“No one ever spoke like this man.” There is a brief, tense conversation recorded in John’s Gospel that encapsulates, in certain ways, the last two thousand years of Jesus’s confounding impact on world history.
Given Jesus’s troubling and growing influence on the Jewish public, the chief priests and Pharisees decided to send officers to arrest Jesus (John 7:32). The officers, however, returned empty-handed. When the furious Pharisees asked why, the officers responded, “No one ever spoke like this man” (John 7:46). This dumbfounded them. Even the officers were infatuated with Jesus! You can hear the religious leaders’ exasperation:
Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed. (John 7:47–49)
This pattern has recurred over and over, throughout history, with what Jesus of Nazareth said and did.
His Confounding Words
Leaders and scholars have repeatedly and relentlessly tried to bring charges against Jesus, to expose him as a heretic, or a lunatic, or a fraud, or a misunderstood political revolutionary, or an opiate of the masses, or a vassal of imperialism, or as his disconsolate disciples’ legendary wish-projection upon the cosmos. But despite all their best efforts, Jesus repeatedly resists arrest, confounding crowd after crowd, and generation after generation: No one ever spoke like this man.
What is it about Jesus that makes him speak like no other? Of course, there isn’t a single answer to this question. Countless volumes have been written, and Jesus’s uniqueness still hasn’t been exhausted. But in John 7, Jesus himself clues us in on one crucial truth that governed all he said (and didn’t say):
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. (John 7:18)
Key to understanding the unique power of Jesus’s words is understanding why he spoke them.
Why He Said Everything He Said
In a previous discussion with Jewish leaders, Jesus told them, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). In other words, one can look long in the right place and still miss the most important truths.
It is possible to spend a lifetime theorizing and debating why Jesus said what he did and miss what he actually said about what made his words unique and unforgettable. Here’s a sampling:
- “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19).
- “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30).
- “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:43–44).
- “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (John 7:16).
- “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” (John 7:18).
- “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:28).
All of these statements (and more) reveal what motivated everything Jesus said and did. His one great goal in life, his one all-consuming passion, was to glorify his Father by speaking only what the Father told him to speak and doing only what the Father directed him to do. We hear this clearly in his priestly prayer just hours before his trial and crucifixion:
I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:4–5)
“The glory we seek has a great deal to do with what we choose to say or not say.”
Jesus was more concerned for the glory of God his Father than anything else. Jesus did not fear people — he “did not entrust himself to them” (John 2:24) and he did “not receive glory from [them]” (John 5:41). He loved and feared his Father. And this overriding pursuit of God’s glory freed him to say only what needed to be said when it needed to be said — and it made what he said so powerful and frequently unpredictable.
What Would You Have Said?
One way to see the radical freedom with which Jesus spoke is to put yourself in Jesus’s place in certain instances in the Gospel narratives and imagine what you honestly would have said, given all that was at stake. The courage and faith of Jesus to say certain things (and not say others) is remarkable.
If you had been Jesus that night Nicodemus, a sympathetic Pharisee who could be a powerful and needed ally, visited him with questions, would you have responded with confusing answers like, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3)?
If you had been Jesus that day near Sychar, sitting by Jacob’s well, when (1) an unescorted woman, (2) who was a Samaritan, and (3) a discredited moral outcast even among her own outcast people, showed up, would you have trusted her to be among first people to whom you explicitly disclosed your Messiahship (John 4:26)?
If you had been Jesus that day a paralyzed man was brought to him, knowing full well how blasphemous it would sound to the religious leaders present, would you have had the courage to say, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2)?
If you had been Jesus on that Sabbath day when the Pharisees rebuked him for allowing his disciples to pick and eat grain, would you have responded, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. . . . For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:6, 8)?
If you had been Jesus in tense discussions with religious leaders, would you have uttered such incendiary truths like, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58), or “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30)?
“Jesus spoke like no one else because he pursued his Father’s glory like no one else.”
Would you have told Simon the Pharisee that the immoral woman inappropriately touching your feet had a greater love for God than he did (Luke 7:36–49)? Would you have told the spiritually sincere rich young man that he needed to give all his riches away to the poor to be saved (Mark 10:17–22)? Would you have called your most devoted disciple “Satan” (Mark 8:33)? Would you have sealed your own brutal death by making it impossible for Pilate, who was trying to prevent your crucifixion, to prevent it (John 18:28–40)?
Unexpectedly Tender and Tough
No one ever spoke like this man. Jesus was stunningly and unexpectedly tender toward people condemned under the law, like a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11). And he was stunningly and unexpectedly tough on those who appeared to keep the law most rigorously, like calling Jewish leaders children of the devil (John 8:44). He delivered Gentile girls from demons (Matthew 15:21–28), kindly blessed “bothersome” children (Luke 18:15–17), and called scribes and Pharisees hell-bound “serpents” (Matthew 23:33).
Why did Jesus say these things? Because he was pursuing his Father’s glory by faithfully saying only what his Father’s honor led him to say. His goal was to reveal the Father to those given eyes to see (Luke 10:22). Seeking his Father’s glory, and not his own, freed him to say what needed to be said (John 8:28) and constrained him from saying what didn’t need to be said — at least not yet (John 16:12). And with regard to his own glory, he trusted his Father to glorify him (John 17:5). Jesus humbled himself under his Father’s mighty hand and trusted his Father to glorify him at the proper time (1 Peter 5:6).
Jesus spoke like no one else because he pursued his Father’s glory like no one else.
What Frees Your Tongue
How do you define Christlikeness? Do you know how Jesus defined it? Listen to how he prayed for his disciples, and for us:
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:17–21)
To be like Jesus is to be sanctified — set apart for God’s holy use — in the truth of God’s word (John 17:17), which becomes our word (John 17:20). The most Christlike people have “the word of Christ” dwelling in them richly (Colossians 3:16), and they speak what should be said, and refrain from speaking what should not be said (Ephesians 4:29). The most Christlike people seek God’s glory more than anything else, and this pursuit is what governs what they say.
“The courage and faith of Jesus to say certain things (and not say others) is remarkable.”
The glory we seek has a great deal to do with what we choose to say or not say. When our primary pursuit is our own glory, we will hardly ever say anything that might endanger it. What others think of us will dictate our words (John 5:44). We will speak like everyone else speaks for the reasons everyone else speaks. What frees our tongues for God is what freed Jesus’s tongue for God. He sought the Father’s glory and trusted the Father to glorify him. If our tongue is tied, it very well could be that we value our glory above God’s.
One of the great freedoms for which “Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1) is the freedom from the tyranny of pursuing our own glory. True freedom is pursuing God’s glory and trusting the Father, like Jesus did, to glorify us in the most satisfying ways at the proper time.