Tag Archives: Faith

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.

Lexical

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]

Contextual

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).

Practical

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.

When I Got Mugged

July 18, 2004 — Prospect Avenue, Brooklyn, New York.

My summer internship at a Baptist church in Brooklyn was nearing its end. This particular Sunday evening, I picked up the metro from the Park Slope area and rode down to Bath Beach to play piano for a small Spanish church. After the service wrapped up for the evening, I proceeded into Manhattan for a walk around the city.

Although I knew the city well and had spent a number of years working in urban areas, I was still an immature 17 year-old freshly-minted high school graduate. So for some odd reason, I thought that exploring the city late at night was a prudent idea.

Around 3am, I exited the metro station at Prospect Avenue and walked West towards Prospect Park and my quarters for the summer. About a quarter of my way up the block I passed a guy and I saw another man about halfway up the block. I distinctly remember feeling that something wasn’t right, but I just kept walking. As I neared the second man, he jumped out and grabbed me by the shoulders; I shoved him back. He was back on me in a split-second and balled-up the front of my shirt in his fist. The man shouted that he had a knife and I saw the glint of a utility knife from the streetlights. I reached for my knife, but realizing that it wasn’t on me, I continued to push him back. Thankfully, I took a quick glance around and saw the man I first passed coming up behind me with a knife as well. Knowing that it was unlikely that I’d be able to handle two guys with knives on both sides of m, I threw my hands up and told him to relax and that I’d give him what he wanted.

As soon as I gave up, I was shoved backwards into a headlock by the man bringing up the rear. He held his knife to my throat as the guy who’d initially confronted me rifled through my pockets. I pulled out my wallet and extracted the cash. Covering my credit card with some papers, he moved past that. They took $40, my old watch, and my metro card, all the while complaining that I didn’t have what they considered the requisite cash or technology of a teenager of my ethnicity. Throughout the confrontation I distinctly remember the stench of body odor from the armpit that squashed against my cheek and the cold steel of the jittery knife against my jugular. But just seconds later, I was pushed away and told to keep moving. The two men continued toward the Prospect Avenue metro station and I went on my way. I saw two other men, probably lookouts, at the west end of the block scatter as well.

When I got to my room that night, I still felt like it was all a blur, or maybe my imagination. But my empty wallet (with the exception of my papers and credit card) and my missing watch spoke for themselves.

The next morning I awoke and proceeded with my Monday morning schedule. I showered and dressed to go move some furniture for an elderly woman in the church. As I was getting ready, a call came through on the land line. It was a friend of the pastor who called with a couple questions. As we were getting off the line, she mentioned that her brother had left his watch and wondered if I might need one. Stunned by this miraculous provision, I left for the furniture-moving appointment. On my way, I was about to hop the metro when I realized that I no longer had a metro card or cash to pay for one. I resolved to purchase a new one with my credit card. But when I got to the station, I fumbled with my wallet and out fell a metro card. I checked the total on this one and, to my surprise, realized that it was still loaded and that I had given the thieves my dead metro card by accident! Finally, I boarded the metro and arrived at the house where I had volunteered to assist with the furniture. Once there, a light day’s work was rewarded with an envelope. As I made my way back to the metro station at the end of the day, I opened the envelope. I could clearly see a $20 bill. Elated with the provision, I pulled the bill out of the envelope only to discover that there were two $20 bills in the envelope.

As I’ve reflected on this bizarre experience through the years, I’ve arrived at a number of conclusions:

  1. Life is short. A slip of a blade could have made a big difference in the intense situation that transpired. But how many times have I been spared from a driver’s misjudgment or a bird-strike on takeoff? Every day is a gift from God. I need to thank him and use each day for his glory.
  2. God is my Protector. Almost every day that summer, I carried a knife because most of my internship involved some sort of manual labor. Because of my ministry in the Spanish church that morning, I had left my knife behind. This little forgotten element probably saved my life. And I thank God for protecting me in this way.
  3. Wisdom is essential. A little bit of prudence goes a long way in keeping me from making similar mistakes again. Today I practice wisdom by avoiding dangerous places and times of night, listening to gut instincts, and learning how to protect myself and my family. I hope to pass these lessons along to the next generation when the time comes. I also aim to grow in wisdom. With 10 years behind me in the rearview mirror, I still see plenty of growth in this area ahead of me.
  4. God is my Provider. Even after I most of my resources due to a foolish mistake, God came through in a remarkable way. All of my losses were restored and my faith was increased.

Reformed Heritage: 5 Truths Worth Fighting For

There’s something attractive about the Reformed heritage of my faith. For me it’s even more than a series of confessions or a list of doctrines, but also includes the rabble-rousing, steady-handed, hard-hitting, faithful-serving way of life embodied in this background. These men fact-checked their leaders and recognized that the line they were being fed had been cluttered by a lot of tradition.

In my own efforts to fact-check my faith, I’ve seen time and again where my beliefs have been cluttered by traditions of men. And there have certainly been times where I may have taken my rabble-rousing a little too far, but these guys remind me that there are some things in life worth fighting for. The Reformers pointed to 5 guiding principles that shaped what fit this category. I wanted to take a moment to overview these principles.

The Basis of Salvation: Faith Alone

There is nothing I can do that will ever earn salvation for me. Only on the basis of faith can Christ’s righteousness stand in my place. The consistent command of Scripture is that of simple trust. All of my righteous works are as filthy rags.

The Object of Faith: Christ Alone

Ultimately, I don’t trust in my faith to save me. I don’t trust in a prayer, a baptism, a priest, or a pattern of life as the source of my salvation. Christ and Christ alone stands as my righteousness. In him I approach the throne of God with boldness.

The Source of Authority: Scripture Alone

Scripture serves as our only rule of faith and practice. Christian movements have a way of gathering up cultural and traditional baggage along the way. But the appeal to sola scriptura is an attempt to strip away that baggage and return to the core of what Christianity is all about.

The Ground of Salvation: Grace Alone

Unearned and unlimited, God in his grace chose and saved a people unto himself. There wasn’t a thing I did that earned that gift of salvation. Grace is God chasing me while I was running from him.

The Purpose of Salvation: For the Glory of God Alone

Many Christians, if asked about the purpose for their existence or the purpose of the Church would tell you that these things are for the glory of God. The method by which God the Father gets glory is by the Church lifting up the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a Crutch

Crutch_symbol.svg.

Recently I heard a non-Christian call Christianity a crutch for the weak who can’t handle life’s difficulties on their own.  At first I had a visceral reaction to the statement (which it was designed to evoke).  How dare someone degrade my firmly held beliefs to such a level!  But I pondered the idea a little and began to arrive at a different conclusion.  Here are some conclusions that I have reached in regard to this statement:

First, a crutch admits weakness, inability, and finitude.  The fact that someone needs a crutch indicates that they need external help in order to do some of the simplest tasks in life (viz., standing and walking).  At the core of the Christian message, we find that humanity is screwed up.  We all need crutches because we’re all lame and damaged due to the rebellion that we joined against God.  So when someone says that I use the crutch of Christianity because I am weak, I reply that I am simply being honest enough to admit my weakness.  The real question is if my non-Christian friends are willing to admit their inability to stand on their own.  This leads me to my next conclusion.

Second, we’re all messed up, so we all use crutches to get through life.  Some may call it therapy, medication, or self-help.  Others may revert to alcohol, drugs, entertainment, or relationships.  Even others may seek out education, family, athleticism, or social activism.  Suffice it to say that we all use crutches because we all are weak.  Once again, the real difference between the Christian faith and all other crutches is that this faith explicitly states that humanity is unable to better itself and calls for trust and reliance on God.  Other crutch-users simply fail to admit what they are relying on.

Third, if we all use crutches to get through life, then the question is not whether we rest on a crutch, but how reliable the crutch is.  At this point I have to look at the resurrection.  The Christian faith is founded upon this grand idea of the resurrection.  That Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, died in our place so that we may not have to face the punishment for our rebellion against God.  The evidence of the success of this great exchange is found in the resurrection that kicked off the movement that we know today as the Church.  I know my crutch is reliable because I have undeniable evidence that Someone went to the grave and came back again.  Someone has already defeated the greatest enemy of humanity and I can gladly and confidently put my trust in Him.

In the midst of my greatest trials, struggles, and sorrows I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not.  I don’t have to pretend that I can handle the pressures of life on my own.  I can admit my own weakness and the infinite strength of the One upon Whom I will lean for the rest of my life.

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.