How to Confront Criticism (John 8:48-59)

By Andrew E. Courtis

We all know what it is like to be critical. Criticism in and of itself is not a bad thing. There is a cautious constrictive criticism and there is a careless censorious criticism. Cautioned criticism is regulated by the desire to be helpful, whereas censorious criticism is regulated by the desire to be destructive. S. Lewis Johnson tells the story of a young lawyer:

“A lawyer was speaking to another lawyer and asking him how should he handle cases in court. The older lawyer said, ‘Well, if the law is on your side, emphasize the law. If the evidence and the facts are on your side, emphasize the evidence and the facts.’ ‘But what if neither are on my side?’ ‘Then attack other lawyer.’”

Criticism becomes bad when it is driven by an ungodly motive and carried out in an ungodly way. This ugly form of criticism begins with a critical heart, which then manifests itself in verbal attack. This verbal attack tends to start off by complaining and then follows with abusing. If this level of criticism is unbridled, it can end with physical abuse like fighting. The issue goes back to the heart and why the person is critical to begin with. Jesus said,

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

The religious leaders criticized the Lord Jesus three times in this passage (8:48, 52-53, 57). This is not the first time that this has happened. But now the comments are getting more personal and end quite intensely. What was the cause of such anger? The cause of this criticism was the previous conversation that had just taken place. Jesus had made it clear that because they are of their father the devil (cf. 8:44), they are not in tune with God’s desires and nor do they know Him. This sparked a series of criticisms that climax with an attempt to take Jesus’ life (8:59). This is really serious! The most amazing thing in this this passage is the way Jesus responds to such ungodly and uncalled for behaviour. The apostle Peter got to spend three years watching and walking with Jesus. Looking back on His perfect life Peter said concerning Jesus,

When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

That is a powerful description of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we will see an example of that in our passage. We need to also understand, that though this is what happened to our Lord, if you identify with Him, those things that are directed toward Christ will in varying forms come towards His people (Col. 1:24).

For this reason, we need to be equipped when it comes to facing unholy criticism. In this message, we will examine how our Lord Jesus confronts criticism and how this is relevant for us.

Sermon Summary:                In this message we see the Lord’s powerful responses to ungodly and uncalled for criticism.

1. CRITICISM ONE (8:48-51)
The religious leaders go straight to the point. They verbally criticize Jesus by saying, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (8:48). That is a huge accusation and reveals that they are not happy with Jesus.

By calling Him “a Samaritan” was an accusation of racial and religious hatred. The Jews and the Samaritans did not get along. This was more than what we may call an “inter-state rivalry”. The hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans was far more serious. The Jewish people considered the Samaritans as …

Adding to this, they accuse Him of being demon-possessed. Suggesting that He is demon possessed was a rather harsh and blasphemous way of saying that He was out of His mind. This is not the first time Jesus has been labeled this way.

How would you respond? Notice what Jesus does. He doesn’t pull out the boxing gloves, nor does He start yelling at them. A fleshly response would be to passionately defend oneself. Amazingly, He completely ignores the first accusation regarding being a Samaritan, then He said, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me” (8:49).

He confronts the criticism by appealing to the truth in a way that honours the Father. This is amazing. Jesus makes the most important thing the center of this conversation.

Honouring God. Too often we get offended when people criticize us because we don’t like looking bad. This really is an issue of pride. The best way to deal with criticism is to honour God. It is not about getting worldly approval; it is all about giving God the glory. An important question we need to ask ourselves is, what is the goal of our lives? Is it about vindicating ourselves or giving God the glory? The first question of the Westminster shorter catechism is, “What is the chief end of man?” the answer is, “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”.

Now of course, in the case of Jesus, if you dishonour Him, you are dishonouring the Father (cf. John 5:22-23). Jesus goes on to say, “Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge” (8:50).

After they have insulted Him, Jesus turns the focus on honouring God and now provides a gracious invitation of salvation. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (8:51).

This teaches us something about the character of God. Despite our selfishness and hatred toward him, God still provides a way of salvation. We do not deserve such grace. The promise here is that those who are His people will not be eternally punished for their sin.

2CRITICISM TWO (8:52-56)
After Jesus provided such a gracious invitation to receive eternal life, sadly they took their criticism to an even deeper level. This is what they said,

Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death” (8:52).

They continue their round of criticism by asking,

Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” (8:53).

For the second time, notice how Jesus confronts their criticism,

If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” (8:54-56)

After they hurled the first criticism, Jesus responded by making it an issue of honouring God. Notice this time He replies in a way that displays a good conscience.

If we are going to face criticism, it is important that we have a clear conscience. What is the conscience? The conscience is a devise that will either accuse or excuse one’s behaviour. It becomes somewhat of an alarm system when you depart from obeying God’s Word. Jesus was able to look at His critics in the eyes with a good conscience. Sometimes, that is all we will have and are able to do. Consider Paul's profound words,

But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor. 4:2)

3. CRITICISM THREE (8:57-58)
Now we come to round three. The religious leaders are proving themselves to be relentless in their criticism. They said, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” (8:57).

The response Jesus gives is truly profound, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). Here Jesus states with clarity the He is eternal (cf. John 1:1). He gives Himself the name of God that Moses heard at the burning bush (Ex. 3:11).

Notice how they respond, “So they picked up stones to throw at him” (8:59). They have followed the destructive pattern of a critical spirit. It began with a critical heart and now it manifests itself in violent actions. This is really sad for them, because look at what Jesus does, “but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple”. That is the only response He gives to these hardhearted rebels. It started off with an invitation to receive eternal life and ends with silence. It was Augustine who said, “As man, He fled from the stones; but woe to those from whose stony hearts God has fled.”[1]

We can gain a lesson from this: Sometimes this is how we are to respond to criticism. There comes a point in which whether it is for out safety or because of the hardness of the person’s heart, we are to remove ourselves from the person’s presence.

What do we learn from this? Just as Jesus responded to criticism by giving honour to the Father and maintained a good conscience, so must we. Consider what Peter said to Christian’s undergoing criticism and hardship,

14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:14-17).

Notice there are two things the believer is to do: (1) honour Christ and (2) have a good conscience. We should be thankful that our Lord Jesus Christ did this perfectly. We should prepare ourselves for when criticism comes. It will be from within the church and it will come from the outside. Let us be ready by His help.

[1] Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 13 vols., ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 7:245