My church has been studying John’s Gospel over the last several months. And one of the most fascinating aspects for me as we’ve been exploring the book (and as I’ve been teaching) has been how people react to Jesus. Specifically, how they respond when he makes claims about his identity and purpose.
Questions about Jesus in John 7
In John 7, Jesus is teaching during the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles). This was a harvest festival that was filled with significance for the Jewish people. It was a time to remember God’s provision in the wilderness, while they looked forward to his greater provision to come in the last days and the coming of the Messiah.
A number of debates arose in this festival, notably one about what acts were lawful on the Sabbath (John 7:14–24). But in verse 25, the narrative shifts to a recurring theme in this book: the question of Jesus’s identity.
Then some of the residents of Jerusalem began to say, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? Yet here he is, speaking publicly, and they are saying nothing to him. Do the ruling authorities really know that this man is the Christ? But we know where this man comes from. Whenever the Christ comes, no one will know where he comes from.”John 7:25–27, NET
This theme is central to the entire purpose of John’s Gospel. This book is written with the explicit purpose of helping us see who Jesus is—that he is God in the flesh. And it does that not only by showing his many signs and wonders, and describing his teaching, but by showing us how people responded to him.
Most of the time, it was with confusion, questioning, and doubts. In this passage, the people at the festival asked, “Isn’t this the man the religious leaders are looking for? Why is he speaking openly—does this mean they agree with him? Do even they think he’s the Messiah?”
You can feel the conflict in the people’s grumbling and questioning. How could Jesus be the Messiah, the Christ? After all, many at that time believed that the Messiah, “would be born of flesh and blood yet would be wholly unknown until he appeared to effect Israel’s redemption.”1
But they knew Jesus came from Galilee. They knew his family. His brothers were at the festival at that moment.
Jesus, in their thinking, didn’t fit the bill. Or did he?
The assumptions we make about Jesus
Their response is an important reminder for us: everyone makes assumptions about Jesus. No matter our background, no matter what we believe, we all make do it.
For Christians, our tendency is to assume Jesus aligns with our theological tribe or denominational heritage. If we grew up Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, or Anglican, we’re Calvinists or Arminians—you name it—that Jesus is too.
But that’s not the only kind of assumption we make about him. Some of us assume things that make us fearful and doubt his goodness; that perhaps he and the rest of the Trinity doesn’t really love us the way the Bible says he does. That even though Jesus has said that he will not lose any who have been given to him, maybe he’ll toss us away if we mess up badly enough.
For non-Christians, those assumptions can go in any direction. Today, the assumption of most is largely a neutral to negative perspective of him. If he existed at all, he probably doesn’t matter, anymore than any other mythical figure would.
But no matter where our faith lies—whether we are Christians or not—all of us will have moments where we struggle to reconcile what Jesus says about himself with their own assumptions about him.
Our assumptions don’t tell us the whole story
But here’s the hard truth: our assumptions don’t tell us the whole story about Jesus. He is far bigger and far better than even our best ideas about him. He is far better than our doubts, fears, and dismissals of him, too. And because he is so kind, he wants us to know that.
So on the festival that day, whether it was through his divine knowledge, or by being able to hear people who were weren’t using their library voices, Jesus pressed on their assumptions.
Then Jesus, while teaching in the temple courts, cried out, “You both know me and know where I come from! And I have not come on my own initiative, but the one who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him, because I have come from him and he sent me.”John 7:28–29
Jesus gave the people a sort of affirmation: in some respect they aware of his origins. They knew where he grew up. They knew his mother, brothers, and sisters. But they knew less than they thought. They understood less than they believed. The people didn’t really know him or where he came from, and they definitely didn’t know the one who sent him—God the Father.
Jesus showed them a great kindness in challenging their assumptions about him. He wanted them to see that they didn’t have the whole story. They didn’t understand the bigger picture.
Jesus does this for us as well.
Growing beyond our assumptions
Whenever we read the Bible, even as we are encouraged by it, we are going to be stretched by it. We might read a passage that hits differently. It’s possible we’ll read something for the first time that we’ve overlooked for years. And in doing so, we will inevitably be challenged in our assumptions about Jesus: who he is, what he is like, and what he expects of us.
Knowing this encourage three responses:
- If we want to grow past our assumptions, we have to know what they are. So we need to ask what we assume to be true about Jesus—and why.
- Knowing we all don’t have Jesus figured out—knowing we don’t have the whole story—should encourage us to be humble about what we know and what we think we know. There will always be more for us to learn, to unlearn, and to relearn. And there are going to be times when we’re going to be confused, uncomfortable, and maybe even defensive. When that happens, we need to ask ourselves why. What is causing us to be uncomfortable. Why does something lead us to be defensive?
- It also should provoke a sense of wonder and curiosity. A willingness to explore that which challenges us, whether to confirm or correct that which we already believe. Because the truth is, we don’t know in full. It’s not possible for us to. As long as we are in this world, we might see the truth, but we can’t see the whole picture. We see it as through a mirror dimly. Someday we will see face-to-face. Now we know in part; but a day is coming when we will know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12).
- D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 317.