Tag Archives: Belief

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.

Christian Faith: Not Rational or Existential

The Thinker, Legion of Honor

When I say that the Christian faith is not rational, I do not mean that it is irrational for the Christian worldview is one which, in my view, aligns most agreeably with reason.  What I mean here is that Christian faith is not purely rational.  I cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that God exists.  I cannot prove the reality of the parting of the Red Sea.  My point is that belief, in order to be belief, must be belief.  There must be an element of the unknown in order for faith to exist.  I do not have to believe in the existence of the sun because I observe it every day.  What is seen, known, and experienced does not have to be believed.

As modern science pokes and prods the breadth and depth of the universe, very little belief is required.  Once was a day that we had to believe that the earth was rotating around the sun, but now every child knows this objectively.  Believing that man could fly, that metal boats wouldn’t sink, that a tiny atom could explode, or that people could walk on planets and fly faster than sound was once par for the course, but now these have been observed and do not need to be believed in the same way as before.  To this point, I have dealt with natural phenomena that loosely parallel my point here.   My argument is that we inherently distaste the idea of belief.  We want everything to be observed and rational.  I think Dawkins makes this point well.  When asked what he would say if he met God in the afterlife, he replied, “Why did you hide yourself so?”  The need for belief frustrates us and bothers us.

In a culture where belief is passé, most do not realize that belief is a necessary part of being human.  We may suppress this or misconstrue this, but we really do have an innate need to believe.  To quote a line from the movie I saw last week, “we all believe in something” (The Three Musketeers).  We believe in people.  We believe that they are honest or dishonest.  We believe that they really care for us and are not trying to take advantage of us.  We believe in the character of others.  We believe in love.  We can’t see it, but we marry for it, write about it, promote it, and so on.  We believe in institutions.  We believe in our favorite football teams. We believe that our banks will safely hold our money (or that our governments will ensure it).  We believe in the unknown and unknowable because we believe in people and the organizations and things they make.  To believe makes us human because humans demand relationships with other persons.

So we return to the idea of Christian faith.  Why does it bother us that theism demands belief?  It bothers us because we expect a god to work within the confines of the natural universe.  We expect that our scientists should be able to dissect it and tell us that it exists.  We expect someone to be able to take a photograph of it.  We expect it to do some sort of grand violation of the laws of physics in order to prove itself to us.  We expect it to be something less than us, something completely knowable, and something less than God.  We expect it to be a thing and not a Person.

Persons are unknowable.  Persons demand faith.  I know people who have been married for 50 years and they still don’t know everything they can know about their spouses.  They still have to believe.  They still exercise faith.  I don’t expect things to be very different with God.  As a Person, He must be believed implicitly.  He must be trusted.  As God, He cannot be understood like we can a rock.  I don’t expect my belief to be rational.  If it were then I would have cause for concern, because my faith would be in a thing and not a Person and in an idol and not the God of the Universe.

Someone reading my post so far is probably thinking that because Christian faith works outside the confines of reason that it must, then, be existential.  Christian faith must be a step into the dark or a leap of blind faith.  This idea is at the heart of existentialism.  The idea that we have no proof or evidence of faith drives this sort of response.  I would reply that faith is not a leap in the dark, but a leap into the light.  Faith is not blind, but it looks at the evidence before jumping.  What I’m saying is that God has not given us the answers to every question (so as to eliminate His Personhood and Deity), but that he has enough evidence for us those who care to look.

 The grand example of evidence of faith is found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Christianity itself is testimony to the accuracy of the resurrection.  No other reason exists to explain the rise of Christianity from a small band of men with no formal education following a man crucified as a common criminal to a faith that millions from every corner of the globe ascribe to and would die for.  History and reason testify to the resurrection of Christ.

In the resurrection alone we have enough evidence that we are not jumping into the dark.  We have a reason for belief and a hope for a future.  We don’t take a blind leap as followers of the Christian faith, but we make a jump into the light.  I cannot rationalize faith on the one hand, but on the other hand, it is not unreasonable.