Jesus did not fail in his ministry, but he was continuing the prophetic experience of Isaiah; he was simply filling up or completing what Isaiah described in his own time. The Jews should therefore hear John’s words and see them as an exhortation to repent of their disbelief and turn to the messenger who can save them….God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are held together consistently. Jesus calls for people to believe (12:36), and we learn that many do indeed make this choice (12:42).
Scripture speaks about those who ‘would not’ and ‘could not’ believe:
My title may be a bit much for some folks to get their head around, so let me break it down a bit. It is about the biblical truth that God may as an act of judgment actually cause people to be spiritually blind. Put another way, God may well allow folks who are steeped in their sin and rebellion to fully remain that way.
In either formulation, we see God at work while people make their own choices. That may not be to everyone’s liking, but it is a truth found throughout the Bible. I came upon it again while reading through John’s gospel. In John 12:36-43 we find these words:
When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 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?”
Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
“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.”
Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 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; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
There we read two rather astounding things: the people did not believe (v. 37), and the people could not believe (v. 39). The first appeals to Isaiah 53:1 while the second appeals to Isaiah 6:10. Both speak to the same reality. John is explaining why so many Jews refused to believe. John offers us here a theology of unbelief, and that includes – at least to some extent – some judicial hardening and blinding by God.
But as always when we read about God’s sovereign actions, we must not overlook what is associated with them: human moral culpability.