The question today is: Why do some people believe the Gospel and others don’t? And by that I mean that you can have two persons, similar upbringing, similar education, similar life experiences, both exposed to the same story of Jesus… and one will believe and receive it and the other will reject it.
A different but related question is, how can two people, completely different from each other – in wealth, health, education, opportunity – hear the story of Jesus and accept it just the same. One could be like us, living in the wealthiest country in the world… (You know that, right? The average American’s income is at the top 1% when compared to the whole world’s population) … and then you can have a person from the poorest slum in Manila or a person from a war torn country in Africa and – in Jesus – they are brothers they are the same.
What makes the difference?
In the Gospel of Luke chapter 4, we find Jesus returning to Nazareth, where He grew up. By this time in the Gospel (if you read them all together) you know that he had already been baptized, the miracle at the wedding in Cana already had happened. In fact, the first Passover of his public ministry when he cast the sellers and the money changers out of the Temple had already happened. And so, we know he had already been teaching and doing miracles, even in Jerusalem. So, now he returns home:
Luke 4:16-30 And he came to Nazareth, where he was brought up; and he entered, according to his custom, into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up to read. And [the] book of the prophet Esaias was given to him; and having unrolled the book he found the place where it was written, [The] Spirit of [the] Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach glad tidings to [the] poor; he has sent me to preach to captives deliverance, and to [the] blind sight, to send forth [the] crushed delivered, to preach [the] acceptable year of [the] Lord.
And having rolled up the book, when he had delivered it up to the attendant, he sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him. And he began to say to them, To-day this scripture is fulfilled in your ears. And all bore witness to him, and wondered at the words of grace which were coming out of his mouth. And they said, Is not this the son of Joseph?
And he said to them, Ye will surely say to me this parable, Physician, heal thyself; whatsoever we have heard has taken place in Capernaum do here also in thine own country. And he said, Verily I say to you, that no prophet is acceptable in his [own] country. But of a truth I say to you, There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, so that a great famine came upon all the land, and to none of them was Elias sent but to Sarepta of Sidonia, to a woman [that was] a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed but Naaman the Syrian.
And they were all filled with rage in the synagogue, hearing these things; and rising up they cast him forth out of the city, and led him up to the brow of the mountain upon which their city was built, so that they might throw him down the precipice; but *he*, passing through the midst of them, went his way…
What just happened here?
The passage Jesus chose to read was understood by the people of Jesus’ day to be a passage referring to the Messiah. The Messiah, which means the anointed, that is, the one selected by God, was to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Adam and Eve that one day the head of the serpent would be crushed. The Messiah was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed by his descendant. The Messiah was the fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy that one day God would send to his people a Prophet just like him – another deliverer. And the prophet Daniel called that Messiah, the Son of Man who would deliver Israel, whose kingdom would have no end.
Over and over we find prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament because the story of Israel, the story of the people of God, turned out to be just like our story. God made them, He called them to be his children, led them, provided for them, protected them, loved them, and yet they rebelled and turned away from him. They went their own way to do what they wanted to do. The result: they reaped what they sowed and ended in exile.
By the time of Jesus, the nation of Israel had been oppressed by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and Persians, the Greeks, and now Rome. And the promised deliverer had not come yet. They were desperately waiting for him, to come and set all things right. Most people in Jesus’ day were waiting for a Messiah that would come and lead them in a war to wipe away their oppressors, to break the yoke of Rome and restore the nation.
And here comes Jesus, whom they know is the talk of the people; they have heard about his miracles in Capernaum; and he opens the book of Isaiah to a Messianic prophecy and says: “This is fulfilled today in your presence.” If you follow that passage you deduce that after he closed the book, he started teaching them, just like he did in Jerusalem and Capernaum, because it says: And all bore witness to him, and wondered at the words of grace which were coming out of his mouth.
They were amazed at his teaching. And he clearly appeared to be claiming to be the Messiah; BUT, what happened? They looked at him…And they said, Is not this the son of Joseph? An ordinary carpenter? The son of Mary and Joseph? C’mon, what kind of Messiah is this? This can’t be God’s plan…
And you saw how Jesus replied to them. He knew exactly what they were thinking. And he reminded them of times in the Old Testament when God’s prophets, with amazing power, had come to the nation and the only people that derived blessings from them were foreigners.
What is going on here? If Jesus was the Messiah, why didn’t he come out and tell them right there? Well… the way we say it today: Talk is cheap. Anyone can say “I am the Messiah.”
The real question is, what does it take for me to believe it?
Let me take you to another encounter with Jesus, this one from the Gospel of John, chapter 4. Before that event in Nazareth, Jesus had been in Judea. And on his way north to Galilee he and his disciples went through Samaria – because as you will see, he had a divine appointment to carry out in Samaria.
John 4:4-26 And he must needs pass through Samaria. He comes therefore to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near to the land which Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now a fountain of Jacob’s was there; Jesus therefore, being wearied with the way he had come, sat just as he was at the fountain. It was about the sixth hour.
A woman comes out of Samaria to draw water. Jesus says to her, Give me to drink (for his disciples had gone away into the city that they might buy provisions). The Samaritan woman therefore says to him, How dost thou, being a Jew, ask to drink of me who am a Samaritan woman? for Jews have no intercourse with Samaritans. Jesus answered and said to her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that says to thee, Give me to drink, thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.
The woman says to him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: whence then hast thou the living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself, and his sons, and his cattle? Jesus answered and said to her, Every one who drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whosoever drinks of the water which I shall give him shall never thirst for ever, but the water which I shall give him shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into eternal life. The woman says to him, Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst nor come here to draw.
Jesus says to her, Go, call thy husband, and come here. The woman answered and said, I have not a husband. Jesus says to her, Thou hast well said, I have not a husband; for thou hast had five husbands, and he whom now thou hast is not thy husband: this thou hast spoken truly.
The woman says to him, Sir, I see that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where one must worship. Jesus says to her, Woman, believe me, [the] hour is coming when ye shall neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what; we worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews. But [the] hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for also the Father seeks such as his worshippers. God [is] a spirit; and they who worship him must worship [him] in spirit and truth. The woman says to him, I know that Messiah is coming, who is called Christ; when *he* comes he will tell us all things. Jesus says to her, I who speak to thee am [he].
That is a very different encounter. Jesus started by engaging her in a conversation, a conversation that sooner than later revealed her heart. She started asking questions maybe not understanding what he was saying about living water but listening to his words nevertheless. And then Jesus tells her, go get your husband. You saw her answer, and his.
I like to imagine Jesus was chuckling when he said “you are telling the truth”. Again, as with the people in Nazareth, he knew what was in her heart. But she is not angered, she just changes the conversation from an uncomfortable topic to a theoretical one… where are we supposed to worship? And Jesus answers in such a way that she has nothing else to argue except to say, well, when the Messiah comes, he will explain everything. And then Jesus plainly says, ‘That’s me.”
If you read the rest of the story you find out not only was her life changed, she went back to town and brought all that she could back with her to see Jesus. She believed He was the Messiah.
How did that happen?
In that one conversation, the woman had heard enough evidence to open her eyes to the possibility. In one conversation, without any miracles, she was ready to believe. How did that happen? That’s what I want to talk about next. But the thing I want to point out right now is that she believed. And to that willingness to believe, Jesus’ answer was direct: I am the Messiah.
BUT, in the synagogue in Nazareth it was another story. They heard the same voice. Plus, they had heard about his miracles. Yet the willingness to believe is not there. In fact, it is the opposite. Their reaction to their hearts being revealed was being offended. To that attitude, saying out loud “I am the Messiah” makes no sense. Because the immediate answer is going to be: ‘Talk is cheap.’ Followed by: ‘Prove it.’
Why the difference?
Are we being too hard on the people of Nazareth?
They could say, ‘Wait a minute, don’t we deserve some proof?’
And the reply would be: Why isn’t the proof you have already heard (the miracles in Jerusalem and Capernaum, not to mention the teaching that you just witnessed, which you admitted was full of Grace) and the fact that it is precisely what Isaiah said would identify the Messiah, proof enough?
‘Well, well,’ you could object, ‘I don’t want to be tricked, you know… This is mighty important. I want to make sure.’
Really? How come the Samaritan woman at the well believed, with a lot less?
‘Not to be condescending, but she’s not as smart as I am. I am not easy to fool, you know. I’m qualified to figure this out.’
Humanly speaking, that argument could hold water. But we are not talking about simple humanity here. Do we really think that that woman at the well was tricked that easily into believing? C’mon, give her some credit… She was smart enough to catch five husbands! The issue here is not human arguments. The issue here is: Am I hearing the Voice?
The Voice of the Father
When you read the Bible, what do you hear? When you go away from all other distractions and you pray, what do you hear? The writer of the book of Hebrews said it this way: The Word of God is alive, and it cuts like a sword, coming and going. Whenever we are face to face with the Word of God – either reading it or physically in the presence of Jesus – God’s voice is there also, supernaturally present. This is why Jesus said in John’s Gospel:
John 10:1-16 Verily, verily, I say to you, He that enters not in by the door to the fold of the sheep, but mounts up elsewhere, *he* is a thief and a robber; but he that enters in by the door is [the] shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter opens; and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out. When he has put forth all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice. But they will not follow a stranger, but will flee from him, because they know not the voice of strangers.
This allegory spoke Jesus to them, but they did not know what it was [of] which he spoke to them. Jesus therefore said again to them, Verily, verily, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All whoever came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: if any one enter in by me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and shall go out and shall find pasture.
The thief comes not but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy: I am come that they might have life, and might have [it] abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep: but he who serves for wages, and who is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf seizes them and scatters the sheep. Now he who serves for wages flees because he serves for wages, and is not himself concerned about the sheep.
I am the good shepherd; and I know those that are mine, and am known of those that are mine, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep which are not of this fold: those also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, one shepherd.
How is it that His sheep recognize His voice? This is the key question. That is what I asked at the beginning today: How come some hear the Voice and follow it and others do not? How come some believe and others do not? What is the difference?
Jesus answers that question in John chapter 6, the passage about the bread of life. After he fed the 5000, he runs again into the same crowd of people and they are all eager for more miracles, for more bread. But Jesus tells them, “the only reason you care is because I filled your belly”. And then they get into an argument that Jesus on purpose escalates until He tells them “I am the bread of life, I am the real food that the Father has sent you from heaven to give you life.” If you think that implying He was the Messiah back in Nazareth got them all riled up, what do you think happened here?
John 6:41-45 The Jews therefore murmured about him, because he said, I am the bread which has come down out of heaven. And they said, Is not this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we have known? how then does *he* say, I am come down out of heaven?
Jesus therefore answered and said to them, Murmur not among yourselves. No one can come to me except the Father who has sent me draw him, and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father [himself], and has learned [of him], comes to me…
Sometimes we read that verse — about the Father drawing people to Jesus — and interpret it in the negative: ‘So, does that mean that those who reject Jesus do so because the Father never called them? How fair is that?’ But to think that, violates two of the foundational truths about God: (1) God cannot be unjust. (2) His will is that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9). Therefore, the reality is that there is no one that has not heard His voice. This is what the Psalmist says when he sings ‘the heavens declare the glory of the Lord’. God’s voice has been heard over the whole earth. So repeats Paul in Romans Chapter 1. All have heard. God’s arm is not too short that He cannot deliver, said the prophet.
In John 7 Jesus says the same thing again this way: John 7:16-17 Jesus therefore answered them and said, My doctrine is not mine, but [that] of him that has sent me. If any one desire to practise his will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is of God, or [that] I speak from myself.
Over and over in the Gospel of John we hear Jesus emphasizing this Truth: That His sheep recognize His voice, that anyone that loves the Father will recognize that Jesus is doing the Father’s will, and this is why no one can come to Him unless the Father, love of the Father, has drawn them.
The difference between those who choose to believe and those who do not, comes down to who has heard the Voice of God.
And the ability to hear is simply a matter of choice.
This is precisely what Jesus reminds them of, in John 6:45. In that verse, he is quoting from the prophets: Isaiah 54:13 has that promise and so does Jeremiah 31. The latter is particularly important because it ties the coming redemption to the forgiveness of sins:
Jeremiah 31:31-34 Behold, days come, saith Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day of my taking them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke, although I was a husband unto them, saith Jehovah.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, after those days, saith Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts, and will write it in their heart; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will pardon their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.
That promise had been there in the Scriptures all along for all of them to hear and know. It was true then, it is true today. God the Father speaks. His voice is heard throughout the world and throughout the ages. Anyone willing, will hear the Voice and, listening to it, be drawn in. And the beauty of that Promise is that it is not limited to Israel. God’s Voice is heard throughout the whole world. Jesus made it clear when He said, “I have sheep from another fold, they are mine too and they will all be one flock.”
So it all comes down to this one question: Have I heard the Voice of God? If the answer is, yes, then the follow up question is, Ok, so what have I done about it?
If the answer is no, then the follow up question is even more scary: Why not? What have I been listening to instead? What have I been filling my life with that I can’t hear anymore…
This is the question that only each one of us can answer from deep inside our hearts because that is where we all can hear the Voice. It is also the question that we all have to answer, because it is about life and death. If you haven’t heard it yet, it’s not too late. It says so in Hebrews: Today is the day of salvation.