That Time Jesus Lied to His Brothers1
There are plenty of places in the Bible that skeptics can point to in an effort to discredit the Christian belief in the infallibility of the Scriptures. Without needing to claim that there are no “problem passages,” it’s not like any of these difficult texts has escaped our notice and has not yet been explained adequately (just Google the text in question and you’ll find plenty of explanations, I can assure you). Still, it is helpful to review some of these passages from time to time and see if we can offer a clear answer to the difficulty that appears there.
Here’s one that I was discussing with another believer recently. Read these verses from John 7:8-10, and you’ll see the issue. Jesus is the one who is speaking at the beginning.
“You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private.
What is interesting about this particular “problem passage” is that very early in Christian history, we find Greek manuscripts on this passage that have the adverb not yet (οὔπω) instead of not (οὐκ). You can see this simple fix to the problem in some English translations (KJV, NKJV, HCSB). But it seems to be this is an obvious attempt by scribes to “correct” the text.
A better solution to the difficulty comes when we recognize the condition contained in the words “for my time has not yet come.” In other words, Jesus implied that once his time had come, he would then indeed head on down to the feast in Jerusalem. This explanation gets at the theological purpose of the narrative. As New Testament scholar D. A. Carson explains in his commentary on John (p. 309), the point of this dialogue Jesus was having with his brothers was to declare that Jesus’s life was regulated by God’s time and agenda, not his brother’s.
But, the critic might retort, since he did seem to go up so soon afterward, it may seem like Jesus was guilty, if not for lying, then at least for deceiving. To this we can say that there is even more going on here than we might think. Note that his brothers wanted him to go the Jerusalem to “show himself to the world” (v. 4), an expression of their unbelief in him (v. 5). But when Jesus finally did go to Jerusalem, he went “not publicly but in private,” which is not the way his brother’s wanted him to go there. What was the point of the secrecy?
Here we must note that frequently in John’s Gospel, Jesus says things that have a deeper meaning than appears on the surface, resulting in his audience getting the wrong impression, and probably making them believe that Jesus was not being truthful. Another New Testament scholar, Craig Keener, notes this fact in his commentary (p. 709) and cites John 3:3-4; 4:10-11, 14-15; 6:63 as other examples of Jesus’s use of double-meaning.
Is there double-meaning here? Yes, there is. The “time” Jesus refers to is not the time of the feast (which is what his brothers would have thought he meant), but the time in which Jesus will fall into trouble with the Jewish authorities and be brought to the cross (which the readers of the Fourth Gospel should understand).
So, to summarize. In saying he was “not going to the feast,” Jesus was not saying he would never go to the feast, for he implied that he would go when his “time” had come. So, he did not lie. He did stay in Galilee while his brothers traveled to the feast. It wasn’t until after his brother had gone to the feast that Jesus then came as well, but privately rather than in public, in order to not cause a scene at the feast. The point of the episode is to show Jesus’s commitment to the “time” of God his Father, a point those who read the Fourth Gospel should notice, even though his brothers did not.