Why is “Believe” and “Obey” Juxtaposed in John 3:36?
The ESV version of John 3:36 reads, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
Why does this verse put “believe” in contrast to “obey”? Why not “believe” in both cases?
In this case, the NIV version helps. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects1 the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” The Lord Jesus was speaking in the presence of the Pharisees who had taken up a position of opposition to Him. Earlier Nicodemus had come to the Lord Jesus with the admission “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” (Jn. 3:2). In spite of the obvious “credentials” of the Lord Jesus as the Messiah, the rulers would soon show their rejection of the claims of the Lord Jesus (Jn. 5:16). Incidentally, Nichodemus eventually came to believe the Lord Jesus and was counted as a believer (Jn. 7:50–52; 19:39).
So, the Lord Jesus was probing the consciences of those around Him. Would they “reject” His claims? This is a serious matter for everyone. To know of the claims of the Lord Jesus and then to reject Him reveals a serious state of heart. In Matthew 12 the obvious miracle of expelling a demon from a person was met with disdain from the leaders and prompted the Lord Jesus to warn of the irremediable condition of “blasphemy against the Spirit.”
To “believe” requires that there is something to believe. Similarly, to “not obey” or “reject” requires that there is something to reject. So, the contrast between the words “believe” and “reject” reminds us that there is a middle ground between the two. Romans 10:14 provides a challenge to us “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”
However, this leads to the question of the state of those who have never heard the gospel. “What will God do with those who have never heard the gospel?” is a common question brought up by skeptics who wish to discredit Christian belief. We might be wise to not fall into the trap of trying to answer for God. We do not know the condition of the heart of those who have never heard the gospel and should leave that to God alone to judge.
Nevertheless, the epistle to the Romans opens with this very basic question. The answer there is that creation itself is sufficient.
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
This is a solemn warning to all those who resist God.
1. Strongs 544: apeithéō, “refuse to believe” implies willful rejection or intentional disbelief (Jn 10:25-26), rather than “disobedience”, although these are closely linked. (From my editor).