(John 12:37-41 ESV) 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” 41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.
John explains that most in the crowd were unable to believe. The quotations from Isaiah are also used by Paul in Romans 10:16. As we should always do with these Old Testament passages, we turn to the original context.
(Isa 53:1 ESV) Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
The first verse quoted by John is the lead verse of Isaiah 53, the very familiar and beautiful prophecy of the Messiah dying for the sins of Israel. But it hardly makes the point that no one could believe. Indeed, Isaiah declares —
(Isa 53:4-6 ESV) 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned– every one– to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The chapter is confessional: “We have sinned”; “We have failed to recognize the Messiah.” But God has nonetheless sent him and caused him to suffer for our sins for our sake.
This is not about God’s rejection of Israel but God’s redemption of Israel despite their unworthiness.
If we consider John learned in his Old Testament — and surely he was — his point has to be that, despite the stubbornness of God’s children, God sent Jesus to the cross to save them, because that’s the point of Isaiah 53.
This brings us to —
(Isa 6:10 ESV) 10 “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
Is God hardening the hearts of the Jews so that Jesus’ sacrifice for them is futile? Really? Is that really what John’s Gospel is teaching? Here’s the context —
(Isa 6:9-12 ESV) 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, 12 and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
This is a darkly sarcastic, bitter warning. Isaiah is warning the Israelites that if they do not begin to hear and see, they’ll remain blind and deaf until God destroys their nation, allowing the Babylonians to take them into captivity.
We know from the Old Testament — the books of history and prophecy — that God sent many more prophets to the Jews in an effort to bring repentance. Isaiah’s dark prophecy was not the end of God’s efforts — efforts that would make no sense at all if God had hardened their hearts against their will because he did not elect them — an absurd thought regarding his elect people.
No, the point is that when God’s people choose to reject his message, his prophets, and his warnings, God rejects those whose hearts are hardened against God. Indeed, as we learn in Romans 1, God will sometimes allow those who’ve rejected him to become all the more sinful — “turn them over” — so that their sinfulness and their separation from God is entirely obvious.
In short, we make a choice to believe or not, and when we don’t believe, God may well harden our hearts so that we are plainly godless — separating us from the believers as God separates light from darkness. There’s no gray. God wants it to be plain that those who reject him are not holy and righteous. He wants their sinful, degraded state to be obvious to all.
Recall that John introduces this section by mentioning how the same Jews had seen other signs earlier and not believed. His point is, I’m sure, that they’d fallen into a pattern of unbelief, and as a result, became incapable of belief.
That’s not to say that God wasn’t part of that process. He certainly was, but God didn’t initiate the process. Rather, the people’s hearts were closed, blinded by pride. They were rocky or weed-choked soil. As a result, God stopped sowing his seed among them.
(John 12:42-43 ESV) 42 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
It’s a sad comment, but very true to human nature. Even some of the Pharisees and priests believed, but they preferred the welcome of their friends in the synagogues to the welcome of God, and so they remained silent — refusing to confess their faith.
Ultimately, faith that is not confessed is no faith at all.
(John 12:44-46 ESV) 44 And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.
Jesus equates faith in him with faith in God. Of course, many Jews wanted to claim faith in God while rejecting Jesus. Jesus would have none of that. After all, if you see Jesus, you see God. If you see Jesus and don’t see God, then you just don’t see God at all. Indeed, faith in Jesus is essential to escaping darkness.
As we learned in chapter 1, Jesus is not remotely interested in the theory that Judaism is for Jews and Christianity is for Christians. He came first to the Jews to save the Jews from darkness. To Jesus, their Judaism was of no avail. It was darkness, just as dark as before God created light.
(John 12:47-50 ESV) 47 “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. 49 For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment– what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”
Again, Jesus points toward God. His listeners have nothing to fear from Jesus; it’s God who will judge them. Jesus leaves no room to separate himself from his Father.
Recognizing that he was speaking to the Jews as God’s chosen people, Jesus is plainly saying that their status as Jews or even as God fearers would no longer suffice. They must have faith in Jesus.