I drive old cars. My first car was a Nissan Pulsar. It cost me six hundred dollars to buy and seven hundred to get it operational. Since then I've driven used and abused cars. My newest car is fifteen years old. Fortunately, my vehicles run without me having to know what's going on under the hood.
My dad says that they don’t make cars like they used to; they make them much better now. He claims that when he was a teen, you’d expect to get about 100k miles out of a car and then it would be shot. My oldest car is probably going to turn over 300k in a few years. I can’t wait. Maybe we’ll have a party or something.
I have a friend who told me that his mom has never put gas in a car. She drives, but her husband fills the car up for her every time. My buddy said that his mom doesn't even know how to fuel up since she's never had to do it. Despite not knowing how to put gas in a car, she gets around ok.
That’s the way it is. You don’t have to know everything about how a car works to drive around town. You don’t have to understand internal combustion, compression ratios, or pistons and valves, to get to the grocery store and back. There are a few basics that you have to understand to drive. In a way, that’s what salvation belief is like. You don’t have to know everything about Jesus to get to Heaven.
There are some basics you need to believe for kingdom entrance. A full knowledge and theology of Jesus’ person, sayings, and deeds is not necessary for salvation.1 Even John told us that he didn’t write down everything Jesus did and said.2 Notice how he puts it:
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book… And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 20:30, 21:25)
Not only does John acknowledge that he hasn’t given an exhaustive list of Jesus’ doings and sayings, but he acknowledges that it would be impossible to relay everything. In basic terms, that means that a person doesn’t need to know everything about Jesus in order to be saved. Still, there must be some subset of ideas that a person has to believe in order to be saved.
John answers the salvation question, but he does so by including some backstory. It's as if the Gospel of John says, "I'll tell you what you need to believe to be saved, but let me give you the backstory so that you can believe it." It's important, though, to understand which parts are essential claims that need to be believed, and which parts are backstory.
There are many doings and sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John. However, not all constitute the saving message. This can be proven from the text. There were those who believed in Jesus early in His ministry who didn’t yet know all Jesus would say or do. Note this phrase that appears in Chapter six.
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. (John 6:47)
Jesus claims that those who had believed in Him by this point already had eternal life. Even scholars with whom I’d disagree on a great many things have noticed that this verse represents an immediate possession of everlasting life.3On that, at least, we can agree. He does not promise that they will have it only someday, but that they have it currently. This means that it was possible to believe the saving message before Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Thus, believing that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead must not be part of the saving message. It’s an important detail to know, especially as evidence that Jesus can give life, but it cannot be a basic claim that is included in the saving message. If what Jesus said in John 6:47 is true, then His listeners had the full saving message by then. What’s fascinating is that only a few verses later, after Jesus said this, Peter affirms that he believes in Jesus.
You have the words of eternal life. Also, we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (John 6:68-69)
In verse 47 Jesus promises that anyone who believes in Him has eternal life. Then Peter affirms that he believes in Jesus. Peter's words mirror what the Gospel of John says is required to have everlasting life. John 20:30-31 says that someone must believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God in order to have everlasting life. That is what Peter says here in chapter six. Thus at this point, Peter, and likely all the disciples except Judas, believe in Him as well.
If Jesus is right, and I'd stake my life on the fact that he is, then Peter and the others have eternal life at this point in the story. They have eternal life at this point, but they only knew about half of what Jesus would do and say. Thus, someone can get saved without knowing everything Jesus said and did.
This event in chapter six is an example of the disciples verbally expressing their faith, but it’s not the moment when their belief began. For that, we have to look much earlier in the story. The Gospel of John says that the disciples believed in Him in chapter two and some even in chapter one. Right after Jesus did His first public miracle John tells the reader:
This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him. (John 2:11)
Scholars and plain folk can see that this verse represents the moment the disciples believed in Jesus for salvation.4 These disciples believed and received salvation as can be seen when this phrase is compared against John 20:30-31. This was early in Jesus’ ministry. The disciples had only seen Him perform only one miracle. Yet, they believed in Him at that point. It’s worth remembering that believed in Him is the phrase that John and Jesus use over and over to describe evangelistic conversion. At this point, without seeing the rest of His miracles, they were already believers who had eternal salvation. Thus, everything they needed to know and believe in order to have eternal life, they already knew at this point in the Gospel of John. The content of the saving message is shrinking. Though, it can be reduced further.
As early as chapter one, there were a few disciples who had already believed. With almost no information other than that John the Baptist had pointed Jesus out, two disciples spent the day with Jesus and were convinced. Andrew and the unnamed disciple, who was probably John, were the first believers. In chapter one Andrew said to his brother:
“We have found the Messiah,” which is translated, the Christ. (John 1:41)
Comparing this statement against the rest of John’s Gospel, it is without refute that Andrew believed in Jesus at this point. By definition in John 20:31, this is what it means to believe in Him. Philip was the next to become a believer. He expresses his faith when he said:
“We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45)
In his exuberance, Philip showed that he believed the same thing that Andrew and John did. In short order, he invited Nathanael to come see Jesus as well. Nathanael was skeptical, not believing that the Messiah could come from Nazareth. However, after a short conversation, Nathanael became a believer as well. He expressed his faith this way:
“Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49)
Then Jesus stated simply:
“You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree….” (John 1:50)
The words you believe can be taken affirmatively.5 Jesus identified that what Just took place in Nathanael, and by extension Philip, and Andrew was belief. With hardly any information about who Jesus was or what he could do, they believed that he was the Christ the Son of God. This, as John 20:31 clearly tells, is the requirement for gaining eternal life.
It is clear that the earliest disciples believed that Jesus was the Christ, Messiah, and Son of God. They could not yet believe all that would take place thereafter because it had not yet taken place. Thus, those events that follow, while useful for bringing people to a saving faith, are not part of the basic claims that make up the saving message. The disciples became saved not yet knowing about Jesus’ miracles, his speeches, or his resurrection. They were saved by believing that Jesus was the Savior, the Christ, the Son of God.
Therefore, believing in Jesus must not mean that you have to know and be convinced of all of His actions and teachings. Which claims do you have to know and believe? That is what we will look at in the next section.
1 Zane C. Hodges, “How to Lead People to Christ: Part 1 the Content of Our Message,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society Volume 22 22, no. 42 (2009): 131.
2 John 20:30-31
3 D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 294.
4 Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887), 83.
5 Brooke Foss Westcott and Arthur Westcott, eds., The Gospel according to St. John Introduction and Notes on the Authorized Version, Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament (London: J. Murray, 1908), 28.