The Love of Human Praise as the Root of Unbelief

Last Sunday, when I met with the small group leaders of the Downtown Campus, I tried to show them how essential their role is at this church by giving them seven reasons my preaching is not enough — seven reasons why perseverance in faith and growth in faith call for Christians to meet regularly in a face-to-face way to “serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). God intends to do things in you, which he will only do through the ministry of other believers.

Seven Reasons We Need Small Groups

He has given pastors to the church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12). I believe in what I do. And I believe that it is not enough. Here are the seven reasons I gave the small group leaders:

  1. The impulse to avoid painful growth by disappearing safely into the crowd in corporate worship is very strong.

  2. The tendency toward passivity in listening to a sermon is part of our human weakness.

  3. Listeners in a big group can more easily evade redemptive crises. If tears well up in your eyes in a small group, wise friends will gently find out why. But in a large gathering, you can just walk away from it.

  4. Listeners in a large group tend to neglect efforts of personal application. The sermon may touch a nerve of conviction, but without someone to press in, it can easily be avoided.

  5. Opportunity for questions leading to growth is missing. Sermons are not dialogue nor should they be. But asking questions is a key to understanding and growth. Small groups are great occasions for this.

  6. Accountability for follow-through on good resolves is missing. But if someone knows what you intended to do, the resolve is stronger.

  7. Prayer support for a specific need or conviction or resolve goes wanting. Oh, how many blessings we do not have because we are not surrounded by a band of friends who pray for us.

So please know that when this small-group ministry of our church is lifted up, I don’t think it’s an optional add-on to basic Christian living. I think it is normal, healthy, needed, New Testament Christianity. I pray that you will be part of one of these small groups or that you will get the training and start one. This is the main strategy through which our pastors and elders shepherd the flock at Bethlehem: elders to small group leaders to members with one another.

Sin to Be Exposed

So when we move now into John 5:30–47, know that I believe there are issues that are about to be exposed in our lives — one in particular — that call us to help each other. There are sinful inclinations in my life that are about to be exposed by these words of Jesus which call for Kempton and Karyn Turner, and David and Karin Livingston, and Bud and Lisa Burk, and Mike and Catherine Tong, and my wife Noël, as part of our small group, to watch for in my life, and to help me see them when they emerge, and to pray for me.

Not Me, but God

So let’s turn to John 5:30–47. Here’s how the text flows, as I see it. In verse 30, Jesus says, “I can do nothing on my own. [So he stresses again his perfect harmony with the Father.] As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

Now instead of picking up on the “justice” of his judgment in the following verses, what he picks up on from verse 30 is the emphasis on God-orientation as opposed to self-orientation. God-exaltation as opposed to self-exaltation: “My judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” This theme of not me, but God will extend all the way to the end of the chapter. This is what will lay me bare and go to the heart of why human beings have such a hard time believing in Jesus.

A Fine Pair of Witnesses

What Jesus does in verse 31–36 is show that even though he is not his own decisive witness, nevertheless, he does have witnesses to his truth, namely, John the Baptist and God the Father through the working of his miracles.

If I bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. [That could be God the Father or John the Baptist. Both are mentioned in the next verses.] You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved.

In other words, human testimony is never decisive for who God is. But I am speaking this way about John because you did give him some credibility for time and that may lead you to my truth and to your salvation. Verse 35–36:

“The final witness of Jesus’s truthfulness is God the Father.”

He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.

So in the end, the final witness to my truthfulness, Jesus says, is God the Father. Now comes the real painful meat of the text in verses 37–47. If this is true, if God is the witness to Jesus’s reality, why are those who seem to know God best not believing? That is what the rest of this passage is about. And it is amazingly relentless in its indictment and amazingly focused on one main cause for the unbelief.

Jesus’s Relentless Indictment

Let’s look first at the relentless indictment. And it would be a big mistake for you to think this is mainly for others and not for you and me. This is where I have learned deep things about the corruption of my heart. And oh what a painful and good gift it is to know yourself for the sinner that you are. Six times at least the indictment comes. Verses 37–38:

And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.

You’ve never heard God, you’ve never seen God, his word is not in you, and you do not believe him. Verses 39–40:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me [literally, “you do not want to come to me,” ou thelete elthein pros me] that you may have life.

You read the Old Testament, which points everywhere to me as the fulfillment, but you don’t see it, and you don’t believe it because you don’t want to. Verses 41–42:

I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you.

I don’t need the glory of man to complete me or to still my cravings, because I love God and he is my satisfaction. But you . . . you do not have the love of God in you. You don’t love God. You don’t find your satisfaction in him. Verse 43:

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.

You don’t receive me. You reject me. You want another kind of Messiah — the kind who comes not so humbly, so lowly, so full of implications for the death-to-self of his followers. So you do not receive me. Verse 44:

How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?

The question has no answer in the text because the question is really a statement: You can’t believe while you are enslaved to the craving to receive glory from one another. You can’t believe. Verses 45–47:

“We can’t believe while we are enslaved to the craving to receive glory from one another.”

Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?

You don’t believe Moses. And so you don’t believe me. You don’t believe his writings. And so you can’t believe my words. Moses’s writings point to me. Verse 46: “For he wrote of me.” But you don’t see it. You won’t need me to judge you. Moses will. If you believed Moses, you would believe me. And if you believed me, you would believe the Father who sent me.

So there it is — a relentless string of indictments:

  • Verse 38: You don’t have God’s word in you. You don’t believe the one whom he has sent.

  • Verse 40: You don’t want to come to me.

  • Verse 42: You don’t have the love of God in you.

  • Verse 43: You don’t believe me.

  • Verse 44: You cannot believe.

  • Verse 45: You don’t believe Moses, and you don’t believe me.

Why Was This Written?

Now remember, Why is this Gospel of John written? “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” (John 20:31). So John is not mounting up his indictments here for nothing. He is going somewhere. He’s doing something for our faith — for your faith right now. He wants this analysis of unbelief to penetrate into our hearts and reveal one of the deepest causes of unbelief. May the Lord open your heart to see your own soul.

What is Jesus’s answer to why these kinsmen of his, his Jewish brothers who knew their Moses so well, did not believe on their Messiah? I don’t think it’s a uniquely Jewish issue at all. It’s a human issue. The explanation he gives has nothing uniquely to do with ethnicity or religion. It has everything to do with the way human beings are by nature — by fallen sinful nature. Universally. What is Jesus’s answer?

Deepest Desires Transformed

There is one bottom-line answer. Almost at the bottom is the answer of verse 40: “You refuse to come to me.” That is, literally, “You do not want to come to me.” What we want has a massive effect on what we are able to believe. The root issue for these people — and for us — is not intellectual evidence. That does matter, that’s real evidence, and Jesus talks about that — I have a witness in John the Baptist and in my works. But that is not the problem. “You wanted to rejoice for a while in his light” (verse 35). But now that is over, and you don’t want to come to me.

This is why Jesus began where he did with Nicodemus in chapter three — You must be born again. Your deep wants must be transformed. The Holy Spirit must come into your life and take away the deep rebellion against God and his word, and replace it with —

With what? Now we are at the bottom in this text. Why didn’t they want to come to Jesus? Why don’t you want to come? What did they want so much instead that made believing and coming impossible?

You Want to Be the Center

Verse 44 gives the answer, and verse 43 shows how it works. Verse 44: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” That is, you can’t believe. Why? Because you love the glory of man, not the glory of God. You don’t want Jesus because you want human praise. You don’t want Jesus, because you want to be the center. You want to be in control. You want to be exalted. You want to be made much of. You love being somebody. Pick whichever of those fits best. They all fit me, apart from sovereign grace. This, Jesus says, is the root cause of unbelief.

And how does it work? Verse 43: “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.” Why would they receive a Messiah who comes in his own name? Because if the Messiah were like that, he would be like them; he would be an endorsement of the way they are. He would make them feel okay with their love of their own name and their own self-exaltation.

A Discomforting Messiah

But Jesus comes in the name of his Father. In his humanity, he humbles himself and becomes obedient — to whom? To his Father. How humble? How obedient? Obedient unto death, even death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). They could see it coming. And they didn’t like it. If the Messiah is like this, then we will have to be like this. If God is pleased with this kind of self-denial in the Messiah, then he will look for it in us. We don’t want that. Therefore, we will not come. “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me.”

This is not a uniquely Jewish problem. This is a human problem. This is John Piper’s problem — perhaps his main problem. And this is your problem — perhaps your main problem. It is a great bondage. And Jesus came into the world to set us free from our slavery to the approval and the praise of others.

Breaking the Addiction of Human Approval

Why is the love of human glory, rather than God’s glory, so contradictory to faith? I can see two reasons.

One is that true faith in Jesus gives all glory to God and none to ourselves. In Romans 4:20, Paul says that Abraham “grew strong in his faith giving glory to God.” That is the nature of saving faith. When you come to Jesus in faith, you surrender the right to claim any glory for yourself. He owes us none. He will glorify us in due season (Romans 8:30). But that will be God’s glory, not ours, even when he shares it with us. Faith comes to Christ destitute of any claim to be glorious or to be praised. So the love of human praise is a great obstacle to faith. It must die.

“Faith is a drinking of living water for the satisfaction of our souls.”

The other reason the love of human glory is contradictory to faith is that faith is a drinking of living water for the satisfaction of our souls. And the well of that water is the glory of Christ. And when we are satisfied with him, the enslaving power of the craving for human glory is broken. Broken by the power of a superior satisfaction.

When you have tasted the beauty of God and the approval of God in Christ, the addiction to human approval is broken. And you are free.

May God open your eyes to the glory of Christ and awaken a spiritual taste for his living water, and give you faith, and set you free.