The Theology of Unbelief
This I would like us to look at three principles as we study chapter 12.
1.) There is some hard teaching in Scripture.
2.)We should seek to understand it as best we can,
3.) then we should accept by faith what we cannot understand.
1. There is some hard teaching in Scripture.
One of these hard teachings occurs within our chapter this week. 12:35-43.
From this point on in the book of John, Jesus will devote himself to his own disciples. The great majority of the Jews are shut out due to their unbelief. Not even the miraculous signs that Jesus gave them, the purpose of which was to bring about their belief, were enough to soften their hearts and allow them to believe.
This passage may not be sitting quite right with some of you. It doesn’t sit quite right with me. What does this mean, verse 38? What does it mean that “they could not believe”? How can a just, loving God harden someone’s hearts and blind their eyes so that they will not be converted?
This seems to be story that runs throughout the Bible.
Exodus 9:12 “And the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not listen to them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses.”
Deut 29:3-4 Moses says to the Israelites “With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those miraculous signs and great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.”
Romans 1:24-28 “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions…and just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.”
2 Thess 2:11-12 “For this reason (because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved) God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.”
If we are to study Scripture, we will have to wrestle with these passages and what they mean.
2. We should seek to understand it as best we can.
We should study passages that trouble us or don’t make sense to us. We should never be afraid to ask questions as we study the Word of God. We should use the tools available to us. We should cross reference, looking at what other passages teach. We should employ all that we know about the Bible and God. We should consult trustworthy sources. We need to delve into the Word and study it intently. We need to be students of the Word. It is worth our effort, and it is part of obedience to God. You already know that – that’s why you are here this morning!
Verse 37 – John from the beginning of his gospel had sounded the theme of national unbelief. John now explains that in spite of all that Jesus has showed them, all of the miracles and signs, they still would not believe in Him. Their unbelief was irrational, as sin always is.
Verse 38 – This national, irrational unbelief had been predicted by Isaiah. Isaiah 53:1-12, the clearest OT passage concerned the suffering servant, began by stating that Israel would not perceive God’s revelation in and through the servant.
Verse 38-40 – How can this be? How can a good God intend that some should not believe? How can he harden the hearts of some and keep them from belief?
First of all, we should read this while remembering the great sense of human responsibility that the Word of God teaches. Verse 37 “Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him.” Verse 43 “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” John teaches throughout his gospel that “by and large the nation of Israel refused the teaching of Jesus, the signs of Jesus, the person of Jesus, and the truths that he fulfilled the prophecies of the coming Messiah. Israel’s leaders thought they could see when they were blind (9:39-41).
Verses 39 ties the unbelief of the people to the texts cited in both vs 38 and 40. The inability of the people to believe is tied to Scripture’s prediction, but that prediction is a judicial hardening: God himself has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts.
Verse 40 – Isaiah 6:10 is quoted
Isaiah 6 – the prophet has been given a vision of the Lord that resulted in his profound repentance and cleansing, and he offers to serve as the Lord’s messenger. He is commissioned, but with the dire prospect of being ignored, scorned, and rejected by the people he will speak to. Isaiah is called to a ministry with the full knowledge that the results will be negative. He will preach to the people, and that preaching will evoke a negative response in the heart of the people. In other words, the preaching is in some sense the cause of the negative response. “In that sense, God himself through the prophet, hardens the heart of the people – a point later recognized by the prophet when he begs the Almighty to display himself in more merciful ways (Is 63:15-19).”
Isaiah 6:10 is also quoted in Mark 4:12 and Acts 28:26-27.
It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hand of the Almighty.
It seems clear that Scripture teaches that there are at least times that people run out of chances to believe. We never read that God hardened the heart of someone without giving them ample opportunity to respond to him. Here in John, we’ve studied just a few of the signs and teaching that Jesus directed at the Pharisees in order that they might believe. But they wouldn’t believe. And so at this point, God determined that they could not believe.
Second, we should read these verses remembering that God is in control. God in his providence and because he is all knowing, sees that these people who he hardens will never believe. Their hearts are closed to him. He has given them ample opportunity. He has showed them signs. He has tried to get their attention. He desires their hearts. But they won’t listen. They won’t see. They won’t believe. And so he hardens their hearts for his own purposes. All things work together for God’s glory. There is no sin that is not in God’s control. God can use all things for his purposes and his glory, even the greatest sin of unbelief. This passage is maybe the greatest example of this truth. The nation of Israel was blinded by their own unbelief. They were not going to see. So God sealed the deal, blinded their unbelieving hearts, so that they would be so entrapped by their own sin that they would reject the clear Messiah. The Messiah Scripture had pointed the way to. The Messiah who had done sign after sign. The Messiah who taught with authority. The One whose identity as the Messiah is so obvious to those who believe. He took their unbelief and their sin, and he used them to be the ones who would crucify Jesus. They would nail him to a tree, thinking they were doing the work of God. And the irony is that they were doing the work of God, but they were just on the wrong side. They were doing the work of God because on the cross, Jesus took on the sin of the whole world. My sin and your sin. He took on the full weight of it, and paid the price that I deserve.
And so third, we should remember that God’s character never changes. God is always good. Was it unfair that God blinded the minds and hearts of those who did not believe? I sure hope not. Because this act that can seem so harsh upon first reading, turns into an act so full of mercy and love. God used these few sinners to offer eternal forgiveness and redemption to sinners with softer hearts. For sinners from the beginning of time, all the way unto the beginning of the New Age.
So, we can learn much about this difficult passage through an in depth study of it. Yet, all of our questions may not be answered. It might be that no amount of study will make it comfortable for you to believe that God hardens the hearts of some.
3. Then we should accept by faith what we cannot understand.
We should not be surprised that there are things in the Word of God that we do not and cannot understand. God, by His very nature, is beyond our understanding. That does not mean that we should not try to learn and understand all that we can about him. But no matter who we are, we will find that some things will always remain a mystery. This means that God is still God. For what need would we have for God if we could understand everything about him. The fact is, God’s plan of salvation, and the work that he has been doing since the very beginning of time does not always make sense to us. We don’t get all of it, we don’t see all of it. But that DOES NOT CHANGE THE FACT THAT IT IS GOOD.
It takes a large measure of faith to accept the goodness of these verses. It would be easy to focus on how this hardening of the Pharisees hearts might seem unjust to us. Let’s not let ourselves get caught in that trap. That is exactly what the Enemy would like us to do. We should not, we cannot read these verses without viewing them in light of everything else that we know about God. His goodness, his mercy, his righteousness, his perfection. These verses DO NOT stand alone. These verses are part of the whole. Part of the grand, sweeping story of Scripture, the greatest love story ever told. The story of God’s great love for his people, and the great lengths he will go to in order to win her heart!
Ok, so honestly, I don’t understand all of this. I can study and read and pray and study some more, and I am not sure that it will ever sit quite right with me. But I will NOT lean on my own understanding. I will trust in the Lord that I know to be faithful and just. I will remember that I have limited understanding. I can only see through my small, earthly eyes. And I will cling to the promise that one day I will see with my own eyes and know with my own heart that God was good beyond what I have ever imagined. One thing I know for sure – if it were not for the goodness and mercy and kindness of God, I would not know him and love him. He has revealed himself to me, and to you, and it is only because of that that we sit here today, and it is only because of that that we will one day spend eternity in heaven with him.
There are things in the Bible that we cannot understand. Even the greatest of theologians and the most brilliant of preachers and the most intelligent of scholars cannot understand some of the difficult passages of Scripture. Should this be a source of discouragement or frustration for us? No, rather we can choose to be encouraged by it if we will. God is beyond my understanding, therefore I can trust in Him. I can rest in the assurance that He knows more than I, and that he has it all in his control. I can look at this passage and I can and should wrestle with what it means that God hardens hearts. I should try to understand it as best I can at whatever place I am at. And then I should thank God for all that I know to be true about him, and I should rest in the fact that his plan of salvation is perfect and good.