Monday, August 18, 2014

Unbelief Explained (John 12:37-41)


Would it surprise any of you to know that drinking and driving is dangerous? Perhaps no single issue has received so much attention and awareness in the past quarter-century than this. And yet, just two weeks ago a high-ranking law enforcement official in our state was caught driving under the influence of alcohol. I read that story and wondered how anyone in America in this day and time, especially a law-enforcement officer, could get behind the wheel of an automobile in an intoxicated state? Do they not know the dangers? Do they not believe the reports they have heard? And then there is this factor: one of the effects of intoxication is that it impairs a person’s judgment. They not only fail to make the right decision, but they actually cannot make the right decision. And then tragedy happens.

Let’s consider another tragedy – that of spiritual unbelief. Why is it that some people, in fact most people in the history of the human race, have believed in a supernatural being, while others simply do not consider it at all plausible? Recently some have speculated that there must be a specific gene that causes some people to be predisposed to spiritual experiences. Some evolutionary anthropologists have theorized that as humanity continues to evolve to higher levels of sophistication, we have outgrown our need for a deity and therefore more and more people do not believe. And then there are those who would say it boils down to evidence and information. They would say that those who do not believe have just not seen enough convincing evidence to change their minds. Some will even say that there is an over-abundance of evidence to the contrary that should convince more of us that God does not exist.

Even among those who believe in God or gods, there are vast differences of opinions about how many deities there are, what they are like, how they interact with the world. Who is right, who is wrong? I trust that most of you have decided that the message of the Christian faith is true, and all others are false. What convinced you to believe, and why have so many of your friends, neighbors, and relatives, not believed? Is it a matter of information and evidence? Is it cultural or genetic? Are you just smarter or luckier than they are, or is it vice-versa?  Or is it something else?  Some would ask us Christians, “How could you possibly believe in Jesus?” We need to expect that question, and 1 Peter 3:15 tells us that we need to be ready to give an answer to that question. But it is just as legitimate to ask the unbeliever, “How could you possibly not believe in Jesus?” I suppose that the average unbeliever has never given much thought to how to explain his or her unbelief. And yet the text that is before us today actually goes a long way toward helping us understand this very thing. This is unbelief explained.

I. Unbelief is a willful rejection of divine revelation (v37-38)

Many people sort of have this assumption that we who believe have either rejected all of the evidence that should convince us not to believe, or else that we have been privileged to see some convincing evidence that others have not seen. I’ve had unbelievers tell me, “I wish I could believe what you believe, but I’ve just seen too much evidence to convince me otherwise.” Some have said, “I am open to believing, but God just has not given me enough reasons to believe.” It sounds plausible, doesn’t it? When we hear things like this, we are tempted to sympathize with them. After all, it is not their fault if they haven’t seen convincing evidence, is it?  We may go to the Lord in prayer asking Him why He has not done more to convince our unbelieving friend or loved one of His existence and His power to save. Some may be tempted to doubt even their own faith, wondering if they have been duped into believing something that isn’t real, or if we have been too gullible to see all of the evidence to the contrary. This text helps us to understand that ultimately unbelief is in fact a willful rejection of divine revelation.

Consider verse 37: “But though He (Jesus) had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him.” Some had seen Jesus turn water into wine; multiply just a small number of loaves and fish into a meal that fed a multitude of thousands; heal people with serious medical ailments at the touch of His hand or the sound of His voice; even raise the dead back to life. John says that there were many other things that Jesus did which have not been recorded for us in Scripture. He says, “If they were written in every detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). Yet, John considered that only the small portion of Jesus’ miracles that he recorded in his Gospel should be enough to convince anyone to believe in Him. He says, “Many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, you may have life in His name” (20:30-31). 

It is undeniably true that, if an infinite God really exists, the only way for finite human beings to know anything about Him is for God to reveal that information to us. He did that supremely in the Person and works of Jesus Christ, and the revelation was by-and-large rejected. Now, we might say, “Well, so much for them, but what about my friends, my loved ones, my neighbors, who have never seen the miracles that Jesus did?” Some even point to the famous “pagan in the faraway land” who has never heard of Jesus. What about them? Surely they have not rejected revelation, have they? Isn’t it more the case that they’ve never received the revelation? No, this is not true. Every human being who has ever lived has received God’s divine revelation about Himself to some degree.

The Bible speaks of two kinds of revelation. There is His “general revelation” by which He makes Himself known to all men everywhere. We might call this “the works of God.” And then there is His special revelation by which He makes known the specific way of salvation through a personal relationship with Himself. We might call this “the Word of God.” Certainly, in the case of those in our text, they had received specific revelation in the Person and works of Jesus Christ. Not only did He speak the Word of God, but He IS the Word of God made flesh (Jn 1:1, 14). God has also made the specific revelation of His Word known through the Scriptures that He has inspired.

The nation of Israel is an example of those who had received God’s special revelation. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 9:4-5 that the Israelites had been given “the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, … the fathers, and … the Christ.” God had given them unprecedented revelation of Himself over centuries of history, culminating in the coming of Christ into the world through their lineage and in their land. And yet, so many of them remained in unbelief! En masse, they had received the Word of God (inscripturated and incarntated), and they had rejected the Word of God.

But the Word of God has also gone out to the rest of the world through the Church. In 2 Timothy 3:15-16, Paul says that the Scriptures are able to give one the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus, and ALL Scripture is “inspired by God” (it is theo-pneustas, God-breathed). In Scripture, God is speaking and revealing Himself. That word “Scripture” is used to refer to the writings of the Old Testament as well as the writings of the New Testament. Peter used the word Scripture to refer to the writings of Paul (2 Peter 3:15-16), and Paul used it to describe the writings of Luke (1 Tim 5:18, cf. Lk 10:7). So, everywhere the truth of the Bible goes forth, God is revealing Himself through the special revelation of His Word. And everywhere it goes forth, it is met to some degree with unbelief – a willful rejection of divine revelation.

But what of those who have not heard the Word of God? They’ve never seen Jesus, they’ve never seen or heard anything from the Bible, they’ve never heard the Gospel. Surely they have not rejected divine revelation have they? Well, in fact they have, because God has revealed Himself to all people everywhere through His works, which we call His “general revelation.” In Romans 1:18, Paul says that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Notice that he does not say that they do not have access to the truth, but they have suppressed or rejected the truth in exchange for unrighteousness, the practice of their sin. Well, what truth did they have? He goes on in the following verses to say, “Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom 1:19-20). It is evident within them, because every human being is made in His image. A part of that image is the innate awareness of God and a moral conscience that affirms us when we act rightly and condemns us when we sin. But in addition to this, there is the creation, what has been made. So, as a result, Paul says that no one anywhere is without excuse when it comes to belief in God. His revelation has gone out into all the world, and it has been met with large scale rejection.

Unbelief is, according to God’s Word, not due to a lack of evidence, but is a willful rejection of the evidence given through divine revelation. This is something that was observed and foretold even by the prophet Isaiah. John says in verse 38 that the unbelief and rejection of these people took place to “fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet which he spoke: ‘Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The passage being quoted is from Isaiah 53. There are two distinct questions here: (1) Who has believed our report? The answer is very few. (2) And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? The answer is EVERYONE! They have all received some measure of divine revelation.
Remember the story Jesus told of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. When the Rich Man is being tormented in hell, he cries out to Father Abraham in heaven for him to send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers of their need to repent and turn to the Lord in faith. Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the Prophets (the Word of God); let them hear them.” The Rich Man protests and says, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” And Abraham says to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets (the Word of God), they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” Hear that clearly: the real need is not for more evidence! They have evidence in what God has revealed, but they have rejected it! So, we will pray “O Lord! Please do some miracle or send some sign into my loved one’s life that will make them believe!” You can pray that until the cows come home from wherever they are, but the answer from heaven will be, “What good would more evidence do?” If they do not believe on the basis of the revelation they already have, including the Scriptural revelation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, then more revelation will not convince them. It will only make them more guilty before God because they have rejected even more evidence.

We must understand that unbelief is a willful rejection of divine revelation. Now the second aspect of unbelief we need to understand is a bit more complicated and controversial, and some may even find it offensive. But the Word of God makes this truth clear, and we cannot deny it, so we must accept it, even by faith, and seek to understand it.

II. Some who reject divine revelation are rendered incapable of belief by an act of divine and merciful judgment (vv 39-41)

Early in our lives, some of us were introduced to this very important question: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” That little tongue-twisting question actually teaches us something very important: the difference between “could” and “would.” That’s an important distinction and it is essential if we wish to interpret this passage correctly. In verse 37, it says that in spite of all the miracles that Jesus did, “they were not believing in Him.” That is, as we have said, they made a willful decision to reject divine revelation, and they would not believe in Him. But now we come to verse 39 and we read that they could not believe. One deals with what they chose to do, the other deals with what they were capable of doing. And apparently, they had become incapable of believing.

Now how had they lost their ability to believe? John says it was “for this reason.” And the reason points backward to their decision to not believe. Because they would not believe, now they could not believe. And he points once again to Isaiah the prophet, this time from chapter 6, when Isaiah was first called to be God’s prophet.[i]

The scene in Isaiah 6 is familiar to many of us. There we read that “In the year that King Uzziah died,” the prophet saw a vision of the Lord seated on His throne in heaven, surrounded by angels calling out, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (6:1-2). Upon seeing this vision of the Lord and all of His glory, Isaiah confessed, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (6:5). Following this confession, an angel came to Isaiah and touched his mouth with a burning coal and declared him to be cleansed and forgiven of his sins (6:6-7). Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord, saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responded, “Here am I. Send me!” (6:8-9). This was Isaiah’s commissioning into the prophetic ministry.

It is interesting to point out that John writes here, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit who inspired the book of Isaiah, that Isaiah “saw His glory and he spoke of Him” (Jn 12:41). The surrounding context makes it clear that by “His” and “Him,” he is referring to the Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah saw the glory of the Lord Jesus! It was Jesus who was enthroned in Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly temple, and it was the message of the Lord Jesus which Isaiah preached. While every prophet spoke in some way of Jesus, none spoke of Him more clearly than Isaiah. It was Isaiah who spoke of His virgin birth, His divine names and titles (7:14; 9:6), His mission to save Jews and Gentiles from their sin, and His substitionary atonement in His death on the cross (52:13-53:12). The message of Jesus is unmistakably clear in Isaiah. When the Lord Jesus inaugurated His public ministry in the Nazareth synagogue, He did so by reading from Isaiah 61 and declaring that it had been fulfilled in Him. Remember in Acts 8, Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch. What was he reading when Philip met him? Isaiah 53. The Bible says that Philip “opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, he preached Jesus to him.” And that man came to faith in Christ on the basis of what was revealed about Him in the prophecy of Isaiah. The report was as clear as it could be. But as Isaiah said, “Who has believed it?”

Now, as the Lord commissioned Isaiah in Isaiah 6, the Lord said to him, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed” (6:9-10). So, let’s get that clear. God tells His prophet that the people to whom he is preaching will not believe the message, and in fact will be rendered incapable of believing. Welcome to the ministry, young man! Understandably, Isaiah was confused by this, and he said, “Lord, how long?” And the Lord said to him, essentially (and I paraphrase here), “Until I bring complete and utter destruction upon the nation of Israel, and all the people are hauled off into captivity.” This of course took place under the Assyrians and the Babylonians from the 8th to 6th Centuries before Christ, as the Lord brought judgment on the nation for its unbelief! But the Lord went on to say in Isaiah 6:13, “Yet there will be a tenth portion in it, and it will again be subject to burning, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.” So the message is going to be wholesale rejected by all who hear it, with the exception of a tiny remnant, a holy seed, of 10% of the nation.

Now, this is the exact passage that John points to in order to explain how Jesus’ message was rejected by so many. Was it rejected by all? No! There would have never been a church if it had been rejected by all. But it was rejected by most, and it still is. Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus and spoke of Jesus, and only a tenth believed it. Jesus Himself had the same result, and so have most of us. We share the Gospel with many who hear it and in the end, only a small handful actually believe it. All are making a willful decision to reject divine revelation, but some – perhaps many in fact – have been rendered incapable of believing by divine and merciful judgment. Their hearts have been hardened and their eyes have been blinded so that they cannot believe.

Undoubtedly, many who hear this will bristle against it because it seems like we are talking about a capricious act of a supernatural tyrant, who is just arbitrarily manipulating people like mere pawns in His game of cosmic chess. It all seems very harsh and unloving. But it is not. Why? First, we must remember that God is not causing anyone to not believe who has not already decided to not believe. These are not morally neutral, or even good people, who are arbitrarily damned to hell. No, in fact, the Bible teaches us that we are all born sinners, and are all children of wrath from the moment of our conception because of the sinfulness that is inherent in us. Condemnation is what we all deserve because of our sins, and God, in His mercy offers a way of escape through salvation in Jesus Christ, who loves us, who lived for us, and who died for us, so that our sins could receive the condemnation they deserve at the cross, in the person of Jesus as our substitute, and yet we might be saved!

We need look no further than the Pharaoh of Egypt in the days of Moses to see an illustration of this. When God called Moses to deliver His people from Egypt, He told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exo 4:21). Yet, when we read the account of the Exodus, we find four times it is said that Pharaoh had hardened his own heart (Exo 8:15, 19, 32, et al.); four times it is said that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, but not specified whether it was hardened by himself or by the Lord (7:13, et al.); and nine more times it is said that God hardened his heart (9:12; et al.). What was happening was that God was judging Pharaoh by allowing the condition that he had chosen for himself to become permanent. It was as if Pharaoh had poured concrete into his own heart, and God merely allowed that concrete to set. That is why the Bible so clearly warns us on more than one occasion, “If today you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Psa 95:7; Heb 3:7; 3:15; 4:7).  You never know when you will do it for the last time, and God will render it certain and final, and you will be rendered incapable of belief.

But I have said that this is not just a divine act of judgment, it is also a merciful judgment. How can we say that it is merciful for God to harden someone’s heart and render them blind to His truth? It is a truth of Scripture that there are degrees of punishment in hell. Jesus made this clearer than anyone. And the basis of these varying degrees of punishment seems to be the response of the people based on the amount of revelation they received. Notice, for example, in Matthew 11, when Jesus denounces the cities wherein He had done many miracles. He says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless, I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you” (Mt 11:20-24). Notice that hell will be a far worse experience for the unbelievers of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum than for those in the ancient cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, because they actually saw the Lord Jesus face-to-face and heard Him teaching the truth of God, and saw Him performing many miracles and signs. So, when God hardens a heart and blinds eyes, it is a merciful act of judgment, because in so doing, He is actually sparing those whom He hardens and blinds from a far worse condemnation than they would experience if they could actually perceive the revelation clearly. Hell will still be an eternally miserable experience for them, but it will be more tolerable for them than it would have been if they had been able to perceive the truth clearly, and then still reject it. There is a strange work of divine mercy at work here in this hardening and blinding judgment.

Have you known someone who was just very hard-hearted about spiritual truths, and seemingly blinded to the evidence that should otherwise persuade them to believe? It could be a condition of their own doing. They may be hardening themselves and shutting their own eyes to these truths. In that case, there may still be hope, but it is a matter of great urgency that they cease their rejection of God’s revelation and humble themselves to submit to Jesus in repentance and faith as their Savior and Lord. But in some cases, God in His mercy, knowing that they will never believe, no matter what evidence is put before them, may have rendered them incapable of perceiving the truth and believing in order the spare them a more severe judgment. How do we know which is the case? We do not know! And that is why it is imperative for all who are in Christ to make it the mission and purpose of their lives to proclaim a fair offer of the Gospel to all men, for it is only through the hearing of the Gospel, and believing upon the Lord Jesus Christ that any may be saved! You say, “I’ve been doing that, and no one believes!” It is very discouraging, isn’t it? But know that your experience is not unique. Isaiah saw the same results, as did Jeremiah and the rest of the Prophets, the Lord Jesus Himself, and all of His apostles. But you can be encouraged. Though you do not know, God knows who that remnant is who will believe. And we can continue on in the faithful proclamation of the good news, confident that God will not fail in the accomplishment of His purposes and promises. Tell the story of Jesus often enough, and you will find someone who has been waiting their entire lives to hear it, so that they might be able to turn from their sin and place their faith in Him and be saved. But as you do, you will also find many who are unwilling to believe because they willfully reject the divine revelation of God’s Word and God’s works. And you will undoubtedly even encounter some who are incapable of believing because they have been mercifully hardened and blinded to God’s truth in an act of divine judgment against their persistent unbelief. We must pray for the lost to be saved! And we must be a witness to them! And we must believe that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, even though it may only be a tenth portion! And we must understand unbelief as a willful rejection of divine truth, which if not remedied, may result in a permanent condition of terminal unbelief. If you have been hardening your heart against God’s truth, I urgently plead with you to reconsider what God has done and what God has said, and turn to Him believing upon the Lord Jesus Christ, that you might be saved, before the opportunity passes you by forever.


[i] As an important technical detail which is beside the main point of this passage (and therefore the main point of this message), I want to point out something about the references to “Isaiah the prophet” in verse 38 and 39. Because of the number of specific prophecies in Isaiah which are fulfilled either within or shortly after the prophet’s lifetime, those who reject supernatural phenomena such as miracles or predictive prophecy believe that it is impossible for someone like Isaiah to speak with such vivid accuracy about coming events. One example that is often cited concerns the naming of Cyrus in Isaiah 44:24-28. Far more than a general prediction of deliverance for God’s people, Isaiah actually provides the name of the foreign king who allows Israel to return to their homeland. Critics of the Bible’s supernatural origins claim that the reference to Cyrus and several other specific prophetic details must have been written back into the prophecy of Isaiah long after the eighth century B. C. prophet had died. Thus, it is common to find reference in modern critical works to two or three “Isaiahs.” On their theory, there is an Isaiah, and then there was a “deutero-Isaiah” (and in some works even a “trito-Isaiah”) who redacted the original message of Isaiah with additional details to give the appearance of a more detailed prophecy than the original Isaiah really wrote. The theory suggests that the final product we possess in our Bibles was composed in successive stages by different authors. One strong argument (among many that could be given) to support the fact that the entire work which we call “Isaiah” was written by a single author comes from the New Testament references to the book and the prophet himself. This selection in John 12 is one example of that. Notice how John makes reference to the latter portion of Isaiah (chapter 53) and makes reference to “Isaiah the prophet” as the author of those words in John 12:38. Then notice how John makes reference to the earlier portion of Isaiah (chapter 6) and says, “Isaiah said again,” implying that these words are from the same human author as the words in Isaiah 53. This phenomenon actually occurs repeatedly in the Gospels, and is a strong piece of evidence in the case for the single-authorship of Isaiah. 

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