Jesus and the Crowds

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Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”
Jesus answered, “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. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
“You are demon-possessed,” the crowd answered. “Who is trying to kill you?”
Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all amazed. Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a boy on the Sabbath. 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? Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”

(John 7:14–24 NIV)

Jesus had been traveling in Galilee and he didn’t “want to go about in Judea because the Jewish leaders there were looking for a way to kill him” (John 7:1). When the Feast of Tabernacles arrived, however, Jesus was urged by his brothers to head to Jerusalem in order to “show yourself to the world” (John 7:4). Jesus was reluctant at first, but he eventually headed out for Jerusalem and arrived there around the middle of the feast. He then began to teach in the temple court area.

Though we do not know the content of the teaching of Jesus on that day, the Jews were simply amazed: “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” We recall that when Jesus went to the synagogue to teach in his hometown of Nazareth, he had to face the prejudices of the local populace in a barrage of six questions that focused on his occupation and family heritage among other things (Mark 6:1–6a). Here, the prejudices are somewhat different but no less annoying. In Jerusalem the Jews, a group that likely included some religious leaders, were in effect saying, “Jesus, you are not connected to any rabbi that we know; moreover, we are not aware of any school that you are a part of; you’re not one of us.” And those pointed observations would have been the end of the matter for most people, especially when prejudice holds sway—but not for Jesus. He’s different.

Granted, Jesus was taught neither the Bible nor the Jewish traditions by a famous rabbi as the apostle Paul had been instructed by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). The authority of Jesus came not from some other human being, some celebrated teacher, on which Jesus would then be dependent as a disciple. Rather, the source of his magnificent learning was higher, much higher; it was not from humanity, but from God: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me.” Notice that Jesus did not make his own learning, his own efforts, the basis of his authority. He didn’t claim, for example, that he was self-taught, a claim that would have been immediately rejected by the religious leaders and perhaps would have become even the occasion for ridicule. In the minds of most first-century Jews, no wise person in the things of God could ever be self-taught. Self-authority was no authority at all!

Moreover, Jesus pointed out: “Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory.” And so on some level, Jesus agreed with the general nature of the criticism directed his way. What the Jewish leaders missed, however, was that behind Jesus is the authority of no one less than God: “but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.” Consequently, not only is the source of the teaching of Jesus Almighty God, but Jesus also ever sought, not his own glory, but that of the Most High. The question of authority, then, has served to illustrate the relation of Jesus, as a true human being, to God, the Father. It is a loving relationship of trust and ongoing dependence that puts aside any hint of self-­glorification or idiosyncratic authority. What’s more, Jesus maintained that anyone could discover whether his teaching came from God or not—that is, put the claim of Jesus to the test—by seeking to do the will of the Most High.

The second half of our text is difficult to comprehend unless one takes into account an earlier passage, John 5:7–15, which refers to the healing of an invalid at the pool in Bethesda. Though it was the Sabbath, Jesus ordered the man: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Since the man was now carrying his mat on the Sabbath, an action forbidden in the way the Jewish religious leaders had interpreted the law of Moses, these leaders, therefore, questioned the man and later persecuted Jesus who, in their eyes, was the real culprit behind this religious offense. Chapter 7 of John’s gospel reveals a simmering murderous intent, and that “the Jewish leaders there were looking for a way to kill him” (v. 1), no doubt because Jesus had violated the Sabbath in their eyes. Beyond this, these leaders had been offended by some of the things Jesus had said in their presence in the past, especially in terms of his relationship with the Father.

The crowd at the temple courts was not aware of any of this history and what effect it had upon the religious leadership who were present in this area as well. And so, when Jesus pointed out, “Yet not one of you keeps the [Mosaic] law,” and then asked, “Why are you trying to kill me?” the crowd growled: “You are demon-possessed. Who is trying to kill you?” Observe the social dynamics of the crowd here, for it will pay dividends later on and in other forms. This mass of people was utterly ignorant of the murderous designs of the Jewish leaders among them but that didn’t seem to matter at all. The crowd would simply have its say, weigh in, and express its judgment regardless of what it knew or did not know, for, after all, it had the strength of greater numbers on its side. It spoke with a very loud voice. But is truth a function of volume? Again, since the crowd was not aware of any murderous intent on the part of others, then in their minds it simply didn’t exist.

Making itself the center of meaning and judgment, in a very narrow and self-referential way, buoyed by its great numbers that it found both intoxicating and invigorating, the crowd—now actually a mob by this point—went all in for the falsehood that the religious leadership did not want to kill Jesus. Furthermore, because the crowd could not be wrong in its judgment (once again, the social dynamics are in play), then Jesus must be delusional and paranoid—in short, demon-possessed. In such cases the other is always at fault. But there’s more. Unlike the crowd, the religious leaders in the temple court area were not deceived. They had known the score all along. That they remained silent in the face of these lies resulted in their own greater guilt and complicity. Ignorance could not save them.

Jesus was well aware of the poor judgments that had been made by both the crowd and the religious leaders. In order to show these religious leaders their faults, Jesus—once again, as a careful thinker and teacher—invited them to reason clearly about Mosaic law and the will of God, for they did indeed know about the healing recorded in John 5:7–15. If the Sabbath required no work at all, then why was it that a male child must be circumcised on the eighth day even if it’s the Sabbath? Simply put, if keeping the Sabbath could embrace the good of ceremonial observance, how much more could it embrace the good of healing a man, setting him free, on that same day? Is not this the work of God? Again, what kind of god would refuse to heal a suffering man on the Sabbath day? What kind of god would make him wait? Is such a god to be worshiped and adored? Well aware that a clash of theologies had by now erupted, Jesus concluded his reply in the following helpful manner: “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”

Cultural conceptions of Jesus today present a man who is virtually unrecognizable. He is not known, above all, for whom he loves or how he loves. In contrast to this misconfiguration, the Jesus of the Gospels is far more beautiful, and loves more broadly and deeply, than many have imagined. The humble, suffering love of Jesus is uncanny, radiantly beautiful, and in the end transformative. There is nothing like it across the religious landscape or current ideological offerings.

In this engaging work—Jesus the Stranger: The Man from Galilee and the Light of the World—Ken Collins invites the reader to see Jesus in a new way. One that focuses on his humanity, especially in terms of his suffering, rejection, and ostracism by numerous oppositional characters and groups drawn from the pages of the Gospels. From hometown folk to family members, from religious leaders to those who will ultimately seek his death, what emerges from this new vista is a more humane and approachable Jesus, one who can commiserate with the pain and sorrow of our own lives and one who can offer rich and abundant healing, the healing of holy love. Get it from our store here.

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Dr. Kenneth J. Collins is professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies. Joining Asbury Seminary’s faculty in 1995 as professor of church history, Dr. Collins has lectured and taught throughout the world on the theology of John Wesley.

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