There aren’t many situations in life where we’re completely in the dark. Even in the middle of the night we’re not completely in the dark: there’s a street light on outside; or a bit of light pollution from the city; or maybe you leave a bathroom light on so you can see where you’re going if you get up in the night. Complete darkness is elusive. Where can you go to get away from light?
A few years back a mate and I took our kids driving through the Simpson Desert. In the middle of the night there is absolutely no man-made light. On the horizon in every direction there’s no sign of civilization. But if there’s no cloud cover, the moon and the stars are so bright it’s hard to get to sleep! So even in the middle of the desert there’s still light.
I can only think of two places I’ve been where there’s no light. Once was when I was chasing a young bloke up those big drain pipes in Lethbridge Park just off Luxford Rd. I was running flat out, bent over heaps. I wasn’t far behind him at the start, but he was doing his best impersonation of Usain Bolt, and after about 50 metres I’d lost him. Everything was completely black and I couldn’t see a thing. There’s only so far you want to run flat out in the dark. At some point you realize it’s pretty stupid, so I turned around and walked back along the pipe. It was OK though, because I knew where he lived, so I went and woke him up the next morning at 10 past 7 and arrested him!
Then there are caves. I’ve been caving a bunch of times, abseiling through a hole in the ground, and crawling along through rock squeezes, and all that sort of thing. It’s probably quite dangerous—as we saw in Thailand last year when all those kids got stuck in that cave—but it’s also really cool.
But the best thing about caving is stopping to have a rest where there’s a bit of space and everyone turning their head torches off. It’s incredible. There is absolutely no light once you get past about 10 metres into a cave. If we turn off the lights here, it would be dark, but we could still see each other a bit. When you’re in a cave 100 metres underground, you literally cannot see your hand if you hold it against your nose. It’s completely disorientating—but at the same time, it’s amazing. Then one by one, you turn your head torches back on, and little by little light creeps in, and the darkness creeps back.
If you go up to Jenolan Caves you can experience this quite safely in some of the big caves, and I reckon it’s worth doing because for nearly all of us. There’s always some light we can see by, even in the middle of the night.
All the way through his Gospel, John uses light and darkness to help us understand what Jesus is doing through his ministry. In chapter 1, John talks about Jesus as the light that came into the dark world: the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. In chapter 3, Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus at night. John’s not just telling us what time it was: he’s telling us that Nicodemus was spiritually in the dark. In chapter 9, Jesus says that he’s the light of the world, and then he gives sight to a man who was born blind, turning his darkness into light. Light and dark are big themes in John’s Gospel.
We’re in the back half of John chapter 7. I reckon a good way for us to think about this passage is to think of it as a dimmer switch that most of us have on our lights at home. You turn it one way and the light reduces, and you turn it the other way and light increases. In the back half of John 7, we meet four sets of people—the crowds, the temple guards, the religious leaders, and Nicodemus— and we see the responses they make to what Jesus says and does.
Like everything John does through his Gospel, he’s providing us with enough information to make the right response to Jesus. John wants us to look at the evidence and come to the conclusion that Jesus really is the Son of God, to believe in him, and to have life in his name. So let’s have a look at these four groups of people and the responses they make to Jesus. We’ll figure out where the dimmer switch is for them. I don’t know where all of you guys stand with Jesus, but I reckon we’ll see a reflection of ourselves here, so we’ll also see where the dimmer switch is for us.
John 7 takes place at the feast of tabernacles. This festival was about being refreshed by God, physically and spiritually. It was autumn, so there hadn’t been much rain. As the seasons changed, the land needed new rain to water the crops, plus it was a reminder to the people of Israel of their time in the desert after they escaped from slavery in Egypt. They needed God to provide water from the rock, and they needed spiritual refreshment as well. In the desert they lived in tents—another word for ‘tent’ is ‘tabernacle’—so it’s the feast of tabernacles.
The priests would lead a procession from the temple in Jerusalem to the pool of Siloam. They’d fill a big water jar and carry it back to the temple, and then pour the water over the altar. They’d do this once a day for six days, then on the last and greatest day of the festival, they’d do it seven times. All the while, the people would be singing psalms and rejoicing. Jerusalem is full of Israelites who’ve come from all over the place to worship God. And in the middle of all that’s going on, Jesus says, verses 37-38:
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them. (NIV)
He’s claiming to be the one through whom God would spiritually refresh his people! John confirms this in verse 38, by telling us that Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit. In just a couple of years, Jesus would be crucified. He’d die then three days later be raised to new life, and then and only then would he give the Holy Spirit to all who believed in him for the forgiveness of their sin. It’s a massive claim from Jesus, so let’s look at how these groups of people respond.
The crowd are first. Where’s their dimmer switch? Verse 40: “On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” Dimmer switch turned to the right just a fraction. Yes, they are right. Jesus is a prophet. But he’s much more than that. It’s a bit like saying that Tiger Woods is a golfer. It’s true, but he’s more than just a golfer. I’m a golfer, but I’m not Tiger Woods! It’s like saying that we’re mammals. That’s true as well, but it’s nowhere near the full story. So, dimmer switch is on, but there’s not much light happening.
We all know people like this. I have plenty of friends who think Jesus was a great moral teacher. I met a Seikh fella at the gym last week. We started talking and after a bit, I asked him what he thought of Jesus. He said Jesus was a great prophet, like Mohammad and the Buddha. See, Sikhs believe there’s only one God and that all religions lead us to God, that they’re all the same and they’re all valid. That’s not too different to the way some of the crowd respond to Jesus: he is a prophet but nothing more.
Others go a bit further, in verse 41: “Others said, “He is the Messiah.” The dimmer switch is turned to the right a bit more here. Jesus is the Messiah. He’s the saviour that the Old Testament had been talking about for roughly 1,500 years! Thing is that for many people in the crowd, their definition of the Messiah is different to God’s. And that’s a big problem.
We all know people who think something like this as well. There are plenty of folks in Australia who would say that Jesus was the Son of God. They’d tick the box marked ‘Christian’ in the census every five years. They’d come to church at Easter and Christmas. But their definition of ‘Messiah’ and God’s definition of ‘Messiah’ are different, and Jesus doesn’t really make much of an impact on their lives. So, yes, the dimmer switch is turned to the right a bit more, but it’s still pretty dark.
There are others in the crowd who are far from convinced, verses 41-44:
Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him. (NIV)
Their dimmer switch is turned to the left a fair bit. You know how people say that a little bit of knowledge is dangerous? Do you remember when you started driving—and I reckon this is particularly true for the men among us—but when you get your ‘Ps’, you are convinced that you have the same ability to drive as Craig Lowndes (or for us it was Peter Brock back then, the ‘king of the mountain’). Maybe it was just the blokes I grew up with in the mountains, but when we got our licences, we all through we were completely indestructible. So we drove like lunatics. We only had a small amount of knowledge as far as car control went, but we thought we were amazing. The first day I drove by myself, I crashed into a mate’s car while I was trying to park my car! What a muppet! A small amount of knowledge tricks you into thinking you’re better than you are.
Most of the crowd is like this. They know from their Scriptures—what we call the Old Testament—that the Messiah is going to be related to king David. This is why those genealogies in Matthew and Luke are so important. At first glance they’re just a long list of unpronounceable names, but they’re vital! Jewish people have OCD when it comes to family records—they did back then and they still do now. Jesus’ family tree proves that Jesus is related to King David, but the crowd don’t know that. They just think he’s Mary’s son, his dad was Joseph, and there was something a bit dodgy about his birth.
They also know that the Messiah is going to be born in Bethlehem, but they all think Jesus is from Nazareth. That’s what he was known as, wasn’t he? He was Jesus of where? Nazareth. Only he wasn’t. He was born in some sort of stable outside a pub in Bethlehem, where the Messiah was meant to be born. Only the crowds don’t know that. Can you see how a little bit of knowledge is dangerous?
These folks are all around us today. We all know people like this. I spoke at a flash girl’s school a couple of years ago, and one of the teachers asked me to stay for a while and lead her year 10 scripture class. I love doing that sort of thing so we had heaps of fun. It was an Anglican school, and most of the girls in the class thought they were Christians. So I started talking about God’s intention for human sexuality. Game on! I could say stuff the teacher just couldn’t, and it was brilliant!
The most outspoken girl was Claire. She was really confident and articulate. So I asked her if she was a Christian. She said, ‘Yes.’ I asked her what she thought of the Bible’s take on human sexuality. She said it was rubbish, out-dated, and offensive. I said, “Cool. Now, the thing is, Claire, if you’re a Christian, at some point you need to agree with God, because although you’re obviously intelligent, neither you or I are wiser than God. So I reckon what you’ve done is this: there’s heaps of stuff about Jesus that you really love, but there are things in the Bible that you hate. So you’ve taken the stuff you love and mixed it with your own thoughts on other issues, and you’ve created a whole new religion—let’s call it ‘Clair-ianity’—and you’re the archbishop of your new religion.”
It wasn’t an offensive convo. Neither of us was angry and she started smiling. “Yeah”, she said. “That’s right. I’m the first female archbishop!” Everyone fell about laughing. It was excellent. The first step in becoming a Christian is often realizing you aren’t one. A little bit of knowledge can often be really dangerous—it was for Claire in that school a couple of years ago and it was for some of the folks in the crowd in John 7 a couple of thousand years ago.
What about the Temple Guards. Have a look at verses 45-46:
Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?” “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied. (NIV)
There’s a bit more light here, isn’t there? The dimmer switch turns up a bit more. I’ve said this often, but Christianity is a simple thing made difficult by religious people. You probably all know the KISS theory: Keep It SIMPLE, STUPID! The temple guards know the KISS Theory. They don’t understand Jesus fully just yet, but they know he’s worth listening to. These guys are like cops—and we have a few here—and you guys know I was one. After a while, cops get quite good at making fast and usually accurate assessments of people. And you have to, because if you get it wrong you usually get a smack in the head or much worse. Like our police officers and prison wardens, these temple guards have seen their fair share of trouble makers and blokes who should be locked up. They know for sure that Jesus is neither of those. Listen to what they said: “No one ever spoke the way this man does.”
Up until this time in history, no one had ever claimed to be the one through whom God would pour out spiritual refreshment on his people. It’s a ridiculous thing to say, unless it’s true. These temple guards have met plenty of liars and lunatics, but they’d never met the Lord before. They know Jesus isn’t a liar. They’re positive he’s not a lunatic. Now, they don’t come out and say it, but you get the feeling that these guys sense that Jesus might just be the Lord.
Maybe this is you. You’ve never heard anyone say the stuff Jesus says. You’ve never heard of anyone doing the things Jesus did. So you’ve come to church to find out what’s going on, because you know there’s much more to this Jesus than meets the eye. You’re in the right place. If you haven’t come to ‘Explaining Christianity’ yet, we’re starting another one just after Easter in a month or so, so come along!
And what about the Pharisees. Oh, man, you can always leave it to the religious people to stuff things up, and get it all the wrong way ‘round! With breath-taking arrogance they dismiss the cops by saying, verse 47: “You mean he has deceived you also?” The Pharisees retorted in verses 48 and 49: “Have any of the rulers or any of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”
The dimmer switch just went down again. They are so arrogant. We don’t believe in Jesus, therefore neither should anyone else. In fact, you lot must be as dumb as a box of hammers. You know nothing about the law, and we know it inside out. Therefore, you lot are cursed by God! Have a look at how they finish up in verse 52:
They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (NIV)
Again with the Galilee thing! You know, for a bunch of blokes who claim to know the law so well, they seem to have forgotten that both Jonah and Nahum came from Galilee, and last I checked, both those blokes were prophets!
Now, don’t miss this: in the New Testament, the harshest things Jesus says are always directed at the religious leaders, and this is exactly why. See, these religious leaders claim to speak for God, but nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do they prevent people from trusting Jesus; they persecute people who follow Jesus; and with their oppressive rules, they make it incredibly hard for anyone else to even hear about Jesus.
And don’t for a second think that people like this were only around in the first century. No way! Church hierarchies are chock-a-block full of their descendants. It doesn’t matter what denomination you care to think about: they all have one thing in common, they all claim to be God’s mouthpiece. And at one time or another, they’ve all got it desperately wrong. They’ve all led their people into awful sin, and they’ve all hidden Jesus behind so many layers of religion that make it so hard to see the real Jesus.
I reckon this is why all of us need to really watch our hearts and ask ourselves tough questions often. “Am I becoming religious? Do I think Christianity is about rules I need to keep?” Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s the relationship we have with God by the power of the Holy Spirit because of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The biggest errors and the most horrible of sins Christians have gotten themselves into over the past 2,000 years have nearly always happened when we’ve turned the whole thing into a religion.
Before we get miserable and think there’s no hope, one man speaks up. It’s Nicodemus. Have a look at verses 50-51:
Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” (NIV)
I can’t wait to meet this bloke. If we had Nicodemus here and we interviewed him at church, his testimony would be that saying ‘Yes’ to Jesus took a few years. Come back to John 3 for a minute. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, he doesn’t want any of his religious mates to know he’s talking to Jesus, and he’s in the dark spiritually speaking. But he has that fantastic convo with Jesus about having to be born again if you want to see God’s Kingdom. And that convo made a massive impact on him. Here in chapter 7, you can see that Jesus has turned up Nico’s dimmer switch just a bit. While all his religious mates are so quick to condemn Jesus, Nicodemus reminds them that God tells his people that before anyone is condemned, they must have a fair hearing.
Nicodemus knows there’s something massive about Jesus. He’s not sure what it is just yet, but he knows enough to be certain that he wants to give Jesus a chance to speak. He wants to hear more of Jesus!
By the time we get to the end of John’s Gospel, the dimmer switch has been fully lit up for Nicodemus. He’s one of two men who get Jesus’ body and cover Him with spices to prepare Him for a proper burial. It was a public declaration from Nicodemus that he sides with Jesus. Remember this guy was one of, if not the leading, Pharisee of his day, so that first Good Friday when Nicodemus went with his mate Joseph to take Jesus’ body down, that was the end of his life as a respected Pharisee. But it was also the beginning of his walk with Jesus, which is better by so far it’s almost indescribable. Any of us who are Christians will meet Nicodemus in heaven, and that’ll be cool!
What response have you made to Jesus? Where’s your dimmer switch? Is Jesus just a prophet to you? Your dimmer switch is turned just a tiny bit to the right. Do you realize, like the temple guards, that no one has ever spoken like Jesus? Your dimmer switch is turned to the right a bit more, but it’s still pretty dark. Do you reject Jesus like the religious leaders? The dimmer switch is turned all the way to the left, the light switch is turned off and the bulb has been taken out!
Or are you someone who takes Jesus at his word? Do you realize that like me you’re a sinner who needs a saviour? Do you know that Jesus’ death and resurrection takes away our sin and brings us back to God, that it’s only through Jesus that all our spiritual needs can be met?
Where is your dimmer switch? Jesus said in verses 37-38: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (NIV)