THE MYSTERY OF UNBELIEF
Topic: Sunday Morning Messages Passage: John 12:37–50
37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him,
38 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?”
39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
40 “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.”
41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 42 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; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
44 And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. 47 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. 48 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. 49 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. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchillis known for his many memorable quotes. In the weeks leading up to the Second World War, he was asked what role he envisioned Russia playing in the inevitable conflict. His reply was, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia, (for) it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
I’m not sure what comes to your mind when you hear the word “mystery.” Maybe you immediately think of that movie or play that you recently saw or that novel you are currently reading. Or perhaps you are facing a circumstance in your life that is difficult or impossible to figure out or to understand.
It may interest you to know that the word itself appears to have its roots in some of the ancient religions where only its adherents were made privy to the “deeper truths” that lay secret or vague to others. The term is found in both the Old and New Testaments, where it refers to the “hidden things” of God...“hidden,” that is, until God reveals them to whomever He chooses to make them known. And that is something He has done and continues to do for those who have been called to repent of their sins and embrace the message of the Gospel. To those who have not yet done that, the whole story about the death and resurrection of Christ must still seem like “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
Writing in the 1st-century, the Apostle Paul made reference to “the mystery of Christ” and explains that it “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:4-6).
Elsewhere, he defines “the gospel” in this way: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and...” that He was seen alive by many eyewitnesses (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7).
The manner in which God determined to provide deliverance from the sin’s eternal consequences through the death of His Son remains a “mystery” for those who do not believe. And yet it is true. Unbelief, criticism, neglect, and outright rejection do not alter what is absolute. Not only do we have God’s unchanging Word on it, but we have the testimony of countless multitudes in both the past and present who live and lay down their lives daily for the sake of this “gospel.” The doors of this and other churches like ours are opened widely this morning in order to proclaim and celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ died once for sin and lives eternally, ruling and reigning as the everlasting “King of kings and Lord of lords” (cf. Revelation 19:16).
On this Easter Sunday morning, as we reflect upon the resurrection of our Lord Jesus from the tomb, I would like to consider with you “the mystery of unbelief.” Why is it that some people “believe in Jesus,” relying upon Him with unwavering confidence and trust in every conceivable circumstance in life, while others do not?
“Unbelief” is a recurring theme in Scripture. We find it saturating the passage before us this morning. During the entirety of Jesus’ the three-and-a-half year public ministry, He has challenged those who heard Him with the binary choice of either “believing in Him” or “rejecting Him.” There is no middle ground. There is no neutral “hiding place.” One must make a choice in response to Jesus Christ.
Verses 37 through 43 provide for us something of a summary of Jesus’ ministry as it nears its conclusion. They offer an explanation as to “the mystery of unbelief.” We soon discover that it is something that dates back centuries before to...
The prediction of Scripture (12:37-43).
The writer John begins with a mild adversative: “Though (Jesus) had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him.” If you have been with us in our ongoing study of John’s Gospel, then you know that the “signs”—or miraculous deeds of Jesus—have played a feature role in his account. The writer has given us but a sampling of them, telling us toward the end of the book that Jesus had also performed “many other(s)” that he didn’t tell us about.
Their purpose was to point out that Jesus was truly the One who had been sent by God to bring deliverance to His people. The problem was that the people became so enamored by the “signs” that they missed their “significance.” Intended to authenticate the Messenger and the Message of God, the miracles had instead become the main attraction. And as John tells us, in spite of them, the people “still did not believe.” Experience has shown, both then and now, that faith based on “signs” is inferior.
But the reason for “unbelief” went deeper. Seven hundred years before Jesus’ arrival, the prophet Isaiah (53:1) asked, when predicting that One who would suffer and die for the sins of others, “Lord who has believed what he has heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Now here in verse 38, John is telling us that the “unbelief” of the people in Jesus’ day was in exact fulfillment of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy. God had revealed that “unbelief” would be an inevitable result of the ministry of God’s “suffering Servant,” and it surely was.
Then, as in Isaiah’s day, “unbelief” was embedded in the very depths of the human heart. In verse 39 we find an astonishing statement. We are told there were those who “could not believe.” Notice the text doesn’t say “they would not believe,” but “they could not.” The phrase implies an inability to “believe.”
That should shock to the core everyone who deludes themselves into thinking that they can put off trusting Christ to another day or a “more convenient time.” If you are here today entertaining such a notion then let me point out from John 6:44 the words of Jesus, who said, “No one can (or is able) to come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” What’s more, as John 1:13 makes clear, we do not “will” our salvation. From start-to-finish, beginning-to-end, “Salvation belongs to the LORD” (Psalm 3:8).
John reinforces that point further, by quoting Isaiah again...this time from chapter 6 of his remarkable prophecy. It is there that we are told of Isaiah’s vision of the God, who is seen seated in regal splendor and served by a company of heavenly beings. What captured the prophet the most was the pure and unadulterated “holiness” of God’s being. Repeatedly He heard these words ringing out: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3).
As we might imagine, Isaiah was humbled that a sinful man such as himself would have been granted access to such an amazing panorama. The suddenly the Lord Himself spoke, giving his appointed prophet a charge to go and tell others, bearing witness to what he had just seen. But in that commission, He was told that his preaching would fall upon deaf ears. And even though people would not believe it, he was to go right on proclaiming it. Maybe you have to be a preacher to catch the full significance of preaching a message with which God has burdened your heart and reaping negligible outcomes. And yet it was a mission Isaiah faithfully carried out for over fifty years.
But here is the part you need to see and hear. The Lord was not just making a prediction, but rather a predetermination. Allow me to quote from Isaiah 6, verses 9 and 10, which John cites in verse 40 of the passage before us. The Lord tells Isaiah to...
“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.’”
These are words of judgment pronounced upon a people for their rejection of God’s mercy and failure to recognize Him as the God of glory. And by citing Isaiah, John is telling us in verse 40 that is precisely what happened when Jesus came and faced the rejection of the people to whom He had been sent. They heard Him, but did not understand. They saw Him, but did not perceive. Their hearts were dull, their ears heavy, and their eyes blind. In John’s words, “the could not believe.”
Herein lies “the mystery of unbelief.” Over time, rejection or just plain neglect for the things of God can become so easily entrenched. The conscience can become so hard that it loses all feeling, so that “truth” can no longer be received and, by Divine fiat, “belief” becomes an impossibility. The cumulative effect of an “unbelieving” heart is a hardened disposition that becomes more and more impenetrable as time progresses. Perhaps you are hearing these words and know exactly what I mean.
There are those who think that this is what the Scriptures have in mind when they speak of the sin that cannot be forgiven (cf. Matthew 12:31-32, Mark 3:28-29, Luke 12:10). And they may indeed be correct. Writing in Romans 9:18, the Apostle Paul concludes, that God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” If anyone is to be saved, God must be the One to soften the heart and grant the ability to turn to Him. We are told elsewhere that the unregenerate heart is “dead in trespasses and sins” (cf. Ephesians 2:1). “Deadness” implies the absence of life, without which there is no feeling or ability to respond.
Not only does Isaiah’s prophecy describe “the mystery of unbelief” (what it is), but it explains why it happens. Make no mistake, my friends, every Word of God will ultimately find fulfillment. If you have not yet turned from your sin and entrusted yourself to the finished work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, I implore you to consider these thoughts and humble yourself before Him today.
If these words trouble you to the point of bringing conviction, that is a hopeful sign. But if you can hear them and walk away from them—as you may have done many times before—then may the Lord have mercy upon you. The only hope for any of us is to “believe” the Gospel, by repenting of our sin and trusting Jesus alone for salvation.
John dispels the notion that Isaiah’s prophecy refers to anyone other than Christ, when he adds in verse 41, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” To infer that anyone other than the pre-incarnate Jesus is the subject of Isaiah’s vision does violence to not only the standards of literary interpretation but to the basic rules of grammar as well. What John is telling us is that to reject Christ is to reject God Himself. We will return to that thought momentarily.
Given what has been said, verses 41 and 42 present us with an interpretive dilemma. Having discussed biblical basis for a theology of unbelief, John next tells us, “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.” This is a lengthy sentence, but boiled down to its essence it is an assessment of the genuineness of faith that these people had.
Yes, the text says these “authorities”—likely members of the Sanhedrin—“believed in him.” I am fully aware that some commentators have chosen to label these men as “secret believers.” But that is a phrase that has always troubled me. Is there really such a thing, especially when the Scripture exhort us to stand courageously for our faith? How can anyone keep “secret” what God tells us to “make known”? Romans 10:9 makes clear that “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Easter is all about Christ being “raised from the dead” and empowering His people to live lives that honor Him.
Instead, however, verse 42 tells us that these “authorities” “feared” others to the point of remaining silent about their faith. And verse 42 tells us why they were silent: “they loved (or preferred) the glory (or praise or approval of men)...more than the glory (or praise or approval) that comes from God.”
Does this sound familiar to you? Could it be that you are struggling with those same “fears” and “preferences”? Holding onto Christ with such a weak grip stands in stark contrast to Paul’s confident assertion found in Romans 1:16 and 17, where he asserts, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes...For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’”
I urge you on this Easter Sunday to let these words challenge you today. If you have never yielded to the risen Savior who gave His all for you, there can be no better day to renounce your sin and everything that has held you back, and turn to Him in saving faith. Be willing to move out from under the cloud of “unbelief” and respond to Jesus Christ as Lord.
That is precisely the offer that Jesus makes as chapter 12 draws to a close. In verses 44 through 50, we find Him laying out a final challenge for those who will to commit their way to Him. It is here that we discover...
The promise of Jesus (12:44-50).
What we find in the final words of this chapter is a summary of our Lord’s concluding appeal. As we have seen before, the inclusive nature of His offering to “believe in” Him is encouraging. There is a sovereign “mystery of unbelief,” but there is also a legitimate offer of faith presented by our Lord. We find it throughout this section in the repetition of terms like “whoever” and “if anyone.” Therefore, if you are living apart from Jesus Christ today, please give careful attention to what He teaches in this final paragraph.
“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.” Jesus is making a bold claim here, one that He has made on several occasions throughout this book. And that claim is that He is the self-expression and perfect manifestation of God. One of His disciples will soon ask to see the Father, and Jesus will reply, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (cf. John 14:9). Ultimately, to “believe in” Jesus is to “believe in” God; and to “see” the Son is to “see” the Father.
Several other passages of Scripture convey this same truth. In addition to John’s own prologue (cf. John 1:1-3 and 14), the writer of Hebrews (1:3) insists that Jesus “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” We also read in Colossians 1:15 that Christ “is the image of the invisible God.” But it was Jesus’ clear and unambiguous statement in John 10:30—“I and the Father are one”—that forever settled the issue.
These statements are important because we need to understand just who it is we are dealing with. Jesus is the very incarnation of God Himself. It is this One who took our sins upon Himself in order that we might gain access into the presence of God by means of the ransom price provided by His death on the cross.
Verse 46 says that He came “into the world as light, so that whoever believes in (Him) may not remain in darkness.” You will notice that “belief” in Jesus is the determining factor. But what does our Lord mean when He speaks of “believing in” Him? An answer is alluded to in verses 47 and it is imperative that we see this. “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him.” Please observe that parallel to “believing” in verse 46 are the two actions of “hearing” and “keeping” in verse 47. In other words, to “believe in Jesus” means to both “hear” and to “keep” (or abide) in what He says. The implication is that both actions are ongoing...the genuine believer is the one who keeps on hearing and keeps on obeying Jesus.
The failure to “believe” in Jesus in this way is referred to as “rejection” and “not receiving” His words in verse 48, and results in being ultimately “judged” by the very words that have been disregarded. What’s more, the judgment of “unbelief” that He refers to carries with it eternal consequences. Such is not an arbitrary judgment, but it is an inevitable one, based on fixed spiritual law. “Belief” and acceptance of Christ inevitably brings everlasting life, while “unbelief” and rejection of Him results in eternal condemnation.
In verse 47 Jesus said that He had not come to bring condemnation and judgment. Earlier, in John 3:17, we read that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And while that was His mission, He will not impose or force salvation upon anyone against their will. There is coming a day, however, in which Divine judgment will take place. And on that day, it is the Word of the Lord that will be the sole standard by which justice is rendered.
These are bold claims to make. Had anyone other than Jesus Christ made them, that one would have been considered a bold-faced liar or a self-crazed lunatic. But Jesus was neither of those things. He was and is and forever will remain the Lord of all creation. When He took on human flesh in the miracle of the incarnation, the Scriptures say that “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth , and that every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:8-11).
During His thirty-three-year sojourn among us, Jesus lived in perfect submission to the Father. Everything He said and did was in complete fulfillment and under the authority of the One who had commissioned Him. Although they are equal in Deity, authority has been granted to the Son by the Father. That is what Jesus alludes to in verses 49 and 50: “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”
Look again at the phrase: “His commandment is life.” Jesus does not say that God’s commandment “gives” life. Instead, He very clearly says, “His commandment is life.” There came a day when Jesus was asked which “commandment” was the greatest? His response was, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Not only in that one statement did Jesus encapsulate the entire Law of God, but in His one Person He embodied it and lived it. It was He alone who lived the life we could not live and died the death we should have died. Jesus Christ is the living personification of the commandment of God. And He demonstrated that to be true when He rose from the dead!
He first came to us as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and He will return as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (cf. Revelation 5:5) who has conquered and overcome for the glory of God and the good of His people. That He has arisen from the dead assures us that His Word is true and His every promise will be fulfilled.
Beginning with the passage we have considered today, Jesus will now withdraw from the crowds and enter into a time of private conference with His disciples. From here through chapter 17, a rather large section that covers the last few days and hours of Jesus’ earthly life, He will instruct them and prepare them for His impending death and departure from them. It will be a solemn time, and yet He will assure them that He will be returning. In His absence, they will be asked to carry on the mission that He has begun. By dying the death that provided the ransom for sinful men and women to be set free from the penalty of their sin, He will now charge them to take that “Good News”—that Gospel—“to the end of the earth” (cf. Acts 1:8). He will provide for them by empowering them for the task. They—like He—will face rejection...and, for some, even their own martyrdom.
There are several “takeaways” from the passage that I’ would like for you to consider:
- • First of all, we must recognize and admit that there is a “mystery of unbelief” that has enslaved and entrapped all mankind. We are not born into this life “innocent” or “inherently good.” We do not learn to be “sinners;” “sin” and “depravity” are in our spiritual DNA. Scripture vehemently insists that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10).
- • Second, the only hope that any of us have for redemption is to face our sin and realize that there is nothing we can do about it. What needs to be done has been done by the One God sent to pay the ransom price for our sin and to purchase us for Himself. This is what Good Friday and Easter are all about. Listen again to these words: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures...was buried...(and) raised again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
- • In the third place, Divine sovereignty does not eliminate or abrogate human responsibility. While it is true that no one can come to Christ unless God draws Him, it is equally true that God cannot be “faulted” if and when anyone chooses to reject Him (cf. Romans 9:19-21). Human beings are responsible for the choices that they make, and the Lord Himself will be the final Arbiter. When the last gavel is dropped, His ruling will be final and irrevocable.
- • The final point I wish to make has two parts:
- o If you remain in the realm of “unbelief,” let me urge you that the invitation of our Lord Jesus remains open to you. Perhaps you recall these words and may even be able to recite them from your childhood: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). I urge you to turn from your sin and commit yourself to Him today.
- o Now to those of us who are “believers,” let me add a closing word. We have looked up in amazement at the now empty but still blood-stained cross, and we have stared into the empty and open tomb. We know that our Savior lives, but there are days in the midst of life’s trials and temptations when we struggle to hold onto our faith. Please know that, in spite of your feelings—all of which come and go—Jesus has promised that He “will never leave you or forsake” those who are His (Hebrews 13:5). Therefore, go to Him often, spend ample time in prayer and the Scriptures, and continually claim His promise that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
If I were to ask you to describe what this Easter means to you by using only an exclamation point, I wonder which one you would choose.
- • Perhaps it would be a comma because it’s a day to give pause, to think and listen before moving on to something else.
- • Or maybe it would be a period because showing up for church is like a dead end, an empty ritual, and you can’t wait to move on to something else.
- • Quite possibly, you would choose a question mark because you’re still not sure what the cross and the empty tomb are all about or how it relates to you.
- • My prayerful hope is that you will—if you have not already done so—choose an exclamation point. That is because the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest event in history—nothing else even comes close—and it means for you that your sins are forever forgiven and that you are assured of eternal life in the presence of God.
Let Jesus Christ solve “the mystery of unbelief” for you.