I’ve been reading the Gospel of John during morning prayer this month, and several times have been struck by how Jesus confronts us with a fundamentally different way of knowing truth than we (Westerners) typically imagine.
“How can you believe when you receive praise from each other,” Jesus asks the Pharisees, “but don’t seek the praise that only comes from God?”
In other words, your ability to know the truth, to apprehend reality and see it for what it is, is based on your intention. Your capacity to see what’s right in front of you (God’s Messiah!) is connected to your willingness to seek and submit to God’s will.
Because the Pharisees were only seeking honor in each other’s eyes, they could only perceive reality in those terms (that which brings me honor or takes it away from me). So they couldn’t see God standing in front of them because they weren’t really looking for God to be with them. Their project didn’t involve God at all, in fact. Their project (seeking praise from each other) merely used the language of God and his kingdom as a mask to make it sound more holy than it really was.
Because of this, they had no use for Jesus, because he didn’t play their game. And in fact Jesus became a threat to them, because in doing God’s will, he was attracting the attention and adulation of the crowds. They had no other way of interpreting this as Jesus “stealing” their honor in the eyes of the people.
“To believe in him means to do his will,” as Iraneaus said.
Later in the story (John 6), Jesus has begun to speak of eating his flesh and drinking his blood as the only way to have life. Many disciples leave him at this point because it is a “harsh teaching.”
Jesus, with a remarkably non-anxious presence and open-handed posture, asks the Twelve if they will leave as well. Peter’s response has become iconic (we sing this before we hear the Gospel read every Sunday):
“Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and have come to know that you are God’s holy one.”
It seems to me the order here is important:
- We believe, and
- have come to know.
Even if a strong argument can’t be made from the grammar, seeing the text this way does cohere with what Jesus has been telling everyone again and again up until this point. You can only come to Jesus if the Father enables you. The people who recognize that Jesus is “God’s holy one” are those who have been listening and obediently responding to the Father already.
Again, our intention and our willingness determine the truth we are able to perceive and comprehend. We tend to think that we see things rationally, objectively, and if something can be “proven” according to these methods, then it’s worth “believing.”
Many of us automatically listen to God’s word this way, thinking that we will be able to rationally comprehend it and then make some decisions about whether to believe it or not. The modern mind wants to believe after it “comes to know” through what it thinks is “objective observation.”
But Jesus says the exact opposite. In fact the rational mind, merely operating according to the flesh, is offended (disgusted, even!) by the Word. But for those who have been listening to God with an intention to obey perceive something entirely different: Jesus the Holy One of God, speaking the words of eternal life.
They believe (they trust God with a heart to put it into action), and then, through believing, they come to know (the see the truth of who Jesus is and what God is up to)!
This offends the modern mind, but, according to Jesus and classical Christianity, it’s the only way to life.
This seems good. But what about when what you don’t know is Gods character? I’ve been wrestling with a lot of passages in the Old Testament, the story of Ananias and sapphira, and the visions in revelation that all seem to conflict with the gravity of Gods love. How can I believe if I don’t even know the character of the one I’m believing in?
Ben Sternke says
This is an important question, Jacob! In short, I’d say that we know the character of God but looking at Jesus. He shows us what God is like, and in anything that seems to conflict with this, we go with Jesus (since the New Testament does, and what the early church did), and assume that we just don’t yet understand how to interpret the more troubling passages. If you want to explore this further, I’d recommend Brad Jersak’s book A More Christlike God.
Really helpful post here, Ben! I just started OT3 at North Park this semester and am preaching John at our new church plant. In class, we are considering the role of post-modern thinking that wants to have empirical evidence before trusting/believing something (namely scripture/OT texts). This post is giving me plenty to think about alongside of both my coursework and my preaching prep this week!
Ben Sternke says
Really glad it was helpful for you!