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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:When the gospel comes, don't harden your heart!
Text:John 12:36b-43 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Calling

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 97:1,4,5

Psalm 102:1,2,9 (after God's Law)

Psalm 95:1,4,5

Hymn 55

Hymn 70

Scripture reading: Isaiah 6

Text:  John 12:36b-43

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

It’s no secret that quite a few of us in this church have a Dutch heritage.  It’s also no secret that one thing Dutch people are known for is stubbornness.  Are there any people in the world more stubborn than the Dutch?  Maybe the Scottish?  But from where I’m standing there’s not much competition.  Now being stubborn isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  As long as you’re stubborn about what’s right and true, it’s a good quality to stand your ground. 

In the Bible we see plenty of examples of people being stubborn and usually not about what’s right and true.  Usually they’re stubborn in their unbelief and disobedience to God.  It’s called being hard-hearted.  One example in the Old Testament is that of Pharaoh during the days of Moses.  God called Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go.  But Pharaoh stubbornly refused.  He had a hard-heart towards God. 

But then we also see examples where God’s own people are being hard-hearted, stubborn towards him.  We just sang about that in Psalm 95.  God warned his people not to be like the people of Israel in the desert during the Exodus.  They contended with him stubbornly and tested him.  Their hardened hearts resisted his favour.

In the New Testament, God’s people still haven’t learned.  That’s what we see happening in our passage from John this morning.  There are God’s people again and they’re being stubborn, hard-hearted.  God gives us his Word here to open our eyes to this age-old problem, one which does still exist today.  We have to learn from the foolish stubbornness of God’s people in the past.  Loved ones, when the gospel comes, don’t harden your heart!  That’s the theme of the sermon and we’ll consider hard hearts and their connection to:

  1. Divine sovereignty
  2. Human responsibility

In the Bible, when God is said to hide himself from you, that’s not a good sign.  For example, in Deut. 31, God says that if his people were to turn to false gods, he would hide his face from them.  That’s important if we want to understand what the last part of verse 36 means here in John 12.  Jesus is said to depart and hide himself.  This isn’t a good sign.  This is God’s warning of coming judgment for stubborn unbelief.

Verse 37 makes it explicit.  Just like Moses with Pharaoh in the Old Testament, Jesus had done many signs, many miracles.  Despite that, these people still didn’t believe in him.  They didn’t believe that he was who he said he was, namely the Saviour sent by God to rescue sinners from hell.

Now someone might look at that and question God’s power.  God sent his Son, but when he comes there’s all this unbelief.  It seems like things are out of God’s control.  Human beings appear to be frustrating his plans.  They don’t believe in Jesus and they don’t want Jesus.  In fact, they only want him dead. 

But if you’re thinking that things have slipped out of God’s power, then John has news for you.  All of these things are actually part of God’s plan and were forecast already back in the Old Testament prophets.  Nothing is catching God by surprise and nothing is slipping out of his hands.  He remains in control.

To illustrate that, John refers to two passages from the prophet Isaiah.  The first one is from the first verse of the well-known chapter 53.  In that chapter, Isaiah prophesied about the Servant of God and the sufferings he would experience to pay for the sins of the people.  And in the first verse, Isaiah forecasts that this idea of a Suffering Servant of God would be met with unbelief.  People would find this idea over the top.  They would refuse to believe the message and even if God revealed his power, his arm, through signs/miracles, they’d still stubbornly refuse to believe.  They’d be hard-hearted.

But that wasn’t out of God’s control.  In his wisdom, he would sovereignly leverage this unbelief to achieve his ultimate purposes.  That’s why verse 39 says that they could not believe.  For the rest of Isaiah 53 to unfold the way it did, for Jesus to go to the cross rejected and despised by men, God had to direct things in a certain way.  The unbelief of the people was something God used to accomplish his will for our salvation. 

To illustrate that, John also refers to Isaiah 6:10.  In Isaiah 53, God’s sovereign power was implied, but not directly referred to.  But in Isaiah 6 it’s quite different.  Here God is portrayed as actively working.  He blinds eyes.  He hardens hearts.  He doesn’t want them to see or understand or turn, which is to say repent.  His plan at this point doesn’t include their healing.  His plan has them in unbelief, hard-hearted and stubborn. 

Isaiah said all of this because he saw the glory of Christ and spoke of him.  In Isaiah 6, Isaiah saw the LORD seated on his throne.  He saw God’s glory revealed in a powerful, most impressive way.  But then in Isaiah 53, he also saw how God’s glory would be revealed through Christ’s sufferings to pay for sin.  He foresaw how God’s glory would come through Christ being despised and rejected by men, smitten and afflicted, pierced and crushed. 

When Jesus suffered and died on the cross, that didn’t come as a surprise to God.  He had the cross and everything leading up to it all planned out ahead of time.  In theology, we talk about God’s sovereignty.  He’s in control of absolutely everything that happens, and that includes the wicked plans of human beings.  God can and does take those wicked plans and turn them to good.  That doesn’t mean that God is complicit in those wicked plans.  That doesn’t mean you can blame God for human wickedness.  What it does mean is that he’s wise enough and good enough and strong enough to take human wickedness and redirect it for his own righteous purposes.  That’s what he did for our salvation.

So divine sovereignty is revealed here in our passage, but it’s crucial we see it in the light of God’s other attributes.  He is infinitely wise – he knows the best ends or results and the best way to achieve those ends or results.  If there were a better way to achieve our salvation, God would have taken it.  And God is also infinitely loving.  In his good pleasure, he had a plan to save those whom he freely loved before the foundation of the world.  It’s the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit which leads to the cross where our sins are paid through Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  God demonstrated his love for us with the cross on which our Saviour hung so we could be brought back into fellowship with him.

So you might look at the quote from Isaiah in verse 40 and say to yourself, “I don’t like this.  I don’t like this idea that God hardened the hearts of his people so that they wouldn’t believe.  That doesn’t sound like a good thing for God to do.”  But then let me ask you:  do you want to see salvation for sinners from the wrath they deserve?  Do you want rescue or not?  And if you do, then you have to trust God that this was the best possible plan.  It’s the best possible plan because God is the wisest and best being in existence.  If you question that, then you’re actually saying you have more wisdom and goodness than God.  But do you really?  Are you greater than God?  Loved ones, in all of life, and especially when it comes to our salvation, we have to learn to trust God that he knows best.  Our loving and good Father knows best and he has sovereign power over everything to achieve the best possible outcomes.

But where does that leave human responsibility for unbelief?  In the Bible these two things exist side by side.  There’s divine sovereignty over all things, including unbelief.  But then there’s also human responsibility for all sins, including unbelief.  The Bible doesn’t see these things as being at odds with one another.  They exist side by side, even if God hasn’t seen fit to give us a comprehensive explanation of how.  Believers should be content to know that God knows how they fit together.  That’s enough. 

Our passage is one of those places in the Bible where both divine sovereignty and human responsibility are revealed.  In verse 42, the Holy Spirit tells us through John that many of the Jewish religious leaders believed in Jesus in some sense.  This isn’t saying that they believed in him as their Saviour.  Instead, what it means is they knew that he was the Christ sent by God.  They knew he was the Messiah prophesied in Isaiah 53 and other places of the Old Testament. 

As an example, you could think here of Nicodemus back in chapter 3 of John’s gospel.  Nicodemus said to Jesus in John 3:2, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”  Nicodemus and others knew that, they believed that Jesus had come from God.  Yet that wasn’t enough because a bit later Jesus told him that he still had to be born again.  He didn’t have saving faith in Jesus and in order to have that, he’d have to be regenerated.  The Holy Spirit would have to give him a new heart. 

But even with that level of recognition of who Jesus was, they wouldn’t openly admit it.  The Pharisees had made an agreement that if anyone said that Jesus was the Christ, he was going to be excommunicated, kicked out of the synagogue.  Just saying that Jesus was a teacher come from God would lead to your being ostracized – you’d become a social and religious outcast.  You wouldn’t be welcome at the synagogue on the Sabbath – which for them was much like us going to church.  No one would have anything do with you.  If you had a business of some kind, no one would buy or sell with you.  If you had family, they’d abandon you.  If you had friends, you’d lose them.  There was an enormous cost that came with just recognizing that Jesus was the Christ, with saying he’d come from God.

And what was at the heart of that?  That’s what verse 43 tells us.  Look at that verse with me.  At the heart of all this was a love problem.  They loved “the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.”  That’s a fairly literal translation.  But you could also translate it the way the NIV does, “for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.”  ‘Glory’ here means ‘praise.’  The hearts of these religious leaders cared more about what people think than what God thinks.  In their minds, this was the conversation:  “I know Jesus is the Christ sent from God, but if I say that, I’m going to lose everything.  I’m going to be excommunicated, humiliated, and alienated.  I can’t speak the truth that I know in my heart.”  So they hardened their own hearts, pushed the truth down, and stubbornly refused to confess the truth.  All because they put people above God.

That’s something for which they’re responsible.  When you put people above God, that’s a sin.  We should think of this in terms of the Ten Commandments.  When you put people above God, which of the Ten Commandments are you breaking?  The First, right?  “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Anytime you put anyone or anything before God, you are committing sin against the First Commandment.  Anyone or anything you put above God, you’ve made into a god, an idol.  If you put other people above God, you’ve made other people into a false god, into an idol.  It’s wicked and sinful.  The people in our passage were responsible for this wicked sin.  They’d be held accountable for it. 

But there’s something which makes their sin even worse.  In legal systems like ours there are things that get taken into consideration during sentencing.  One of those things is called aggravating circumstances.  For example, if you used a weapon during the commission of a crime, that’s an aggravating circumstance and that can lead to a harsher sentence.  When God judges the sins of human beings, he also takes into account aggravating circumstances.  With these people in our passage, there was one particular aggravating circumstance standing against them.  They were God’s covenant people.  These people were Jewish.  They’d been brought up with God’s Word from the Old Testament.  You could reasonably expect more from such people.

However, when Christ came to them with the gospel, they responded with unbelief.  Even with those who had a more positive view of Jesus, they were so caught up with what people thought, that they didn’t do the right thing and confess him.  And their covenant status made these sins all the more wicked in God’s eyes. 

Brothers and sisters, Christ comes to us in the gospel as well.  Every Sunday we hear the good news of what Christ has done for sinners.  We’re responsible for what we do with that message.  God calls us to believe it, to take hold of Christ by faith time and again.  He’s calling you to believe it here right now, once again.  The good news says that Jesus is your righteousness with God.  Through him, you are God’s child.  Believe that.  You’re responsible to believe it.  It doesn’t matter how old you are.  If you’re one of the children here this morning and you can understand what I’m saying, your mom and dad can’t believe in Jesus for you.  Don’t harden your heart.  You have to believe in him for yourself.  God calls you to.  He calls all of us to believe in Christ. 

Then we’re also called to confess his name everywhere we go.  You’re responsible to believe and confess Christ.  And what’s the greatest challenge to that?  Oftentimes isn’t it caring about what people think of you?  Caring more about what people think than about what God thinks?  We’re not worried about excommunication from the church, but you could become an outcast at work or school.  You could lose friends, maybe lose family because of your faith in Christ.  So it’s a lot easier just to keep your faith to yourself.  Don’t talk about Jesus and who he is to you even when the opportunities present themselves.  You’re hardening your heart to prevent the spread of the gospel.      

Have you ever done that?  I know I have.  And we have to acknowledge it as the terrible sin that it is.  For us as God’s covenant people to refuse to confess Christ because we’re afraid of people, that’s wrong and wicked.  But the gospel says that through Jesus and what he did on the cross, we can be forgiven for it when we confess it and repent from it.  There’s forgiveness for every wicked sin through Jesus, through the cross.  Don’t worry, because God’s grace can cover this too. 

One of the most remarkable passages in the book of Acts is found in Acts 6:7.  The Holy Spirit tells us that as the early church grew in Jerusalem, “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”  So, later, after Pentecost, many of the Jewish religious leaders became Christians.  Amazing.  You can think here too of a famous Pharisee named Saul who hated Christ and his followers, but then miraculously became a Christian.  As all these Jewish religious leaders believed with a saving faith, God forgave them for their past stubborn hard-hearted unbelief and refusal to confess Jesus.  All those sins were forgiven them and by God’s grace they can be forgiven us too.

When that happens, we look to Christ now not only as our Saviour, but also as our Lord, our Master.  He was never afraid to confess the truth.  Our Lord Jesus loved God and always put him first.  Our Lord never caved in to the fear of man.  Let’s always be praying for the help of his Holy Spirit so we can follow him.  We can’t do it in our own strength, but the Holy Spirit of our Saviour, he can empower us and help us to do what Jesus did.  He is the one who unhardens hearts so they not only believe in Jesus, but also confess him and follow him.  Loved ones, keep praying for the help and strength of the Holy Spirit.  Without him, our hearts would remain hard. 

So brothers and sisters, when it comes to Christ, don’t be stubborn.  Whenever the gospel comes to you in the preaching or reading of God’s Word, receive it with an open heart, a soft heart.  Place your trust in Christ as often as he’s put before you as your Saviour.  This is the Saviour who died for you according to the wise and good God’s plan – a plan which even included the hard-heartedness of other sinners.  When it comes to confessing Christ, don’t let the fear of man make you stubborn either.  In the power of the Holy Spirit, follow Christ and speak about him openly with whoever you can, whenever you can.  Do it because having been saved by Christ and his blood, you now care about what God thinks, you care about God’s glory.  AMEN.


Heavenly Father,

We acknowledge you as our sovereign God.  You’re in control of all things.  Even the actions of sinful people are included in your wise and good counsel.  We praise you for how that all came together at the cross for our salvation.  Help us to trust you as our God each day.  Please also work in us with your Holy Spirit so we don’t have hardened hearts.  Let your Spirit soften our hearts so that whenever the gospel comes to us, we embrace Christ in it again and again.  May your Holy Spirit soften our hearts so we’re not afraid of people but instead boldly confess the name of Christ with whoever we can, whenever we can.  Father, please forgive us through Jesus for every time we have been stubborn, whether in refusing the call of the gospel, or in refusing to confess Christ before others.  Please wash away our every sin of hard-heartedness through the blood shed for us on the cross.                               

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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