June 27, 1993

HOW NOT TO MAKE UP YOUR MIND

“Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” (John 7:24)

A friend of mine just graduated from college.  He took courses mostly in science and business, and he finished right at the top of his class, with a degree in agriculture.

Shortly before he graduated, my friend had to write a major paper on his overall approach to agriculture.  He displayed his scientific and business knowledge well enough to win a top mark from the three professors who judged his paper, but he also discussed something else that the judges weren’t really expecting:  he talked about his Christian faith, and how the teachings of the Bible would affect his farming practices.  Among other things, he emphasized his dependence on God, his commitment to honesty and hard work, and his desire to take good care of the environment since God created it.

Now, as I said, the overall quality of the paper was sufficient to get a top mark, but one of his judges commented, “It’s too religious.  Sounds like something from the 1800s.”  This professor was baffled.  Here was one of his very best students, saying that God would play a major role in his work.  How could someone so progressive and so up-to-date hold to such old-fashioned ideas?  How could anyone who knows the methods and techniques of the 1990s be religious like someone from the 1800s?  Everybody knows we’ve progressed beyond all that, especially in public colleges and universities!

When you’ve got your own preconceptions and prejudices, it’s hard to hear what someone else is saying, and it’s even harder to make a fair judgment about it.  Prejudice can make you narrow-minded and nasty.  Prejudice can make a secular professor scoff at his most intelligent student just because he’s religious.  Prejudice can make an employer reject the most qualified job applicant simply because of gender or race.  Prejudice can make you hate someone you don’t even know, simply because of where he comes from.  Prejudice means pre-judging.  You make a judgment based on your own preconceived notions rather than considering the relevant factors.

One person who ran into a great deal of prejudice was Jesus Christ.  His teaching was brilliant and authoritative, his miracles were astonishing, and yet many people rejected him simply because of prejudice.  Some people thought that if Jesus were for real, he’d be seeking more publicity;  others questioned his educational background;  still, others complained that his miracles were a violation of their laws and regulations;  another complaint was that he appealed only to low-lifes and not to the better and more knowledgeable classes of society;  and what’s more, they didn’t like where he came from.

These reactions to Jesus can all be found in the space of just one chapter of the Bible, John 7.  John 7 is a portrait of prejudice, of jumping to conclusions.  It’s a story of how not to make up your mind.

What do you think of Jesus?  How do you make up your mind?

One way not to make up your mind is to think in terms of publicity.  John 7 tells us that Jesus was staying in the remote district of Galilee and steering clear of Jerusalem and the district of Judea because there were already people there who were plotting to kill him.

But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near [says the Bible], Jesus’ brothers said to him, “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do.  No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret.  Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.”  For even his own brothers did not believe in him.

Eventually, Jesus’ brothers came to see him for who he really was and believed in him, but in John 7, they were still measuring Jesus by his public profile.  The brothers figured that if Jesus were really the Messiah, he’d act the way a public figure ought to act.  He wouldn’t be staying out in the backwater district of Galilee.  He’d head for Judea and the great city of Jerusalem.  He’d mingle with the shakers and the movers.  Jesus’ brothers thought that everybody who’s really important makes the headlines and gets positive coverage.

Jesus knew better.  He knew that as his fame grew, the movers and shakers wouldn’t acclaim their Messiah;  they’d kill him.  And he was willing to face death, but only when the time was right.  “Therefore Jesus told them, ‘The right time for me has not yet come;  for you any time is right.  The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that it is evil'” (v. 6).  Jesus’ brothers had the notion that anything good attracts positive publicity, but Jesus knew that true goodness is often ignored or else greeted with hostility by the evil it exposes.

If make up your mind about what’s important based only on what gets publicity in our great cities and major institutions, you probably won’t think much of Jesus.  You won’t hear much about him in the classrooms of public schools and universities.  You’ll seldom see people praying to him on TV programs and movies, not even when they’re facing illness or death.  Your newspaper will give you page after page of politics and sports and business, but you won’t find much about religion.  And if you do hear something, it’s likely to be negative.  Oh, belief in a higher power isn’t so bad, but people who really take Jesus seriously and stand up for what the Bible teaches are often derided as “fanatics” and “fundamentalists.”  However, going by publicity isn’t the way to make up your mind.

Another way not to make up your mind is to look for the general consensus of the common people.  John 7 says that

after his brothers had left for the Feast, Jesus went also, not publicly, but in secret…

Among the crowds, there was widespread whispering about him.  Some said, “He is a good man.”

Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.”

If you want to go by general consensus about Jesus, you’ll only become more confused.  There is no general consensus.  In John 7, some people thought Jesus was a good man, but others thought he was a liar.  And even among those who considered him a good man, many didn’t recognize that he was also the Son of God and their Messiah.

You can’t go by the opinions of the people you know.  You’ll find they have many different opinions, and what’s more, they don’t always say what they’re really thinking.  The Bible points out that “no one would say anything publicly” about Jesus because they were afraid of how the people in power might react.  These days, even if people don’t fear official persecution, you’ll find that they’re often reluctant to express their deepest convictions openly.  They’d rather play it safe.  And so measuring the opinions of people around you is another way not to make up your mind about Jesus.

As the story of John 7 continues, we’re told that finally, halfway through the feast, Jesus went up to the temple courts and began to teach.  “The Jews were amazed,” says the Bible, ” and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having studied?”

Isn’t that just like us?  We’re often more interested in a person’s academic credentials than in whether he’s got anything worthwhile to say.  We’re impressed by experts, people who have a long list of degrees from prestigious universities.  We’ll swallow almost anything, provided it comes from a Ph.D. and is backed by a flurry of footnotes and so-called research studies.

But academic credentials are just one more way not to make up your mind.  Jesus didn’t have the formal academic credentials that would impress the intellectuals, but his insight and his authority far surpassed all the experts put together.  They couldn’t help wondering, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?”

Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own.  It comes from him who sent me.  If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.

Jesus emphasized that his teaching came from God himself.  And he went a step further.  He said that the key to finding out whether his teaching is true is choosing to do God’s will.  When you’re searching for divine truth, obedience is more important than scholarship.  If you don’t love God or want to obey him, then all the education in the world won’t help you understand the truth.  In fact, you’ll use your expertise to promote your own fantasy as truth.

Take Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist.  She became famous for her studies of sexual behavior in Samoa.  She claimed that these people enjoyed free and promiscuous sex without any guilt and that they lived happily in a society that was almost paradise.  Margaret Mead’s research helped give scientific respectability to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  However, later researchers found that Samoan life wasn’t nearly so wonderful and problem-free as she had described it.  So why was Mead’s research so positive?  Well, as it turns out, Margaret Mead was herself bisexual and promiscuous.  She was seeing in Samoa what she wanted to see, and the people who embraced her research were hearing what they wanted to hear.  First, they decided to ignore God’s will, and then they embraced some pseudo-research that supported what they had already decided to do anyway.

Some churches have done much the same thing.  They’ve changed their theology and moral teaching to match the lowest common denominator of their people.  Their people don’t seek forgiveness through the blood of Christ or trust him as their only hope of salvation?  No problem.  Their theologians suddenly “discover” that many roads lead to God, and that hell isn’t real anyway.  Do people no longer believe in marriage as the only right context for sex?  No problem.  Just appoint a study committee full of PhDs and experts to “discover” that anything goes as long as we’re nice and caring about it.  First the behavior, then some pseudo-scholarship to rationalize it.

Jesus said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own behalf.”  Jesus is saying that the mind follows the will;  your head follows your heart;  your spiritual decisions shape your intellectual ideas.  If God and his will are your highest priority, then Jesus and his teaching will make sense to you.  If you choose to do your own thing, your mind will constantly be working to “prove” that it doesn’t make sense to follow Jesus or believe the Bible.  The heart makes its decision, and the head follows.

If anyone chooses to do God’s will,” said Jesus, “he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own behalf.”  What you find out depends on what you’ve already chosen.  To rely on academics, when you’re heart isn’t right toward God, is one more example of how not to make up your mind about Jesus.  You’ll only rationalize what you’ve already made up your mind to do

Another mistake, according to John 7, is to judge God’s work by your own regulations and expectations.  Some people were extremely angry at Jesus, and you know why?  Because earlier he had healed a crippled man.  They said that it wasn’t proper to do that kind of work on the Sabbath.  Imagine!  Here was a man who couldn’t walk, Jesus had made him completely better, and rather than praising God, they were griping about it.  Why?  Because it didn’t fit their prim and proper idea of how things were supposed to be.  They were upset with the Son of God because he did miracles that didn’t fit their schedule.  Jesus’ miracles were some of the most impressive demonstrations that he was indeed God among them, and they used those very miracles as one more excuse to criticize him.

Jesus responded by pointing out that they performed circumcisions on the Sabbath and asked,

Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath?  Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.

It’s easy, especially if you’re hyper-religious, to get so hung up on expectations and regulations that you’re no longer able to see when God is really at work.  Instead of checking whether Christ matches your expectations, you’d better first see whether your expectations match Christ.  “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.”

The habit of basing decisions on superficial expectations becomes especially clear in John 7 when the discussion about Jesus turns to where he came from.  Some people in the crowd expected that when Christ, the Messiah, came, he’d appear almost from out of nowhere.  Therefore, they reasoned, Jesus couldn’t possibly be the Christ.  They said, “We know where this man is from;  when the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from” (v. 27).

Others had different expectations.  They knew the prophet Micah’s prediction that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, and in their minds, this excluded Jesus, since they knew that Jesus had just traveled there from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, and they could hear that he spoke with a Galilean accent.  They said, “How can the Christ come from Galilee?  Does not the Scripture say that Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?”

So you have one group of people who believed the Messiah would have a secret origin, and you had others who expected him to come from Bethlehem.  Both groups agreed about at least one thing:  the Messiah certainly wouldn’t come from Galilee.  Galilee was considered the armpit of Israel, a place to avoid, a district where nothing important ever happened.  At the end of John 7, the religious leaders sneered, “Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”

They were so sure of themselves that they somehow overlooked a part of Scripture that did indeed predict great things for Galilee.  Listen to what the prophet Isaiah had written hundreds of years earlier:

In the future God will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by way of the sea, along the Jordan–The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;  on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned…  For to us, a child is born, to us, a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The people who said, “Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee” obviously hadn’t looked into it very carefully themselves.  It was all right there in Isaiah 9.  But these people were so hung up on their favorite ideas and Bible verses that they ignored other passages that didn’t fit their ideas, and they missed the full picture.  They couldn’t make room in their expectations for the man from Nazareth.

The irony of it all was that Jesus had come from a place they didn’t know, and he’d come from Bethlehem, and he’d come from Galilee.  Originally, Jesus came from a place they didn’t know, the throne of God in the unseen heights of heaven, to become a baby in the womb of a virgin.  What’s more, Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem, right at the time when Mary and Joseph were there to enroll for a Roman census.  And finally, Jesus’ parents settled down in Nazareth in Galilee, where Jesus grew up and began his ministry.  So the whole question of where Jesus came from was actually one of the strongest proofs that he was the Messiah.  What other person was the perfect fulfillment of prophecies that seemed almost to contradict each other?

When you start making decisions based on your own limited knowledge of the Bible, or when you don’t see how Bible passages that sound contradictory can possibly fit together, or when you can’t see how it all applies to Jesus, does that mean Jesus isn’t God’s Son or that the Bible isn’t reliable?  No, it just means that you don’t know very much yet.

Have you ever tried putting a jigsaw puzzle together?  If you just look at the various pieces, it’s hard to make any sense of them.  But if you have a picture of what the finished puzzle is supposed to look like, you can see roughly where in the picture certain pieces with various colors are supposed to fit, and it’s much easier to put the puzzle together.  In the same way, it’s hard to take each prophecy of the Old Testament by itself and try to put together a picture of what the Messiah is supposed to be like.  But once you realize that Jesus is the Messiah, all the pieces of the Old Testament suddenly start falling into place.  All those prophecies come together in him.

John 7 provides a number of object lessons on how not to make up your mind, but it also tells about people who found Jesus convincing.  Many of the common people in the crowd, “put their faith in him.  They said, ‘When the Christ comes, will he do more miraculous signs than this man” (v.31).

When the religious leaders heard people whispering things like this, they sent some temple guards to arrest Jesus.  But instead of arresting him, the guards were gripped by his words and couldn’t help listening.  When they finally reported back, the authorities asked, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”

“No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards declared.

“You mean he has deceived you too?” the Pharisees retorted.  “Has any of the rulers of the Pharisees believed in him?  No!  But this mob knows nothing of the law–there is a curse on them.”

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own numbers asked, “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”

They replied, “Are you from Galilee too?  Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.

If you want to make up your mind about Jesus, you need to investigate what he did, and you need to study what he said.  Those who really paid attention to what Jesus did couldn’t help asking, “How could anybody possibly do greater miracles than this?”  Those who paid attention to what Jesus said found themselves responding, “No one ever spoke this way before.”

But the members of the elite weren’t interested in honest investigation.  They didn’t actually give any good reason for rejecting Jesus.  They just said, “Look who believes in him and who doesn’t.  The lowlifes believe;  the elite don’t;  that proves he’s a phony.”

Today it might go like this:  “How many university professors believe in the miracles of Jesus and follow his teachings recorded in the Bible?  The only people who believe in him are uneducated or poor, or they need a psychological crutch.  Christianity is losing ground in the developed Western nations, especially among educated people.  Sure, it’s growing rapidly in Africa and Asia, and Latin America, but that’s only because those places are more superstitious and backward.  Enlightened people left it behind long ago.”  And if some among the elite do believe, it’s dismissed without serious argument.  When, like Nicodemus, some bright student takes Jesus seriously, a supposedly enlightened professor says, “Sounds like something from the 1800s.”

But what’s that got to do with anything?  The question is not how many of the elite follow Christ, or whether Christianity fits the latest trends.  The only question that matters is this:  Is Jesus Christ who he claimed to be?  To face that question honestly, you have to stop judging by appearances and make a right judgment.  You need to consider what Jesus did.  You need to study what he said.  Only then can you begin to decide whether he is who he says he is.  You need to read the accounts of Jesus’ life found in the Bible books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Read those four gospels and read them and read them again before you make up your mind about Jesus.

And as you read, remember:  You’ll find what you’re looking for.  If you’re looking for excuses not to follow Jesus, you’ll find plenty of them.  But if you’ve chosen to do God’s will, to accept what he reveals to you whether you like it or not, you’ll find out that Jesus is exactly who he claims to be, and you’ll follow him wherever he leads.  As Jesus said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God.”  Once your heart is seeking God, your mind becomes open to the truth about Jesus.

In John 7, Jesus gave an invitation that he still gives today:  “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”  That’s how you make up your mind.  You thirst for God, you come to Jesus without judging by appearances and prejudices, and as you do, you find the living water of God’s Spirit bubbling from inside you.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, clear our minds from superficial prejudices.  Open our hearts to the reality of God, open our ears to hear your teaching, open our eyes to see your miracles.  Create in us a deep thirst that only you can satisfy, and then fill us to overflowing with the living water of your Spirit.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.