“Second Class Faith” (John 2:23-25)
For some time, John the Baptist had been preaching to the nation Israel, calling men to repentance in preparation for the coming of Messiah. At that time, even John the Baptist did not know for certain who the Messiah was. And so he spoke about Him in general terms.
6 A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify about the light so that everyone may believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the light. 9 The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world (John 1:6-9).
John testified about him and cried out,
“This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me’” (John 1:15).
26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 who comes after me. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal” (John 1:26-27).
Finally, God revealed the identity of the Messiah to John as he was baptizing Jesus:
30 “This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’ 31 I did not recognize him, but I came baptizing with water so that he could be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John testified, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. 33 And I did not recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining, this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have both seen and testified that this man is the Chosen One of God” (John 1:30-34).
John was quick to point out to his disciples and others that Jesus was the One of whom he had been speaking. It was not long before several disciples attached themselves to Jesus, traveling along with Him, and even staying with His family in Capernaum (John 1:35ff.). They accompanied our Lord to the wedding at Cana of Galilee (2:1-2). It certainly seemed that it was time for Jesus to make His debut as Israel’s Messiah. This may have been in Mary’s mind when she informed Jesus that the wedding party had run out of wine. Jesus provided the wine, but He did so in a way which kept His identity—and even His power—a secret.
A few days later, Jesus and His disciples went up to Jerusalem, where our Lord publicly proclaimed His identity in a most unusual way. He cleansed the temple by driving out the sheep and the oxen, and also the men who were making His Father’s house a place of business. While John does not call this a “sign,” it surely was a “statement” by our Lord, a very public statement. Jesus was not merely correcting some evil; He was doing so as One who had the right to do so—Israel’s Messiah.
In Jerusalem, Jesus was beginning to gain a following. This looked like the start of something big. It is precisely that for which the disciples had hoped. It is what our Lord’s brothers almost defied Him to do (see John 7:1-5). One would expect our Lord to “fan the flames” of His rising popularity and expand the ranks of His followers. Instead, we read these words, which are not recorded in any other Gospel: “But Jesus was not entrusting himself to them, because he knew all people. 25 He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25).
What does Jesus have against popularity and large numbers? What does it mean when John tells us that Jesus would not “entrust Himself” to these people who believed in Him? Why does Jesus keep His distance from those who want to be near Him? What are we to learn from all this? The purpose of this message is to learn the answers to these questions, and then to explore their implications for Christians today. It is my belief that these three verses which conclude the second chapter of John set the stage for chapters that follow. Let us listen closely to the words of John, and let us look to the Spirit of God to interpret and apply them to our hearts and lives.
Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs he was doing.
A few days before this, our Lord turned the ceremonial cleansing water into wine. He then went up to Jerusalem with His disciples. Upon His arrival at the temple, Jesus drove out those who had made “His Father’s house” a place of business. One might think that this temple cleansing was counter-productive, so far as our Lord’s popularity is concerned. Other than making Jesus unpopular with the religious elite, this does not seem to be the case at all. In reading the Gospels, one does not get the impression that the Jewish religious leaders were exceedingly popular. They seem to have been arrogant snobs, who cared little about the common people and much about their position and power. Listen to the response of these leaders to the officers who were sent to arrest Jesus when they came back empty handed:
45 Then the officers returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why didn’t you bring him back with you?” 46 The officers replied, “No one ever spoke like this man!” 47 Then the Pharisees answered, “You haven’t been deceived too, have you? 48 None of the rulers or the Pharisees have believed in him, have they? 49 But this rabble who do not know the law are accursed!” (John 7:45-49, emphasis mine.)
The religious elite did not appear to share the attitude of the common people toward the rule of Rome. The common people seemed eager to “throw the rascals out.” They seemed to look to the Messiah to do this. But listen to the words of the chief priests and Pharisees, when they realize how popular Jesus has become, due in part to the recent raising of Lazarus:
47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation” (John 11:47-48).
When Jesus took on the religious leaders and exposed their ignorance, arrogance, and hypocrisy, the common people seemed to love it:
35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he said, “How is it that the experts in the law say that the Christ is David’s son? 36 David himself, by the Holy Spirit, said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”
37 David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ So how can he be his son?” And the large crowd was listening to him with delight (Mark 12:35-37, emphasis mine).
At this very early stage of our Lord’s ministry in John’s Gospel, I am inclined to think that even the Pharisees were pleased by what Jesus had done when He cleansed the temple. It seems to be the high priest and the Sadducees who were most involved in the temple market Jesus “closed” when He made His debut at the temple. The high priests seem to have been Sadducees (see Acts 5:17). The Pharisees appear to be laymen, as opposed to the priests and religious officials. The Pharisees and Sadducees141 had some very sharp differences (see Acts 23:6-8). We might sum up these differences by saying that the Sadducees were liberals, while the Pharisees were very conservative, theologically speaking.
When Jesus cleansed the temple, He was confronting and challenging the Sadducees. As rivals of the Sadducees, the Pharisees probably enjoyed watching one “man” (of apparently common stock) make the religious establishment look bad. This “Jesus” might come in handy to the Pharisees, or so they might have thought. Such thinking would quickly vanish, but it may have been present in the first days of our Lord’s ministry, while He was still in Jerusalem.
Yet another factor added to our Lord’s popularity. While He was in Jerusalem, Jesus performed a number of signs:
Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs he was doing (John 2:23, emphasis mine).
He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could do the miraculous signs that you do unless God were with him” (John 3:2, emphasis mine).
So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him because they had seen all the things he had done in Jerusalem at the feast (for they themselves had gone to the feast) (John 4:45, emphasis mine).
John is very selective in the signs he chooses to include in his Gospel. The turning of water into wine seems to be our Lord’s first public sign. John now tells us that while Jesus was in Jerusalem, He performed a number of signs. These signs made a great impact on many who observed them. Many who witnessed them “believed in His name” (verse 23).
Are These “Believers” Really Saved?
If Jesus would not entrust Himself to these folks, we must wonder if these “believers” were true believers at all. There are some who conclude that these “believers” must not be saved. It is true that elsewhere in the Bible there are “believers” who do not appear to be “saved.” James speaks of the demons who “believe … and tremble!” (James 2:19). Surely these demons are not true believers! In Acts 8, we read of a certain “Simon,” who “believed,” along with many Samaritans (8:13). Peter’s words to this man, who sought to buy the power to bestow the Holy Spirit, certainly cause us to wonder if “Simon” was really a believer:
20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could acquire God’s gift with money! 21 You have no share or part in this matter, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that he may perhaps forgive you for the intent of your heart. 23 For I see that you are bitterly envious and in bondage to sin” (Acts 8:20-23).
Having said this, I must conclude that in the Gospel of John, I am compelled to conclude that those who are said to “believe” in our text are true believers. There are several reasons for this:
First, John tells us that these people “believed in His name.” This same expression is found in John chapter 1: “But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children” (John 1:12, emphasis mine). John tells us that those who “believe in His name” are those who have “received Him,” and thus have become children of God. If all those who “believe in His name” are said to be saved in chapter 1, how can we say that such folks are not saved when described by the same words in chapter 2?
Second, John’s purpose for this Gospel is to bring people to a saving faith. He employs signs to bring his readers to “believe in His name”: “Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. 31 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, emphasis mine).
If John records these selected “signs” he uses to bring people to faith, one would hardly think he would challenge the faith of those who “believe in His name” because of these signs.
Third, the two examples which follow (Nicodemus in chapter 3, and the woman at the well in chapter 4) both recount conversations our Lord had with individuals who became believers. Nicodemus does not immediately understand the Gospel or come to faith, but he certainly does seem to do so eventually. In chapter 3, John does not tell us when Nicodemus left Jesus; he just disappears. Nicodemus is speaking with our Lord, and then somewhere after verse 9 we come to the realization that he has gone away, and we are not exactly sure when this was. I think he leaves scratching his head, wondering what Jesus meant. He is mystified by what Jesus has just told him, and perhaps humbled by his own ignorance concerning these things. John continues on in chapter 3, and we are not certain whether the words are those of our Lord, or those of the Apostle John.142 In chapter 7, Nicodemus is chastised by his peers for defending Jesus. They ask him if he is also a Galilean (7:50-52). Nicodemus seems to simply clam up. When we last see Nicodemus, he, along with Joseph of Arimathea (another secret believer), quietly obtains the body of our Lord to prepare it for burial (John 19:38-39). When we last see Nicodemus, he is an “under cover” Christian, but a believer nonetheless.
Nicodemus seems to be John’s first example of one who “believes” by virtue of our Lord’s signs, yet he is also one to whom our Lord does not “entrust” Himself. Here is a man who appears to have great potential for furthering our Lord’s ministry. Nicodemus is a Jew, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, and one of the most renowned teachers of the day. Wow! This is impressive. It certainly looks as though he could do much to further our Lord’s ministry. But Jesus does not “entrust” Himself to Nicodemus. He does, however, “entrust” Himself to the Samaritan woman at the well, and to the people of Sychar. As a result of our Lord’s ministry to the woman at the well, the entire city comes out to hear Him. Jesus then spends two days with these Samaritans.143 I believe, in John’s words, Jesus “entrusted” Himself to them.
For these reasons, I conclude that John intends for us to understand that these people who “believed in Jesus’ name” became true believers. The question then arises: “Why does our Lord not commit Himself to them?” Let us seek to find the answer to this question.
Why Does Our Lord
Not Entrust Himself to Some Saints?
24 But Jesus was not entrusting himself to them, because he knew all people. 25 He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.
First I must point out something that is not sufficiently clear in the English translations of this passage. John uses the same Greek term144 to refer to the faith of those who believed (this is the word) in His name as he does for our Lord’s not entrusting (here it is again) Himself to them. The closest English approximation of the Greek text would be translated something like this: “Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people trusted in His name because they saw the miraculous signs He was doing, but Jesus was not entrusting Himself to them, …”
We are seeking to learn what John means when he tells us that Jesus did not entrust Himself to some believers. I believe we can do so by answering this pair of questions: (1) Why didn’t Jesus entrust Himself to these believers? and, (2) To whom, if any, did Jesus entrust Himself? Let us pursue these two questions, beginning with the second question.
John’s words in 2:23-25 indicate that Jesus did not entrust Himself to certain people, but by inference we would conclude that there were those to whom He did entrust Himself. Would we not agree that if our Lord entrusted Himself to any group of people it would be His disciples? Now we can move to the first question, slightly modified: “Why did Jesus entrust Himself to His disciples but not to these Jerusalem believers?”
John tells us the reason: Jesus is God. As God, He knows all things. Among the things He knows is what is in men’s hearts. We know from the Gospels that our Lord knew the thoughts of men:
3 Some people came bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. 4 When they were not able to bring him in because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Jesus. Then, after tearing it out, they lowered the stretcher the paralytic was lying on. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some experts in the law were sitting there, turning these things over in their minds, 7 “Why does he speak this way? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 Now at once Jesus knew in his spirit that they were contemplating such thoughts, so he said to them, “Why are you thinking such things? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your stretcher, and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—he said to the paralytic—11 “I tell you, get up, take your stretcher, and go to your home” (Mark 2:3-11, emphasis mine).
A dramatic example of our Lord’s omniscience145 has already been described by John in chapter 1. Jesus welcomed the two disciples of John the Baptist, one of whom was Andrew (1:35-40). He knew what was in the hearts of the men He chose as His disciples. He renamed Simon “Peter” (the stone). He knew what Peter’s character would be. The most dramatic example of our Lord’s omniscience was our Lord’s knowledge of Nathanael as a man in whom there was no guile, the man whom Jesus “saw” while he was unseen, under the fig tree (1:45-51). The hearts of the disciples were an “open book” to our omniscient Lord. He also knew what was in the heart of Judas, who was to betray Him (see Matthew 9:3-5; John 6:70-71; 13:26).
I take it, then, that because Jesus fully knows the hearts of all men, He does not entrust Himself to those whose faith is second class. There is a tension here, which I cannot overlook or deny. On the one hand, we have nothing to commend us to God. He does not choose to save us because of what we are, what we have done (see Titus 3:4-5), or for what we can do for His kingdom (contrary to some popular misconceptions). He chooses the weak and the foolish things to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). There is nothing we have but what we have received from Him (1 Corinthians 4:7). On the other hand, God does look on the heart. He rejected Saul and He chose David, not because of his stature or his good looks, but because of his heart (1 Samuel 16:7). The issue here is not God’s choice of men for salvation, but His choice of men for service, and for intimate fellowship and ministry with Him.
After John Mark abandoned Paul, the apostle refused to take this young man along on his next missionary journey. Paul did not want to entrust himself and his mission to a man who had deserted him under fire (see Acts 15:36-41). Paul instructed Timothy: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2, emphasis mine). Leadership in the local church is restricted to those who have met certain qualifications, many of which have to do with character (see 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). The disciples, to whom our Lord entrusts Himself, are those to whom He will give the Great Commission, those who will be the foundation of His church (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 2:17-22).
What is it about these Jerusalem “believers” which causes our Lord to distance Himself from them, while He entrusts Himself to His disciples, spending a great deal of time with them? I believe our text tells us the reason: their faith was “sign faith.” John says, “Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs he was doing” (John 2:23).
The faith of these saints is based upon our Lord’s signs. I would suspect that when things got tough, their faith, if it did not grow beyond this dependency on signs, would seek for some new sign. We know, of course, that there were many who demanded to see a sign in order to believe, but these folks seem to never have enough sign-proof to believe. There are those like Nicodemus, however, who remain “secret saints,” who out of fear of the Jews keep quiet about their faith in Jesus:
However, no one spoke openly about him for fear of the Jewish authorities (John 7:13).
After this Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus (but secretly, because he feared the Jewish authorities), asked Pilate if he could take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission, so he went and took away the body (John 19:38).
Jesus would shortly send His disciples out in teams of two to proclaim the Gospel. They would face opposition, rejection, and persecution. Jesus would not entrust Himself to those who would wither and withdraw under this kind of adversity. Jesus knew the hearts of men, and because of this He committed Himself to His disciples and kept His distance from others, whose faith was dependent on signs.
These three verses which conclude the second chapter of John have some important lessons to teach us. The first lesson pertains to a very “hot” topic among Christians, that of “signs and wonders.” There is a great deal of debate as to the role which “signs and wonders” should play in the life of the Christian. There is much debate over whether “signs and wonders” even exist today.
Let me begin by saying that God is sovereign. He does not need our permission to produce “signs and wonders” any time He chooses. Neither does He need our prompting to do so. Those who deny even the possibility of any miraculous intervention in our time seem to go beyond the Scriptures. Those who insist that such phenomena must occur today also go beyond the Scriptures. In what I am about to say, I am granting the possibility that a “sign” might occur today, whether or not it actually does. Our text says a couple of things about “signs” which need to be heard today. First, Jesus was not eager to perform “signs,” especially on demand. People wanted Jesus to perform “signs,” and nearly always those who requested them were those whose faith was weak or non-existent. The performance of “signs” by our Lord did not produce widespread faith, nor did it necessarily increase the faith of those who believed.
There are those today who would have us believe that “signs and wonders” are a necessity. They seem unwilling to go on with their Christian lives without them. Worse yet, they look down their spiritual noses at those who do not experience them. In short, those who claim to experience “signs and wonders” feel spiritually superior to those who don’t. This sounds a great deal like the Corinthian Christians, who abused spiritual gifts, and who took pride in things that should have humbled them.
It is hard to read John’s words in John 2:23-25 without coming to the conclusion that “sign-faith” is second class faith. Jesus refused to “entrust” Himself to those whose faith was merely a “sign-faith.” Why do those who claim to experience “signs and wonders” today think of themselves and their faith as superior? “Sign-faith” is not a bad place to begin; it is a very poor place to stop.
As I think about the early chapters of John’s Gospel, I realize there is a contrast made between “sign-faith” believers and what I might call “word-faith” believers. Nicodemus (a sign-faith believer) was no spiritual giant. He brings no one to Christ. He only secretly comes to our Lord himself. The turning of water into wine took place at the servants’ obedience to the spoken word of Jesus. He spoke, they obeyed, and the water turned to wine. The woman at the well and the people of Sychar believed because of our Lord’s words:
39 Now many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the report of the woman who testified, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they started asking him to stay with them. He stayed there two days, 41 and many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “No longer do we believe because of your words, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this one really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:39-42).
So far as we know, Jesus performed no signs at Sychar. He did not need to do so. It was the spoken word which brought creation into existence (Genesis 1; John 1; Hebrews 11:3). It is the Word of God which brings new spiritual life into existence, empowered by the Holy Spirit:
63 “The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help! The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus had already known from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) (John 6:63-64; see also 3:5-8.)
17 All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change. 18 By his sovereign plan he gave us birth through the message of truth, that we would be a kind of firstfruits of all he created (James 1:17-18).
You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1:23).
It was Thomas who had to “see” in order to believe. That was a kind of “sign-faith.” Jesus and the authors of the New Testament commend that faith which is based not upon what is seen, but upon what is not seen—the Word of God.
26 Eight days later the disciples were again together in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and examine my hands. Extend your hand and put it into my side. Do not continue in your unbelief, but believe.” 28 Thomas replied, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:26-29).
The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is the “hall of faith” for Old Testament saints. These saints believed God’s Word, and acted accordingly, choosing not to trust in what they saw, but in what God said. That is the kind of faith Jesus commends. It is to these saints, whose faith rests on His Word, to whom our Lord entrusts Himself, for intimate fellowship and service. Let us strive to move beyond faith in what is seen to faith in what God has said.
I should also draw your attention to what our text does not teach. All too often, people rush to John 3 and 4, to our Lord’s conversations with Nicodemus and the woman at the well, as a pattern for how we should evangelize. There are lessons to be learned here, but let me remind you that John is reporting these conversations, not as a pattern for evangelism, but as proof of the uniqueness of Jesus. One such uniqueness is given in John 2:24-25: Jesus knows what is in the hearts of men. We cannot imitate our Lord by trying to be omniscient. Our Lord knew men’s hearts; we do not. This is exactly why Paul warns Christians about judging the motives of others:
1 People should think about us this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful. 3 So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord. 5 So then, do not judge anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5, emphasis mine).
Our Lord knew everything about every man’s heart. He could commit Himself to some and not to others. While we are to “commit ourselves to faithful men, …” we must recognize that our judgment on such matters is fallible. Years of ministry have proven this over and over again. Some of those whom I feared would fail have persevered, and even prospered. Some of those I was sure would be very successful in Christian living and service have failed miserably. We must recognize that it is only God who knows the hearts of men, and thus we should be careful in the judgments we make, especially when it comes to motives. Nevertheless, “by their fruit you shall know them” (Matthew 7:20).
My point is that we can never evangelize or lead just like Jesus did because we are not just like Jesus. We are not omniscient and omnipotent. He is. Nevertheless, Jesus has sent His Spirit to enable and empower us for service. We must rely upon His Word and His Spirit to accomplish His purposes. This is why “the ministry of the Word and prayer” are so vital to Christian ministry.
While God sovereignly chooses us to salvation and service, and foreordains the fruit we will produce by His grace (see John 15:16), it is also true that God seeks those for service and intimate fellowship who have a heart for Him, those who have a faith that is firmly rooted, which can withstand the adversities of life. David was one of those men; Saul was not. Paul taught Timothy that God’s use of a man is, in some manner, related to that person’s desire to be a pure and holy instrument in His hand:
20 But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. 21 Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work (2 Timothy 2:20-21).
Let us seek, by His grace, to be the kind of vessel that God uses for honorable purposes. And when He does use us for such things, let us remember that it is all of Him (Romans 11:36).
Finally, I want to remind you that our Lord knows men’s hearts. He knows what is in your heart and what is in mine. It is a frightening thought, isn’t it? We may be able to fool others, but we cannot fool God. Our hearts are wretched and unclean. Our hearts are deceitful and wicked. When God saves us, He gives us a new heart. May He find us faithful, so that we find Him entrusting Himself to us, intimately communing with us, teaching and guiding us, so that we may proclaim His mercy and grace to a lost and dying world.
144 I should clarify a bit. It is the same Greek verb in both verses. When describing the faith of those who believed in Jesus, John uses the aorist tense, focusing upon the moment of faith. When describing our Lord’s refusal to “commit” Himself to these “believers,” John uses the imperfect tense. John was informing us that this was Jesus’ course of action, something that He practiced consistently, in case after case, situation after situation.