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Lesson 30: What Keeps People from Christ (John 5:39-47)

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October 13, 2013

What keeps people from believing in Christ? Why would anyone not want to have his or her sins forgiven and to have eternal life as a free gift so that they do not come into judgment? There are many reasons. For example, many Muslims reject Christ because they have misconceptions about who He is and what He claimed. Also, if they were to believe in Him, it would bring shame on their family, resulting in their family disowning them. Even worse, they could be targeted for death. So the social pressure against believing in Christ is tremendous.

Others reject Christ because they have been wounded by professing Christians or by the church. Maybe a priest or minister abused them, causing them to conclude that Christianity is a sham. Perhaps their parents professed to be Christians and yet were abusive and didn’t live out the faith at home. Or, the parents were overly strict and tried to force the child into believing. Others get into college and their faith is undermined by atheistic professors. We could multiply many more reasons why people do not believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

In John 3:19-21 we saw that people reject Christ because they love their sin and they hate having it exposed by God’s light. Now Jesus directly confronts the religious Jews who were opposing Him, who were unwilling to come to Him for eternal life (5:40). He asks them rhetorically (5:44), “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Evangelistic Sermons [Banner of Truth], pp. 39-51) points out how Jesus saved many unlikely and notorious sinners, but these guys were hard cases! He despairs about these religious Jews. He asks (5:44), “How can you believe …?” The Greek verb points to their inability to believe.

He has just given them adequate witnesses to back up His claim to be equal with God, so they didn’t lack evidence. They were zealous students of Scripture, so they didn’t lack knowledge. What was their problem? What kept them from believing in Christ? Why did they eventually murder the Savior whom the Father had sent? I think that we can boil down Jesus’ indictment of their unbelief to one root cause: the pride of outward religiosity:

The pride of outward religiosity as opposed to seeking inward reality with God will keep you from believing in Christ.

Pride is the root sin of all sins. Pride makes us think that we know what’s best for us so that we rebel against God and His ways. Pride deceives us into thinking that we can be good enough to get into heaven. Pride causes us to put up a good outward front to impress others, while we hide the way that we really are in our hearts. It was pride that kept these Jewish religious leaders from believing in Jesus as their Messiah and eventually led to their murdering Him. Their pride comes through in four ways in these verses:

1. Using the Bible to impress others rather than to grow in humility and love for God will keep you from faith in Christ (5:39-42).

John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.”

The Jewish rabbis were legendary in their study of the Scriptures. They memorized large portions (sometimes all) of the Hebrew Bible. They copied it with extreme care, for which we can be thankful. Many of them counted the words and letters and could tell you the middle letter of a book or even of the entire Bible!

But the problem was, they took pride in their great learning. We can see this in John 9, with the man born blind, whose eyes Jesus opened. He argued with the Jewish leaders that if Jesus were not from God, He could not do such a miracle. Their response was (9:34), “You were born entirely in sins, and are you teaching us?” That statement reeks of pride! They knew the Bible, but they missed Jesus because they had used their great knowledge to feed their pride.

Jesus confronts their pride here when He adds (5:41-42), “I do not receive glory from men; but I know you, that you do not have the love of God in yourselves.” The transition between verse 40 and verse 41 is puzzling unless you see that Jesus is contrasting His humility with their pride. When He says, “I do not receive glory from man,” He means that He is not a man-pleaser, seeking everyone’s praise so as to build up His image (as they were). Rather, Jesus always lived to please the Father and do His will (5:19, 30). While He was on earth, He always sought to glorify the Father (17:4). But these Jewish leaders were using their knowledge of Scripture to impress others, not to glorify God.

Note Jesus’ words, “I know you.” He could rightly judge their inner thoughts and motives. He knew that they were studying the Scriptures to increase their own glory, not to grow in love for God. When He says, “You do not have the love of God in yourselves,” He means that they did not love God. The connection with receiving glory from men is, “If you loved God, you would seek His glory, as I do. As it is, you love yourselves; you’re seeking your own glory.” They were breaking the first great commandment, to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:5).

These verses bring out some reality checks for us. First, are you studying the Scriptures at all? Jesus didn’t need to rebuke these Jews for not studying the Scriptures, but rather because they studied them wrongly. But He might rebuke many modern Christians because they don’t study the Bible much at all!

Second, are you studying the Scriptures to reveal Jesus Christ to your soul? There is nothing wrong and everything right with sound academic knowledge of the Bible. Without it, you’ll be tossed around by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14). Sound biblical scholarship is crucial. But, the ultimate point of Bible study should be to reveal more and more of who Christ is and what He has done for you.

If someone set a fresh peach pie in front of you and you proceeded to run a chemical analysis on the crust and the peaches, you would be missing the point! Taste it! Or, if you went to a lodge that had a magnificent picture window looking out on a spectacular scene and you spent your time analyzing what company made the glass and how it was installed, you’d be missing the point. Enjoy the view! The point of the Bible is to reveal the beauty of Christ to your soul.

Third, is your study of the Bible leading you to greater humility or to greater pride? Studying the Bible properly will show you how great your sin is and how holy God is. It will show you His majesty and His great power. It will humble you as you realize His amazing grace. But if you start thinking that you’re better than other Christians because you know theology and you delight in proving that you’re right and others are wrong, look out! I’ve been around guys who use their knowledge of the Bible like a club. They try to dominate others through their scholarship. Studying the Bible rightly will lead to more humility and graciousness, not to pride.

Fourth, is your study of the Bible causing you to love God more and more? Jesus hits these Jews because they did not love God. They were not seeking His glory and living to please Him. Proper study of the Bible will show you more of His grace. It will reveal His great love in sending His own Son to die for your sins. It will cause you to love Him more and more. But the pride of using the Bible to impress others will keep you from faith in Christ.

2. Making God to be what you want Him to be rather than submitting to Him as He is will keep you from faith in Christ (5:43).

John 5:43: “I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, you will receive him.” Jesus came in His Father’s name, which means that He came in the Father’s authority and He proclaimed who the Father is. He never pulled His punches to please the crowd. He didn’t use the Scriptures to flatter His hearers or to make them think that God was pleased with them if He was not. As the Light, He exposed their sins. Jesus gave them the truth without sugar-coating it.

Also, Jesus never played to the crowds by being the kind of Messiah that He knew they wanted. They wanted a political Messiah who could deliver them from Rome and provide peace and prosperity. If He had pandered to their tastes, Jesus could have been a popular Messiah. After He fed the multitude, He knew that they wanted to come and take Him by force to make Him king. But rather than accept that superficial allegiance, Jesus withdrew to the mountain by Himself alone (John 6:15). He could have ridden that wave of popularity, but He refused. Jesus would not falsely convey who God is or who He is to gain a following.

Keep in mind that Jesus is here addressing a group of Israel’s religious leaders. They knew the Scriptures well. They were devoted to their religion. Yet Jesus is warning them that their rejection of Him made them susceptible to follow false Messiahs who come in their own name. In Deuteronomy 13:3, God told Israel that He permitted false teachers to test their love for Him. Elsewhere, as Jesus spoke about the end times, He warned of false prophets who will arise and lead many astray. Accompanying this deception will be that people’s love for God will grow cold (Matt. 24:11-12).

Why were these religious leaders prone to follow false teachers? It’s because people will follow false teachers who tell them what they want to hear but avoid telling them who God really is. People will follow a man who doesn’t confront sin and who tells them that they’re okay just as they are. Jeremiah (6:14) confronted the false prophets of his day who healed the brokenness of God’s people superficially, saying “‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace.” After telling Timothy to preach the Word, which included reproving, rebuking, and exhorting, Paul warned (2 Tim. 4:3-4), “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” We see the same thing today: Focus on the positive, never confront sin, and you’ll have a large congregation.

When you’re reading the Bible, make sure you read all of it, not just the parts you like! If you only read the parts about God’s love, but skip the parts about His holiness, His judgment, or His sovereignty, you’ll fall into error. Or when you’re looking for a church to attend, look for a pastor who teaches all that the Bible teaches about God and Christ. If he goes along with popular cultural trends, you can fall into pride that your church is “with it.” But the question is, is your church faithfully representing the name (the authority and the character) of the Father? Does the teaching promote godliness on the heart level?

3. Using religion to try to impress others outwardly rather than seeking to please God on the heart level will keep you from faith in Christ (5:44).

John 5:44: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” As I said, the word can refers to inability. Jesus was saying that as long as they sought glory from one another, rather than seeking God’s approval, it was impossible for them to believe in Him. Later John (12:42-43) mentions that some of these Jewish leaders “believed,” but their faith was not genuine for reasons similar to the problem that Jesus uncovers here: “Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.”

In Matthew 23:5-7, Jesus also unmasks these religious hypocrites: “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.” He charges (Matt. 23:25), “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence.” Their religion was an outward show to impress others and to gain recognition. But the Lord was not fooled. He knew their hearts. Inside these religious men were full of self-indulgence.

The pride that is innate in all of us lures us into religious hypocrisy. We want others to think that we’re better than we know ourselves to be. So we focus on appearances. We’re concerned about what others may think of us and we forget that the most important thing is what God thinks of us. Many pastors fall into this sort of thing. They want the church to think that they have a perfect family. Maybe they’ve just had a major blow-up at home on Sunday morning, but they put on their happy faces as they drive into the church parking lot. And their kids can smell the hypocrisy. When they’re old enough, they walk away from the faith.

I’m not suggesting that we hang our dirty laundry out for all to see, but I am saying that we need reality with God and the humility to be genuine about our failures and shortcomings. I don’t quote William Barclay without a disclaimer, since he was heretical on some major issues. But on this point, he is right on. He writes (The Gospel of John, The Daily Study Bible [Westminster Press], rev. ed., 1:199-200):

So long as a man measures himself against his fellow men he will be well content. But the point is not: “Am I as good as my neighbor?” The point is: “Am I as good as God? What do I look like to him?” So long as we judge ourselves by human comparisons there is plenty of room for self-satisfaction, and that kills faith, for faith is born of the sense of need. But when we compare ourselves with Jesus Christ, we are humbled to the dust, and then faith is born, for there is nothing left to do but trust to the mercy of God.

The antidote to the deadly sin of hypocrisy is to deal with God every day on the heart level. Don’t harbor secret sins, as if God doesn’t see them. He knows our every thought (Ps. 139). Don’t put on false spirituality to try to impress others. If you’re struggling, be honest enough to ask for prayer. If you’re angry, don’t pretend that you’re not. Go before God and deal with it before it conquers you (Gen. 4:5-7). If you’re depressed, tell God about it and ask Him to restore your joy (Ps. 42 & 43). If you’ve sinned, confess it to God and ask forgiveness of any that you’ve wronged (Ps. 51, 1 John 1:9; Matt. 5:23-24). If you’ve lied, go to the one you lied to and ask forgiveness. If you’ve yelled at your kids or hit them in anger, humble yourself, ask their forgiveness, and ask God for self-control. In other words, in every area of life deal with God and others so that you can say with Paul (Acts 24:16), “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” Don’t use religion to try to impress others. Do business with God on the heart level.

Thus, the pride of outward religiosity as opposed to inward reality with God will keep you from faith in Jesus. This may involve using the Bible to impress others, rather than growing in humility and love for God. It can stem from making God what you want Him to be rather than submitting to Him as He is. It can take the form of using religion to try to impress others outwardly, rather than seeking to please God on the heart level. Finally,

3. Taking pride in your outward religious performance rather than letting God’s law drive you to Christ will keep you from faith in Christ (5:45-47).

John 5:45-47: “Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” (By the way, note that Jesus, unlike many liberal Old Testament scholars, believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch [Genesis-Deuteronomy]! To attack the Old Testament is to attack Jesus, because it all points to Him.)

Ironically, these Jews claimed to believe in Moses and they studied Moses extensively, but they missed what Moses was writing about! Jesus says that Moses wrote about Him (see John 1:45; Luke 24:27, 44). As we saw last time, God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head was about Jesus conquering Satan at the cross. God’s clothing Adam and Eve with animal skins was a picture God covering our sins through the death of His Lamb. God’s promise to Abraham that in his seed, all the nations would be blessed, was about Christ. His command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then providing the ram was a picture of God sacrificing His own Son as our atonement. The Passover was about Christ. The tabernacle is an elaborate picture of Christ. The rock that provided water in the wilderness and the manna for food were pictures of Christ (1 Cor. 10:3-4; John 6:31-35). We could go on and on.

The Law of Moses, in which these Jews professed to believe, should have convicted them of their sins and caused them to long for the Savior who would be pierced through for their transgressions and crushed for their iniquities (Isa. 53:5). It should have served as a tutor to lead them to faith in Christ (Gal. 3:24). As Paul wrote (Rom. 10:4): “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” But because they focused on their outward performance of only certain aspects of the law rather than on the essence of the law, which was to love God from the heart, they missed Jesus. The very Law, which was one of their greatest privileges (Rom. 9:4) and in which they took great pride, became the source of their condemnation at the judgment.

If you take pride in your Christian performance, rather than glorying in Christ Jesus and putting no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3), you will miss faith in Christ. John Calvin puts it (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 222): “He who in reality presents himself before God as his Judge, must, of necessity, fall down humbled and dismayed, and finding nothing in himself on which he can place reliance.” All our hope must be in Christ, not in our religious performance.


I don’t know your heart, but God does. I do know that the sin of pride resides in us all and it often seeks to contaminate the spiritual life. So, as Paul put it (2 Cor. 13:5), “Test yourself 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?” Here are four tests:

  • Examine how you use the Bible: Is it to impress others or is it causing you to grow in humility and in love for God?
  • Do you gladly embrace who God is as revealed in all of Scripture, rather than who you may want Him to be?
  • Ask yourself whether you’re seeking glory from others as opposed to seeking to please God on the heart level.
  • And, examine whether you take pride in your outward religious performance rather than boasting in Christ and the cross.

All of these things can keep us from genuine faith in Christ.

Application Questions

  1. I have heard some argue that studying theology leads to spiritual deadness. Is there any validity to this? Why/why not?
  2. Why is it important to read and reread the whole Bible and not just your favorite parts (see Ps. 119:160)? What errors have you encountered from Christians who avoid reading all the Bible?
  3. How honest should we be in sharing our spiritual struggles? Are we being hypocrites if we restrict sharing our problems to certain trusted friends or mentors and not to everyone?
  4. What are some subtle ways that we can take pride in our religious performance (Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, etc.)? What does it mean to boast in the cross (Gal. 6:14)?

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

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

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