The Problem of Unbelief
Bible Text: John 12:37 – 50 | Speaker: Clayton Fopp | Series: John – Encountering the Word | John 12:37 – 50
The Problem of Unbelief
The problem of unbelief
Why don’t my friends believe in Jesus?
Why won’t the people I’m praying for on my Prayer Focus card, trust in Jesus, like I so desperately would like them to?
Ever wondered that?
If you’re not a Christian here this morning, maybe your question is something more like “well, how can I believe this, stuff about Jesus, about sin, and him dying for me, when so many other people don’t?
The problem of unbelief has challenged Christians since the earliest days of the church, when the very first believers wrestled with questions like: Why don’t my friends believe that Jesus is the Messiah?
Why have God’s people, rejected God’s king?
Could Jesus have maybe done more miraculous signs?
Would that be enough to awaken faith in people?
John, the eye-witness who’s testimony we’re reading here, he’s pretty up front about the fact that Jesus hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm. Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.
Even with these 7 miraculous signs that John’s presented in the first 12 chapters of his gospel,
And even, not just with the signs on their own, but with Jesus’ explanation for the signs, it’s not enough is it?
But John not only gives us the explanation for the problem of unbelief, but he shows how the explanation has been in the Scriptures all along.
This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:
“Lord, who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
Those words are about a servant God would send, who would suffer, on behalf of the people,
And yet, God said, people will not believe that this is true.
Unbelief in spite of God’s work is nothing new
See the problem of unbelief is nothing new.
Even the language John uses, echoes the way Israel is described in the Old Testament, after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt,
They’d seen the arm of the Lord at work,
They’d seen water pour out of the rock,
They’d seen God rescue them time and time again,
They still rejected God.
They doubted God,
They turned their ears away, from God’s Word,
Not once, but countless times,
And of course, if we turn the mirror of the Scriptures onto ourselves, it’s not so hard to see why, having witnessed and received so much from God’s hand, people would still ignore him and shut their ears to his Word, because, we do it all the time, don’t we,
But my Jewish friends, when I’m speaking to them, sometimes they say, “Well, clearly Jesus wasn’t from God. If this really describes God at work, then more people would have believed!”
That’s often a significant part of their reason, for not believing in Jesus as God’s chosen king.
But actually this is exactly the response that God’s got from his people all the way along! The very same response!
The response to God’s work in Jesus, is exactly the kind of response, that God’s work and God’s message have always received.
Who is to “blame” for unbelief?
But the quotation from Isaiah, especially the 2nd one from Isaiah 6 raises some questions for us, doesn’t it?
Who is responsible for people’s unbelief?
Is it God?
The way that John quotes Isaiah, he makes it sound like it was pretty much all God’s doing, he has blinded their eyes
Or is it the people?
As we’ve worked our way through John’s gospel, and seen the people’s reactions to Jesus, and the demonstrations of his power and identity,
The Pharisees said this man is not from God,
The religious leaders responded to the miracles saying this man is a sinner
The High Priest Caiphas, suggested, it would be politically expedient for Jesus to die,
At every turn, these people are shown to be aware of what they were doing, and responsible for the choices that they make.
Even here in verse 37, the responsibility for unbelief is laid squarely at the feet of the crowds, isn’t it? Even though Jesus had done all these things, healing the sick, raising the dead, still the people won’t believe who he his, and won’t believe his message, that can offer life that doesn’t end at the grave.
And so we have these 2 truths, presented simultaneously:,
God blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, and the people themselves would not believe.
And John doesn’t make any apology, for presenting two things that seem to be, mutually exclusive.
The truth is, all throughout the Bible, we see God’s sovereignty and people’s responsibility for their own choices, presented side by side.
Right back in John chapter 3, Jesus says that no one will ever come to grips with who he is, unless they are born of water and the Spirit, that is, to be spiritually reborn, renewed by God’s holy Spirit. That’s John 3 verse 5.
This spiritual renewal is what God had been promising his people for generations,
There was going to be a new covenant relationship,
A new way of relating to God, and knowing God, and the only way that anyone could be a part of that, would be through renewal and regeneration by God’s Spirit,
The sad reality is, that to a significant degree, the nation of Israel refused that regeneration by the Spirit of God,
And so, God blinded their eyes, and deadened their hearts, so that they could not believe in Jesus.
What we need to get out of our heads, is any sense of a capricious God sitting up in heaven, tossing coins, or playing some spiritual kind of duck, duck, duck, goose with people’s eternal destiny.
Believe. Believe. Believe. Disbelieve.
No, this isn’t a picture of God manipulating innocent people, but a picture of God’s judgment on guilty people, who are condemned, to do and to be, what they have chosen for themselves.
The scholars call this “judicial hardening.”
It’s part of God’s way of punishing sin,
Which God has every right to do,
And let’s face it, it’s what we want God to do.
We want a God who punishes those who do wrong.
I was speaking to someone just last week, having a conversation about Jesus. This guy’s name is on my Prayer Focus card, and I’ve been praying for him for a while, but he said, “I’d always thought, I could do things my own way, basically ignore Jesus, and then on my deathbed quickly turn and believe in him.”
And I’m sure you know people who, that’s their approach to life! Maybe even, that’s you this morning, you’re counting on a quick deathbed conversion to sort things out between you and God.
But in God’s kindness, my friend had begun to realise some of the flaws in that approach, “What happens if I don’t get a deathbed?, I might go under a bus or something and miss out on that chance, but, even more significantly, he said, “If I spend my whole life ignoring Jesus, then honestly, I don’t see that there’s any chance at all, that at the end of my life, I would turn to him.”
“I’d be so set in my ways that a deathbed conversion is pretty much out of the question.” And so he said “I need to have a think about what I believe now.”
Now, we know there are some people who turn to Jesus in their last days, but this guy understands exactly how opposition to Jesus’ works.
If you persistently and deliberately reject God’s chosen king, God will give you what you choose, and that will be God’s condemnation of you.
And John says, Isaiah spoke as he did, because he saw Jesus’ glory, verse 41.
Isaiah knew, that God’s glory would be revealed through a suffering Messiah, even though people wouldn’t recognize that.
Isaiah knew that disbelief among the people wouldn’t, in fact, hinder God’s glory being displayed,
God’s glory isn’t just glorious because people see it.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but glory isn’t!
Isaiah, centuries earlier, saw Jesus’ glory, even though those around Jesus did not.
God is sovereign even when people don’t believe.
See it can look like Jesus’ ministry was a failure.
What kind of Messiah, is rejected by most of the people he comes to save?
But John shows us that God is still sovereign, even when people don’t believe.
Rather than people’s disbelief thwarting God’s purposes,
The people’s rejection of Jesus, the suffering servant, the one who would be pierced for transgressions, actually fulfils the Scriptures.
God works his sovereign purposes out, even through people’s disobedience and disbelief.
The American Presbyterian Donald Barnhouse, used to tell a story about when an American army cavalry officer had visited his home when Barnhouse was a young boy. In those days the cavalry was the glamorous branch of the armed forces.
And this cavalryman said “The most important thing in the whole military, is a cavalry general.
And after that there is a cavalry colonel, and then a cavalry major,
And then a cavalry captain, a cavalry lieutenant, a cavalry sergeant, and then a cavalry trooper.
And after the cavalry trooper the most important thing is a cavalry troopers horse!, followed by nothing, followed by nothing, followed by a general in the infantry!
But the reason Barnhouse liked telling that story, was because he would go on to say “the most important doctrine in Christianity, is the sovereignty of God”, The Lord almighty, seated on a throne, high and exalted, as Isaiah chapter 6, tells us.
The sovereignty of God is the most important doctrine of Christianity, followed by nothing, followed by nothing,
Followed by all the other doctrines of our faith that flow from and depend on that one.
And all those doctrines are followed by nothing, followed by nothing, and eventually, we come to all those other issues that Christians seem so keen to argue about.
Now, of course, we don’t want to push the case too hard, that one doctrine is more important than another.
But if God isn’t sovereign over salvation, over belief, you can throw out your Prayer Focus card. There’s no point praying for your friends who don’t know Jesus if God isn’t sovereign.
If God isn’t sovereign, then who will come to faith in Christ?
Surely only the cleverest among us, those who can figure it out for themselves? Not even them!
Without God’s gracious hand at work none of us would come to faith in Christ.
No, despite people’s refusal to believe in Jesus,
And their refusal even to believe in the face of the miraculous signs he had performed,
We can rest that God’s sovereignty isn’t called into question by disbelief, rather it’s proved by disbelief.
What gets in the way of real faith?
But of course, all this doesn’t mean that it was impossible for any of the Jews to believe in Jesus. God’s sovereignty is never set against the human responsibility for making a choice, considering the evidence and forming your own opinions about who Jesus is.
And John notes for us, that at the same time, verse 42, many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
For these people, as for many today, there’s something that gets in the way of real, trusting, genuine faith.
The Pharisees, one of the groups of religious leaders, had said that anyone who recognised Jesus as God’s chosen king would be thrown out of the synagogue.
The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria who lived right at the time of Jesus described the Pharisees like this their eyes on God, full of zeal for the laws of their ancestral institutions, (and) merciless to any who subvert them.
And these people, who believe something of who Jesus is, they loved praise from men more than praise from God and therefore being kicked out of the synagogue was, to them, a bigger deal than missing out, on what Jesus had to offer.
The synagogue was the place to be if you wanted to be noticed, especially if you wanted to be noticed for displays of religious devotion.
Some historians think that people actually practiced how to throw their money into the synagogue collection box, in order to make as much noise as possible, so everyone knew they were giving lots of money.
I remember a few years ago, Peter Adam who was the Principal of Ridley Theological College in Melbourne, where Lauren Hull is studying at the moment, he was in a meeting about a major building project the Cathedral in Melbourne was undertaking.
It was going to be quite expensive, and someone in the meeting thought, “People should be publicly praised if they give money to this, so we need a big board, with their names on it, and everyone can see what a good thing they’ve done.”
And Peter Adam said, “OK, I’ll agree to that, as long as, in big letters across the top of the board, we print Jesus’ words from Matthew 6 verse 5, They have received their reward in full.
They loved praise from men
Back in church history when preachers were more poetic than they are today, one man described the praises of people as golden shackles.
It seems so valuable,
And yet, the love of praise from people prevents these leaders from really trusting in Jesus.
In verse 43, the word translated praise is literally the word for glory, and it’s the same word used in verse 41 to speak of Jesus’ glory.
And in retelling this story John is asking us, which glory are we seeking?
Do we see one of these kinds of glory as attractive and valuable and large, and the other as small, of little value, not worth our time or effort?
All through John’s account of Jesus’ life, we constantly see that faith that doesn’t result in action,
Faith that doesn’t lead to a life change,
Faith that isn’t willing to stand up and identify itself, as a whole of life trust in Jesus isn’t really considered faith at all.
In John chapter 5 for example, Jesus asked the crowds, How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from, God
How can you believe?
The implication is you can’t believe, if that’s what you’re after.
After church today we’ll have tea and coffee, but in the bottom of all the cups, I’ve put a little something: A teaspoon of Mad Dog 357 Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce.
It is the chili sauce listed by the Guiness Book of Records as the world’s hottest sauce.
It’s so hot that some of the places you buy i will require you to sign a waiver before they let you have it.
So as we’re enjoying our last morning tea together here, after the service, after a couple of sips, every single person who has a drink, is going to have eyes streaming,
Coughing, unable to speak,
Unable to stand, probably.
But then you see someone who says, “I’ve had a drink”, but they seem, untouched by it, unchanged.
The thing that you know had such an effect on every other person who encountered it, seems to have had little to no effect on this person.
And so the fact that they’re unchanged, when everyone else is completely overwhelmed, makes you think, doesn’t it, have they really tasted it?
Well John raises the same question, if someone is so unchanged by their belief in Jesus,
Perhaps they haven’t really tasted, really understood.
Of course, it’s complicated.
The genuineness of someone’s faith isn’t something that we can put a measuring stick on, and say, “well, yours is real, but yours isn’t.”
The point of this isn’t to look at someone else’s faith and see whether it’s real,
It’s to look at our own life and ask “is there something getting in the way of me coming to faith, or something hindering my faith?”
Being a follower of Jesus, a real follower is costly, it’s always been the case.
So what gets in the way faith today?
What stops belief in something about Jesus, interest in Jesus, I read on one church’s website this week, “We’re a group of people who dig Jesus”, what stops that growing into genuine life-changing faith?
I think it’s often the same for us as for these religious leaders, faith in Jesus is often smothered by our fear of how other people will react to it.
But we don’t want to let anything get in the way of faith in Jesus.
Jesus is sent by the Father
And so we come to really, the very end of Jesus’ public ministry.
And verses 44 to 50 are a bit of a summary of everything Jesus has said, but with one theme highlighted. The fact that Jesus was sent by his Father in heaven.
And God the Father looming large, in the background, tends to push home Jesus’ claims a little more strongly, doesn’t it?
It adds an an urgency to understanding, and believing, and obeying Jesus’ message.
There, behind Jesus, stands his Father.
So let’s have a look at this summary of Jesus’ ministry, with a particular eye on his being sent.
Have faith in the Father
Firstly, although we rightly talk about trusting in Jesus, Jesus says that whoever believes in him ultimately believes in his Father.
Verse 44, Jesus cried out, “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. 45 When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me.
There was a popular Jewish expression around the time of Jesus, “One who is sent, is, as he who sent him.”
Did you get that? One who is sent, is as he who sent him.
So Australia’s got a new foreign minister in the last few weeks. And no sooner had Bob Carr stepped into the role than he came out swinging, expressing alarm at election delays in PNG,
Concern at the violence in Syria,
And in fact he’s threatened to expel Syria’s ambassador because of the actions of the Syrian government.
But, and don’t take this the wrong way, no one really cares what Bob Carr thinks.
The reason his words get reported in the news is because he represents our Prime Minister, our Government and our country.
He is, sent by us, into the world of international relations to do our bidding.
If the Syrian ambassador gets expelled, it won’t be because Bob Carr and a few of his mates drive round late one night, bang down his door, drag him off to the airport and stick him on a plane to Damascus!
No, Bob Carr’s only authority is that he represents the government.
One who is sent, is, as he who sent him.
But faith in Jesus involves even more than that, doesn’t it?
Jesus isn’t just God’s foreign minister, sent to do God’s bidding.
It’s not just a matter of having faith in the ambassador and therefore having faith in the one who sent him,
We have faith in the one who is God’s supreme self-disclosure, God made known.
The Father’s message will judge
Secondly we see that Jesus’ relationship with his Father means that his words bring judgment.
Verse 48, There is a judge, Jesus says, for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it.
The reason Jesus’ words will condemn unbelief, is because his words are, in actual fact, his Father’s words.
See even though Jesus came to save the world, as he says in verse 47, again, echoing what’s become an increasing theme in John, not just the Jews but the whole world. , Even though Jesus’ purpose in coming into the world was to save it,
Not listening to his words,
Not believing his words,
Can only mean judgment,
Because Jesus’ words are the words of God, the creator of the universe.
Whenever I have to fly somewhere, it always seems that Air Crash Investigations is on TV the night before, or there’s something in the papers that day about a bad plane crash! And I remember once hearing about a plane that had gone down in water, and people put on their life jackets.
But even though the safety card,
And the video,
And the lifejackets themselves, all say, do not inflate until outside the aircraft, a number of people did inflate them, and because of this air-filled bubble they were wrapped in, they then couldn’t get out of the crashed plane, and they died.
I’m sorry if you’re getting on a plane tomorrow morning!
But that message, “Don not inflate until outside the aircraft, that is there to save you!
But for those people who disregarded it,
Maybe who thought that they knew better,
Or maybe they just didn’t think at all,
Well that message that was intended to save them, condemned them didn’t it?
That is why they could not escape.
Jesus’ message is that there is an escape from the problem of sin and rebellion, It’s his own death and resurrection,
To reject that message, is to reject the rescue that is offered,
And so the message that says “There is a problem” still stands to condemn. It says, “Here is someone who refused the rescue that was offered.”
And all people will be judged, against that message.
The Father’s message is eternal life
But the flip side of that, is that the Father’s message is eternal life to those who believe Jesus.
Verse 50 I know that his command leads to eternal life.
Literally Jesus’ words are even stronger than they appear there. So if you have the English Standard Version you’ll see that Jesus says his Father’s command is eternal life.
That’s how strong the connection is, between the Father’s message spoken and demonstrated through Jesus, and the life that is ours.
For the Jews, the Old Testament law was considered the source of life. Moses said in Deuteronomy 32:47, these are not just idle words for you—they are your life.
And Jesus ups the ante even from that, what the Father wants us to hear in his message, is eternal life.
It’s ANZAC day this week. I’ve taken lots of ANZAC Day Dawn services in my time, lots of Remembrance Day services. And one of the hymns often sung at those services is O God Our Help in Ages Past, by Isaac Watts.
So this week, you might here these words,
‘Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day’—
Is that it?
One day every one of us will be like a brief dream, forgotten and gone forever?
Well it needn’t be the case.
Because Jesus’ message, which he brings from his Father, is one of life forever, life that doesn’t end at the grave.
Jesus’ message is life for us.
We have to leave it there for now.
Of course the story goes on, we’ll come back to it next year.
We’ve seen Jesus live in complete obedience to his Father,
In the next section Jesus dies in complete obedience to his Father,
And if this first section of the book has been about Jesus, the one who is sent from the Father, by the end of the story, the sent one does the sending, as his followers are commissioned to keep taking this message of eternal life, to those living in darkness.
And today, in case you were wondering, why on earth, are we about to exchange this comfortable,
Let’s face it, pretty large gathering, of friends,
For 2 gatherings,
Half the size,
Without some of my friends,
Where I’ll probably have to do more,
Then this is the answer, The Father’s message is eternal life.
That’s what we’re on about.