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All That, and Still Shot Down
This morning, we are considering a passage which is a bit less exciting or eventful than what we have been reading from John 11 in the last few weeks. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen Jesus orchestrate this long, dramatic situation wherein he purposefully responded to his friends’ requests for help a little too late. Mary and Martha’s called to Jesus to heal their brother Lazarus from a deadly illness—and of course, if you know the story, Jesus showed up a little bit late. He showed up after Lazarus had been dead for four days, and he came saying a whole bunch of strange things about death and the resurrection and seeing the glory of God. Then in that final, capstone moment, he calls the dead man out of the grave.
That’s a hard story to beat, isn’t it? It shows Jesus’s confidence, his purposes, his power, his control over the hardest and most curse-ridden situations. He showed up late—he let Lazarus die—so that they would see his glory. You can’t read that story and conclude anything other than “Jesus is in control”, and “Jesus is all powerful”, and “Jesus is the resurrection and the life”. He called all the shots in that story with a magnificent lesson about himself. “Your brother will rise again”, verse 23. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? (Verse 25). Or, my personal favorite: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”, verse 40.
Folks, Jesus has laid it all on the table for us in this story. It’s all right there, in John 11. If anyone asks you “hey, what’s Jesus about? why do you believe in him?”, tell them “go to John 11”. He’s not holding back at all, here. He says he raises the dead, and then he does it. Lazarus comes out of the tomb. Jesus really does have that power, folks. His talk is not cheap. He backs up every word. His words mean something. Even the dead hear his voice and obey him.
So, here’s the big question in all this: did the living in this story hear his words? Did they hear him, and respond rightly with faith or with unbelief? That’s what this is all about, folks. After all that, how do people respond to Jesus? How do people respond to Jesus raising a dead man from the grave? I imagine we should see one response, right? “Jesus is Lord and Savior, he’s life. He’s the answer to detah and all our problems—so I give him my life.” Although, that’s not this morning’s story is it? Here, we see a lot of unbelief. We see unbelief in its many colors—and, it should be very telling. Jesus, after raising a dead man at the height of his public ministry, was confronted by overwhelming unbelief and rejection.
How many of you have been frustrated or baffled by unbelief—perhaps your own, or someone you love who has rejected the Lord? It’s a hard world out there. It’s a hard world of unbelief and sin. It drives many ministers crazy, as they tell people about Jesus and they get stone-cold faces (or indignant faces). So, we’d do well to look at unbelief in the face and consider it, parse it out, right? That’s what this morning’s passage is calling us to. Then we’d do well to consider how Jesus was unphased by it all. He never complained to his Father about Israel’s unbelief like Elijah or so many other prophets who were rejected. It’s like he had it under control, like he had a purpose for it. I think there’s a lesson on evangelism and ministry for us, there. So, let’s walk through this passage this morning and parse out unbelief, and how (or why) Jesus was unphased by it.
Considering the Unbelief That Surrounded Jesus
Let’s start out by considering the one reference in our story to belief, there in verse 45. Verse 45 opens this up to say, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and seen what he did, believed in him”. So, they believed in him when they saw what he had done. Presumably, that’s good. We should praise God for that.
Unbelief Often Looks Like Belief
Although, given how John’s gospel has described the belief of these crowds, it might cause us to at least pause with a point of suspicion or clarification at the belief mentioned here in verse 45. The Jews who believed Jesus, here, believed when they had seen what he did”. This is getting at that old “faith is not by sight” discussion, which the Bible teases out at length. True faith, folks, is not a matter of physically seeing or not seeing God. It’s not a matter of seeing and not seeing Jesus raise Lazarus or anyone else from the dead. That debunks the whole “I’ll believe him when I see him” argument that so many throw at Jesus. The gospels, in many places, lead us to say in response, “no you won’t. Not unless the Spirit personally moves you to do so.” Jesus is expressly suspicious of anyone who believes upon him because they’ve seen his miracles. John literally opens his gospel up with that word, way back in John 2:23—
many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
That is so telling, so revealing, folks. Why was Jesus unmoved, or not surprised, or not deeply frustrated, when people didn’t believe in him? Folks, he knew what was in man even to the degree that he was suspicious of the belief he did see during his public ministry. He’s got the Jews in Jerusalem outright rejecting him, and then he’s got massive crowds following him with a surface-level belief that was only wooed by the miracles and not the man, Jesus, himself. He knew their hearts, and he knew God’s purposes for them and their unbelief. He was totally in control and knew all things.
Can you imagine how frustrated and defeated and desperate Jesus would have become had he not understood or had control over all the unbelief he encountered? What if Jesus had no idea how to process all the rejection—if he had no idea what God’s plan was in all this?
We read about Elijah’s frustration in 1 Kings 19 for a reason, folks. Elijah—along with Isaiah and Jeremiah and so many other prophets—were given hard ministries of declaring truth to callous unbelief, and the only way they could experience stability or assurance or comfort is if they looked away from the unbelief and up to God’s purposes and plan and control. Otherwise, the rampant unbelief in this world can make God’s people feel desperate, destitute, and completely out of control. Folks, the unbelief which surrounded Jesus never did that to Jesus. He knew what was in the hearts of men, and he knew God’s purposes. “What you are about to do, Judas, do quickly”—he says as he directs the unbeliever’s heart to his own purposes.
So yes, verse 45 acknowledges that some believed in Jesus when they had “seen what [Jesus] did”. I hope and pray their faith was genuine. I imagine many of them really did have a true faith—although John’s gospel has already taught us that Jesus himself was suspicious of this kind of faith in the crowds. It was a worldly faith. It was a faith which was entertained Jesus’s miracles but unwilling to go the distance with Jesus. Even the pharisees saw what was happening if you look ahead to verse 48. They say “if we let [Jesus] go on like this [with his signs and miracles] everyone will believe in him”. It was looking like a popularity contest, folks.
To Be Clear: True Faith Sees Glory (Not the World)
Now, just so we get it right, especially in a sermon and a passage like this, what faith should we desire? If we don’t want the fickle, worldly faith of these crowds, what faith should we pursue and desire? Do you remember what we read about faith last week? It was the most stunning, shocking verse we read last week—and that’s saying something. We read a lot of stunning verses last week, when Jesus raised Lazarus. Although, of all of them, verse 40 really does take the cake. Martha, in a moment of confusion and unbelief, says to Jesus “Lord, don’t roll the stone back, he’s been dead for four days! There will be an odor!”. Remember how Jesus responded? Verse 40, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
I love that. Jesus is about to do something exceedingly glorious—raise up a dead man. Everyone is going to see it—even those who would end up not believing in him. Then, he has the audacity to say “If you believe”—and, I really think he means “only if you believe, you will see the glory of God”. Everyone saw the dead man come out that day, but not everyone saw the glory of God because not everyone believed. It’s one of the most jarring statements and pictures of true belief there is. True belief sees the true glory of God. True belief sees not the signs—not the glorious skies or the magnificent mountains or the dead man Lazarus walking—but the actual glory of God in Jesus himself. Jesus—not Lazarus walking—was the glory of God that day, and only those who had faith to see it saw the glory of God that day. It’s true every day, folks. True faith sees Jesus as God’s glory, God’s salvation, God’s life and grace and forgiveness and hope even as he offers it all through his death and resurrection. These miracles and signs, folks, are just icing on the cake for those who believe. For those who don’t believe, the signs are judgement.
So, the reference to people believing in Jesus in verse 45 makes us pause to consider the difference between true faith which sees Jesus as the glory of God, and a false faith which was so characteristic of the miracle-seeking crowds which Jesus did not entrust himself to.
Telling What He Did (Not Who He Is)
Now, let’s keep moving along in this passage to look at the more flagrant forms unbelief in this passage. Look at verse 46 with me. Many of the Jews believed, “but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” In other words, they told on Jesus. They turned him in, and I think it’s especially telling when verse 46 says that they “told them what Jesus had done” rather than they “told them who Jesus is”. That’s the difference between unbelief and belief in this story, folks. Are you focused on the miracle, on what Jesus did, or are you focused on Jesus, the glory of God? That’s the great dividing line, here, between belief and unbelief. “He’s doing all these amazing things and I want more miracles!”—the fickle faith of the crowds, and the fickle faith of so many Christians today who want Jesus for what he can do for them rather than for who he is. Or again, if your distracted by the miracles, you might turn him in to the authorities and say “he’s doing all these miracles and the crowds are being deceived!”. Only faith will say “he’s doing these miracles. He’s the Messiah—the very glory—of God, and I want him”.
“But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” Let’s dissect this unbelief a little bit, here in verse 46. Why would these Jews in verse 46 turn Jesus into the Pharisees?
Unbelief Trades Jesus for Worldly Securities
Throughout this story, there is a lot of men seeking security in the wrong things. That’s what unbelief does. At it’s core, unbelief isn’t so much “I don’t believe in Jesus”. At it’s core, unbelief is rather “I won’t believe in Jesus because I won’t stop going to this, that, or the other worldly thing for peace and security in life.” Folks, the Jews in verse 46 who turned Jesus in turned him into the Pharisees whom everyone at this point knew were seeking to arrest and kill Jesus. They were looking for their pat, pat, pat, on the back. “The Pharisees are my teachers, my rulers. They keep me safe and secure. They work with the Jewish counsel to keep Rome at bay, so we can keep our freedoms as Jews. Don’t upset them.” Keep your friends in high places happy, right?
Or, perhaps (and this may get a little closer to home) the problem wasn’t that these Jews who ratted on Jesus were seeking security and kudos from the Pharisees. Perhaps they were simply trying to keep themselves in good standing with the law, and out of troube. “Yeah, I’m not a huge fan of the Pharisees and high counsel—but I know my life would get really tough if it was found out that I had seen Jesus do this miracle, and I didn’t report it to the Pharisees”. Perhaps that’s what was going on. They didn’t want to get caught as being complacent. They wanted to just keep their nose down and do what was expected of them. “If you see Jesus, report it him like a good citizen and you’ll be treated like a good citizen”. We don’t want to lose our securities, do we? Just do as your told. Don’t ask questions. Don’t bring up the fact that abortion is murder. Don’t bring up the fact that there are only two genders, and that homosexuals are going to hell. Don’t tell a woman or any other marginalized class of society that they are in sin. Don’t tell people Jesus is their only hope of salvation from God’s eternal and infinite wrath. You might incite some hard days ahead if you do.
But folks, what’s the truth? What is becoming of the glory of God, which true belief pursues and desires above all things? What is becoming of following and loving and receiving Jesus as your only hope and comfort? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Deny yourself, your worldly pleasures and securities, and follow Jesus as Savior and Lord over everything.
The unbelievers in verse 46, for whatever the particular reason, turned Jesus in because they sought their comforts and securities in the world rather than in Jesus. I’m not reading that into the passage. The passage doesn’t need to expressly say that—it’s just how unbelief works. In fact, if we keep reading, we’ll see this sort of thing even more clearly in the next group of unbelievers we meet. Verses 47–48,
47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
It’ really amazing, folks. “This man performs many signs”. Don’t you love that they won’t even say his name? They won’t say it. “Jesus”—you know, the name that literally means “salvation”. They won’t say it. “This man performs many signs.” They won’t discuss what the signs mean. They won’t discuss whether the signs are desirable or not (all the healing and good works). That’s literally not of their concern at all, and (again) it’s because they have their eyes completely fixated on their worldly comforts and securities and glories. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe him and the Romans will come and take away both our place [our temple] and our nation.”
It’s pitiful, folks. You can’t read this and not think, “Oh, those poor Jews. The big Romans are going to come in and take away their temple. If Jesus keeps going on like this, and the crowds get all stirred up, the big bad Romans are going to take away their freedoms and their comforts and their beautiful temple.”
JUST. LIKE. THAT.
Do you see how fickle not unbelief is, but the worldly comforts which unbelief turns to? That’s what it’s like trusting in the world, folks. You are always—and I mean always one event away from all of your worldly comforts being leveled to the ground (and your life with them). All it takes is one person—a nobody—like a Galilean peasant to come in and threaten your worldly securities. It’s what makes people anxious, folks. It’s what makes them agitated. It’s a fight for flight world because the world is unstable, and all the comforts and securities therein.
But it doesn’t matter. So long as your eyes are fixated on these things, and your soul is hell-bent on confiding in them, you’ll serve the world with anxiety and uncertainty your whole life and get nothing out of it. Meanwhile, you’ll miss the Lord of glory and all the securities he is offering.
He just reversed death, folks. He just raised a dead man to life. He just offered security from death—it’s the sort of life insurance that no insurance broker could ever find for you. Are you so distracted by and committed to your unstable securities of this world that you’d turn Jesus in for that?
Unbelief Viciously Fights for the World
And folks, this sort of unbelief that’s committed to worldly comforts and securities makes people vicious. People will fight to keep their worldly comforts and securities. Look at verse 49.
49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”
It’s a very logical thought, folks. It’s very compelling. It’s also revealing to how much of a threat these Jews thought this one man Jesus was. Caiaphas, here, is literally saying that if Jesus remains alive with his influence in Israel with his followers and crowds and controversies, then the entire nation is going to perish under Rome. That’s a lot of power in one man. So, kill him, before he kills Israel. Unbelief, folks, will go the distance to keep it’s worldly comforts and securities.
So we’ve seen that unbelief can be masked as belief when someone is fixated on Jesus’s worldly miracles rather than on Jesus himself. Then, we considered that unbelief trades Jesus in for worldly comforts and securities. Then, yes, unbelief will get vicious. It’ll go the distance to secure those worldly securities. We’d be lost without them, right?
Too bad they’re so delicate and unpredictable. That, of course, leads us to the next thought to consider regarding unbelief.
Unbelief Always Disappoints
Folks, what happened to Israel, in the end? The chief priest says “it’d be better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” So, kill Jesus to keep the nation. They kill Jesus. What happened to the nation?
Not 50 years later, folks—within the lifetime of many of these Jews at this council meeting—Rome sacks Jerusalem anyway. They had no control over it. They had no say. The temple was toppled and the nation was scattered, and this happened because they killed Jesus.
Folks if you reject Jesus as your comfort and security, and you turn to the world for those things, you will end up disappointed. The world is cursed to break. Nations are destined to totter. Jesus overcame all of that. “I am the resurrection and the life… do you believe this?”. If you do, you’ll be immovable with what Paul calls a “peace the surpasses understanding”.
Summary: Unbelief in All It’s Colors
So we’ve considered the unbelief in this passage, in its many forms. It’s unbelief that looks like belief as people are drawn to Jesus for his worldly miracles and not his person. Unbelief trades Jesus in for worldly comforts and securities. Unbelief gets vicious and murderous for those securities. Then, in the end, the securities will always fail. That’s unbelief: destined to disappointment.
Oh, and the world is full of it. The world is chuck-full, to the brim with this kind of unbelief—and it always has been. Faithful are the few, folks. Few are those who believe. “Narrow is the gate and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:14). Jesus said that. Jesus knew it, folks—and you never see Jesus disappointed or frustrated by it. You never see Jesus throw his hands up in defeat as though he’s just not turning out the conversion numbers he hoped for.
How Does Jesus Respond to Unbelief?
So the remaining question, folks, is this. How does Jesus respond to all the unbelief? We need to see this, folks. How do we respond to unbelief? When you’ve done everything in your power to convince your loved one that Jesus is savior and Lord, and they just keep going back to the world for comfort—only to find constant disappointment and frustration—how should we respond?
Well, folks. I see two ways Jesus responds.
He Died for Unbelief
First, look at verses 51 and 52. Caiaphas just said his word about killing Jesus, so that Jesus would die for the nation. Then we’re told in verse 51 that God moved this priest to say this, and God was moving this priest to say something the priest had no idea he was saying. Verse 51—
51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
Jesus did die for the nation, for his people, folks. That’s what Jesus did in response to all the unbelief. He looked around, saw all the unbelief and frustration and sin and devastation, and he died for it. “I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this [Jewish] fold [i.e., the gentile sheep]. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd… I lay my life down that I may take it up again”. That’s what Jesus had just said earlier, in John 10:16. He dies for his sheep, folks to cover their sin of unbelief—that their unbelief and sin and vicious worldly-comfort seeking would all be forgiven, and that he might call them in as forgiven sheep who hear his voice as the sovereign, resurrected Savior and Lord. “My sheep hear my voce, and I know them, and they follow me”. Folks, he dies for them and their sinful unbelief, and then he calls them in. They will follow.
What does he say as he’s being rejected on the cross with all that vicious, murderous unbelief? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” He says “I’m dying that they may be forgiven of this, Father! Forgive them so that I may call them out of their unbelief, and into eternal life!”.
So, Jesus dies for his people and for their unbelief. He doesn’t need to fret about all the unbelief. He has the answer to it. He has a ministry which Elijah or Isaiah never had—a ministry of salvation from the misery and sin and wrath of unbelief.
So folks, let that be what settles your heart concerning the matter of unbelief. Jesus died for his people—and those for whom he died, he will call, and they will answer. He died to gather the scattered children. They will gather. They will come to him. Our job is to pray and to keep telling people about Jesus. Don’t stop. Jesus commands us to keep witnessing. It’s how he has chosen to bring in his people—and if they don’t respond, that’s between them and Jesus. Remember that your hope and comfort is ultimately Jesus and his glory and wisdom.
He Retreated to the House of Belief
Now, what else did Jesus do in response to the unbelief? Look at verse 54. This is a brief, but beautiful and moving verse for us this morning. Verse 53 says the Jews made plans to put him to death. Then verse 54—
John 11:54 Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples.
So, in one sense this is logistical. He needed to wait until Passover before he allowed the Jews to kill him. So, he retreated until the proper time. Although, I love how verse 54 tells us that he went to this town called Ephraim, “and there he stayed with the disciples”. It’s heartwarming, isn’t it?
Jesus didn’t retreat into utter solitude during this intense moment of his life. People are seeking him, to kill him—and he knows that in a few week’s time he’ll absorb God’s infinite wrath on the cross for his people. With that sort of pressure, we’d expect a wise and religious sage to retreat into solitude for some meditation or something. Not Jesus. He retreated from the vicious, murderous unbelief to the people of faith. He retreated to his disciples who—granted—still had some learning to do. Although, they were the people of faith he invested most in.
It is, indeed, a hard world of unbelief out there, folks. But what do we have in here, this morning, in this building, on this Lord’s day? We have Jesus, the glory of God. We have believers. We have a retreat, folks, from all the madness. We have a family committed to confessing sin at the cross and contending for the faith together. It ought to be rejuvenating and reviving.
Jesus responds to the fickle and worldly faith of the crowds, and the world-seeking, vicious, unbelief of the crowds by dying for their unbelief, and by retreating into the house and people of belief for refreshment. Folks, don’t be beaten down by all the unbelief (even as you might see it in a loved one). Jesus died for it, so there’s always hope—and he’s given you the people of faith to commune with and confide in until the day of glory. Keep your eyes on him, together, folks. He’s the glory of God. Let’s pray.