Since I require my Advanced Homiletics students to preach either John 3:1-13 or John 3:14-21 as their third sermon, I’ve heard 7 messages on both passages within the last 2 weeks.
The frequent occurrence of the verb πιστεύω in John 3:1-21 has caused the issue of what it means to believe in Jesus to resurface in my thinking. The key phrases are
• Everyone who believes in him [the Son of Man] (John 13:5)
• Everyone who believes in him [the Son] (John 3:16)
• The one who believes in him [the Son] (John 3:18a)
• The one who does not believe has been condemned (John 3:18b)
• Because he has not believed on the name of the only Son of God (John 3:18c)
Theologically, I know that for faith to be saving faith it must bear the fruit of obedience to Christ (James 2:22-26). There is no Lordless salvation (Matt. 7:21). But “believe on Jesus” seems so cognitive, so cerebral, so non-heartish … it almost seems to lend itself to a religion of the head apart from the heart.
A common answer to my question—you must mentally affirm that Jesus is God’s Son, that he died for your sins, and rose again for your justification, and that He will save you from your sins if you ask him to—has in many parts of Christendom yielded a harvest of orthodox heads and adulterous hearts and lives.
Today I had a breakthrough. Baptism helps explain what it means to believe in Jesus.
Many Christians don’t realize that baptism is not a uniquely Christian rite. In the first century, baptism was a common practice among both Jews and Pagans. It was an initiatory ritual by which one signified one’s commitment to become an adherent to a religious sect. John the Baptist is the prime NT example of this (John 4:1). However, we find descriptions of similar rites from Qumran, in Josephus, and in Greek literature.
When one was baptized in the name of X, the one baptized was announcing his intention to be with and learn from X. In other words, it was common knowledge that getting baptized was a public declaration that you were becoming a disciple of someone or something.
Immediately following the calls to belief in John 3:1-21, John states that “After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing” (John 3:22). In other words, people who “believe” in Jesus get baptized in his name, thereby signifying that they are becoming His disciples, apprentices, followers—people who were going to pattern their whole lives after Him and His teaching.
“Believing” is a mental affirmation, but it more than mental affirmation. It means staking my whole life on Jesus’ claim that He is the way to God and there is no other way. It means willingly yoking myself to him so that I can learn how to do life His way (Matt. 11:29). It means decisively abandoning my old way of life and being baptized into apprenticeship to a new way of life—His way.
It means being willing to forsake father, mother, sister, brother, wife, houses, lands, and even my own life, in order to pattern the totality of my existence after Him (Mark 10:28-30). It means believing that Jesus is the Master of every facet of life, so I must be his disciple in every facet of mine.
That’s what it meant to the Philippian jailer when Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). He recognized that belief required baptism in Jesus’ name, and baptism in Jesus' name symbolized his entrance into a brand new life of learning to think and act and react like Jesus.
That is what it means to believe in Jesus.