Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
John now adds a footnote to his comparison of Jesus’ secretive early ministry (Wedding at Cana) vs. his confrontational, fully exposed later ministry (temple clearing). He was aware from the beginning that to reveal himself was to bring about the crucifixion. God’s truth is always in conflict with the materialistic, self-serving, user mentality that characterized those who love things and pleasure. The conflict is only amplified when it comes to those who have become “successful” and possessive of their advantages.
But here John comments on the general populace, noting that Jesus recognized how fickle and untrustworthy the general populace is. Most of us are more comfortable with democratic government than its alternatives. In theory this means that every individual has a voice in the structure of government and the institutions that frame society. This is good. But there is ample evidence that the populace can become hysterical, can rally around terrible falsehoods, can overreact, and can become the Mob.
Here are a few quotes from famous men, commenting on collective human nature: “Those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.” – Alcuin (to Emperor Charlemagne, 798 AD). “Mankind will in time discover that unbridled majorities are as tyrannical and cruel as unlimited despots.” – John Adams (reacting to the execution of Louis XVI). “Democracy is four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” – Ambrose Bierce. “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” – H.L. Mencken.
What is human fickleness? Perhaps “fair weather friend” captures the idea. Or Jimmie Cox’ song, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. When people are successful, relatives and long-lost friends come out of the woodwork. When people are in need, those friends and relatives are suddenly busy, far away, and overwhelmed with their own problems. “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” or “A friend in need is a friend in deed.”
Jesus had an entire catalog of references about fickle behavior. One stunning example would have been the complaining of the Israelites shortly after having been rescued from slavery in Egypt. Forty-five days after their liberation, and then their escape from the Egyptian army via the Red Sea, the people, en masse, developed a serious case of the grumbles. The people of Israel said to [Moses & Aaron], “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16.2,3). (Let it be a lesson: just because God blesses you in some amazing way, does not mean that the rest of your life will be smooth sailing. Life is training, which means it will routinely be challenging. This does not mean God has abandoned you; it means God is forming you.)
Mob history repeated itself with Jesus. The crowd cheered at his so-called Triumphal Entry, shouting out, “Hosanna!” an expression of praise, adoration & joy. A week later, when Pilot asked the crowd whether he should spare Jesus or Barabbas, the insurrectionist, the crowd asked for Barabbas. As for Jesus, they called out, “Crucify him!” This is the kind of violent flip-flop that can happen when men and women fail to engage their God-given ability to think & examine and, instead, behave like sheep (with fangs).
But we must be clear here, just as John was. This horrible reversal was not an indictment against Jewish people, as some throughout history have interpreted it. Rather, it is an indictment against human nature. We are all easily swayed by the mob. We are all inclined to make snap decisions. We are all capable of anger and violence. As John put it, “he himself knew what was in man”.
We are all truly, through-and-through spoiled by sin. This does not mean we ought to wallow in self-hatred. It is also true that we were made in the image of the good and all-powerful maker of the universe. But we must make an honest reckoning. We must maintain vigilance against our own weaknesses.
I like the saying, “Just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.” It’s a backhanded way of recognizing that popularity is a bad indicator of whether an action or an idea is correct. We need to be suspicious of popular ideas, of the latest styles, and of everything that trends. Today’ cool is tomorrow’s cliché. When you feel pressured to conform, resist. Back away. Do some cross-checking from reliable sources. Let your own emotional temperature cool. They say that we should “strike while the iron is hot”. True; very true. But it’s also true that nearly everything worth doing can wait, and can be pursued carefully and deliberately. It’s also true that the ends never justify the means…and that the means create their own ends.
Wisdom comes through counsel. But not the counsel of the mob, which is almost always wrong, and frequently disastrously wrong. Wisdom comes through good counsel. You know some thoughtful people. Go to them. Go to the saints. Augustine, John Calvin, C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther King, G.K. Chesterton, Nancy Pearcey, Timothy Keller, to name just a few. Most of all, go to the Bible for direction. And ask God to protect your thinking and guide your actions.
And after all this is done faithfully, you will find that you are still wrong sometimes. Again, we must remember to be humble, ready to be corrected. Being corrected is always painful…but we need to embrace the joy of being correct. To recognize our understanding was wrong and harmful but that we have been changed to no longer be so afflicted is something to celebrate. In this sense we should always look forward to being corrected. (This does not mean, of course, that everyone who corrects you is actually correct. But we should remain open to the possibility.)
Jesus rightly judged that humans are too dumb and too dangerous to be trusted. But we are not hopelessly bound to this condition. Christ died to save us from our bondage to being dumb and dangerous. He has taught us that we should be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. He has also promised that he will make us just so. Let us work with him toward that end.