it celebrated God's miraculous provision for life and shelter -- thus it was the ingathering of that season's harvest, and it also included the people living in tents for a week. It was a festival of hope, focusing on how God would preserve His people for all eternity. But note that Jesus told His half-brothers that He would not be going to "this feast" -- because there was no true hope for the people without Him. When He showed up (a few days into the festival), He "brought the Feast with Him" (so to speak) because He was the hope of the people.

Rituals during this festival included drawing water from the pool of Siloam, and also lighting some giant menorahs in the Court of Women. Some scholars believe those rituals to be the settings of two of Jesus' teachings: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink" (7:37) and "I am the light of the world" (8:12). At least a couple of chapters in John seem to take place during this week-long festival (the next mention of time is about Hannukah in 10:22).

This Week's Little Idea: The Woman Caught in Adultery (7:53-8:11)

I may as well address this here because it affects the timing of John's chapters. 8:2 suggests that a day has passed since the "last and greatest day of the festival" (7:37), so the festival must be over, right?

Well, let's acknowledge a note that your copy of the Bible probably has, something like "The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11". That sounds scary! It's also a favorite story with the quotable lines,

  • “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.”

  • “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

We love these lines! Are they not in the Bible?

In a word, no. John the author did not include these verses. That doesn't mean the event didn't happen, and that doesn't mean it is not a valuable illustration of something we know to be true (about grace and judgment).

Note: this is going to be a big deal next week when Lifeway covers these verses. I'm just warning you now that next week, I will talk about these verses (as the lesson plan calls for; see below) and I will also talk about the question of where we got the Bible.

Here's the explanation I have heard from people I highly respect: this event did happen, but John did not include it in his Gospel (don't ask me; John didn't think he needed to add it). None of the earliest Greek manuscripts include it. But it is so memorable and quotable... A later scribe, who knew this story well, eventually decided that it must be a mistake that the manuscript he was copying didn't have the story, and so he added it. And all of the scribes who copied his copy kept it. And here we are.

But for our purposes this week -- removing 8:1-2 removes the confusion of when the rest of chapter 8 takes place. All of chapter 8 takes place on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, along with at least part of chapter 7. Here's our timeline:

  • For the first few days of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus is there in Jerusalem, but incognito (7:10).

  • Halfway through the Feast, Jesus starts teaching openly in the temple (7:14).

  • Note that John doesn't tell us what Jesus taught or how long He taught.

  • Eventually the crowd begins to challenge Jesus (that's the setting for this week's passage), and the Jewish leaders send guards to arrest Jesus (7:30, 32).

  • Somewhere in the middle of all of this, it has become the last day of the Feast (7:37). I strongly wonder if everything in our passage takes place on the last day of the Feast, meaning that everything from 7:16-8:59 happens on the same day.


Part 1: From the Father (John 7:14-19)

14 When the festival was already half over, Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. 15 Then the Jews were amazed and said, “How is this man so learned, since he hasn’t been trained?” 16 Jesus answered them, “My teaching isn’t mine but is from the one who sent me. 17 If anyone wants to do his will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. 18 The one who speaks on his own seeks his own glory; but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is true, and there is no unrighteousness in him. 19 Didn’t Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”

There's a beautiful irony in John's words here -- the Jewish people were celebrating a festival in which they dwelled in tents (they "tabernacled") to symbolize how they would be with God. But in the midst of all of that, who was with them in their midst? Jesus! God was "tabernacling" among them, and they missed it.

If the Jewish leaders were looking to kill Jesus, how was He able to teach in the temple? John the author refers to the entire temple complex -- some 35 acres, able to hold tens of thousands of people. Jesus was probably under one of the porches for the ginormous Court of the Gentiles. By the time the Jewish leaders knew He was there, He had attracted too large of a crowd to arrest Him quietly.

John ends his Gospel with this tremendous line:

21:25 And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if every one of them were written down, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written.

This week's passage is an example of what John meant. My guess is that Jesus spent multiple days teaching in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles. Writing all of them down would have taken many, many scrolls.

But I can guarantee that this is an all-day sermon or lecture that you would not fall asleep for. Must like the "walk to Emmaus" we read about in Luke's Gospel, this must have been lifechanging stuff -- for Jesus' true followers.

The "outsiders", on the other hand, are a bit confused by it all. On the one hand, they all acknowledge that "Jesus is a great teacher". (If you didn't use that topic as an icebreaker, you will want to find a way to integrate that into discussion here.) But on the other hand, they had two big questions:

  1. Where did Jesus learn these teachings, and

  2. What gave Jesus the authority to proclaim these teachings?

Aside on Jewish Schools

It had become the tradition of Jews to focus on the teachings of a rabbi. In and of itself, that's not a problem. Today, we have people who "follow" John Piper and John MacArthur and Timothy Keller and Matt Chandler and Jen Wilkin, etc. All that means is when they have a question about what the Bible says, they find a Bible study or commentary by that person and listen to what it says.

Likewise, in Judaism, they tended to follow one of a few major "rabbinic traditions". (In Jesus' day, rabbis aligned themselves either with "The School of Hillel" or "The School of Shammai". We don't need to go into further detail.) What this meant was when someone got up to teach in synagogue, they would say something like, "According to Hillel, this passage means..." Whatever they taught, they would validate it by referring to the teaching of a famous rabbi. If you remember the word Mishnah or Midrash, those refer to the collections of Jewish rabbinical teachings on topics (Mishnah) and books of the Old Testament (Midrash), not unlike commentaries today. They were in wide use in Jesus' day.

That's not how Jesus taught.

You might remember in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus used this formula:

  • "You have heard that it was said..."

  • "But I tell you..."

That was unheard of. No one spoke from their own authority! This always got somebody's attention, as Matthew made clear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount:

7:28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 because he was teaching them like one who had authority, and not like their scribes.

That's what's going on here in John 7. Jesus is teaching the people, but He's not citing famous rabbis to justify Himself. He's just teaching.

Why doesn't Jesus need to justify His teachings?

It's simple -- the teachings come from God the Father. Does God need a rabbi to justify Him? This leads into the very important question I noted earlier -- how do we know if a teaching comes from God or not?

Jesus only gives us three clues:

  • True teaching promote the will of God

  • True teachings seek the glory of God the Father

  • True teachings reflect God's righteousness

What's our test for those things?

I talked a little about this above, so right now I'll cut to the chase -- the Bible. The Jews in Jesus' day had the teachings of God recorded in the Old Testament. Today, we also have the teachings of Jesus and His apostles recorded in the New Testament. We might put it like this: If we know the Bible, we know if what someone teaches is in line with the Bible.

As we observed, it's not always that easy. Even Satan knows the Bible, and he is very good at twisting it! This is where Jesus' "I Am" statements come to our defense. Has someone ever said to you "so-and-so said this" and you immediately thought "that can't be right; that doesn't sound like so-and-so at all"? Jesus is that test for us through the Holy Spirit. We know Jesus through His teachings (even though they weren't all recorded in the Bible, right?), and Jesus promised us the help of the Spirit to discern this truth:

14:25 “I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. 26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you.

We can distinguish truth from error -- if we know the Bible, know Jesus, and listen to the Spirit. And all three of those testify of one truth; there is no disagreement between them.

So let's get back to the three clues:

  • If a teaching cannot be verified in the Bible

  • If a teaching results in self-promotion

  • If a teaching results in behavior that is not righteous

Those are bad signs.

But let's camp out on verse 19.

"Didn’t Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”

Kinda seems out of the blue, doesn't it? But if you think about it, all Jesus is doing is proving to His listeners that they don't know God!

The Klink commentary I like says it extremely well:

  • "The Jews challenge the ability of Jesus to teach; Jesus challenges the ability of the Jews to hear."

Here the Jews are questioning Jesus' authority, and yet they can't even obey the most basic foundational commandment -- "You shall not murder"! As we will see in the next verse, the people were not all aware of the Jewish leaders' schemes, but the Jewish leaders had proven themselves to be unworthy followers of God, and that's what mattered at this moment.

Your task as a group: try to turn 7:17-18 into a "truth checklist" that you could use to evaluate what someone else has claimed.

And then test it during the week. Listen to the media/social media for teachings that seem to be in the name of Jesus but don't seem "right". Challenge everyone to evaluate that teaching according to the checklist you created, and then bring it to the whole group to see what everyone else thinks. Remember what I said earlier about the importance of "the mind of Christ" which refers to God's people thinking and learning together, using their gifts together to discern truth.

In this process, teach and model humility. We tend to get in the biggest trouble when we approach a question with the mindset "I'm right, so everybody else must be wrong".


Part 2: With Righteousness (John 7:20-24)

20 “You have a demon!” the crowd responded. “Who is trying to kill you?” 21 “I performed one work, and you are all amazed,” Jesus answered. 22 “This is why Moses has given you circumcision —not that it comes from Moses but from the fathers —and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. 23 If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses won’t be broken, are you angry at me because I made a man entirely well on the Sabbath? 24 Stop judging according to outward appearances; rather judge according to righteous judgment.”

The crowd immediately gives us reason #1 for being humble about questions -- sometimes we don't have all of the facts.

I'm going to guess that there are at least three groups of people in the crowd:

  • those who are privy to the Jewish leaders' plan to kill Jesus,

  • those who have heard about that plan and agree with it, and

  • those who would never believe that the Jewish leaders would stoop so low.

In other words, there are a number of people in the crowd who don't know what Jesus is talking about. They think He is wrong because they don't have the facts. And they don't have the facts because they have naively assume that they know what is going on.

[Aside: this is one reason why I believe that crises in Christian leadership are so destructive. We listen to a person preach or teach, we like what they have to say, and we put them on a Christian pedestal. And then we hear accusations that they covered up sexual abuse, or they embezzled money, or they were verbally abusive to someone in the church, and we don't believe it. And when powerful evidence is raised, we reject it, or we get extremely disillusioned. To the people in this crowd, the Jewish leaders were the ones who should have gotten the basic commandments right. What do you do when you find out that your teachers were the ones breaking God's laws?]

The Jewish leaders probably had some plants in the crowd to encourage this challenge. It's called an ad hominem attack -- when you can't argue with what someone is saying, you can always call them names.

Narratively, John the author uses this exchange to demonstrate that "the crowd" is still more likely to side with the Jewish leaders than with Jesus. This is setting us up for the near-future event when "the crowd" joins the Jewish leaders in calling for Jesus' execution.

Jesus knows this, and He calls them out for it. And what He does is bring up an example that everyone knows -- everyone has these facts:

  • Boys are circumcised on the Sabbath without violating Sabbath law.

  • Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath.

What's the problem?

In Matthew 11, Jesus gives another example:

11 Who among you, if he had a sheep that fell into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t take hold of it and lift it out? 12 A person is worth far more than a sheep; so it is lawful to do what is good on the Sabbath.

And the unspoken extension is this:

  • The Jewish leaders conspired on the Sabbath to kill Jesus.

What's the problem?

Read all of Matthew 23 -- Jesus doesn't hold back from these accusations.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity. 28 In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

It is a bald-faced lack of righteousness. (You might want to make sure that everyone in your group remembers what "righteousness" means here.)

Please note that Jesus isn't focused on their interpretation of Scripture -- this is about their hypocrisy of faith. They claimed to know God, but they rejected Jesus. That's the problem.

We talked about this hypocrisy at length when we studied Isaiah,

and Romans,

There are many, many ways in which we are hypocrites. Those posts will give you lots of examples to consider (if you're interested).


Part 3: They Know Each Other (John 7:25-29)

25 Some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? 26 Yet, look, he’s speaking publicly and they’re saying nothing to him. Can it be true that the authorities know he is the Messiah? 27 But we know where this man is from. When the Messiah comes, nobody will know where he is from.” 28 As he was teaching in the temple, Jesus cried out, “You know me and you know where I am from. Yet I have not come on my own, but the one who sent me is true. You don’t know him; 29 I know him because I am from him, and he sent me.”

[It's getting harder and harder not to want to waste time complaining how unhelpful the Lifeway section headings are.]

So, some of the people are starting to realize some of the inconsistencies in the behavior of the Jewish leaders. Some things really don't add up. (Because they're hypocrites! That's why!)

But the crowd does have a legitimate question (a question that the Jewish leaders will exploit in the rest of the chapter) -- how can Jesus be the Messiah? Isn't He just another joe like that rest of us?

Think about it -- they know His father, they know His siblings, they know where He is from, they know what He does for a living. (Read Matthew 13:53-58.)

Or do they?

[Here's the second reason given in rapid succession why we need to be very humble about what we think we know.]

Note that John the author didn't include the story about the angel Gabriel or Joseph's lineage or Bethlehem or any of that. Couldn't Jesus have put all of this to rest simply by explaining the backstory we read about in the Gospel of Luke? What do you think? (And remember that John the author did choose to go all the way to before the beginning of time itself.)

Jesus' response cuts through the noise -- "What you think you know or don't know does not change the simple fact that if you knew God, you would know if I'm telling the truth or not."

The fact that they think they have to argue about where they think Jesus is from proves that they don't even know when God is speaking to them.

There are two different ways you can focus on what Jesus is saying here.

Knowing Just Enough about Jesus to be Dangerous

This is related to my earlier challenge about evaluating things said "in Jesus' name" in the media/social media. Many errors proclaimed in Jesus' name are as simple as (1) taking Jesus out of context or (2) misquoting Him. (This is often what Satan does with the Bible.)

  • "Do not judge."

  • "I have not come to condemn the world."

  • "If you believe, you will receive whatever you pray for."

What other sayings of Jesus do you hear taken out of context?

I mentioned this billboard a few months ago. Read the fine print. It still makes me angry.

How can you know when someone is taking Jesus out of context?

The Importance of Learning the Whole Bible

You've probably picked up on a theme -- our protection from the half-truths (and outright lies) of the world is knowing the Bible. But knowing some of the Bible isn't good enough for a committed follower of Jesus. We need to know the entire Bible.

That sounds daunting. It's also not something anyone can do overnight. This is something we need to commit to and work toward for a lifetime. That's why in our Sunday School groups we use Lifeway's "Explore the Bible", which takes us through the entire Bible in a 9-year cycle. That's quite a commitment! That's also why I think it's fine for us to lean on a favorite Bible teacher, like John Piper or Jen Wilkin, a person whose insight you trust to help you understand a difficult passage of Scripture (I certainly do).

But there's no substitute for you reading the Bible for yourself and talking about it in a small group. If you've ever consulted more than one commentary for a passage of scripture, you've read more than one interpretation of that passage. If you're willing to prayerfully encounter God's Word for yourself, and if you are familiar with what God says in different parts of His Word, then you can use those divergent interpretations as building blocks for learning for yourself what the Bible says and means. And the ability to talk about a passage in a small group -- ask questions, offer ideas, hear concerns -- is such a powerful engine of learning.

Anyway, this topic would be something along the lines of what are ways that Christians can take steps to learning the entire Bible? In other words, share ideas about what has worked for you, and what you would suggest for a Christian at various levels of "experience".


Closing Thoughts

I just want to point out that the rest of chapter 7 and chapter 8 double down on this conflict with Jesus. Please take a few minutes to read those chapters!

The people zero in on the Messiah coming from Bethlehem. The Jewish leaders zero in on Jesus coming from Galilee. The Pharisees zero in on the need for Jesus to have a corroborating witness. Jesus zeroes in on the proof that the Jews have drifted far from God.

Ther are lots of echoes of the challenges we talked about in this week's passage. The point I would want to make to anyone in your group who might have gotten lost about these arguments is that the Jews were looking for reasons to reject Jesus, and the deeper they dug for reasons, the more they revealed their own hypocrisy. And this happens over and over again. What does this say about the people who were trying to reject what Jesus said?


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