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Believing in Jesus is central to John’s Gospel – we are told the aim of the Gospel is to evoke and encourage belief in order that we might have life (20:31). Yet along the way John introduces us to characters who believe in Jesus, before revealing that they have not believed in the way the Gospel intends. By doing this, John prompts us to ask what genuine belief entails.

 

The Gospel sets out the importance of believing in Jesus from the beginning (1:12-13). Initially we are told that some believe in Jesus while others reject him. In the first parts of the story we see that in practice, as the disciples believe in Jesus (2:11), while the Jews in the Temple do not (2:18-20). We then read that not only the disciples believed in Jesus, but so too many of the crowd who were in Jerusalem (2:23). Excitedly, we anticipate that these are genuine believers, ready to follow Jesus alongside the disciples, only to discover that Jesus does not entrust himself to them (2:24). In fact, John uses the same word to describe the belief of the crowd and Jesus’ lack of trust in them, making sure we know that Jesus does not trust their faith.


We expect that people will either believe or disbelieve, so the story of these untrustworthy believers jars with us. All the more so given we are not told exactly why Jesus does not trust them, other than there was something wrong in their attitude (2:24-25). It makes us ask ‘why?’. Why are they not trusted? What is it about their belief that was not right? And this is what John intends.
A similar subversion of expectation comes in John 6, where after feeding the crowd, many disciples follow Jesus. These disciples are distinct from the broader crowd, suggesting they have some commitment to Jesus. Jesus teaches them about the bread of life, but they find his teaching challenging (6:41,52). These disciples then turn away from Jesus, ceasing to be disciples (6:66). Like with the untrustworthy believers, we expected that these were true followers of Jesus, but they prove not to be so. Again, we are led to ask ‘why?’


In contrast to those disciples, the 12 stay with Jesus and remain his disciples (6:68-69). These 12 are prepared to accept Jesus’ teaching as ‘the words of life’ (6:68). They also have a greater understanding of Jesus, calling Jesus ‘the Holy One of Israel’ (see Isa 41:14), rather than just ‘the prophet’ (6:14). John begins to show us what makes the difference between a flawed response to Jesus and genuine belief. The other disciples fall short in their unwillingness to accept Jesus’ teaching, or to go beyond an inadequate idea of who Jesus is.


A third case is found in John 8. Some of the crowd believe that Jesus has come from heaven (8:30). Jesus challenges those who believed to move to a deeper commitment to him, a greater understanding of who he is (8:31-32). Rather than doing so, they become hostile to Jesus, eventually turning on Jesus, seeking to kill him (8:59). They had apparently believed, but their actions reveal themselves not to be true believers. This time we can see the reason for their failure – they do not hold to Jesus’ teaching as he commands (8:32).


The final example in this pattern is in John 15. The image of the vine and branches presents us with two types of branches, those which bear fruit, and those which do not (15:2). Both are described as being ‘in Jesus’, which in the Gospel of John conveys a relationship; it is not quite the same as what Paul talks about with being ‘in Christ’. Despite being ‘in Jesus’, those branches which bear no fruit are cut off and destroyed (15:6). Once again, those we expect to be genuine believers, these branches ‘in Jesus’, prove not to be.

 


The previous three examples began painting the picture of what genuine belief entails. John showed us the need for a more complete acceptance of Jesus’ teaching. But in case we see genuine belief as simply requiring sufficient understanding, now we see that it must also include bearing fruit. This fruit is a visible and outward response to Jesus, it is the evidence of discipleship (15:8). The striking image of destruction in 15:6 conveys just how important it is that we realise an outward response is essential to genuine belief.


John uses a pattern where he introduces characters who apparently believe, but then we are surprised as their responses are shown to fall short of the standard of genuine belief. These characters serve to provoke us to question the nature of genuine belief. It draws our attention to the complexity of the response that Jesus requires of us. It is vital that we think about what it means to believe. If believing in Jesus is central, we must know what it means to believe. John leads us to ask that question – and he devotes much of his Gospel to showing us just what it means to believe, and therefore to have life.

 

This post is written by Chris Seglenieks, a PhD candidate at Bible College SA. Chris’s PhD centres on belief in John’s Gospel and investigating what it means to believe in the context of the Graeco-Roman religious world. The post is based on a recently published scholarly article: C. Seglenieks, “Untrustworthy Believers: The Rhetorical Strategy of the Johannine Language of Commitment and Belief”, Novum Testamentum 61:1 (2019), 55-69. https://brill.com/abstract/journals/nt/61/1/nt.61.issue-1.xml