Problem Thinking on John’s Gospel
By Chaplain Larry Addler
Editor’s note: Larry is a corporate chaplain at Tyson Foods, Inc. in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota. He and his family live in Le Mars, Iowa, also known as the Ice Cream Capital of the World. He is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and served for 12 years as a missionary in the Republic of Ireland before returning to the States and undertaking his current ministry. This article is an edited version of correspondence he had with a friend in ministry who was preaching through the Gospel of John. The friend holds to a different view of the concept of believing as found in the fourth gospel. If you would like the unabridged version of this article, you may email Larry with your request at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope this will provide an opportunity to dialogue further on the interpretation of a couple of passages in John. You and I have had brief discussions in the past, but my desire is that this will provide incentive for further discussions.
The issue at hand is really John’s use of the various phrases used in his Gospel that refer to believing in Jesus, including believing…in Me…in Him…in His name…in the Son, and…in the Son of Man. In each case Jesus is clearly the object of faith expressed. The question becomes, “Does John use this phrase consistently to refer to those who have been given eternal life, or does he use it at times in his Gospel to mean something else?”
While John develops other themes, he tells us his primary purpose in writing is that people may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that as a result they might have life by believing in Him (20:30-31). He also alludes to this purpose in the prologue: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (1:12). Because of John’s purpose, I believe he (not to mention the Spirit) seeks to be clear in his use of words in accomplishing his stated purpose. As you are well aware, the phrase believing in Jesus is repeated many times and obviously is of great importance. John gives much ink to recording the different responses to Jesus’ call to believe in Him.
I will briefly discuss two passages in John where questions are raised concerning his use of the phrase believing in Jesus.
Before discussing these passages allow me to make two observations, which I believe are relevant to the issue. First, John has a habit throughout his Gospel of mentioning that many believed in Jesus (2:23; 4:39, 41; 7:31; 8:30; 10:42; 11:45; 12:11, 42).
Second, the apostle also clearly states when people did not believe in Jesus (5:38; 6:64; 7:5, 48; 8:45; 12:37). Often times the contrast is made between those who believed and those who did not believe.
The simple point is this: When John said people believed in Jesus, He meant they believed in Jesus and when he said they didn’t, well, they didn’t, and when he didn’t say either way, then we don’t know.
Many Believed in His Name,
But Jesus Didn’t Commit Himself to Them
In John 2:23 John uses the exact same phrase as he did in 1:12. To say that these people who believed in Jesus’ name did not become children of God and did not receive eternal life is to say that John is now taking this crucial phrase he just introduced as the key argument of his book and making it mean not only something different, but actually the very opposite—They believed in His name, but they really didn’t believe in His name. That creates a significant, and in my opinion, insurmountable problem for this view. John didn’t say, “They said they believed in His name.” Why in the world would John have even put in the statement that they believed in His name, if in fact, they hadn’t believed in His name? The natural reading of this passage is that these people became children of God and received eternal life.
If this is the case, then what does it mean that Jesus did not entrust Himself to them? Well, first of all, this is a much smaller problem than the above. I think a question is appropriate. Would Jesus have entrusted Himself to even His closest followers? Would He leave it up to them to determine His program and plan of action? Would they not have sought to make Him king? His closest disciples didn’t understand the cross until after the fact. I can’t give a certain explanation for what is meant here. But to say that this proves these people didn’t really believe in His name is to read something into the text that is certainly not there.
John Says Many Believed in Jesus,
But Jesus Appears to Say That
These People Didn’t Believe in
If you read John’s statement in 8:30-31 naturally—when John says some believed in Jesus, he meant some believed in Jesus—you will see 8:31-32 as being somewhat parenthetical. We have a running dialogue going on in the temple area. John has made a point of singling out a group that has believed. But there is not a dialogue taking place with those believers. Jesus simply addresses them. The dialogue has been between Jesus and the religious authorities. Verse 33 then has the religious authorities continuing their dialogue with Jesus, which really never ended apart from the one sentence Jesus addresses to those who had believed in Him. The “they” of verse 33 is the unbelieving religious authorities. The statements Jesus makes from this point on are then addressed to the religious authorities (and possibly some others in the crowd). This certainly fits the context much better than saying that in 8:33-59 Jesus is addressing those who had believed in Him.
Now if you do take 8:33-59 as being the response of those who had believed in Him, you have some significant problems. Remember again that John is the one who states “many came to believe in Him.” He doesn’t report that many said they believed in Him. John chooses to use the crucial phrase of his argument again here to describe this group of people. You also have to explain all the things Jesus says about these people in 8:33-59. Jesus says “you do not believe Me” (8:45-46). What does that mean after John has said they did believe in Him? There are several other confusing and harsh things Jesus would be saying to those who are described as believing in Him, but you get the drift.
I don’t know the exact number of times in the Gospel of John where Jesus is recorded as saying that if you believe in Him you have eternal life, but it is a significant number. The few passages that in some people’s minds bring this into question are easily dealt with. But it is not so easy to interpret those few difficult passages as referring to people who really didn’t believe and then deal consistently with John’s primary purpose and argument, i.e., that those who believe in Jesus have eternal life.
I believe this issue also has significant practical implications. It muddles the gospel message. It destroys assurance. If my assurance is not based solely on the promise of God that when I believe in Jesus I become a child of God forever, then my assurance is based on my faithfulness, which is imperfect at best. And this view affects my walk with the Lord by subtly shifting the focus from Jesus to me.
Anyway, I obviously think that this is an important issue. I believe it involves broader theological issues, but I have sought to keep it focused on the Gospel of John and the passages at hand.