"Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly." (John 7:24 NLT)
People see what they want to see... and sometimes it seems like what folks condemn in one person, they celebrate in another. Jesus ran into this with the crowds in John 7. They were critical of Him for breaking the Law by healing on the Sabbath, yet the most observant Jews would circumcise on the Sabbath in order to keep the Law. If you like someone, they can do nothing wrong. If you don't like someone, they can do nothing right!
Jesus responded by challenging the people to look beneath the surface -- or as the NASB puts it, don't judge by appearances. Looking beneath the surface takes more time than making a judgment based on appearances. It requires more energy. And worst of all: you risk finding out that you were wrong! I think that's why a legalistic approach is so "easy" -- it doesn't require a lot of time or thought. It can be done from a safe distance. And if you want others to see you as good and holy and righteous, it is not difficult to keep up appearances when others are judging you on surface things.
There are actually multiple examples of folks making surface judgments in this passage. Jesus' critics did it many times. They judged Him for healing on the Sabbath (v21-23). They questioned His authority to teachv(v15). They didn't really know where He was from (v41-42). But Jesus' supporters did it as well:
"But no one had the courage to speak favorably about him in public, for they were afraid of getting in trouble with the Jewish leaders." (John 7:13 NLT)
They were afraid of the Jewish leaders because they made a surface judgment -- they decided that the Jewish leaders were more important than Jesus, so they didn't speak up for Him.
I know that I make surface judgments all the time -- taking things at face value rather than investigating more closely. I also know that I do some things so that others will make certain (positive) surface judgments about me. God has challenged me on both of those things.
This week has been all about going beneath the surface for me. I've asked God to search my heart (Ps 139:23-24), and I've been a little embarrassed by some of the things that He has shown me. I've realized that there are some things that I would call sin that are not sin... and there are things I need to recognize as sin, even though I've used all sorts of excuses to justify it to myself. I've learned that sometimes my wrong attitudes show up in the things I do... and other times, they show up in things I avoid.
It's been painful to go beneath the surface... but at the same time, I'm grateful that God is allowing me to see these things and showing me the way to get back into alignment with Him!