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. John 7:17
This is a sermon for doubters. There are two kinds of doubters. Some doubters want to know God. They just want to know for sure. When these doubters get a good answer to a question, they accept it, and they take the next step. Other doubters don’t want to know God, and they use doubt to barricade themselves against him. When they get a good answer to a question, it’s never good enough. So, doubts and difficulties and questions are clearly not the problem. The problem is down underneath our doubts. Do we want to know God? Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). As we all know, children never stop asking questions. But when children hear a good answer to their question, they accept it.
We are here in church today because Jesus is attractive, at some level at least. Most people in America today like Jesus. Recent Barna research tells us that 92% of Americans believe Jesus was a real historical figure. 56% of adults believe Jesus was God. 62% say they’ve made a commitment to Jesus in some sense. But when we are asked more specific questions, like “Was Jesus a sinless man?”, or “Is faith in Jesus the only way to heaven?”, he becomes more controversial, and our doubts grow stronger.
But Jesus has always been controversial, as we see throughout John’s Gospel. For example, verse 12: “And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, ‘He is a good man,’ others said, ‘No, he is leading the people astray.’” So, which is it? I wonder what you think. In verse 24, Jesus says us to us all, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” He is inviting us to judge him, to form a personal opinion about him. He is saying there is a judgment about him that is right, and he wants to help us get there. Are we open? We can be wrong about politics, and it won’t matter forever. But if we’re wrong about Jesus, it will matter forever, and he cares about that for our sakes. How can we be sure about Jesus? There is a way. It’s a surprising way. But it works.
The value of this passage is that Jesus tells us how we can get past all the controversy and judge him and his teachings and his claims with accuracy and certainty and joyful abandon. If he is all that he claimed, then nothing is more important to you than to connect with the real Jesus in his grace and glory for you. Jesus loves doubters. He does not despise us. He is able and willing to reveal himself to us all. The key is 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 am grateful for the word “anyone”: “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will . . . .” That word makes Jesus accessible to anyone. He was never the kind of rabbi, the kind of intellectual, who appealed only to an elite. He always reached out to ordinary people, to anyone. Let’s never overlook these wonderfully inclusive words of grace in the Bible. For example,
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16
You can be undeserving, you can be discredited, you can be weak – and we all are – and Jesus says you can believe in him and not perish but have eternal life, because his heart has created room for “whoever.” Here is another:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. John 6:51
Don’t overlook that word “anyone.” All that Jesus requires for us to live forever in his presence is to eat of the living bread, which is Jesus himself. You can be dirty and come to his table. You can be an outcast and excluded from every other welcome. You can be a doubter and you would even exclude yourself. But Jesus says all you need to live forever with God is to be hungry enough to come to Jesus for his feast of grace, because there is room for “anyone.” And here it is in verse 17. “If anyone’s will . . . .”
There is a pre-condition. Jesus starts out with the word “if.” He tells us what he expects. He tells us how we connect. But the condition he defines is not of the nature of our works or deservings or merits or strength or virtue or intelligence. It’s only a condition of willingness: “If anyone’s will . . . .” That’s all he’s asking.
Neither does Jesus say, “If anyone is able to do God’s will . . . .” I heard a story about a preacher down at an inner city rescue mission. He was quoting Kipling’s poem “If”: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, . . . if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, . . . then you’ll be a man, my son.” And from the back row one of the men said, “Yeah, but what it you can’t?” Jesus died to make your sins irrelevant as you stand before God. He opened his veins and poured out his life-blood to pay for every folly that would hold you back and keep you out. His heart could not be more open to whoever, to anyone, who is willing.
So the Lord is not setting a condition of merit or ability but only of openness. How could it be otherwise? This is the Jesus who said, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). He is available. This is the Jesus who said, “Do not be afraid; it is I” (John 6:20). He is reassuring. This is the Jesus who said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He is welcoming. Jesus has resolved, down deep in his heart, that nothing will keep him from anyone, from whoever, that comes to him. We need not deserve him, but we must want him. You might be thinking, “But what about my doubts and difficulties and questions? How can I come to him?” Don’t let doubt stop you. Doubt and faith coexist in us all. The Lord said to the apostle Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). Faith is often mixed in with doubt down inside us. What the Lord expects from us is not perfect clarity or strong ability but a willing receptivity.
Willingness to do what? The Lord says here, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will.” So there it is. Willingness to do God’s will. That is when clarity comes down from above and lands on us doubters. Jesus said, “Follow me” (Matthew 9:9). And his command brings with it the strength we need to respond. Our part is a willingness to bend around and start following. And that simple flexibility, that bendability, is ground zero for certainty about Jesus.
Here is the opposite of this willingness: “Sure, I can see in the Bible that God wants me to change and grow in every area of life – how I use my time, how I live out my sexuality, how I prioritize my money, everything. I can see in the Bible that following Jesus claims and redeems everything. He’s too big to fit into the margins. I see that the real Jesus comes in and takes over. I get it. But I’m not willing. I don’t want that much of him. Oh sure, I want Jesus to bless me – in this area of my life, in that area. But he can’t take over. He will not rule at the defining center of my life, especially when he gets controversial. I will decide how far Jesus will go in my life.”
That mentality is the opposite of what Jesus is calling for. That mentality is impenetrable doubt, because it wants to be impenetrable. Limiting Jesus on purpose is a deal-breaker with him. But that guardedness is commonly accepted as Christianity in our world today. Few people will object, “But that isn’t Christianity.” John 7:17 helps us see what Christ considers Christian. It isn’t sinless perfection. But it is an honest openness to all that he is. This sin here or that shortcoming there – that isn’t the issue. Are you willing to do God’s will? Or are you setting limits on Jesus? You can have more of him in your life, grace upon grace from his fullness (John 1:16). So give him your reputation and social standing. Give him your sexuality and your longings for intimacy. Give him your past and your wounds, your future hopes and dreams, so that Jesus takes over now. Sure, you have doubts. But if you long to be clean again, go to Jesus and nowhere else. He is saying, “Then you will become sure about me. But don’t treat me with clinical detachment. I’m not treating you with clinical detachment.”
The people who know Jesus for sure are sinners who say to him, “I, as I really am, want you, as you really are. I’m coming out into your light, to walk in the light, to be honest with you. I don’t care what people say. I want reality with God. So, Lord, what’s my next step?” Is there any reason not to say that to Christ right now?
Jesus said, “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.”