Loving the Glory that Comes from Man
In John 12:42-43 we read the following words: ‘Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.’ Do we not sense our own failure very keenly as we read these words?
These people wanted approval from men more than they wanted approval from God. Who were they? They were chief rulers, high officials in Jerusalem, and they had been struck by the life and ministry of this Jesus from Nazareth. His teaching and his miracles had caused a big stir. His doctrine was plainly true; his claims were evidently substantiated. So these rulers believed in Jesus – but there was a problem: they were influenced more by the Pharisees than by anything else. To gain the full force of this, we need to understand that many, if not most of these rulers would have belonged to the party of the Pharisees themselves. They were caught up in this political, religious system. And having the approval of the Pharisees was something worth having. These were the strictest, most orthodox people in the land, and they had tremendous power over people’s minds and wills, and indeed over their whole lives.
But we need to notice that this was far from being an isolated incident. There are at least four others that enable us to sense the atmosphere that pervaded Jerusalem at the time. In Chapter 3, Nicodemus seems to have been one of these men who feared what his colleagues might think, though he was a chief Pharisee! He came by night to see Jesus. He was fascinated and enthralled by him, but would not declare it openly.
In John 7:11-13 it says that ‘the Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, “Where is he?” And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him.’
In John 7:47-48 we read that ‘the Pharisees answered [the officers who had gone out to arrest Jesus] “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?”‘. The control exerted by the Pharisees over people’s minds was so total; if anyone dared to believe in Jesus they would never have disclosed it to the Pharisees.
We should also note a final incident. Jesus had healed a man who was born blind. The Pharisees quizzed his parents about how this had happened. ‘”We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. But how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.’ (John 9:20-22)
The threat of being put out of the synagogue was a possibility that these people could not afford to contemplate. It is likely that if any of these authorities had publicly confessed Christ, they would have been solemnly excluded from synagogue worship for the rest of their lives. This would have involved curses being pronounced against them. But it went much further than this: they would have been barred from all contact with their own countrymen. No other Israelite would have been allowed to sell such a person anything, not even a loaf of bread. This is how costly it was for the people of Jerusalem to believe openly in Jesus.
Let’s roll forward two thousand years. Today there are still such people who love the praise of man more than the praise of God. We might think of them as a ‘secret’ Christians, people who understand and believe that the claims of the gospel are true, but who feel that public confession of Christ would be too big a price to pay. It is a mere intellectual, speculative, private acknowledgement of the Christian faith, but it is an inadequate faith.
Let’s think about some of the causes of this. Firstly, we must recognise that we all crave approval from other people. We get an immediate, instant satisfaction when people say what a good guy (or girl) we are. There are many clear advantages that seem to come our way if we are liked and admired by other people. We avoid loneliness; we have plenty of friends, so our lives are likely to be full of enjoyment.
In one sense, this is all very well. Having friends who like us is not a problem in itself. But we need to be wise and discern the character of the world in which we live, and the way that the Bible speaks about the world. Peer pressure, in any society, among any age-group, can easily be a powerful force that militates against faithful and radical Christian discipleship. Remember the words of James 4:4? ‘You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.’ Here is the question: is our desire to be sociable and popular with our peers greater than our desire to please God?
And do we want, above all, to be seen as ‘normal’? Have we ever simply thought to ourselves, ‘I really ought to open my mouth and say something now, but I’m worried about it in case they think I’m a bit weird’?
Secondly, and related to what we’ve just said, it might be to our personal and material advantage not to be seen to be a Christian, or at least not too committed a Christian. You have a job, and a likely promotion is coming up. Your employer and other senior colleagues are looking at you to see whether ‘your face fits’. How do you interact socially with your colleagues? Are you a good, ’rounded’ kind of person? Are you ‘one of the lads’; do you go along with the way of life that everyone else seems to enjoy? Or is there something that seems a bit serious and intense about you?
We might even ask, more controversially: why are there so few Biblical evangelicals in positions of senior church leadership today? Do we not have the very reason before us here? The way to climb to such heights is to be a man-pleaser, a compromiser, a wily politician. That is because the large denominations in this country, the established churches, have largely lost faith in the God of the Bible. Who gives a clear, faithful, Biblical testimony today in the media? Hardly anyone.
But whatever reasons might be given for loving the praise of men more than the praise of God – desire for popularity, desire for personal promotion – what really sums it all up is what we see here in this passage. The fear of the consequences is too great. ‘Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue’. Fear is mentioned here as the controlling motive. They feared the consequences for their own reputation and safety. Fear is a great enemy of faith.
I’m sure we’ve all known people who are strong and controlling characters. We are, if we’re honest, frightened of them, nervous in case we say something out of place, afraid in case we accidentally upset them and they give us a bad report. In this case, these strong characters happened to be the Pharisees who controlled so much of the thinking of the Jewish people, and who were completely set against Jesus.
Matthew Henry wrote: ‘Love of the praise of men is a very great prejudice to the power and practice of religion and godliness. Many come short of the glory of God by having a regard to the applause of men.’ In other words, placing such a high value on the approval of other people is inevitably going to handicap and injure our Christian discipleship. It is a question of rightly comparing and contrasting the praise of men and the praise of God.Let’s change it a little and put the question like this: Do we rightly evaluate the fear of men and the fear of God? It could equally well be said of these rulers that they feared man more than they feared God. Is this logical and Biblical – to fear man more than we fear God? Nothing is more ludicrous. The Lord Jesus gave a very sober answer to this: ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ (Matthew 10:28).
Do you want to rightly fear God more than man; more than that, do you want to know and enjoy the praise of God? If so, you must grow in the knowledge and love of God himself. Isn’t it true that when we love someone with a deep love, we would do anything for them; we would disregard fear or danger? Think about a child in grave danger. Our little boy or girl has fallen into the river. What do we care for our own personal safety in that situation? What happens if someone speaks a word against someone in our family for whom we deeply care? We can’t stand to hear them being scorned, so we speak up for them. Do we love the Lord Jesus Christ? This is the question which Jesus put to Peter at the end of John’s Gospel, and it was the acid test of the sincerity of his devotion to his Lord and Master.
Are we ready to deny ourselves of comforts, privileges and reputations that we could easily hold onto if we did not follow Christ, but which we need to let go if we do follow him? Paul described himself and the apostles, in the eyes of the world, as ‘the offscouring of all things’, or ‘the scum of all the earth’ (1 Corinthians 4:14). Are we ready to receive that kind of reputation? We may well look at Paul, but Paul would urge Christian disciples only to follow him as he followed the Lord Jesus. Here, as in everything, he is our example. What glory could have belonged to Jesus, if he had been at all distracted from the path which had been set for him, if he had not drunk the cup which the Father had given him!
When the Holy Spirit fills a man or a woman, the glory of God, the praise of God, the approval of God becomes a motivation and a longing that far outweighs the concerns about what people might think.
Paul Schneider was a German evangelical pastor during the period of the Third Reich. He was taken to Buchenwald Concentration Camp in the autumn of 1937 because he had not bowed the knee to the Nazis. All he had to do to gain his freedom was to sign a document relinquishing care of his churches and agreeing to be banished from Germany. But he refused. On Hitler’s birthday in 1938, all the prisoners were lined up and required to remove their hats to venerate the Swastika flag. Paul Schneider refused, and for this he was beaten with an ox hide whip – 25 lashes. He was then put into solitary confinement for 15 months.
But through the bars of his cell he still preached to the prisoners lined up for the roll call. A guard once asked him, ‘what would you do if you were released?’ He replied ‘I would go to the nearest town, use the kerb as a pulpit, and denounce the brutal crimes committed here.’
Don’t we long for this spirit to be poured out on the church today in a greater measure? Why are so many of us weak, fearful and timid? Why do we fail to act according to the promptings of the Spirit who is in us? Why are we often ashamed of the Gospel?
2 Timothy 1:6-8: ‘For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.’
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church.
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