Planned Unbelief, the Glorified Christ, & Our Salvation
Passage: John 12:36–50
Sermon from John 12:36b-50 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on June 1, 2014
A Theology of Unbelief in Light of Christ's Glory & God's Sovereignty
Today we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper together; and this Supper is one that Jesus instituted on the night he was betrayed (1 Cor 11:23). Chapter 12 of the Gospel of John—which we finish this morning—brings us right up to that particular night when Jesus was betrayed. John has walked us through the last three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and right here in chapter 12 everything is drawing to a close before Jesus enters that last night with his disciples—that night of his betrayal.
But before Jesus enters that night of betrayal, John summarizes the effect Jesus’ ministry had on his own people, the Jews. It didn’t close with happy songs of celebration and the conversion of the nation of Israel. It looked more like sweeping unbelief and rejection by Israel. Some believed—even if half-heartedly and with all sorts of reservations and qualifications—but for the most part, the Jews were full of unbelief when it came to Jesus. In many ways John has brought us full circle from the way he opened the Gospel. Chapter 1:11 says, “[Jesus] came to his own [the Jews], and his own people did not receive him.”
But John does something even more than just summarize the people’s massive unbelief: he tells us how to interpret the unbelief in light of Jesus’ glory and in light of God’s sovereign plan to save us. John doesn’t leave us in the dark about why Israel rejected their Messiah, but he gives us a context, a framework, a theology for understanding their rejection. I want to point this out to you in four statements about the Jewish unbelief mentioned in our passage.
1. The Unbelief Misses the Glory of Jesus
Number one, the unbelief misses the glory of Jesus. We see this first in verse 37. John writes, “Though [Jesus] had done so many signs [or miracles] before them, they still did not believe in him.” What were the signs meant to reveal throughout Jesus’ ministry? I’ll give you a clue from the very first sign he performed—changing the water into wine at Cana (2:1-11)—and another clue from the very last sign he performed—raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44).
When Jesus changed the water to wine in Cana, the Bible says this: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him” (2:11). Note that: he “manifested his glory” and “his disciples believed in him.” That was his first sign. Then, right before he raises Lazarus from the dead—which is his last sign (cf. 12:18)—Jesus says this to Martha: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Did you hear that? “If you believed you would see the glory of God” in his raising of Lazarus.
The Unbelief Missed Jesus' Glory Revealed through the Signs
God gave Jesus signs to perform, so that when he performed them, his glory as Son of God would be displayed and people would believe—and not just believe “that man performed a miracle” but believe “that man is God’s Son.” The signs were like a sunbeam piercing through the clouds. You can look at the sunbeam or you can look along the sunbeam to see the sun itself some 92 million miles away. Similarly, you can look at Jesus’ signs and stop there; or you can look along Jesus’ signs to see his true glory.
Where the Jews go wrong is that the large majority of them never look along the signs to behold the glory of God’s Son, even though he’s been telling them to all along (cf. 5:20, 36; 9:3; 10:25): “My Father is working until now and I am working” (5:17); “whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (5:19); “the very works I’m doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me” (5:36); “believe the works [that I do], that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:38). He’s told them, but they don’t believe Jesus’ words; and so the signs never budge their hardened hearts toward genuine, saving faith in God’s Son. They miss Jesus’ glory because they refuse to believe Jesus’ words (cf. 5:47; 12:47-48). A few believe—like his disciples—but the majority miss him.
The Unbelief Missed Jesus' Glory Revealed through the Scriptures
Another way the Jews miss Jesus’ glory is that they fail to see in Jesus what their own Bible’s reveal about his glory (cf. 5:39-47). In the next few verses, John quotes from two different places in the prophet Isaiah. The first quotation you see there—“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”—that’s a quotation from the first verse in Isaiah 53.
Isaiah 53 is the chapter in our Bibles where God promises to remove his people’s sin through a Suffering Servant. You likely know it well: God’s Servant would be wounded for our law-breaking; he would be crushed for our iniquities; he would bear the sin of many; and in so doing, God would give guilty people a right standing before him (Isa 53:5, 11-12). We know from the New Testament that happened when Jesus Christ died on the cross: he is the Suffering Servant who bore our sins that we might gain a right standing with God (2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:22-24). Jesus was crushed for our law-breaking that we might gain peace with God (cf. Isa 53:5; Rom 5:1).
But Isaiah also tells us a couple of significant things about this Suffering Servant that fit what John is developing in our passage. I mentioned this last week, but when we looked at verse 32, we saw that Jesus uses the language of “lifting up” to talk about his exaltation on the cross. And that language of being “lifted up” comes from Isaiah, whenever God promised that his glory alone would be above all other nations and peoples. And then amazingly, in Isa 52:13—which is basically the intro to Isa 53—God applies the same language of being “lifted up” to his Suffering Servant: “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.”
So God’s Servant will be glorious—high, lifted up, exalted. But when God’s Servant shows up to deliver God’s people from their sins, he would take such a humble posture—such a lowly position among men—that they would despise him. Isaiah 53:2 says, “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.” The Servant’s worth and value never changed—he was still worthy of exaltation when he would come. It’s just that nobody else would recognize his worth and his value when he would come.
Hold that in your mind, and then notice that John also quotes from Isa 6:10. “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart” and so forth—that comes from Isa 6:10. And Isaiah 6 is the chapter in our Bibles where God reveals himself to Isaiah from his heavenly throne room in the midst of the heavenly temple. Isaiah sees the Lord, “high and lifted up and the train of his robe filled the temple. Seraphim stood above him each having six wings, and with two he covered his face and with two he covered his feet and with two he flew, and one called out to the other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa 6:1-3).
Now bring that vision of God’s majestic glory together with the vision of God’s humble Servant, because John says in verse 41, “Isaiah spoke of these things [think Isa 53 and Isa 6], because he saw [Jesus’] glory and spoke of him.” Meaning, the vision of God in Isa 6 and the prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isa 53 are related, because they’re both speaking about the glory of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The King on the throne in Isa 6 is also the Servant on the ground in Isa 53, and both come together beautifully in the person of Jesus—the eternal Word made flesh (John 1:1, 14). His heavenly glory may be hidden as he stooped to the role of a Servant, but that didn’t make him less glorious—it put even more of his glory on display, like the glory of his humility, and the glory of his compassion toward sinners, and the glory of his patience with scoundrels, and the glory of his love toward a fallen world.
But the Jews are missing the glory of this Servant. They don’t see that the One who has shone with his Father’s glory for eternity has become a Servant to rescue them from sin and all its consequences. They miss the glory of Jesus, because—much like the Jews did in Isaiah’s day—they refuse to believe God’s words about him. Isaiah spoke of Jesus’ glory in the throne room and he spoke of Jesus’ glory as the Suffering Servant, and the majority of Israel rejected his message—save a remnant. The same was true for Jesus, it’s just that the One seated so high on heaven’s throne was now telling his people these things, not merely through another man like Isaiah but as a man.
Unbelief misses Jesus’ glory, because it refuses to listen to God’s spoken word—like through Isaiah—and to God’s Living Word—namely, Jesus. That’s the whole point of verses 45-50, to remind us that Jesus speaks the very words of God and is himself the very self-revelation of God. “Whoever sees me sees him who sent me…I’ve 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.”
Unbelief misses Jesus’ glory, because it refuses to listen to Jesus’ words; and how detrimental it will be to us if we do not give attention to Jesus’ words. Verse 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.” God gave us words in the Scriptures, and he sent the Word-made-flesh, that we would not miss his glory in the Son; and may we give due attention to the Word every day that we might not overlook Jesus’ glory.
The Jews miss his glory here, because they don’t believe Jesus’ words. But why is that? If the eternal Lord of the universe has chosen to manifest his glory by sending his Son to take to himself a human nature, so that people see God, then why have they so easily dismissed him? Why don’t they want to listen to his words?
2. The Unbelief Loves the Glory of Man
That brings us to our second statement about the unbelief of the Jews, namely, the unbelief loves the glory of man. Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory and spoke of him, but there are some mentioned here who’ve seen glimpses of Jesus’ glory and refuse to speak of him; and their refusal to speak of Jesus’ glory exposes the root of the unbelief infecting all of Israel and everybody who sits in unbelief. Unbelief is rooted in a love for the glory that comes from man over the glory that comes from God.
Look at it with me in verses 41-43: “Isaiah said these things because he saw [Jesus’] 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.” Because of that note right there, I don’t take John to mean these authorities had genuine, saving faith; they had the same spurious and fickle kind of faith we’ve seen among the Jews throughout the Gospel of John (2:23-25; 4:43-48; 6:2, 66; 7:3-5; 8:30, 47; 12:18, 37). There’s something attractive about Jesus, but not enough to make them stick around when he says hard things. There’s something drawing them to Jesus initially, but they’re not willing to take his side when the Jews want him dead. That doesn’t mean they’ll continue having this spurious faith (cf. 7:50-51; 19:38-39), but it’s certainly what they have here—a sort of faith that withholds full allegiance to Christ.
And why is it so spurious? Why is part of them still disbelieving? Why are the Pharisees so scary, and why is the loss of reputation in society so haunting? Verse 43, “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” That’s the root of unbelief in Israel, and it’s the second time we’ve seen it explicitly exposed. Jesus exposed it just as strongly in 5:44. He told the Jews there, “How can you believe [meaning it’s impossible for you to believe], when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”
Their failure to see Jesus’ glory is not just an intellectual problem, it’s not just an “ahh!-if-we’d-only-put-Isaiah-together-differently!” kind of problem. Their missing of Jesus’ glory is fundamentally a moral problem, it’s a “what-you-love” kind of problem. Right at unbelief’s ugly core is the love for the glory of man over the glory of God—it’s elevating the opinions of others over who God is and what he says is true. It’s elevating the creature over the Creator; it’s an attempt to stand the universe upside down.
And that’s not just a Jewish problem; that’s a universal problem that’s been present since the Serpent tempted our first parents in the Garden, and a problem for which we all stand guilty in Adam. Apart from God’s grace, we are lovers of the glory of man over the glory of God. The approval of others feels so good to our sinful flesh, which covets the praise and attention and acceptance of people. But what we must see here is that the desire for human praise is always opposed to the glory of Christ—because the desire for human praise ultimately says, “I am the glorious one. I must preserve my image before others. I must please everybody else. I must win their praise. I must keep this status before them. I must be the impressive one. I must keep others from seeing my weaknesses. I must hide my shame and prove I’m great.”
That love for the glory of man missed Jesus’ glory, made him bleed, and hung him on a cross. The rejection of Jesus by the Jews—who loved the glory of man over the glory of God—is horrific, because it blasphemes and condemns the One who’s truly glorious. That ought to sober us the next time we desire the praise of others, or go fishing for compliments, or present a façade instead of the real you, or pretend like we don’t need anybody’s help when we do, or get jealous when someone else gets more attention on social media than you do.
Love for the glory of man will blind you to Jesus’ glory, and you will miss him altogether as the majority of Israel missed him when he came. But there was no doubt in Isaiah’s mind who was truly glorious, when he saw the throne room. He said, “I am lost!” and pronounced a curse on himself. He was totally undone before the glory of the Lord of hosts. And those things are written in Isa 6 and these things are written in John 12, so that you don’t miss Jesus’ glory, but see him for who he is—the glorious King of the universe who became a Servant to take away your sins, to forgive you of your desire for human praise. If you listen to his words, if you trust what he says, then your eyes will be opened to see his glory—and in seeing his glory as the only Son of God, you will find eternal life and be changed (John 20:30-31; 2 Cor 3:18).
3. The Unbelief Was Part of God’s Sovereign Plan to Save Us
We have to keep going; there’s more to this story of unbelief. To this point we’ve seen that unbelief misses the glory of Jesus—statement one—because unbelief is rooted in a love for the glory of man—statement two. Here’s statement number three: the unbelief was part of God’s sovereign plan to save us. Let’s go back now to the quotations from Isaiah in verses 37-40 and look more carefully at their content and how John quotes them. Verse 37, “Though [Jesus] had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that [or better “in order that”] the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.” That’s the first indication that tells us the unbelief was part of God’s sovereign plan. They didn’t believe for this purpose: that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.
And what is that word? It’s a word that prophesied of their unbelief: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” In other words, “Who in Israel would believe that God would choose to save the world this way, by sending a Servant to suffer so greatly unto death? Even if I tell them about the Servant, who’s going to believe it?” It’s kind of like what Paul says in 1 Cor 1:23—“We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” But this sort of response to Jesus was part of God’s plan; he even revealed it in Scripture.
Then verses 39-40 give us an even stronger statement that the unbelief was part of God’s plan: “Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He [i.e., 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.’” In other words, their unbelief was necessitated by God’s plan revealed in Scripture. Nothing could happen to the contrary of God’s plan as he revealed it beforehand in Scripture. The sweeping unbelief among the Jews is not an accident. It was part of God’s sovereign plan; and you can read more about that plan in Rom 9-11 when you get home.
So God has planned the unbelief in Israel. He is blinding their spiritual eyes and hardening their heart by leaving them to their own corrupt desires and by leaving them in their love for the glory of man, just as he said would happen in Scripture. We must remember that we’re not dealing with morally neutral people here; we’re dealing with people who are already sinfully bent on loving the glory of man. If anybody comes to love the glory of God, it’s because God transforms them by his grace. We saw this some already in 1:11-13 and 3:19-21. In both places we find that the world is morally opposed to Jesus by nature, unless God in mercy chooses to deliver.
So, the hardening of which he speaks here is a judicial one—God is leaving them to their own devices, and he’s doing it in accordance with his sovereign purposes already revealed in the prophet Isaiah. The Jews can become nothing but hardened against the truth unless God acts upon their souls and changes them from the inside-out. Their unbelief is their own, and God has planned it for his purposes.
That doesn’t mean God is sinful to ordain the unbelief of the Jews. We know from other places in Scripture that God cannot be tempted with evil (Jas 1:13) and that evil may not dwell with him (Ps 5:4). The situation also doesn’t mean that the Jews are relieved of their responsibility for their sinful unbelief against Jesus. We’ve already seen in verse 43 that their unbelief is rooted in a moral disposition that’s utterly opposed to Jesus and also condemnable, since it elevates man’s glory above God’s (cf. Rom 1:21-28). So, God is able to ordain this unbelief without himself being sinful and cannot himself be blamed for their unbelief; the Jews are still responsible.
What John is getting at by setting the Jews’ unbelief in the context of God’s sovereignty is that Jesus isn’t approaching his death by mere accident. He has come in accordance with his Father’s sovereign plan. The mounting unbelief of the Jews will lead to his suffering under Roman law and his cursed death on a cross reserved for criminals, and none of it is escaping God’s plan. In fact, God’s plan necessitates that matters happen this way. Even when we get to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in 13:18-19, we’re told that he will betray Jesus to fulfill the Scripture, “He who ate my bread has lifted up his heel against me.” God’s plan extends down to the very details of Judas eating a piece of bread with Jesus before betraying him. The unbelief is mentioned as part of God’s plan to show us that Jesus will die as part of God’s plan.
The cross is God’s doing. The unbelief was horrific in and of itself—and even worse was what the unbelief led to, the crucifixion of the all-glorious Christ. But what John wants us to see—even better, what God wants us to see—is that Jesus’ cross was not merely an accident of history, but a gift from a sovereign God who loves sinners and has put a plan in place to rescue them. We would have never thought of this plan; we love the glory of man too much. And even when God told his own people the plan, they didn’t believe it either. But this was the plan, to subject his own Son to the evils of this world that God might offer him as a sacrifice for our sins.
And this is very good news for us. If God is sovereign over the sin and unbelief when Jesus heads to the cross, does it not speak volumes about his love for us that he still offered him up for our sins on the cross? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Saturating the events surrounding Jesus’ death is sweeping unbelief—mounting rejection of God’s only Son, love for the glory of man all over the place—and still God offers up Jesus on our behalf. He ordains his Son endure the unbelief and his Son willingly subjects himself to the unbelief, so that we might be forgiven for the very rebellion that put his Son on the cross to begin with. That’s good news if you believe it. Forgiveness of sins despite my rebellion is good news!
Moreover, if God is sovereign over the evil when Jesus heads to the cross, then that means evil has never been in ultimate control of this universe and that evil will not and cannot ultimately prevail in this universe. God is in control of evil, and if he controls it, then he can ultimately do something about it. If God is sovereign over every darkness leading up to Jesus’ death, then that means he’s sovereign over the darkness we experience now, and has even given an answer for it already in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—the theology of Gen 50:20 can be written over the whole of Jesus’ suffering and death: “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.” The darkness of this world seemed to swallow up Jesus’ body on the cross (cf. 13:30)—and it pretended to win, not realizing that in Jesus’ death, the darkness had just sealed its fate once and for all. God was in control, and three days later he raised Jesus from the dead and declared victory over the darkness of sin, death, and the devil. And he now reigns from heaven, promising to bring all he secured on the cross to its final completion in a new heaven and a new earth on the Last Day, where there will be no darkness for all Jesus’ followers.
More than that, Jesus’ victory at Calvary means the darkness of this present age can hold no ultimate sway over God’s elect (Gal 1:4; 1 John 5:18); it can only serve God’s purposes in Christ (Rev 6-17); and when the darkness produces suffering, God has purposes in it to produce more endurance in God’s saints (Rom 5:3-5), which then serves our conformity to Christ (Rom 8:28-29), which then adds to our present joy (Jas 1:2-5), which then increases our volume of worship in heaven when God defeats it totally (2 Cor 4:17-18), which then proves to a watching world that God is the supreme Treasure (Ps 73:26; Heb 10:32-34).
The darkness will not win in the last day, and it is not winning now despite all appearances (cf. John 1:5; 16:33). The sovereignty of God in the death of Christ teaches us that all of history is upheld by an all-wise and caring Creator, who is directing history toward a very good ending, when everything holy will be lifted up in his kingdom and when everything evil will be punished outside his kingdom (Rev 4-6). If you believe in him—if you believe God offered up Jesus on the cross according to his sovereign plan to save the world—then you get the kingdom now. If you don’t, you’ll miss the kingdom now and on the last day you’ll be cast out forever.
But here’s even more good news: if God is sovereign over the unbelief that led to Jesus’ death, then that means he is also sovereign to change your unbelieving heart into one that believes. If this passage about God’s sovereignty over people’s hearts has driven you to despair, then you’re in a good place to see that your only help will come by miracle from above. It’s called the new birth.
God’s sovereignty over unbelief means we can cry to him for help to change our state of unbelief into one of belief—whether you’re a believer struggling to believe or an unbeliever. God has the power to overcome every rebel desire in us and change them all into desires for Christ and his glory. These things were not written to leave you speculating whether or not your unbelief is unchangeable. First of all, it’s at the height of arrogance to put yourself in the place of God, pretending that you can see things about unbelief that are only in his hands. Second of all, it shows that you have a warped view of God, as if he’s playing tricks with you about what he’s really like. And third of all, he’s told you exactly what he’s like and why he’s written these words about himself: “these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31); and he also says, “whoever comes to me, I will never cast out” (6:37).
4. The Unbelief in You Need Not Remain
And this actually leads us to our fourth statement about unbelief: the unbelief in you need not remain—whether you’re a disciple or not. Knowing all this about God’s sovereignty over the unbelief in Israel, Jesus appeals once again for them to believe. 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.’” How do you escape the darkness? Believing in Jesus.
This is exactly how the apostles pull together the sovereignty of God in Jesus’ death and the responsibility of man to believe throughout the book of Acts. Peter declares, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23); and by the time he finishes his sermon Peter says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). God changes unbelievers into believers through the preaching of his sovereign plan in Christ.
Paul says nearly the same thing in Acts 13:26-27, “For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize [Jesus] nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.” That is breathtaking. Can you imagine how this preaching would sit on those who actually nailed Jesus to the cross? “You fulfilled the Scripture by condemning Jesus.”
You know what that message does? It rips your inner pride to shreds and exposes that you are desperately in need of radical transformation—that even though you had read the Bible all along, you weren’t getting it, because you missed your Messiah. It’s devastating to your pride, when heard rightly and with the Spirit’s help. And then Paul comes in and says this: “Let it be known to you therefore…that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is [justified] from everything from which you could not be [justified] by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). The message of God’s sovereign plan to save the world by offering up his glorious Son at the hands of sinful men is not meant to confuse us; it’s meant to humble us before his grace that we might find the forgiveness of our sins in Jesus.
God roots out unbelief not by keeping things about himself from you, but by revealing what’s true about himself for you. He is the only sovereign over the universe and he has given up his only Son into the hands of sinners, so that he would become a sacrifice for your sins, an offering for your unbelief. Christ crucified may be a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, he is the power and wisdom of God for salvation (1 Cor 1:21-24).
So let us remember God’s sovereign kindness in Jesus’ death as we come now to the Lord’s Supper, and let us put all our trust in God to overcome our unbelief by his mighty power and grace so freely given through the cross. Ask God to change you by his Spirit this morning, so that you will learn to love the glory that comes from God more than the glory that comes from man. One of the Spirit’s roles is to take the cross of Christ and apply its saving power to your inner person, so that you love the glory of God in Christ over everything else (John 7:38-39; 15:26; Rom 5:5). He helps us see Jesus for who he truly is. Ask God to fill you with his Spirit that Jesus will be forever precious to you. And then look again to the work God will finish at Jesus’ return, when by his sovereign power all who have chosen to follow Jesus will never sin again. In an instant, God will take away every ounce of unbelief for Jesus’ followers and fill us with nothing but forever-affections for Jesus and his glory. When you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes to do that in us, church, once and for all.
If you have yet to believe, my word to you is that of Jesus: “believe in him, that you may not remain in darkness.” Cry out to him for mercy, and he will have you.
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