Monday, July 08, 2013

Persuaded to Believe; Pressured to Disbelieve (John 7:45-52)


Around the world, people have this idea that Christians are out trying to pressure people into conversions. You let one Hindu in a South Asian village convert to following Christ, and the entire village will be at his door wanting to know what those Christians did to him, how they bribed him, or what methods they used to force him to believe. I suppose it is not altogether different here. I was reading a book review the other day about a book that was written to set forth and defend the claims of Christ. The reviewer said that the book could be improved by removing some of the heavy-handed attempts to pressure the reader into conversion. So, apparently, one cannot even state or defend the claims that Jesus Himself made without being accused of this sort of pressure tactic. And yet, as we study church history, we find two things occurring. One, there are periods of history in which the church was blinded by its own might and attempted to use heavy-handedness to force conversions. And, two, whenever this took place, the results were disastrous for all parties. Force is an impossible motivation for belief. A person cannot be “forced” to believe, though they can be “forced” to say that they believe and even to externally behave as if they believed. But the original beliefs are still present, and the life-practices based on those original beliefs are going to find a way to work themselves out, either through underground practices or through religious syncretism – a melding together of otherwise incompatible beliefs and practices. And this has happened over and over again throughout the centuries, and the church has been incredibly weakened and corrupted by it. So, even though the world thinks of us as a powerful movement seeking forced conversions, hopefully we have learned that no one wins in that kind of game. Jesus didn’t do it. The early church didn’t do it. We mustn’t do it. But the world accuses us of doing it anyway. We seek to persuade by our witness for Jesus in word and deed. But we do not pressure. It does not work.

The ironic thing is that the world actually employs this kind of force and pressure upon people to not believe, to not convert, or, if a person is already a follower of Christ, to abandon Him. The earliest Christians were presented with simple options: deny Christ and live, or cling to Him and die. And in some parts of the world, the pressure is still the same today. Here in America, it is often more subtle. Renounce, or (more often) radically compromise, your faith and your convictions, and you will be rewarded. Cling to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and you will be criticized, ostracized, and stigmatized. We all know of situations where this has happened, and some of us have experienced it personally. In fact, I would say that if you have lived a consistent Christian life over some period of time, you should have experienced this to some degree by now. If you haven’t, there can only be one of two problems: you have already made compromises of the faith that you are perhaps unaware of, or you are too insulated from unbelievers and need to get out of your holy huddle and spend some more time with lost people.

While we seek to persuade others to believe, there is a great pressure placed on people today to disbelieve. And as we see in our text, this has always been the case throughout history. So, let’s look into this text and see the elements of persuasion that lead some to believe, and the tactics of pressure that are employed to prevent others from believing.

I. The elements of persuasion.

I went to an appointment with a new doctor on one occasion, and as he reviewed my new patient paperwork, he picked up on the fact that I was a pastor. Turns out he had been a medical missionary. In fact, he had been a medical missionary in an area I had been to in Kenya. As we talked and shared our testimonies with one another, I noticed that he made some kind of mark on my chart. I said, “What’s that?” He said, “I put F.D.F.X. on your chart. That means, in a code that only I can understand, that you are a fully devoted follower of Christ, and when you come in, I know that I can speak openly with you about my faith and about the Lord.” That’s a pretty good system. I like that code: FDFX. Some of you are FDFXs. But, we need to acknowledge right up front that as far as we know, thus far in John’s narrative, no one in this passage we have read today are fully devoted followers of Christ. Yet, several of them seem to be “almost persuaded.”

Back in verse 32, the chief priests and the Pharisees sent guards to arrest Jesus. Now, some number of days later, they’ve come back empty handed, to the obvious disdain of the authorities. “Why did you not bring Him?” they exclaim. They were given an order, and they’ve had plenty of opportunity, but they have failed to carry it out.

The response that given by the guards must have come as a great surprise. The officers say, “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.” It seems that as they went out to take Him, they were actually taken by Him; they could not arrest Him because they were arrested by Him. And notice that it was not so much the matter of His speaking--what He said—that affected them so much; it was the manner of His speaking—how He said what He said—that took hold of them. This was not the first time this had happened. In the synagogue at Capernaum, the people were “amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). As He taught in the synagogue in Nazareth, “all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips” (Lk 4:22). Never has a man spoken the way the Lord Jesus speaks. It is still true. There hasn’t been one since Him. But, then again, the reason why there’s never been a man speak like Him is that He is not merely a man. Though He is fully human, He is also fully God. There is power in His Words because He is the Word made flesh. His Word is that which brought the universe into existence. His Word has the ability to create something from nothing; to uphold all things; to transform people, things, and situations from the inside out; His word can bring the dead to life, both physically and spiritually.

The Temple Guards have heard the Lord Jesus speaking, saying things like, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (Jn 7:37-38). He said it with unprecedented power and authority, and they were affected by what they heard. I don’t know if any of them completely believed in Him and committed themselves to following Him at that time, but they were persuaded enough to defy their superiors and the orders they’d been given. That fact is all the more surprising when we consider that these are not just hired hands, sent out like mercenaries to carry out orders and ask no questions. The Temple Guard was a special detail of carefully selected, religiously trained Levites.[1] It was this elite group of scholar-soldiers that find themselves being persuaded by Jesus to consider placing their faith in Him.

Now, not only had Jesus had a persuasive impact on the Temple Guard, there was another man present among the Sanhedrin’s leaders who had experienced his own private encounter with Jesus. His name was Nicodemus, and we first met him in Chapter 3. He had come to Jesus late one evening. Perhaps it was a mutually convenient time for them to meet casually, but the possibility cannot be ruled out that he came at night under the cloak of darkness to avoid being rebuked by his fellow leaders. Do you remember what he said to Jesus when he came to Him? He said, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (Jn 3:2). You see, here is a man being persuaded. But in Nicodemus’ case, unlike the Temple Guards, he is not being persuaded by what Jesus has said or how He said it, but by the things Jesus has done. And Jesus proceeds to tell Nicodemus the full-on truth, just as He proclaimed in the hearing of the Temple Guard. He told Nicodemus that in order to see and enter the Kingdom of God, one must be born again. He described to him how the Spirit comes upon a person and produces new birth. We are left with the impression that Nicodemus had his mind blown that night, and didn’t really comprehend what Jesus was saying. But here we see him again, and it seems that the things Jesus did that initially persuaded him, and the things that Jesus had said to him that night, were still fresh in his heart and mind. There was still a nagging sense in his soul that Jesus could not be ignored or discarded.

Had Nicodemus at this point secretly believed and committed himself as a follower of Jesus? We do not know. But we know that the words and works of Jesus were still working on him. We know this because of what he said to his colleagues who were leading the charge against Jesus. He said, “Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” His fellow leaders are convinced that Jesus is a lawbreaker and those who follow Him are ignorant of the Law, but Nicodemus catches them in hypocrisy here. Let’s not break the Law to catch the lawbreaker, or ignore the law to spite those who are ignorant of it. The Law explicitly forbids false accusations (Ex 23:1) and bearing false witness (Ex 20:16). Judges were commanded to investigate charges thoroughly (Dt 17:4) and hear matters completely, making judgment on fair and righteous grounds (Dt 1:16). So, because Nicodemus has been somewhat persuaded by the words and works of Jesus, he prompts everyone to slow the process down and to abide by the very Law they are so zealous to enforce on others. He says, in effect, “Why don’t you guys just listen for yourselves to what He says, and see for yourselves what He is doing?” He knows that these things are changing his perspective on Jesus. He suspects that the words and deeds of Jesus may have a persuasive effect on the other religious leaders as well.

You know, if you go to a Christian bookstore you can find dozens, maybe hundreds, of books on how to persuade others to follow Jesus. Every day there is a conference somewhere in the world that you can go to that will teach you how to be more effective at it. We get mail and phone calls every day here wanting to sell us a pack of study guides, some DVDs, or whatever that is the next biggest and best thing to win more people to Christ. And you know, some of those things aren’t bad. Some of them are better than others. But, there is nothing – never has been, never will be ANYTHING – more effective and more persuasive than presenting people with the words and works of Jesus. Tell them what He said; tell them what He did. Challenge them to read the Gospels for themselves, and see for themselves in Scripture what He said and what He did. We are led by some to believe that we have to be experts in how the universe functions and answer every question about molecular biology and quantum physics to persuade people to believe, but that is just so not true. Our witness is to be focused on Jesus Christ. Tell them what He said; tell them what He did.

As most of you know, at one point in my life, I was an atheist. When Christians would try to witness to me, I could argue them into tears. I could raise questions that no one could answer. And God saved me anyway—even without answers. I met people who loved me and who talked openly about things Jesus said and things Jesus did. I began to read the Bible for myself and I read about the things Jesus said and the things He did. And though I didn’t have any answers to my questions, I could no longer use them as excuses to turn away from Jesus Christ. “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.” First we have to hear from Him, and then find out what He has done. And if you are a follower of Christ, you have the opportunity to share those things everyday with someone. That’s not pressure. But it is persuasive. And God might just use the words and works of Jesus, encountered through an honest reading of Scripture or in a friendly conversation with a Christian, to persuade some person to repent and believe.

II. The tactics of pressure.

While Nicodemus and the Temple Guards are themselves under persuasion to believe, and are perhaps unintentionally persuading others by their testimonies, we also see in this text here a great pressure applied upon them by the religious leaders to NOT believe. It is very ironic that Christians, who are often accused of pressuring others to believe (when in fact we believe it is impossible to do so), and those who are on the cusp of coming to faith, often face the most extreme measures of pressure and intimidation to abandon their faith in Christ. It is a last-ditch effort by Satan, the great enemy of God and of the faith, to mobilize antagonism against a believer or one who is being persuaded to believe. We must not underestimate the intensity of spiritual warfare that is going on in conversion. Satan holds all of humanity captive under sin, and when one has been liberated from his grasp, he has lost them forever. No one can ever snatch them from the hand of Christ. So, there is a relentless assault on the Christian faith – not only aimed at those who already believe, but also in an effort to discredit the faith and so to hinder others from coming to Christ. The tactics are largely unchanged since the days of Jesus. Believers and those who are strongly considering Christ face the same pressures today as Nicodemus, the Temple Guard, and the multitude of people who had cast their lot with Jesus faced here in our text.

It was 18 years ago this week that I began my theological education, and I remember one of my first professors saying, “No one is ready to preach until he is ready to be thought a fool.” And today, you don’t even have to be a preacher – just publicly identify yourself as a follower of Christ, or acknowledge that you are strongly considering Him, and you will be thought a fool in the eyes of others. The accusation that is cast by the religious leaders is intended to belittle and demean those who would be followers of Jesus. They say that they are deceived, ignorant, accursed, and prejudiced.

Notice in verse 47 how the Pharisees say to the Temple Guard, “You have not also been led astray, have you?” It is a word that is used elsewhere to describe a sheep that has gone away from the fold. Words that are used to translate the word in the New Testament include “mistaken, misled, misguided,” and most frequently “deceived.” In verse 12, it was said of Jesus that He “leads the people astray,” and this was a capital offense under Jewish law. It is one of the indictments that led the authorities to pursue Him unto death. It is interesting that the Pharisee’s rebuke of the Guard is not that they have defied orders and let the opportunity to apprehend Jesus pass by. Rather it is because these men, who ought to know better given their religious training, have been duped by Jesus. It is as if they should have known better than to fall for His teachings. You may have known someone, or may have experienced this yourselves. People speak of a person’s faith in Christ with almost an embarrassed apology. They had so much potential, they were so intelligent, they had a bright future ahead of them, oh but something happened. They became … a Christian. A number of years ago, one of the world’s most influential atheists, Antony Flew, acknowledged that he had come to believe that there really is a God. After a lifetime of launching arguments against belief in God, he had a sudden change of mind. Almost immediately, his former compatriots in atheism began to ridicule him. They said that he was an old man, whose memory had begun to fail him and whose senses had left him; that he was merely hedging his bets as he neared closer to death; that he had been taken advantage of by religious zealots who put words into his mouth and tricked him into affirming them. But of one thing they were certain – that Antony Flew could have never changed his mind, apart from manipulative trickery. He died in 2010, and as far as we know, he never came to faith in Jesus Christ. And though he clearly and repeatedly articulated that the evidence of design in the universe had led him to believe that there was some sort of divine being who existed, he continues to be ridiculed by academic atheists. So, one of the tactics of pressure applied on those who believe and those who are coming close to faith is to belittle them with allegations of deception.

If that tactic is ineffective, we are not surprised to see a charge of complete ignorance leveled against believers. In verse 48, the Pharisees say, “No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him has he?” In other words, “If Jesus was really the Messiah, if He was anything other than a charlatan, don’t you think that we of all people would be following Him?” But no, they aren’t following Him. Who is following Him? Verse 49 says, “This crowd which does not know the Law.” The Greek word rendered “crowd” is a word for a “mob”; we might render it “rabble.” This statement shows how condescendingly the leaders of Israel thought of the common people. This crowd could easily be led astray because they are so ignorant! They don’t even know the Law! The Pharisees know the Law, and if anyone else knew the Law they would never believe in Jesus. They think they have a monopoly on the truth, and while everyone else may be wrong in their beliefs and opinions, it is unthinkable that they themselves could be wrong. And we find this still today. If you believe that Jesus is Lord, that He was born of a virgin and that He rose from the dead, that the Bible is true, that God created the world and all that is in it, prepare to be labeled as ignorant. A person can make any claim whatsoever (no matter how ridiculous) and be taken seriously by the world – unless that person makes a claim for Christ or the Word of God. Some of you college students have experienced this in the classroom – even in the religious studies department. You have heard it said that religion in general, or Christianity in particular, is just a crutch for weak-minded people. The default assumption is that if you have any mental sense about you whatsoever, you could not possibly believe in Jesus.

And their argument intensifies at this point. Those who have been persuaded by Jesus are said to accursed here in verse 49. J.B. Phillips suggests we should understand accursed here to mean that this crowd is “damned anyway.” In other words, why should we listen to what they say about Jesus; they are accursed and condemned people, and there is a special place in hell for the likes of them. That is how the religious leaders viewed those who were favorable toward Jesus. And that is how the follower of Christ will be viewed today. In our world of tolerance, relativism, and pluralism, all religious systems and views of morality are considered valid and worthy of a fair hearing, with the exception of biblical Christianity. Christians are called intolerant and narrow-minded because we believe that the Bible is true, and that Jesus is the only way to know God and enter heaven. But we did not make that message up. That is the message that Jesus Himself proclaimed. We are told that all other religions are more tolerant and open to the validity of other messages, but that is simply not true! Don’t think for a moment that Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism do not have exclusive truth claims. It is inherent in every belief system. Do you notice that no one is permitted to speak negatively in public about any belief system whatsoever? And yet if someone speaks negatively about Jesus or the Christian faith, they are championed as a hero, their books skyrocket the bestseller list, and suddenly they become a new voice of authority in society. Who cares what the Christians say? They are a damnable people anyway. And thus we face the same arrogant condemnation that the crowd, the Guard, and Nicodemus faced in this text.

Speaking of Nicodemus, we must note how quickly he speaks up when the Pharisees say, “No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him.” Almost as if to say, “Not so fast!”, he interjects. Now, he’s not preaching a sermon or calling the leaders to faith in Christ. He is merely pleading for a fair trial. And look what it gets him: he is accused of being a prejudiced bigot. They say, “You are not also from Galilee, are you?” In sports, we often accuse the referees or umpires of “home cooking.” They aren’t calling a fair game because they secretly hope their own favorite team wins. So, the Pharisees accuse Nicodemus of “home cooking” here. If he is going to cast his lot with a Galilean, he must be a Galilean himself! They say essentially, “Look it up!” “Search and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee” (v52). Now, this is the height of absurdity. First of all, if they will “look it up,” they will see that there have been a number of prophets to come from Galilee. Jonah was certainly a Galilean, and Nahum, Hosea, and the great Elijah may well have been of Galilean origins. But this is somewhat beside the point. The fact of the matter is that Jesus is not a Galilean. He was born in Bethlehem, just like the prophet Micah said that Messiah would be. If they would take the time to investigate Jesus for themselves, even as they have challenged Nicodemus to investigate the Scriptures, they would know that.

But you notice their hypocrisy shining through in all of this. They accuse Nicodemus of speaking favorably about Jesus because he is prejudiced—he must be a Galilean. But their own prejudice against Galileans is exposed. They have rejected Jesus on the simple basis that He has, at least recently, resided in that despicable town. And so it often is that the most outspoken critics of the Christian faith are actually themselves more prejudiced, hypocritical, and intolerant than the Christians that they so vehemently belittle. Enemies of the Gospel continue to pressure those who believe, and those who are being persuaded to believe, to abandon the Lord Jesus. Jesus said this would happen. He said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt 5:11-12). Let them say that you are deceived, you are ignorant, you are accursed, or whatever else they can come up with. The ancient philosopher Celsus once said of Christianity: “Let no one come … who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent …; but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence…. [T]hey manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid,.”[2]

We are not shamed or silenced by baseless criticisms and belittling accusations such as these. Rather, we are encouraged by them. We say, with the Apostle Paul, “that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:26-31). The Gospel that we proclaim and by which we live is foolishness to the wisdom of the world. This must not surprise us. Instead we must go on proclaiming what Christ has said and what Christ has done, for this Gospel is the world’s only hope. As Paul says in 2 Cor 5, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.” We do not, and we cannot pressure them, but yes, out of love for God and love for a lost and dying world, we do seek to persuade. Paul says, “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

We must stand with confidence in the face of the pressures of a world that is increasingly hostile to Christ and say with confidence, “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.” Hear what He has to say; consider what He has done, and then formulate your opinion. Though the Gospel of a crucified Christ is foolishness to the world, it is by that foolishness that we are being saved, and by that same Gospel the world stands condemned already because of their unbelief. As William Barclay said so well: “To stand up for [Jesus] may bring us mockery and unpopularity; it may even mean hardship and sacrifice. But the fact remains that Jesus said He would confess before His Father the man who confessed Him on earth, and deny before His Father the man who denied Him on earth. Loyalty to Christ may produce a cross on earth, but it brings a crown in eternity.”[3]




[1] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 237-238.
[2] http://www.bluffton.edu/~humanities/1/celsus.htm. Accessed July 6, 2013.
[3] William Barclay, The Gospel of John (Volume 1; Daily Study Bible Series; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 254. 

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