The Common Root of Unbelief in the Brothers of Jesus and the Jewish Crowds

The question I will try to answer from this text is: What is the common root that gives rise to such very different forms of unbelief in the brothers of Jesus, on the one hand, and in the Jewish crowds, on the other hand? I think this is exactly the question that the apostle John wants me to ask. I think he throws this question right in our face in verses 3–5, especially verse 5. He intentionally shocks us by telling us that Jesus’ brothers do not believe in him. And he shocks us even more by telling us what their unbelief looks like.

The Surprising Unbelief of Jesus’ Brothers

Jesus’ brothers are very excited about his miracles. They have seen some of them, and they want other people to see them as well. So they say to Jesus in verses 3­–5,

“Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” For not even his brothers believed in him.

Here’s the double shock: Jesus’ own brothers did not believe in him! This is James and Joseph and Simon and Judas (not Iscariot), mentioned in Matthew 13:55. His brother James would be one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15), and would write one of the books of the New Testament. The apostle John knows all this. He knows James became a great believer and leader in the church. So he knows this is shocking.

A Window into the Nature of Unbelief

But he is not aiming merely to shock. He is aiming to teach about unbelief. So he shocks us again and tells us that what James’ unbelief produces is a certain kind of excitement about Jesus’ miracles. Notice carefully the connection between their unbelief in verse 5 and their excitement in verses 3–4: “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” And why did they want Jesus to seek to be known openly and show himself as a miracle worker to the world? Verse 5: “Because not even his brothers believed in him.”

Now this is doubly shocking. If it had said, “We don’t think you can do these miracles; we think it’s all smoke and mirrors; we don’t want to be associated with you; we are embarrassed by what you are doing” — if they had said that, we would understand if Jesus said that they said it because they don’t believe. But they believe in his miracles. They believe he can do these things. They are amazed. They love it, and they want him to make an appearance in Jerusalem to win more amazed followers. And Jesus says that this comes from unbelief.

The Other Unbelief: The Jewish Crowds

So that’s one kind of unbelief in this text. The other kind seems to be almost the opposite. Many of the Jewish people in Jerusalem are not excited by Jesus’ miracles. They are threatened by them, and want to see him dead. Verse 1: “He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him.” And verse 19: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” In response, they say he has a demon. Verse 20: The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?”

Jesus says that their animosity comes from the miracle that he did back in chapter 5 when he healed the man who had been paralyzed for 38 years (John 5:5–9). He had healed him on the Sabbath. And somehow this unleashed a tidal wave of animosity. John 7:21–23:

Jesus answered them, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it. Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?”

So this is the second kind of unbelief — very different from the unbelief of the brothers. Or is it? They certainly look different. One is excited about his miracle working and wants it to be more public. The other is threatened by his miracles and wants them stopped, even it means killing Jesus. We immediately recognize the second response as unbelief. But Jesus wants us to see his brother’s kind of excitement as unbelief as well.

So my question is: How are they both unbelief? What is the common root?

Why It Matters

Before I try to answer that question, let me tell you why it matters. The short answer is that believing on Jesus is how we receive eternal life. John tells us in John 20:31 why he wrote this book — why he, for example, makes a big deal about what unbelief is in chapter 7 — “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Believing is how you get eternal life.

And we know he means “eternal life” because John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And we know that what eternal life means is that by believing in Jesus we escape from the wrath of God which is on us until we believe. John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Apart from Jesus, we are all under God’s wrath because we all have treated God with contempt by giving him so little of our attention and affection and obedience.

Only in Jesus: Eternal Life and Escape from Wrath

And we know that Jesus is the only one who can save us from the wrath of God and give us eternal life, because he is himself God in the flesh. “The Word was God  . . . and the Word became flesh” (John 1:1, 14). He is the Messiah: “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26). And he is the Lamb of God: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

So he is the only one who can die in the place of millions of sinners (“I lay down my life for the sheep,” John 10:15), and rise from the dead (“Because I lay it my life for the sheep, I will take it up again,” John 10:17–18), so that anyone who receives him and believes on him will become a child of God (John 1:12) and have eternal life.

The Word of Christ for Unbelievers — And for Believers

So it matters. Knowing what unbelief is, and knowing what belief is, is a matter of eternal life and death. So I hope you will listen. And in case you are saying to yourself, “Well, I guess this is sermon for unbelievers,” be careful. That’s not true. The only faith that saves is persevering faith. Faith that lasts. Remember the words of Paul: “I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold it fast” (1 Corinthians 15:1–2).

Genuine saving faith lasts. And the way it lasts is by feeding on the word of God — with hunger and joy. We come to faith through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17), and we remain in the faith through the word of Christ. Therefore, every sermon should be a salvation sermon. Because every unbeliever and every believer needs the word of Christ to create or to sustain faith.

4 Pointers to the Nature of the Brothers’  Unbelief

So back to our question: How are these two responses to Jesus both unbelief — the excitement of the brothers that Jesus is doing miracles, and the anger of the Jewish crowd that Jesus is doing miracles on the Sabbath? Is there a common root for these two unbelieving responses that will help us spot unbelief in our own lives and root it out?

Here are four pointers to the nature of his brothers’ unbelief. Examine yourself by these pointers. This is the “application” part of the sermon!

1) Jesus Goes to the Feast, But Not Like His Brothers Wanted

His brothers want him to go to Jerusalem and show his miracles to the world, but he refuses. But then he goes after all and John draws attention to the way he went, privately — the opposite of what the brothers wanted. Verses 3–10:

“Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” For not even his brothers believed in him. . . . “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.

So what Jesus meant when he said, “I am not going up to the feast,” was: “I am not going the way you want me to go. I am not going to seek human approval the way you want me to. You are after human praise. This desire is deeply defective. What I go to Jerusalem for is to die. But this is not what you admire about me — not what you believe.”

2) Jesus Goes Public with Teaching, Not Miracles

When Jesus does go public in Jerusalem, he goes public not with miracles, but with teaching. And what he teaches is that he is totally committed to God-exaltation, not self-exaltation. This is not what his brothers want. It is not what they believe in. Verses 14–18:

About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.

Yes, he is in public. But what he is teaching is that seeking your own glory from men is a sign that a person is unreliable — not true. Verse 18: “The one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” The mark of truth is God-exaltation, not self-exaltation — indeed, God-exaltation at the expense of self-humiliation. If the brothers are going to believe in Jesus, they must believe in one who for the glory of God chooses to be infinitely shamed by human crowds — and calls others to take up their cross.

In the garden the night before he dies, Jesus is going to say in John 12:27–28,

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

This is why Jesus came in his human nature — to be despised and rejected and scorned and shamed for the glory of his Father. That is not what his brothers believe.

And don’t stumble over the fact that in other places Jesus does direct attention to his own glory  (John 17:24). Jesus is one of a kind. He is fully God and fully man. He must show us how a human lives for the glory of God, and he must be God. Part of what made it proper for Jesus at times to exalt himself was that in his human nature he refused self-exaltation for the sake of the exaltation of his Father. It is precisely this willing self-abasement that makes his self-exaltation as God so right and beautiful and loving. But his brothers did not want to join Jesus in his self-abasement. They did not believe in that.

3) The World Rejects Jesus, But Not His Brothers

Here is a third pointer to the nature of their unbelief. Jesus says in verses 7–8: “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast.”

In other words, “The world can’t hate you because you are motivated at root by the very thing the world lives for. The world will recognize this and will not feel indicted by you. But they do feel indicted by me. Why? Because I tell them (and you) that to seek your own glory is the mark of falsehood and unreliability and evil. That’s what evil is — doing things for your own glory and not for God’s glory. But this is what you love. And what they love.”

“You are my brothers and you want me to become more and more famous. You want to be the brothers of a popular and powerful person so that you can share in this popularity and power. But your heart does not see or submit to how radically your brothers will choose rejection and persecution and reviling. You are not with me in my humiliation.”

4) Faith Is Gladness in God’s Grace, Not Man’s Praise

The final pointer to the nature of their unbelief comes from John 5, and here it is made explicit that seeking your own glory makes belief in Jesus impossible. John 5:43–44:

“I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”

This is one of the most important verses in the whole Gospel of John — at least for my heart. “You cannot believe in Jesus if you your root desire is to be praised by other people.” Pride at its core is the craving for human approval. And Jesus is saying that if pride is at the root, faith can’t be at the root.

Faith at its core is humble gladness in the God of grace. It’s not driven by the need to deserve human praise. It is driven by a thankful joy that God is for us when we deserve no praise at all. “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16).

That is what the brothers of Jesus did not see and did not have. They had not yet been born again. The root of their joy was the praise of man, not the grace of God. That’s what John meant in verse 5 when he said that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him.

The Unbelief of the Crowds

Which brings us now in closing, and very briefly, to the unbelief of the Jewish crowds. Is the root of their unbelief the same? I think it is. Both have self-exaltation at the bottom of their joy. This is what gives them satisfaction. The brothers of Jesus pursued it through his miracle-working. The Jewish crowds pursued it through law-keeping. The brothers boasted in the miracles of their brother. The crowds boasted in their keeping the law of God. In both cases, the root of joy, the root of significance, is the praiseworthy self, not the God of grace.

Look at the end of verse 23: “. . . are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?” Yes they were. Angry enough to want him dead. Why? Jesus gives the answer in verse 19: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law.”

The Crumbling of Law-Keeping

They claim to know the law, and they accuse Jesus of being a law-breaker for healing on the Sabbath. But Jesus says, “None of you keeps the law.” Jesus’ life and words are calling their whole understanding of law-keeping into question. Their whole meaning in life. Their way of finding acceptance and affirmation and approval and praise. It was all crumbling under the weight of grace and truth (John 1:17). “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).

The root of their unbelief is the same as Jesus’ brothers’ unbelief. For the brothers, the miracles of Jesus can get them human praise. For the crowds, the miracles of Jesus threaten their human praise. Written over both like a great indictment are the words of John 5:44: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”

Humble Gladness in the God of Grace

Therefore, how should we pray for ourselves and for those we love? We should pray that, when we read of Jesus in the Gospels, or hear about him, that we would be able to say with John from the heart: “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14–16).

Because pride, at its core, is the rejection of grace and the craving for human approval. And faith, at its core, is despairing of human approval and being glad in the God of grace.

Thumb author john piper

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.