On the last day of the feast Jesus makes his startling claim to offer living water (7:37-39) and to be the light of the world (8:12). In the time between his secret entrance and dramatic conclusion he goes up to the temple and begins to teach (7:14). "What does this mean but a fulfillment of the prophecy, `The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple' (Mal 3:1)?" (Dodd 1953:351).
His teaching prompts the question, How did this man get such learning without having studied? (7:15). He had not studied under a rabbi, nor had he been in a rabbinic school. He did not support his teaching by appealing to recognized teachers, yet his teaching made use of rabbinic-style arguments, as is evident later in this section. In the Talmud (b. Sota 22a) it is said that the person who studied the Scriptures and even the Mishnah but yet "did not attend upon Rabbinical scholars" is no better than an 'am ha'arets—one of the "people of the land" who are cursed because they do not keep the law with the strictness of the Pharisees. This text from the Talmud is dated later than the New Testament, but the sentiment was current in the days of Jesus, and indeed it is reflected in this very story (7:49).
Although Jesus has not studied under a rabbi, that does not mean he is on his own. Throughout the Gospel he is emphatic about his dependency on the Father. In this passage he agrees with the theory behind the rabbinic succession of teachers (v. 18) but says, My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me (v. 16). In saying this Jesus is claiming to be not just another rabbi, but rather a prophet whose teaching comes from God (v. 17). Jesus is a disciple of God, not of a rabbi.
How is such a claim to be assessed? Jesus and the Jewish opponents agreed that Scripture is the word of God, but whose interpretation of Scripture is correct? Jesus does not point to confirmation from external sources. He points rather to the internal disposition of the individual, a heart that is God-centered: If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own (v. 17). One who is centered in God rather than in oneself will be able to recognize God's voice in a teacher come from God. To choose to do God's will is not just a matter of moral purity as such; it is a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, a seeking first the kingdom. Such a heart is open to God, committed to him and his ways and willing to act on what is revealed. It is a heart like Jesus' own heart—like is known by like (cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:108).
Jesus spells out the alternative: He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself (v. 18), or, more literally, "The one who speaks from himself seeks his own glory." One either speaks from God or one speaks from self, no matter how many external authorities are appealed to. One seeking God, who is caring for God's glory rather than one's own, such as Jesus refers to, is able to believe (5:44). Jesus', "humility and obedience allow him to speak with the authority of God" (Barrett 1978:318), and these are the same qualities that enable a person to recognize God's word in Jesus' teaching.
He then addresses the Jewish ideal behind the appeal to rabbinic authority: He who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him (v. 18). In this saying Jesus affirms the Jewish view of tradition. His disciples are to pass on faithfully what they have received from him (cf. Jn 15:27; 21:24; Mt 28:16-20) and to ensure that it continues to be passed on by faithful teachers (2 Tim 2:2). So the rabbinic ideal is not wrong, but it must be coupled with a heart that is open to God, in contact with God and guided by his Spirit.
This ideal is a true test of the character of the messenger, but it is not a guarantee of the truth of the message—that depends on the one who sends the messenger. If Jesus is a true messenger, passing on what he has received, then the opponents do not have a problem with him but with the one who sent him to deliver this message. Since God is the one who has sent Jesus, the opponents' alienation from God is again made clear.
The rabbinic teachers trace their teaching back to Moses himself, so Jesus turns from defending himself to attacking their claim to Moses (cf. 5:45-47). The foundation on which they build is wrong. Moses indeed gave them the law (v. 19); Moses was a faithful teacher who passed on what he received from God, not caring for his own glory but for the glory of the one who sent him. The issue is not with Moses and the law, it is with the opponents who do not keep the law (v. 19).
Jesus' charge that his opponents are not keeping the law turns up the heat of the debate. They believe Jesus does not keep the law, and now he says the same of them. Jesus brings two pieces of evidence to show they fail to keep the law. The first piece of evidence is that they desire to kill him (Jn 5:18; 7:1). Jesus could be referring to a violation of the sixth commandment (Ex 20:13), but something much more profound is going on. If Jesus is a false prophet, he deserves to die according to the law (Deut 13:5). But Jesus is actually the one of whom Moses wrote in the law (Jn 1:45; 5:46). So their desire to put Jesus to death shows they violate their own law because the law itself witnesses to Jesus.
While Jesus is addressing the whole crowd, he is speaking primarily to his opponents (v. 21). Most of the people listening would be either citizens of Jerusalem or pilgrims present for the feast. The Jerusalemites are aware of the authorities' desire to kill Jesus (v. 25), so only the out-of-towners would not know anything of the controversy surrounding Jesus. Some of these pilgrims respond, saying, You are demon-possessed. . . . Who is trying to kill you? (v. 20). Here is another example of the people's failure to recognize who Jesus is. The very Word incarnate, who is the truth, is said to be wrong about something which is common knowledge to the Jerusalemites. Most commentators view the crowd's saying Jesus is demon-possessed as their way of saying, "You're nuts." Perhaps this is all that the crowd intended. If so, they are still completely clueless, ignorant of both Jesus and the Jewish authorities. But the larger context is the debate about the source of Jesus' teaching. The charge of being a false teacher would put one in league with the devil. So we may have another of John's double-entendres: the crowd would mean "you're nuts," but the opponents would mean something more sinister (cf. 8:48).
Jesus reminds the opponents of their response to his healing on the sabbath (v. 21). They had been astonished, not in the sense of giving God glory, but in the sense that they were scandalized, some to the point of seeking his death (5:16-18; Schnackenburg 1980b:134). This response is unjustified even on the basis of the law, as Jesus now demonstrates in good rabbinic fashion.
Jesus begins by bringing forth a second piece of evidence that shows they do not keep the law. Moses gave them circumcision (Lev 12:3), though in fact it was a sign of the earlier covenant, from Abraham on (Gen 17:10-14). According to the law a male child is to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth, but what happens if the eighth day is a sabbath? Circumcision takes precedence over the sabbath. "They may perform on the Sabbath all things that are needful for circumcision: excision, tearing, sucking [the wound], and putting thereon a bandage and cummin" (m. shabbat 19:2). Thus, in order to keep the law regarding circumcision they must do what is not otherwise lawful on the sabbath.
They would not have viewed this as a breaking of the law since this order of precedence among the commands existed precisely in order to keep the law (cf. Carson 1991:315). Therefore Jesus says the "work" of circumcision is performed on the sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken (v. 23). Jesus questions them, saying, if this work is allowed in order to keep the law, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath? (v. 23). In other words, he is also working with an order of precedence, and his activity on the sabbath should be viewed from this perspective rather than as a breaking of the law.
Jesus is using a "how much more" type of argument, which was popular in the ancient world, not least among the rabbis. Indeed, at the time John was writing, this very point was being argued by rabbis using the same type of argument. Rabbi Eliezer (c. A.D. 90) said, "If one supersedes the sabbath on account of one of his members [in circumcision], should he not supersede the sabbath for his whole body if in danger of death?" (t. shabbat 15:16; cf. b. Yoma 85b). So there is an order of precedence not only between commands in the law, but for the sake of saving a life. Jesus, however, goes even further and says not only does the saving of a life take precedence, but so does doing good (Mt 12:12 par. Mk 3:4 par. Lk 6:9; cf. Acts 10:38), which includes healing. This is an application of his principle that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mk 2:27). If this principle is accepted, then Jesus is not a lawbreaker.
Indeed, circumcision is a sign of the covenant, and the covenant itself is about doing good, about acting in keeping with God's own character of love and mercy. Jesus makes this connection when he says, literally, "Because of this Moses gave you circumcision" (v. 22). The "this" refers back to Jesus' deed of healing on the sabbath (v. 21). So Jesus' form of sabbath observance—healing and doing good—was the very purpose for which Moses gave them circumcision. "Jesus' attitude is not a sentimental liberalizing of a harsh and unpractical law . . . nor the masterful dealing of an opponent of the Law as such; it is rather the accomplishment of the redemptive purpose of God toward which the Law had pointed" (Barrett 1978:320-21). Thus it is not Jesus but his opponents who are going against Moses. They are breaking the law by their observance of the sabbath because their observance does not include doing good.
Jesus concludes by telling them, Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment (v. 24). He is using language from Moses' teaching regarding the responsibility of the judges and officers of the people (Deut 16:18). The opponents are not acting in accordance with this injunction, and thus their disobedience is exposed yet again. The right judgment of which Moses speaks includes such things as refraining from showing partiality and taking bribes. Jesus' opponents are not blinded by bribes (cf. Deut 16:19) but are blinded by receiving glory from one another (Jn 5:44). They are observing the letter of the law, but do not understand what the law is really about, neither in its witness to Jesus nor in its goal of expressing God's own love and mercy in the life of God's people. Making a right judgment (he dikaia krisis) is dependent on seeking God's will and not one's own (5:30). They lack this disposition; they are too shallow. They have no depth in themselves and thus cannot recognize God at work among them. God himself is the one who is dikaios ("right," "righteous"; cf. Jn 17:25; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:7; Rev 16:5), so their lack of right judgment is yet another indication not only of their law breaking but of their alienation from God.
This call to right judgment is a challenge to each of us, for we are all guilty at times of judging by appearances. The only way to avoid such shallowness is to be united with God and to share in his truth about Jesus and about our own lives. This requires that we will God's will (7:17), which means God's will as God knows it, not as our prejudices and sins tailor it. To will God's will is to have a purity of heart and a clarity of vision that come through death to self. Until we have found our own heart (which lies deeper than our emotions and imagination) and made contact with God there, we will be in danger of judging by appearances instead of with right judgment.