Believers: Testimony Believed
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (1:12–13)
The conjunction de (but) is a small fulcrum that marks a dramatic shift. The world’s hatred of God and rejection of Christ in no way overrules or frustrates God’s plan, for He makes even the wrath of men praise Him (Ps. 76:10). There will be some who receive Him. Those whom God willed for salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9) will in faith embrace Christ. As He declared in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”
Lambanō (received) could be translated “take hold of,” “obtain,” or “grasp.” To receive Christ involves more than mere intellectual acknowledgment of His claims. The last clause of verse 12 refers to those who received as those who believe in His name. The concept of believing in Christ, another important theme for John, will be developed in several passages in his gospel (6:29; 8:30; 9:35–36; 12:36, 44; 14:1; 16:9; 17:20; cf. 1 John 3:23; 5:13). His name refers to the totality of Christ’s being, all that He is and does. Thus, it is not possible to separate His deity from His humanity, His being Savior from His being Lord, or His person from His redemptive work. Saving faith accepts Jesus Christ in all that Scripture reveals concerning Him.
Though people cannot be saved until they receive and believe in Jesus Christ, salvation is nonetheless a sovereign work of God on the dead and blind sinner. John simply states that no one would come to believe in Jesus unless He gave them the right to become children of God. They are saved entirely by “grace … through faith; and that not of [themselves], it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9), because “God has chosen [them] from the beginning for salvation” (2 Thess. 2:13). Thus they were born again (John 3:3, 7; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23) not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. Those three negative statements stress the fact that salvation is not obtainable through any racial or ethnic heritage (blood), personal desire (flesh), or man-made system (man). (See also Matt. 8:11–12; Luke 3:8; Gal. 3:28–29.)
The great truth of election and sovereign grace is here introduced appropriately at the very foundation of John’s mention of salvation. Our Lord Himself will speak of this truth in 6:36–47; 15:16; 17:6–12.
Because all bear the guilt of unbelief and rejection, the phrase but of God means that salvation, that is, receiving and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, is impossible for any sinner. God must grant the power supernaturally and with it the divine life and light to the lifeless, darkened sinner.
The Free Offer of the Gospel
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
We have seen two very important themes in the prologue to John’s Gospel: the glory of Jesus Christ, and the depravity of man. The glory of Jesus is described in verses 1–9. The depravity of man is shown by man’s rejection of Jesus when he came. These two themes leave us at the end of verse 11, with a very depressing picture. Men as a whole did not know Jesus; and, by and large, his own people, the Jews, who should have known better, rejected him. Are we to think then that no one believed? No, that would be a false inference. So John hurries to point out that although the Lord of glory was unknown by the world at large and was rejected by the nation of Israel, nevertheless, there were some who did receive him. He writes, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
This is a glorious verse, especially since it comes, as it does, after the dismal picture of the preceding verses. It is a verse for you personally. It reminds us here at the very beginning of the Gospel—even before the account of the crucifixion and the resurrection—that the gospel of salvation by grace apart from the keeping of the law is today offered freely to all men, and it points to the glorious privilege of those who receive it.
We need to look at this statement in parts, beginning with the part declaring that those who believe become God’s children. How are we to understand this? If we are to understand it rightly, we need to recognize first that people are not (or do not become) God’s children naturally. The ideas of the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man have been popular themes in the past. But this is not biblical teaching. It is true that Paul told the men of Athens: “We are his offspring” (Acts 17:28), but that is not the same thing as saying that we are God’s legitimate children. And what is more, in that verse Paul was actually only quoting a Greek poet, either Aratus or Cleanthes, obviously in order to establish a point of contact with his Greek hearers. In his own teaching, by contrast, he stresses that we become God’s children only by means of the new birth.
It is also true that there are verses in the Old Testament that speak of the nation of Israel as God’s child or of the Jews as God’s children. In Exodus 4:22 Israel is called the “firstborn” son of God. David says in the Psalms: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13). Isaiah has written, “O Lord, you are our Father” (Isa. 64:8). Jeremiah says, “I thought how I would set you among my sons, and give you a pleasant land, a heritage most beauteous of all nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me. Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the Lord” (Jer. 3:19–20 rsv). Although this is true, we must note that these verses are not talking about the Babylonians, Egyptians, Syrians, or even Americans. They are talking about God’s relationship to Israel and, thus, about a special relationship that they had to God and that was possessed by no other people at that time. Moreover—and this is much to the point—not one of these verses makes the relationship of father to son the relationship of God to any individual Israelite.
The true biblical teaching is seen most clearly in the great discussion of this theme by Jesus Christ as recorded in the eighth chapter of the Gospel. The starting point of the discussion, as John records it, was the question of freedom. Jesus had said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Because this was a touchy theme in a country that was then under the rule of the Roman armies, Jesus’ Jewish hearers reacted to Christ’s words violently, saying, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” (v. 33). Jesus did not bother to refute their absurd contention although he could have. They had been slaves to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrians, Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, Philistines, Greeks, and Romans. There had almost never been a power in the ancient Near East to which they had not been in bondage at some time or other. But Jesus did not speak about this. He was speaking of a slavery to sin.
Even this was a sore spot with Jesus’ hearers, as it is to people today. So they answered by becoming vicious, probably accusing Jesus of being illegitimate. “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself” (v. 41). At this point Jesus nailed down the whole subject by denying that they were in any sense God’s children. For, “If God were your Father, you would love me.… You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire” (vv. 42, 44).
Now if the Jews, who had a special historical relationship to God, could not be called his children even by Jesus Christ, who was himself a Jew, how much less can this be true of the rest of us. It is true that not all men are children of the devil. A person becomes a child of the devil in the same way that another becomes a child of God; that is, by a moral commitment to him and to his principles. Nevertheless, a man is not naturally a child of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ either. According to the Bible he becomes a child of God only through a new birth.
By Whose Authority?
The second important part of the verse is the part that declares that we become God’s children not on the basis of any human authority but on the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. The verse says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
The importance of this is that it gives the one who believes on the Lord Jesus Christ great boldness. On one of the military campaigns of the emperor Napoleon, when Napoleon had dropped the reins of his horse in order to read papers, the horse reared up and nearly unseated him. A corporal of the grenadiers, a very lowly soldier, leaped forward and caught the bridle of the emperor’s horse so that in a few seconds he had brought the animal under control. Napoleon turned to the corporal and said, “Thank you, Captain.”
“Of what company, sire?” asked the soldier who had just been called a captain.
“Of my guards,” answered Napoleon.
In an instant the young man threw aside his musket and walked across the field toward the headquarters of the general’s staff, tearing off his corporal’s stripes as he went. He took his place among the emperor’s officers. Someone asked what he was doing, and he replied that he was a captain of the guards.
“By whose authority?” they asked him.
“By the authority of the emperor,” the young man answered.
It all depends upon the authority of the commander involved. If one of the soldier’s friends had called him a captain, the two corporals might have had a good laugh together, but that would have been all. The title bestowed by the friend would have meant nothing. However, when the emperor gave the order, the corporal seized upon it instantly and was then received as a captain by the staff. In the same way, our position before God as God’s children depends upon the highest authority in the universe, the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, before whom every knee shall bow. And we can be as bold in seizing our rank as Napoleon’s soldier was.
Will we step back into the ranks and boast, “Jesus has called me God’s child,” but fail to assume the privileges and responsibilities of that position? Or will we take him at his word and come to God to enjoy all the privileges of being his own? If you have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and understand this verse properly, then you will come to God as his child with great boldness.
Faith in Christ
At this point someone might say, “That is wonderful. It must be a great privilege to be God’s child. But how do I become God’s child? How does this special relationship become mine?” The answer, which is the same answer given throughout the New Testament, is that you become a child of God through faith. This means that you must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and also believe that by means of his death and resurrection he is your Savior.
The letter to the Hebrews says: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). Romans tells us that “a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’ ” (Rom. 1:17). Ephesians says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph. 2:8). In Romans 10 we read, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (vv. 9–10). It is the same in the opening verses of John’s Gospel.
There is one more truth to be seen. When you believe in Jesus Christ there must be also a verbal expression of that belief. The Bible does not acknowledge any such thing as secret discipleship. On the contrary, it teaches that Christ must be professed publicly. The reason, of course, is that verbal testimony indicates the reality of that faith, just as the cry of the newborn child reveals the existence of life to the doctor and the mother. The verses just quoted, Romans 10:9–10, say that if we “confess” with our mouth the Lord Jesus and “believe” in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead we shall be saved. Confession is proof that belief in the Lord Jesus Christ is genuine.
Have you confessed your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ publicly? One of the most famous characters in the New Testament was a man who came to Jesus by night and held a long conversation with him, yet left Christ’s presence without any outward confession of faith. As a result, we do not know whether he was genuinely converted or not. His name was Nicodemus.
Nicodemus came to Jesus as a result of Christ’s preaching, as many people travel to hear great preaching today. We know this because he referred to Christ’s teaching and miracles in his opening remarks: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2). In other words, he was very impressed. This alone was no evidence of his conversion, however, and Christ’s reply to him was in essence a rebuke. The one thing that Jesus was not was a teacher sent from God. There had been thousands of teachers sent from God in the previous history of the world, and there have been thousands of teachers since. He was not one of them. He was God sent to teach, and to die, and to rise again. So he corrected Nicodemus by telling him that unless he was born again, he would never be able to understand things that were spiritual.
Nicodemus was puzzled. “How can a man be born when he is old?” he asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (v. 4). Jesus answered by showing that the new birth was spiritual and that it would express itself as faith in his death and resurrection. How much of this entered into the heart of Nicodemus? We do not know, for Nicodemus left no outward expression of his belief. He had heard great preaching, but so have thousands of other unbelievers. Later he would say to the Jewish leaders who were plotting against Jesus, “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” (John 7:51). But many unbelievers have argued for the due process of law and for civil liberties. We even see him bringing spices to Joseph of Arimathaea in order to embalm the body of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion (John 19:39), but many a guilty, unbelieving conscience has donated a stained-glass window or a chapel to Jesus.
Was he one of God’s children? We do not know. His witness to the Lord of glory is missing, and we search in vain for his confession.
How different, on the other hand, is the account John gives us of the woman of Samaria, just one chapter later. Donald Grey Barnhouse, in Epistle to the Romans, has pointed out that the contrast between these two personalities is striking. “The one is the story of a man, the other of a woman. The one is seemingly a seeker, the other is found by Christ, almost by accident, but definitely by design. The first was a Jew, the second a Samaritan. The one was an aristocratic Pharisee, the other a village harlot. The one wanted Jesus to talk to him, the woman tried to avoid the probing truth and attempted to change the subject. The one came at midnight, the other at noon.”
Both Nicodemus and the woman heard great truths during their conversation with the Lord Jesus, but the effect of his words on them was different. Nicodemus questioned Christ, but he showed no verbal response to Christ’s teaching. The woman tried to evade Christ’s questions. But at last she believed and thereafter showed signs of her faith and transformation. Who was Jesus? To the woman he was revealed to be God’s Messiah. So we read, “Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?’ ” (John 4:28, 29). We are told that the men then went to Jesus and asked him to remain with them, and that as the result of his words and of the testimony of the woman many others believed in him also.
The importance of public confession arising out of true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ can hardly be overestimated. It is true that there is a type of confession that is insincere. It is this type of confession that the apostle James refers to when he speaks of a faith without works that is dead (James 2:20, 26). But there is also a sincere confession that will always arise out of a life transformed by Jesus. Have you told others of your faith in him?
12 Although his people as a nation did not accept the divine Word, some as individuals did. To all those who did receive him, he gave “the right [the authority] to become children of God.” People are not by nature God’s children. They become his children by receiving Jesus Christ. God’s attitude toward all humanity is that of a father, but unless they receive his Son they cannot become his children. John always refers to believers with the word tekna (“children.” GK 5451) rather than huioi (“sons,” GK 5626), the latter term being reserved for Jesus alone.
Those who received him are further identified as those who “believed in his name.” Here we see the customary use of the verb pisteuō (“to believe,” GK 4409) followed by eis (GK 1650) and the accusative, a construction that appears thirty-six times in John. To believe is to place one’s faith “into” (eis) another person. Faith for John is a definitive action. By contrast, pisteuō with the dative case means no more than to believe that something is true. It involves the intellect but not the will. The construction John uses indicates “allegiance as well as assent” (Barrett, 164). To believe in the “name” of Jesus is to accept all that his name declares him to be.