Read John 7:14–24.
For the past few weeks, Facebook has been assaulting my eyes with ads for a new book on economics and the Bible. I suppose there’s something in my profile that makes their algorithm think I’m ripe for the picking. The funny thing is, I know the author of this book. We used to work together. And so, I was curious. I clicked.
Though the ad had prominently displayed the book’s five-star rating on Amazon, so I perused the reviews. What caught my eye, scrolling through, was that all of them, with a possible lone exception, were left by names I recognized—people employed by the book’s author. In other words, the positive reception the new book was receiving was phony or, at the very least, suspect.
In Jesus’ day, rabbis prided themselves on being able to teach with the authority of those who came before them. Being able to appeal to teachers and scribes from previous generations gave weight to their own teachings. It was like touting a five-star Amazon review from a celebrity. So, when Jesus shows up halfway through the Feast of Tabernacles and begins teaching in the outer courts of the temple, the crowds are amazed. His teaching is full of amazing insights into the Scriptures, but He hasn’t studied under a rabbi and He isn’t appealing to rabbinical tradition.
Jesus tells the people gathered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:16–17). Jesus’ only Rabbi is God the Father. His teaching comes from heaven, so it’s no wonder He handles God’s Word in a way that the Pharisees and scribes do not. Jesus pulls no punches pointing this out.
The religious leaders talk a good game about being faithful to the Law, but in practice, they toss the commandments aside when it is expedient to do so. Jesus has felt their disregard for Scripture personally. He knows they are looking to kill Him because of the things He has said and done (v. 1; see also v. 19). These people talk about revering Moses, but they do not honor his words. They are poised to beak one of the Ten Commandments out of jealousy and rage. Already, in their hearts, they are guilty of murder (see Matthew 5:21–22).
These self-important hypocrites also don’t interpret God’s Word faithfully. In fact, they miss the point entirely.
Though we don’t often think of legal codes as a means of revealing someone’s tender, beautiful heart, that’s exactly how God uses the commandments in the Torah. The laws the Lord gave to His people were designed to help them know what He is really like. The Israelites were to be holy and set apart from other nations, because God is holy. They were to be good, because God is good. They were to be just, because God is just. At the center of every rule and regulation is something that reflects the heart of God.
Take, for example, the prohibition against working on the Sabbath. God had given His people a gift: a day of rest, that they might focus on Him, enjoy fellowship as a family, and recharge physically from the previous six days of work. The Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day took the Sabbath command very seriously (a good thing), but in doing so, they lost God’s heart for the day (a very bad thing).
When Jesus healed the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, it had been on a Sabbath day (see John 5:1–16). Months later, during the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish authorities are still fuming over the incident. All they can see is that Jesus did “work” on the Sabbath. They cannot see that God’s heart is always on the side of life and wholeness.
Jesus announces to the crowd, “Now, if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath?” (John 7:23). Think about the act of circumcision for a moment. In a literal sense, it is the wounding of a part of the body. In a spiritual sense, it is the healing of a part of the body, bringing the baby boy into alignment with God’s will for His old covenant people. It is both hurting and helping. When Jesus healed the disabled man at the pool of Bethesda, it was an act of pure healing. There was no wounding involved, and it restored the whole body, not just one part. So, if circumcision is allowed on the Sabbath, so is the restoration of life.
God never gives His people commandments so that they might become rigid, religious robots. He gives us rules to live by in order that we might become more like Him. As Christians, we are no longer bound to a legal code. We follow a Person, not a law. But that doesn’t mean God has changed or that He’s changed His mind about the kind of holiness He wants His people to have. Rather, Jesus is the fulfillment and the perfect, living embodiment of God’s commands (Matthew 5:17).
If we will surrender our lives to Jesus fully, we will find that in following Him we are cultivating within our own chests the compassionate, generous heart that is behind every law and commandment in Scripture. What will matter to us is not the tradition we find ourselves in or the words of some teacher who came before us. All that will matter is knowing and pleasing the God who loves us.