May 19, 2013
It seems to me that there is an epidemic of superficial or false faith in America. Over the last few decades, polls have indicated that between 30 to 40 percent or more of Americans claim that they have been born again. If one third of our nation was truly born again, the moral condition in our land would be vastly different!
While only God knows the true condition of people’s hearts, Jesus said that we can know a tree by its fruit (Luke 6:43-44). We should be able to spot a Christian by his godly behavior and lifestyle. Genuine faith results in good works (James 2:14-26). As 1 John 2:3 states, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” He does not mean that Christians never sin (see 1 John 1:9; 2:1). But his point is that the overall pattern of a true Christian’s life will be one of obedience to Jesus Christ, not a life of sin (1 John 3:4-10).
I bring up these matters because in our text we read about a situation where many believed in Jesus, but Jesus didn’t believe in them. The word translated “entrusting” (2:24, NASB) is the same Greek verb as “believed” (2:23). We could rightly translate it, “Many believed in Jesus, but Jesus didn’t believe in them.” While I found a couple of commentators who argue that these people had genuine faith, I agree with the overwhelming majority of scholars who argue that John intends for us to understand that these people had superficial faith.
As we’ve seen, John’s purpose for writing was (20:31), “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” In the prologue (1:1-18), John immediately sets forth the glory of Jesus Christ as the eternal Word, the Creator of all that is. He is the source of light and life. We saw in 1:12, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” In 1:14, John writes, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
In 1:50, Nathanael is the first one in this gospel who is said to believe in Jesus. In 2:11, the disciples, who had already believed and followed Jesus, believed again when they saw His glory when He turned the water into wine. In 2:22, John tells us that after Jesus resurrection, “His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.” So John is drawing a portrait of Jesus as the glorious manifestation of God with us, the one in whom everyone should believe for eternal life. He has given us examples of early faith in the disciples.
But now we read (2:23), “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing.” You would expect John to move on, leaving this as another example of saving faith following the earlier examples that he has given. But instead we read (2:24-25), “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” Why would Jesus refuse to entrust Himself to those who believed in Him? I agree with John Piper, who explains (desiringGod.org, “He Knew What Was in Man”):
What it says, in essence, is that Jesus knows what is in every heart, and so he can see when someone believes in a way that is not really believing. In other words, Jesus’ ability to know every heart perfectly leads to the unsettling truth that some belief is not the kind of belief that obtains fellowship with Jesus and eternal life. Some belief is not saving belief.
So while most of us (I hope) would say, “I believe in Jesus,” we all need to ask, “Does Jesus believe in me? Has He entrusted Himself to me?” (We’ll look at what that means later.) These verses teach us that…
We need to believe in Jesus in such a way that He believes in us.
These verses conclude the story of Jesus’ first ministry visit to the temple, but they also introduce us to the encounter with Nicodemus. John 2:25 emphasizes “man” (used twice) and then in 3:1, we read, “Now there was a man….” Also, 2:23 mentions the signs that Jesus was doing in Jerusalem during the feast, and in 3:2 Nicodemus acknowledges the signs that Jesus was doing. It’s obvious as the interview progresses that Jesus knew what was in Nicodemus’ heart and what he needed, namely, the new birth. So the story of Nicodemus helps us to understand these verses (and vice versa).
The disciples may have been initially enthused over the response of the people and then puzzled by Jesus’ seemingly aloof response to them: “If He’s the Messiah, why doesn’t He welcome all of these people who are believing in His name?” The reason was that He could see their hearts. He knew that their faith was based on seeing the miracles that He performed, but they weren’t repenting of their sins and trusting in Him as their Savior from sin.
Chapter 6 reports a similar incident. After Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, we read (6:14), “Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’” “The Prophet” was a Messianic term (Deut. 18:15). The disciples no doubt thought, “Great! These people get it! They’re acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah!” But the next verse says that Jesus perceived that the people were going to take Him by force to make Him king, so He withdrew to the mountain by Himself alone. Jesus knew that the people superficially believed in Him, but He didn’t entrust Himself to them. Let’s look further at superficial faith:
These “believers” (in 2:23) were impressed with Jesus. They had seen Him clear out the merchants and money-changers from the temple. During the visit to Jerusalem, He had performed some other signs that John doesn’t specify (2:23). Maybe some of them had been healed or knew those who had been healed. They were ready to sign on with Jesus.
But they really didn’t understand the truth about who Jesus is and what He came to do. Like Nicodemus, they probably thought, “We’re good Jews. We’re God’s chosen people. We keep the Law of Moses. We just observed Passover.” They didn’t understand that they were sinners who needed a Savior. They didn’t know that Jesus is the Lord and that He commands His followers to take up their cross and follow Him. They were amazed at His signs, but they weren’t committing themselves to Him as Savior and Lord, so He didn’t commit Himself to them.
We see an example of superficial faith in Acts 8. A magician named Simon had built quite a following in Samaria, claiming to be someone great (8:9). When he saw the miracles that God was working through Philip, Simon believed and was baptized. He continued on with Philip, being constantly amazed by the miracles that he saw (8:13). Then, when Peter and John arrived and prayed for the people to receive the Holy Spirit, Simon was impressed. He offered money to the apostles so that he could obtain the same powers. But Peter strongly denounced him (8:20-23), “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” Clearly, Simon’s faith was not saving faith.
These people were impressed with Jesus. They had seen Him cleanse the temple and thought, “He must be a great prophet!” They had seen Him do miracles and thought, “He must be a great man of God!” Nicodemus is an example of this. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” acknowledges that He has come from God as a teacher, and that God is with Him (3:2). But he didn’t understand that Jesus came to impart the new birth or that he even needed the new birth. He didn’t understand that Jesus would die as God’s provision for sinners to receive eternal life (3:14-16). While I believe that he later came to faith, at this point his view of Jesus was high, but not high enough.
We see the same thing in John 10:31-33, where Jesus’ critics acknowledged that He did good works, but they were ready to stone Him for blasphemy, because He made Himself out to be God. They had a high view of Jesus as a good man, but not high enough. They didn’t see Him as God.
Muslims have a high view of Jesus as a great prophet, but their view is not high enough, in that they think that Mohammad was a greater prophet and they deny Jesus’ deity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses affirm that Jesus is the greatest of all created beings, but their faith is not saving faith because they deny His deity, which also denies His ability to atone for our sins. The same is true of the Mormons. Their “Jesus” is not the Jesus presented to us in the Bible, who is fully God and fully man. Superficial faith thinks highly of Jesus, but not highly enough.
Believing on the basis of signs (miracles) is better than not believing at all. In John 10:37-38, Jesus tells His Jewish critics, “If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.” But believing because of miracles will not result in salvation unless it is accompanied by repentance. Simon the magician believed, but he had not repented of his pride and love of power over the people. He was not saved. In the parable of the sower, it is only the seed that endures and bears fruit that is genuinely saved. (See, also, Matt. 24:13; Rom. 11:22; 1 Cor. 15:2; Col. 1:23; Heb. 3:12-14; 1 John 2:18-19.) Faith that perseveres sees with growing clarity the glory of Christ and what He did for us on the cross so that it perseveres when trials or persecution hit.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones (The Path to True Happiness [Baker], pp. 159-161) points out that there are some who “believe” in Jesus intellectually, but their hearts and their wills have never been touched. They may be scholars, but their knowledge has never changed their lives. Others have their hearts touched, but their minds have not been in operation. In fact, they have been told that they should not try to understand. Often, they have not submitted their wills to Christ. Experience is everything. There is a third group where their Christianity is almost entirely a matter of the will. They don’t bother to understand and they aren’t interested in their feelings. They just want to be doing things to serve God.
Lloyd-Jones argues that all three types have superficial faith because they have only picked out what appeals to them and believed in that. They haven’t seen themselves as lost sinners and Christ as the only one who can save them. Their faith is partial, based on what they like about Jesus. But when things don’t go the way that they envisioned, they fall away.
Many of us believed in Jesus with a shallow or superficial faith. We trusted Him because we wanted healing or success or something other than salvation from sin. But to go on and develop into genuine saving faith, you have to see yourself as the Bible portrays you and see Christ for who He is.
The reason that Jesus didn’t entrust Himself to these “believers” was that He knew what was in their hearts. But the implication is that they didn’t know their own hearts. Since this section serves to introduce the interview with Nicodemus, he is an example. He thought that he was a good Jew, but Jesus stunned him by telling him that he needed to be born again. His goodness was not good enough to get him into the kingdom of God. Note two things:
In 1 Samuel 16:7, the Lord tells Samuel, “For God sees not as a man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Solomon prays (1 Kings 8:39b), “For You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men.” (Also, see 1 Chron. 28:9; Ps. 139:1-18, 23-24; Jer. 17:10; Heb. 4:13.) So when John tells us that Jesus knew all men and knew what was in man, it is a witness to His deity. Jesus could peer beneath the surface and evaluate the thoughts and motives of hearts (1:47-48; 4:17-19, 29; 6:15, 64 16:30; 21:17; Luke 16:15). Now, here’s the scary part:
Proverbs 21:2 states, “Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the hearts.” Jeremiah 17:9 says, ““The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” When the Lord saves us, He gives us a new heart (2 Cor. 5:17), but the old man or flesh is not eradicated. There still lurks within us the bent to do evil. The problem is, we don’t realize just how powerful and deceptive this monster within really is.
That’s why Peter denied the Lord. He thought that he was stronger than he was. In fact, he denied the Lord’s prediction of his denial because he thought he knew more than the Lord did! Later, when the Lord restored Peter with His threefold question, “Do you love Me?” the third time, Peter replied (21:17), “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” The Lord knows our hearts better than we know our hearts. We have to allow Him to reveal our hearts to us. He does this gradually (thankfully—we couldn’t bear it all at once!) as we read and study God’s Word. The more you see how weak and prone to sin you really are, the more you’ll trust in the Lord to deliver you from temptation and sin.
If you’ve never done so, you must ask God to change your heart through the new birth. Christianity is primarily a matter of your heart before God, not of rituals or keeping rules. As you walk openly before the Lord, letting His light shine into the dark places of your heart, you will grow in grace. If you’re hiding some secret sin from others, remember, you aren’t hiding it from the Lord. But you won’t gain the victory over it until you expose it to Him. Until then, you’re just playing games with yourself, because God knows the true condition of your heart.
So, we need to be careful because there is such a thing as superficial faith that does not result in salvation. Saving faith begins with accepting God’s evaluation of us on the heart level.
Many people make a decision to follow Christ, but that decision is not an indicator of the new birth unless it springs from the right motive, namely, a desire to have our sins forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. R. V. G. Tasker (The Gospel According to St. John [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 65) wrote, “[Christ] regarded all belief in Him as superficial which does not have as its most essential elements the consciousness of the need for forgiveness and the conviction that He alone is the Mediator of that forgiveness.”
So, what does it mean for Jesus to believe in you, or to entrust Himself to you? It has to do with a personal relationship. Trust is at the heart of all relationships. If you don’t trust someone, you will not be close to him. You will keep him at arm’s length, or just cut off all contact. To entrust yourself to someone, you must trust him. For Jesus to entrust Himself to you, He must trust you.
But how can He do that in light of our propensity to sin? First, there has to be the new birth where He imparts new life to us through the Holy Spirit. Only then is there anything in us worth trusting. Jesus did not entrust Himself to these superficial believers because He did not see their faith as the work of God stemming from the new birth.
Then, we need to walk in obedience to Him. In John 14:21, Jesus states, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” He adds (14:23), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” The Lord entrusts Himself to those who obey Him and it is only those who have been born again who are able to obey Him from the heart (Rom. 6:17).
Some of the scariest verses in the New Testament are Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” These people professed faith in Jesus. They called Him “Lord.” They were even involved in impressive ministries. But Jesus didn’t know them personally. Their disobedience showed that although they “believed” in Jesus, He didn’t believe in them. At the final judgment, Christ’s evaluation of us will be the determinative factor.
My aim in this message is, I hope, the same as John’s aim for including these verses in his Gospel: to get us all to believe in Jesus in such a way that He believes in us. Or, in Paul’s words (2 Cor. 13:5), “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”
Some people were touring a mint where coins are made. In the smelting area, there were caldrons of molten metal. The tour guide said that if a person dips his hand into water, someone could then pour the molten metal over his hand and he would not be injured or feel any pain. He asked a couple if they would like to prove the truthfulness of what he just said.
The husband quickly replied, “No, thanks, I’ll take your word for it.” But the wife said eagerly, “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” Putting her words into action, she thrust her hand into a bucket of water and then held it out as the molten metal was poured over it. The hot liquid rolled off harmlessly, just as the guide had said it would. He then turned to the husband and said, “Sir, you claimed to believe what I said. But your wife truly trusted.” (Adapted from, “Our Daily Bread,” 12/84.)
You don’t want to stand before the Lord and hear Him say, “Your faith was only superficial; I never entrusted Myself to you.” Genuine saving faith means having a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting Him as the One who saves you from your sins.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation