From time to time, humanity produces savants who have an incredible inborn natural gift for activities that the rest of us would have to struggle long years to acquire. For example, in April 2022, the Washington Post ran an article about a 46-year-old man who has conversational fluency in 45 different languages.
Vaughn Smith is a hyperpolyglot, self-taught or having learned informally from native speakers a mind-boggling list of languages in which he is capable of a conversation—while many of the rest of us struggle to remember even snippets of our high school French or Spanish. We marvel at such people, whether their facility is with language or music or in some other arena of human endeavor, just as the crowds in Jerusalem marveled at Jesus’ preaching.
In Jesus’ time, Jewish religious practice consisted primarily of temple worship, focused on sacrifices brought by worshipers and offered by the priests, and synagogue worship, where preaching and singing took place. While any adult male Jew could, theoretically, offer a meditation on the scriptures, it was most common for the assembly to hear from rabbis trained in theological discourse. So when Jesus, an untrained itinerant teacher, takes the bimah (the podium or platform in a synagogue from which the Torah and Prophets are read), it caused a certain amount of astonishment and concern.
First-century Judaism was diverse—neither monolithic nor necessarily rigidly legalistic; the Jesus movement was part of that. While Jesus had disagreements with some other Jews, some Jews followed him.
The festival referred to in John 7:14 was most likely Sukkot, or the Festival of Booths. This was one of the three pilgrimage festivals (the others being Passover and Pentecost), for which the Jews of Jesus’ time were expected, if at all possible, to travel to Jerusalem. The city would have been filled with many pilgrims from around Palestine and beyond, as well as those resident in Jerusalem.
Those who had been making the pilgrimage for many years would have been used to hearing certain authoritative rabbinical voices. Seeing an itinerant, quite possibly illiterate teacher from the rustic backwater of Galilee would have been a surprise—especially since the teacher displayed a deep understanding of the scriptures! Jesus’ listeners wanted to know how he had acquired his wisdom and knowledge.
But the reaction to Jesus’ preaching carried an undertone of suspicion: not just, “how does he?” but also, “how dare he?” Even if Jesus spoke well, what gave him the right to speak on God’s behalf without having gone through proper vetting and training? By whose authority did he speak?
Jesus responds to these unspoken questions by asserting that those who are resolved to do the will of God will be able to recognize the soundness of his teaching. He proclaims that he is speaking in order to glorify God; he does not desire to acquire prestige for himself.
The law of Moses
Jesus goes on to respond to the unspoken challenge in his audience’s question with a challenge of his own: “Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law” (v. 19). He goes on to inquire why they are looking for an opportunity to kill him, which understandably takes the crowd aback. They respond by, essentially, accusing him of being out of his mind: “You have a demon!” (v. 20)
It is a foretaste of the events of the first Holy Week, when the crowds first praised Jesus for his deeds of power on the first Palm Sunday and then four days later were calling for him to be crucified. The crowd here during the Festival of Booths first marvels at Jesus’ preaching and then, when he asks a few pointed questions, decides he’s dangerous and crazy.
Jesus’ sabbath practice was a point of contention for some of his listeners, especially the Pharisees. Jesus performed several healings on the sabbath: a man with a withered hand (Matthew 12:9-14), a man with dropsy (Luke 14:1-6), and a crippled, bent-over woman (Luke 13:10-17). He and his disciples had also been observed picking grain to eat on the sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). In each instance, the Pharisees objected strenuously to what they saw as Jesus breaking the sabbath as given in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11).
While the point of contention in this passage is Jesus’ authority to preach, rather than his sabbath practice, he responds with a word about sabbath practice. Even though no work is to be done on the sabbath, since it is also part of the law of Moses that baby boys be circumcised on the eighth day after they are born, any boy born the day before sabbath would need to be circumcised on the next sabbath, thus making work for the mohel (the person who performs the Jewish rite of circumcision).
Yet this is allowed, as it is deemed more important to keep the eighth-day rule than to scrupulously avoid the work entailed in performing a circumcision. Therefore, Jesus says, healing someone on the sabbath should not be considered breaking the sabbath, since, if circumcision is right and necessary, how much more so the making whole of a broken and suffering body?
The will of God
Jesus tells his listeners that anyone who is resolved to do the will of God will be able to discern whether any particular teaching comes from God. Here, Jesus is trying to teach his listeners that they are called and created to be in relationship with God, a relationship that involves listening for and discerning God’s leading, and that these relational practices are foundational to the journey of a life of faith in a way that scrupulously keeping every jot and tittle of the law may not be. Overscrupulousness, also known as legalism, can be a pitfall of the life of faith, because it shifts our focus away from relationship into rule-keeping.
The scriptures give us guidance on discerning the will of God so that we might resolve to do it. The prophet Micah proclaims that what the Lord requires is “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 give us our ethical foundation. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus recited from the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith, in Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . and your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). And throughout Jesus’ teachings, from the Beatitudes to the Lord’s Supper, Jesus showed us what it means to do the will of God.
To God be the glory
Jesus offered a second criterion for determining whether someone speaks with authority from God. The first was that those who are resolved to do the will of God would recognize which messages are from God. The second is that those who speak God’s truth are not seeking their own glory, but God’s glory.
Jesus lived his entire life this way. As the apostle Paul put it in Philippians 2, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness . . . [and] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8). Theologians call this ongoing self-emptying on Jesus’ part kenosis.
When Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him (Matthew 16:24), he is calling us to the work of kenosis as well. God’s will for us is that, by God’s grace, we die to ourselves and live for Christ. When we do this, God is glorified in and through us in all the ways that we love and serve God and neighbor.
Bobbi Dykema is pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Springfield, Ill.