The Essence of Unbelief

Unbelief is not a popular subject, just a necessary one. It must be taught, for it is found frequently amongst the biblical witness. Moreover, it precedes the conversation of belief or faith. Jesus warns Nicodemus of this eternal pitfall which the masses are even now wholly ignorant of. He reproves, explains, and warns the religiously religious man against this folly. He speaks to the essence of unbelief, the consequential hardening of simple unbelief, the reasons and wages of it, and the provision of God that overcomes this eternally condemning sin.

Deriving occasion from Nicodemus’ inquiry in John 3:2 and 4, our Lord answers him, not on the basis of his inquiry but on the condition of his soul, which despite his external displays of religion, was yet dead in sin and trespasses, incapable of desiring God. He Divinely teaches of the new birth, the inability of man to effect this birth, the carnality of man, the necessity of the work of the Spirit of God, and the sovereignty and mystery of the Holy Spirit in the operation of this creative act (v. 3, 5-8). Within this discourse, Christ implies spiritual realities that would have been obvious to Nicodemus provided he was alive in Christ, but since he was not yet, his response is marveling unbelief – “How can these things be?” (John 3:9)

This phrase is quite commonplace today when sharing the truth of human inability and true Spirit-empowered regeneration. And yet, these things, and those commands testified of by Christ, “earthly things” (v. 12), that, being Divine in origin, take place on earth while we live and must be so, lest we otherwise perish, are yet simple (earthly) things spoken of by Christ in a simple (earthly) style so that they might be understood. But Nicodemus cannot believe “these things” (v. 8). Today, the lost person may respond with different sounding words, but the meaning remains the same – “How can these things be?” And this is usually followed with a declarative statement of unbelief and an emphatic assertion of what is more suitable to their liking – a salvific perspective that many in hell now would cry out against in warning.

Nicodemus was a preacher, “the (definitive) teacher of Israel”, a “ruler of the Jews”, educated, experienced, and according to tradition would have had Genesis 1:1-Deuteronomy 34:12 memorized. To this man, God replies, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10) And to what do we attribute this inability to understand spiritual things? “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and we bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.” (John 3:11) Faith precedes understanding (Hebrews 11:3). He does not understand, because he does not receive, but rather rejects the testimony of Christ. This is the essence of unbelief: rejection of the Word of Christ, or the Testimony of God, or the Gospel. Nicodemus would stand before the people of Israel and proclaim the Word of God (OT) to them, and yet he knew not what he proclaimed. The “we” of verse 11 is particularly strong. It indicates a reprsentative flavor – Christ and the writers of the Old Testament, which actually means Christ alone, for it is written that the Spirit of Christ was in them (the prophets) (1 Peter 1:11). When the prophets were sent of God, He sent them saying, “Thus says the Lord…”. Nicodemus, a preacher, rejected the very testimony of God. And not to belabor the point, but I find it necessary to mention that God does not waste words as we often do. When He speaks, He speaks truly, perfectly, in harmony with His glorious character, and thus, to reject the testimony of Christ, what He has Divinely seen and Divinely knows is to reject the very person of God, in particular, the Son of God, the Savior of sinners. This is made plain in John the Baptists testimony a little bit later in John 3:31-36, particularly v. 33 where he makes the following link between the testimony of Christ and the seal of the believing man, “Whoever receives (believes, contrary to the immediate response of Nicodemus) His testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.” Again, the essence of unbelief is the rejection of Christ’s testimony, for what one here rejects is what Christ has seen, knows, and made plain to us about our nature, God the Father, the will of the Father, the work of the Spirit, and redemptive truth, etc. To reject these is to reject the very truth that Christ offers to you to save you from sin and falsehoods.

I’ll end with a few thoughts: first, John 3:36b-c identifies the consequence of unbelief – “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” That is, Christ commands faith in His testimony (Him). To disobey is equivalent to rejecting His Word as is certain when comparing 3:36b-c with its parallel in 3:36a, e.g., “whoever believes (36a)…whoever does not obey (3:36b-c)” in the context of Christ’s testimony. Secondly, simple unbelief gives rise to a greater hardening towards “heavenly things” – “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (3:12) That is, if you do not believe my testimony about the command of faith, and the earthly illustration between the wind and the Spirit, then how will you understand “heavenly things”, i.e., the Godhead together in the throne room with an infinite number of redemptive possibilities laid before them, and out of all of them, they elect one, and only one, perfect redemptive plan and purpose and it will most powerfully and lucidly display and demonstrate the grace, love, mercy, and wrath of God, etc. and it is, for time’s sake, John 3:14-16 – a crucified Messiah! Simple unbelief prevents the sinner from nearing redemptive truth. Lastly, what man cannot ascend to get for themselves, God descends in the form of sinful flesh under the law to bring to man, so that by the appointment of God Christ might make known to them these precious truths of redemption (John 3:13).

I have had inumerable conversations recently where in the midst of them my counterpart casts aside the simple things of the Word of Christ. They hear of sin, but they do not believe in sin or that they are, in fact, a sinner. They hear of the cross, but they dismiss it as either folly or a novelty of thought. They turn from truth to postmodern ideologies of relativity, interpretation, slippery absolutes, and an impersonal conversational style. For the truth compresses the sinner, engaging the individual soul, and this is unpleasant to the flesh of a spiritually dead person. Like Pilate, they say “what is truth?”, when the Truth stands before them; like Nicodemus, they respond in unbelief, “how can these things be?”, when it is God who has told of these things. And more grievous are we today against the witness of the Bible, the Word Who is God. My commendation then is this, do not harden your heart any longer, but rest in Christ. Believe His Word and you will believe in the Word, Jesus Christ. And lest I leave you hopeless, allow me to end here: Once Christ has declared the personal problem of unbelief to the man, Nicodemus, telling him that he cannot believe “heavenly things” and that no one has ever ascended into heaven so as to bring down God’s revelation of redemptive truth for himself that he might save himself, the Lord continues, “except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man who is in heaven,” John 3:13. “Except! Except! Except!” This is truly beautiful. Man of himself was not in heaven when redemption was planned, nor can he ascend there to get it for himself and bring it down to do it by himself…but, Christ was there, is there, and from there descended to reveal the truth to sinners, the Son of Man – a Messianic title referring to His human likeness and His cross work, taking upon Himself the likeness of sinful flesh, condemning sin in the flesh on the cross, that we might live through faith in Him – does this; God brings redemptive truth to sinners and so it would follow two verses later:

“For God so loved the world (how so?) that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life,” John 3:16. Amen, and amen.

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