Belief in the Gospel of John

The topic of belief in the Gospel of John is broad-ranging and difficult to construct a comprehensive approach to.  What seems to be the best approach is to begin lexically, by defining the words that John uses to describe belief.  After addressing the meaning of the words and their general Johannine usage, an attempt will be made to categorize the usage of the word and to explain the significance of these categories.  Finally, a brief application regarding the application of the concept to the life of the modern Christian will be offered.


John uses three words for belief in his Gospel.  The primary word that John uses it the word πιστεύω.  This word is a verb and denotes the action of “consider[ing] something to be true and therefore worthy of one’s trust.”[1]  The word has a deep Hellenistic background and is used rather extensively in the LXX.  This usage was very precise and reliable, according to Kittel, who notes that “as the OT understands it, faith is always man’s reaction to God’s primary action.”[2]  And the Evangelist connects deeply with this Jewish background as he uses this word.  John pictures God as acting in the person of Jesus, and the required secondary action as that of belief.  The fact that John sees belief as action more than mere intellectual assent, shows up in his overwhelming use of the verbal form of the word to the utter neglect of the noun form.[3]

John does still us the adjectival and alpha privative adjectival forms of the word as well.  The words ἄπιστος and ἄπιστος only occur once each, and both of these occurrences appear within the same verse, 20.27.  This particular passage contains some interpretational challenges,[4] but serves to highlight Jesus’ call to His disciples to take their faith to the final level prior to His departure.  Throughout the Gospel, Jesus has been taking His disciples up a ramp of belief,[5] and in this final moment with Thomas, Jesus is perhaps calling on him, in this unique language, to persevere and cross the threshold of faith for himself.[6]


Three particular factors should be noted in terms of the contextual usage of belief in John’s Gospel.  First, the word carries with it both positive and negative uses in various contexts.  While most of the negative contexts inherently include negative adverbs, some do not.  Of the 92 occurrences of the word, approximately 30% are in negative contexts, where individuals are refusing to respond in faith to the action of God through Jesus.  The other 70% are in positive contexts.

Second, the subject of the verb as used by John is worth considering.  There are six basic categories that the subjects of belief fall within.  First, there is Jesus himself in the anomaly of 2.24.  His trust in people is significant in His ministry approach.  Second, there is the first-person personal response of belief (I, we).  Third, there is the predominant second-person address either in indicative or imperative uses of the verb (you).  Fourth, there are universal subjects called to believe (all, the world, many, whoever, everyone).  This category is the second largest outside the second-person usage.  Fifth, there are large but defined groups (town, those who, they, the Jews).  Sixth, there are smaller defined groups or individuals (disciples, some, he, woman, the man, brothers, Pharisees, authorities).

Finally, the object or complement of the verb bears some consideration.  While a substantial percentage of the occurrences do not include an object or complement (23x or 25%), the remainder fall basically within six categories.  First, belief is to be placed in the person of Jesus with assent to who He is (him, in him, in the light, in Jesus, in his name, in the name, in me, in the Son, you, me, the one whom he has sent, that you sent me, that I am he, that you are the Christ, that Jesus is the Christ).  Second, belief is to be placed in the message of Jesus and the Scriptures (what he heard from us, the Scripture, the word, Moses, his [Moses’] writings, my words, this).  Third, belief must be placed in the signs of Jesus (the works, that the blind man had received sight).  Fourth, belief must be placed in the relationship between Jesus and the Father (in God, him who sent me, that you [the Father] sent me [Jesus], that I am in the Father, that the Father is in me, that I came from God, that you [Jesus] came from God).  Fifth, belief is caused or prevented by a number of realities (because you have seen me, because you are not my sheep, because we heard, because of his word, through him [John the Baptist]).  Sixth, belief of Jesus in the people shaped His earthly ministry (2.24 – them).


In conclusion, it is worth considering how this theme of belief impacts the Christian today.  Three main conclusions can be drawn when looking at this theme in John’s Gospel.  First, belief is important.  This is seen both in the repetition of the idea and the positive as well as negative contexts of the word.  Jesus is not merely suggesting that people should believe in him, but warns about condemnation if they do not (3.18).  Second, belief is a process.  Many are said to have faith who then later do not believe throughout the Gospel.  John is emphasizing the value of faith that endures.[7]  Third, belief is objective.  As seen in the objects of belief, above, belief involves trusting in some very specific things.  It is more than recognizing Christ as a good teacher, but it involves belief in His relationship with the Father, His message, signs, and character.


[1] Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, and William Arndt, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2001), 816.

[2] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 182.

[3] Merrill C Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 304–305.

[4] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 657.  The basic issue is whether the phase should understand the adjectives adjectivally (“do not be faithless, but believing”) or substantivally (“do not be an unbeliever, but a believer”).

[5] Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 292.

[6] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 579.

[7] Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters, 292.

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