(John 3:35-36 ESV) 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 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.
V. 36 recapitulates v. 18, with an important difference. John now appears to contrast faith with its opposite: disobedience. V. 18 contrasted faith with a lack of faith.
Many have argued from this and similar verses that a lack of obedience damns, and so they damn all who violate their preferred doctrines — regarding use of church funds, church organization, or whatever.
But John’s meaning is much more subtle. The word translated “does not obey” is apeitheo — which is used frequently in the Septuagint and the New Testament. Consider these verses using the same Greek verb —
(Exo 23:21 ESV) Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.
(Lev 26:15 ESV) if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant,
(Num 11:19-20 ESV) 19 “You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”‘”
(Deu 1:26 ESV) 26 “Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the LORD your God.
You can see that the Septuagint translators consistently used apeitheo to refer to rebellion or the like, not mere disobedience. More precisely, the sense is a refusal to be persuaded by God’s word.
The prophets are similar —
(Hos 9:15 ESV) Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal; there I began to hate them. Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will love them no more; all their princes are rebels.
(Zec 7:11 ESV) But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear.
(Isa 1:23 ESV) Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.
(Isa 59:13 ESV) transgressing, and denying the LORD, and turning back from following our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words.
(Eze 3:27 TNK) But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD!’ He who listens will listen, and he who does not will not — for they are a rebellious breed.”
Now, in a conversation between a Pharisee and rabbi, both learned in the Old Testament, you’d expect them to use the vocabulary of the Old Testament, just as modern Christian scholars routinely speak in the vocabulary of the New Testament. When we Christians say “save,” we mean “save” in the biblical sense of salvation from damnation, versus saving money or some other secular meaning.
Thus, when Jesus (or John, depending on where the translators should end the quotation) speaks of apeitheo, the sense is surely “rebel” or the like.
John 3:36 is the only occurrence of the word in John. However, the word appears elsewhere in the New Testament –
(Act 14:2 ESV) But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.
(Act 19:9 ESV) But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus.
(Rom 2:8 ESV) but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
(Rom 11:30 ESV) For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience,
(Rom 15:31 ESV) 31 that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints,
(Heb 3:18 ESV) And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?
(Heb 11:31 ESV) By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.
(1Pe 3:1-2 ESV) Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct.
(1Pe 4:17 ESV) 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
Notice how the translators flit back and forth between “do not obey” and “disbelieve.” And yet in each case, the nonbelievers and the disobedient are those who are in rebellion — that is, they’ve heard the word of truth and rejected it.
You see, apeitheo has as its root a word meaning “to be persuaded.” The “a-” at the beginning makes it “not be persuaded.” The thought is not so much disobedience or the absence of faith as the rejection of God’s teaching or revelation.
This is, of course, very plain in the Old Testament passages. Moreover, in the Acts passages, the word is used of God’s enemies — those who are actively opposing God’s message.
In Hebrews, the word is applied to the Israelites who died in the desert because they rebelled against God, refusing to enter the Promised Land. They lacked faith. They disobeyed. But the core of their sin was refusing to heed God’s message.
The theme of the first few chapters of Hebrews is —
(Heb 3:7-9 ESV) 7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, 9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years.”
It’s about a choice to harden one’s heart and so to rebel against God. It’s not about honest mistakes.
Now, I said all that because there’s a tendency in the Churches of Christ to take some of these very “disobey” verses and use them to damn all who disobey a given command. If you build a fellowship hall or you give to an orphanage from the church treasury or whatever, you’ll be accused of disobedience and hence damnation.
The problem with this “logic” is, first, that it proves too much. If an honest, well-intentioned, prayerful decision to build a fellowship hall damns, then any error at all — of any kind — damns. And no one can survive that standard. It damns all but those with absolutely perfect doctrine and perfect obedience.
And it’s wrong because it fails to studiously consider the Greek. Apeitheo is a refusal to be persuaded by God’s word. It’s rebellion.
Therefore, in John 3:36 (I bet you thought I forgot where I started all this), Jesus (or John) is saying,
(John 3:36 ESV) 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey [rejects or refuses to be persuaded regarding] the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Remember, in John’s view, Jesus is not merely a person. Jesus is God’s light, God’s revelation. To reject Jesus is to reject the Logos, the Word of God, the very image of God himself — and hence to reject God.
John is most definitely not teaching a works salvation, and it’s absurd to place John 3:36 in opposition to John 3:18, as though they might contradict each other. No, they say the same thing, just from two different directions. If you are persuaded, you believe. If you refuse to be persuaded, you apeitheo Jesus.
Why do the translators get this wrong? Well, in my opinion, because we’ve spent the last 500 years of Protestant history arguing over faith vs. works, and so we struggle to think in other terms. We think it must mean one or the other, but the context is about being persuaded to believe in God’s message given us through Jesus —
(John 3:33-34 ESV) 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.