Belief in Jesus: Its Barriers and Blessings

37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” 41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.

42 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. 44

And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. 47 If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. 49 For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”

Today’s text is John 12:37–50. And it has in it some of the saddest, most painful parts of the Gospel of John. We are going to focus mainly on that sad part. And here’s a link with Christmas and the childhood of Jesus. Do you recall that when Jesus was still under 6 weeks old (forty days), his parent took him to the temple to dedicate him to God as the firstborn. And there was a godly old man there named Simeon who had been told by the Lord that he would see the Messiah before he died. He saw the baby Jesus, and the last thing Simeon said to Mary when he blessed Jesus was this:

Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34–35)

In other words, it will not all be happy. The truth in many hearts will be revealed. Jesus will be opposed. Many will rise because of him. And many will fall. And a sword will go through Mary’s heart. Many will fall because of Jesus. That’s what we see in today’s text.

Why the Sad Things Are Said

But make sure that you know and embrace this truth: Jesus and John don’t tell us sad things to leave us sad. They tell us sad things, in the end to make us glad.

  • The dark things in the Bible are spoken for the sake of light.
  • The ugly things are spoken for the sake of beauty.
  • The painful things are spoken for the sake of comfort.
  • The sorrowful things are spoken for the sake of joy.
  • And conflict is pictured for the sake of peace.

We know this, because Jesus said in John 15:11 that he spoke his words so that our joy might be full. And John says in John 20:31 that he wrote his book so that we might have eternal life. And both the words of Jesus and the stories of John have dark and sad things in them. So we know those dark, sad things are for our joy and for our life.

A Strange Setting

The saddest part of this text is in verses 37–43. It’s about the unbelief of Israel and God’s blinding sentence on them. We will come to this in a moment, but first let’s look briefly at the last part of the text in verses 44–50.

It might help to realize that with the end of chapter 12 here in verse 50 the public ministry of Jesus is over. Starting with chapter 13 Jesus is talking only to his disciples in the last night of his life, and then comes his death and resurrection. So think of these final verses of John 12 as the last thing Jesus says as part of his three-year public ministry.

There is something strange about the way John sets up these closing verses. Remember that back in John 12:36 Jesus was talking to the crowds about being the light: “Believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” And then it says in the middle of verse 36, “When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them.”

Jesus’ Own Summary Statement

We don’t know where he went or for how long. John, the writer of the Gospel, does all the talking between verses 36 and 44. Jesus is hidden. Then with no description of any setting at all, John says in verse 44, “And Jesus cried out and said . . .” When is this spoken? Where is this spoken? To whom is this spoken? John doesn’t say. Now why does John set it up this way?

I think it’s simply because these are summary words after three years of ministry. These words are not meant to be time-bound or place-bound or audience-bound. They are meant to read as climactic summary statements of his ministry. These are the last things he says before he turns from his public ministry to the privacy of the last supper.

So let’s read them, and see what notes he strikes.

What Jesus Is Saying

Verse 44: “And Jesus cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me.’” From first to last Jesus has been claiming that he and the Father are one (John 10:30). “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). This is central to this Gospel and to our Christian faith. If you don’t have Jesus as your Savior, you don’t have God as your Father. “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23). What you do with Jesus is the clearest test of what you do with God.

Verse 46: “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” This is his last public mention of himself as the light of the world, but this has been there from the beginning of the Gospel. John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Everyone who receives Jesus moves from the darkness of ignorance to the light of truth and fellowship with God.

An Emphasis on the Words of Jesus

And now in the last three verses the emphasis falls on the words of Jesus, the commandment of Jesus, and the outcome of salvation and eternal life for those who hear and embrace those words as the window onto the light of Jesus. Verses 47–50:

If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. 49 For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.

We know Jesus, and we know the Father, and we are saved, and we have eternal life through the words of Jesus. Because they are the very words of God, and they have the unique, divine power to bring Jesus himself to the human soul. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Verse 48: “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word.”

And with that, his public ministry is over. And for two thousand years we have had exactly what we need: the words of Jesus. The word of God. This is how we know him. This is how we receive him. This is how we fellowship with him. The word. O, precious word. O precious Christ.

The Sad Part: Israel’s Failure

Now verses 37-43, the sad part of the text—and the one that in the end is meant to make us glad.

Here’s what I think John is doing. As the public ministry to Jesus comes to an end, John feels constrained, under God’s inspiration, not only to sum up the positive ministry of Jesus, but also to give a summary account of the failure of Israel to receive her Messiah.

Remember the words of Simeon in Luke 2:34, “This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed.” And remember the words of John in the first chapter: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). The ministry of Jesus begins with that announcement, and now the public ministry of Jesus ends with an explanation in John 12:27–43.

The Plan for Joy to the World

Here’s where John is going: With chapter 13 everything focuses on the final hours of Jesus life and death and resurrection. And what we need to see now is that this catastrophic and glorious end of the greatest life that’s ever been lived was owing to the unbelief of his people (Romans 11:30–31). Jesus was crucified because he came to his own, and his own did not receive him.

But we also need to remember that this was no accident of history. The reason Jesus came into the world was to die in the place of sinners (Mark 10:45). It was in dying that he became the Savior of the world — my Savior, yours. The unbelief of Israel — Jesus’ rejection by his own people — was the path that God planned for him so that he would die in our place and make salvation possible for the whole world.

So you can see where we are going: This sad text — this sad account of the unbelief of Israel — is designed by John, and by God, to bring everlasting gladness to the world. Joy to the world, is the point of the unbelief of Israel. And it’s God’s point. God’s plan.

Let’s make a few observations, and then close with some summary conclusions.

God Planned the Unbelief

Observe that God planned for many in Israel to be unbelieving and to reject Jesus. Verses 37–40:

Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that [the first indicator that the unbelief was planned] the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled [quoting Isaiah 53:1]: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 Therefore [the second indicator that the unbelief was planned] they could not believe. For [the third indicator that the unbelief was planned] again Isaiah said, 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest [the fourth indicator that their unbelief was planned] they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.”

So this is clear: God planned the unbelief of many in Israel.

Israel Is Guilty for Their Unbelief

A second observation is that God’s planning the unbelief and blindness and hardness of Israel does not take away or contradict their personal responsibility or their guilt or their blameworthiness for this unbelief. Jesus said in John 3:18, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” The unbelief of Israel is a guilty unbelief. Our unbelief is a guilty unbelief. Man’s responsibility to believe in Jesus, on the one hand, and God’s sovereignty over who believes in Jesus, on the other hand, are both true, whether we can understand it or not.

How Israel Was Blinded

A third observation is that John gives us a glimpse into how God does this by the way he quotes the prophet Isaiah. John could have left Isaiah out and simply said: The unbelief of Israel was planned by God and their hardness and blindness is owing to his sovereign choice. But what he did was quote two different places in Isaiah. Why does he do this?

In John 12:38 he quotes Isaiah 53:1. And in John 12:40 he quotes Isaiah 6:10. Here’s why that matters. Isaiah 53 is a description, you may remember, of the suffering servant, whom we know now is Jesus. And the two verses that follow the one John quotes go like this: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:2–3).

So the point is that Isaiah prophesied that this suffering servant would be rejected. Israel would not believe on him. Which is why John says in 12:38, “Who has believed?” Why did they not believe? Because he had no form or majesty that we should look at him. As a man he was simply not the stuff Messiah’s are made of. Not the kind of Messiah they wanted.

Then in John 12:40 John quotes Isaiah 6:10 which describes what was going to happen when Isaiah preached the vision that he saw of God’s glory in Isaiah 6:1–3, “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. . .  Above him stood the seraphim. . . .  And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’”

And God told Isaiah that when he preached this great and glorious God the people would not believe. They would in fact be blinded and hardened. Why? Because they did not want to hear of such majesty and glory and power and holiness.

By Lowliness and Majesty

So how was God blinding and hardening in these two passages? In the one he was sending a lowly servant — a man — with no majesty and no beauty, no form, no desirableness, knowing that he would be despised and rejected. In the other passage (Isaiah 6) God was revealing his glory in great splendor and majesty and holiness, knowing that they did not want this and would be hardened and driven away by it.

In other words, it looks like the way God planned to blind and harden many in Israel was by sending them a Messiah whom he knew they were wired to reject. They did not want his lowliness and they did not want his pretensions to glorious deity. But that’s what they would get, and God knew the effect that it would have, and he sent him anyway, and thus blinded them with the human weakness and divine glory of Jesus.

Not What They Wanted

And to give you a confirmation of this, look at verses 42-43:

Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.

Now I don’t know if this faith of the authorities was authentic. We’ve seen inauthentic faith in this gospel (2:23; 7:1­–5). What I do know is that this faith was at best flawed. And the flaw is described in a way that confirms what we saw in Isaiah 53 and Isaiah 6. The flaw in their faith, or as John 5:44 puts it, the barrier to faith, is verse 43: “They loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” Jesus says in 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?”

Here’s the root of Israel’s their unbelief. They loved the glory of man. They did not love the glory of God. Now put that together with verse 41: “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” John is saying that when Isaiah wrote of the lowly, weak, despised suffering servant, and when he wrote of the majesty and holiness of the glory of God, he was describing the glory of Jesus.

But Israel loved the glory of man — and this man in Isaiah 53 was not glorious by their standards. And Israel did not love the glory of God — and this God in Isaiah was infinitely glorious. So when Jesus comes as a suffering Messiah, that’s not what they want. And when he makes claims to be one with the very God of Isaiah 6 that’s not what they want. And so they don’t believe on him. They reject him. God knew that. And God planned that. God gave them what they absolutely needed and did not want, and in that way “blinded their eyes and hardened their heart.”

Three Conclusions for Our Gladness

Which gives us these three conclusions that turns the sad news into glad news.

1. God is sovereign over all belief and unbelief. He knows exactly how to plan both of them in ways that exalt his sovereignty and preserve man’s accountability. And therefore he is never thwarted in his plans by anyone’s unbelief. Nor is he ever prevented from saving his own (John 10:16; 6:37).

2. The root of unbelief points to the glory of Jesus Christ. He is the radiance of God’s glory, but he is meek and lowly. The root of unbelief is to love the glory of man (the centrality of man, the praise of man) and not the glory of God (the centrality and supremacy of God). And that is exactly backwards. When we love the glory of God above the glory of man, we will not reject Jesus, but believe on him.

3. The text of this message and the entire story of the public ministry of Jesus points us to the cross where he will die. He was the glory of Isaiah 6. He was the unattractive suffering servant of Isaiah 53. And therefore (because of both) he was rejected by men and destined for the cross — and for the salvation of the world. This is what God planned in the unbelief of Israel.

He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3–5)

This is why it was all planned. Your peace. Your healing. Your forgiveness. Through a glorious and despised Messiah. If you love the glory of God, and live by faith in Jesus.

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