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John Reflects on the Tragedy of Unbelief

John summarizes the unbelief of Jesus' fellow Jews in words that express how tragic and inexcusable is this rejection by "his own" (1:11): Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him (v. 37). While this rejection was tragic and inexcusable, it was not completely surprising to those who understood the Scriptures. These opponents, who have taken such pride in Moses, have in fact repeated the pattern of those Israelites Moses condemned. "With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those miraculous signs and great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear" (Deut 29:3-4; cf. Brown 1966:485).

Furthermore, their rejection was actually a fulfillment of Isaiah: This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: "Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" (v. 38). The text comes from the fourth of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, already alluded to in verse 32. The Servant Song begins by saying that the Servant will be lifted up and exalted but that many will be appalled at him because he is disfigured (Is 52:13-14). It is said "many nations and kings will shut their mouths because of him" because they were not prepared for what they saw (Is 52:15). It is at this point that Isaiah says, "Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?" (53:1). In other words, the prophet is saying the message he has been given is very difficult to believe. For "the arm of the Lord" is a metonymy for the strength of God, seen especially in great acts of deliverance such as the exodus (for example, Ex 6:6; 15:16; Deut 4:34; 5:15; cf. Schlier 1964). But now this strength has been revealed in one who is despised, stricken and crushed (Is 53:2-12). Finding God's strength in one who is crushed is such a reversal of normal thinking that those who hear it can only stand mute in disbelief. Thus, the same pattern is repeated in the ministry of Jesus. God's strength, his "arm," has been revealed in ways that defy normal religious sensibilities and has been met with shocked disbelief. The reference to the Servant Song prepares us for the intensification of this shock, which is to come as Jesus repeats the pattern of Isaiah 52:13--53:12 in detail in his Passion.

But for now, John's emphasis is on the unbelief of those who have witnessed the Lord's Servant. John further develops this explanation of unbelief by appealing to another passage in Isaiah: For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: "He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn--and I would heal them" (Jn 12:39-40, quoting Is 6:10). John's quote does not follow exactly either the Hebrew or the Greek forms of this passage, and his changes help highlight the significance he sees in this text. First, in both the Hebrew and the Greek of Isaiah, people are affected in their hearts, ears and eyes, in that order. Thus, John leaves out the ears and reverses the order so the eyes are first. In this way he focuses on the signs of Jesus (cf. v. 37) and moves from the outer to the inner, as he has done before (see comment on 8:44). The interior disposition plays a major role, as verse 43 will emphasize. Second, along with this clarification on the human side he also clarifies the divine side. In the Hebrew, Isaiah is commanded to "make the heart of this people fat," and in the Greek it is put in the passive, "the heart of this people has been made thick" (epachynthe). While the Isaiah passage refers to God's action, this passage in John shows more clearly God as the agent of the blinding and "hardening" (eporosen; cf. poros, "stone" or "callus"). Similarly, at the end of the verse the Hebrew has a passive ("and be healed") whereas in John and the Septuagint a future active verb is used for God's action ("I would heal them"). Thus, God's activity is spoken of more directly in John's version of the text.

John says people were not able to believe because God had blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, as revealed by Isaiah. How does God go about blinding and hardening? The clue is in the next verse: Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus' glory and spoke about him (v. 41). More literally, Isaiah said "these things," that is, both quotes from Isaiah are in view. "Isaiah could report on Christ's saying concerning the predestined unbelief of the Jews because he had in his vision [in Isaiah 6] seen the glory of the crucified Son of God" (Dahl 1976:108). Isaiah spoke about him, and thus the verbs that have God as their subject in Isaiah are taken here as referring to Jesus (cf. Carson 1991:450). This would be in keeping with John's earlier statement that no one has ever seen God (1:18), but we have beheld the glory of the only Son (1:14) so that those who have seen the Son have seen the Father (14:9). For the glory of God revealed in Jesus is the self-sacrificing love evident in the Suffering Servant. The scandal of the arm of the Lord revealed in the Suffering Servant corresponds to the scandal of the love of God revealed in Jesus. And as the revelation of the arm of the Lord produced mute disbelief in Isaiah 52:12--53:1, so the glory of the Lord revealed in Jesus has produced disbelief. God's revelation of his glory has caused the blindness and the hardness (cf. Jn 9:39-41). The same sun that melts wax, hardens clay (Origen On First Principles 3.1.11). The hardness of heart found in these opponents is that which rejects God's offer of mercy. Specifically, it is his offer of healing that they reject. This offer of healing, which has blinded and hardened, has come from God through Christ.

After making this blanket statement about unbelief John adds that yet at the same time [homos mentoi, "yet nevertheless," a strong adversative] many even among the leaders believed in him (v. 42). Even among those least likely to be open to the revelation of this strange and disturbing grace of God, some did in fact believe (cf. 1:11-12). But they feared expulsion from the synagogue by the Pharisees and therefore would not confess their faith (v. 42). Consequently, they provide yet another example of false profession of faith that has been described from the outset (2:23-25). As Chrysostom remarks, such fear means that "they were not rulers, but slaves in the utmost slavery" (In John 69.1). "Such ineffective intellectual faith (so to speak) is really the climax of unbelief" (Westcott 1908:2:136).

As with other forms of false faith (cf. 2:25), the problem goes back to the condition of their hearts, for they loved praise from men more than praise from God (v. 43). The word translated praise is the same word translated glory in verse 41. Isaiah saw God's glory and proclaimed it despite its scandalous nature, but these would-be believers prefer human glory for God's glory. The issue is a matter of the heart, for the problem is in their love. They have received the revelation of the Son but are not willing to live in the light of the truth they have seen (cf. 12:47).

Thus, once again both the divine and the human sides of the drama of salvation are addressed (cf. Westcott 1908:2:134-38; Carson 1981; 1991:448-50; Talbert 1992:181). From the outset of the Gospel, John has spoken clearly of both divine sovereignty and human responsibility (1:12-13) without trying to explain rationally how both are true. It is one of the antinomies of this Gospel, which are inevitable in dealing with a revelation of reality that goes beyond our common, limited, four-dimensional perceptions. But these two aspects of reality are not opposed to one another; God's sovereign action is never a violation of our moral responsibility, for such determinism would turn us into robots and preclude love and relationship. "The divine predestination works through human moral choices, for which men are morally responsible" (Barrett 1978:431), as is made clear in the next section (12:47-48). But the human responsibility never violates the necessity of divine grace. "Let no one dare to defend the freedom of the will in any such way as to attempt depriving us of the prayer that says, `Lead us not into temptation'; and, on the other hand, let no one deny the freedom of the will, and so venture to find an excuse for sin. But let us give heed to the Lord, both in commanding and in offering His aid; in both telling us our duty, and assisting us to discharge it" (Augustine In John 53.8).

Salvation is by grace from first to last. To use Pauline terms, we are saved by grace and not works. But we are not saved without works because salvation is a matter of life and relationship, which means it is more than an intellectual assent or an emotional experience. These would-be believers are a prime example of the fact that faith without works is dead, for such faith is only a thought or an emotion and not a relationship of love in a true sense on the level of the heart. At the end of the day what matters is where our love is placed, for where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. And the love of our heart is evident not just from our thoughts and emotions, though these are involved, but from the commitments of our lives.

John's reflection at the end of the first half of his Gospel presents Isaiah's seeing the glory of the rejected graciousness of God offered to Israel by the Son of God. Understood in this way, it is clear how this vision of Isaiah draws together some of the major themes in the first twelve chapters of this Gospel. By focusing on the tragedy of the would-be disciples John also offers a challenge to all who claim to be disciples of Jesus.

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