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John 5:44:—“How can you believe, when you are accepting glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”
The fifth chapter of John marks one of the great turning points of his narrative. Up to this point, he has given us great typical representations of how Jesus wrought faith in the hearts of His hearers—at Jerusalem (in the case of Nicodemus), in Samaria (in the case of the Samaritan woman), in Galilee (in the case of the nobleman of Capernaum). Now he begins to show us the development of the opposition. With the fifth chapter the conflict begins; and in three great typical instances, each gathering around a miracle, we see how Jesus’ work gathered opposition to itself, until opposition culminated in the black tragedy of His death. Here we have laid bare the springs, nature and deeds of unbelief.
Not that we have no longer an exhibition of Jesus begetting, by word and work, faith in His life-giving Person. In each instance in which the process of the hardening of unbelief is pictured to us, there is a picture of faith too, in contrast with it. The impotent man, the man born blind, the family of Lazarus, are heroes of faith, and nothing can be more beautiful than the manner in which it is shown how simple, unsophisticated faith fixed itself on Jesus. But on each occasion of faith-begetting work, blind unbelief hardened itself to deeper and deeper blackness, and it is this progress that forms the salient feature of the narrative.
In the fifth chapter of John, the grounds of unbelief are laid bare to us, as rooted in an essentially self-seeking and worldly spirit. No part of the chapter is unimportant for understanding the lesson which is most pointedly expressed in the verse more especially before us. The miracle out of which grew the discourse, of which this verse is the culmination, is, of course, appropriate to its lesson; and the conversation and discourse are carried inevitably up to this end.
The miracle was wrought on an impotent man, and out of it was to grow the discourse which was to uncover the impotence of sinners, on their own part, to believe in the Saviour of the world. Long had the man lain helplessly by the very pool of healing, where the ordinary means of cure were; but he had no power to make a healing use of them, nor was there any to help him—until Jesus passed by and spoke the wonderful word of healing to his weary soul. But it was on the Sabbath day, and the Jews, the types of that Pharisaic religiosity which loved to make long prayers on the corners of the streets and to make broad their phylacteries to be seen of men, whose religion in a word was a religion for men to mark and praise, at once judged that the due observance of the Sabbath law was of more importance than the healing of a diseased sinner. At once are brought into contrast the religion that seeks God’s approval and that which seeks the applause of men. Jesus meets the healed man and bids him sin no more; they meet Jesus and in their rage at the disregarding of their laws seek to slay him.
Our Lord does not permit the contrast to pass unnoticed. And this is the burden of His discourse. All He did was of the Father and to the Father and for the Father; and sought only His approval. All they did was of man and to man and for the approval of man. His eye was turned upwards, theirs downwards. And, therefore, they were impotent to believe in Him; though He, the water of life, was in their reach, they could not reach out and take and live. How could they believe, though in word and work the Father was bearing witness to Him, when they cared nothing for the Father, but only for men; when they were receiving glory from one another and not seeking glory from God, the Only One.
(1) Our Lord asserts that the Jews were unable to believe. He asserts a true inability to faith in them, but by no means allows that they have thereby become irresponsible. How can ye—how are ye able to—believe?
(2) He traces this inability to its source in a wrong disposition. He asserts that the reason that they could not believe was because of their condition of mind and heart. How are ye able to believe, seeing that ye are receiving glory one of another and seek not the glory that cometh from the Only One?
(3) The special sin that darkened their eyes to Christ’s truth and worthiness as one sent from God was the sin of living for the world’s eye, not God’s; of seeking the world’s applause, not God’s approval. They wished a Messiah for worldly glory, not for salvation.
The passage will teach us then:
(1) That a true inability may well consist with responsibility; an inability that rises out of the moral condition and is constituted by the immanent choice.
(2) That the habit of living for the applause of our fellow men in religious things is deadly to the religious affections and life, which in their very nature are Godward and must look upwards only to Him.
(3) That from God alone can true glory come; and He is the sole source of the Christian’s glory.
There can be no doubt that our Lord asserts of these Jews that they could not, were not able, had not the ability to believe. And He assigns the reason for this; a reason not derived from any outward compulsion, and not due to any lack of evidence. They had sent to John and John had testified to Jesus, and if they would look to the Scriptures they witnessed to Him; nay, would they look to heaven, heaven itself bore witness to Him in His wonderful works. They were caught in a network of evidence. Whence it all the more fully follows that if they believed not, it was due to some inability. Yes, a true inability, an induration of believing tissue which rendered it unable to react to any testimony, however great. But this inability did not render them irresponsible for their lack of faith. Our Lord closes His discourse with a solemn asseveration that they did not need Him to accuse them to the Father: “There was one that accused them, even Moses, on whom they had set their hopes. For if they believed Moses, they would have believed Him, for he wrote of Him.” In a word, our Lord arraigns them for their inability to believe, not as though it was an excuse for their lack of faith, but as though it was the blackest item in the indictment against them. They could not believe, but it was because of their wicked hearts because they had set their hearts on earthly things and cared not for the heavenly.
And now we understand why the healing of the impotent man is the miracle out of which this discourse grows. All Christ’s miracles are parables. For thirty-eight years this man had lain there just alongside the healing floods, and he was impotent to use them for the healing of his disease—neither had he anyone who could apply them to him. And here before these Jews stood One offering the water of life, and they were impotent to reach out their hand to take it, because they were receiving their glory one from another and sought not the glory that comes from the Only One. It is the impotence of man by his natural powers to believe—be the evidence never so convincing—that Jesus would teach us by His parable and by His discourse. The impotent man might have ocular evidence every time the water moved of its healing virtues. What good did the demonstration do him, when he could not reach out and take the healing floods? These impotent Jews might have, did have, demonstrative evidence that the Lord of Life stood before them. John had spoken, God in His word had spoken, God by sign and miracle had spoken. And yet what good did evidence do them so long as they could not believe because their hearts were set on the earth and not on the heavens?
Is it not plain to you that it is not evidence alone that produces faith? Did the abundant evidence of the Divine mission of Christ convince the Jews; who sought His life the more vindictively for every item of evidence they could not resist; who answered His demonstration of deity by hanging Him on the tree? Nay; be the evidence never so perfect, we cannot believe who have evil hearts of unbelief. Never until that Divine voice, freighted with supernatural power, which said to the impotent man, Arise, take up thy bed and walk, has sounded with a personal message to our souls, do we gain the power to believe, though Moses himself and the law written in our hearts pronounce us inexcusable.
Now as we have learned a doctrinal lesson from our text, let us learn also a practical one. Surely the text teaches us that the habit of living in religious things for the observation and applause of our fellows is deadly to all religious affections, and, indeed, to all religious life itself. Nor could it indeed be otherwise. Are not the religious affections in their very nature God ward? And is not the religious life dependent on our preserving in ourselves an attitude of dependence and receptivity with reference to God? Turn our eyes from Him, and religion in any true sense of the word is gone. Rites may remain; forms may remain; genuflections and prayers may remain; a strict mode of life may remain, but not religion. The husk of religion—like the shell of nuts—may endure when the kernel is gone; it is often harder to destroy the hull and husk than that subtle kernel, for which alone the husk exists. But of what worth is the husk after what it was formed to protect is gone? Of course, this is not to condemn the outward forms of religion. This is involved in the very figure used. Like the shell of a nut, it is needed; needed for the protection and preservation of the kernel. But without the kernel? That is a different matter.
As ministers, we have, and we ought to recognize it, special temptations to religiosity, as distinguished from religion. We are professionally religious men. Let the lesson come home especially to us then, that the habit of being religious for the eye of men is deadly to true religion. It does not follow that we ought to be careless of our influence over men. It only follows that we ought to be careful with respect to what we influence them. We should set an example to them to be truly religious, lovers of God and seekers only of His approval; and not only to seem to be religious. How subtle the temptation is! How grand a thing to have the reputation of being the most religious man in the community, the most careful in our religious services, the most punctual in our religious duties! Well, the Pharisees were all this. No men in the land were more religious; they were models for all men in the strictness of their lives. And they could not believe! There is a better thing than having the reputation of being religious, and that is being religious. And the difference is just this: That the one has praise of men and the other of God.
And thus we are led to lay emphasis, in closing, on the third point of teaching which I would have you receive from our text; that all true glory comes from God only. This is the pointed antithesis of the text, and Christ uses it as the sufficient uncovering of the failure and folly of the Jews. They received glory from their fellow men and did not remember that true glory comes from God only. It is hard for men to feel this. We do so long after the approval of our fellows. Men go in crowds. Truth has a poor show when the tide sets against it. How hard it is to face the gibes of our companions. “Old Fogy,” “Narrow-minded”—these are not very bad words in themselves, but they have a baleful power. How natural to desire to be “in the swim”! How delightful to feel the approval and to enjoy the aid of our fellows pressing us on. It is human to love human applause and to seek it.
But it is Divine to stem the tide for God. Jesus preached unpopular truth. Men could so little endure it that they crucified Him for it. Paul preached unpopular truth and suffered a thousand deaths for doing so. Will we say that they were wrong? After all, it is only when the “vox populi” is really the “vox dei” as well, that we can afford to follow it. When the “vox populi” stands in opposition to the “vox dei,” let us breast it at all hazards! In other words, let it be the “vox dei” that we unhesitatingly and unwaveringly follow; and if the “vox populi” agree with it, so much the better for the “vox populi.” As ministers of God’s grace let us make up our minds firmly and once for all to seek His glory and not men’s. After all, is it not to his own Master that every man stands or falls?