John 7: 45-52
C. S. Lewis, as you probably all know, was one of the great Christian authors of the last century. One of his many books is entitled God in the Dock. The book was actually a collection of essays and one of those essays has that name. Now what did C. S. Lewis mean by that title God in the Dock? The dock is a legal term used in some countries. It refers to a particular place in a courtroom where the accused person sits or stands during their trial.
What Lewis meant by that title is that we have reversed the true order of things, placing God on trial and making ourselves His judge. Of course, the truth is we are in the dock and God is our judge. Not in the harsh sense that God is looking for and keeping a record of every little thing we do wrong so He can someday make us pay for our sins, for Jesus has already paid for our sins. But God is our judge in the sense that we are accountable to God for how we live our lives. It is to God that we must ultimately answer as to what we have believed and how we have lived. God is our judge, and we are accountable to Him.
But as the title of Lewis’ book implies, we have reversed, or at least have tried to reverse that order. We have placed ourselves over God so that God is accountable to us and we are His judge. How so? By putting God in the dock, so to speak, and examining Him to see if He is really the kind of God we want. Is He the kind of God we are comfortable with? Does He act in the way we think God should act? Are the values and priorities that God upholds consistent with our own? Will God be for us the kind of God we think God should be? In the end, if God does not measure up to our standards of what we think God should be like, and if He doesn’t do for us what we think He should do, we reject God.
When we place ourselves over God as His judge, that is just a subtle way of making ourselves God, for we think we can determine what is ultimately true and right. Of course, we are not the judge of God even though we try to be. We must answer to God; God doesn’t answer to us.
This tendency to place ourselves above God as His judge is nothing new. It goes back a lot further than C. S. Lewis fifty plus years ago. We see this in the events of Holy Week 2,000 years ago.
Today, of course, is Palm Sunday. This is the day when we recall how Jesus, encouraged on by the cheering crowd, entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. However, the enthusiastic welcome he received from the crowd on Palm Sunday would be short lived, for later that week Jesus would be arrested, put on trial, and crucified. And so, as Jesus was riding the donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, ultimately He was heading toward His literal trial, the moment when a few days later He would be placed in the dock before biased accusers.
But His trial before the religious leaders and the Roman governor Pilate was really the culmination of having spent three years on trial. During the three years of His earthly ministry Jesus was being examined by different religious and political groups. His rejection in Jerusalem during Holy Week was in a sense the culmination of the rejection He encountered during those three years of ministry in which Jesus did not meet the expectations and desires of these different groups of people.
We see this rejection clearly portrayed in a passage from the Gospel of John. This event took place before Holy Week, but it highlights how Jesus was being examined and rejected throughout His ministry, all of which came to a head during Holy Week. Jesus had been causing a bit of an uproar and so the Pharisees sent some guards to arrest Jesus. Picking up the story then, we read in Jn. 7:45-52:
Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”
“No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards declared.
“You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. “Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law – there is a curse on them.”
Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?
They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
Let’s briefly take a look at the Pharisees as well as several other groups to see why they were disappointed in and ultimately rejected Jesus. Then we’ll see what this means for our own lives.
First the Pharisees. We need to be careful that we don’t demonize the Pharisees because they do get a lot of bad press. But these were very religious people who wanted to please God, and for that they should be affirmed. And to their understanding the way to please God was by keeping the Law. Knowing and keeping the Law was at the heart of the Pharisaic movement. The Law literally means instruction, so it refers to all the things God’s people were instructed to do from the Old Testament Scriptures.
Several centuries before the time of Jesus the Israelites were taken into exile. According to the Pharisees, the reason Israel was sent into exile was that individually and corporately they had failed to keep God’s Law.
The Pharisees counted 613 commandments in the Old Testament. And they sought to define and interpret these commandments in such a way that there could be no accidental breaking of them. Everyone would know exactly what a specific law was all about – how you kept it and what qualified as breaking it. For example, regarding the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, the Pharisees cited 39 specific acts that were prohibited on the Sabbath.
It’s easy to see how such an attitude could lead to a spirit of elitism. “We keep the Law. The rabble out there doesn’t!” We see that in the text we just read: “This mob that knows nothing of the law – there is a curse on them.”
Jesus told a story of two people – a Pharisee and a tax gatherer – who went to the temple to pray (Lk. 18:9-14). The Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other people - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all that I get.”
With that kind of attitude, we can see why the Pharisees were upset with and rejected Jesus as the Messiah. He hung around the very people they detested – the lawbreakers. Furthermore, as they understood it, Jesus Himself broke the Law by healing people on the Sabbath. And Jesus justified His disciples when they broke the Law by picking heads of grain and eating them on the Sabbath.
The Pharisees believed the Messiah would not come until Israel finally and fully kept the Law. So, you can see why they were so agitated with Jesus. According to how the Pharisees interpreted the Law, Jesus Himself didn’t keep the Law, so He couldn’t be the Messiah.
Furthermore, by befriending sinners, Jesus even encouraged the breaking of the Law and thus He was setting things back. It would be even longer before the true Messiah could come if Jesus were allowed to continue to lead the people astray from the strict fulfillment of the Law. So, it was clear to the Pharisees - Jesus not only was not the Messiah Himself but He had to be done away with so the true Messiah could come.
Then there was another group known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees were kind of a mystery group; it’s hard to pin down exactly who they were. But at least three things characterized them. First, they were an aristocratic party. All were members of the nobility.
Second, they were a political party. The Land of Israel at this time was under the dominion of Rome. But Rome allowed Israel a measure of self-government, and it was the Sadducees who headed that up.
Third, they were a religious party. Many of the Sadducees were priests and held positions in the Sanhedrin – which was the top religious council of that time. As such, the Sadducees were the keepers of the Temple and had charge of maintaining the Temple rituals. So, when Jesus cleared the Temple of the moneychangers and declared, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days,” (Jn. 2:19, speaking there about the temple of His body), Jesus was challenging the very reason for which the Sadducees existed. In fact, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 the party of the Sadducees died out shortly thereafter.
But for the Sadducees, their religious devotion was subservient to their political ambitions. For they had a privileged position and their goal was to keep that position. And that meant maintaining the status quo, the existing order. Thus, any new movement – political or religious – had to be opposed. Such stirrings of the people would be interpreted by Rome as unrest and a potential threat. That could only lead to more intervention and rule by Rome, and thus less rule by the Sadducees. Their position of influence would decrease.
When the Sadducees saw the crowds following Jesus, they realized their privileged status was at risk. On top of that, they weren’t really looking for the Messiah. They had it pretty good as it was.
And then there were the Zealots. In many ways they were the opposite of the Sadducees. Like the Pharisees they were zealous for the Law, but they were distinguished by their zeal to be rid of Roman rule. Their movement started with a revolt against Rome in AD 6 and ended in another revolt against Rome, this time in AD 73 when the last 960 Zealots committed suicide at the stronghold of Masada rather than allowing the Romans to kill them.
As the Zealots saw it, Israel was the true people of the true God. Thus, it was an insult to be ruled by a pagan government like Rome. They detested it!
At first, the Zealots had high hopes for Jesus, this charismatic figure with miraculous power. He could be the one to rally the nation in a movement toward independence from pagan Rome. But their enthusiasm for Jesus soon diminished when Jesus failed to capitalize on his popularity by uniting the people in a new revolt against Rome.
As you might guess, the Zealots opposed paying taxes to the Roman Emperor. That was treason for God alone was Israel’s true king. So, when Jesus was asked whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Rome, and He said, “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” that struck a raw nerve with the Zealots.
And then there was this talk by Jesus about loving your enemies. How could any self-respecting, God-fearing Jew even suggest such an outrageous idea? Love your enemies? Love the occupying Roman soldiers and the pagan government they represented?
No, Jesus was obviously not the Messiah, not the Deliverer the Zealots were looking for. In fact, the quicker they got rid of Jesus and His nonsense talk that was only side-tracking the people, the better.
The Pharisees were looking for someone who would lead the nation in observing the Law. The Zealots were looking for a leader to inspire and unite the people in a revolt against Rome. And the Sadducees didn’t want any popular leader at all; they just wanted to maintain the status quo.
But while they all were looking for different things and had different reasons for rejecting Jesus, they all made the same mistake. They all reversed the order by putting God in the dock. They put Jesus on trial – not only on the night before He was crucified but throughout His ministry. And when Jesus did not conform to their expectations and desires, they rejected Him. They had determined for themselves what the Messiah would look like and stand for and what kind of Messiah they would follow. But when the Messiah came, He was cast in an entirely different mold. So they missed Him.
And there’s the lesson for us. There’s the danger for us – that we decide for ourselves what God must be like, what kind of God we are willing to follow. There is the danger that we try to put God on trial to see if He meets our expectations and desires. These groups serve as a warning to us not to be so presumptuous as to think we can judge God and determine what He should be like.
Now this doesn’t mean that we put our minds in neutral. There is a sense in which we ought to examine and judge what we read in Scripture. After all, Jesus made some pretty radical claims. He said things like: “I and the Father are one. If you have seen Me you have seen the Father. I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Those are pretty radical statements. So, we do need to examine His claims to see if the evidence substantiates what Jesus said. But we must not do so with our minds already made up as to what He must be like. That what the mistake of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots. The late Scottish preacher James Stewart commented:
It is a startling thought, but it is written plain across the gospel story, that a great part of the responsibility for the death of Christ at Calvary must be laid at the door of the sin of the closed mind. It was an unteachable spirit that erected the cross.
God has revealed Himself to us through Jesus Christ. We don’t need to wonder or agonize over who God is or what God is like, for as the writer of Hebrews (1:3) declared, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” God has disclosed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. Our responsibility is to come to God with an open mind, allowing God to define for us who He is and what it means to follow Him.
Throughout the New Testament we see Jesus defining Himself by the things He said. “I am the light of the world. I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the good shepherd. I am the vine. I am the bread of life. I and the Father are one.” Jesus was continually defining Himself.
And through His works Jesus was defining Himself: healing the sick, casting out demons, His miracles over nature, befriending the sinners and welcoming the outcasts, washing His disciples’ feet, and forgiving our sins as He died on the cross.
By what He said and did, Jesus let people know who He was, why He came, what kind of Messiah He was, and what it means to follow Him. He came as a servant, bringing us life, and making us into new people. He came to announce that the only way to God was through Him for He was God made flesh who on the cross bore all of our sin. He came to declare that to follow Him requires a radical commitment of dying to self to serve Him and love others with the same love He has for us.
That’s who Jesus is. To be a Christian is to receive Him on His terms, the way He defines Himself. It is to come to Christ with an open mind – that is, open to His revelation of who He is.
There are two dangers that confront us when we approach Jesus with a closed mind, when our presuppositions rule our thinking.
The first danger is that we can miss God altogether. God turns out to be different than we expected so we reject God. For example, we dismiss God because we see so much suffering in the world and we’ve already decided that a loving God could not allow that. Or Jesus’ claim to be the only way sounds too exclusive in our pluralistic age. God has revealed Himself to us primarily through Jesus, but because we prefer our own concept of God, we dismiss Him. That’s probably not where most of us are at, although I know people for whom that is true.
But the second danger poses more of a threat to us. We don’t dismiss God altogether; we simply dismiss certain aspects of God or elements of the gospel that we don’t like. Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States. He believed in God, but his enlightened, rational mind could not accept the idea of miracles. Jefferson concluded that God couldn’t or wouldn’t do such things. So, he literally cut all the passages dealing with miracles from his Bible. He put the God of Scripture on trial, and that God did not match Jefferson’s view of what God should be like, so he eliminated those parts of Scripture.
Probably none of us here have actually taken a pair of scissors to the Bible and cut away the parts we disagree with or are not comfortable with. But if our minds are closed, already made-up, we may have done the same thing in our thinking. We reject, or at least ignore the parts of Scripture we don’t like, the elements that challenge us too severely, those matters we’ve already made up our mind on.
Maybe we don’t like what Jesus had to say about loving our enemies or forgiving those who have wronged us. After all, that’s a bit unrealistic. Or perhaps we squirm when we read that Jesus said to follow Him we must die to ourselves, to our self-centered nature. It could be that we are uncomfortable with what Jesus had to say about money, or morals, or servanthood, or what it means to be male or female, husband or wife, parent or child. Maybe we think with enough effort we can save ourselves and thus don’t need a Savior to actually die for our sins.
It’s so easy for us to end up being like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots. We try to judge God. We attempt to determine what God must be like, or what is appropriate for God to ask of us, or what a proper response is to God.
When Nicodemus tried to defend Jesus, the Pharisees responded (vs. 52), “Are you from Galilee too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” Well, they were wrong. A few did. And so did the greatest prophet of all – the Messiah. But their minds were made up beforehand. They had already determined what the Messiah would do and even where He could come from. And so they missed Him.
So, one of the messages of Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week is that we need to be sure we don’t put God in the Dock, deciding for ourselves what God should be like.
The cheering crowds welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday. But several days later the leaders put Jesus on trial and rejected Him because He didn’t meet their expectations of what the Messiah should be like.
The truth is, following Jesus will challenge us in certain ways. Some of what He said is demanding. But if we approach God with our mind already made up as to what we think He should be like, or what is appropriate for Him to ask of us, we end up limiting ourselves. Of course, we limit our understanding of the truth regarding God, which will leave us intellectually and spiritually impoverished, for nothing satisfies the mind like a true understanding of the greatness and nature of God.
Along with that, we limit our experience of God. God wants us to be assured of His forgiveness of our sins. He wants to fill our lives with grace and peace. God wants us to experience His presence with us and His guidance for us. God wants us to experience the satisfaction of fulfilling the very purpose for which God made us. God wants us to experience the joy of living in the reality of His love for us. God wants us to experience the fullness of life, and to have the sure hope of eternity with God.
We can experience all of this only as we embrace and surrender to God as He truly is. So let us approach God with an open mind – open, that is, to allowing God to define who He is and what it means to follow Him. If we do that, we can be sure we will not be disappointed.