The Jews Continue in Their Unbelief
37Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. 38This 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?"
39For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:
40"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." 41Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus' glory and spoke about him.
42Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
I had literally done it a hundred times before, but not today. Today of all days, they wouldn’t let me do it. You know how those kinds of days go sometimes. I was finally done after a long day at work. I was tired, hungry, and hot and I needed to hurry into the bank to stop and get some money. After that I had just enough time to get my son from school, grab a quick bite to for us to eat and make it to a midweek service at church. I had made a regular habit of stopping at the bank to withdraw money in the drive-thru and had never once been asked to show my identification. Today of all days, the woman teller asked for me to send my identification through the automatic dispenser. There was just one problem. You guessed it. Today of all days, I had forgotten my wallet at the high school at which I taught at that time. I had taken out my license to make a photocopy of it (the reason I needed a photocopy escapes me), and I had left my license and my wallet at my desk. That’s why I needed to stop and get some money. I told her that I had forgotten my wallet but that I did happen to have a photocopy of my license with me. She snappily responded that that would not do. I tried to explain to her my dilemma and pointed out that I had been coming to that bank for six years and had never needed to show my identification. She still refused and I had to leave without any money. I was very frustrated that even after I told her who I was, I showed her proof of who I was, and explained the situation, she still refused to believe me. Looking back on it, I suppose she was right to refuse me, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make with this story. The point is she had all of the evidence she needed to verify that I was who I said I was but she simply refused.
Well over a thousand years before Jesus, Moses boldly stepped into the presence of the mighty Pharaoh and directed him to let God’s people go. The children of Israel were not slaves, they were intended to be far more than that and it was time for Pharaoh to release the Israelites. Pharaoh would not bend his will for anyone, however, and quickly refused. Moses warned him time and again that great disasters in the form of signs and plagues would befall Egypt if the Pharaoh did not acquiesce to Moses’ demands. We might understand that Pharaoh refused to give in after the first sign or two, but as the plagues continued to pile up, it becomes more and more difficult to identify with him. Time and again, he steeled himself up and hardened his heart against the possibility that there was any being greater than he, any God greater than the gods of Egypt. He was determined to do his own will rather than any God’s will. After a while, the Exodus text switches and tells us as the plagues continued, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. "Chazaq " is translated "harden" as the action that God takes on Pharaoh’s heart, but it has the meaning of "steeled" (like you would steel someone or prepare them for battle) or "encourage." The point is not that God forced Pharaoh to take a certain action but that God encouraged him to act on the rebellion that he had already committed himself to, so that God’s purposes could be completed. Pharaoh had already made up his mind and his heart and each successive sign, rather than having the purpose of turning his heart, exposed it and drew it out further. Despite everything that Pharaoh saw, he simply refused to believe.
This phenomena cannot be solely ascribed to Pharaoh, though. Just as he refused to believe despite all that he saw, the Exodus generation did the same thing. They saw the plagues, they walked through the Red Sea, yet they constantly wavered in their belief and repeatedly grumbled against the Lord. Just like those Israelites and the Egyptian Pharaoh, there were many who saw Jesus’ miracles and would not believe. John has shown repeatedly the crowds who had already hardened their hearts against the concept that Jesus was the Messiah. They were not looking for the truth wherever it led them, they were looking for a confirmation of their expectations. John tells us, and we can almost feel his exasperation, that Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, but they still would not believe in him.
John quotes liberally from Isaiah, as he says this was all to fulfill the of Isaiah the prophet. The first passage referenced is Isaiah 53:1, which says, "Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?" Isaiah is referring to the Servant of the Lord who is soundly rejected by the people but raised, lifted up, and exalted by God (Isa. 52:13). John says that Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s words. Just as Isaiah’s message was rejected by the Jews, so was Jesus’, the Servant of the Lord.
John continues to draw from Isaiah, saying that the Jews could not believe because God 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" (Isa. 6:10). If we read those words through the eyes of Western philosophy and thought, it is easy to suppose that John is using Isaiah’s words to present the case that the Israelites didn’t believe because God had not elected them to believe. Yet, that is not the case. If we look at what John is saying, from his Jewish perspective, it is much more likely that his point has to do with God’s sovereignty but not concerning God electing certain individuals for faith and some for unbelief with no regard for human free will. His point is that we should not take the unbelief of the Jew as a sign that God is not in control of events in history or that their unbelief is a sign that the Jews’ lack of belief might thwart God’s plans. God has turned them over to their own rebellion, or as Paul puts it, he gave them over (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28) to their own sinful and rebellious hearts. Signs and miracles don’t develop belief, they reveal it. Thus, the signs brought the belief out of those who genuinely and humbly sought the truth of God but it cause blindness, deadness and rebellion to those who preferred their own will over that of God’s. When God’s initiative and call meet our humility and search for the truth, the result is faith. When God’s initiative and call meet our arrogance and rebellion against any master other than ourselves, the result is spiritual blindness and a hardening of the heart that can rightly be said to be a result of our own actions as well as God’s. This was not a surprise or a wrench in God’s plan, though, it was something that had been prophesied all along.
Isaiah 6 goes on to say that the Jews would reject God’s way, "Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken" (Isa. 6:11-12). The rejection of God by His people would continue and eventually result in their utter destruction. This was about to happen from Jesus’ perspective and had likely already happened as John is writing his Gospel (the destruction of the Temple took place in 70 AD while John is likely writing one or even two decades after that). The light had shined on the mud of Israel’s rebellious heart had caused it to become hard like mud bricks.
But God’s purposes are not thwarted or even frustrated by rebellious people, quite the opposite. Isaiah had foretold of the effects of God’s Servant on the hearts of His people. This would serve as a sign of confirmation for those who would truly believe rather than serve as an alarming indicator that their rejection of Jesus was somehow legitimate.
The rejection of Jesus by the people of God and his subsequent exaltation by God Himself that Isaiah saw was not a mark against Jesus but a sign of his glory. God promised Jesus that He would glorify His name (Jn. 12:28). This would come through the rejection of the Cross. Some came to a nominal faith in Jesus, says John, but he links that the idea of Jesus’ glory to that as well. John said that Isaiah saw the rejection of Jesus as part of his glory. The word translated "glory" is "doxa" which can also mean "praise." Those who had come to some level of faith were still deeply influenced by the rabid opposition of the majority of Pharisees. They would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue. They loved doxa from men more than doxa from God, John tells us in verse 43. John tells us that Isaiah could easily see a rejection of Jesus as a sign of his glory and then tells us that those who "believed" in Jesus valued the glory of men over the glory of God. They could not, in other words, embrace persecution as something that might come in following Jesus. Perhaps this is understandable for men who did not yet have the strengthening of the Holy Spirit but John likely intended this to be a stern warning for his readers in the latter decades of the first century (when John likely wrote his Gospel), who were under a systematic threat of being expelled from the synagogues themselves. Could they embrace rejection as a natural cause of God’s light on the heart of the rebellious or would they cower in fear and value the glory and acceptance of man over God’s glory? The point is clear, oftentimes God’s glory will cause those who follow Christ to be persecuted by men who reject him.
In the opening line of Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues," he says "I hear the train a comin’, it’s rollin’ ‘round the bend." If you listen closely, it’s not hard to hear the train of persecution for God’s people rolling down the tracks of Western civilization. Are you prepared if you suddenly find yourself living in a culture that persecutes Christians, expelling them from normal life? Which do you truly value more, man’s acceptance and praise or God’s?