Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | June 16, 2008

What did Jesus know about the hearts of men? (Lesson 6: Question 9 Answer)

9.  What did Jesus know about the hearts of men?

In drawing near to the conclusion of chapter two, the final consideration that will be made in this lesson will pertain to an attribute assigned to our Lord by the apostle John.  We also want to consider further the content of what our Lord ascertained through the employment of this attribute.  To perform this effort we will continue our focus on the following verses of the text:


23Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.


The first task we will undertake in our examination of this text is the consequence of Jesus having the ability to discern the hearts of men.  We will then follow with an assessment of the state of man’s heart subsequent to the fall of Adam.  The former task will allow further reflection and fortification in supporting Christ’s divine nature, which has been so thoroughly upheld by the apostle John thus far in this Gospel.  The latter task will afford the opportunity to unpack our previous discussion on this text and prepare us for proceeding forward to chapter 3.

Let us be reminded of the context of these verses where we found our Lord in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast shortly after His cleansing of the temple.  It was during this encounter that we earlier argued that our Lord’s three-fold office was found to converge.  The crowds in Jerusalem, eager with messianic anticipation, were seeking a deliverer to restore the theocratic dynasty and were considering Jesus as a viable candidate for this office.  The apostle, however, reports that Jesus knowing the hearts of men could discern that the crowd’s faith was disingenuous presumably because their desires were not consistent with Messiah’s true mission.  This leads us to our first item of consideration, which is Jesus’ ability to make adjudication about the secret thoughts and intentions of the crowd.     

In this passage we have an example of John testifying to a divine attribute that Jesus possessed.  As the larger catechism points out (WLC 11) Jesus’ possession of divine attributes attests to His equality with God the Father.  As manifested already in John’s prologue (John 1:1-18), the apostle had no reservations in affirming Jesus’ equality with the Father in statements such as “the Word was God” and “in Him was life.”  Here we have yet another opportunity for the apostle to testify to a specific instance of Jesus demonstrating divine attributes during His ministry, which further support and shore up his opening prologue.  Thus we find in this passage Jesus evidencing the divine attribute of omniscience, especially indicative of the testimony that “he knew all people.”      

The context of this statement made by the apostle does not just suggest that Jesus had a casual knowledge about people or simply knowing their acquaintance.   This knowledge was qualitatively different from the manner in which we as humans can know other humans.  As finite beings we can only know people from their external actions or what they verbally communicate to us, however the Lord is able discern the internal thoughts and intentions of the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  This ability that is always attributed to God in the Scriptures (Acts 1:24  and Acts 15:8) is here in this text applied also to Jesus.  Thus, affirming Jesus divine nature as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

The apostle will continue to support the case for the Deity of Christ within this book.  In this example, where Jesus’ omniscience is revealed, we must concede the great distinction between divine and human attributes (and knowledge).  It is evident that our knowledge is fallible, limited and significantly inferior to that of our Creator’s.  The fact that this gracious Lord condescended from His glory throne on our behalf through the assumption of flesh, yet maintained the power of this attribute (omniscience) is incredible.  Although, this amazing truth can be explored further, we will elect to proceed in considering the content of this knowledge.  When the apostle states that Jesus “knew all people”, he is referring to the following phrase which indicates that “he himself knew what was in man.”  Thus the Word incarnate, piercing bone and marrow (Hebrews 4:12), possessed the ability to discern the very nature of men that was hidden as Calvin states:

There is a wide difference between him and us; for Christ knew the very roots of the trees, but, except from the fruits which appear outwardly, we cannot discover what is the nature of any one tree. 26

We learn from Jesus’ exercise of the divine attribute of omniscience that He is able to observe the very root of the tree rather than just relying on the fruit it produced.  As the apostle points out, Jesus’ observation leads Him to conclude the true intentions of the crowd.  The intentions of the crowd were consistent with the nature of all fallen men (Genesis 6:5) influential to their ability to truly trust in Jesus.  He knew that within man every source of evil (Jeremiah 17:9) and corruption (Matthew 15:18-19) dwelled.  This fallen nature causes all men to be at enmity with God (Ephesians 2:3) and precludes them from seeking Him or responding to the call of the Gospel (Romans 3:9-20).  As the confession points out (WCF Ch 6) this fallen nature is transmitted to all of Adam’s progeny who induced this condition in his violation of the covenant and its consequent sanctions (John 3:6).  

This condition is known in theological language as total depravity, which is not to assert that fallen man is as evil as he could possibly be always and everywhere.  Rather it is the position that man is dead in sin and totally incapable (Colossians 1:21; Ephesians 2:1) of responding to God unless he is made alive by the Spirit (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 2:5).  This corruption is systemic in all human beings to a greater extent in some than others relative to the actual evil that is realized by individuals.  Nonetheless, it is all effectively transmitted to Adam’s entire race to render them guilty and helpless before the Covenant Lord.  This process of transmission of the sin nature through human procreation is called original sin, which is certainly a related doctrine to total depravity.

There are some individuals who seek to deny the doctrine of original sin and assert that not all humanity is subjected to total depravity.  They typically appeal to Ezekiel 18 to support their denial of this with its indication that each man shall be judged for his own sins and not those of his father.  At first glance it appears as though they have a formidable case, however once a closer examination is made this argument quickly falls apart.  There are two main problems with this position that we will proceed to consider.  The first reason is very simple and concerns a very practical denial that this text means what they purport it to mean.  Simply, if this was the true position of Ezekiel 18 then we would expect there to be at least some individuals that do not fall prey to the sin nature.  If infants were born with no original sin, then we would expect that there would be righteous people in our world who would not need a Savior.  Obviously, this interpretation does not fit with the reality of our world, which very clearly only includes imperfect and sinful people.

The second reason has to do with Adam’s role in creation, which included more than just being father of all humanity.  More importantly, he was our representative in fulfilling the covenant of works that was established in the garden.  This first Adam failed in his obligation to keep the covenant for his progeny unleashing the covenant curses that plunged us into sin and misery.  This failure dictated the need for a Second Adam to be sent to represent fallen humanity who is utterly guilty before their Creator.  This Second Adam condescended, was born of a woman, born under the law, and being without sin did not have the fallen nature transmitted to Him.  Unlike the first Adam, He fulfilled the law of the Creator completely earning the righteousness necessary to enter into heaven.  Moreover, He willingly subjected Himself to the wrath of God in a propitious act of obedience to save those who were utterly lost.  Thus, a substitutionary act was performed transmitting the sin of those who were guilty upon Himself to fulfill the demands of God’s justice.  In addition, a transmission of the Second Adam’s active obedience was also made to those He ransomed in order for them to possess the righteousness necessary to stand before their Creator King.

Essentially, the position that some seek to uphold in interpreting Ezekiel 18 in a manner to deny original sin would also deny the substitionary work of Jesus, who is the Second Adam.  For Jesus being the “Lamb of God” became flesh in order to perform this task in accordance with the pactum salutus.  The whole nature of this task was for the transmission of sin committed by others to be imputed to Christ who would pay the penalty on their behalf.  This is the Gospel, which is denied by those who seek to uphold this interpretation of Ezekiel 18 in order to deny original sin.  If this view is true then Jesus’ incarnation, humiliation, and death was completely unnecessary,  in vain, and those of us who would still believe are to be pitied above all men.  Obviously, this false interpretation really does not nullify the true work that Jesus achieved in His death, burial and resurrection.  Nonetheless, for one to remain consistent in their views they would have to deny the transmission of sins to another.  Whatever you want to call it, this view is certainly not Christianity and does enormous injury to the vicarious atonement indicative of the Gospel.

As a result, due the transmission of the fallen nature through human procreation all men share a common condition of being dead in sin.  Therefore, since all men remain dead in sin unless and/or until the Spirit of God makes them alive by effectively applying Christ’s work unto them.  We can then conclude with the apostle John that in Christ only, can true life be found (John 1:4).  It is Jesus’ mission to fulfill the will of the Father that has made us free and brought us into everlasting life.  However, this work is not effective until the regeneration of the Spirit turns our hearts of stone into a heart of flesh.  Incidentally, it is this operation that will be the subject of our next pericope.  Thus, this background will greatly aid our understanding as we proceed into chapter 3.

26 John Calvin (1550) Commentary on the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ According to John (Calvin’s Commentaries, 17; Baker, 2005) 103



  1. […] hearts of men were known by our Lord as indicated by the apostle John in the previous chapter.  In this chapter […]

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