Theology in 3D

Faith First, then Understanding

Layton Talbert | June 8, 2018
New Testament, Theology

Is John 7:17 a promise? Or an ultimatum? I have wrestled with this passage and its potential implications in personal conversations from time to time. And I wonder if we sometimes miss the real point of what Jesus is saying and, in the process, misapply it.

If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether [my] teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority (ESV).

Sometimes this verse is loaded into the gospel gun as a kind of silver bullet — “If you are sincerely willing to do God’s will, He will verify Jesus’ teaching to you and convince you of the truth of Christianity.” Who isn’t convinced of their own sincerity? But what do you tell someone who says, “Surely it’s God’s will for me to know the truth, and I sincerely want to know the truth, but God hasn’t convinced me that all of Jesus’ teachings are true; some of them seem erroneous and contradictory, and others just don’t make sense”? Does that entitle them to conclude that Jesus fails the terms of his own challenge and is not to be believed?

The comeback, “Well, you must not really want to do God’s will or else you would have come to the right conclusion,” is too easy, too neat, too convenient, too Mormon-esque (“If you were really sincere then you’d feel the burning in the bosom”). Unless it’s clear from the context that that, in fact, is Jesus’ whole point.


John 7:17 is Jesus’ answer to the Jews’ astonishment at the competence of his teaching. (See John 7:14-18.) Some translations capture the best sense of grammata (v. 15) as a reference to the OT writings (cf. Jn 5:472 Tim 3:15). They weren’t marveling that he was literate; they were amazed by his knowledge and use of the Scriptures. Jesus then explains that his teaching can be verified as originating from God by anyone who is willing to do whatever God says in the Scriptures.

In other words, Jesus’ statement in 7:17 is not a promise by which Jesus’ teaching may be put on probation and verified as true (or not); it is an assertion, an ultimatum in fact, by which people are put on probation and verified as genuinely willing to do what God says (or not). What he offers in 7:17 is, from the outset, not a test of Jesus but a test of people.

This understanding is affirmed by the fact that the conversation immediately shifts into a controversy with those who are clearly not submissive to God’s revealed will. (See John 7:19-24.) Instead, they are judging him by their own ideas about God’s will based on their own interpretations and applications of Moses’ writings.

This reading of 7:17 is also consistent with Jesus’ other teachings that always place the hearer on trial, not himself. Here’s a sampling.

JOHN 5:46-47

When the Jews insisted that they believed Moses, Jesus insisted that actually they didn’t: If you believed Moses [which you clearly don’t, a contrary-to-fact conditional construction]then you would believe me, for he wrote of me. In other words, the test of whether you actually believe Moses is whether you believe Jesus, not vice versa.

JOHN 8:39

When the Jews claimed to be Abraham’s children, Jesus claimed that actually they weren’t: If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. In other words, the test of whether you are genuinely Abraham’s children — spiritually (Gal 3:6-7) not just physically (Matt 3:9) — is how you respond to God’s word through Jesus. (Remember how this conversation peaks in John 8:56-59.) This could possibly be a concessional construction: Since you are Abraham’s children, you should be doing the works of Abraham — that is, your response toward me completely contradicts your heritage and ancestry. Either way it amounts to the same thing.

JOHN 8:41-42

When the Jews declared that God was their Father, Jesus declared that actually he wasn’t: If God were your Father [another contrary-to-fact conditional construction], then you would love me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of myself, but he sent me. In other words, this is not a test of Jesus (if they do not love him then he must not have come from God) but of them (the test of whether God is truly their Father is whether they love Christ).

JOHN 8:54-55

To the Jews’ assumption that they were the people of God, Jesus replied, You have not known him. In other words, their rejection of Jesus proves something about them (that they do not know God), not about him.

Though the grammatical structure of 7:17 differs (a subjunctive verb, followed by a future verb), the thrust of Jesus’ challenge is the same. It’s not a promise of a foolproof litmus test for the doubter; it is the certainty of an outcome for anyone who meets the qualification:

Should anyone be willing to do God’s will (revealed in the Scriptures), he will know the legitimacy and source of my teaching.

This broader context of controversy clarifies that John 7:17 is not a test of the authenticity of Jesus and his teaching; it is a test of the sincerity of anyone who disbelieves his teaching.

Understanding 7:17 this way is similar to, yet importantly different from, the more traditional use of the verse. It is a more contextually aware reading of Jesus’ words, and a more theologically valid and consistent way to press someone to faith as Jesus did. The NT repeatedly commands people to believe, not merely to be sincere and search and make the best decision they can about Jesus.

Leon Morris concurs with the audience-targeted thrust of Jesus’ statement:

His hearers had raised the question of His competence as a teacher. He raises the question of their competence as hearers.

As Augustine rightly perceived,

understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand . . . . [W]hat is “If any man be willing to do His will”? It is the same thing as to believe.

This, too, is consistent with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere (Jn 6:28-29). Jesus is who he is, and who he is isn’t determined by human decision. Jesus is not the one on trial. We are.

Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert

One response to “Faith First, then Understanding”

  1. […] while back I wrote on “Faith First, Then Understanding” and received this perceptive […]

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