I can still remember the green couch that I was sitting on in my room.
I was about 14 years old. While on a youth retreat with Taylors First Baptist Church, we had learned how to have a “quiet time.” I was reading through the Gospel of John, and a deeply disturbing thought hit me. I wouldn’t have used the word sacrilege at the time, but it was the teenage-evangelical equivalent: “Jesus wasn’t very nice to those people.”
I know now that “nice” has one of the most convoluted histories of any word in the English language. I know now that most serious English teachers ban their students from using the word in a paper. And I know now that when biblical norms conflict with my idea of what is good or nice, it’s my idea that I first need to question. But I didn’t know that then.
Last month, we looked at Jesus’ signs in John 6, 9, and 11. This month we are looking at the heated exchange that occurs in between those chapters. John 7 and 8 show as clearly as any chapter in the New Testament (other than perhaps Matthew 23) that Jesus didn’t share our ideas of nice. Something was more important to Him than not hurting the feelings of His hearers.
The chapter begins with Jesus and His brothers in Galilee. They “were not believing in Him,” as John says (John 7:5), and they taunted Him about going to the upcoming feast in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is still up in arms over Jesus’ last trip. The establishment is looking for a way to destroy Him as the people fearfully and quietly make speculations. Jesus eventually does come, and what He says in the middle of the feast both amazes and confuses the people. The officials who try to arrest Jesus are themselves arrested by His words (7:46).
Jesus challenges the way His hearers judge Him (John 7:24, 8:15) and promises that His Father will judge the way they judge Him (8:16). Toward the end of the feast, His words cut deeply. Those who refuse to believe in Him will die in their sins (8:24), and only His words can set them free (8:36). Their refusal to believe leads them to try to kill Jesus, even though He reveals His Father as no one else has or could. They imply that He has been born illegitimately and explicitly say that He has a demon. He calls them liars and sons of the devil. When they challenge Him again, He makes the most contentious statement that a first-century Jew could make: “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58).
What is it that Christians today learn from such a heated exchange? First, we learn that some issues in life are far more important than not hurting anyone’s feelings. We should care about truth and salvation more than about making people feel comfortable. Second, to know God, we must know Jesus. Like the establishment in Jerusalem, we will die in our sins if we do not believe in Him (John 8:24). We are slaves of sin, and only the Son of God can free us through His word (8:31-38). Third, we learn that Jesus necessarily polarizes people. This passage illustrates the point the Lord makes in another place that He came to divide (Matthew 10:34-36).
To believe that Jesus wasn’t always “nice” is not the same thing as believing He was unkind. It just means that truth and salvation were more important than hurt feelings. For His modern-day followers, truth and salvation are still more important.