Episode 8: Believe
Belief is crucial to the entire purpose of the Gospel of John
“He does not believe, that does not live according to his belief.” So published Englishman Thomas Fuller in a collection of sayings in the 1600s. (Gnomalia, #1838, London, 1732.) The verb, believe, as used in the Gospel of John indicates reception of the Word, the light that shines for all humanity. This particular meaning to the term, belief, implies a distinct orientation to this Word who brought all things into being. In addition, believing is crucial to the entire purpose of the gospel.
but these signs have been written so that you can trust that
Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son and so that those who trust
in his name may experience life. (20:31)
Belief, life, trust; these are critical words whose meaning is clarified as their opposites are contrasted or described throughout the Gospel of John.
In the Old Testament
Belief is a crucial element in the Old Testament story. The first reference appears with regard to Abraham, “Abraham believed God,” (Genesis 15:6) a verse that Paul builds his gospel presentation upon in Romans 4. Psalm 78 describes God’s response to those he brought out of Egyptian captivity because they did not believe or trust God. (78:21-22) This lack of belief in the marvelous works of God is described as sin. (78:32) Psalm 106 describes this same group of people following their deliverance from the Egyptians in a manner relative for understanding John’s gospel.
Then they believed his words and they sang his praise (106:12)
The OT prophets also describe the importance of believing, belief, or the synonym faith. The book of Habakkuk is well known for its passage quoted by Paul in Romans 1:17, “the righteous one will live by his faith,” (2:4) but the book begins by exclaiming how difficult the work of God is to believe.
Pay attention you despisers!
Watch with care and be amazed at the wonders
you seek to destroy. I am performing a deed in your days
which there is no way you could believe it,
even if it was explained to you in detail. (1:5)
Jeremiah informs us that the typical response by individuals in his lifetime was not to believe what God had communicated. “For this reason the Lord declares, ‘since you have not believed my words, I am sending for [nations to punish you]’” (Jeremiah 25:8-9) The importance of belief in the Old Testament should not be dismissed, even when many accounts report the absence of appropriate belief.
Elsewhere in John
Although a modern conception typically views belief or faith solely as a mental response, early in the Gospel of John we find through the use of parallelism that belief is linked with obedience.
The one who believes in the Son has the life of the ages,
but the one who disobeys the Son will not see this life,
but will see only God’s displeasure remaining towards him. (3:36)
This association with obedience is likewise indicated when Jesus heals the son of an important man from Capernaum. “Jesus spoke to him, ‘Go, your son lives!’ The man believed the word which Jesus spoke to him and went.” (4:50) By going back to Capernaum this official accustomed to dispensing power and commands indicates his obedience to Jesus, the healing one.
One question arises whenever obedience is mentioned, namely, what is one to obey? The Gospel of John is quite clear on this concept also, one is to obey the Word of Jesus. When one pauses to remember that the Word of Jesus is the Word of One who was at the beginning with God, then obedience becomes perhaps less controversial. One clear indicator of the importance of believing Jesus’ word is presented following the account when Jesus clears the Temple.
Therefore when Jesus was raised from the dead
his disciples remembered that he had said these things
and they believed the holy writings
and the words that Jesus spoke. (2:22)
Such is also the case when the inhabitants from the city of Samaria speak after hearing Jesus’ teachings for a period of two days. “We no longer believe on account of what you told us, we have heard him ourselves and we know that he truly is the Savior of the World.” (4:42)
Jesus challenges his Jewish listeners to believe his word on two separate occasions found in Chapters 5 and 8. In the first situation the listeners and onlookers are confronting Jesus because he healed a man on the Sabbath. Jesus challenges them by offering them life of the ages, an opportunity previously proffered in this gospel.
The one who hears my word and believes the one who sent me
possesses life of the ages and does not come to the judgment,
rather he has passed from death into this life of the ages. (5:24)
This becomes controversial later in this discussion when Jesus declares his understanding of their status. “Now, the Father who sent me, that one has testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his image, nor do you have his word resting within you, because you do not trust the one he sent.” (5:37-38)
In the second passage, Jesus again offers a challenge which only results in intense controversy. “Therefore, Jesus was saying to those among the Judeans who had begun believing him, “if you continue to let my word rest in you, then you truly are my followers and you will know truth, and that truth will set you free.” (8:31-32) Jesus attempts to persuade those confronting him to no avail by reminding them of the need to continue in his teaching in order to experience the life of the ages. “I speak truthfully to you, if anyone keeps my word he will not experience death in this age.” (8:51)
The Gospel of John reports that Jesus came offering a new sort of life, a life distinct from what people were experiencing, a life which offers a perspective that extends through the ages. How does one begin to live that type of life? This solution is not a mystery, nor is it a Herculean task to be fulfilled only by a special few. Instead, this life is found in a word that runs throughout the gospel, believe. This commitment to Jesus and his teaching starts with hearing his message, trusting that he has the authority to provide the message, and then acting upon that message. Indeed, the essential element of belief is found in the identity of Jesus: who was at the beginning with God, who became human, who provides life and light. The message is not the bedrock of belief. Jesus, the Resurrected One, the Savior of the World, Jesus the Son of God, Messiah is the bedrock for this belief resulting in life of the ages.
Take 5 Minutes More
When you consider your own belief, does it dwell in the arena of what you think, that is to say a mental consent to information, or does this belief affect how you actually behave. Since the phrase “I believe” is bantered around so often in popular speech, the true meaning of the phrase can become tattered. In what realm does your belief rest?
Take a moment to write down these three words: accept, trust, obey. Draw a single circle around all three words. Belief represents the circle. In order to obey someone else, I must trust him or her. In order to trust someone else, I must accept her or him. In order to accept someone else, I must decide to accept them. That decision alone does not represent the fullness of belief, rather it begins a journey of decisions leading to life of the ages.