Willing God's Will As a Way of Knowing Christ's Word
We have already devoted one sermon to this passage of Scripture. So let me walk us through it until we get to the portion that needs more focus, especially verses 17 and 18. The title of this message is taken from verse 17: "If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God."
I remember back to my college days when verse 17 landed on me with great astonishment. Willing is the prerequisite of knowing? Really? I thought you had to know the truth of Christ before you could let him shape your will. How can Jesus say, "Before you can know if Christ is true, you have to will God's will"? There are very profound things for us to learn here about our own soul, and our knowing and our willing and how they relate to each other. That is where we are going.
Not Even His Brothers Believed
Let's start with verses 3–5:
So his brothers said to him, "Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world." For not even his brothers believed in him.
So Jesus' brothers believed in him as an amazing miracle-worker and wanted him to get more attention than he was getting. So they tell him to go up to Jerusalem where he can get the most attention. And to our amazement, John says in verse 5 that they said this to Jesus because they did not believe. "For not even his brothers believed in him." Amazing.
They Didn't Know His Heart
So believing in Jesus for eternal life (John 3:16; 20:31) is something different than only believing that he can do miracles. Believing in Jesus for eternal life means that we see through his works and his words to the person who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). His brothers did not know the real Jesus. To use the words of verse 24, they were judging "by appearances, and not with right judgment." They did not know the heart of Jesus. They only saw a reflection of their own desire for human praise.
They loved the glory of men, not the glory of God, and so they saw Jesus' miracle-working as a way to get more glory from the world. So Jesus says to them in verses 6–7: "My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil."
His Way Is Not Their Way
My time for glory is not now, says Jesus. And will not come in the way you think it will come. But your time for glory is here. This is what you want. The world can't hate you, because your desires for human praise are the same as their desires. Your way of thinking and desiring is just like theirs. And so they can't hate you. They hate me. My whole way of thinking and desiring and talking and acting indicts their own love affair with the praise of men. But yours confirms them in it.
So they go up to Jerusalem without Jesus, and then he goes up privately, not the way they wanted him to, signifying that his way is not their way. And then when he moved out from privacy to public teaching (verse 14), the things he taught dealt with this very issue of seeking glory from men and not loving the glory of God.
The Crowds' Unspiritual Admiration
But there was something amazing about his teaching. Verse 15 says, "The Jews . . . marveled, saying, 'How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?'" Just like the brothers were amazed at Jesus' miracle-working, the crowds were amazed at Jesus' teaching.
This was not a godly amazement. They were judging by appearances, not by right judgment (verse 24). They were amazed that it sounded learned, or scholarly, or literary, or articulate, or profound. Verse 15: "How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?" He was impressive. They were not touched spiritually but amazed academically. All they heard was the surface of his words.
Deflecting Amazement from Self to God
So Jesus did the same thing with this unspiritual admiration of his words that he did with his brothers' unspiritual admiration of his miracles: he deflected it. Verse 16: "So Jesus answered them, 'My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.'" He took the admiration directed to his words and pointed them to God.
Of course, he could have said, "I'm the divine Son of God, the eternal Word incarnate! What did you expect?" But at this point in his ministry, he is confronting human pride and human love of praise, and he is doing it by modeling what it is to be truly and deeply human, not what it is to be divine. He was the God-man, and there are times in John's Gospel where one is foremost, and times when the other is foremost.
So he deflects their amazement away from himself to God and says that the reason his teaching is astonishing is that it comes from God. Verse 16: "My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me."
How Can We Know If Jesus Is True?
Now the question rises — and this is what we focus on today — how can they know if he is telling them the truth? How can you know? How can they know whether Jesus is an imposter, or if he is actually speaking on behalf of God. Is he true, or is he false?
And notice it is Jesus who raises the question. And he raises it because it is clear that the Jewish crowds do not know that his teaching comes from God. Their question in verse 15 shows they don't know. "How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?" That question shows they're not even close. First, because they are focusing on the shell of his teaching, not the meaning of it. "How is it that this man has learning?" Who cares if he has learning? The question is: What does he mean, and is he true? "Learning" is the shell." Truth is the kernel.
The Seduction of Shell-Gazing
So many people go to hear preachers or singers or actors because of the shell. Are you one of those? "Whoah! This man has learning!" Or, "She has looks, and what a voice!" And, "He is so cool, so hip!" Shell. Shell. Shell. The question is: Are they true?
So Jesus poses the big question. If you don't ask this question about your heroes, your stars, your God, yourself, you will always be a superficial shell-gazer. Verse 24 again: "Do not judge by appearances [by the shell!], but judge with right judgment." Jesus poses the big question: How do you form a right judgment? How can you know? How can you know if he is true? How can you know if anybody is true?
And here is his astonishing answer. Verse 17: "If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority." I remember sometime in the fall of 1967 at Wheaton College being shocked when someone brought this to my attention — that right willing is the foundation of right knowing. It seemed at the time to make life more complicated, more mysterious, and certainly less under my control. Less rationalistic. The intellectual task of knowing truth suddenly became a moral task, and a spiritual task. Perhaps that will happen for you in this message.
Jesus Gets Specific
If we stopped here at verse 17, we would have a general truth before us without specifics. The general truth would be: You will discern that Jesus is a reliable spokesman for God when your will is so transformed that you will what God wills. When your desires are God's desires. When your passion is God's passion. When your preferences are God's preferences. Then your reason will be able to see Jesus for who he really is. When your willing is in sync with God's, your knowing will be in sync with truth.
But Jesus does not leave us with verse 17. He goes on in verse 18 and gets specific. He has in mind at least one particular kind of willing that has to be transformed if we are to know him for who he is. Verse 18: "The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood."
Be Impressed with God
Remember, when the crowds were impressed with Jesus's learning, he said to them in verse 16: "My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me." In other words, he deflected attention away from self-exaltation to God-exaltation. If you are going to be impressed, be impressed with God. My words are his.
Now he explains in verse 18 that this is how you can know that he is true: "The one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood." So verse 17 says that if your will is to do God's will, you can know whether Jesus is a true spokesman for God. And verse 18 says that the way you can know if he is true is whether he seeks the glory of God above all things.
A Passion for God-Exaltation
Now how do you put verses 17 and 18 together? Verse 17: Willing God's will enables us to know who Jesus really is when he reveals himself to us. Verse 18: You can know who Jesus really is because he lives totally for the glory of God. The way I put those two together is like this: Verse 18 describes specifically the deepest change that has to happen in my will so that I can see Jesus as true.
The mark of his truth is a passion for God-exaltation, not self-exaltation. "The one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true." For me to see that as a mark of his truth, my will has to join him in that. I have to will God-exaltation over self-exaltation. And this is not what I will by nature. I am like the brothers of Jesus and like the Jewish crowds. I want him to do his miracles in a way that endorses my own love for self-exaltation. I want him to endorse my Sabbath-keeping, my law-keeping, in a way that confirms my self-exaltation.
God's Glory, Not Mine
And if he doesn't endorse me in my willing of my own self-exaltation, then I may support him as a miracle-worker, or want to kill him as a Sabbath-breaker, but I won't know him, I won't believe on him. My only hope for knowing is to have my will changed to agree with God's will — and verse 18 describes the deepest change that needs to happen. I need to love the glory of God more than my own glory. I need to will God-exaltation more than self-exaltation.
That is the change in my will that has to happen before I can know Jesus. Because if that doesn't change, then I will always hate Jesus (as verse 7 says), or I will admire him for all the wrong reasons. But I will not know him. There will be a deep, deep blockage. And that blockage is not intellectual, but volitional. By nature, my will is controlled by a love for self-exaltation, not God-exaltation. My glory, not God's glory, is what I most deeply want. As long as that is true, I will not be able to see Jesus for who he really is.
Wills Set Against the God of the Law
Then in verses 19–24, Jesus confirms to the crowds that they do not will to do what God wills (verse 17). What is the central expression of the will of God for them? The Law. But then Jesus says in verse 19: "Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law." This is why they can't know Jesus. Their wills are against the law of his Father (see Romans 8:7–8).
And the evidence that Jesus gives for this is that 1) they want to kill him. Verse 19: "Why do you seek to kill me?" And 2) they are angry because back in chapter 5 he healed a man on the Sabbath. Verse 23: "Are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man's whole body well?" Why, Jesus asks them, would you approve of circumcising a man on the Sabbath to keep the law (verse 22), but disapprove of my making a man's whole body well on the Sabbath (verse 23)?
Until Your Will Is in Step with God's
Jesus' answer is this: I'll tell you why: Because what I stand for is at the heart of the law, and it is deeply offensive to you — namely, that human beings exist for the glory of God, and should have wills that love to live for the glory of God. And you have made the law itself a servant of your self-exaltation, not a means of God-exaltation.
And my whole life, Jesus is saying, contradicts that way of willing. That is why you can't know me. You can't know me until your will is to do God's will — to do what the law most deeply demands, namely, to treasure (to love!) the glory of God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and your paralyzed neighbor as yourself.
Which brings me to some concluding applications to us:
1) Realize that the deepest obstruction to knowing the truth of Jesus is a heart-obstruction, not a head-obstruction.
It is a problem with our will, not first a problem with our reason. Our natural love for human glory makes it impossible to know and follow a person whose whole life is bent on emptying himself in order to glorify his Father and save sinners. To know him for who he is, we must be changed, not just in our ideas, but in our wills.
This is why the Gospel of John puts such a clear emphasis on the need to be born again. We need to will God-exaltation more than we will self-exaltation. We need to love making much of God more than we love people making much of us. Being opposed to this is the greatest obstacle to knowing Jesus.
2) Therefore, pray that God would cause his name to be hallowed — glorified, treasured — in your heart above all things, so that your eyes would be open to who he really is.
If you feel deficient in God-exaltation, ask him to change you. Is that not what he taught us to pray every day in the words, "Our Father, hallowed by your name"? Pray for a will that is more and more passionate for God's glory. And less and less addicted to you own.
3) Strive to increase your spiritual taste for the glory of God as your favorite pleasure.
If you wanted to increase your love for the glory of classical music, you would study it and spend time talking with people who love it, and you would listen and listen and listen.
If you wanted to develop a love for the glory of visual art, you would study it and go to museums and spend time with those who love it, and you would look and look and look.
If you wanted to develop a love for the glory of the heavens above, you would get a telescope and you would read astronomy and you would spend time with people who love the stars, and night by night you would gaze and gaze and gaze.
And if you want to love the glory of God above all other glories, then you will study God and spend time with lovers of God, and listen to God and look at God and gaze and gaze and gaze at the revelation of the glory of God — especially in Jesus.
4) Finally, know that Jesus is true.
Jesus does not merely speak from himself. He speaks for God. When he says, "Before Abraham was I am," he bears true witness that he is the Word and was with God from the beginning and was God. And when he says, "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11), and, "Whoever comes to me I will never cast out" (John 6:37), he is true. And you can trust him. Amen.