Why Believing In Jesus Is Even Harder Than It Looks
How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? . . . But if you do not believe [Moses’] writings, how will you believe my words? John 5:44, 47
Some people think it’s easy to believe in Jesus. But real belief in the real Jesus is a miracle. Jesus said to his disciples, “It has been granted to you to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11). Sometimes God performs that miracle quickly, other times it comes hard, but it’s always a miracle. Some of us here this morning are having a hard time becoming definite about Jesus. But did you know that Jesus himself talked about that? Verse 44: “How can you believe?” Verse 47: “How will you believe?” He didn’t think it was easy. But he also has help for doubters who wish they were believers.
Those of us here this morning who are wholehearted for Jesus – do you realize what’s happening in this room right now? Here we are, a bunch of God-hating, hell-ignoring, sin-relishing but outwardly nice people who are actually loving Jesus. Do you realize what a miracle this is? This could not happen except for God. Let’s never be arrogant. We are living proof that God works miracles.
What I want you to see here in John 5:30-47 is how Jesus lines up four witnesses or evidences in favor of believing in him, and two barriers to him that are inside us, two reasons we struggle to believe. External to us are these four voices or realities that should persuade us to move toward Jesus and bond with him, and internal to us are these two obstacles or hindrances that keep us from him. Four reasons why we should believe in him, and two reasons why we can’t. And why is he saying all of this? If we are alert to the helps he offers and realistic about difficulties we create, we might be surprised how it gets easier to believe.
Witness 1: The Father (verses 30-32)
There is another who bears witness about me. John 5:32
The one bearing witness to Jesus here is the Father, the same as “him who sent me” in verse 30. And Jesus is saying that the Father is the one who validates the claims and judgments and teachings of Jesus. In these verses, our Lord isn’t divulging that he’s uncertain about himself; he is asserting that no one less than God is backing him up, because everything he stands for is in perfect harmony with God. He never moves or speaks on his own; he and the Father are in perfect sync. That’s what he’s saying.
Now, why does Jesus use the words “witness” and “testimony” here in verses 31 and 32? Because this world is like a huge court room. Jesus is the defendant. And John’s Gospel is bringing forward witnesses as character references for Jesus, so that we can be sure about him. I love that great song by The Who from 1971, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Our trust is often betrayed in this world of fraudulence. So we want to know for sure. And it gets personal. Haven’t all of us thought, “If only I could question him about why he did this in my life, and why he runs the world that way”? We don’t want to get fooled yet again. The Bible says, “Let your reasonableness be obvious to all” (Philippians 4:5). God himself shows us how. He gives us reasons, witnesses, evidences on behalf of Jesus.
The first witness is the Father himself. At the baptism of Jesus God said audibly to the whole world for the record, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” But here in John 5 Jesus is thinking of something else. The Father’s testimony is only to Jesus himself: “There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony he bears about me is true.” The Lord doesn’t say to us, “You know.” He says, “I know.” Jesus knew deep within that the Father was pleased with him. He knew where he stood with God. His conscience was clear before God. He had no fear of judgment. He claimed that judgment had been entrusted to him. So here is a man walking serenely through this world who feels he has nothing to answer for as he stands before God. His conscience accuses him of nothing. Instead, he hears the testimony of the Father that he represents the will of God perfectly. Who of us would say such things? Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus again says, “I have not spoken on my own authority. . . . What I say, I say as the Father has told me” (John 12:49-50).
Two things about the testimony of the Father to Jesus. One, obviously, what meant so much to Jesus proves nothing to us. But we do have to take into account what Jesus said – that he was in perfect harmony with the Father, as you and I are not. What do we make of that? Jesus said this for the very purpose of unsettling us and provoking us and getting us to think. What then do you do with his deep confidence that he and the Father are together taking a side in things that excludes all the rest of us, no matter how noble we may be? Was Jesus crazy? What if he was right? I wonder what you think.
Two, the audacity of Jesus helps us. Here’s how. When the gospel speaks to us of his love, it’s not because he needs us. He does not need our approval to feel complete. He has the full approval of the Father. And do you see there the benefit for us? His words of love toward us must be sincere. He’s coming to us not out of need but out of fullness. His love for us is free, and therefore real. Earlier in John’s Gospel it says, “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). He cannot run out of love, because his heart is full of the Father’s love.
Witness 2: John the Baptist (verses 33-35)
You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. John 5:33
Here is a witness for Jesus we went and found: “You sent to John.” He’s talking about John the Baptist, who was a popular preacher in his day. He formally introduced the world to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And people flocked to hear John preach. But popularity always fades. Verse 35: “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” John was just a lamp, like a light bulb, but Jesus was the sun. Switching on a lamp helps us, but it doesn’t help the sun. Verse 34: “Not that the testimony that I receive is from man.” In other words, our Lord’s own self-understanding didn’t depend on John the Baptist, or a guidance counselor at school, or his parents Joseph and Mary, or the enthusiastic public response in these early days. When Jesus started out, with the momentum of John’s preaching and his own dramatic baptism and his miracles, there was magic in the air. People were seriously thinking the messianic age was finally dawning, which it was. But Jesus didn’t need all that. He is opening his heart to us here not to draw out of us a reassuring response but for another reason. Verse 34: “I say these things that you may be saved.”
What do you think of this Jesus? Could he really be the Son of the Father bringing down to us a love we barely believe even exists? Jesus is saying here that he had all he needed within himself directly from God the Father. What do you do with that? He’s looking you straight in the eye and saying to you, “I don’t need you to rescue my identity. It’s you who need my rescue, because I alone bring God into this world.”
Witness 3: The Accomplishments of Jesus (verses 36-38)
The works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. John 5:36
He’s saying that his accomplishments reveal God to us. Jesus never said to his disciples, “Guys, this is a team effort. And I just want to thank you for your contribution.” No, Jesus saw it another way: “The works I’m doing are of God.” Yes, God is invisible, according to verse 37. But these Jewish people had the Old Testament. They should have recognized God in Jesus. He was the new Adam, the new exodus from our bondage, the new promised land of milk and honey, the new priest to forgive us, the new king to defend us, the new prophet to correct us. But when the Promised One showed up, even with all his accomplishments, the Old Testament did them no good. Why? Verse 38: “You do not have his word abiding in you.” If they had allowed the Bible to go deep into them, they would have seen the accomplishments of Jesus for what they were – fulfillments of the ancient prophecies. What Jesus did, and what the Bible says, converge as one. Jesus thought so. It’s why people who love him drink in the Bible. What’s more, the people back then, who actually saw Jesus working wonders, still needed the Bible to make sense of him – the Bible we have today. If we will follow the Bible, we will lock onto the real Jesus. He tells us more about that:
Witness 4: The Old Testament itself (verses 39-40)
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. John 5:39-40
That’s scary. How did they get it wrong? They treated the Bible itself as our life. The Bible is sacred. But, as what? It is sacred as the window through which we see Jesus, who is our life. What if you were on the top floor of the Bat Building in downtown Nashville, looking out over the city, with a glorious sunset in the background, and you’re savoring the view, and someone next to you says, “What a window! Look at how clear this glass is, and this frame shows such intelligence and precision!”? The Bible is there to show us Jesus, who is our life. And to study the Bible without being led to Jesus himself is to misuse the Bible itself. Any Bible reading that falls short of Jesus, as the interpretative key and as the personal goal, misses the point. In fact, studying the Bible can include refusing Jesus, verse 40. John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, said, “There is a way to hell even from the very gates of heaven.” But we may come to Jesus right now, as untaught people, with some wrong ideas, but with open minds. We may come to him not knowing just the right words to say. We may come as we are, with nothing but need, and he will give us life. That is the message of the Bible. Jesus thought so. What do you think?
Four witnesses in his favor – the Father, John the Baptist, his accomplishments, the Bible. But we bring our own complications into the court room. We who sit in judgment are not without bias. Here, briefly, are two barriers to belief down deep inside us all:
Barrier 1: Our popularity (verse 44)
How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? John 5:44
Jesus refused to stoop to being Messiah we wanted, in order to win our approval. That’s what he means in verse 41: “I do not receive glory from people.” That is, he does not suck up to human approval. I wish we could say the same. But the truth is, we crave glory from people. We’ll stoop to anything for human approval. And Jesus is asking us, How can you believe in me, when what you really want is to be applauded by people, and the love of God just doesn’t count for much? Do you realize that wanting too much to be liked by people blocks out the love of God?
What an insight into the psychology of faith! It will be easier for us to be caught up in the glory of Jesus, if we’ll care less about being glorified by people. The less impressed we are with people, the more impressed we’ll be with Jesus. Do we need to lose some friends, to get closer to Jesus? Last week we saw in Rosaria Butterfield someone with unmistakable faith. Remember what she said? “I lost everything but the dog.” And everyone who loses, in order to gain Christ, will tell you he’s worth it.
One thing that keeps us nicey-nice Christians from being unleashed as wholehearted Christians is our itch for human approval, when Jesus offers, on terms of his grace, full approval from the only God. Do you want to believe? Value the smile of God above the applause of people. After all, why not? People’s approval is hard won and easily lost. But God’s approval is free and permanent through his grace in Jesus.
The first barrier to faith in Jesus is horizontal, here at the level of our relationships. The other barrier is vertical, where we put our ultimate hope. This obstacle is not our despair, but our hope.
Barrier 2: Our hope (verses 45-47)
There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. John 5:45
When these people read the Ten Commandments, they felt obedient. So this barrier to faith in Jesus was not their moral failure but their moral success. They were keeping the law of Moses, at the level of outward behavior, and setting their hope there. They weren’t cutting corners. They were serious about doing the right thing. What more could God ask for? But Jesus says, “The very Moses you think will congratulate you on that great and final day – Moses will condemn you, because he wrote of me, he was pointing to me, the Savior of sinners. The law does not coach you in self-improvement. It calls you to hurl yourself at me for grace.”
It is a hard thing to give up hope in ourselves. It is a hard thing to lose our religion. It is a hard thing for us upright people to be saved like helpless sinners. False confidence is a huge barrier to faith in Jesus.
It’s so humiliating to face ourselves. But Jesus was humiliated for us at the cross. He suffered shame from us, in order to win us with real love. He’s not fishing for our approval. He’s not banking on our obedience. He is offering us his approval, because he obeyed the law for us.