John Bible Study (That You May Believe)

John 12:37-50, Unbelief

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Jesus has explained that the cross is the history changing moment for the world. The cross is the judgment of the world, the neutralization of Satan’s power, the exaltation of Jesus as the Christ, and means by which the world can be drawn to the Father through Jesus. After saying these things, John 12:36 tells us that Jesus departed and hid himself from them. This is the end of the public ministry of Jesus. Jesus has come to Jerusalem with his final offer of salvation and reconciliation to the Father. The cross would be the final message to the world of who Jesus is. Verse 37 declares very sorrowful words. “Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him.” The signs were to cause people to come to Jesus and get to know Jesus. But the signs did not cause people to have true saving faith. We saw many times in this gospel that often the signs simply caused wonder and awe. The people did not take that wonder and devote their life to Jesus in true belief. God is not content to leave the message here at unbelief. God loves to teach people why we do not believe. It is not a mystery to God why unbelief occurs. In our text today God is going to show us the causes for unbelief and the consequences for unbelief.

The Causes of Unbelief (12:37-43)

The text begins by noting that this unbelief was expected by God. God prophesied through Isaiah that this would be the exact response of the people. You may recognize the quotation from Isaiah because it is from the famous suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53. The quotation is from Isaiah 53:1. Notice that the quotation is framed not to ask a question whether anyone would believe but in a way to show that no one would believe. The events of the suffering servant would not be believed. Just as Isaiah’s message was going to be rejected (cf. Isaiah 6), so Jesus’ teaching and actions would be rejected also. Isn’t it amazing that God foreknew our rejection? I do not mean that we would be surprised that God would know the outcome of his work in this world. Rather, to be surprised that God would continue his loving grace and faithfulness knowing in advance that we would reject his offers and actions.

God foreknew the people’s rejection of Jesus. Why did the people not believe? Notice verse 39. “Therefore they could not believe.” The text says that the people could not believe. Why? Isaiah is quoted again for the explanation. The quotation is from Isaiah 6:10. Look at John 12:40 and notice that it is God who has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts. To be more accurate to the text, it is Jesus who has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts so that God would not heal them. Notice the change from “he” to “I” in the way John quotes Isaiah in verse 40. God is speaking, that is, God is the “I” in the text. So who is God speaking about? God is speaking about Jesus. Jesus will blind their eyes. In case we are unsure of that, look at verse 41. Isaiah was speaking about Jesus (we will return to this verse later).

So let us put these teachings together. The people could not believe (12:39) because God blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts (12:40). What does this mean? Can it mean that God is directly prohibiting people who want to believe in Jesus from believing in him thus causing their judgment? Some think this is what this text means. But I ask how God can be just if he condemns to eternal punishment people who want to believe but God prevented it from happening? This seems to me to be equivalent to condemning you for not driving my car though I never gave you the keys! How can I condemn if the opportunity was never afforded to you? We must consider that there is another way of understanding this text, that remains faithful to the words of this text as well as faithful to the justice of God. So I will ask again: What does it mean that the people could not believe because God blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts?

The quotation of Isaiah 6 is the answer to the question. God commands Isaiah to keep preaching to the people. In doing so, Isaiah’s preaching will, “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes” (Isaiah 6:10). God was hardening their hearts, not through direct prevention, but by the continued preaching of God’s judgment and salvation message. The more Isaiah preached, the more the people’s hearts were hardened against God and his message so that they could not be saved. The same thing happened in Exodus. How did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? God hardened his heart, not through direct prevention, but by giving sign after sign. With each plague, Pharaoh rejected obeying God’s command and thus his heart was hardened further. Notice this is exactly what is being described in John 12.

So how was Jesus blinding their eyes and hardening their hearts? Go back to John 12:37. Jesus continued performing signs. Jesus did “many signs before them.” But they still do not believe. Jesus did not just do one sign. Jesus did many signs. We are told at the end of this gospel, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30). Jesus continued performing signs which only hardened the people’s hearts further with each sign. God was blinding their eyes and hardening their hearts through Jesus’ signs and teachings. God is hardening them by giving them continued opportunities to confess Christ. The first reason for unbelief is a hard heart and blind eyes. Every time the gospel is taught and every time that message is rejected, a person’s heart becomes hardened.

There is something happening today in the hearts of every individual during this lesson. It is happening, not because it is my lesson, but because I am reading the powerful word of God. Your heart is either pricked and is being transformed by the message of Christ or your heart is unmoved and is being hardened by the message of Christ. Either way, God is working on your heart. Remember the apostle Paul that faith comes by hearing the message of Christ (Romans 10:17). God is either creating faith in your heart and the reading of God’s word or is hardening your heart. It is your choice what God does with your heart. Consider the seriousness of what this scripture teaches. Your hardened heart will reach a point that you cannot believe no matter what is said or done. This is what we are seeing in this first century audience who has seen the signs of Jesus but have not believed. We can do the same thing, each week hearing the word of Christ, only to have our hearts hardened even further. Some want to hear the word and some just want to get out of here and get on with the day. God is working on your heart right now. What work will he do? Unbelief results from rejecting God’s continued pricking of the heart.

The second cause for unbelief is found in John 12:42-43. Many believed but would not do anything about that belief because they loved the glory that comes from people more than the glory that comes from God. We will not give our lives fully to Jesus because we are afraid of what other people will think, say, or do to us. Our faith is quite flimsy if we are concerned about what other people are going to think about our faith. The gospel shows us this is an incomplete faith. They do not truly believe because they will not confess Jesus. This is an easy category for us to fall into. We believe but it is insufficient because we are unwilling to let the light of Christ shine in our lives in all circumstances. There are times that we hold back. There are times that we do not confess. There are times that we fear the thoughts and actions of others. Our belief has now been shown to be incomplete and insufficient. Our belief has been tested and found to be unbelief.

The Consequences of Unbelief (12:44-50)

Jesus now cries out his final words and these words are the warnings against unbelief. Notice the consequences that Jesus declares for when we remain in unbelief, either by hardened hearts or by loving the glory that comes from humans.

First, unbelief means we are rejecting God the Father (12:44). If you believe in Jesus, then you believe in the Father. If you not believe in Jesus, then you cannot believe in the Father. We cannot have lives that are not transformed by Jesus and be children of God. We cannot have lives that refuse to confess Jesus and still be children of God. This is a grave warning.

Second, unbelief means we are failing to see the glory of God through Jesus (12:45). Jesus says that when you see him then you are seeing God the Father. This is an amazing declaration. It is a teaching point that reaches all the way back to John 1:14-18. No one has ever seen God. But the Word became flesh and walked among us so that we have seen his glory. The Son reveals the unseen God the Father. Unbelief means that we are failing to see something glorious. I know I have failed to see this for a long time. I grew up on the pews and just went to church week after week. But as I was drawn to the scriptures everything changed. I began to see the glory of the Father through Jesus. This was a new delight for my life and changed everything in my life. Unbelief means we have missed seeing the glory of God.

Third, unbelief means that we remain in darkness (12:46). Only those who believe in Jesus will no longer remain in darkness. If we have not fully given our lives to Jesus, then we are still in the dark and do not realize it. Satan has blinded our eyes so that we think we have seen all there is to see in Jesus. In fact, we are still in darkness. We are missing out on seeing everything that is glorious because we are still in the dark.

Fourth, unbelief means that we will be judged by Jesus’ words (12:47-49). Jesus says that he has come to save us. He has not come to condemn us. The reason Jesus did not come to condemn is because we are already condemned, which we saw Jesus teach in John 3:17-18. Jesus has warned us that we are already condemned and those words will be our judge on the last day. Jesus says that his words judge us because his words are not his own, but are the words and commandment of God the Father. The day of judgment is not going to be a surprise. There is not going to be a radical upset. Jesus’ words will be upheld by the Father on the day of judgment because Jesus simply spoke the very words of the Father while on earth.

Fifth, unbelief means we miss out on eternal life (12:50). Believing in Jesus means we will receive the commandment of the Father which is eternal life. Choosing to not be changed by the word of God or choosing to enjoy the glory of humans rather than the glory of God means that we will not have eternal life.

The Challenge of Faith (12:41)

So what can we do so that we do not fall into the condemnation of unbelief? Go back to John 12:41. “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” These are amazing words. Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus and spoke of him. Why make this point right here? Isaiah instructs us of what true belief looks like and shows us what we must do in seeing the glory of Jesus. First, see your own sinfulness. When staring at the cross and the glory of Jesus we must see our utter sinfulness. Never lose sight of who you are and the condition that you are when Christ came. Second, see God forgive your sins. After confessing his sins, we see God atone for Isaiah’s sins. Oh, the glorious knowledge that God forgives your sins in Jesus. This is the light and the hope shining into our hearts. When it does, then we see the response of Isaiah: “Here I am, send me.” Once we see our sins and see God’s offer for forgiveness, we respond with worship, service, and transformed lives for the glory of God. Break through unbelief and respond to the greatness of God’s grace. Read the word of God and let him create and build faith in you (Romans 10:17).

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