“Nothing of importance happened today.” Those were words written in the diary of King George III of Great Britain. The day was July 4, 1776.This quote probably shows more than he intended to, for if he hadn’t thought these events as important he likely wouldn’t have mentioned them at all. But by doing so he was clearly making a statement of dismissal over the fact that his colonies in the new world were becoming an independent nation. You could say King George didn’t lose much sleep over their revolution at all. But you could also say in regard to the cause the colonialists felt so vexed and passionate about, that King George was an unbeliever. And we can understand these two opposing views can’t we? Anytime someone makes a case for belief in anything it normally doesn’t take much time at all until someone else comes along and makes the case for unbelief in the same.
We see something of this in John’s gospel. Throughout the first 12 chapters Jesus has proclaimed Himself to be God, to be the Messiah, to be the Living Water, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, and the great I AM. After proclaiming Himself to be who He is Jesus called men and women to believe in them, and some of them did. But, a sad pattern is present in John’s gospel. After each time Jesus proclaims the truth about He is and calls people to believe in Him it seems that the majority response isn’t belief, but unbelief.
As we approach our text this morning we’ll see the pattern continue with present unbelief, we’ll see why this sad pattern happens at all with purposed unbelief, and we’ll see something that looks real but is really little more than practical unbelief. From seeing these three things we’re challenged in regards to our own belief. Will the sad pattern of unbelief continue with us? Or will something new begin in us?
Present Unbelief (v36-37)
“When Jesus had said these things, He departed and hid Himself from them. Though He had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in Him…”
Jesus had entered the city in the triumphal entry and after revealing an honest inner angst over the cross to come we see that He now leaves and hides Himself. Why did He do this? Because even though He had done a great many signs in plain sight unbelief still reigned in the city. The best of wine from mere water, numerous healings, 5,000 fed, walking on water, a dead man raised to new life, and many more. They beheld these things firsthand and like King George they responded callously in unbelief basically saying, ‘Nothing of importance happened today.’ It seems the modern Israelites are far too like the ancient Israelites whom Moses addresses in Deuteronomy 29:2-4, “You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.”
We learn here that seeing God do great, marvelous, and supernatural things firsthand does not automatically produce belief in man. No, it takes much more, in fact it takes nothing less than a heart transformation and resurrection because unbelief exists in the deepest part of man, in the heart. So, what did Jesus do in the face of this unbelief after such great things had been done? He hid Himself from them. Recall He had said earlier, “The Light is among you for a little while longer…while you have the Light, believe in the Light, that you may become sons of light” (12:35-36). They didn’t, the Light left, and they remained sons of darkness. To see Jesus walk away from a world lost in sin is dreadful. It ought to alarm us that when sinners reject the gospel message long enough God gives them over to what they have truly wanted all along, their sin. John expands on this more for us in the verses that follow, so let’s continue on to them.
Purposed Unbelief (v38-41)
To expand on this unbelief John goes back to the prophet Isaiah. “Though He had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in Him…SOthat 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?” Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, “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.” Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory and spoke of Him.”
I must caution you here. Do not interpret these verses to mean anything else than what they says. Much of what Bible has to say offends our modern sensibilities and when those sensibilities in us stand on end because they bump up to Scripture they don’t like, remember, Scripture wins! Do not try to soften hard texts in the Bible, if you try to do that you show others and you show God that you think you’re smarter than He is. Do you want to be arrogant in your handling of the Bible? I hope you don’t. I hope you submit to it regardless of the cost it brings you. Here’s an example of a commentator being offended by this text and trying to soften it. William Barclay says, “It seems to say that God has ordained that certain people must not and will not believe. Now in whatever way we are going to explain this passage, we cannot believe that. We cannot believe that the God whom Jesus told us about would make it impossible for His children to believe.”He says this because the phrase that causes all this is the little words that begin v38, “…so that…” Many wish it said something else and try to twist the original Greek to make it say something like ‘with the result that.’ The difference is larger than the Grand Canyon. On the one hand if you believe it should be interpreted as ‘with the result that’ it’s their unbelief that stops God’s redemptive purposes in Christ. On the other hand if you believe it should be interpreted as ‘so that’ it means their unbelief happened because of God’s redemptive purposes in Christ.
William Barclay (the man I just quoted) is perhaps an easy target here. He was a theological liberal who denied many of the doctrines we hold dear. Would it surprise you to note that some others we love and adore did the same in their commentaries on John: F.F. Bruce, J.C. Ryle, A.W. Pink, and James Montgomery Boice.What do we make of this? We must remember that some of the best of men and women can be very wrong on certain things. More so, we could also say that everyone is very wrong somewhere, myself included. Therefore, while sinful people can be very helpful at seeing beauties unnumbered in the Scripture, God and the illumination of His Spirit must be where our hope and trust is in reading and interpreting the Bible.
Now, I know that was a big caution. Let’s return to the text itself to see what, I think, John intends by quoting Isaiah.
He quotes two places in Isaiah. First in v38 he quotes Isaiah 53:1, “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed.” In context Isaiah 53:1 is Isaiah himself speaking about his astonishment at the unbelief of Israel shown by the rejection of the suffering servant who has been exalted by God Himself. The message from God has been crystal clear and yet God’s people rejected it. We would quickly say the ultimate Suffering Servant in redemptive history wasn’t Isaiah or anyone else in Isaiah’s day, but Jesus Christ. Perhaps now you can see why John uses this quotation. Jesus Christ, the Son of God exalted by the Father comes to His own and His own reject Him. The message of Him, through Him, and by Him has been crystal clear and again God’s people rejected it by rejecting Him. As Isaiah was astonished in His day that the arm (or strength) of the LORD has been revealed yet rejected, so too John is astonished in his own day that the arm (or strength) of the LORD has been fully revealed in Christ and still rejected. v38 shows man’s responsibility for believing the gospel message, that is clear. They should’ve believed in Christ and they refused. They’re at fault.
But there’s more to the story as we continue. It isn’t just man’s responsibility in view, God’s sovereignty comes into view next.After quoting this passage from the suffering servant section of Isaiah John says in v39, “Therefore they could not believe.” Then comes his second quotation from Isaiah, in v40, he quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 to drive home his point. “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.” Going back to the context of Isaiah 6 recall Isaiah has just had the vision of God and heard the famous trisagion (the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ of the seraphim to the Holy One of Israel). From seeing and learning of the awesome and terrible holiness of God Isaiah learned who God was and who Isaiah was too. He didn’t cry out in joy when he saw God, he cried out in a deconstructed state as he proclaimed woe’s of judgment upon himself for his own sin. Then in marvelous mercy and grace God took his sin away and commissioned him to go and preach to the nations. But before sending him out to preach God told him in Isaiah 6:9-10 that the nations won’t listen to his preaching because He has blinded eyes and hardened hearts, and that Isaiah’s preaching was itself going to be the means through which God hardened His people.
Back to John. Why did John quote Isaiah 6:9-10 here in the v40? To explain the current unbelief in his day. Which means the foundation of Israel’s unbelief in Christ is traced to God’s sovereign judgment. Let’s think a bit deeper about this. John now shows us that the Jewish unbelief of his day was not only foreseen by God but purposed by God.As God blinded and hardened Israel before in Isaiah’s day, so too He is still doing it in Jesus’ day so that they wouldn’t ‘see with their eyes, and understand with the heart and turn and be healed.’ Do you see that the Jews rejection of Jesus was part of God’s sovereign plan for our salvation? If God didn’t harden them against Christ they never would’ve crucified Christ, and no one know Christ today! Do not read this as harsh, cruel, or unfair. God has reached out to His people time and time again and what was the response? They wanted their sin more than they wanted God, so what does God do? He gives them what they ultimately want and hands them over to their sin, such that when they hear the preaching of Isaiah they hate it and reject it immediately. What was true of Isaiah’s preaching was also true of Jesus’ preaching. They heard it and the majority response was rejection. Romans 1 and Romans 9 warn us of this reality that God will remove his hand from us and give us over to our sins if we remain in obstinate unbelief long enough. The Word never returns void. When it goes out no one remains unchanged. We’re either softened by grace or hardened by unbelief. When people, of their own accord, after repeated exposures to the gospel call, reject Christ – snub His message – and ignore His commands, then (and not until then) God hardens them, in order that those who were not willing to repent are not be able to repent.This is what’s happening then, and it sadly happens in each generation as well.
Hear me clearly Church. Some call this unfair and they’re wrong. When did man become the judge of God? Will the clay rebuke the Potter for making him wrongly? No. Church, we don’t want fairness. If God were fair, no one would ever be saved and we’d all be justly condemned for our sin. We don’t want fairness, we want mercy. See the evil of unbelief here. We are sinners who don’t deserve mercy but God sent His Son in mercy and what did they do? What do we do? Hung Him on a cross. And yet strangely when this happened, from God’s view, everything was going according to plan.Sure God’s people have turned away from Him and His Christ, but very soon, there would be a new community of saints, held together in a new unity, walking in newness of life, bound by a new covenant, filled with new joy in their hearts, and a new song in their mouths.
This middle section ends in v41, “Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory and spoke of Him.” This means that when Isaiah beheld the grand vision of the Holy One of Israel you know who He saw? He saw the pre-incarnate Christ. This means Christ is the glory of God, Christ is the thrice Holy One, Christ is the One who sends out messengers to the nations, and Christ is the one wields the hearts of all men for His redemptive purposes. Isaiah saw God and spoke of God. May we follow suit, by seeing beauty and speaking beautifully.
Practical Unbelief (v42-43)
“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.”
I am honestly a bit mixed at these closing two verses. Mixed because at first glance we are encouraged, after all this unbelief John wants to tell us that there were still some who believed, and not just people in general but men from among the authorities believed. This shows us pure gospel power. That even in the most dark and hostile of places God can change hearts and save those who are woefully lost. Perhaps Nicodemus is in view here, maybe even Joseph of Arimethea who would soon give Jesus his own tomb and help bury His body in that tomb after the cross. We know of these two men but v42 seems to give the impression that even more than them are now believing among them. That’s wonderful to see. But, though they’ve believed, for fear of the rest of the Jews they are keeping quiet. I think we can understand their struggle. Likely none of us have been in an environment as hostile to Jesus Christ as these men were. Surrounded by those who hated His teaching, mocked His power, and plotted His death. No wonder they kept quiet. However, that their fear of men is moving them to silence is problematic for sure. I’m not convinced that true belief is in view here in v42-43. If it is true belief were seeing here it is problematic or puny belief in view because such great fear of man is also in view.
But again I’m mixed. While I’m encouraged to believe that true, though puny, belief might be present in v42, a further look into v43 leads me to believe it isn’t just puny belief, but practical unbelief in view. It says in v43 that the reason they feared the Jews so greatly was because “…they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” What’s in view here is position and station. These men had a mammoth position in the city and therefore enjoyed a certain station of life above that of common ordinary folk. If they went public with Jesus they would’ve lost all that. So they believed all the right things privately, counted the personal cost of publically following Jesus and because they loved the glory from men they never professed that belief publically. They may say they believe but in reality they function as practical atheists. Isaiah’s experience couldn’t be a greater contrast than theirs. Isaiah saw the glory of Christ personally. Isaiah heard the thrice-holy cry of the seraphim personally…and what did he do? He publically pronounced woe on himself and publically volunteered to go and publically preach to the nations even though he would be publically rejected for doing so. If personal belief is true and real within us, it cannot be contained within us! It must come out! So was this puny belief or practical unbelief? I want to believe it’s puny belief but too much here points me to see this little more than practical unbelief.
So Church, this is precisely what must grab hold of us today. Many of you profess to believe in Jesus, but do you really possess Jesus? If He’s a personal matter to you only I fear it isn’t true and would ask you to search deeply if you also love the glory of men like they did. But if your faith has gone public, praise God! The sad pattern of unbelief has not been true of you. My advice to you is simple: be as public as you can in following Jesus! May no one have to wonder whether or not you’re a Christian in this world. “Nothing of importance happened today” was King George’s response to the Colonials freedom. May that not be your response about today’s text.
Mark Dever, Promises Kept, page 101.
William Barclay, quoted in Richard Phillips, John 11-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary, page 114-115.
We saw man’s responsibility before in v38, we see God’s sovereignty at work alongside of it and compatible with it here in v40.
D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC, page 448.
John MacArthur Study Bible, note on John 12:37-40, page 1610. See also, Beale and Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, page 478-479.
William Hendrickson, quoted in Phillips, page 117-118.
Beale and Carson, page 481-482.
Phrase ‘seeing beauty and speaking beautifully’ comes from John Piper’s biographies of Whitefield, Lewis, and Herbert.