The Difficulty of Faith: At the end of his public ministry, people were still divided over who Jesus was. Some believed in him, while others did not. Even some of the people who saw Jesus do things that only God could do struggled to believe. How could this be? Because faith is a battle. But Jesus didn’t punish or shame people who struggled with their faith. He continued to invite them into the life, light, and love of a relationship with him. Recorded on Jan 21, 2024, on John 12:37-50 by Pastor David Parks.
Finding Life in Jesus’ Name is a sermon series on the gospel according to John in the Bible. Have you ever felt unsatisfied with your life? Or, even when things were going well, something was still missing? Many people sense there must be something more. But what?? John, one of the closest friends of Jesus, believed that Jesus came into the world so that we may have life and have it to the full. Jesus turned John’s life upside down, and John claims this new life — marked by God’s power, presence, and purpose — is available for all who believe.
Well, today, we’re continuing to work through The Gospel According to John in a series called Finding Life in Jesus’ Name. We’ll be finishing John chapter 12, considering the end of the public ministry of Jesus and the difficulty of faith. If you’re new to the Christian faith, you might assume that having faith in God is easy because you (what?) just believe. That doesn’t sound hard, right? It’s not what you do that saves you; salvation is a gift of God’s grace we receive by faith in Jesus Christ. But if you’ve been a Christian for a little longer, if you’ve really tried to follow the way of Jesus, then you probably quickly saw how difficult faith can be — faith is a battle. I’ve been a pastor for almost 13 years now, but I’ve been a Christian pretty much my whole life. But for years now, do you know what has had to stay at the top of my daily to-do list? It just says, “Pray.” Do you know why? Because otherwise, I forget to pray! I’ve had some incredibly powerful times in prayer. I’ve had God dramatically answer my prayers. I’m definitely the best version of myself when I consistently spend time with God in prayer. So why on earth would I forget to do something that is so helpful and powerful for me? Because of the difficulty of faith. It doesn’t come easy. Even after all these years, even with everything I know about who God is, I still get distracted, tempted, confused, anxious, or afraid. What’s going on? Have you ever wondered why faith is a battle? In our passage for today, we see the difficulty of faith, but we also see the beautiful and gracious response of Jesus. If you have a Bible/app, please take it and open it to John 12:37. Let’s work through this together.
John 12:37–41 (NIV), “37 Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. 38 This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.” 41 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.” Ok, let’s pause here. If you’ve been with us for the past few weeks, you’ll know that we are in the week leading up to the cross. Jesus was anointed in Bethany by his friend and follower, Mary. Then, we had the triumphal entry of Jesus when he was welcomed as a king coming into the city of Jerusalem. Then last week, Justun preached on Jesus’ favorite title for himself, Son of Man. And we saw that the Son of Man title pointed to both the kingship of Jesus as the promised king of the kingdom of God and also his identity as the suffering servant of Isaiah. Next week, with the start of John chapter 13, we have the Last Supper and all the teachings and events that happened on the night before the cross. So here, we have the end of his public ministry. And John summarizes the whole middle section of his gospel by saying that even though Jesus had performed so many signs in the presence of so many people, they still would not believe in him. We’ve seen this for several months now. Jesus would do something amazing, saying/doing something that only God could say/do. But the response has consistently been mixed. Some believe, while others do not. The people were divided over who Jesus was. But this wasn’t an accident. John says in v. 38 that this was to fulfill God’s word in Isaiah. And then he gives us two different quotes from Isaiah 53 and Isaiah 6. Chapter 53 talks about the work of this suffering servant, that he would take our sins, he would suffer and die, but he would see the light of life and be satisfied, providing justification for many. But Isaiah wondered, who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? This is a reference to seeing the miraculous signs of God’s power/work in the world. And this is an important point. Because I think it’s tempting for us to think that if we were there, if we had seen God part the sea or feed the thousands or walk on water, then our faith would be unshakable. But, not every ancient Israelite who lived through the many signs and wonders that God performed during the time of the Exodus had perfect faith after seeing all of that. And the disciples’ faith seemed to come and go fairly easily even after seeing Jesus do incredible things. Both then and during the time of Jesus and today, miraculous signs can help your faith, but they never guarantee your faith. Seeing isn’t always believing. Someone who is firmly stuck in their unbelief will believe all manner of things, sometimes preposterous things, so they don’t have to change their a priori beliefs. Some people call this confirmation bias. I call it foolish pride. Their eyes are blind, and their hearts are hard. These are metaphors for being closed to repentance/faith/God. John contrasts these people to the prophet Isaiah, a man whose eyes were open, whose heart was soft, and who saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him. Some 700 years before this time, John says that the vision from Isaiah chapter 6, of seeing the throne room of God and seeing God high and lifted up, was actually a vision of Jesus in glory before the incarnation. Despite this glorious heavenly experience, when God commissioned Isaiah as his prophet, he said that Isaiah’s ministry would not be obviously fruitful. Many people would continue to be blind and hard-hearted, no matter what he might say. If you read Isaiah, it’s such an impressive piece of work. If it weren’t in the bible, it would be studied on its own as one of the great literary works of history. Isaiah was brilliant, but his genius didn’t guarantee that everyone who heard him would believe. John uses these references to remind us that the difficulty of faith didn’t start with Jesus. In many ways, it was the story of God’s relationship with Israel. And yet…there was always a remnant of people who did believe. Not perfect, but faithful men and women. We see that in v. 42 back in our text.
John 12:42-43 (NIV), “42 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved human praise more than praise from God.” So some saw the signs but didn’t believe. Others believed in Jesus, including (interestingly) even some of the Jewish leaders at this point, but they were afraid to admit it because they loved human praise more than praise from God. This is what John said back in chapter 7, that “…no one would say anything publicly about [Jesus] for fear of the leaders.” (Jn 7:13). Or you might remember that the parents of the man who was born blind who was healed by Jesus were afraid of being put out of the synagogue. (Jn 9:22). And this was no small threat. Being excommunicated from the synagogue meant being cut off from all your friends, from your whole social network, from your reputation as a good person, possibly from your ability to do business with your neighbors, and from your ability to worship God with the people of God. But can you be a Christian and still be a coward? Can you have authentic faith and give in to your fears? Yes, you can. Now, I wouldn’t recommend it. Fear is often presented by Jesus as the opposite of faith, and faith the antidote to fear. But, thank God, our salvation doesn’t depend on the strength of our courage. It only ever depends on the courageous work of Christ. However, here, at the end of almost three years of public ministry, of Jesus preaching and teaching, healing and casting out demons, performing many signs and wonders, and sharing his life with his disciples, John says the outcome, like Isaiah’s ministry, was, at this point, not obviously fruitful. How would Jesus respond? Would he lash out in anger? “How dare you people reject me? The King of kings and the Lord of lords? Or would he turn inward and have a crisis of faith himself? Am I the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God?” No. That isn’t Jesus. We see his response in v. 44.
John 12:44-46 (NIV), “44 Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. 45 The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” So Jesus doesn’t get angry. And he doesn’t question his identity. He responds to this fairly unimpressive display of faith with a broad invitation: “Whoever believes in me [anyone who believes in me, both then and now] does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me.” And “no one who believes in me [will] stay in darkness.” This is so great! When you believe in Jesus, you are believing in God the Father in heaven, and vice versa. Jesus will tell us more about this union that he enjoys with the Father. But here, he promises light for those who believe, and light typically refers to truth and glory in John’s gospel. Now, if I were Jesus, I would’ve been so frustrated with these people. “Have you not been paying attention to what I’ve been doing? Have you not been listening to what I’ve been saying?” I would’ve wanted to smack people with the light of truth and punish them. And yet, Jesus is not frustrated at the difficulty of their faith. He doesn’t berate them, shame them, or write them off as hopeless idiots. Jesus isn’t threatened by their fears, doubts, or questions. He just continues to speak/minister to them. He continues to invite them deeper into a relationship with him, to see him more truly and believe in him more fully. He continues to offer light to those living in the land of darkness (which may be a third reference to Isaiah 9). He continues to offer a way to those who do not know the way and life to those who are dying. According to Jesus, all this comes by faith, by believing and trusting in him. But with such a simple way to receive Jesus and with a subsequent faith that might seem fragile at best, how can we know that we are truly saved? How can we know we are truly his and are not false disciples like Judas? Jesus ends his public teaching by giving us a simple way to test our faith. Let’s finish our passage with v. 47.
John 12:47-50 (NIV), “47 “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. 49 For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. 50 I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” This is God’s word. So, the simple way to test our fragile faith is this: if we obey the words/commands of Jesus. Jesus said elsewhere that you can know a tree by its fruit. The fruit of faith, no matter how fragile, will be a commitment to do what Jesus says. Bible study is one of the key behaviors of mature Christians. But Bible study is only as helpful as it produces real change/transformation in your life. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Now, this test of obedience doesn’t deny the difficulty of faith. Because Christians are not yet made perfect. We are in the process of being made holy, so neither our faith, our knowledge of the truth, nor our obedience will yet be perfect. However, for true believers, there will be a commitment to put the words of Jesus into practice as best they can, to repent when they realize they’ve failed to do so in some area of life, and to continue on in faith once again knowing they are forgiven in Christ. This is the Christian life. Now, as promised, Jesus also tells us more about the union he enjoys with his Father in heaven. He goes on from saying that if you believe in him, you believe in the Father who sent him, and if you see him, you are seeing his Father, to if you listen to Jesus, you are listening to the words of the Father. They are one. This is why Jesus is the complete revelation of God; he is the living embodiment of the word of God; he is God’s word made flesh. So, if you fail to see/listen to/believe in him, you fail to see/listen to/believe in God. Thus, the same words that bring hope/healing/life to those who believe are words that reveal the condemnation of those who do not believe. Now, someone might think, wait, this isn’t fair, is it? Why doesn’t Jesus save everyone? But you have to remember the message of the whole Bible: Jesus didn’t come into a good world to make it better. He came into a dying world in rebellion against God and deserving of complete condemnation, and he won forgiveness and life through his own sacrificial death and his resurrection from the dead. The Christian gospel is not first a life improvement plan, although if you follow Jesus, you will find that his way is the best way to live. The gospel is, first and foremost, a rescue mission. And it was one that required the death of the Son of God to make it work. So the grace of God, given freely to us, though it was costly to Christ, is never fair. It is never something we earn or deserve. It’s a gift. But it’s a gift that leads to eternal life in Jesus’ name. Now, one day, on the other side of eternity, we will be made new. Jesus will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away. Then, in that day, we will not have to live by faith alone, for we will see him face to face. But for today, on this side of eternity, between the first resurrection of Jesus and the final resurrection of the dead, we have to walk by faith and not sight. And so we have to learn to live with the difficulty of faith. In many ways, this is what it looks like to learn the way of Jesus. It’s a life-long lesson that we can trust the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and not have to lean on our own understanding.
So, what does this mean for us today? How might we apply this to our lives? Well, I’d like to close with two brief thoughts: first, how this relates to others when they struggle to believe, and second, how we might persevere in our faith. First, how this relates to others. I hope that seeing the difficulty of faith of people who saw Jesus with their own eyes and experienced first-hand the incredible things that he did gives you empathy for your friends or family members who might struggle with their faith today. Faith is hard. Even when you do believe, it takes the whole rest of your life to grow and mature in your faith and be transformed in the likeness of Christ. Let’s refuse to give into frustration, to berate or shame those who are struggling in their faith. Jesus didn’t do this, and neither should we. We must remain faithful and hopeful and continue to offer the broad invitation of the gospel to all into the light of the truth and glory of Jesus. Second, how might we persevere in our faith? We must understand we are not seeking to follow Jesus in a neutral environment; this is a spiritual battlefield. So we must fight the good fight, fighting against the temptation of our own flesh, against the spiritual confusion/idolatry of the world, and against the spiritual forces of darkness looking to divide/distract/destroy the people of God. We must live with intention and purpose. No one drifts into the way of Jesus. We must continue to pray, continue to meditate on God’s word, and continue to be obedient to the commands of Christ. We must continue to meet together and encourage/spur one another on in worship, love, and good deeds. We must continue to repent and believe the good news of the gospel. We must cry out for more of the Spirit, more light, more truth, more knowledge, and more of an experience of the love of Christ within us. This is how we persevere. This is how we struggle/fight against the difficulty of faith in a broken world. But my hope and my prayer for you and I, is that at the end of our lives, we could say, as the Apostle Paul said at the end of his life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2Ti 4:7). And that Jesus would welcome us into his kingdom, saying, well done, my good and faithful servant, not because of the strength or perfection of our faith, but because of his faithfulness to us. Let us pray.