As I have written a bit about previously, the Gospel of John distinguishes between two types of “faith” early in the gospel: believing in the name of Jesus and believing in Jesus. These two ways of describing faith do not appear to be simply synonymous phrases, but they appear to actually describe a form of a development in faith for some people. The differences between the two may be considered to roughly correspond to the difference we think of when talking about knowing about Jesus vs. knowing Jesus. However, to believe in the name of Jesus is a bit more positive and hopeful in the Gospel of John than the often implicit judgment we give towards people we consider to only know about Jesus. The modern distinction is often said with a hint of spiritual superiority and exclusion, whereas the distinctions between the two forms of faith in the Gospel of John is meant to be encouraging for those who believe in the name of Jesus, but have yet to believe in Him.
The description of believing in the name of Jesus starts back in John 1.12-13:
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the choice (ἐξουσίαν) to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
It doesn’t say that those who believe in Jesus’ name ARE children of God. Rather, the Greek word for ἐξουσία is used to assign some power or possibility. Given the way John portrays Nicodemus in John 3, which I will come to in a moment, the best way to interpret ἐξουσία is some freedom or choice that the believer has. In other words, to believe in the name of Jesus brings one into a place where one may become a child of God. Granted, the purpose here isn’t to suggest that people can make themselves a child of God, but rather to put forward that they are put into a position where they could come to become a child of God. The Gospel of John doesn’t say here what “triggers” God’s action on their behalf.
The best way I can think to phrase is that to believe in the name of Jesus is to put oneself in a state of liminality, where one is no longer of this world but that one has not fully come over to the light of God in Jesus Christ either. This liminal phase may make one more open to hearing and reading the Scriptures differently than before believe in Jesus. As Jesus says in John 6.44-45, those who are taught by the Father come to Jesus, whereas those who read the Scriptures for other purposes than to know God, such as to obtain life, will not see the Scriptures testifying to Jesus (John 5.39-40). Perhaps by believing in Jesus’ name, one is in a place where one can learn from the Father through the Scriptures in a fresh way.
This leads me to what exactly it means to believe in Jesus’ name. In John 2.23-25, there are people who believing in Jesus’ name, but yet Jesus does not entrust Himself to them. Then, we have Nicodemus enter in the narrative immediately afterwards, suggesting he is an example of a person who believes in the name of Jesus. This is confirmed by the fact that Jesus is rather indirect and does not describe exactly how someone comes to be born from above. He leaves Nicodemus hanging about heavenly matters because Nicodemus does not understand the earthly matters. This is Jesus not entrusting Himself to Nicodemus.
What we see that Nicodemus says to Jesus at the beginning is similar to what caused the people in John 2.23-25 to believe in Jesus: they both saw and recognized the signs that Jesus was performing. They could tell that God was at work in Jesus, as Nicodemus makes this rather explicit. In so doing, they recognize that Jesus has a power from heaven at work in Him. Later in John 10.38, we see Jesus contrasting believing in Him with believing in the works he did, suggesting that recognition of Jesus’ power leads people to understand that God the Father is present with Him. At the heart of believing in the name of Jesus is to believe in His reputation and power that He had in virtue of his works so that one believed that He was sent by and was present with God.
This is the state that so many Christians are at today. So many of us confess that God is present with Jesus, even going so far as to recognize that Jesus is the second person of the Holy Trinity. So many of us have recognized the reputation and power that Jesus has. This is not a bad place to be. One who believes in the name of Jesus is not judged. Rather, it is those who have not believe in His name who are judged because their evil prevents them from coming to Jesus (John 3.18-21).
For instance, the Pharisees are adamant that Jesus is a sinner for healing the blind man on the Sabbath (John 9.13-41), not being able to even believe in the name of Jesus for the wonder he performed. We know from the synoptics that the Pharisees suggesting Jesus exorcised demons by Beelzebub, blaspheming the Holy Spirit who was working in Jesus. They could not bring themselves to believe that God was working in Jesus. So, to believe in the name of Jesus was to set oneself off from those whose evil kept them from acknowledging Jesus.
However, recognizing the power of Jesus’ name does not secure oneself before God. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7.21-23, Jesus does not recognize everyone who knows Jesus as Lord and who do powerful deeds in Jesus’ name. It is one thing to believe in Jesus’ name and not fully come to the Light in this lifetime. It is another thing to use Jesus’ name for one’s honor and status through working powerful works and yet fail to do the will of the Father; such a person should have come to the Light but they did not.
Nevertheless, for the Gospel of John, one who believes in the name of Jesus is not judged. However, it is not the same thing as believing in Jesus. Believing in Jesus goes beyond recognizing the powerful deeds Jesus does, but it comes to believing and learning from His words. When one compares John 3.16 with John 5.24 which both speak of people having eternal life, we see that believing in Jesus is equivalent to hearing Jesus’ word and believing that God sent him. Believing that God sent Jesus is along the lines of believe in the name of Jesus, but something specific happens when one believes in Jesus: His words and instruction become important. To believe in Jesus means one takes His words as the words of eternal life.
We see tension between believing in Jesus’ name and believing in Jesus take place in John 6.60-71. Most of Jesus’ disciples had trouble accepting and continuing in Jesus’ word about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. His words troubled them so that they left. Jesus recognize that some of the disciple didn’t believe. Yet Peter and a few others stay, with Peter acknowledging that Jesus has the words of eternal life. It is only those who genuinely continue in Jesus’ word who are truly Jesus’ disciples and are on the path towards knowing the truth that sets free (John 8.31).
Consequently, to believe in Jesus is to go beyond recognizing the power, authority, and the presence of God with Jesus. It is to recognize that Jesus speaks life and to treasure, cherish, and learn from His words accordingly. To believe in Jesus is to set Jesus as one’s ultimate Teacher, which in doing so sets one’s life on the trajectory where one comes to truth and freedom from sin.
The problem is that the Church today doesn’t really present Jesus as the Teacher of life. We treat Jesus’ words as teachings that we use to justify our moral and theological debates and conflicts. Jesus’ words are readily used as a source of power for us to use to justify ourselves and/or to condemn others. Much as those who read the Scriptures for life do not recognize how the Scriptures testified to Jesus, in a similar way reading and studying Jesus’ words for something other than the life they are to provide gets us off track. We are drawn to the power and authority of Jesus, so we see Jesus’ words as a source of power and authority to appeal for our own concerns and debates.
Let’s just be honest with ourselves. Most of the Church today believes in the name of Jesus and that Jesus’ words are authoritative as a consequence. What most don’t really believe is that Jesus’ words are life. They think their ‘belief’ is life, which readily becomes nothing more than a psychological placebo, rather than believing that it is Jesus and His words that are life. Jesus does not judge such people, but nor does Jesus entrust Himself with the ways of the kingdom to such people either. They aren’t evil but they aren’t really good either. They may be decent, God-fearing people, but they haven’t really come fully into the Light nor do they comprehend and understand the life that Jesus’ words give.
In the end, the life of Jesus’ words is revealed in His love: to give up one’s life for one’s friends. This is what is means to eat of Jesus’ body and drink of His blood: to adopt the very nature of God’s love that Jesus’ words point to. Jesus’ words points us ultimately to his His love as God’s love. Jesus’ words are the direct self-expression of God’s love for the world. So, at the end of the day, to believe in Jesus is to go beyond believing in the power of Jesus, but to draw us into the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. It is Jesus’ words that give us this truth which free us so as to live out that love for others, thereby making ourselves friends of Jesus.
So, let us not judge those who only believe in the name of Jesus. These are people who on the pathway that can lead them to be instructed by the Father, be drawn to Jesus, and come to be God’s children. Let us not look down on them or make them feel somehow they are not within God’s love and favor. However, at the same time, we need to recognize within others and even without ourselves that to believe in Jesus is to dig into Jesus’ words as the words of life from God and God’s love that will give us the life so as to be free to live out this type of love for each other.
Reading the Scriptures, digging into theology, etc. does not make us believers in Jesus; we can do these things passionately as believers in His name. For instance, to believe in Jesus as the second person of the Holy Trinity and to dig deep into Trinitarian theology doesn’t require us to believe in Jesus, but to only believe in Jesus’ name as the Son of God. It is only as God draws us to believe in a deeper way in Jesus that we will experience in the present time the abundant life that God’s Spirit gives to us. Those other activities may give us a sense of meaning, purpose, joy, hope, etc. and can be very important in their proper place for true disciples, but let us never mistake those things as what it means to believe in Jesus. In fact, if we are not careful, those activities can distract us from learning from the Father through the Scripture that can lead us to believe in Jesus. The reality of the Trinity can then come to define our lives as our learning from the Father will lead us to Jesus, who gives the Spirit, making the doctrine of the Trinity a reflection of the reality of our spiritual formation and epistemic knowing of God, rather than simply a doctrine about the powers, relations, and ontologies of the Godhead.