Unbelief in the Midst of Celebration (John 12:27-50)

Today I choose to begin by reading not this Sunday's text from John but two or three passages from elsewhere in Scripture that bother Bible students. I suspect some of you have wrestled with the ideas floating through these texts before.

The first is from the final paragraphs of Deuteronomy. Moses has completed his 40-year task of leading the Israelites through the wilderness and is addressing the nation for one last time. He begins with this:

Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day the LORD has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear (Deut 29:2-4).
The second is from a text that is reasonably familiar - at least its opening lines that we quote so frequently - from the eighth-century B.C. prophet Isaiah. The familiar section at the beginning of chapter 6 describes Exalted Yahweh in his regal splendor. Isaiah saw a vision of his glory that opens: "I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple" (v.1). Do you remember it now? The man of God was so moved by his unworthiness before the Lord's throne that he lamented aloud: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (v.5). Grace took the initiative. An angel was dispatched to "blot out" the prophet's sin, and we read:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" And he said, "Go and say to this people:

'Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.'
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed."
Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And he said:
"Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the LORD sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land (vs.8-12).
The third and final "preliminary" text is from the New Testament.

For the scripture says to Pharaoh, "I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.

You will say to me then, "Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? (Rom. 9:17-21).
After his 40 years in the desert with Israel, Moses could say of them: "The LORD has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear." When commissioning Isaiah to preach to the people of his time and place, God spoke negatively of the effect the prophet would have: "Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed." And Paul surveys the history of his own people until his day and says simply: "So then [God] has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses."

So we know the problem now: It is unbelief that stems from blind eyes and hard hearts. But that is only half the problem, for the larger problem is unbelief in the face of God's direct and immediate actions to create faith. Or, to sum it up as a question, people have asked, "Has God himself assigned some people to unbelief by his choice and predetermination from eternity past?" John explores this theme in the reactions of people to Jesus in our text for today.

A Somber and Troubled Jesus

Our text begins with Jesus - though on the heels of a "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem - not joining with or encouraging others to celebrate but in the throes of deep personal anguish. Verses 27 and 28 get as close to Gethsemane's agonizing prayer over what lies ahead for Jesus as John ever comes. In fact, I suspect John knows that the Gethsemane material is so well known among his readers that he deliberately omitted it in favor of this earlier episode. "Now my soul is troubled," prays Jesus. "And what should I say - 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name" (12:27-28). It is the same issue as in Gethsemane. It ends with the same result. "Father, glorify your name" is equivalent to "Not my will but yours be done."

But the critical thing to notice right now is how authentic and painful the anguish of our Lord is here. The word translated "troubled" is the same one used earlier in the Gospel of John to describe Jesus' emotional and spiritual state over the death of Lazarus (cf. 11:33) and that will be used later to describe his anguish over Judas' deed of betrayal (cf. 13:21).

This is a somber-faced and troubled Jesus of Nazareth. Even as he surrenders himself to the Father and commits to (continue to) glorify him in all things, he is overwhelmed with sorrow. The victory of his personal obedience to the Father in this great trial is diminished for him by the knowledge that his death would be judgment as well as salvation. Even as the Father spoke from heaven to affirm Jesus in his surrender, Jesus announced not only the meaning of that submission to him but to others.

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light" (12:31-36).
The Mystery of Unbelief

The cross doesn't simply point to a time at the end of earth-history when judgment will occur. It doesn't just anticipate that God will someday make a distinction between those who have accepted Christ as their Savior and those who have rejected him. "Now is the judgment of this world" - if Jesus is to be believed! Yes, Satan himself would be judged and driven out of his seat of princely rule over this world by Jesus' triumph over death. But so are first-century and twenty-first-century souls judged by the choice we make to receive or reject Christ, to believe or to refuse to accept him as the Son of God.

Is this a predetermined-by-God "choice"? (The very question certainly sounds like an oxymoron! If God has already decided someone's attitude toward Jesus, it seems to me that calling that posture a personal "choice" is to cheat on the meaning of the word.) Or is this a choice that is really a choice and for which one can be legitimately and fully liable? After all, John uses the same text I have cited already from Isaiah - along with the beginning of the Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah 53 - as commentary on the following statement: "After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him" (12:36b-37).

Why did Jesus "hide" from these people? For the same reason that the Father "blinded their eyes" and "hardened their hearts." Faith that brings life is always and only voluntary. No one is forced to accept Jesus. No one is made to believe against his will. But those who choose to believe will receive additional confirmation of their faith and blessings that far exceed any proportion to their faith. And so is unbelief that brings judgment always and only voluntary as well. Perhaps I should have read one more - what did I call them? - "preliminary" text today. This one is from Paul:

The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned (2 Thess. 2:9-12).
Whether before, after, or during the earthly ministry of Jesus, faith is a personal choice made by each person. Just as God has taken the initiative to give light in our darkness, Satan is determined to work against him to retain his evil principality - if not over all, then over some; if not over the many, just a few; if not over even a few, then you - or me. And for anyone who chooses Satan through a deliberate refusal to see the light and love the truth, his or her fate stands to be a terrible one. Not only at the end but even now, that person's judgment is to sink deeper and deeper into the delusion and dissolution of sin. Life becomes hellish even here - without regard to what lies ahead.

If I am reading the language of this section correctly, John registers something that he considers even more horrible than the unbelief of some. And that is the unconfessed faith of many who believed he was their Messiah but would not so say in any public way because of their self-serving cowardice. According to John, they kept quiet "for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God" (12:42-43; cf. 9:22). As with the glorification already discussed in this chapter (vs.28-29), the glory of God in this world often involves some degree of suffering. And these people were unwilling to suffer for their conviction about Jesus.

The Urgency for Me

Only if this is true about the nature of faith and genuine choice is there any urgency about salvation, it seems to me. If our fate has been chosen for us, there is no urgency to anything. If choice is illusory, all the invitations in Scripture are ultimately bogus. If you are mandated to faith and salvation, it cannot be prevented; if you are assigned to be an unbeliever, your rejection cannot be avoided.

Yes, I believe the thief on the cross was saved - with hardly a minute to spare. Yes, I believe God can and does save people in similar situations today - the so-called "death-bed conversion." But I also believe that the darkness of sin can so completely surround and overwhelm a person that her heart can be permanently hardened against Christ, the gospel, truth, and righteousness. I believe that a person can so distance himself from God over a period of conscious rejection of the truth that it becomes "impossible to restore again to repentance" someone whose heart has become calloused by evil (Heb. 6:4-6; cf. 1 John 5:16-17).

I'm not willing to risk the possibility of a last-minute rescue from hell! If I reject the love of God over the course of a lifetime, it is highly unlikely - and eventually simply impossible - that I will be open to it under some ideal circumstance just before I die.

And that is my urgency about you today. This morning I can appeal to a 17-year-old woman, a 24-year old man, maybe even a 43-year-old person - to act on what you know about Jesus and be saved. I can make an appeal that you actually weigh and wrestle with the option of committing your life to him. Why, there may even be a 70- or 80- or 90-year-old person in this audience whose heart is tender enough to the gospel to want to respond to Christ and be saved.

But if we follow the lead of John here, there is something far worse than the sort of unbelief I have just lamented. That "something far worse" is unacknowledged faith. Is it possible for someone to know who Christ is, understand the gospel's offer of salvation, and refuse to accept Jesus as Savior because of some "human glory" (or sinful pleasure) they are determined to pursue? Indeed, it is possible!

At least some people in their 70s or 50s or perhaps even in their 30s can't be saved because their failure to be saved already has not been negligence or lack or opportunity or paucity of information. They are and have been captive to the world's way of thinking and behavior too long by choice - a choice that involved rejecting God and his will very deliberately. The plan may have been to sow some wild oats and then come back to God with time to spare, but wild-oat living became a fatal addiction to sin. She hoped for crop failure but has had a bumper harvest. Sin is too serious to trifle with it, and Satan is too smart for you to outwit him at his own game of deception and cheating foreseeable outcomes.

The urgency of being saved from the judgment and ravages of sin doesn't kick in at death or at the return of Christ. It is a right-now sort of urgency that cries out for sooner rather than later, younger rather than older, today rather than tomorrow (cf. 2 Cor. 6:2).

Christ's Invitation to Live in the Light

Moses, Isaiah, John, Paul - I believe they all understood the same thing about what God had "settled in advance." He had foreordained that all who had been blinded by the darkness of sin could both see and walk in the light, if they would only open their eyes to Jesus. This has been the theme of the Fourth Gospel since its opening lines: "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (1:9). "I am the light of the world," Jesus has claimed. "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life" (8:12). Here is he still saying, "While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light" (12:36).

Hear him as this chapter closes: "I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness" (12:45). Doesn't that sound like a real invitation? Doesn't that sound like people make their own personal choice about darkness and light? Remember, though, that the choice against Christ eventually becomes a fixed and unchangeable choice. Sin is addictive. Darkness eventually makes spiritual eyes non-functional - like those fish deep in Carlsbad Caverns. Satan's strong delusions take control. And God himself will not reverse a course that one has persisted in following - even when it leads to death. He respects our freedom too much and will not violate it either to force an unwanted salvation or to withhold a chosen destruction.


Christ's work had not failed, although there were many who did not believe in him. And those who did not believe in him faced judgment on account of their unbelief; they were not the helpless victims of the prior decision of God that determined they would be blind to Jesus' identity.

In some sense, it is not incorrect to say that the redemptive ministry of Jesus was like the baseball season about to begin. It was predestined but not predetermined. In advance of the 2002-2003 season, it is predestined that the team surviving the season, winning its league championship series, and taking four games in the World Series will be the World Champions. But what has been predestined has not been determined (or "rigged") in advance. That is why each game of the season will be meaningful.

Human salvation has also been predestined to those who believe in Jesus, commit themselves to him, and obey him. But what has been predestined has not been determined in terms of what men or women will receive Christ. That is why each life is meaningful in the living of it, each decision important in the making of it.

Just remember: The decision you make about Jesus, you are making about the Father as well. Although his mission was to save you, to reject Jesus now means that you have no plea when the last day comes. The very words of invitation that could have saved you will ring in your ears that day to torment you, if you have not heeded them.

While the light is still shining, you'd be wise to soften your heart and open your eyes. Otherwise, darkness could become your chosen fate forever. Otherwise, in the midst of the celebration some of us will have when the Lord comes again, your unbelief will have become your judgment.


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