A few notes on the exegesis of John 12.41
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 12.40-41)
What follows can be described as an extended exegetical exercise. The purpose is, on the one hand to bring out in detail the meaning and significance of this important verse and, on the other, to give an example (for the benefit of those not familiar with it) of how exegesis is done. Too often we are told the conclusion of a study without being told exactly how that conclusion was arrived at (if indeed any proper procedure was actually followed to arrive at the stated conclusion).
John 12.41: “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” While this is essentially how virtually all translations, rightly following the Greek, have translated it, the NIV takes the liberty to render it, “Isaiah…saw Jesus’ glory…” It is possible that the “his” in this verse does refer to Jesus; and most trinitarians will immediately conclude that this means that the vision of the Lord in Isaiah 6 was actually a vision of Jesus, and we are therefore justified in equating Jesus with the Lord, i.e. Yahweh, and thereby assume that it is a proof-text for trinitarian doctrine.
But scholars (like C.K. Barrett, H.A.W. Meyer, and others) are more cautious, knowing full well that such an equation cannot be justified from the Scriptures as a whole. Why? Because, whether they like it or not, they are mindful of the fact that the Scriptures are monotheistic and they are, therefore, fully aware that any attempt to suggest that the Lord who was seen by Isaiah was in fact Jesus would be a violation of any proper attempt to interpret what Isaiah himself meant, not to mention that it would fly in the face of the monotheism of both the Old and New Testaments, including John’s Gospel itself (cf. e.g. Jo.17.3, “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Also Jo.5.44)
But there is another reason why a simple equation of the Lord and Jesus based on Isaiah’s vision of the Lord cannot be sustained. That is because it is a well known fact that God is invisible to the human eye, that is why “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18), and anyone who had a direct unmediated spiritual vision of the Lord would not live to talk about it. For example, the Lord said to Moses in Exodus 33.20, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” In the NT this is likewise stated unequivocally, “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might for ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 6:15,16) (Does all this contradict Isaiah 6.1ff? No, precisely because John 12.41 explains that Isaiah “saw His glory”, not His person.)
This being the case, what then did John mean by saying that Isaiah saw his (Jesus’?) glory? “The Word” (Logos) is God’s self-revelation. The Logos reveals God’s glory; therefore we see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2Co.4.6)—we know God’s glory through Christ. This is precisely because “He is the radiance of the glory of God” (Heb.1.3). “Radiance” (apaugasma) itself speaks of a radiating brightness, so one could say that Jesus is the glory (a shining out) of the glory of God. Thus, what Isaiah saw was not a direct or unmediated vision of God (which, as we have noted above, Scripture declares to be impossible), but “the radiance of the glory of God”—which is Christ as the embodiment of the Word/Memra (cf.Jo.1.14, “we have seen his (the Word’s) glory”).
With this exegesis the scholars concur. For example, M. Dods, (The Expositor’s Greek Testament, John 12.41), “the Theophanies of the OT were mediated by the pre-existent Logos [Word].” Similarly, Barrett: “The theophany as described in Isa.6 could well be termed the ‘glory of God’” (St John, p.360). Barrett, like the others quoted above, assumes that John meant that “Isaiah saw the glory of Christ and spoke of him” (italics his).
There are however, problems with these notions of the scholars mentioned above which, strangely, they don’t seem to be aware of—or perhaps don’t wish to be aware of: One of these is that they simply assume that Jesus=Logos or Logos=Jesus. But what is the Scriptural justification for this assumption? In John there is no such simple equation but rather, according to John 1.14, in Jesus “the Logos became flesh” (ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο). Therefore, it is not “the Logos=Jesus”, but “the Logos was incarnate in Jesus”; this is a fundamental difference.
It is true that the Logos and Jesus were united through the incarnation, but it was by way of the incarnation that they became one and not before that, according to John 1.14. Once we have grasped this plain fact, we should see that the interpretative statement made, for example, in the NIV that Isaiah “saw Jesus’ glory” is incorrect. The most that can be said is that he saw the glory of the Logos—but that is something which John himself does not state in 12.41. The Logos had not yet become “enfleshed” in Jesus, how then could Isaiah have seen the glory of Jesus (except in a proleptic or prophetic way)? Is not such a statement as that which Barrett made (see two paragraphs earlier) anachronistic?
An unjustified assumption regarding John 12.41
The reader who is careful in regard to the accurate exegesis of the Word (and there are, alas, probably not many such readers) will have noticed that I took a step a few paragraphs ago which I made no serious attempt to justify. What was that step? It was this: I simply accepted the trinitarian position that the “his” in the words “saw his glory” (John 12.41) referred to Jesus’ pre-incarnation glory (this phrase will be discussed below). This seems plausible in the context, but does its plausibility really require no further proof? Should it not be asked: If John wanted to refer to Jesus by “his”, why did he not say so specifically, for it does not take much longer in Greek to say or to write “Christ’s glory” as to say or write “his glory” (the Greek word for “his” is autos)?
Can a matter of such importance be left to the undefined “his”? The whole trinitarian argument is based on the assumption that this “his” refers to Jesus. I went along with this assumption and was thereby able to see how far the more responsible scholars could take it. As we have seen, they took it as far as Jesus’ being the Logos of God.
But for the sake of faithfulness to the word of God, I feel obliged to examine the validity of the assumption. If we are responsible before the Lord, should we not ask: Is this really what John meant? If so, why did he not say so, rather than leave it to his readers to assume that the reference was to the Logos, or to Jesus? Moreover, everyone who has read Isa.6 knows that the “his” in the context of Isaiah refers to the “Lord” (Adon) who is further specified in v.5 as Yahweh. Can we so lightly assume, as trinitarians do, that John the monotheist (and the Jewish believers, who constituted most of the first readers of John) would equally lightly refer to Jesus in Jo.12.41 by an indeterminate “his”?
Should we not also ask: What exactly is the connection of the “his” in v.41 to the totally different statement in v.40, in which there is no mention whatever of “glory” (not even in the preceding verses)? Can (and should) we decide on the “his” without even having considered whether there is any internal logic which connects these two verses (i.e. vv.40 and 41)? As for the connection between these verses, can we find any other connection, whether in Isaiah or in John, other than this: Even though Isaiah was granted a supernal vision of God’s glory, and even though he was thereby an eyewitness of that glory, the hearts of people of Israel were so hardened against the truth that they would not listen to Isaiah.
Was this not precisely the same point made repeatedly in John in regard to the attitude of the people of Israel to Jesus? Jesus as the Word incarnate is repeatedly spoken of as the one who has seen the Father, who knows the Father, and he reveals to us what he has seen; but just as they rejected Isaiah, so now they reject Jesus in exactly the same way. (Note the frequency of “see” in John.) If so, then the “his” in v.41 would have its normal meaning, namely, that it refers to Yahweh just as Isaiah had declared in Isa.6.1, and since this was known to all John’s (esp. Jewish) readers, he did not need to specify that it referred to Yahweh. Had he intended it to refer to Jesus, is it not obvious that he would have had to specify that to be the case and could not simply assume that his readers would make that assumption?
Thus, is not the whole point of vv.40 and 41 (and context) that though Isaiah saw Yahweh’s glory the people rejected his message, so too Jesus as the one who saw the glory of God the Father in ways far beyond what Isaiah could have seen, was none the less rejected by the Jews in the same way (and indeed in a worse way because it ended on the cross) as they rejected Isaiah?
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church