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Lesson 44: The Divisive Jesus (John 7:40-52)

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February 16, 2014

As a preacher, it’s easy to become disappointed or discouraged when people do not respond to your teaching as you had hoped and prayed. That’s especially true when I’ve preached a clear, compelling gospel message, but no one asks for prayer or counsel on how he or she can trust in Christ as Savior.

But no less a preacher than the Lord Jesus Christ often experienced negative and hostile reactions to His preaching. As we saw in John 6, after Jesus gave the wonderful message about being the bread of life, offering that whoever was hungry and ate of Him would never hunger and would have eternal life, even some who professed to be His disciples walked away. They just couldn’t handle His comments about eating His flesh and drinking His blood.

Now, after Jesus gave the open appeal of John 7:37-38, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water,’” the crowd’s response was both mixed and mixed up. Some thought that He was the promised Prophet. Others went so far as to venture that He was the Christ, while others disputed that idea. The Jewish leaders wanted to arrest and execute Jesus. But the officers that they sent to arrest Him came back empty-handed, saying (7:46), “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.” Then Nicodemus, whom we met in chapter 3, tries to check the murderous intent of the Sanhedrin, only to be rebuked. John 7:43 sums up the overall flavor of this section: “So a division occurred in the crowd because of Him.”

Do you think of Jesus as being divisive? We like to think of Jesus’ words in John 13, where He says that by our love the world will know that we are His disciples. Or we think of His prayer in John 17, that His followers would all be unified so that the world would know that the Father has sent Him. So we join hands and sing, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” Jesus and division don’t seem to go together.

But Jesus Himself said (Matt. 10:34-36), “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” (See, also, Luke 2:34.) So we don’t have a true perspective of who Jesus is unless we see Him, in part, as one who divides people.

Why does Jesus cause division? One reason is that He is the truth and truth necessarily divides. Although the postmodernists today want us to think that there is no such thing as absolute truth in the philosophic or religious realm (which means that postmodernism is not absolutely true!) or that if there is truth, we can’t know it, Jesus drew a distinct line in the sand when He said (John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Or, as Peter boldly proclaimed (Acts 4:12), “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” There aren’t many different ways to God. The familiar slogan, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, just so that you are sincere,” is patently false. Faith in Jesus Christ, as revealed in the apostolic witness of the New Testament, is the only way to God. That is inherently divisive! Here we learn:

Because Jesus claims exclusive allegiance as the truth, He inevitably causes division among people.

Satan hates the truth about Jesus and so he makes sure that there are always many, often within the church, who oppose the truth. We see this even in the pages of the New Testament. In Acts 20:29-30, Paul warned the Ephesian elders, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” There are many other warnings in the letters of Paul, Peter, and John about false teachers plaguing the church. We are not to forge a bond of unity with such teachers, but rather to draw clear lines of division. And, no matter how lovingly we act and how pure our motives, we will often face opposition, even from those in the church, when we separate from those who oppose the truth. But to be like Jesus, we must sometimes do it.

I’m going to walk you through the text, showing how Christ caused division both among religious people (7:40-44) and among religious leaders (7:45-52). Then I’ll draw some practical lessons.

1. Christ caused division among religious people (7:40-44).

There are three different views among the crowd:

A. Some had a correct but inadequate view of Christ: “This is certainly the Prophet” (7:40).

This refers to the prophet that Moses predicted (Deut. 18:15), “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him.” In Jesus’ day, the common view was that the Prophet and the Christ were two separate persons. As we saw in John 1:20-21, John the Baptist denied that he was the Christ. But then the delegation from Jerusalem asked him, “Are you the Prophet?” In John 6:14, after Jesus fed the multitude with the five loaves and two fish, the people connected the dots with Moses giving the Israelites manna in the wilderness and proclaimed, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” So they wanted to take Jesus by force and make Him king.

Certainly, Jesus was the Prophet of whom Moses spoke. He was much greater than Moses, both in the signs that He performed and in the teaching that He gave. But by itself, to believe that Jesus was the Prophet was an inadequate view. A prophet, no matter how great, could not authoritatively claim what Jesus just claimed, that whoever would come and drink of Him would have rivers of living water gushing up inside of him and flowing out of him. Only God in human flesh could make such a claim.

There are many people today who think highly of Jesus and His teaching, but they do not believe that He is God. They do not submit their lives to Him as their Lord and God. They have correct, but inadequate views of Jesus.

B. Some had a correct but uncommitted view of Jesus: “This is the Christ” (7:41a).

“The Christ” was God’s promised “anointed one,” the redeemer and king who would reign on David’s throne (Psalm 2). While that view is absolutely correct, and a step up from viewing Jesus only as the Prophet, it is inadequate because it does not reflect any personal commitment or submission to Jesus as Lord and Christ. The text seems to indicate that they held their views as a point to debate with others, but not as disciples willing to follow Him no matter what the cost.

As Jesus pointed out to the Jewish leaders, the Christ is both David’s son and David’s Lord (Matt. 22:41-46). Psalm 2 is clear that God sets His Christ upon His throne and that He rules over the nations (2:6, 8, 9). Thus the bottom line in that psalm is (2:12), “Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way. For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” God’s salvation is only for those who bow before Jesus as their king and trust in Him as their refuge.

But there are many who say, “I believe in Jesus as my Savior,” but they don’t live in submission to Him as their Lord. They don’t bow before Him as their king. C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 47:27) says that these Jews who thought that Jesus was the Christ had orthodox heads but heterodox hearts. A. W. Pink (Exposition of John, on says, “Unless our hearts are affected and our lives molded by God’s Word, we are no better off than a starving man with a cook book in his hand.” In other words, intellectual belief in Christ without the accompanying obedience to Him is useless. Saving faith is obedient faith (Rom. 16:26; Heb. 3:18-19).

C. Some rejected Jesus’ claims outright for a flimsy reason that was really an excuse (7:41b-42).

This group denied that Jesus was the Christ because they knew that the Christ was not going to come from Galilee, but rather from the lineage and city of David, from Bethlehem. Here we have another example of John’s tongue-in-cheek irony. He assumes that his readers either know that Jesus really was born in Bethlehem and that He came from the lineage of David or that if they don’t know, they will dig a little deeper to try to resolve this seeming problem. But if his readers adopted the same approach as this group of critics, they would end up rejecting Jesus for a flimsy reason that was really nothing but an excuse.

These critics took pride in their theological knowledge. They loved to point out their knowledge of the truth. Their syllogism was, “The Messiah does not come from Galilee. Jesus comes from Galilee. Therefore, Jesus cannot be the Messiah.” That’s airtight—if the two premises are true. The first one is true, but the second one is not true in terms of Jesus’ birth and lineage. Therefore, the conclusion is false.

To hold to this sort of reasoning, these critics had to ignore Jesus’ many miracles, some of which they had no doubt seen with their own eyes or heard credible reports of. They had to dismiss Jesus’ powerful teaching, which even the arresting officers admit is like no other teaching they’ve ever heard (7:46). They had to shrug off Jesus’ astounding claims, such as the one He just issued, to be able to give rivers of living water to all who believed in Him. But the truth is, they weren’t interested in believing in Jesus. If they had been interested, they could have cleared up the question of His origins very easily. But they didn’t want to believe; they just wanted a comfortable excuse to reject Him. They would have seized Jesus if they could, but they could not lay their hands on Him, because God is sovereign over His enemies (7:30, 44; Dan. 4:35).

Like these critics, many liberal theologians today come up with all sorts of reasons why Jesus could not have done the miracles that the eyewitness accounts of the New Testament attribute to Him. Their syllogism is, “Miracles contradict modern science. Thus miracles are not possible. Therefore, Jesus’ miracles could not have happened as reported.” Such critics also reject Jesus’ teaching. They debate over which words in the Gospels Jesus may really have spoken and which were put in His mouth by later redactors. With these flimsy reasons that are really excuses, they do not believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

So Christ caused division among these religious people. Also,

2. Christ caused division among religious leaders (7:45-52).

Again, we encounter three parties of religious leaders:

A. The temple guards were impressed with the way Jesus spoke, but too fearful to believe (7:45-46).

The temple guards, who were Levites, came back from their mission to arrest Jesus (7:32) empty-handed, so the chief priests and Pharisees asked them (7:45), “Why did you not bring Him?” The guards easily could have said, “Because the crowd would have been upset with us!” But instead, they candidly admitted (7:46), “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.” Although the guards did not intend this meaning, John probably wants his readers to think, “Precisely! Jesus is not merely a man! He speaks as He does because He is the eternal Word of God made flesh!” But the impression is that these temple guards were too fearful of the chief priests and Pharisees to take a bold stand with Jesus. That would have meant their jobs! So they fade from view.

In the same way, there are many in our day who are impressed with Jesus’ eloquence or His wisdom. They think He was a great man and a brilliant religious teacher. But they don’t see Him as the eternal Word of God in human flesh and so they don’t believe in Him as their Savior and Lord. Out of fear of what others may think, they don’t take a bold public stand of faith in Christ.

B. The Pharisees were arrogantly disgusted with anyone who was at all favorable toward Jesus (7:47-49, 52).

The arrogance and contempt of the Pharisees for anyone who was even remotely supportive of Jesus is not disguised here! They incredulously ask the temple officers (7:47-48), “You have not also been led astray, have you? No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he?” (Again, with some irony, John is setting the stage for Nicodemus’ protest in 7:51.) But then, referring to the general crowd that was thronging the temple for the feast, the Pharisees arrogantly pronounce (7:49), “But this crowd which does not know the Law is accursed.” John wants us to see that it is really the proud Pharisees who are under a curse because the wrath of God abides on all who do not obey the Son (3:36).

By virtue of their position as religious leaders, the Pharisees should have been loving, caring shepherds over God’s people, teaching them His Word, binding up their wounds, and leading them by example in the ways of the Lord (Ezek. 34). But here they show their true colors. They despised the common people as a bunch of ignoramuses. Even when one of their own, Nicodemus, pointed out how they were violating the Law that they proclaimed to know by judging a man without hearing his case, they reviled him as being a Galilean (7:52). These Pharisees lived in Jerusalem, the capital, and they viewed the northern Galileans as a bunch of ignorant hicks from the sticks. They hated Jesus because He repeatedly confronted their hypocrisy and challenged their manmade traditions. He threatened their power and made them look bad in front of the crowds. So their pride blinded them to the truth about Jesus that their own Scriptures testified to (5:39).

We see this same sort of arrogance today among supposed intellectuals who proclaim evolution as the only scientific view and ridicule anyone who believes in the Bible as being a “flat-earth,” uneducated country bumpkin. In the recent debate between Answers in Genesis founder, Ken Ham, and Bill Nye, the so-called “Science Guy,” Nye often disparagingly referred to “your scientists,” as if Ham hired them to support his “unscientific” views! Even though Ken repeatedly pointed out that there are many men with Ph.D’s who believe in the biblical account of creation, but have no connection with Answers in Genesis, Nye persisted in his put-down. But Nye is the true fool, who attributes God’s intricately designed creation to pure chance (Ps. 14:1; Rom. 1:19-22).

C. Nicodemus registered a mild defense of Jesus and disagreement with his fellow leaders, only to be put down by them (7:50-52).

Nicodemus, whom John reminds us had come to Jesus before, who was one of them (a Pharisee), said (7:51), “Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” This led to their put-down (7:52), “You are not also from Galilee, are you? Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.”

A few commentators argue that we can never be sure that Nicodemus came to genuine faith in Christ, but most hold that his courageous act of helping Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus (19:38-40) indicates that he did finally believe. But here we cannot be sure where he’s at in the process. He was at least sympathetic towards Jesus and concerned about the irrational hostility that he saw the Jewish leaders taking towards Him. So he registers this mild objection to their murderous intent. But when they vilify him as being a Galilean, he says no more. He could see that they weren’t in the mood for a rational discussion.

But his point was valid: In contradiction of the law that they purported to uphold, they were judging a man without hearing his case (Deut. 1:16-17). Also, their put-down (7:52), “Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee,” was incorrect. Jonah, Nahum, and perhaps other prophets had arisen out of Galilee. But they were so upset with the direction that they saw things going that they were not using sound reason, but just illogical ridicule.

I still remember an incident from when I was in college (back in the Dark Ages!). An agnostic philosophy professor told our class that Jesus never claimed to be God. I raised my hand and said, “What about when He said, ‘I and the Father are one’? Or what about when He told His disciples, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’?” But rather than deal honestly with my objection, she ridiculed me by asking, “Which Bible are you reading—the Catholic Bible or the Protestant Bible?” The class laughed and my point was brushed aside. Even though this professor taught us the logical fallacy of ad hominem arguments, she used one against me to dodge the uncomfortable truth that Jesus did in fact claim to be God.


I conclude with five practical lessons that we can glean from these divided responses to Jesus’ clear gospel invitation:

1) The clearest gospel presentation in the world will not result in conversions unless the Holy Spirit opens blind eyes.

Jesus here had not said anything gross or controversial, like in chapter 6. True, His claim to be able to cause rivers of living water to flow from those who believed in Him was a claim that only God could make. But it was a wonderful, open invitation to all and was not inherently divisive. But while there was some mild intellectual agreement (“He is the prophet”; “He is the Christ”), some amazement (“Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks”), and even hesitant support (from Nicodemus), there is no clear response of faith in Jesus. There still was confusion, misunderstanding, and even aggressive hostility. Satan blinds people to “the light of the gospel of the glory Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). So saving faith is always a God-thing. Pray for Him to open blind eyes!

2) The human heart apart from God’s grace is helplessly, hopelessly incapacitated by sin.

Pride is often the main sin that keeps people from Christ, as was true of these Pharisees. Learning and knowledge are good if they point you to the majesty and greatness of God, thereby humbling your heart. But they are dangerous if they lead you to pride over how much you know. Because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness, even so-called intellectuals are futile in their speculations and their foolish hearts are darkened (Rom. 1:18, 21). So salvation is always the gift of God’s grace.

3) Expect to be ridiculed when you take a stand for Christ.

You will be accused of being narrow-minded, bigoted, homophobic, anti-intellectual, unscientific, and probably more pejorative labels. If they treated Jesus that way, they will treat His servants the same. Count it as an honor!

4) People are quick to hide behind excuses rather than dig deeper in search of the truth that might threaten their worldview.

People don’t want to face their sin and rebellion against God. So rather than investigating the truth about Jesus, they’d rather hide behind flimsy excuses: “Evolution proves that the Bible is not true.” “The Bible is full of contradictions.” “How can a good God allow innocent children to suffer?” The list goes on! Ask the critic, “If I can give you a reasonable answer to that problem, will you submit your life to Jesus?”

5) Jesus does not allow neutrality: to be neutral is to be against Him.

These people who held to favorable opinions about Jesus (“He is the Prophet; He is the Christ”) were on the side of the truth, but there’s no indication that they were committed to Him. Nicodemus would eventually come out of the closet for Christ. So must you! Jesus warns (Mark 8:38), “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” But He promises the suffering church of Smyrna (and us, Rev. 2:10), “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Application Questions

  1. When is it both necessary and right to divide from those who profess to be Christians? What biblical guidelines apply?
  2. What is the biblical basis for true Christian unity? Are denominational divisions sinful?
  3. Why is a correct view about Christ necessary, but not sufficient, for eternal life? What else is needed? Give Scriptures.
  4. How can you discern whether a critic’s reasons for not believing are really just excuses? How can you probe deeper?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Christology, Discipleship, Soteriology (Salvation)