21 Once more Jesus said to them, “I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.” 22 This made the Jews ask, “Will he kill himself? Is that why he says, ‘Where I go, you cannot come’?”
23 But he continued, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.”
25 “Who are you?” they asked.
“Just what I have been telling you from the beginning,” Jesus replied. 26 “I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is trustworthy, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.” 27 They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father. 28 So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” 30 Even as he spoke, many believed in him.
Jesus continues his dialogue in the temple, but here particularly addresses those who do not believe him. There is a series of sharp exchanges marked by increasing frustration, although some are won over. Jesus urges that his time with them is short because he will soon go to a place where they cannot follow. When he said something similar in John 7:34, the crowd wondered if he might leave them and move out into the gentile world but now the mood becomes darker as they wonder if he will kill himself.
As is so often the case, the crowd are prevented from fully understanding Jesus’ intent. He is not threatening suicide he is calling for urgent repentance. “Believe before I leave!” But the crowd’s problem is unbelief which will lead them into death: they will die in their sins. For now, they cannot understand Jesus and so they ask the most basic question of him, “Who are you?” Sadly, their spiritual blindness means that they just cannot bear to hear the answer that Jesus has been consistently declaring since the beginning of his ministry.
Will they ever understand? Just as Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:14), he tells them that when he is ‘lifted up’ they will know that he is the Son of God, sent for salvation by the Father. For Jesus to be ‘lifted up’ has a double meaning: he will be lifted up on the cross, which will lead to him being lifted up in glory. In his resurrection from the dead and in his exaltation to heaven, Jesus’ true identity is revealed. Then the crowd will know it, but will it be too late?
Unbelief works insidiously. The more a person does not believe, the more they are confirmed in that state of unbelief and the less likely they are to turn back to belief. The Bible frequently refers to this as the hardening of the heart. If this crowd continues to refuse to believe Jesus, even though he will soon be ‘lifted up’ before their eyes, they will still not believe. Fixed unbelief will be embedded in their hearts.
The Christian can entertain unbelief through continued disobedience. Even though we know the truth, we can deny it by choosing to live as though Jesus is not Lord of all. The only cure is repentance: examine your heart. On the other hand, the unbeliever needs God to open their eyes to Jesus– just as he did that day for some in the crowd at the temple.
Heavenly Father, will you graciously soften my heart so that I will not disbelieve what I know is true of you. Purify my heart and enable me to live in joyful obedience under your rule. For those whom I know and love who do not believe in you, will you have mercy on them. Please open their eyes and soften their hearts before it is too late: let them turn to you in humble faith. Amen.