Question: "Did Jesus lie to His brothers in John 7:8–10?"
Answer: In John 7, Jesus is traveling through Galilee. Meanwhile, in Judea, the Jewish leaders were looking for a way to kill Him (John 7:1). Then, “when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, ‘Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world’” (verses 2–4). Jesus’ reply to His half-brothers is curious: “My time is not yet here; for you any time will do. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil. You go to the festival. I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come” (verses 6–8). The Lord then stayed in Galilee for a while, but “after his brothers had left for the festival, he went also, not publicly, but in secret” (verse 10).
This passage is often used by skeptics to say that Jesus lied to His brothers—He said He was not going to the feast, but then He went anyway. Some cite this incident as evidence that Jesus was a mere human, not our sinless Savior as He claimed to be. They point out that the Bible forbids the sin of lying (Leviticus 19:11; Colossians 3:9), that Jesus claimed to be without sin (John 8:46), and that the Messiah would not lie (Isaiah 53:9). If Jesus lied to His brothers about going to the festival, then He cannot be the Messiah, and the Bible is not God’s inerrant Word.
Of course, the accusation that Jesus lied is a serious charge. Christians are called “believers” (John 4:41; Acts 1:15). If Jesus told a lie to His half-brothers, then how can we believe anything else He said? If Jesus is a liar, then how can He be the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)?
The charge that Jesus lied to His half-brothers makes the classic error of taking a verse or two out of context—cutting out all relevant verses before and after—in order to make Scripture say something it does not really say. To understand the meaning of Jesus’ words to His brothers, we’ll look at the immediate context, then the larger context of the event, and end with some logical conclusions about John 7:1–10 and the main lesson it teaches.
First, we should mention that some old manuscripts of John’s Gospel have the word yet in John 7:8: “I am not yet going up to this festival” (emphasis added). If yet (or now) was part of the original text, as dozens of translations render it, there is obviously no lie—case closed. The word may or may not have been in John’s original text. But, since we don’t know for certain, relying on its absence makes for a weak argument in trying to tear down the Bible.
As it turns out, it doesn’t matter whether yet was in that particular place or not, because Christ’s full statement—the context—has the same meaning with or without that word in verse 8.
The immediate context is Jesus’ response to His unbelieving brothers’ sarcastic taunts. As John mentions, His brothers were unbelievers at that time (John 7:5). They were issuing a similar challenge as other nonbelievers (see John 10:24; Matthew 12:38; 27:40) and even Satan (Matthew 4:3–6). Jesus’ brothers told Him to go to Jerusalem, where the crowds were, and put Himself on public display. They were saying, in effect, “If You are who You say You are, prove it in the way we say you should.”
Jesus response to His half-brothers was clear: He was not going to the Feast of Tabernacles with them. Twice, Jesus uses the words not yet (John 7:6, 8). Jesus then makes the point to His brothers that God’s timing is precise. Jesus’ actions are not based on whatever time they seem to think appropriate: “For you any time will do,” He tells them (verse 6). The Messiah will accomplish God’s will in God’s time, not theirs: “My time has not yet fully come” (verse 8).
The larger context of this episode is John chapters 7 through 10. Jesus indeed traveled to Jerusalem to teach and reveal more about His mission and identity. He made His public appearance halfway through the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:14). He then spent a lot of that visit condemning the religious leaders as liars and hypocrites.
The problem for modern skeptics is that Jesus’ own brothers did not think He lied to them. His brothers understood exactly what Jesus had said. If they thought He had lied to them, they would have exposed Jesus as a lying hypocrite even as He was denouncing the Jewish leaders for being that very thing. Here is Jesus, in Jerusalem, publicly proclaiming to everyone, “If you hold to my teaching, . . . you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32), and His brothers do not object.
Jesus’ own family—those who lived with Him, knew Him best, and were trying to stop Him because they thought He was crazy (Mark 3:21)—did not take the opportunity during the Feast of Tabernacles to expose Him as a hypocritical fraud. If Jesus had lied to His brothers, it’s reasonable to assume that they would have spoken up in Jerusalem. The reality they did not argues for the fact that Jesus did not lie.
Also, it would make no sense that the writer of this gospel, Christ’s devoted disciple, John, would make such an obvious mistake as to say that Jesus lied to His brothers. The apostle John always condemned lying in no uncertain terms (see 1 John 1:10; 2:4; 2:22; 4:20; 5:10). His gospel introduces us to Jesus as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14; cf. verse 17), and he quotes Jesus complimenting Nathanael, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Later, Jesus tells a Samaritan woman that we must worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23–24). It’s obvious that John did not consider Jesus’ response to His brothers in John 7 to be a lie.
Could John have failed to realize that he recorded the Lord’s telling of a bald-faced lie in the very same passage He is called a deceiver by His enemies (John 7:12, 47)? Could John have possibly missed the irony that Jesus, a liar, publicly condemns His enemies as liars (John 8:44, 55)? Of course not. The fact is that Jesus told no lie. John makes it perfectly clear that Jesus’ response to His brothers meant only that He was not going when His brothers thought He should go. The Lord was working on a different timetable, and He was not going to allow His brothers to dictate His actions.
In summary, Jesus did not lie to His half-brothers. He was making it clear to them that if or when He went to the festival was a matter of God’s exact timing and perfect plan, not their ignorant opinions. He knew His brothers would see Him at the festival and would have to think about what He told them more deeply when His exact hour had come, but not before (cf. John 7:30).
As followers of Christ, “we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). God unfolds His plan for our lives in His own perfect timing (Psalm 116:3-9; 2 Corinthians 6:2; Ephesians 1:3–12) to conform us to His own glorious Son (Romans 8:28–30), who is Truth Himself (John 14:6).