Loving, Believing, and Confessing the Truth (The Gospel of John)
The Scripture reading is from John 11:38-53.
I’ll never forget this Babylon Bee article I saw a few years ago: “Man Bravely Abandons Unpopular Christian Belief to Affirm Extremely Popular Cultural Belief.”
PORTLAND, OR - Local Christian blogger Jonathan Pennington is being called a hero by progressive theologians after he courageously abandoned an extremely unpopular Christian teaching in order to instead affirm a very popular belief held in wider secular culture, sources confirmed Wednesday.
"I know this is going to get me a lot of praise from secular culture, but I have to do it anyway because my conscience compels me," Pennington wrote on his Patheos blog. "There is always a cost to following your heart, and in my case it happens to be a net gain in terms of fame, fortune, and worldly influence."
Pennington further stated he refused to accept traditional teaching on the topic, wanting to find out for himself what the Bible said about the issue, and after careful study concluded the exact same thing that every other ex-evangelical did about the topic at hand.
"We aren't cogs in a machine. We have to go find out for ourselves what Jesus actually taught," the man who now agrees with the majority of unbelievers on the issue wrote.
When I was preparing for the 1st Peter living in exile series at the beginning of 2019, I found one commentary asked a relevant question. How can a letter encouraging socially alienated Christians to stay the course speak to us in a day when we rarely experience social alienation for loyalty to Jesus? (Jobes) I thought, “Good point. I need consider how to show Peter’s relevance by preparing the church for the social alienation will likely come some day.” At some point in the middle of the series it dawned on me: it just happened, we’re at the beginning of it right now. Dad told me two members in his church from two different companies — a truck driver and a realtor — were nearly fired last month because they respectfully declined to support the LGBTQ+ cause. Not because they were disrespectful, but because they wouldn’t praise it — just sign right here, just put this badge on your business, just burn a little incense, say “Caesar is Lord,” bow when the music plays, turn a blind eye to injustice, put your hand on your heart: Satan is always finding new ways to co-opt our loves and loyalties.
And as this Babylon Bee article satirically demonstrates, in these times it is not terribly difficult to find the truth, but it can be challenging to faithfully love, believe, and confess it. Pressure is mounting. People are deconstructing their ancient faith — sometimes appropriately leaving Americanism and other cultural baggage behind, but quite often radically redefining Jesus, the apostles, and the church on society’s terms, or leaving them behind altogether. And the result is not a more ordered, loving, holy, truthful, grounded, and fruitful Christian or church, the result is Christians akin to Jello waiting for a mold — the fruit is sour and the roots are failing. As Paul warns in 2 Timothy 3:6-7, we can become “burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning (and deconstructing) and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”
How can we continue enduring, confessing, believing, loving, and living in the truth as the church should? The Gospel of John is written so that [we] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. But what makes up a faith that confesses in such hostile environments? Last week we asked: is it all about our minds or our hearts? What we know or what we love? And I think the Scripture says they are both very important. When we looked at Matthew 13 last month we noted troubling anti-intellectualism pervasive in churches: those who understand the word are fruitful. Knowledge is vital because we don’t want to be — Ephesians 4:14 — infants blown here and there by every wind of teaching. But last week we focused on the importance of love. We don’t simply need to know to believe and endure, we also need to love. In fact, if we know and don’t love, we won’t do anything.
We’re talking today about loving, believing, and confessing the truth from the Gospel of John. More than the other gospels, John is focused on the difficulty of loving, believing, and confessing the truth in hostility. With every word he writes you can almost see John watching you to see how you will take it all in.
But, as we’ve said, we need to have proper love in order to believe and confess the truth. We can see this demonstrated at the end of John 11. This crowd has just watched Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. Many of them see and believe, but in verse 46 some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. And throughout the ensuing conversation there is no question about what has happened or about what they know. For them, Jesus has opened the eyes of the blind man and raised Lazarus from the dead and that’s a problem to be dealt with or else — verse 48 — everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation. And so Caiaphas says the plan of action is self-evident: one man should die for the people. So, verse 53, they made plans to put him to death.
How can they see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead and logically conclude they need to kill both Jesus and Lazarus (12:10)? How can they see and know so much and yet not confess and get their lives on board with it? Notice 12:36-43. A lot here we can’t talk about — John saying that Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus and spoke of him — but note two things. First, some see so many signs and do not believe, just like those in Isaiah’s day. Second, many did believe in him, but they did not confess it and remained effectively unbelievers. Why? God has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts. It is similar to many issues plaguing the church today: here, the truth about Jesus is painstakingly clear, but they don’t confess because they fear the Pharisees and being put out of the synagogue. They don’t believe because they love. The question is not whether we will worship or love, we all worship and love. Our hearts are entranced by something. And for them something very clear is suddenly very cloudy because they love the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
Note that it’s not that they hated the glory that comes from God. It’s that they loved the glory from man more. And that’s a shame because what glory, status, position, and power can people give us?! And at that point what can God do? All he can do is put the full power and glory of Jesus on display and hope they’ll wake up… but instead he only hardens them, further solidifies their love of the glory from man.
Is that ever a fear for us? Being looked at differently? As backwater? Not being in the in-crowd? People mocking us? Being cancelled? Blocked? John carefully shows us what’s really going on. The people we fear are actually the people we love. We fear them more than God because we love them more than God, and we love them more than God because whether we think it our not, in our gut we feel the weight of the glory man gives more than the glory God gives.
But those Pharisees who they felt in their guts were better to be feared, who are they today? They didn’t last. And what will come of those we might fear? Walk, stand, sit around with the wicked and you’ll be like chaff in the wind.
Often we believe or fail to believe simply because of what we love — what we want to believe. In a sense, we believe what we want — love — to believe. If you stand up here teach something I have not heard before I will almost always choose to believe you or not believe you based on whether what you teach appeals to what I love. Whether something is true or not, we believe and get on board with who we love and what we love. And depending on where our loves are aimed, that can either benefit us or destroy us. Our loves either clarify or blur our vision. And here, the position of the authorities does it. And for us, our wealth and position in society can be a serious hinderance — whether much or little, we often love what we have. The real question is what do we have? What do we love? What do we love more?
Don’t answer too quickly. I heard of an old movie where a mysterious guide promises a couple of people that he can take them to a room where they will receive whatever they truly want, love. So they travel with the guide to this room, but as they are getting closer and closer they begin to slow down and question whether they are really making the right decision. The room will give them what they truly love, not what they think they love. And they start to realize that maybe they aren’t so sure what they love, and maybe what they truly love isn’t truly good. What do we truly love more? As Jesus says in Matthew 7, on the last day many will be surprised saying, “Lord, Lord.”
So, if we are what we love and we may not love what we think, what determines our loves? John 3 offers an account of a Pharisee who is on the fence about Jesus — Nicodemus. Notice John 3:2. Notice that he knows Jesus is a teacher come from God. He’s seen the signs and is convinced. All good right? Note that he comes to Jesus by night. Later John will remind us of that in chapter 19 and associate Nicodemus with Joseph of Arimathea — a secret believer in Jesus. John isn’t tossing out random history — he’s telling us something about Nicodemus. Nicodemus knows Jesus is significant, but at this point he is too ashamed to confess it publicly.
Why is this man so torn and embattled? Notice where this conversation goes in John 3:16-21. The Son did not come the first time to condemn the world because the world was already condemned — he came to save it. And whoever believes can be saved, but the judgment is plain in verse 19: people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. If we stay hidden as secret believers who will not confess the truth openly — why is that? Why do we love the darkness? Our works are evil. We fall in love with what we do. If we did what was true, we’d come to the light to make it plain that we’re on God’s side. We only remain hidden, avoid confessing plainly, and come under the cover of night because in our guts we love the nuanced obscurity of darkness. We don’t want to look pitiful thronging at Jesus with the masses during the day.
I think this is the message to Nicodemus: despite what you know, you’re here secretly because you love the darkness, and you love the darkness because your works are evil. You are snake-bitten and dead in the wilderness like the Israelites, desperately needing to be reborn of Spirit and water, and you need to look up to God’s only Son in faith if you want to have eternal life. You’re going to have to come in the plain daylight.
Nicodemus makes a big step in that direction at the end of John 7 when he’s with the Pharisees who are mocking Jesus and the crowds who believe in him. He stands up in that unpopular moment around all the unbelievers and asks: John 7:51–52 ESV, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” They mocked him in reply: “Are you from Galilee too?” Are you one of those uneducated, backwater believers? And when Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea came out of hiding to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus, and Nicodemus also, this secret believer, took on the shame of being associated with Jesus in his most unpopular hour — he brought ointments and helped bury his body.
This is the kind of work of faith that helps move our conflicted minds, bodies, and loves completely on board with Jesus: publicly confess he is Lord, bar none, naked on the cross, unpopular teachings, unpopular apostles, his unpopular body the church, and all. Get in the open where we’ve played the nuanced, political card and confess him — stand by him at the cross not caring that there will be no applause, only ridicule.
And it is seeing Jesus in that vulnerable position that leads us to that faith. He was mocked, beaten, stripped, and crucified. God loved the world this much that he did not stay in heaven but took on our shame, embarrassment, and sin naked on the cross. Will we dare return the favor by looking the other way? By bravely abandoning unpopular Christian beliefs to affirm extremely popular cultural ones? How could we?
Peter did. In Jesus’ dark hour he denied he knew the Lord three times. But that wasn’t the end of his story. Jesus asked him three times: Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? and gave him three painful opportunities to say, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” If you have strayed, denied him, and distorted his teachings — about sexuality, money, or his Lordship — recognize that he will deny us when he comes with his holy angels if we remain like this. But that doesn’t have to be the last word. We can try again like Joseph, Nicodemus, and Peter.
Prov. 4:23 NIV, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” How do we do that? Here we are told to listen carefully to what our parents tell us. So learning is important. But that’s not all. He also warns: careful what you say, careful where you look, careful where you go, careful who you walk and talk with. What we do flows from our hearts. But what we do flows to our hearts too — people loved the darkness because their works were evil. It’s similar Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:21 — where your treasure — accumulation — is, there your heart will be also. Careful what you do, careful where you go, careful who your friends are, they’ll capture our loves.
Our regular routine manner of living has to change. The treasures and habits we accumulate, treasure must change. We have to stop going to the same places, walking with the same friends, following the same accounts, and listening to the same music. Our Friday nights have to change, our morning ritual, mealtime ritual, and nighttimes ritual must change. What we do on Sundays and Wednesdays must change. Apps must be deleted. Clothes need to be gotten rid off. Some books and movies must be destroyed. The Christians in Ephesus knew this — burned massive, massive fortunes when they burned those magic books. I recall on year at a Christian camp a number of young men were convicted, so they threw all their music CDs in a pond somewhere. Why would they do something like that? Why do we have to put off our entire former manner of life? Because those habits, rituals, and practices capture our hearts. If we are honest those rituals at the salon, before the mirror, at the mall, in the clothing racks, on clothing websites, getting product emails, flipping through Instagram, checking our messages — they affect what we love more than we think. Those habits of game and show watching, video game playing, bank and stock market checking, news-watching, and score-checking change who we are. The music we listen to, the pictures we see, videos we watch, the places we go, the people we are with, the magazines we flip through — they change us. Because of one touch of the unclean thing? Of course not, but from repeated reception of habits we fail to see as formative. We do because we desire, and the more we do, the more we love.
Why did “Jonathan Pennington” bravely affirm extremely popular cultural beliefs? He spent too much time liking and receiving the likes of people.
Daniel is amazing. When God’s promises appeared to not be coming through like they ought, he didn’t throw in the towel. He got on his knees and earnestly begged God to act. The response? I know you’ve waited in exile for 70 years like I promised, but really, it’s going to be seventy more “weeks.” Daniel was very, very disoriented. But he kept fasting and praying and confessing the truth with his friends through fire and lion’s den and delayed promises. We all want to be like that — faithfully enduring, praying, and confessing even when we’re disoriented. But how did Daniel become like that? The practices in Daniel 6 show us — he prayed three times a day even if it was unsafe and illegal. As we discussed last week, these rituals and habits are so important — repetition isn’t mindless, its disciplined! And these disciplines train our wandering guts and hearts and bodies to keep getting on our knees, keep confessing, keep loving, keep serving, keep hoping in God even when it is hard.
We must believe the truth in order to endure stable and fruitful to the end. But we must love the truth and the glory that comes from God if we are going to believe it and confess it, and if we are going to love the truth and glory that comes from God we need to do, practice what is true.