Life-Changing Unbelief

Doubtless you’ve heard people telling their story of coming to faith in Christ emphasizing how their lives have been different since they began to trust in him. Faith in Christ does change one’s life. But, as John 11:47-50 points out, persistence in unbelief also changes one’s life.

John 11 is a transitional chapter. The first ten chapters of the book describe Jesus’ earthly ministry. Chapters 13 to the end summarize his suffering, death, and resurrection, the final week of his public ministry and the following events. The first part of this chapter has described the greatest miracle of Jesus (apart from his own resurrection). He has summoned Lazarus to life from his four-day used tomb.

Many of those who witnessed the miracle believed in him (though John does not identify how genuine their faith may have been). But others go to the Council, the Sanhedrin (identified by name here for the first time in this Gospel), reporting on the miracle. The Sanhedrin gathers, imitating the fascinating, almost chilling background of Psalm 2, plotting together against the Lord and his Anointed.

Notice that it is not lack of evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One. Jesus has healed the lame and the blind. Now he has raised the dead. Unbelief, whether in first century Jerusalem or in 21st century North America, is not due to lack of evidence. You cannot prove the existence of God or the fact of special creation. The unbeliever lives in a world in which the heavens declare the glory of God. Mankind’s problem is not first of all ignorance, it is rebellious unbelief. You cannot stand on common ground with the unbeliever and bring God before the court of your reason. Instead, both you and the unbeliever are summoned by God to submit to his Word.

Just as fear of the leaders had motivated some of those described in John 9, when Jesus healed the man born blind, so fear motivated the report to the Sanhedrin. And fear underlay the deliberations of the council. Although they had boasted of their freedom, the council now expressed fear that, if Jesus continued to attract crowds through his miracles, the Romans would remove their place and their nation. Unbelief bands together in rebellion against the Lord. Caiaphas, high priest in that fateful year, seizes the opportunity and proposes a pragmatic solution. The obvious (to him) solution is that one man should die instead of the nation. His proposal carries the day. Jesus is going to be arrested. He is not to be arrested in order to be tried. He as already been condemned, and now he simply needs to be arrested in order to be executed.

Unbelief, in desperation, is willing to grasp at the most foolish of solutions. Here is the One who is God, the Word made flesh, as John has told you. He is the Creator. He has just raised Lazarus. And they are plotting to put him to death! No matter what pragmatic justification you give for rebellion against God, it is an exercise in futility. Beware! Persistence in unbelief leads to hardening in foolishness.

Caiaphas is pragmatic and expedient. But, despite himself, his words are far more true than he realizes. The only way that the people can be saved is through the death of the One Man. He is a prophet, not in the sense that the gift of prophecy belonged to him or his office as high priest, but rather that God was using his words, a statement from the highest human authority in Israel, to foretell his work. Herman Ridderbos writes, “Caiaphas, despite himself and without realizing it, was expressing . . . that Jesus was to die for the salvation of his people, vicariously as the One for the many. . . . Israel’s highest official with all the authority associated with his office, spoke of Jesus’ death as the only way in which the people could be saved. Israel had to hear this from the lips of its own high priest.” (The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, pp. 409-4-10)

God turns the sinful acts of men to his own glory. John does not excuse the responsibility of Caiaphas for his actions, but what he speaks is profoundly true. The same blend of human responsibility and God’s sovereignty is found in Peter’s message in Acts 2:22-24.

John takes the words of Caiaphas as predicting, not only the death of the Messiah as a substitute for his people, but also as anticipating the gathering of all of God’s children from the nations. John 1 told us that those who believe in Jesus are children of God. John 11 focuses on it happening through the death of the Messiah. Just as there is a gathering in rebellion against God, those who believe in Jesus are gathered into his body. They become part of his church.

In Luke 9:24 Jesus warned that whoever sought to save his life would lose it, and whoever loses his life for Christ sake, saves it. The cynical plan of the Sanhedrin would ultimately result in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The only way to respond to God is to surrender to him. That is true not only as you begin the Christian life, but also each step along the way. Deny yourself, reject your pride, and submit to your God.

Jesus again retreats from the people. We don’t know the exact location of the village, Ephraim, but Jesus is out of sight of the crowds. Ironically, they are going up to Jerusalem to prepare themselves for the Passover. But ritual purification, apart from trust in the Messiah, accomplishes nothing. John does not tell us what Jesus was doing in those final days before the completion of his work. But perhaps the reference to the coming Passover indicates that he is preparing himself for the cries of those people, changing from hailing him as the Son of David, to “Crucify him!”

Marvel at the way God uses even the sinful pride of man to accomplish his purposes. Surrender your life to the Lord to be changed to his glory and honor.

[In preparation for a message on John 11:45-57, Dec. 30, 2012]

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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