Text Study for John 3:1-17 (Pt. 2); Holy Trinity B, 2021

2. But What is “Believing”?

If believing is seeing in the Gospel of John, then what does the gospel writer mean by “believing”? “Indeed, Jesus also did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which have not been written in this book,” the evangelist declares in John 20:30-31, “but these have been written in order that you would trust that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus, and in order that by continuing to believe you may have life in his name” (my translation). There is clearly some relationship in the Gospel of John between seeing “signs” and coming to trust Jesus. What that relationship is remains the subject of scholarly investigation and debate.

In John, chapter 2, we have two texts with clear signs reported in them. First, we have the wine miracle at the wedding at Cana. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,” the writer reports, “and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11, NRSV). In this brief text we have a sign, some comments (which were made by the wine steward, not Jesus), and “believing” on the part of the disciples.

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Second, we read about the Temple Incident. The religious authorities demand that Jesus should produce a sign to justify his action. Jesus cryptically points to the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension as he describes the destruction and restoration of the Temple of his body. While this interaction does not produce immediate “believing,” it has long-term effect. “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22, NRSV). This text is a preview of the discussion below on believing and hearing, but let’s hold off on that for now.

After these texts, we get a brief but significant aside from the gospel writer. “But as he was in Jerusalem during the festival of Passover, many trusted in in him, seeing his signs which he did,” we read in John 2:23 (my translation). “But Jesus himself did not entrust himself to them, because he knew the thing about all [of them], and he had no need that one might testify concerning a person; for he himself understood what was in a person” (John 2:24-25, my translation).

The gospel writer affirms that Jesus will not entrust himself to “a person” whose faith is rooted in the signs they have seen. In the next verse, “a person” (Greek = “Anthropos”) comes to him and begins babbling about the signs Jesus has done and how those signs demonstrate that God is “with” Jesus (see John 3:3). Karoline Lewis notes that reliance on signs, according to the Gospel of John, can result in, at most, an incomplete believing and is as likely to mislead the inquirer as to produce authentic believing.

Craig Koester looks at the juxtaposition of texts in John as a way that the writer demonstrates the complicated relationship between seeing and believing. He notes that different audiences witnessed the same signs. “Faith” comes or does not because of how those audiences then respond to Jesus’ words which follow the signs.

For our purposes, we note that Koester lifts up the connection between Nicodemus in chapter 3 and the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. The two characters are a study in contrasts: Jewish man vs. Samaritan woman, religious authority vs. one who is socially marginalized, coming by night vs. meeting Jesus in broad daylight. Moreover, Nicodemus fades from the scene as Jesus speaks. The Samaritan woman becomes more engaged as Jesus speaks (pages 333-334). That contrast is a clear mark of believing.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus, Koester notes, because he saw some of Jesus’ previous signs. But, Koester continues, “The signs had not prepared Nicodemus to believe Jesus’ words. Genuine ‘seeing’ means seeing or entering the kingdom of God (3,3.5) and seeing or having eternal life (3,36). Such vision,” Koester concludes, “can only come from a new birth and a faith that receives Jesus’ testimony (3,11.33)” (page 335). By the end of the chapter, it appears that Nicodemus is one of those who has not accepted the Son’s testimony — at least, at that point in the plot.

The Samaritan woman comes without prior experience of Jesus’ signs. Her expectation is not shaped by experience. She is surprised by Jesus in multiple ways and begins to believe in him. She shares her nascent testimony with others and leads them to hear Jesus further. The Samaritans in the village come to believe because of Jesus’ word (John 4:41-42). The term here, by the way, is “Logos.” There was no prior seeing. So, for the Samaritans, believing does in fact lead to seeing.

The Gospel of John climaxes with the Thomas story and the benediction upon those who have not seen and yet believed. That believing comes by hearing the Word through the testimony of the disciples. “The macarism in 20,29 does not deny that the disciples who believed when they saw Jesus were blessed;” Koester concludes, “it insists that those who believe without seeing are blessed, through a faith engendered by hearing the testimony of others” (page 346). Those others have received the gift of the Holy Spirit and the task of binding and loosing in Jesus’ name.

That blessing is for us as readers of the Gospel of John. We have not seen the signs of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension firsthand. Instead, we have the testimony of the Word. “The signs recorded in the gospel,” Koester says, “would confirm and be received by the faith which the readers already had, that they might continue to believe” (page 347). Koester concludes that believing doesn’t come through seeing in the Fourth Gospel, but rather through hearing. The experience of seeing produced mixed results. It is testimony that works, according to the gospel writer.

We have a clear intersection with Paul’s words in Romans 10. He notes that everyone, whether Jew or Greek, can call on the name of the Lord and thus be saved (verse 12). “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?” Paul asks. “And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Romans 10:14, NRSV). Believing comes from hearing the Good News of the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus. As Luther noted, the church is a mundhaus, a “mouth house,” where oral proclamation is the primary activity.

So, faith comes from what is heard,” Paul concludes, “and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17, NRSV). Paul uses the Greek term for spoken words, (“rhematos”), rather than “logos” for “word” here to make sure we understand that he is talking about words that are spoken either by or about (likely both) Christ. While methods and means of verbal proclamation certainly change and adapt over time, the need for verbal Christian witness is apparently non-negotiable. “The evangelist makes clear,” Koester concludes, “that Jesus’ actions were rightly perceived only by those who already responded with faith or trusting obedience to what they had heard from or about Jesus” (page 348).

What, then, what does “believing” look like in the Gospel of John? It does not look like Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus comes with a preconceived notion of the importance and meaning of Jesus’ signs. As a result, Jesus will not entrust himself to such a person (although, as we have seen, there may be hope for good old Nic yet). Nicodemus represents those of Jesus’ “own” [people] who did not welcome the Word made flesh (see John 1:11). Nicodemus is “The Teacher of Israel,” but is limited in his seeing by what he thinks he already knows about God. His seeing does not lead to “believing.”

Instead, in John’s Gospel, “believing” is first of all welcoming (accepting, receiving) the gift of the Word made flesh and dwelling among us. The Word comes from God and is God. This Word reveals the very heart of God the Father, whom the cosmos has not seen in fullness until the coming of Jesus (see John 1:18).

“To those who received him, he has given to them the legitimate right to be children of God…” (John 1:12, my translation). While signs may serve as illustrations of Jesus’ witness and reminders upon reflection, they do not produce believing. Believing is a gift to be received. Then it is a call to be answered. And finally, it is a task to be performed. In addition, believing is not a one-time event or decision but rather an ongoing allegiance and way of life, nourished and supported by the Paraclete, who is called alongside us on the journey.

“As we have noted repeatedly, faith is not a one-time event, but a process,” write O’Day and Hylen. “Many believe in Jesus only to later reject him; others have a tenuous belief that competes with their fear; even those who do believe do not fully understand. The Gospel,” they suggest, “offers its invitation to any who would begin to believe, or continue to believe, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (Kindle Location 4125).

References and Resources

Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Characters who count: the case of Nicodemus,” Chapter 7 in Engaging with C. H. Dodd on the Gospel of John: Sixty Years of Tradition and Interpretation. Edited by Tom Thatcher and Catrin Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2013. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bridwell/detail.action?docID=1303715.

Koester, Craig R., “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John” (1989). Faculty Publications. 22. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/22.

Lewis, Karoline M.; Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Wengert, Timothy J. (translator). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.