Scripture Readings: Isaiah 6:10; John 12:35-43 (text); Hebrews 3:12-19
April 10, 2016 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear congregation of Christ: God had always shown mighty works to his people. All the way to the primeval days of creation, God created a beautiful paradise for Adam and Eve. He sent his holy wrath against mankind’s wickedness by destroying everyone in the great flood, except for Noah and his family. He showed signs and wonders to our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He redeemed his people from Egypt with mighty supernatural works against the Egyptians. All throughout their journey to the Promised Land, the Lord miraculously provided for all their needs in the wilderness. And in their tenure in the land, God fought their wars for them against overwhelming enemies.
Our times today are no different than in ancient days. People look for the spectacular, the extraordinary. The reason why Pentecostalism and prosperity gospel are so popular is that most Christians look for signs and wonders. And this is also the reason why there is so much Biblical illiteracy among professing believers: they have no interest in studying and meditating on God’s Word. Instead, they look for God in all the wrong places such as churches full of entertainment and bad teaching. They prefer to attend “Christian” concerts rather than Bible studies and prayer meetings.
This last week, I met with the leader of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the College of the Siskiyous. He said that in his four years of ministry in Sacramento and Weed, most college students he has met were active in their church youth groups up to high school. And yet, he was astonished that one of these students even asked him who Peter was! According to recent surveys of young American adults, 70 percent drop out of church after high school. In spite of this, the focus of youth ministry remains mostly fun and games for the youth. So unbelief is very common among those who used to be active in the church but then have dropped out.
From ancient Biblical history, up to the time of Jesus, all the way to our present day, there is great unbelief within the covenant community. Here in our text today, John says that in spite of the many signs that Jesus performed before the people, they still did not believe. And this is our theme today, “They Still Did Not Believe,” under three headings: first, Unbelief In Spite of Signs; second, The Cause of Unbelief; and third, The Call to Believe.
Unbelief In Spite of Signs
Back in Chapter 11, Jesus performs his last sign by raising his beloved friend Lazarus from the dead. This is the last of seven signs that the Gospel of John narrates. The other six are: turning water into wine (John 2); cleansing the temple (John 2); healing the nobleman’s Son (John 4); healing the lame man (John 5); feeding the 5,000 (John 6); and healing the blind man (John 9). But near the end of his Gospel, John says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). So one of his goals in writing his Gospel is to show that Jesus performed many other signs in addition to the seven above in order that the people would believe.
But John 12:37 says, “Though he had done so many signs … they still did not believe.” He is placing the guilt on those who had seen Jesus’ miracles, but still rejected Jesus as the Divine Messiah sent by God the Father. As he later said, the purpose of these miracles was to lead them to believe, and in believing, they will have eternal life (John 3:16).
From the very beginning, Israel rebelled against God. Psalm 78 recounts all the mighty signs and wonders that the Lord did for them. He performed wonders to redeem them from slavery in Egypt, divided the Red Sea, and provided water from the rock. But very quickly, “They forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them” (verse 11). They continued demanding more and more, never being satisfied with God’s provisions, “Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved” (verses 17-18). God gave them manna from heaven, but they demanded meat, which God also gave to them by sending quails. Verse 22 again says, “they did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power.” Finally, verse 32 says, “In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe.” This indictment is identical to John 12:37, “Though he had done so many signs … they still did not believe.”
The last straw for God in dealing with his unbelieving people is when they rejected God’s command to go into Canaan because they feared the “giants” living there and their fortified cities. They did not trust God’s promise to give them the land, after all the mighty works he had done for them. They even wanted a new leader to lead them back to slavery in Egypt! So the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”(Num 14:11)
Therefore, because of their hardness of heart, God punished all the adults who left Egypt: they would all die in the wilderness without seeing the Promised Land, except for Joshua and Caleb, who trusted in the Lord’s mighty works. The writer of Hebrews says of this judgment, “And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb 3:18).
The Israelites from Egypt did not believe. The Jews did not believe Jesus. Today, most people in the world reject our Lord, even persecuting and killing Christians. Why this unbelief throughout human history, even with so much evidence that Jesus is the Divine Messiah?
The Cause of Unbelief
John says that they did not believe because the prophet Isaiah foretold it, “so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.” John quotes two passages, one from Isaiah 53:1, “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us?” Few believe in God’s revelation of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant. Then, John also quotes Isaiah 6:10, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” John says that this is the reason why “they could not believe.”
This verse in Isaiah 6:10 is often misused. Many Christians, when they respond to God’s call to service in a church or in a Christian organization, will often quote Isaiah 6:8, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” This willingness of heart to respond unquestioningly to God’s call is commendable.
But read on through verses 9-13. God then commissions Isaiah, “Go, and say to this people…” What did God command Isaiah to say to the people? “Let [the wicked] return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him”? (Isa 55:7) No, Isaiah must preach condemnation against Israel: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” God commands his prophet, “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (verses 9-10). So Isaiah asks how long must he preach this horrible sermon? And the LORD’s answer is even more horrifying: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.” God commands Isaiah to preach God’s judgment of unbelief upon his rebellious and stubborn people until they are destroyed.
Jesus also quotes this Isaiah passage to explain to his disciples that he uses parables to reveal and hide: to reveal the kingdom of God to believers, but to hide it from unbelievers so they would not turn to God and be healed (Matt 13:10-15): “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (verse 11).
John says God blinds their eyes and dulls their hearts. But Jesus also calls on all people to believe.
The Call to Believe
In verses 35-36, Jesus tells the Jews, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you… While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” He will be among them as their light just a little longer because he will be killed, so he urges them to believe in him. But they did not.
So Jesus went away and hid himself from them. The door to the light is now closed to them. They will be confined to the darkness of God’s wrath. God’s judgment on them will come 40 years later when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, and killed tens of thousands of Jews. Although God uses the preaching of the gospel for salvation, he also uses it for judgment against those who reject it in unbelief. He hardens their hearts, as Isaiah 6:10 says.
This is what Scripture means when it warns us not to harden our hearts. If we repeatedly sin, our consciences become seared, and we mourn over sin less and less. We are convicted less and less, until such a time when God says, “If this is what you want, then you can have it.” Then the Spirit leaves us in our sin. God steps away and stops restraining and rebuking us. So when God hardens a person’s heart, he does not force him to sin, but he leaves him unrestrained in his evil desires (Jas 1:13-15). This is what the Bible tells us when it says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, but God himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh repeatedly hardened his heart against God’s command to let his people go. So God hardened his heart by leaving him to his own unbelief. Paul also tells us three times in Romans 1 that “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity,” “dishonorable passions,” and to “a debased mind” (verses 24, 25, 28). Why did God do this? Because they stubbornly rejected God as Creator and Savior.
But in John 12:42-43, many of the Jewish authorities believed in him. But was this true faith? John indicates that they did not have true faith, because they did not publicly confess their faith in him for two reasons. First, they feared the Pharisees would shut them out of the synagogue. Second, they “loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” They desired man’s praise rather than God’s praise for faithfulness.
God has always called all people to repent and believe. The Lord does not take “any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” but that rather he should repent and believe and not perish in unbelief (Ezk 18:23). From the beginning, Jesus preached, “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). So did Paul, “now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). And this is the true preaching ever since, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). Believe, and you will have eternal life. Believe, and you will be taken from the darkness of sin into the marvelous light of Christ’s righteousness.
But how do we reconcile God’s call to repent and believe, and God’s hardening of rebellious unbelievers? John says that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are both true. On the one hand, people are called to believe, but are held responsible for unbelief. On the other hand, God blinds their eyes so that they do not have the spiritual ability to believe, and John can even say they could not believe (v. 39). This is one of many paradoxes that we find in Scripture. Why do we have to pray for God’s will to be done, when God has ordained everything that will happen? Why do we have to preach to unbelievers when God has already chosen those whom he will save?
Concerning God’s call for him to believe and a person’s refusal to believe, we know that the Holy Spirit first gives him a new heart and new mind. Then and only then is he able to repent and believe. We read before in John 1:13 that a person is born again not by his own will, but by God’s Spirit alone. Then we also read that no one can come to Jesus unless God draws him (John 6:44). And who are those whom God draws to himself? Only those have been “predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11). And since only God knows his chosen ones, we are to preach the gospel without distinction to everyone we meet, whether in church, home, school, work, or market. God uses means of grace to save his chosen ones. Who knows if he is using you to save your friend when you invite him to our church?
Dear friends: Many people are deceived by false signs and wonders to keep their faith. But what happens to their faith when there are no signs and wonders performed by their leaders? They are discouraged, and many even turn away from their faith.
The day of signs and wonders is past. Where do you now turn to when you need assurance of faith? You turn to God’s inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word. It is sufficient for salvation, for worship, and for leading us to godly lives. The only visible signs today are the sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They confirm and renew your faith.
Last Sunday, we learned that Jesus is the Prophet, the Great High Priest, and the Eternal King. You who believe in Christ are united to Christ in his death and resurrection. This is why you are called Christians. Like Christ, you are prophets because you proclaim God’s Word to others, not like the Jewish leaders who were afraid to publicly confess their faith in Christ. Like Christ, you are priests because you offer yourselves as living sacrifices to God by your godly lives. And like Christ, you are kings who are at war against sin.
Do not be like the Israelites in the desert who always grumbled when they wanted something. No provision from God could satisfy their desire for more and better things. No promise of God could give them assurance. Do not be like the Jews who saw uncountable signs that Jesus did, but did not believe. When things go wrong in our lives, do not grumble and blame God. Pray that God will give you patience, comfort and strength, because you know that he will work out all things for your good.
And if you are one who does not believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord; that he died on the cross to save you from God’s wrath because of your sins; that he rose from the grave to save you from eternal death: God’s call to you to believe is urgent. Today is the day of salvation. Who knows the day when God will close the door to Jesus the Light of the World, and leave you out in the darkness of sin and hell?