"If the Apostles taught anything contrary to the authenticated revelation of God, they were to be rejected." Charles Hodge, Syst. Theology (1871) at 763.


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What Did Jesus Say? (2012) - 7 topics 

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Chapter Twenty-Six: John 3:16 (Part 4)

The Context And Meaning Of John 3:14-15

There is another key to knowing what Jesus meant in John 3:16. Verse sixteen begins with the conjunction gar, rendered “For” or better “Wherefore.” (“For God so loved.....”) This means John 3:16 is intended to explain the preceding verses — verse 16 is going to tell us the meaning of John 3:14-15. Thus, by parallel reasoning, John 3:14-15 tells us the meaning of John 3:16 — because verse 16 is meant to reflect 3:14-15. These preceding words were:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up;

(15) that whosoever keep on pisteuo-ing may in (en) him have eternal life. (John 3:14-15).20

Jesus in these two verses is equating the story about the way the snake healed people in the Mosaic account and how those who pisteuo today will find eternal life in Jesus when He is lifted up.

Jesus in John 3:14-15 is referring to Numbers 21:4-9. There we learn that after the Israelites were led from Egyptian bondage into the wilderness of Sinai, many of them began to murmur against Yahweh. Accordingly, the Lord sent fiery serpents among them as a mode of punishment to bite them. When the people acknowledged their sin of rejecting the manna and sought deliverance, God instructed Moses to fashion a serpent out of brass, and set it upon a standard. Any person who “looked” upon the serpent would live.

This concept of repentance from rejecting manna and then continuing to look in one direction upon the lifted-up serpent is merely another way of saying repent and obey.

F.F. Bruce, an evangelical scholar and professor of Greek for many years, concurs. F.F. Bruce says in his The Gospel of John (Wm. B. Eerdmans: 1994) at 89:

It was the saving grace of God that healed the bitten Israelites when they believed his word and obeyed his command.

One can see this looking implies obedience when you study ... John 5:19 which tells us what it means to be looking towards the Father:

Jesus therefore answered and said unto them,Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth [Greek, blepo, looking] the Father doing: for what things soever he doeth, these the Son also doeth in like manner. (John 5:19 ASV.)

Thus, when we are looking towards the Son lifted up on the cross, we should be likewise doing whatever we know Jesus was doing on the cross. This is the necessary effect that Jesus’ looking at the Father had on Him. Thus, by our looking at Jesus on the cross lifted up like Moses lifted up the brass serpent, we will necessarily plan to imitate Jesus. What was Jesus doing? When we look at the cross, we see Christ’s obedience to the Father. “Not my will, but thy [will] keep being done.” (Luke 22:42, translated by Robertson, Word Pictures.)

Elsewhere, Jesus makes this plain, saying our imitation of what He did on the cross — losing one’s own life for the sake of someone else — is crucial for us individually to later receive life (eternal life):

And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me. (39) He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. (Matt. 10:38-39.)

Hence, John 3:14-15 is about a repenting-from-sin people who now want to turn to God and by looking up at the healing standard are obeying God. They have to look upon the serpent raised on a standard high just as Moses’ instructed them. These repenting humbled people were pisteuo-sing just like we are supposed to be pisteou-sing. Jesus too will be “lifted up” for us (John 12:32) and like the serpent, when we “look on” the Son and imitate His costly sacrifice, we will be healed and live. He who like Jesus loses his life for Christ’s sake “shall find” life. (Matt. 10:38-39.)

It is also as Jesus says in John 6:40: all who “keep on looking” — present participle active — “on the son and should be pisteuo eis Him should be having eternal life.” This is a parallelism further accentuating pisteuo eis means obey unto. The looking and the pisteuo-ing are synonyms for obeying in that context.

Thus, John 3:14-15 says if we pisteuo the way the Israelites did, we too should be healed and live. The pisteuo of the Israelites in the story cited one verse prior to John 3:16 is not mere belief alone. Rather, it is repenting from rejecting the manna, turning back to God and then obeying Moses’ instruction to look at the object of healing and life. The whole process is repentance and obedience. With Christ, the looking upon the cross is also meant to imply you must imitate His obedience on the cross.

One cannot misread the Israelite passage to which Jesus refers as salvation by the shallow physical act of looking at the serpent. We cannot reduce salvation to simply looking at the Cross in our mind’s eye, knowing it was the work of redemption. This would be pure gnosticism.

Yet, this is essentially how Bruce Demarest views it in The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation (Wheaton, Illinois: 1997): “For the healing to occur, no religious work was involved; a person simply looked in faith and lived.” (Id., at 259.) Demarest says for us that looking is mere knowledge (in Greek gnosis) about Jesus and His work: “Foundational to saving faith is knowledge of Christ’s person and saving work....” (Id.) Demarest is emphasizing salvation by looking at the cross and knowing of Jesus’ person and the work at the cross. Demarest thus teaches salvation by mere gnosis.

Now we see why the early church taught it was heresy for Marcion to proclaim salvation by gnosis (belief in facts-faith alone) without obedience. See page 578 JWOS et seq.

Therefore, Jesus in John 3:14-15 means only those who have the characteristic of the Israelites who repented from rejecting the manna, who asked God for mercy, who heartily now ate the manna again without grumbling, who then obeyed Moses to look up at the raised serpent, and who finally pisteuo-ed and continued to do so (the verb is in the continuous tense) will receive life.

Hence, John 3:16 is an explanation of John 3:14-15. The gar that begins 3:16 directly ties into 3:14-15 as an explanation. The word pisteuo is used in 3:14-15 again. Because Jesus is analogizing pisteuo to the obedient looking up by the repentant Israelites on the serpent in the Numbers account, we again know that obey should be the translation of pisteuo in John 3:16.

Jesus’ Other Uses of Pisteuo and Pistis,-os

In five passages, in particular, Jesus’ usage proves He meant obeys by the word pisteuo and obedience by pistis.

Pisteuo Destroyed by Temptation. The second seed in the Parable of the Sower keeps on pisteuo-ing for a while, but in time of temptation, falls away and withers (dies). (Luke 8:13.) It thereby becomes lost due to disobedience. Its pisteuo-ing was destroyed. Hence, “falling into temptation” is the opposite force that destroys pisteuo-ing. Among the various dictionary possibilities for pisteuo in Luke 8:13 which best contrasts to temptation is the meaning obey. For disobedience (falling into temptation) is the direct antithesis to obedience. Hence, Luke 8:13 should be translated that the “second seed keeps on obeying [pisteuo] for a while but in time of temptation falls away....” The word obey is the correct and hence intended antithesis to the temptation.

Heaven-maimed or hell-whole. We have seen Jesus warned the twelve apostles about those who “pisteuo unto” Him who become ensnared. (Matt. 18:6; Mark 9:42.) Such pisteuo-ing people and the apostles only have two options when so ensnared: they can go to heaven-maimed by cutting off body parts ensnaring them in sin (i.e., causing them to violate God’s commandments) or they will go to hell whole. (Mark 9:42-47.) Pisteuo is thus being brought to nothing by disobedience in this passage. Hence, this antithesis proves to obey is the meaning of pisteuo in Matthew 18:6 and Mark 9:42.

The Work of God is Pisteuo. In John 6:27-29, Jesus speaks of pisteuo as a work. Obedience is a work; faith is not, even as Paul’s usage proves. (Eph.2:8-9.) See discussion on Footnote 3, page 397. Hence, pisteuo means obey in John 6:27-29.

The Servant Who Is Pistos. In a parable of a prudent and faithful servant who ends up suffering weeping and gnashing with the apiston (disobedient), Jesus calls the servant initially pistos. Every Bible renders pistos as faithful. That is, the obedient. After sin, this servant is punished with the disobedient — those who are a + pistis. (Lk 12:42,46.) See page 57-58. In Rev. 2:10, the faithful “pistos” receives the “crown of life.”

Another Key Factor: The Wider Context Of Jesus’ Other Words

The object in view in John 3:16 is that Jesus wants you to have eternal life, correct? The question then is whether Jesus intends you to receive eternal life either:

• by merely believing in the fact that you are a sinner and He died for your sins? That is what Charles Stanley and dominant evangelical doctrine insists is the only requirement for you to be given eternal life. (Stanley, Eternal Security, supra, at 33-34.)

• or by obeying unto Him as a good servant should.

Here is where this entire book Jesus’ Words on Salvation serves as mere prologue to make this wider contextual analysis of pisteuo in John 3:16. For we have seen Jesus repeatedly emphasized obedience to His commands for salvation-sake. Here are few highlighted passages to consider.

Atonement Is No Benefit Without Appeasement of the One Offended. Jesus said before you bring the “atoning sacrifice” to God’s heart for your plea of mercy you MUST ABSOLUTELY have first appeased the one you offended (whether God or man). (Matt. 5:23-24.) (See page 1 et seq.)

Jesus said leave your “sacrifice” (doron) offering at the “sacrifice altar” and be first “reconciled.” Then and only then “bring the sacrifice” back to God’s altar. Only then will you have atonement cleanse you from all sin! Jesus’ doctrine was the same teaching as all the prophets before Him. The prophets taught the ineffectiveness of the atonement for those who had not first repented and been actually reconciled to the one whom they had offended. (Jer. 7:22-23; Mic. 6:6-8, Joel 2:13, Hos. 14:1-2; & Mal. 1:10, 3:3-4. Cf. Isaiah 27:9.) Jesus was also simply teaching the principle of “works worthy of repentance.” John the Baptist — the “greatest Prophet” (Matt. 11:11) — also taught these were necessary before one could expect baptism to be effectual. (Matt. 3:7-10). Hence, Jesus gave a works-worthy-of-repentance condition to claim the atonement. This directs pisteuo in John 3:16 to more likely be rendered as obey than believe to fit this truth.

Weeping and Gnashing Parables. All the weeping and gnashing parables are likewise similar warnings of hell to God’s servants who suffer from disobedience or lack of fruit.

For example, in Matthew 25:14-30, the servant to whom God gives a talent of gold but who — when the time for examination comes — has produced no fruit is sent to the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus defines this place elsewhere as the “fiery furnace” where sinners are sent by the angels on Judgment Day. (Matt. 13:42.) As Jesus bluntly stated elsewhere, “the tree without good fruit shall be cut down and thrown in the fire.” (Matt 7:19.) Or as Jesus clearly taught in the Metaphor of the Vine — a “branch in me” that produces “no fruit” is to be “taken away” and “cast outside” and “burned.” (John 15:2,5-6.)

Sheep and Goats. Another important example is that Jesus says those who call Him Lord, but on the day of judgment are exposed as not having done charity to the brethren will be called to account, and sent to “eternal fire” due to their lack of charity. (Matt. 25:31-46, viz. v. 41.) Jesus in direct contrast says those who call Him Lord and do the works of charity “inherit the kingdom.” (v. 34.) (See pages 219 et seq.)

Thus, unmistakably Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats that only those who do works of charity go to heaven, and all others go to “eternal fire.”

Dillow concedes in this parable that “inheriting the kingdom is conditioned on obedience and service to the King....” (Dillow, Reign of the Servant Kings, supra, at 73.) Dillow then further concedes that Jesus’ words “are a condition far removed from the New Testament [i.e., the shallow belief-alone translation of Jesus] teaching of justification by faith alone for entrance into heaven.”

Dillow fails to use these facts as an impetus to re-analyze the translation of pistis and pisteuo in his favorite verses. Instead, faith-alone apologists give us a nonsensical re-interpretation of the parable. They resolve this conflict between Jesus’ teaching of salvation-by-obedience and our modern belief-alone doctrine by relegating this parable to only being true during the tribulation period after all Christians are gone. Such apologists thereby dismiss it for now.

However, the solution to this dilemma is patently obvious. The doctrine of ‘faith alone’ needs to be re-evaluated in light of the underlying Greek. Thus, this parable directly points out there must be an error in the common translation of pistis and pisteuo — at least when Jesus is teaching. Pisteuo in Jesus’ thinking is frequently not only believes. He often must intend obeys as His meaning.

Obedience Doctrine in Jesus’ Words. Finally, Jesus in several other places makes obedience indispensable, and not something that belief alone allows to be recognized as satisfied: If you call Jesus ‘Lord,’ but ‘do not do His will,’ He will tell you that He never knew you. (Matt. 7:21.) “And why call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46.)

The faithful and good steward who later becomes disobedient is assigned a place along with the unbelievers/unfaithful outside in darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Luke 12:42-46.) See “The Parable Of The Good Servant Turned Evil” on page 55 et seq.

Evangelical Experts’ Opinion

Next, we will explore what was the predominant usage throughout the New Testament of the verb pisteuo and its noun form, pistis.

What do evangelical or Protestant scholars say?

If you listen to one of the foremost evangelical specialists on the meaning of these Greek terms predominantly in the New Testament, this specialist once more vindicates what we have so far established. For in Vine’s Greek Commentary, he delineates the “main elements in faith [pistis]... and the corresponding verb, pisteuo” so that it connotes the following:

(1) a firm conviction, producing a full acknowledgment of God’s revelation or truth, e.g., 2 Thess. 2:11,12: (2) a personal surrender to Him, John 1:12; (3) a conduct inspired by such surrender, 2 Cor. 5:7 (Vine, id., at 411).

Vine’s means pistis (noun) or pisteuo (verb) share these characteristics at the very same time. His elements correspond to: 1. trust; 2. striving to obey (compliance); and 3. obedience. Vine’s is hence indicating that the main meaning in the New Testament is not credence alone. Consequently, rarely does pisteuo or pistis solely mean belief, faith alone or mere intellectual assent or knowledge about a truth or fact, whether of great spiritual importance or otherwise.

To the same effect is The Dictionary of Fundamental Theology. It tells us that in the New Testament pistis and the verb pisteuo meant primarily to convey salvation by something more than mere belief. It ordinarily means that compliant trust and obedience or strong commitment (surrender) is integral and directly intended as part of the word meaning of either pisteuo or pistis.

[F]aith is a process involving the entire human person — knowledge and commitment — as he or she advances toward the person of Jesus Christ. The interpersonal aspect of this faith [in the New Testament] makes it akin to the faith of the O[ld] T[estament]. It is both trust and surrender to God... it is obedience that assimilates the person to the crucified and risen Jesus and bestows the Spirit on the children of God.21

With that said, now let’s examine texts other than when Jesus speaks that use the word pisteuo or its cousins, like episteusan in the next discussion.

Apostle John’s Personal Usage of Pisteuo

In John 12:42, Apostle John is speaking. In the KJV, it reads:

Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed [episteusan] on [eis] him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: (43) For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. (John 12:42-43 KJV.)

In John 12:42, Apostle John uses the verb episteusan, which is a word built on pisteuo. The prefix epi connotes above the norm, above, on or upon.

The correct translation should be these rulers “zealously/completely obeyed unto” Jesus.

The prefix epi is used to intensify the meaning of what follows. For example, when epi precedes ginosoko, to know, Vine’s says its primary meaning is “to know thoroughly (epi, ‘intensive’ [of] ginosko, ‘to know.’)”22

These rulers therefore deeply and thoroughly had pisteuo unto Jesus, but they would not confess Him. As a result, those who prefer believe as the translation cannot dispute these were true believers. Robertson, a Baptist scholar, in his Word Pictures says John 12:42 means these were rulers who “actually ‘believed on him’ (episteusan eis auton) in their convictions....” (Whether it means believed or obeyed is postponed for later comment.)

If Robertson — a Baptist scholar — were correct that pisteuo meant believes, then faith alone doctrine is anyway in perilous trouble. For if true, here are rulers who had truly believed, but clearly were cowards later. Why does this pose a problem for faith alone? Because disobedience to Jesus — failing to confess Him — leads to loss of salvation. How do we know this? Because as moral cowards, God tells us the “cowardly” rulers who once “believed” will be thrown into the “lake of burning sulfur” with “unbelievers.” (Rev.21:8.) Thus, those who pisteuo for a time but later turn into cowards go to hell just like any non-believer.

Yet, the true difficulty for faith alone doctrine is that John 12:42 presents an antithesis between episteuosan and the disobedient failure to confess Jesus. In John 12:42, Apostle John says that this epi + pisteuo has ended. He uses the aorist verb tense. This means their pistis existed intensely for a while and then ended. This is just like happened to the second seed in the Parable of the Sower who at first had pistis with joy but later falls into temptation, withers and dies. (Luke 8:13.) The aorist tense in John 12:42 means an event that lasts for a while has ceased. It does not continue past a finite point. Here epi + pisteuosan continued intensely but then ended, replaced by a failure to confess Jesus.

Because in John 12:42, the pisteuo stopped upon cowardice, we know a moral weakness marked the end of whatever pisteuo represented. The pisteuo should have saved them had it continued. Hence, this antithesis proves what translation of pisteuo here is correct. For epi + pisteusan is destroyed by cowardice. Pisteuo in this verse does not mean believed. Instead, it means obeyed.

The confirming proof is familiar. Again, as in John 3:16, the preposition eis is directly following the verb — here episteusan. Thus, as established previously, eis means for with non-motion verbs and is wrongly translated as in after pisteuo — a non-motion verb. The English word unto conveys the sense of for. Which means the Greek verb pisteuo within episteusan before eis means obey or comply. John 12:42 should likely read in a better translation:

Nevertheless, still also many of the rulers [once] zealously obeyed unto Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing [Him publicly], so that they should not be expelled from the synagogue. (John 12:42.)

Hence, we can see here that episteusan must mean these rulers had obediently followed Jesus at one time. They obeyed joyfully unto Him just like any other valid servant would do. But then they became afraid. They saw their friends and religious associates would scorn them for doing so. So they pulled back. They betrayed their earlier commitment to Christ by disobeying Him. By not confessing Him openly.

The Use of Pisteuo By The Greatest Prophet (John the Baptist) In John 3:36 As Obeys

Evangelical Protestant scholars such as F.F. Bruce will explain that pisteuo in John 3:36, which is verbatim the words in John 3:16, means obey.

In John 3:36, the speaker is John the Baptist. Jesus said John was the “greatest prophet” before Him. (Matt. 11:11.) Thus, Jesus tells us emphatically what we are about to read is something given under inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In John 3:36, we will see another pisteuo eis (for) Jesus — identical to John 3:16 — is in the first half of John 3:36. We refer to it as John 3:36a. This clause is then negated in the second half by disobedience. We call this clause John 3:36b. As F.F. Bruce will explain, this direct contrast of 3:36a to 3:36b tells us that the speaker intends you to understand pisteuo as obey. Pisteuo eis is identified as something directly destroyed by disobedience. Because the direct opposite of disobedience is obedience, it tells you that pisteuo eis in John 3:36a means obey, not believe. In other words, disobedience to Jesus does not destroy belief in His atonement or Jesus as Messiah. Rather, disobedience destroys obedience. Hence, the contrast in John 3:36 clearly identifies pisteuo eis as meaning “obey unto,” standing in contrast to the verb meaning disobey in John 3:36b.

Let’s now look carefully at John 3:36 to see this.

Continue to Part 5.



 20. Please notice this time it is "in him have eternal life." It is still not "believe in him." Here, the "in him" means eternal life is located in Jesus. The one who is pisteuo-ing "may in [Jesus] have eternal life." Vincent Word Studies points out that the "in him" formula of John 3:15 "occurs nowhere else in John." (VWS, Romans 4:5.)

21. Gilles Langevin, "Faith," Dictionary of Fundamental Theology (ed. Rene Latourelle & Rino Fisichella)(New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994) at 309 (emphasis added).

22. Vine's Commentary on epiginoska's usage in 2Pe 2:20 and 22.