Listening can be a dangerous thing.
Often, we can have so many thoughts in our head…so many assumptions about ourselves and others and the way the world works…that even when we do listen, we only hear what makes it through the grid of our own mental noise. It is something we can do with the words of Jesus. We hear or read what He says and decide what it means by processing it through the grid of what we think we already know.
Instead of coming to His Words and allowing them to change us, we alter our reading of what He said to fit our understanding. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had a lot of reasons to want to keep their own grid in place, and it blinded them to the danger of a failure to listen.
Imagine it. Crowds of the Jewish people had flocked to Jerusalem for a religious festival. The radical young preacher that everyone was talking about was there with rumors about His healings and vibrant, new teaching. Imagine standing there as the religious leaders came to Him, angry and hostile. Here were the most powerful men in Israel confronting Jesus, a carpenter…a blue-collar worker from the backwoods. Most people would have wilted under the force of their intimidation. Jesus did not. He went on with His words to the religious leaders that were plotting to kill Him:
“‘If I testify about Myself, My testimony is not valid. There is another who testifies in My favor, and I know that His testimony is valid.”
Jesus is talking about God the Father. The men Jesus was talking to believed that God was absolute Truth. Whatever He says is what is True. So according to their own worldview, if this God testified that Jesus was His Son, then nobody in Heaven or on earth could argue against Him. Jesus was letting the religious leaders of His day know that if they were really listening to God…if they were faithful leaders…then they would accept what He said. Jesus wouldn’t have to argue with them. They would know who Jesus was and they would honor Him as the Messiah. Jesus went on:
“‘You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light.’”
There is a lot going on in these words. John the Baptist was a hot political topic. He was a true prophet of God. He spoke with truth and power, and the people of Israel flocked to him. But when the religious leaders came to John, he called them a brood of vipers…or poisonous snakes. He denounced their ministries and demanded that they repent.
It is easy to see why the religious leaders were divided over how to handle John. He was so popular with the people that they had to play a political game. They couldn’t really embrace the man who renounced them, but if they rejected him, the people might decide they were on the wrong side of history. They might look in the Old Testament stories about the evil leaders of the past who persecuted the prophets and decide their own religious leadership was from the same clan.
Of course, the leaders could have simply repented, which was all that John required. Instead, they continued with their politics, more concerned about their positions of power and keeping the people pacified than seeking the truth of what God was doing in their time. God had given them privileged positions in His nation, and they arrogantly responded by doing only what was good for themselves.
Jesus had no problem with the truth. He gave John a ringing endorsement and pointed out that at one point, the religious leaders had, too. It is interesting that Jesus also explained His motive. He said that He was saying these things so that the religious leaders might be saved.
Imagine it. These men were plotting to kill Jesus. The reason they were talking to Him was to figure out a way to destroy Him. Jesus knew this, and all the while, He kept persevering… taking their accusations and returning with answers of Truth, coming up against their anger and hostility and insults again and again. With all the amazing good He was doing in Israel, transforming the lives of the hurting and bringing Words of grace and life, He still took time for the haters. He didn’t bend the Truth for them, but He kept engaging them. He said:
“‘I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given Me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent Me. And the Father who sent Me has Himself testified concerning Me. You have never heard His voice nor seen His form, nor does His word dwell in you, for you do not believe in the One He sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me and have life.’”
These words should be a source of reverent, holy fear for everyone of every era who seeks to be faithful to God. Technically, these men knew the Bible better than anyone in the world. But they still didn’t understand the Bible. The only way to truly understand the Words of Scripture is by reading it out of devoted love for God. It is meant to be read with an earnest desire to learn His will…and to allow our own desires to be transformed by Him. The religious leaders were reading it for the sake of their own knowledge, power, and prestige. Jesus went on:
“’I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your heart. I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not accept Me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?’”
Clearly, it was possible to have a different kind of relationship to Scripture and to God than these men were willing to understand. If they had understood…if their hearts were full of devoted love…then when they met the Son of God, they would have dropped everything to follow Him. Jesus told them:
“‘But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote abut Me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?’”
Now Jesus was going straight for the lie they were clinging to. These were men who followed the outward laws of Moses better than anyone. Their confidence in their own obedience was the shield they used to justify their abuse of power.
But Moses was a man who loved the Lord as his friend. He longed with God for the Law to be obeyed with hearts of devoted, surrendered, love. Not only were these religious leaders missing what God was doing in their own time, they had missed what He had been doing from the beginning of their nation! And now they were standing there, trying to block the path of God’s Son! Would they ever learn to listen?