Rev. Jeff Chapman, Faith Presbyterian Church
Before we read our scripture text this morning let me set the context. Jesus has now returned to Jerusalemafter having spent many months teaching and performing miracles up north in Galilee. The last time Jesus was in Jerusalemhe made the religious leaders furious because he broke the law by healing a paralyzed man on the Sabbath. In their view this was such a grievous infraction that they determined Jesus must be put to death. Jesus, they claimed, was disregarding God’s law and teaching others to do the same and this could not be tolerated.
So, as Jesus comes back to town, they are waiting for him. Just because he took an extended vacation inGalileedoes not mean that they had forgotten.
19‘Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?’
20The crowd answered, ‘You have a demon! Who is trying to kill you?’
21Jesus answered them, ‘I performed one work, and all of you are astonished. 22Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. 23If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the Sabbath? 24Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.’
25Now some of the people ofJerusalemwere saying, ‘Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? 26And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? 27Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.’
28Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, ‘You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him.29I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.’
30Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.31Yet many in the crowd believed in him and were saying, ‘When the Messiah comes, will he do more signs than this man has done?’ (John 7:19-31, NRSV)
Was there ever a time in your life when somebody you knew wanted to kill you? I’ve made plenty of people mad over the years, often justifiably mad, but I’m not sure anybody has ever been so angry with me that they want to kill me. You have to do something really offensive to make somebody that upset.
What did Jesus do that made people angry enough to want to kill him? Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years. That’s what he did. Jesus made his legs strong again so that he could pick up his stretcher and walk away. Exactly where is the offense in that?
Well, the problem wasn’t what Jesus did but when Jesus did it. Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, a day in which God’s law explicitly commanded his people to rest and refrain from all work. For the Jews of that time, that inculded healing. To make matters worse, Jesus then told the man to get up and pick up his stretcher and walk, an act that also would have been categorized as work. Not only was Jesus breaking God’s law, he was teaching others to break it right along with him.
Still, was that reason enough to kill him? Are these the types of offenses that deserve the death sentence? From the perspective of the Jewish leaders inJerusalemthey were. And here’s why.
The Jews at that time believed that it was through strict obedience to God’s law that a person gained salvation. This is how it worked. God gave the law in the scriptures, making clear to his people how they should and should not live. If a person then kept the law by doing good works and refraining from evil works, that person could ultimately gain favor with God. This is what the Jews believed. Obedience to the law was the way a person gained the favor of God.
This is why these people became so violently opposed to Jesus. From their point of view, here was a man who was trying to undermine the very means by which they believed they could gain God’s favor, the very means of their salvation. If you were in their shoes, you’d want him dead too.
Now, this way of understanding salvation has a name. It’s called legalism. These Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus were legalists. They believed that salvation was accomplished through the doing of good works, through adherence to the law. But to be fair, they are not the only legalists in history. This tendency, in fact, exists in us all. As one writer put it, “The fundamental spiritual error of the human heart is to think that [you] can please God by [your] own natural efforts.” We must be careful not to so quickly condemn the Jewish leaders for that which, I hope you will agree, exists in us as well.
In my work as a pastor I see this in people almost every day. I see it in myself when I have the courage to face it. Of course, rarely do any of us admit this is true. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve never heard anyone just come out and say, “I’m a legalist. I believe I can earn God’s favor by following God’s law.” We don’t put it like that. In fact, we don’t think of ourselves as legalists. And yet legalism, if we’re honest about it, is so often the default mode of our hearts.
If you pay attention you can see it. It shows itself in the guilt and shame that lives just beneath the surface of our lives. It peeks through in our tendencies to blame others or make excuses for our own failures. I see it in the way we so publicly present our best face, trying desperately to keep private and hidden what we know is most offensive within ourselves. I see it in the way we rush about in life frantically trying to establish our worth by what we can accomplish. I see it in the way we talk about those who have died, telling one another that they surely must be with God now because they lived such a good life. A good enough life.
The nagging voice of legalism continuously whispers its seductively persuasive message to your heart. “If you do the things you know God wants you to do, then God will be pleased with you. If you don’t, he won’t.” The message is so persuasive, but it is a lie. Again, legalism is the fundamental spiritual error of the human heart. It is an error to say that we earn God’s favor by following God’s law because, as Jesus makes clear in this passage and a hundred other places, none of us can ever follow God’s law.
Speaking to his accusers, Jesus says, “Did Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity kill me?” Don’t miss the irony here. The law of Moses expressly stated that it was against the law to kill. That means that these people want to break God’s law by killing a man for breaking God’s law.
Furthermore, as Jesus points out in the following verses, at the same time they condemn him for breaking God’s law by doing the work of healing on the Sabbath they, themselves, also break the very same Sabbath laws by circumcising newborn babies on the Sabbath, something that was also considered work. They are condemning in Jesus that which they refuse to condemn in themselves.
This is why Jesus says, in verse 24, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” He’s challenging them to think carefully and honestly about these things. Because if they do, they will see that this whole system of earning God’s favor through obedience to the law can never work because humans, on their own, are not obedient to the law.
What this means is that the person who refuses to acknowledge his own inability to ever live a “good enough” life will spend his whole life seeking God’s favor in vain. What’s worse, if this is you then you will likely end up going around trying to force this system on other people, trying to make them accomplish that which you, yourself, could never accomplish. When this happens you are now not only a legalist, you are a hypocrite to boot.
You see, hypocrisy is always what results when people try to earn God’s favor by being good people. In an effort to earn God’s favor we try our best to live as God wants us to live. We try to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We try to love other people as we love ourselves. But in the end we just cannot do it. We can’t even come close. Over and over again we fail. But we refuse to admit it because to face the reality that we can never keep God’s law means we then have to face the subsequent and terrifying reality that we will never be found in God’s favor.
Have you ever wondered why you are so quick to condemn the sins you see in the lives of others which are also found in your own life? I see this tendency in myself all the time. It goes like this. I see a behavior or attitude in you which I despise. So I condemn you for it. Not to your face, of course. But maybe to others. At least to myself.
If I’m honest, however, that very same attitude or behavior I condemn in you exists in me. I don’t want to admit it, but I know it does. And I hate that it does, so much so that I will do everything I can to deny it. I know the sin must be condemned but I don’t dare condemn myself. Much, much easier to direct that condemnation towards others in whom I see the very same sin. Once again, hypocrisy is always the inevitable result in the person who has bought into the lie that God’s favor is dependent on my obedience to the law.
But if all this is true, if obedience to the law never leads to God’s favor, then why did God even give us the law in the first place? If all the law does is condemn us and show us how far we are from ever earning God’s favor, what is the point of the law? We can’t follow it anyway. Thousands of years of human history have made this fact irrefutable.
Well, the scriptures teach us that God, our good and loving Creator, initially gave us his law for our own benefit, to provide for us and to protect us. Psalm 119, the longest Psalm in the Bible, spends 176 verses praising God for his law which is, the psalmist says, “a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.” This was the original purpose of God’s law, to be our provision and our protection.
This is, by the way, always the purpose of law, at least good law. Think about traffic laws, for instance. When they are wisely enacted, when they are good laws, traffic laws exist for our own benefit. When the law states that you are not allowed to drive 85 M.P.H. on Interstate 5, no matter how late you are for your appointment, that law is not meant to keep you from enjoying life. On the contrary, that law is meant to ensure that you, and your fellow citizens, continue to enjoy life. It’s there to protect us and to provide for us. That’s what good laws do.
In a similar way, when God gave us laws concerning our worship, our wealth, our enemies, our families, our sexuality, our time, and so on, these laws were not intended to keep us from life but were, instead, intended to usher us into life. They’re not meant to take away our freedom; they’re meant to set us free.
The problem comes in the fact that we too often don’t believe this to be true. For example, God tells us that there is absolutely no security to be found in money and material wealth. Therefore, we are commanded not to place our security in those things. Do not build your life on earthly treasure which will not last. That is God’s law. But do we obey God’s law? We do not. Instead of placing all our security in God, we too often cling to material things. We become anxious and worried when our money or things are threatened. We don’t always trust God’s when it comes to our wealth. We think we know better.
That’s just one example. I could give you a thousand others. All this reveals a great truth about us. As humans, we have all inherited a nature that is sinful and corrupt. From the time we are born we are oriented to believe that when it comes to living our lives, we know best. Just think about children. From a very young age children believe they know what is best. As parents we want to provide for and protect our children and so we give our kids rules and boundaries. And in response, they say to us, “Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Dad. I know you love me, and want the best for me. I know that you have more wisdom and life experience than me. So thank you for giving me these boundaries in my life so that I can thrive and grow. I can’t wait to abide by them.”
Isn’t that what your children said when you laid down the law? Of course not. Our children are just like us. Our children are on their way to becoming us. We want to run our lives because we think we know best. That means we take God’s law and we consistently and constantly ignore it or break it. Every one of us. Like Jesus said, “None of you keeps the law.”
This is why the law, which was originally given to benefit us, ends up condemning us. As Romans 3:20 states, “No human being will be justified in God’s sight by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”
You see, God’s law is like a mirror. Once we hold it up to our lives we see how far we are from keeping living how God made us to live. We see our sin. And beyond that we see the futility of legalism. Once we “judge with right judgment”, as Jesus encourages us to do, we wonder how we ever could have imagined that we could gain God’s favor by obedience to the law.
Does this mean, then, that we can never find favor with God? No. What this means is that since we can never earn God’s favor, the only way we can ever hope to receive God’s favor is if it is given to us, as a gift. In other words, our hope is not in the law of God. Our hope, or only hope, is in the grace of God. Our only hope is Christ.
Commentator James Boice tells the story ofScotland’s great Robert the Bruce who, toward the end of the 12th century, was being chased by English soldiers. At one point they were almost on him. Robert knew this and, in a desperate attempt to escape, he left the road and raced into a thick forest nearby. He ran mile after mile through the woods. But then, just as he was beginning to think he might have escaped, he heard a sound that made his blood run cold. It was the baying of his own bloodhounds. At once he knew what was happening. The English, fearing they would lose him in the thicket, had let loose his own dogs, putting them on his track. These animals which were supposed to provide for and protect their master were now chasing him to his death.
Robert knew that his only hope was to put something between himself and the hounds which might throw them off his scent. Desperate and exhausted, he stumbled on until he finally came to a clear mountain stream. At once he plunged in, allowed it to sweep him a mile or two downstream, and then came out on the other side of the forest where he hid and listened. Even from that distance he could hear how the hounds were able to follow his scent to the river but then could go no further. The scent ended at the water. The king had escaped from his enemies.
I trust you can see the point. The law, which is supposed to provide for us and protect us, actually serves to hurt us and condemn us. It chases us down to our death. It cannot lead us to God’s favor. And we will be lost forever unless we plunge into the one stream whose waters are so full of life and grace that they wash out the scent of sin forever.
Follow me carefully. You will never earn God’s favor by obedience to the law. You simply cannot be good enough. Nor can I. Not even close. The law can not and will not save you from sin. The law condemns you for your sin. And yet, if, by the grace of God, you can come to see this truth and then, in turn, give up trying to earn God’s favor and, instead, confess to God that you can never, on your own, earn God’s favor, if you can in faith throw yourself on the mercy of God you will find that because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, his favor is already yours. It has been yours all along. Not because of you, or anything you’ve done, but because of Christ, your brother, God’s Son, and because of what he has done. On the cross Christ gave up the favor of God for the wrath of God so that we, who deserve the wrath of God can, through faith, come to enjoy God’s favor.
You see, it’s not that the law leads us to obedience which then leads us to God’s favor. No! The law leads us to repentance, to throwing ourselves in faith on the mercy of God in Christ, which then leads us to God’s favor. God’s favor is never earned. God’s favor is only received. Through faith, by the grace of God, it is received. This is why for two thousand years the message of Jesus Christ has been called the Gospel, which means, simply, good news. The message of Jesus Christ is very, very good news.
Before we finish, one more question. This is a whole other sermon in itself, but I at least need to touch on this point.
What happens to the law now? Is the only purpose of the law to condemn us? And once we place our faith in Christ and enjoy the favor of God, are we then free to disregard the law, imagining that we are now forgiven no matter how we live? You know, this is the way that many people have worked things out. “It doesn’t matter what I do,” they say, “because God will forgive me in the end.”
Let us never forget that Jesus told us that he did not come to abolish the law but, instead, came to fulfill the law, to fill it full. Another way to say this is that Jesus did not come to release us from following God’s law but came, instead, to make us able to follow God’s law.
In a way, you might say that everything gets reversed. Instead of obedience to the law of God being the means by which find ourselves able to enjoy the favor of God, now the favor of God is actually the means by which we find ourselves able to obey the law of God. Obedience does not lead to grace. Grace, in thekingdomofGod, leads to obedience. We don’t obey God to earn his love. We obey God because of his love.
You see, God’s law is still meant to provide for us and protect us. That has never changed. God is always our good and loving creator who made life and knows life better than we ever will. God knows how to run your life better than you do. When God sets up boundaries for us he does so for our own benefit. It’s always for our benefit, and for the benefit of those around us.
On our own we cannot follow God’s law which sets us free. But now, living in God’s favor, having trusted in Christ and received him into our lives, the very Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, dwells within our hearts and, by the power of grace, is transforming us into people who can begin to live lives in accordance to the law, to love God and others as we were always meant to do. Not all at once, of course. This is a transformation that takes a lifetime. But bit by bit, as we submit more and more of ourselves to God in faith, as we live together in the community of the church, and go to God in prayer continuously, and study his Word constantly, and receive the sacraments regularly, God transforms us and we begin, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, to live the lives we were always intended to live.
I see this happening in so many of you. I pray that you see it in me.
All praise and glory to our Heavenly Father whose favor rests upon us through the grace of his Son, Jesus Christ, and is manifest in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read John 7:19-31 again. There’s a lot here. What stands out to you.
People are so mad at Jesus they want to kill him. Why?
Jesus says in verse 19, “None of you keeps the law.” Who is he talking about here? Is he talking about you?
It’s been said, “The fundamental spiritual error of the human heart is to think that you can please God by your own natural efforts.” Do you agree?
Do you ever find yourself condemning sinful attitudes or behaviors in others which, truth be told, exist in you as well? Why do we do this?
Do you try to follow God’s law in your life today? If so, why? And how’s it going? Are you able to do it?
What do you think about these two ways of ordering God’s law and God’s favor?
God’s law à God’s favor
God’s favor à God’s law
Look again at verses 25-31. What is the argument about here? Are we still having this argument today?
Further ScriptureReadingsfor the Week:
Monday: Psalm 119:1-24 – Glory of God’s Law
Tuesday: Matthew 5:17-20 – Fulfill the law
Wednesday: Romans 3:9-31 – Law & faith
Thursday: Galatians 3:1-14 – Law or faith?
Friday: II Corinthians 5:11-21 – Reconciliation
Saturday: In preparation for worship tomorrow, read John 7:31-39.