Why John 12:37-41 Is Not A Prooftext For The Deity Of Jesus

One passage of Scripture which Christian apologists often and confidently employ in the defense of the orthodox Christian belief that Jesus is God (i.e. the God of the OT, Yahweh, the God of Israel), is John 12:37-41:

Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord who has believed our report and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed.” {Is. 53:1} For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah had further said: “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.” {Is. 6:10} Isaiah said these things because he saw [Messiah’s] glory and spoke concerning him.

Apologist James White explains what he believes John intended the readers of his gospel to take away from this:

… what does John mean when he says that Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him? … In verse 38 he quotes from Isaiah 53:1, the great Suffering Servant passage… He then… quotes from Isaiah 6 and the Temple Vision Isaiah received… In this awesome vision Isaiah sees Yahweh (the LORD) sitting upon his throne… The glory of Yahweh fills his sight… John says, These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory and spoke of Him. John has quoted from two passages in Isaiah… Yet, the immediate context refers to the words from Isaiah 6, and there are other reasons we should see the primary reference as the Isaiah 6 passage. John speaks of Isaiah seeing glory. In Isaiah 6:1 the very same term is used of seeing the LORD, and the very term glory appears in verse 3. Even if we connect both passages together, the fact remains that the only way to define what glory Isaiah saw was to refer to the glory of Isaiah 6:3. And the glory was the glory of Yahweh. There is none other whose glory we can connect with Isaiah’s words.

Therefore, if we ask Isaiah, “Whose glory did you see in your vision of the temple?” he would reply, “Yahweh.” But, if we ask the same question of John, “Whose glory did Isaiah see?” he answers with the same answer – only in it’s fullness, “Jesus.” Who, then, was Jesus to John? None other than the eternal God in human flesh, Yahweh.

White’s interpretation of the passage is typical of what one will find from apologetic websites and books. Many, like White, consider this to be an obvious and air-tight conclusion. But I see a number of problems with this approach to the text, problems which I have never seen any apologist address. This interpretation of the passage is rather shallow, not taking into account all of the details of the text or the obvious problems it entails. But this is typical of apologists for the deity of Christ, seeing evidence of that doctrine in places where it just doesn’t exist. So let’s go through the passage and see if White’s interpretation can stand up to closer scrutiny.

The Sheer Absurdity Of It

The first point I wish to make should be obvious, but for some reason it seems to escape the notice of the apologists. On White’s interpretation of the passage, the apostle John is basically using Isaiah 6 as a prooftext, to show that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, is in reality Yahweh himself. John wants his readers to believe that Jesus is Yahweh and presents them with Isaiah 6 as proof of that fact. So let’s take a look at Is. 6:1-5:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw Yahweh seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of hosts.”

Now here is the problem. Observe that the passage is a vision of Yahweh of hosts, a common designation of the God of Israel in the OT. But please note that the passage says nothing about the Messiah to come. To be sure there are many passages in the book of Isaiah which speak about the coming Messiah, for example 9:6-7; 11:1, 10-12; 16:5; 32:1; 42:1-7; 49:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:12-15; 53:1-12: 55:4-5; 61:1-2.  If you read all these passages you will see that when Isaiah speaks of the Messiah to come, whether as a king or as Yahweh’s servant, the Messiah is never confused with Yahweh himself. In fact, it is clear that he is referring to the Messiah in these passages and not to Yahweh. But in Isaiah 6 Isaiah gives no clue whatsoever that he is referring to the Messiah that is to come. If you look at the passage above you will see that there is nothing in those verses that would make any ancient Jew reading it think that Isaiah is referring to the Messiah, and identifying him as Yahweh. If you read the rest of ch. 6 you will not find anything in reference to the Messiah. The passage simply relates a vision that Isaiah saw of Yahweh. Yet we are supposed to believe that John, a Jew, most likely writing to Jews in the dispersion, is pointing to a passage of Scripture which is about Yahweh and which says absolutely nothing concerning the Messiah to come, in order to get these Jews to believe that a man from Nazareth in Galilee is the one who is referred to in the passage. The very idea is absurd on it’s face. According to this view, John could have quoted any passage in the OT that is about Yahweh and then say to his readers, “This passage is about Jesus of Nazareth.” By the same token I can prove that Moses is God – just look at Daniel 7:9. If you object, saying that  Dan. 7:9 says nothing about Moses but is a vision of Yahweh…Aha! you got the point! Why should we credit the apostle John with such an absurdity.

Someone might say in response, “But John is writing under the inspiration of the Spirit  and therefore it is really the Spirit that is applying  Is. 6 to Jesus.” Imagine a 1st century Jew, living somewhere among the nations, and he comes into contact with a scroll written by a Galilean Jew, who is proclaiming that another Galilean Jew, who performed miracles and declared himself the Messiah, was rejected by the Jerusalem leaders and turned over to Rome to be put to death – does he have any idea that the one who wrote this scroll did so by the Spirit of God? No, of course not. John makes no such claim anywhere in his gospel. So when, at a certain part in the story, the author proclaims that this Galilean Jew is actually Yahweh come in the flesh and that he proves this by  reference to Isaiah’s vision of Yahweh sitting on his throne, will he not think that the author of this scroll has lost his mind? Yet this is what the apologists want you to swallow. But just how convincing would it be to a 1st century Jew reading John’s gospel, that he should believe that another fellow Jew is Yahweh himself, based on Is. 6? This objection, by itself, should be sufficient to dissuade us from seeing John 12:37-41 as a prooftext for the deity of Jesus, and to look for an alternative interpretation of the passage.

An Alternative Interpretation

The first point of exegesis I want to deal with is in v. 41. John states that “Isaiah said these things.” What does “these things” refer to? The assumption is that it refers to both quotations from the book of Isaiah. But is this a necessary or indispensable conclusion? From the perspective of the apologists it can refer only to the second quotation, from Is. 6:10. This is necessary for their interpretation to be maintained, so that the glory of Messiah, which John says Isaiah saw, can be equated with the vision of Yahweh in Is. 6:1-5. To further this connection they will also point out that there are certain Greek words that appear in v. 41 which are also present in the Greek version (LXX) of Isaiah 6. These words are eidon (1st person singular) = ‘saw‘, in Is. 6:1, which matches with eiden (3rd person sing.) in v. 41 in John; and ten doxes autou (accusative case) = ‘his glory‘, in Is. 6:1 [the LXX has ‘his glory’ instead of ‘his robe’, as the Hebrew], which matches with ten doxan autou (genitive case) in v. 41 in John.

Now James White thinks this is rather conclusive, for he says, “The use of the same phraseology makes the connection to the Isaiah 6 passage unbreakable.” But this is simply overstating the case. Does the appearance of the words ‘saw‘ and ‘his glory‘ in both passages really establish an unbreakable connection between them? First of all, the connection is not nearly as close as White supposes. John is speaking of a glory which belongs to Messiah, which Isaiah saw, while Isaiah is speaking of seeing Yahweh sitting on a throne and how the house (i.e. the temple) was filled with ‘his glory.’ White’s interpretation is based on an a priori assumption that the glory spoken of in each passage is in reference to the same thing. But if John had in mind a glory that is different than the glory seen in Is. 6:1-5, then the occurrence of the same words ‘saw‘ and ‘his glory‘ would be merely coincidental. I mean how many different ways could one have said ‘his glory’ in Greek? The mere concurrence of the same couple of words between two passages of Scripture does not necessarily equate to an intentional correspondence between them in the mind of the later author.

But why should we assume that the glory John refers to is the same glory that Isaiah refers to? White and other apologists believe that the glory John refers to as belonging to Jesus is a glory which he possessed as God before his incarnation. But does John give any clues elsewhere in his gospel that would throw light on how he views glory in relation to Jesus? At verse 16 in the very chapter in which our text occurs, John says:

At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

Here John refers to a glory to be given Jesus at a future time. He does the same at 7:39

By this he meant the spirit, which those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

Back in chapter 12, we again see Jesus’ glory spoken of, not as something he possessed in some pre-incarnate existence, but as still future, though very near to fulfillment:

The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified.   John 12:23

There is one passage in John which at first glance seems to support the idea that Jesus possessed a glory before the world came to be:

And now Father, glorify me at your own side with the glory that I had with you before the world came to be  John 17:5

Here it seems like John has Jesus saying that he possessed glory with the Father before the world existed. But since we have already seen that John clearly put Jesus’ glory as something future to the time of his public ministry and even in this very passage Jesus is asking for a glory he did not yet possess, it would be better to interpret the passage in a way consistent with this. The way this is done is by recognizing a common Hebrew concept and an idiom.

First, the Hebrew concept of predestination must be understood. In Hebrew thought, everything that is important in God’s purpose and plan and so predestined, has a kind of pre-existence before it becomes a reality. This pre-existence is not regarded as literal or actual, but only as ideal and in the mind and intention of God. Theologian E. G. Selwyn, in his commentary on 1 Peter wrote: “When the Jew wished to designate something as predestined, he spoke of it as already ‘existing’ in heaven.”

Likewise, theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel, on p.218 of his book Born Before All Time?, wrote: “. . . in the synagogue a particular kind of pre-existence was always associated with the Messiah, but it did not set him apart from other men. This is pre-existence in God’s thought, the ideal pre-existence of the Messiah.”

We see this concept presented in Scripture, for example in 1 Peter 1:20 :

Indeed, [Messiah] was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but was made manifest in these last times.

Messiah was known to God, i.e. in his mind and intention, prior to the creation, but became actual or realized at a certain point in history.

Next, we need to understand the idiom of having something with God. The idea here is that something can be said to be had with God {see Matt. 6:1 where one has a reward with God} when it is God’s purpose to give it at a future time. Again, it is not that the thing actually or literally exists with God, but only that it is something which God has in mind and intends to bestow at some point in time. While the word for ‘with‘ in Greek (para), when used with a pronoun in the dative case, does literally denote being in the presence of one, there is also a metaphorical use which denotes that something is in the mind of one (see Thayer’s Greek Lexicon).

So then we can understand John 17:5 as Jesus asking the Father to now give him the glory that he was predestined to obtain, a glory that was his in prospect, being in the mind and intention of God for him before the world was. This understanding keeps John’s perspective of Jesus’ glory being something which he possessed actually only after his death, consistent through his entire gospel, as well as consistent with other statements in the NT {see Lk. 24:6; Phil. 2:8-11; Heb. 1:3-4; 2:9; 1 Pet. 1:11; Rev. 5:9-12}.

So I ask, could John, in speaking of ‘his glory‘ in 12:41, be referring to that glory which was yet future at that point in the narrative? Of course this is reasonable and plausible. So if we assume this, we then need to ask, “When did Isaiah see Jesus’ glory in this sense?” This brings us back to the question of what John meant when he said, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” If ‘these things‘ does not refer to the Is. 6:10 passage then it must be referring to the Is. 53:1 passage, and I believe that to be the case. The immediate context, from 12:37- 12:50, is focused on the unbelief of the Jews. I think it is probable that when John quoted the first passage –

Lord, who has believed our report and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed.

that his mind was taken to another passage in Isaiah (6:10) which spoke of the tendency of the Jews toward unbelief, which he then parenthetically cites. So when he says ‘these things‘ he is referring back to the original citation of Is. 53:1. But I do not think that John intended his readers to only take into account that single verse, but also the whole extended passage of which that verse was the lead off, what we know today as Isaiah 53. We can imagine John, having only a limited amount of writing material, and wanting his readers to think of all of Isaiah 53 without writing out the whole thing, simply writing out the lead verse, intending his Jewish readers to fill in the rest.  This is similar to when Jesus was hanging on the cross and he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This, of course, is the first verse of Psalm 22, which, at least partially, speaks of the sufferings that Jesus experienced at his crucifixion, with many of the details of that event coinciding with verses in the Psalm. There can be no doubt that Jesus’ yelling out of these words was intended to bring to the minds of those standing by the whole of the Psalm. In the same way, John’s citing of Is. 53:1 was intended to cause his Jewish readers to consider the extended passage, which so clearly speaks of the Messiah’s rejection and subsequent glory.

But John said that Isaiah said these things (Is 53) because he saw his glory and so spoke concerning him. It is certainly true that Isaiah foretold the Messiah’s glory in a number of places, even if the word ‘glory’ does not appear in the text. For example 4:2; 9:6-7; 11:1-5; 32:17 (LXX); 42:1-7; 49:5-6 (LXX); 52:13-15 (LXX); 53:11-12; 55:4-5. 52:13-15 is especially noteworthy, which reads in the LXX:

Behold, my servant shall understand, and be exalted, and be glorified exceedingly.

This is noteworthy because it occurs just prior to Is. 53 and so fits John’s statement that “Isaiah said these things (i.e. Is 53) because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” 

 Now someone may get hung up on the word ‘saw‘ here, as if it necessitates that Isaiah had to see an actual vision of Jesus’ glory, and then point out how none of the passages I cited above say that Isaiah saw anything.  That John says that Isaiah ‘saw’ Jesus’ glory does not have to mean he literally saw it. Take for example Is. 1:1, which characterizes the whole book of Isaiah’s prophecies as

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah… saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Even though the whole book is called ‘the vision’ of Isaiah, the only actual vision recorded in the book is in chapter 6.  The language of ‘seeing’ simply does not have to be taken literally. We see this language repeated in 2:1 and 13:1, neither of which explicitly record any of the subsequent revelation as something which Isaiah literally saw in a vision. We see this same phenomenon with other prophets as well:

  • Amos 1:1 – “The words of Amos . . . which he saw concerning Israel . . .”
  • Micah 1:1 – ” The word of Yahweh that came to Micah . . . which he saw concerning                          Samaria and Jerusalem.”
  • Habakkuk 1:1 – “The oracle which Habakkuk the prophet saw.”

In all of these cases it is clear that the seeing is simply meant to be understood as perceiving by revelation. These prophets perceived future events that would befall certain cities and nations and people etc. In the three passages above, it is clear that their ‘seeing‘ is equal to verbal communication. I also note that the Greek word eiden used by John in 12:41 is used to translate the Hebrew word chazah in the above passages in the LXX and therefore John does not have to be referring to an actual vision which Isaiah literally saw.

Now for the clincher. We note, once again, that John states that “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke concerning (Gr. peri) him.”  White and the other apologists who follow his lead, want us to think John is referring to Is 6. But this does not fit with what John says, for where in Is. 6, after seeing the supposed vision of Jesus’ glory, does Isaiah speak concerning him? This brings us full circle to my first point in this article – Isaiah chapter 6 says nothing at all about the Messiah. It is completely silent “concerning him.” This is the definitive reason why John could not have been referring to Is. 6:10 – it simply says nothing about Jesus. Yet if we take John’s statement, that “Isaiah said these things” to apply to Is. 53:1, and by extension, to the whole of Is. 53, then it certainly fits with his statement that Isaiah “spoke concerning him.” Is. 53 is all about the Messiah.

 

 

Author: Troy Salinger

I am 55 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 32 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 36 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

5 thoughts on “Why John 12:37-41 Is Not A Prooftext For The Deity Of Jesus”

  1. This is another example of Trinitarians grasping at a sliver, and then acting like it’s a pillar.

    The glory that Isaiah saw was the same glory that Jesus as Messiah claimed he was destined for, the glory that he was to enter AFTER suffering and death:
    Luke 24:26-27 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
    Jesus is parallel to Isaiah, not Yahweh, as described in Isaiah 6 and quoted in John 12, as both Isaiah’s and Jesus’ ministry had the effect of blinding eyes and hardening hearts.

    Paul attributes Isaiah’s commission described in Isaiah 6 to the Holy Spirit, not “God the Son” (Acts 28:25-27). So the Trinitarian interpretation contradicts Paul.

    Now, for the Trinitarian to be consistent, every time Yahweh is mentioned, at least in the the Book of Isaiah, if not in the whole Old Testament, it must be “God the Son”.

    Like usual, the Trinitarian interpretation has eliminated God the Father from the picture. But in the end, it’s not God the Father who will be eliminated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done. I’d like to see this interpretative taked to bear on John 8:58, particularly in regards ro Jewish understanding of pre-existence.

    One thing I would add is that John 12:37-41 is primarily concerned wirh the unbelief of the Jews. So, like the Synoptic authors, John draws from Isaiah 6 to explain that fact. The Messiah’s glory which Isaiah saw was not the vision of YHWH but the vision of Israel’s future unbelief toward her Messiah: “looking they will not see… until cities lay desolate…” John is simply saying Isaiah 6 is about Israel’s experience with the Messiah, not that the Messiah and YHWH are the same being.

    Like

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