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)
Jesus spoke these words after his own brothers expressed their skepticism about who Jesus appeared to be suggesting he was, the long awaited Messiah from God. (John 7:2-5) He spoke these words to a crowd that was also largely skeptical, wondering who he really was. Some were saying he was a good man, but others were claiming that he was leading people astray. (John 7:12)
I keep coming back to this verse (John 7:17) since I heard Dr. Rosaria Butterfield give her testimony of her journey from liberal, lesbian professor who was highly critical of Christians and Christianity to becoming a believer and later a pastor’s wife and having a ministry of her own.
In her world of academia, she was used to doing research and coming to conclusions before being willing to put her faith in a proposition. That is the academic process.
As she was listening to a sermon after having spent many months becoming friends with a pastor and his wife, reading the Bible, and considering the evidence for Christianity, she made a life changing realization. She was approaching Christianity academically. She was not willing to believe until all of the facts were lined up and could be reduced to a certain answer.
When she heard this sermon in which the preacher read John 7:17, she realized that she had it all backward. Understanding and knowing God does not occur through the academic process. It does not happen by studying the facts and adding them up to the conclusion that God exists. We do not know God in that way.
We must be “willing to do God’s will” in order “to know whether the teaching is from God”. Knowing comes after willingness, not the other way around.
It isn’t anything that we must do. It isn’t even anything that we must know. We must simply be willing. God takes our willingness and makes himself known to us. But, if we are unwilling, we cannot know God.
Many people today, as in the past, have approached the subject of God and the subject of faith from an academic perspective. There is nothing wrong with that, but we can’t know God in that way. We have to move beyond that to know God.
It should go without saying, in the alternative, that we don’t need academics (knowledge of facts) to know God. Knowledge of God and knowing God are two different things. We have to be willing to do God’s will to know Him. It isn’t enough that we have knowledge of God. Even Satan knows of God.
We have to go further than coming to God’s “door”. He is there knocking; we have to open to the door.
Many people approach the subject of God and faith from a skeptical perspective, and they come away with the conclusion that God does not exist. Many other people have approached God with skepticism, but have come away having faith. What is the difference?
It isn’t the skepticism, but the willingness to know God that is the difference.
When Phillip Came to Nathaniel and said that he found “Him of whom Moses in the Law and the Prophets wrote” (the Messiah), Nathaniel was skeptical. He questioned whether anything good comes from Nazareth, but he went to see Jesus and engaged him, and he became a believer. (John 1:43-51)
The Pharisees, on the other hand, had the same reaction that Nathaniel had. They heard the buzz in the crowd, with some people claiming that Jesus was “the Prophet” and “the Christ” (Messiah); while others were skeptical because Jesus was from Galilee (Nazareth to be exact), and the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem. When Nicodemus suggested to his fellow Pharisees that they should keep an open mind about Jesus, the Pharisees responded sarcastically, “You are not from Galilee also, are you?” And, they pointed out for emphasis that no prophet arises from Galilee. (John 7:40-53)
The difference is that the Pharisees had already made up their minds. They didn’t keep an open mind; they didn’t try to engage Jesus; rather, they rested on what they already knew (or thought they knew). It turns out that their knowledge was incomplete. Jesus was from Nazareth, at least he grew up there; but he also was from Bethlehem, where he was born, which is exactly where the Messiah was to come as predicted in the Old Testament.
If the Pharisees had known Jesus was from Bethlehem, would they have believed? I don’t think so. Faith and knowing God does not come from knowing facts; it comes from having a willing heart, being willing to submit to God, being willing to do God’s will. Without a heart that is willing, we cannot know God.
Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, was an atheist who decided one day that he should at least know something about the Christianity that he had rejected. He began to seek to know about Christianity, talking to a pastor, and was directed to read Mere Christianity by CS Lewis.
He was surprised to find such a scholarly and thoughtful approach to faith. He had always thought that faith was belief without factual support or belief “in the teeth of the facts”, as Richard Dawkins says.
Francis Collins describes in his own testimony that he came to a point where he intellectually conceded that the evidence tended to point toward the existence of God, generally, and the Christian God, specifically, but he recognized that he still didn’t believe. Even though he had come to an intellectual conclusion that it was probably true, that it was more likely true than false, he stood on the side of skepticism and not faith.
At that point, he says, he recognized that faith requires some commitment, some willingness to submit to the conclusion. When he came to that realization, he made that last step by making a commitment to the intellectual conclusion he had reached. Only then did he come to know God in an experiential way and come to be a believer.
He recognized that the intellectual exercise took him to the precipice, but he had to go beyond the intellectualism to jump from the precipice to faith. We can only know God by being willing not only to know God but to do God’s will once we know Him. Knowing (in the sense of knowing a person) doesn’t come first. Willingness comes first. Willing to do God’s will comes before knowing God.