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Sermon: John 12:36b-50: Unbelief Considered

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 53 (740-700 B.C.)

“Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; 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; 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 pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53, ESV)

New Testament Reading: John 12:36b-50

“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, 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?’ 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. 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. And Jesus cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. 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. 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. 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. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.’” (John 12:36–50, ESV)

Introduction

As we study the Gospel of John it wise for us to remember, and to not forget, the reason that he wrote his Gospel. He does not leave it a mystery, but explicitly tells us at the end that he wrote, “so that [we] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing [we] may have life in his name.” (John 20:31, ESV) I’ve reminded you of this fact over and over again during this sermon series, and I will probably remind you again before it is over. The reason is because this fact – that is, John’s disclosure of the overall purpose behind his writing – helps us to properly interpret the individual parts of John’s Gospel. Each part is designed to move us to faith. Each part is designed to either move a person from a state of unbelief to a state of belief, or to strengthen the one who already believes to believe more deeply.

You may be thinking to yourself, what does it mean to believe in Christ?

Consider these three things:

First of all, to believe in Christ is to accept, or acknowledge, that what he has revealed to us is in fact true. We are to believe in truth; we are to believe in truth as it is has been revealed to us by God, though the eternal Word of God, who took on flesh as the man Jesus Christ. In other words, John is not calling us to simply believe in something, as if the act of believing in and of itself has power. No, he wrote to persuade us to believe in the truth revealed to us by God, through Christ Jesus.

Secondly, to believe in Christ is to trust in him. Not only are we to say, yes, Jesus is truth! We are also to say, I trust in him alone for the forgiveness of my sins and for life eternal. To believe in Christ is to trust in him. To believe in Christ is to forsake all trust in yourself and to cling to him as the Savior of your soul.

Thirdly, to believe in Christ also involves walking with him and in his ways. If someone says that they believe in Jesus and yet do not follow after him, then the evidence is that their faith is not really true.

This is what John desired to provoke within us through his Gospel. As he sat down to write his hope was that the Holy Spirit would use these words to draw sinners to repentance so that men and women, boys and girls, might be found confessing Jesus as true, trusting in him alone for the forgiveness of their sins, and walking in his ways.

I think it is interesting to note how at times John’s tactic it to stir us to faith in positive way. By positive I mean all of those instances where a miracle of Jesus is set before our eyes, or a teaching, or positive example is presented to us. There are plenty of those in John’s Gospel. The Apostle is saying, look at this, or listen to these words, or consider this persons faith – be like them. 

But there are other instances where John seems to use a different tactic – a negative tactic, we might say. By negative I mean all of those instances where John presents us with examples of unbelief. The plea is not, be like him, or be like her, but rather, don’t make the same mistake that these have made! Both tactics are effective, I think. I personally enjoy the positive examples of faith and the positive pleas to believe. But the negative examples are certainly illuminating and quite sobering.

As you can see John is using a negative tactic again in the text before us this morning. Notice that he is highlighting unbelief. Verse 36b: “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…” (John 12:36–37, ESV)

I did warn you about this. Even we who know the story well are tempted to get caught up in the excitement of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. As we read of this great event and imagine the tens of thousands of people gathered on the side of the road, waving palm branches, shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13, ESV), is it not tempting to think, finally Jesus has gained a true following worthy of his name?

Here in the text before us we learn that many, if not most, of those who welcomed Jesus so extravagantly believed in him in a defective way. They were right to call him King. And they were right to welcome him as the Savior of Israel. But their faith was defective. They believed in him, but for the wrong reasons. They confessed that he was the Messiah, the King of Israel! But their expectations of him were amiss. So, “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…” (John 12:36–37, ESV) This is John’s assessment of the multitudes in general.

So how are we to understand this unbelief? What are we to think of it?

Notice three things in the passage before us this morning:

Unbelief is a Very Old and Common Phenomenon

First of all, notice that unbelief is nothing new. It is, in fact, a very old and, sadly, a very common phenomenon.

Look at verse 38. John tells us that the unbelief of the majority of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day came about, “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?’” (John 12:38, ESV)

This is a quotation from the text that I read at the beginning of the sermon from Isaiah 53.  Isaiah was a prophet of God who ministered in the eighth century B.C. The opening line of chapter 53  contains the prophet’s complaint: “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

I think John is doing something very complex and beautiful as he quotes from Isaiah 53. When I say “complex and beautiful” I mean that he is accomplishing a number of things in a very skilled way when he quotes this one verse from the prophet Isaiah.

Think upon this for a moment with me:

Notice how, by mentioning the complaint of the prophet Isaiah concerning the stubborn unbelief of the people of his day, John makes a connection between the unbelief of the people of Israel in the past and the unbelief of the people of Israel that John was confronting in the writing of his Gospel. If a unbelieving Jew were to read John’s Gospel the message would be exceedingly clear: Look at the way in which your forefathers rejected the prophets of old (Isaiah being one of them). Look at how they rejected the word of the Lord that came through the prophets. Look at how they persecuted and even killed the prophets! You’re ashamed of it, aren’t you? You’re ashamed of the way that your forefathers persisted in their unbelief as they rejected the prophets and caused them to complain, saying things like,“Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” But you are making the same mistake now! Not only are you rejecting Isaiah as he prophesied long ago concerning the coming Messiah, but you are in fact rejecting the Messiah himself, the true and last Prophet of God, Jesus of Nazareth. That is the effect of John’s quotation of Isaiah 53 here in this context. John is saying, Don’t be like your unbelieving forefathers who rejected the word of the Lord!

Two, think of the encouragement that Isaiah 53:1would have been to those Christians living in John’s day. They were certainly in the minority (as Isaiah was). And they were certainly experiencing persecution (as Isaiah did). Persecution was coming to them, not only from the Romans, but also from the unbelieving Jews. And what does John do here? He reminds the Christians that unbelief is nothing new. It is has actually been the norm throughout history, even amongst ethnic Israel under the Old Covenant. When John quotes Isaiah’s complaint is he not encouraging the believers, in a round about way, to persevere in this world, though they are the persecuted minority, as Isaiah was?

And three, we should not fail to take note of what the totality of Isaiah 53 has to say.

Remember this rule when studying your Bible: when an author of scripture (like John) takes the time to quote another scripture text (like Isaiah 53:1) it is likely that he wants you to consider, not only the verse that he has quoted, but the context in which that verse is found. That is certainly the case here.

I will not read it again for the sake of time, but tell me, what is Isaiah 53 all about? Is it not one of the most glorious prophesies in all of the Old Testament concerning the coming Messiah? It speaks in great detail concerning the low and humble way in which the Messiah would come. He would be “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”. He would come to “[bear] our griefs and [carry] our sorrows”. He would be “pierced” and “crushed for our iniquities”, The “Lord [would lay] on him the iniquity of us all”; by “his wounds we are healed”; and on and on the prophesy goes.

Now, given the situation in John’s Gospel, why would this prophesy be an important one to direct the unbelieving Jews to? Many were willing to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” But when Jesus began to speak of suffering and death as being the way to eventual glory, they pulled away from him.  They said to him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:34, ESV) Isaiah 53 is significant in that it made clear from long ago the fact that the Messiah would suffer and die for the sins of the people. These things were foretold.

 

All of these things (and more) are accomplished by John’s quotation of Isaiah 53. The unbelieving Jews were challenged to not make the same mistake as their unbelieving ancestors; the Christian were encouraged to strand firm though they were the minority; and a theological point was made: the prophets were clear that the Christ would suffer.  The point is this: Do not be like those who have gone before you who rejected the word of the Lord and persisted in their unbelief.

Persistent Unbelief is a Form of God’s Judgment in the Here and Now

But notice that there is not one, but two quotations from Isaiah in this passage. The second is found in verses 39-40 and it reveals that persistent unbelief is a form of God’s judgement in the here and now.

Verse 39: “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.’” (John 12:39–40, ESV) This is a quotation from Isaiah 6:10.

Would you please turn to Isaiah 6 with me?

If you look at verse 1 you will probably recognize this as a very familiar passage. If my memory serves me right, verses 1-6 of Isaiah 6 was the text for the first the sermon that I ever preached. It is here in verse 1-6 that Isaiah sees a vision of the glory and God and is utterly humbled by what he sees. In verse 5 he cries out saying, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV)

It is after this that God calls Isaiah to preach. In verse 8 we read, “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then [Isaiah] said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’” (Isaiah 6:8, ESV)

Isaiah was humbled by the glory of God; he was touched by God – cleansed, and equipped; and he was called by God. But listen to what the prophet was called to do (and tell me if yo would like to fulfill this task). Verse 9:

“And he said, ‘Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’ Then [Isaiah] said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said: ‘Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.’ The holy seed is its stump.” (Isaiah 6:9–13, ESV)

The prophet Isaiah was called to preach to the people of Israel knowing that his preaching was to serve the purpose of confirming the people in their unrighteousness and unbelief.

Persistent unbelief is actually a form of God’s judgment. Do you know what I mean by that? The scriptures reveal that God will in fact give people over to their sins. He will give them over to their unbelief. And for those who persist, or remain, in unbelief the preaching of the gospel becomes, not a good word to them, but a word of judgment.

This was true in Isaiah’s day. The people of Judah had walked in sin and rebellion for so long – they had persisted in their unbelief for so long – that it was the will of the Lord to judge them. Destruction was in their future – exile was in their future – death was in their future. And the prophet Isaiah was called to preach the gospel to that people. He was to call them to repentance (which is what he did), but the result would be that they would be confirmed in their blindness and deafness and rebellion. God gave them up to their unbelief.

John quotes from Isaiah 6 in order to make the point that as it was with Isaiah and the people to whom he preached, so it was with Jesus and the people to whom he preaced. Jesus proclaimed the gospel; he shone as light in the darkness; he worked miracles before the people; and yet “they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He [God] 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.’” Do you remember how Jesus said in 12:31, “Now is the judgment of this world”? Well, here is an example of that judgment. Men and women were given over to their rebellious and unbelieving ways so that they were not able to see the glory of God in Christ Jesus.

This teaching bothers many Christians in our day. Many are troubled by the thought that God would judge men and women in the here and now by blinding their eyes and hardening their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, to be healed by him.

Two things should be said about this:

One, Christians who are bothered by this thought should pause to ask themselves if they really know the God of the Bible. Many in our day enjoy making much of the love, grace, and mercy of God, and for good reason! He is indeed merciful, gracious, and kind! But he is also holy and just. He forgives, but he also judges. If we neglect this second, and less pleasant truth, we do not know the God of scripture.

Two, (and this point is meant to guard against errors that go in the opposite direction) notice that this text is not saying that God hardens people who are naturally soft to the things of God, or blinds those who are naturally seeing, or deafens those who would otherwise hear the things of God. He is not keeping people who want to repent from being able to repent. No, if anything is clear in John’s Gospel (and in the scriptures in general) it is that men and women, ever since the fall,  are by nature blind, deaf, and dead. They are naturally unbelieving. The judgment of God functions in this way: He leaves some in that state. More than that, he confirms them in it. And the gospel preached to them, instead of being a good word, becomes a word of judgment as it is rejected by their hard and sin sick hearts.

The unbelief of the majority of the Jews in Jesus’ day was a form of judgment upon them. As it was in Isaiah’s day, so it was in Jesus’ day. Their unbelief was in fulfillment to prophesy. Verse 41: “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” (Boy, do I wish we had the time to say more about this verse)

Unbelief is, Nevertheless, Something that Christ Calls us to Turn From

You know, I’m so happy that this isn’t the final word. This has been a rather dark and unhappy sermon up to this point. But praise God the text does not end with an unhappy word, nor does it leave us in gloomy darkness. There is light here in this text as unbelief is, something that Christ calls us to turn from.

Verse 42 says, “nevertheless”.

I’m so happy to read the word “nevertheless”. It reminds me if the word “but” in Ephesians 2.

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. [Oh, how dark and gloomy it is!] But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—” (Ephesians 2:1–5, ESV)

Here in John 12 the light breaks into the darkness with the word “nevertheless”. “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…” (John 12:42, ESV)

It is true that there is still something negative about this verse. There were some from among the authorities who, although they were convinced that Jesus was the Christ, would not follow him because they were afraid of being put out of the synagogue by the authorities. This is a problem. This is something to be repented of. In verse 43 we are told that they “they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” How many remained in that state of fear, being hindered from walking with Christ, we don’t know. Maybe that describes you. Perhaps the fear of man is something you need to repent of.

But there is light here. Though the many disbelieved – being blind and deaf to the truth of God – many believed, by the grace of God. Not all were condemned to unbelief. In other words, there was a remnant.

Thank God that he has always preserved for himself a remnant. In fact look again at Isaiah 6. It too is a dark and gloomy text. The prophets calling seems utterly hopeless! But consider how it ends! Verse 13: “‘And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.’ The holy seed is its stump.” (Isaiah 6:13, ESV)

As it was in Isaiah’s day, so it was in Jesus’ day. Many (most) remained in unbelief. Even of those convinced of the truth of the Christ, many refused to follow him for fear of the authorities. But God preserved a remnant. He preserved a stump – a seed – who is the Christ. And from him the people of God would spring – Jew and Gentile being united to him by faith.

And that is why the dark and gloomy word is not the final word in this passage. No! Notice that the gospel is preached again! Verse 44:

“And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. 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.” (John 12:44–47, ESV)

 

Jesus Christ did not come to judge finally and fully at his first coming. The judgment of God will come in all of its finality and fulness at Christ’s second coming. But between the first and second coming of Christ the word of judgment is not the final word. We are to warn of God’s final judgment. We are to warn of how it has in some ways begun even now as people are given up to their sinful and rebellious ways. But judgment is not to be the final word in this age. The gospel must be the final word. Christ continued to cry out even in the face of persistent unbelief, saying believe in me! Confess that my words are true! Trust in me! Abandon your love of the world and your fear of man and follow me! That is to be the final word before Christ’s first and second coming.

Conclusion

The church, who is the body of Christ, is to give herself to the proclamation of that word. We are to collectively proclaim the gospel, as each of us uses the particular gift that God has given us. The church is to make disciples. We are to proclaim Christ “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (Colossians 1:28, ESV) This is the task that we are to busy ourselves with between Christ’s first and second comings.

Brothers and sisters, do not grow weary as you look upon the unbelief that permeates our society and our world. It is noting new. It has always existed. In fact it may even be a form of judgment as God gives sinners over to their rebellious and sinful ways. Remember, and do not forget, that unbelief is not the final word. The gospel is to proclaimed, and our hope is that God is able to draw sinners to himself by the power of the Holy Spirit and by the truth of his Holy Word.

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"Him we proclaim,
warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
(Colossians 1:28, ESV)

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