This article will require careful thinking. But I can’t stress enough how important the subject is, because it directly affects how you think about grace, about God’s earthly people Israel, and, most importantly, how you think about God Himself. And as A.W. Tozer famously wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
John 12:35-50 is a vital section in discussing the transition from the Lord’s focus on Judaism to the building of the Church, but in order to understand it, we must carefully link together the various scriptures that explain Israel’s blinding. It will thrill you once we see the strategy God is using to accomplish His glorious objective. Grasping this, we may confidently stand with Peter and declare, “I perceive that God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). Now please read carefully some key verses in this section:
Jesus said to them, “A little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”…But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: “Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, lest they should see with their eyes, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.” These things Isaiah said when he saw His glory and spoke of Him (Jn 12:35-41).
The passage quoted in Isaiah 6 (from the Masoretic) reads a little differently: “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and return (convert, KJV) and be healed” (Isa 6:10). Who was the person who would shut their eyes? In the context, it is Isaiah through the proclamation of God’s words. And for how long would this particular blinding occur? “Until the cities are laid waste…” (v 11). In other words, this imperception would last until the Babylonian captivity. But even then, promises the Lord in v 13, a remnant will be spared.
To See or Not to See: That is the Question
Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted 5 times in the New Testament: Mt 13:14-15; Lk 8:10; Jn 12:39; Acts 28:25-27; and Rom 11:8. It is crucial to see the progressive flow of thought throughout this verses. Notice the words of Isaiah 6:9, “You keep on hearing, but you do not understand; you keep on seeing, but you do not perceive.” This is applied by the Lord as an explanation for His use of parables in Mt 13. Note carefully the application He makes.
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given…Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear” (vv 10-16).
Parables were designed so that, at the same time, they could both conceal and reveal truth. They kept back the critics and curious gawkers while allowing the honest seekers into the truth. Like the pillar of fire, to the Egyptians darkness and to the Israelites light, Christ’s parables were opened or closed depending on the condition of the listeners’ hearts. Note how the Lord changes the action of closing eyes from God’s work to man’s. This was something the unbelievers did: “their eyes THEY have closed.” This was wilful on the part of unbelieving hearers. Like stubborn children who refused their vegetables, they closed their eyes and retorted, “I can’t see them!”
Are We Blind Also?
Recall the story of the man born blind in John 9. By the end of the story, some of the Pharisees haughtily asked, “Are we blind also?” In other words, “Is that Your point?” No, the Lord, seems to say, if you were blind, I could fix you; I just fixed this gentleman. Your problem is more difficult; you claim you can see. As long as you pretend, I can’t help you. “If you were blind, you would have no sin (like this man who was not blind because of sin, vv 2-3); but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.” Notice the “we know” statements by the Pharisees in vv 24, 29, and 31. They might just as well have said, “We see.” But of course they didn’t see at all. They were pretending because they refused the Light shining right before them.
Although often applied personally, the words of John Baptist were coming to pass dispensationally. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). The last of the Old Testament prophets was decreasing in the presence of the Incarnate Word. The unyielding wineskins of the Law, unable to hold the new wine of Grace, must be replaced. Shadow was giving way to substance, type to Antitype, prophecy to fulfillment. So although Paul had a passion for seeing his Jewish brethren saved, hear what he says in Acts 28:
The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers, saying, “Go to this people and say: ‘Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand; and seeing you will see, and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.’” Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it! (vv 25-28).
Note again that this is a self-inflicted wound: “the hearts of this people have grown dull” and “their eyes they have closed.” And being self-inflicted, it could also be remedied. Notice the verses following the Isaiah quotation in John 12, “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him” (v 42). Even in that condition, it was possible to open the eyes they had closed to the truth and believe! Hallelujah for such enduring grace!
They Could Not Believe?
But wait! What does it mean when the Lord introduces the Isaiah quotation by saying in verse 39: “Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts…”? To find the answer to that, we will need to turn to the fifth and final use of Isaiah 6:9-10, found in Romans 11.
I won’t include the whole section in Romans 11 that we want to consider, due to its length, but I think it would help to have the Word open there. Please notice some details about the context. In vv 5-13, Paul delineates the accessibility of the gospel in 10:8 (it’s already on the tip of your tongue!), the essentials of the gospel in v 9 (acknowledging Jesus the Savior and Lord, and the vital truth that He is alive), the simplicity of the gospel in v 11 (where the emphasis is on whoever believes), and the universality of the gospel in vv 12-13 (where the emphasis shifts to whoever calls on the name of the Lord). The ideal message for all!
Verses 14-15 address the possibility that some Christians might fail in faithfully communicating this glorious gospel to those who need it. What then? Does the whole plan fail? Many Christians read these verses without noticing the author’s punch line. Instead they decide to make up their own: “They can’t hear if someone doesn’t preach to them.” But is that Paul’s conclusion? It isn’t.
Asking the Right Questions to Get the Right Answers
Running from 10:16 through the whole of chapter 11, the apostle poses four vital questions. First, in answer to this string of questions in 10:14-15, he asks, “Haven’t they heard? Yes, they have heard!” (v 18). Then he asks, “Didn’t they know?” Know what? That many Gentiles would receive their Messiah and they, as a nation would reject Him (see vv 19-21). Yes, they should have known; Isaiah had prophesied this seven centuries before.
Chapter 11 begins with Question 3: Has God then cast away the Jewish people? “Don’t even consider it!” he replies. Paul believed his own conversion was proof that God hadn’t given up on the Jews. Even Elijah got this one wrong, being ignorant of 7,000 faithful men the Lord had secreted away (vv 2-5). And to clinch the argument, the apostle explains again the principle of grace. Would God withdraw His grace from the Jews because they had not performed as He desired? Why, then grace would be merit-based, which is no grace at all. Grace by definition is undeserved favor (v 6). Which moves me to shout, “Amen to that!”
And now we arrive at our section on Israel’s blinding. (We must wait a moment for Question 4.) Does it make sense that Paul will now reverse his carefully constructed arguments, and say that God was blinding them because they were no longer deserving of His (undeserved and undeservable) grace? Or that He was done with them, and there was no possibility of them being part of a believing remnant, Paul and Elijah’s personal experiences notwithstanding? Impossible!
In v 7, Paul reiterates His statement in 10:3. The way to obtain righteousness is not by seeking to establish one’s own, but to receive God’s own righteousness as a gift by grace through faith. Most Jews during our Lord’s days on earth refused the light He shone upon them. They shut their eyes and ears to it, culminating in the august men of the Sanhedrin literally sticking their fingers in their ears, like stubborn boys, rather than hearing the truth from Stephen. So what would the Lord do to His own nation when they pretended not to hear and see?
Hiding from the Light Leads to Being in the Dark
He would give them “eyes that they should not see and ears that they should not hear” (v 8, quoting Isa 29:10). Then they could no longer pretend they were blind; they really would be blind! As we saw with the story of the man born blind in John 9, the Lord can fix blind people; He can’t fix people who refuse to be honest about their condition. Again, this was self-inflicted, make no mistake. Paul quotes David, who says that their blindness was a “recompense” (antapodoma, a payback) for their rebellion. But here comes the exciting part.
How would God respond to this situation? What of His plans to fill heaven with both Jews and Gentiles made one in Christ? And now comes Question 4. Have they stumbled that they should fall? (v 11). Was that God’s purpose in blinding them? Again, “Certainly not! Don’t even consider that!” says Paul. Watch what happens now!
When Israel stumbled in their blindness, salvation (which is “of the Jews,” Jn 4:22) came hurtling from their hands into ours! The Gentiles in Rome were not seeking the God of the Jews, but one day they heard this former rabbi offering God’s salvation to everyone! And, says the Lord through Isaiah (quoted at the end of Rom 10), “I was found by those who did not seek Me; I was made manifest to those who did not ask for Me.” Unsought, undeserved, unimagined—”salvation has come to the Gentiles.”
Who Would Have Thought of This?
But wait! There’s more! The sentence isn’t finished. Paul continues, “through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy” (v 11, KJV). I notice the NKJV leaves out that last part, “to provoke them to jealousy.” I leave the textual considerations to those with such skills. But the fact is, Paul certainly quotes those words in verse 14 at least. I say “quotes” because the words are taken from Deuteronomy 32:21. It isn’t Paul who thought of using Gentiles to provoke the Jews to salvation—it was God’s idea!
Let’s see how this works. God gave indescribable treasures to the nation of Israel: His Word, His Son, His Spirit, His salvation, etc. But they were so clever, so crafty, that they explained away their privilege, argued themselves out of a Messiah, and rejected God’s righteousness in a vain attempt to merit salvation. Proud, so very sure of themselves, they stood at Christ’s trial and said, “We have a law, and according to our law He ought to die” (Jn 19:7). They condemned the Incarnate Word with the Written Word, and so blind themselves (2 Cor 3:14).
God used many tactics with the Jews (Heb 1:1), but what motivated them was jealousy. Then that is what I’ll use, said the Lord. Like a spoiled child with a roomful of toys, when a poor neighbor child picks up one neglected toy, that is exactly the one the spoiled child wants! Thus with Israel. So although Paul had been sent to the Gentiles, he found comfort in this fact: the more Gentiles he saw saved, the more causes there would be for Jews to see Gentiles enjoying their Messiah, and want to get in on the blessing! (Rom 11:13-14).
Thus “blindness in part” which happened to Israel would not keep them from seeing the Gentiles enjoying God’s salvation! But it would force them to realize they had shut their eyes to Emmanuel, and now their blindness was only curable by turning to the Healer of the blind (Lk 4:18). Or as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor 3:15-16).
How good is the God we adore,
Our faithful, unchangeable Friend!
His love is as great as His power,
And knows neither measure nor end! (Joseph Hart)
May we, like Isaiah, see His glory in this, and joyfully speak of Him! And may we, like Paul, truthfully say, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved,” because even the blind may see when they cry, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.”
Part 5 continues here