Seeing is Not Believing (John 4:46-54)
I. Seeing and Believing
I'm guessing that you've heard this phrase before: “Seeing is believing.”
Think about the statement being made there. Think about what's being communicated. “Seeing is believing.” Now, there's another expression, a very similar expression, that I believe makes the same point. It's this: “I'll believe it when I see it.” Have you ever used that phrase?
Let me give you a really mundane example of how that expression might be used: A husband tells his wife, “I'm going to clean out the shed this weekend”, to which the wife responds (yep, you guessed it), “I'll believe it when I see it.” So what's abundantly clear is that the wife's experience up to this point has led her to conclude that any shed-cleaning by her husband is a practical impossibility. For her, words of commitment or reassurance simply are not enough.
Now, let me give you another example, this time not a mundane example but a really meaning-ful example of how that expression might be used: A friend tells her struggling coworker, “I know things are hard right now, but God can really change your life”, to which the coworker responds, “Yeah, I'll believe it when I see it.” For many, the idea of God not only caring about, but intervening in our everyday lives, is a practical impossibility. For others, the very idea of God's existence is a practical impossibility; that is, their experience up to this point has led them to conclude that there is no God. Or to put it another way, God is nothing more than a needy person's 'magical, invisible sky fairy” whose existence, for the skeptical naysayer, would need to proven by some tangible, visible evidence. Seeing is believing!
So a mundane example and a meaningful example. My hope is that you, at the very least, agree with my appraisal; that is, that you recognize that the question of God's existence is an infinitely more important question than will Mr. Jones clean out the shed this weekend. And of course, the question of God's existence opens up a floodgate of other questions, questions about the most important things in your life; in any life.
But is that expression actually true? Is seeing believing? Will every person believe if they see? And conversely, can a person believe without seeing? I hope that you will keep that question in mind and take a few minutes to look with me at an ancient book called The Gospel of John.
II. Faith and The Gospel of John
John's Gospel is simply an ancient account of a man named Jesus of Nazareth (often called Jesus Christ). If you don't know a lot about Jesus, that's okay. At the very least, I'm guessing you know his name. Not only is his name regularly used as a cuss word, but it's also regularly used by well over two billion worshipers. That's almost a third of the earth's inhabitants. Jesus is arguably the most influential person who has ever lived. But why? Why was he so influential? Why is he still revered, and even trusted as a present reality to this day... 2000 years later?
Well, the Gospel of John was written to explain questions like those. And critically, in regard to our conversation, John's account argues that seeing is NOT believing. The writer, John, sincerely and passionately wants his readers to believe... he wants them to believe that Jesus is not only God's own, unique son, but that ultimately, he is God in human flesh. But the belief or faith he hopes to stir up is not based on seeing. So for those of you who can identify with that “I'll believe it when I see it” mindset, this begs the question: on what basis should his readers believe? What reasons does he provide? What arguments does he put forward in order to persuade those who are listening?
1. Seeing and Believing, and Believing and Seeing (2:11; 4:46-54)
Well, to answer that question let me first point you to two stories in John's Gospel. The first story is found in John chapter 2, verses 1-12. Now, we're not going to read that story. The story itself is about how Jesus transformed ordinary water, about 180 gallons of it, into really, really good wine. And he did it instantly, without even uttering a word. But listen to one of the concluding verses in this passage. This is John 2:11...
This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
Okay, hold on. What you may have noticed there is that the disciples of Jesus saw then believed. But didn't I just say that's not what John is arguing here? Let me clarify. What John is describing here is not “seeing is believing”. He's describing seeing that led to belief. I'm making a distinction between the two ideas because John describes many “signs” in this book, that is, miracles that Jesus performed that people witnessed with their own eyes... but they did not believe (for example, Judas). So I believe John would argue, “Seeing is not always believing.”
But let's look at another account or story from John's Gospel. That second story is found in John chapter 4, verses 46-54. Listen for both differences and similarities in this second account...
So [Jesus] came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill.  When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death.  So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”  The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”  Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.  As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering.  So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.”  The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household.  This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.
So you may have noticed the similarities between this story and the first. Both are set in a town called Cana, both are amazing miracles, and both are numbered. The water into wine was labeled as the “first” in 2:11, and the healing of the official's son is described by John (in v. 54) as “the second sign” that Jesus performed. Interestingly, even though John's Gospel contains five more signs (for a total of seven signs), the first two are the only ones that are explicitly numbered. But I think there's a reason for that, and that both are linked by the location. Did you notice how Jesus' first response to the man was a statement about seeing and believing?
I think Jesus responded this way to test the man's faith. And he continued testing by simply announcing (in v. 50) that the man's son had been healed. How does the man respond? He simply takes his word for it. He trusts Jesus. He believes... without seeing!
Now think about the order and relationship of these first two “signs”. The first account describes how students of Jesus believed when they witnessed his miracle-working power, and the second account describes how a man simply heard about the miracle-working power of Jesus and believed that word. And then later... that man saw, in-person, the astounding effects of the miracle-working power of Jesus.
Why is this important? Because it reveals something extremely important about John's strategy in this ancient account. John could not take his readers back in time to witness the miracles of Jesus. But he could write about them. And like this man with the dying son, John was calling them (and us) to trust that the word is true. He explains his goal near the end of the book:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ (i.e., the Messiah), the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:30–31)
2. John's Four Reasons You Should Believe Without Seeing
Now you may be thinking, “So that's John's strategy? He simply wants us to take his word for it? Maybe he's just making all this up? Why should we trust any of this?” Those are excellent questions, questions I believe John anticipated. I say that because this account, this Gospel, actually provides us with four clear reasons to believe that Jesus was from God, that he is God, and that he can provide us with what is truly abundant and eternal life. Here are those reasons:
First, we should believe without seeing because others did see. John wrote at the outset of his book, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory...” (1:1, 14) At the opposite end of the book, another scribe adds this about the author in John 21:24... “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.” John was known to his readers, and known to be trustworthy.
And John wasn't alone in testifying to what he had actually seen. There were many, many people (including people like John the Baptist) who witnessed and spoke of the same things. If all this was the product of one person's (or a few people's) imagination, that could have been easily proven in the earliest days of the Christian faith. But lots and lots of people told the same story, and often did so, expecting opposition and persecution. They had no angle. They had nothing worldly to gain from such a fabrication.
Second, we should believe without seeing because the Scriptures predicted these things. John 2:22, 13:18, 17:12, 19:24; 19:28; 19:36, 19:37, and 20:9 all describe how events from the life of Jesus were first predicted in the Hebrews Scriptures, written hundreds and hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. As Jesus himself told some of the religious leaders of his day...
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life... There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” (5:39-40, 45b-46)
Third, we should believe without seeing because no one has ever spoken like Jesus. When Jewish officers were sent to arrest Jesus, but came back empty-handed, this is what they told their superiors about why they let him go (John 7:46), “The officers answered, No one ever spoke like this man!'” That was true in First Century Israel, and it's still true today. I challenge you to read the words of any religious teacher, any philosopher, any great leader, any 'influencer', and then read the words of Jesus. Though there are many interesting insights and thoughtful observations and helpful words of advice out there, no one has ever spoken like Jesus. No one has ever made the claims he made. No one. This is why, after some of Jesus' followers turned away from him, Peter answered Jesus the way he did in John 6:67–68...
So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?”  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life...”
Fourth, we should believe without seeing because the signs themselves are radically unique. Just as the claims that Jesus made about himself are radically unique, so too were the miracles that he performed. Water to wine. Healing with a word from sixteen miles away. Instantly restoring a paralyzed man. Feeding 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Walking on water. Healing a man born blind. Raising a man from the dead. As Jesus himself encouraged his critics, “...even though you do not believe me, believe the works [I do], that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (John 10:38)
And in John's Gospel, all of this leads to what could be called an eighth sign: after his crucifixion three days earlier, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And the four reasons John uses in his Gospel, his four arguments, apply to this sign as well: there were many witnesses to his resurrection (20:1-8), the Jewish Scriptures spoke of his resurrection (2:22; 20:9), Jesus spoke of raising himself (2:19), and finally the resurrection 'speaks' of him, that is, as an historical event it bears witness to the fact that there never has been and never will be anyone like Jesus.
III. A New Kind of Sight
Speaking of his resurrection, there's a story that John records that I believe is extremely helpful when it comes to our conversation about seeing is believing. When the disciples of Jesus see their resurrected Teacher, a disciple named Thomas is not with them. And later on, he doesn't even believe their wild claims. He says in 20:25, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” And Jesus does in fact appear to him. But look at what he tells Thomas in 20:29:
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Seeing can lead to faith, but as John's Gospel records, seeing is not always believing. And yet Jesus himself tells us that those who do not see and yet believe, they are truly “blessed”. Why? One answer is simple but profound: the convictions of your heart are far more important than being convinced with your eyes. That's not separating reason from faith. As John has reasoned throughout his Gospel, “There are very good reasons (objective reasons, persuasive reasons), to believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be and can do what he promised to do.” No one's separating reason from faith. But please don't fool yourself: your convictions shape how you see the world. A husband who is convinced his wife is unfaithful will see what he wants to see in how she interacts with other men, even when his charges against her are unfounded.
Our lives in this world are ultimately lived by faith, not by sight. That's true of the most devout Christian AND the most committed atheist. Therefore Jesus uses the word “blessed” because those who have believed without seeing have not only embraced his liberating truth, but they are also prepared, they are empowered, for an earthly life in which he is not physically present; a life in which true faith is critical, and always, always, always being tested.
The truth is that all of us believe a variety of things, important things about ourselves, about others, and about the world... and we believe these things without ever seeing; without tangible proof; without touching or tasting or testing something physical or visible or objective. We already believe without seeing... and that on the basis of far fewer reasons, and relatively unimpressive reasons, when compared to testimonies like John's. We tend to accept the mushy and the mundane. But John has given us miracles!
So what do you believe? What are the convictions of your heart? I mean about really meaningful things... like the astounding and unrivaled claims of Jesus? Here's my challenge to you: read John's Gospel. As you do ask yourself, are there good reasons to believe this is true? If it is true, what will it mean for my life? Or put another way, what am I losing or forgoing if I reject Jesus... If I stick with a 'I'll believe it when I see it' mindset? And when you read these words, consider the encouragement Jesus gives us, so long after his earthly ministry/first invitations...
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.  And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. (10:14–16a)
Maybe at some point during our conversation, you've already heard his voice. If you have, please respond to him. Please reach out to him. And please know this: like the man with the dying son, when you believe the word without seeing, you will soon see the amazing effects of the miracle-working power of Jesus Christ in your own life, and that will encourage your faith all the more, as that faith gives you a new kind of sight.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:30–31)
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
August 7, 2022Your Survival Kit for a 'Jesus-less' World (John 14:25-27)
July 31, 2022Hearing the Voice of Jesus (John 10:22-27)
July 17, 2022If You Thought the Temple was Impressive... (I Peter 2:4-5)