Today’s text deals with a subject that is offensive – God’s desire to harden hearts.
• And though it is a topic that has been known to cause division in Christian circles, it is something that cannot be ignored and must be taught.
John sees fit to end Jesus’ public ministry with it and so we must give it the attention it deserves.
• We must allow God to perform surgery on our hearts with the scalpel of His word, as Hebrews teaches so clearly, no matter how painful or uncomfortable it might be.
1) JESUS, UNBELIEF AND ITS EXPLANATION
John 12:37 (ESV) — 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him,
They Still Didn’t Believe:
Throughout His ministry, Jesus had confronted scholars, the rich, the poor, prostitutes, tax collectors, fishermen, fathers and mothers.
• He had articulated with great skill and care the nature of His identity and His relationship to the Father.
• And as our text makes clear, He had also performed “so many signs before them”.
• Yet, in spite of all this, His ministry was still confronted with unbelief.
• This fact becomes all the more perplexing on the eve of His atoning work on the cross.
• “Some explanation must be given for such large-scale, catastrophic unbelief” – Carson.
Explanation of Unbelief:
In the course of our study of John’s Gospel, we have encountered a number of detailed explanations for this unbelief.
• In John 3, Jesus spoke of the need to be born again (a reference to Ezekiel 36).
o John 3:3 (ESV) — 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
• In John 6, Jesus said those that come to Him are those that are called and drawn to Him by the Father.
o John 6:37 (ESV) — 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
o John 6:44 (ESV) — 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
• In John 10, Jesus said His sheep come to Him because they know His voice.
o John 10:4 (ESV) — 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.
• And in our text today we encounter yet another such explanation.
Why didn’t they believe?
• John 12:38a (ESV) — 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled
• What this means is that the unbelief that attended Jesus’ ministry was not arbitrary.
• There was purpose in it.
o Unbelief was part of God’s purpose!
The “so” in our text is designed in the Greek to unambiguously draw our attention to the reason for this unbelief.
• The Greek word literally means “a marker to explain something” – DBL.
• John regards this marker, Isaiah’s words, as so crucial to explaining the Jews unbelief that he highlights it again in verse 39.
o “Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said…”
In our text today, the markers John points us to are Isaiah 53:1 and Isaiah 6:10.
• John 12:38–40 (ESV) — 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.”
The Isaiah 53 text is the Suffering Servant prophecy.
• The Isaiah 6 text is Isaiah’s confession, salvation and call to serve God as prophet.
• A call that would be full of rejection and unbelief.
• So much so that Isaiah makes the following plea:
o Isaiah 63:17 (ESV) — 17 O LORD, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.
How do these verses explain the “catastrophic” unbelief that followed Jesus’ ministry?
• Why would John point us to them as markers?
• The answers are to be found in Prophecy and Precedent.
• The Prophecy and Precedent of Isaiah are the markers.
• In Isaiah 53:1, John wants us to see that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy as ordained by God.
• Jesus’ rejection is not a surprise.
• His crucifixion is not plan B.
• Jesus was to be rejected by man and exalted by God on the cross because God desired it to be so.
• Importantly, this means the unbelief in John is not an argument against the validity of Jesus’ claims.
• Quite the contrary, Jesus’ rejection is further evidence of His relationship to the Father as fulfillment of prophecy.
D.A. Carson puts it like this:
• “Surely (it was argued) we may call into question the messianic claims of one so thoroughly rejected by the Jewish people by whom and for whom the prophetic Scriptures were written! The Christian answer, as clearly articulated in Paul (esp. Rom. 9–11) as here, is that this unbelief was not only foreseen by Scripture but on that very account necessitated by Scripture” – D.A. Carson.
• What did Paul say?
o Paul said God has “broken off” some of the Jewish branches so that Gentiles might be “grafted in”.
o Paul said in Romans 9:18 that God “hardens whomever he wills”.
So how does this answer the question of why such catastrophic unbelief?
• Because Jesus is the “despised and rejected” suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah and the hard hearted cannot believe in such a Messiah.
• In Isaiah 6, John wants us to see that God works in history in a scandalous and shocking way.
• He not only saves and restores, but God desires to bring about unbelief by the hardening hearts.
• Isaiah 6 reveals that, “Not only did the people not believe, they could not believe…” – Beasley-Murray.
• This, again, is why Isaiah pleaded with God to not harden hearts.
• And, as we just saw, why Paul would teach us that God “hardens whomever he wills”.
So how does this answer the question of such catastrophic unbelief?
• The unbelief exists because God desires to harden hearts.
• John points to Isaiah to tell us that God has done it and is still doing it, even during Jesus ministry.
• This is why these men and women could witness the signs, wonders and testimony of Jesus and yet reject Him.
Why would God do this?
• Doesn’t he desire to save everyone?
2) PURPOSE OF UNBELIEF
This idea that God would purposely harden hearts which resulted in unbelief is incredibly hard to understand and digest.
• As we stated earlier, this explanation for unbelief seems scandalous and offensive.
• But why would God do this?
• What possible purpose could He have?
o And there is purpose.
o Proverbs 16:4, “The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble”.
• I think we will find the purpose just as scandalous.
First, we need to establish that God’s Word further confirms elsewhere what have seen taught by John, Isaiah and Paul.
• Isaiah 29:9–10 (ESV) — 9 Astonish yourselves and be astonished; blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink! 10 For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes (the prophets), and covered your heads (the seers).
• Isaiah 44:18 (ESV) — 18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand.
• Jeremiah 15:1 (ESV) — 1 Then the LORD said to me, “Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people. Send them out of my sight, and let them go!
• Deuteronomy 29:3–4 (ESV) — 3 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. 4 But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.
We see in these verses confirmation of John’s claim.
• Unbelief is not outside of God’s sovereignty.
• God desires to harden hearts which leads to unbelief.
• But what about purpose?
Leave it to Isaiah to shed light on this question.
• Isaiah 42:18–25 (ESV) — 18 Hear, you deaf, and look, you blind, that you may see! 19 Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the LORD? 20 He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear. 21 The LORD was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake, to magnify his law and make it glorious. 22 But this is a people plundered and looted; they are all of them trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become plunder with none to rescue, spoil with none to say, “Restore!” 23 Who among you will give ear to this, will attend and listen for the time to come? 24 Who gave up Jacob to the looter, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey? 25 So he poured on him the heat of his anger and the might of battle; it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand; it burned him up, but he did not take it to heart.
The purpose is clearly illustrated by Isaiah in this text.
• God hardens hearts “for his righteousness’ sake, to magnify his law and make it glorious”.
• And these three things happen when He passes judgment on their hard hearts and unbelief.
o “So he poured on him the heat of his anger”
o “Send them out of my sight, and let them go!”
• All persons bring glory to God whether in magnifying His law via unbelief and judgment or magnifying His grace via belief and salvation.
Jonathan Edwards expands on this purpose as follows:
• (1) “Unfruitful persons are of use in their destruction for the glory of God’s justice.”
• (2) “Unfruitful persons in their destruction are of use for God to glorify his majesty upon them.”
• (3) “The destruction of the unfruitful is of use, to give the saints a greater sense of their happiness, and of God’s grace to them.”
• “God made all men that they might be useful; and if they will not be useful in their conduct and actions, how just is it that God should make them useful in their sufferings! God made all men for his own glory; and if they, contrary to the revealed will of God, refuse to glorify him actively and willingly, how just is it that God should glorify himself upon them in what he doth with them! It hath been shown, that there is no other way wherein this can be done, but by their destruction. Surely, therefore, it must be just and righteous that God should destroy them” – Jonathan Edwards.
What this means is that God is just as glorified in the destruction of the unbeliever as He is in the salvation of the believer.
• Frankly, this is scary to me.
• This squashes my pride.
• Why am I born again?
o It was certainly nothing in me.
• God saw it in his purposes to save me.
• He owed me nothing and I deserved judgment for my unbelief.
• God had every right to harden my heart and do so to His glory.
An important point:
• Whatever the nature of God’s activity in hardening the hearts of unbelievers, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are personally accountable for our guilt.
• John 9:39–41 (ESV) — 39 Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.
• John 2:24–25 (ESV) — 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
3) THE GOSPEL IN ISAIAH
John 12:41–43 (ESV) — 41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 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.
There are two things that are unclear in these verses:
• Did John mean that Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory in Isaiah 6?
• And were the Pharisees that “did not confess it” actually saved or was their faith spurious?
• D.A. Carson suggests the answers to these questions are “yes”.
Whatever the answers, John’s reference to Isaiah 6 is important to explore.
• What we have in Isaiah is the Gospel.
• And if Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory and saw Jesus as King, we have Isaiah seeing and acknowledging the very things that Jesus testified to throughout John’s Gospel – what we called the Father’s Jesus.
• Let’s see how the Gospel is so clearly presented in Isaiah 6.
Isaiah had eyes to see the glory of the Lord (possibly Jesus) and behold His kingship (His exaltation).
• Isaiah 6:1–4 (ESV) — 1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
And having eyes to see and ears to hear the glory of the Lord, Isaiah responded as one always does, not as one who “loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God”.
• Isaiah 6:5 (ESV) — 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
And with the confession and repentance of Isaiah’s understanding heart, God forgave Isaiah.
• Isaiah 6:6–7 (ESV) — 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And Isaiah, having a firm grasp on his own wickedness and being awesomely grateful for his salvation, responded with the self-denial that seeks after the “glory that comes from God”.
• Isaiah 6:8 (ESV) — 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
Clearly, we have the Gospel in the Old Testament as we should expect.
• For all of Scripture is a playing out of God’s intention to make provision for the restoration of Israel and the believer through Jesus Christ.
And why would John highlight this just before Jesus was about to die on the cross?
• Because Jesus embodies both the magnification and glorification of both God’s law and God’s grace.
• In Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection the victory over death and sin in vindication of the law is completed.
o God’s holiness and judgment are perfectly wrought.
• In Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection the procurement of salvation by God’s grace is completed.
o God’s forgiveness and justification by faith are perfectly applied.
• “It is finished.”
Believers, those who have hearts of understanding; those who have been given eyes to see and ears to hear; those who have been born again; those who have been called, drawn and given by the Father to Jesus; have much to be grateful for!
• A life lived in gratitude is a life lived in self-denial; a life that says “Here am I, send me”.
• How grateful are we for what God has done for us?
• The answer is found in how we live our lives – “woe is me” or “no, not me”.