Ah, the strange concept of belief in Christ. John introduces it early in his gospel and pursues it relentlessly (he uses the term 98 times!). What does it mean to “believe in” Christ? Does it mean to agree that he was a person? To intellectually assent to all that he stands for? To have confidence in the assertions of Christ? Oh, here’s a funny thing. John uses the verb “to believe” 98 times in his gospel; he uses the noun believe, zero times. What’s up with that?
BDAG (famous Greek lexicon) defines “to believe” (πιστεύω) as: to entrust oneself to an entity in complete confidence, believe (in), trust. Let me clarify, John uses πιστεύω here with that definition. One of the problems of studying words is that they only mean things in context. What do I mean by that? Good question, grasshopper. Take for instance, the English word: bad. If I say “that refrigerator is bad.” It means that the refrigerator is broken or defective. How about when your mother says, “Stay away from little Johnny, he is a bad boy.” Does your mother mean that Johnny is broken or defective (well she might, but she probably doesn’t)? No, she means that Johnny is a misbehaving boy. Indeed, in some contexts the word bad can mean good! “Dude! That GTO is super bad!” So if you’re trying to understand words, context is everything! Don’t forget that point, grasshopper, or you will be very sorry.
John uses the verb πιστεύω in four different ways in his gospel. The NET bible (super bad! explanatory notes [as in great]) says:
“John uses πιστεύω in 4 major ways: (1) of believing facts, reports, etc., 12 times; (2) of believing people (or the scriptures), 19 times; (3) of believing “in” Christ” (πιστεύω + εἰς + acc.), 36 times; (4) used absolutely without any person or object specified, 30 times (the one remaining passage is 2:24, where Jesus refused to “trust” himself to certain individuals). Of these, the most significant is the use of πιστεύω with εἰς + accusative. It is not unlike the Pauline ἐν Χριστῷ (en Christō) formula.”
So both times that John uses believe here (vs. 7 and 12) he means it in sense number 3, of believing in Christ. But wait. What does that mean? Well, I could tell you, but what good would that do? Give a man a fish and all. Let’s see how John uses to believe in context and perhaps we can draw some conclusions.
He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him (1.7)
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name (1.12)
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. (John 2.23)
Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.”(John 4:39)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Notice that three of these four examples use the phrase believe in Christ. Believing in Christ means to believe in his name (1.12); people believed in him because he told the Samaritan woman all that she ever did (John 4.39); people believed in him because of the signs (miracles) that he was doing (John 2.23); and if we believe in Christ we will not perish but have eternal life (John 3.16).
It’s pretty easy to see that this particular belief is not a sort of intellectual assent that Christ lived, or even an intellectual assent that what he said was true. It was something more than that because he was performing miraculous signs that caused people to believe and somehow knew all about their life histories, and upon this sort of belief hinges eternal (eternal!, people—Think about it) life.
Here is what Bob Utley says about this concept of believing. First he comments that in verse 12 it is a verb in the present, active, participle which means “those who continue to believe.” Then he writes: In Hebrew it originally referred to a person in a stable stance. It came to be used metaphorically for someone who was dependable, loyal or trustworthy. The Greek equivalent is translated into English by the terms (“faith,” “believe,” and “trust.”) Biblical faith or trust is not primarily something we do, but someone in whom we put our trust. It is God’s trustworthiness, not ours, which is the focus. Fallen mankind trusts God’s trustworthiness, faiths His faithfulness, believes in His Beloved. The focus is not on the abundance or intensity of human faith, but the object of that faith. In other words, we don’t believe; we believe in Christ, in a person.
I think it’s interesting that Plummer points out in regards to belief: The test of a child of God is no longer descent from Abraham, but belief in His Son. This is why its so important to understand what it means to believe in Christ.
So what does it mean to believe in Christ? It means to put our faith and trust and confidence in him; that he was who he said he was; that he died for our sins; that if we believe in him we will! have eternal life, and we will not perish.