“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
What does it mean to believe in a person? Does it simply mean to believe that person existed? If so, I believe a lot of people have existed. Some of them have been good people. Some have been bad. Some, I’m not real sure.
For example, I believe Franklin Delano Roosevelt existed. My grandparents told me about him. They lived through the depression, experiencing it up close and personal. They needed help and he seemed to give it, so they loved him.
I’ve actually read a fair amount about FDR, but based on what I’ve read, I honestly don’t know what to think about the man. I believe he existed. I know what my grandparents told me. I believe the things I’ve read about him. But, I don’t think any of it is going to have any relevance to the way I live my life today, or tomorrow.
So how is my belief in FDR different from believing in Jesus? To be honest with you, for much of my life, there was no difference. My grandparents, and my parents, and a whole lot of other people told me about Jesus. Most of them told me about John 3:16. I heard it all and had no problem believing he existed. I understand that some of you may have a hard time with that belief, but we’ll have to reserve that struggle for another discussion. Believing in Jesus’ existence just wasn’t a problem for me.
Oh yeah, I also believed John 3:16, at least as I understood it at the time. I didn’t like the idea of perishing either. That thought kept me up at night with worry. So, John 3:16 seemed to answer the problem. Believe in him and I get heaven instead of hell.
For many years, that was the extent of my faith. Well, John 3:16 plus being a “good person.” After all, that seemed to be my Sunday School instruction. The truth be told, that was probably where my trust was found. Believe in Jesus, but be a good person. Come to think of it, it sounds a lot like another president…Ronald Reagan, and his “trust but verify.”
That was my version of belief for many years. Believe in Jesus, but verify by being a good person. It may be yours now. But in time, the nagging question came back up. What does it mean to believe in a person? Could John 3:16 be talking about more than my belief in the person of FDR?
GOOD PERSON #1 - NICODEMUS
Maybe the rest of John chapter 3 has something to tell us about what kind of belief John 3:16 is describing. The rest of the chapter presents two men, both of whom would fit into the “good person” category. The chapter opens with Nicodemus. He was the teacher of Israel. He knew the law, taught the law, and at least with fair amount of respect for the law, we assume, sought to obey it. In other words, Nicodemus was the classic “good person.”
Nicodemus also believed something about Jesus. He recognized Jesus’ uniqueness, and had come to question him about it. But Nicodemus’ belief had not yet risen to the level of trust. In fact, he couldn’t seem to understand Jesus’ words when Jesus spoke of his true identity. In the early part of John 3, we see there was a more fundamental blockage at work. It wasn’t just Nicodemus’ mind. It was his heart, prompting Jesus’ instruction, “You must be born again.”
The good person was missing something, and it wasn’t something he could earn or do. It was something he had to receive. And somehow, receiving it was connecting to believing in the person of Jesus…at the level of his heart.
GOOD PERSON #2 - JOHN THE BAPTIST
Later in John chapter 3, we see a second good person. This time it is John the Baptist. He is the one whom Jesus described as the greatest man born of a woman. John also was a teacher, and a prophet. Yet more than Nicodemus, John understood Jesus was the Christ. And in declaring Jesus’ title, he captured the fullness of his personhood. He was a man. He was the Savior. And more importantly, he was John’s personal Savior.
John was declaring to his disciples that there was something lacking in his own life. It was something that only Jesus could fulfill. John knew that in Jesus he had both the forgiveness of sins, and the righteousness of God. John not only knew about Jesus, he believed in him with a belief that rose to the level of trust.
Whereas my belief in FDR doesn’t affect my life today, John declared for all to hear (and to see) that his belief in Jesus impacted every sphere of his life. In John 3:30, he captured it beautifully and succinctly with, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
HOW ABOUT YOU?
How about you? Who do you believe in? Are you believing in yourself, as a good person? Or are you believing in Jesus Christ, the Savior of Sinners? Do you know about Jesus like you know about Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Is Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension merely an interesting episode in history, like the New Deal? Or, is the knowledge of Jesus’ life and work a personal reality in your life? What does it mean for you to believe?
I used to confess belief in Jesus, but late at night, I worried about eternal life. How about you? Late at night, do you worry about perishing? If so, John 3:16 can bring you peace, but only as it points you to the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. Salvation in his name is a gift, meant to be received, by believing in faith…with your heart.
Can I point you forward in the story line a bit? You know by now that John the Baptist had a true belief. But how about Nicodemus? If we skip forward in John’s gospel account, he see that he would go on to publicly defend Jesus before the Pharisees, and would eventually help bury Jesus. While we don’t know for certain, something changed in Nicodemus’ heart. I happen to believe he was born again, and received the gift of a true, trusting belief. The good person needed something more, or rather someone more. He seemed to find it in the person of Jesus.
The bottom line is this..good people need Jesus too. Good people like me. Good people like you. So I ask you one final time…what does it mean for you to believe in Jesus?