Belief and Unbelief in the Gospel of John

Meditating over John’s gospel this morning, I realized that a blog post on faith and works in John wasn’t going to fly.  A lot of the drama in John captures the tension between those who accept Jesus as “of God,” and those who reject outright the works and words of Jesus.  Belief and unbelief is a major theme in John.

In the Gospel of John, unlike the synoptic Gospels, the action centers around seven miracles that Jesus performs. Witnesses to the ministry of Jesus are challenged to accept or reject a miracle.  There is also a key discourse that reveals who Jesus is – the “bread of life” discourse.   Consider how some react to Jesus’ teaching in the “bread of life” discourse in chapter 6:

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard, who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?  It is the Spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.  The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe… For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me except through the Father.”  As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life, and no longer accompanied him.

John chapter nine has a classic tale of belief and unbelief, where a man, once blind, testifies before the Pharisees that Jesus gave him sight:

“Give God the praise. We know this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” The man replied, “If [Jesus] is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” So the Pharisees said to him, “What did he do to you, how did he open your eyes?” The man answered, “I told you already and you did not listen. why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” The Pharisees ridiculed him and said, “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses!”… The man answered and said to the Pharisees, “This is what I find so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes.” … The Pharisees answered him, “You were born blind and totally in sin, and you are trying to teach us?”

Other examples of unbelief among the people in the Gospel of John are at John 5:10-18, John 5:41-48, John 6:41-45, John 7:45-52, John 8: 48-59, John 11:45-54. Of course, John does not extol unbelief, he merely portrays it, often side-by-side with miracles or expressions of belief by the true disciples of Jesus. By contrast, John presents two extended accounts of faith in chapters 4 and 11. In chapter 4, he encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. In that account, Jesus manages to convince a number of Samaritans that he is the Messiah. The capstone miracle in John’s Gospel is the raising of Lazarus, where the faith of Martha and Mary is confirmed in the resurrection of Lazarus, who has been dead four days. Consider 11:23-27,

Jesus said to Martha, “your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection of the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

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