UNBELIEF EXPOSED Trinity
John 12:36-43 27.9.23
If your friend who is not a Christian joined us, and goes home still not a Christian, you might put that down to any number of reasons: the preacher wasn’t clear, his sermon was boring, the songs were not up tempo enough, the welcome was cool, and so on. All or some of that might well be true.
None of that was true of Jesus, was it? He was never boring, glum or unwelcoming. What he said was never irrelevant, untrue, shallow, illogical, or spoken from a bad motive.
Why then after the spectacular raising of Lazarus out of his grave, and the grand parade attended by thousands as he rode into Jerusalem, does almost everyone walk away from him in unbelief? How can we explain that?
Wouldn’t you think the power of what he does and says would cut through the prejudice, self-protection, and short-sightedness?
Is it that while he would like to win people over, he is a fizzer? John 12:26-43 gives us a shocking answer to that question.
It starts with the statement “he departed and hid himself from them” (v36b). Can that be right? There are tens of thousands of people in Jerusalem for the Passover, and he hides from them?
Isn’t he supposed to be going for maximum coverage? It’s Monday or Tuesday, and no one knows where he is until Thursday. How do we explain that?
John explains it from something Isaiah the prophet said 600 years earlier. Not only that people would not believe what God has shown and said – verse 38 quoted that prophecy from Isaiah. More than that, it would be God himself who will stop them seeing and believing. That quote from Isaiah 6:10 is here in verse 41.
Look at the words. God “has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they do not see with their eyes and understand with their hearts, and turn to Jesus, and be healed.”
They can’t see because God has blinded them. They don’t get who Jesus is because he has made their hearts hard against him. Why? So that they can’t believe and be forgiven.
This is such a strange thing to say that it raises some real questions in our minds. Let’s try and understand what we read here by answering some of those questions:
1. But doesn’t God offer mercy to all?
Doesn’t God say to Israel “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 18:23)? Doesn’t Jesus say, “Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28)?
Then how can he say that he makes it so that people cannot see the truth about Jesus and turn and be saved?
A word of caution here: If you find two things in the Bible that seem to be at odds with one another, the solution is not to opt for one, and ditch the other, as though one cancels out the other. If the author of both parts is God, who is never contradictory, then we need to hold both things with passion, whether they seem to fit, or not.
Can God’s sovereign work of revealing Jesus to some and hiding him from others, fit with the way he holds out open arms of invitation to everyone?
It fits for Jesus. In Matthew 11:25,27, he prays: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth that you have hidden these things from the wise … and revealed them to little children … no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” He thanks God that he is as sovereign over belief as much as he is sovereign over unbelief.
Then in his next breath Jesus holds out a most free and gracious invitation “Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (11:28)
Jesus rests in the sovereign purpose of God over both belief for some and unbelief for others. At the same time freely offers the blessings of the gospel to anyone who will come to him.
Is there some mystery about this all fits together? Of course, there is. That’s okay; we don’t have God’s mind. Faith takes hold of all that God reveals and does not pick and choose.
2. If God has made the choice, does that mean we don’t choose?
God chooses who believes. And who doesn’t. He gives sight to some to see the truth and makes others blind so they can’t see it. Does that mean we don’t make a choice about Jesus?
Not at all. No one goes to bed an unbeliever and wakes up the next morning a follower of Jesus. John’s words back in 1:12 were that we receive him and believe in his name.
When people do not believe, they also make a choice. His own people “did not receive him” (1:11).
The choice we make about Jesus is real, conscious, and deliberate. The question John is answering here is: why do we make the real choices we do – whether to believe or not to receive him? Because of the sovereign will and plan of God.
Why is that belief so unpopular, even among Christians? Because we drink the spirit of the age, expressed in the poem ‘Invictus’ … “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul”.
But I am not. God, as ruler of all things, is. He doesn’t make choices in response to the choices I make. I make choices that are real, conscious, and deliberate as a flow on from the choices he makes.
3. If God blinds minds and wills, how can he judge us for not believing?
Not believing is a choice – a wrong and foolish choice – but a real choice, it is a choice for which God holds every person who does not believe accountable.
The more evidence, the greater the accountability. Did the leaders in Jerusalem know that Jesus had raised Lazarus from death? Yes. Did they therefore act on the evidence they had? No - they tried to kill Lazarus to remove the evidence.
Did they sign up with Jesus as more precious than anything? No – they “loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (v43). That love was real. That was the choice they had consciously and deliberately made. Of course, God will judge them for the sin of rejecting Jesus is the greatest sin of them all.
These words are so strange, we hardly ever read them, let alone hear a sermon on them, but here they are. Maybe we cannot fully comprehend them. But we must not ignore them or explain them away.
John is showing us Jesus in all his glory. He is not a failure or a fizzer. Unbelief does not win. The destiny of every man and woman, girl and boy are in his hand. – of every believer and unbeliever. He is Lord not only in half or part of the world, and the rest is somehow beyond him. He is over all of it, and everyone in it.
This means more blessings that you might think. I’ll tell you two of them:
Blessing #1 Contentment
When Isaiah the prophet was one day in the temple, he had a vision of God who filled the whole building. John says that he saw Jesus … “he saw his glory and spoke of him” (v41). It’s a great story which you can read in full in Isaiah chapter 6.
That was the day the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (6:8) When he recovered enough, Isaiah said “Here am I! Send me.” He is willing to be God’s spokesman.
With a big God behind him, how can he possibly miss? He’ll get a great response.
But no – God says “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.’” (6:9,10)
If I were Isaiah and I knew that my preaching was going to result in only more unbelief, I think I’d have withdrawn my offer to do it. How can Isaiah preach if the results of his preaching are only more unbelief? How does Jesus slog through 3 years of so much rejection and hatred, still holding his arms wide open to people?
If God is Lord over unbelief as much as of belief, then yes, they can. If God is big, really, really big, then, yes, they can keep going.
Can you keep telling the gospel to someone you love, even when they do not believe? Praying for them when there is no positive change? Or putting up with trouble because of your allegiance to Jesus? Or keeping on doing anything that is right even when there are no pats on the back for it?
If God is really, really big, and Lord over sin as much as faith, ‘success’ as much as ‘failure’, then, yes, we can.
It’s not just that God is big. But wise and good and full of mercy. Willing to bless much more quickly than to curse. That’s the pillow where lay our heads tonight. And sleep, contented with his mercy and his sovereign power.
Isaiah got up and went and preached. Jesus persevered in doing his Father’s will, even though it meant a cross. You and I hang in with wayward kids, praying unanswered prayers, enduring what hurts. Because the purposes of God are good and big, and always win.
Contentment doesn’t come easily, but this is the garden where it grows. Along with thankfulness. Nothing anywhere, good, or bad, is by chance, because the Lord Jesus is very, very big, and Lord of belief as much as unbelief.
Blessing #2 Confidence
We live in an anxious world, where the big scare word is ‘unprecedented’ … pandemics, global warning, out of control cost of living, longer hospital waiting lists, Russian and Chinese dictators breathing down all our necks.
For Christians, there are the added unprecedented unstoppable attacks on the idea of family, on morality and on religious freedom. It’s a wonder we can sleep.
We can, not because evil is not evil, or pressures don’t hurt. Not because evil man and crazy activists don’t wreck and destroy. They do!
What they do is not a denial of the Lordship of Jesus over all things. It is the outworking of it. John says here: even unbelief that is outrageous in the light of the most compelling evidence. Rather than wreck what God is doing in his world, Satan and evil and unbelief fulfil what he has planned to do.
Again, I am not asking if we fully understand how evil always serves the plan of God. I am asking if it is true. And whether we believe it is like that.
These words are meant to breed confidence. Jesus was not a failure because thousands to whom he preached shook their heads, and then their fists, and seemingly had their way when they killed him? Even wicked unbelief is under the sovereign hand of God and purposeful, never an accident, never out of control.
Even hell doesn’t mean that Jesus has failed – as if he couldn’t get over the line people he really wanted to save. Hell, rings with praise to God … since that is where deliberate rejection of Jesus is punished as the gross sin it really is … and no one will be there but by the sovereign choice of God. The theme of hell is victory, not defeat.
May I be clear. A weak insipid Jesus who is trying to get everyone to believe in him and failing, is no match for the powerful evil in our world. If unbelief has the big say and the last say, you’ve no reason to be confident about anything.
When Jesus, the real Jesus is big in your mind and heart, you can have a godly confidence that means you can sleep at night, you don’t have to win now, and you’ll be safe to the end.
This is because Jesus is Lord over unbelief as much as belief, no one here needs to despair. No one here is beyond being able to believe. No one is too bad to be accepted. No one need baulk or waver in coming to Jesus. No one need fear that he or she might commit to Jesus and then find it too hard to see it through.
John is offering us the Lord of all. The Lord who does what you can’t do. The Lord whose plans and goodness not even sin and Satan and the worst unbelief can conquer.
Once we truly see this Jesus, of course we will want to embrace him with our whole heart, won’t we?