The Glory Of Jesus In The Gospel Of John

In this study I want to examine the seven passages in the Gospel of John (GoJ) which refer specifically to glory that belongs to Jesus. The purpose of this examination is to establish whether or not such references to glory, as something which Jesus possesses, are attestations to his supposed deity or if they attest to something else. Most traditional Christians are inclined to see in these references, proofs, or at least hints, of Jesus’ deity, but is this the inescapable conclusion that must be drawn from these passages or is there a better way, within their own cultural context, to understand them? The seven passages in question are 1:14; 2:11; 12:41; 17:5; 17:10; 17:22; 17:24.

The Meaning of Glory

Before we delve into the passages, it is important for us to understand what exactly is meant by the term glory. Glory can be one of those nebulous, abstract kind of concepts that is hard to define; we think we know what it means but when we encounter the word in Scripture it doesn’t always seem to align with what we suppose it means. One reason for this is simply because the word does not have the same meaning in it’s every occurrence within scripture. The Greek word translated as glory in our seven passages is doxa. In our English versions doxa is typically translated by the word glory, but sometimes by the word praise. The lexical definitions for doxa are:
1. brightness, splendor, radiance
2. majesty, magnificance, splendor
3. fame, renown, good reputation
4. praise, honor, glory

In the Greek version of the OT (LXX), doxa most frequently translates the Hebrew word kabowd, which emcompasses all of the meanings given for doxa. One unique use of kabowd (and doxa in the LXX) is in reference to a visible manifestation of Yahweh’s presence with the phrase “the glory of Yahweh appeared . . . “ This manifestation was usually in the form of a glowing fire within a cloud {Ex. 16:10; 24:15-17; 40:34-35; Lev. 9:23; Num. 16:42; Is. 4:5}. So then we see that the word glory can denote a number of different things, and so we must pay attention to the context to determine what specific meaning should be assigned to each occurrence.

One additional meaning of glory should be noted, which is related to numbers 3 and 4. We could say that the glory of someone is those qualities or characteristics which make them praiseworthy and bring them renown. This may refer to ones deeds, status, position, unique abilities, etc. Two passages in Isaiah illustrate this meaning:

Is. 42:8 – “I am Yahweh, that is my name; I will not give my glory over to another or my praise to idols.”
Is. 48:11 – “For my own sake, for my own sake, I will act. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another.”

Here God is saying that the glory that is distinctly his he will not let any others claim for their own. In the first passage my glory refers to his being the Creator (v.5) and the one who raises up his servant to accomplish his purposes (vv. 1, 6-7). In the second my glory refers to his being able to announce beforehand what he will do and his ability to then bring it to pass, something the gods of the nations cannot do. These are characteristics of Yahweh that make him worthy of praise and glory and he will not allow idols to take the credit for what he alone has done.

Incredibly, Christian apologists will sometimes appeal to these two verses when arguing for the deity of Jesus. The argument goes like this: God does not share his glory with any one else, but in John 17:5 Jesus shares glory with God, therefore Jesus must be God along with the Father. The mistake of the apologists is that they fail to understand the idiom in use in John 17:5. Since John 17:5 is one of the seven passages we will examine, I will refrain for now from commenting on it.

The Passages

John 1:14 And the word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, a glory as of an only one from a father, full of grace and truth.

The first point I want to make on this verse is regarding the translation. While most English versions translate the second half of the verse asthe glory of the only begotten from the Father,” there are, in fact, no definite articles in the Greek text, and so the above translation is more accurate. This translation, without the articles, is reflected in the AMPC, CEV, DARBY, YLT, NRSVUE (see also Meyer’s NT Commentary). The common translation with the articles seems to be based solely on the traditional understanding of the passage passed down from the early church fathers (ECF), for there is no reason from the text alone to include the articles. What the text is simply saying is that this person (he is yet unnamed in the text) had a glory like that of an only one (i.e. an only son) from a father.

My main focus in this article is the glory of Jesus, so I will not delve into the debate about the meaning of ho logos i.e. the word. I have written an article on the prologue of John which can be read here. Whether one believes the word to be a pre-existent divine person or a personification of God’s word (i.e. his promise of a savior), all agree that once the word becomes flesh we are speaking about a human person, the man Jesus of Nazareth. It is this human person who is the subject of the glory that was beheld by the author and his companions.

In the traditional interpretation given by ECF, not only of this passage, but of all the passages we will examine, his glory refers to Jesus’ supposed divinity. Now that interpretation is based on certain presuppositions concerning the concept of the Logos which were held by the ECF. What I am presenting here is a way to understand the passage without those presuppositions. In other words, if his glory does not refer to a supposed divinity in Jesus then what does it refer to? If it is not his supposed deity that made Jesus praiseworthy in the eyes of his disciples then what was it? To determine the answer to that question we must take a brief look at what is meant by “an only one from a father.”

The words “only one” is the translation of the Greek word monogenes. This word has been, in the past, typically translated as only begotten, but has more recently been understood to denote only, single, unique (see LSJ and Thayer’s lexicons). This would be the literal meaning of the word. If we take it in it’s literal meaning then we would have to conclude that Jesus is here being denoted as the only one who is a son, presumably of God. But what of the many NT passages that include all believers in the category of sons of God1? If believers in Messiah are designated as ‘sons of God’ then how can it be said that Jesus is the “only one?” Now, of course, the ECF, drawing on their education in Greek metaphysics, answered that question by postulating that Jesus was the Logos of Platonic and Stoic philosophy, an emanation out of the Supreme God’s own divinity. This later developed into the doctrine of the eternally begotten, i.e. generated, son of God. But no text of scripture ever says anything like that, and I do not approach this text with the same presuppositions held by the ECF. The question before us, therefore, is in what sense is the man Jesus of Nazareth portrayed as an “only one” in relation to God?

Like many words, in every language, monogenes has not only it’s literal meaning but also a figurative meaning. This figurative meaning can be shown by the interrelationship between monogenes in the LXX and the Hebrew word yachid, and between yachid and another Greek word, apagetos, meaning beloved one. The Hebrew word yachid is a straightforward equivalent to the Greek word monogenes, both meaning only one. We can see this clearly in Gen. 22:2, 12, and 16 where the phrase “your son, your only one” is repeated. This is said in reference to Abraham’s son Isaac, who was, in fact, not Abraham’s only son, because Ishmael was born to Abraham prior to Isaac. Now, the interesting thing is that we might have expected the translators of the LXX to translate yachid in these verses by monogenes, as they did in Judges 11:34, but they didn’t. Instead the use the word agapetos, i.e. beloved one. What they were doing was translating not the literal meaning of yachid but the figurative meaning which would denote someone special and dear. So the LXX has Gen. 22:2,12 and 16 as “your son, your beloved one”. In a similar vein the JPS Tanach (1985) has “your son, your favored one,” favored one being their translation of yachid. Zechariah 12:10 is another example of the figurative use of yachid. The Hebrew reads literally, “they will mourn for him as one mourns for the only one, and grieve for him as one grieves for the firstborn.” Once again, the LXX translates this as “as one mourns for a beloved one (Gr. apagetos)” and the JPS as “wailing over them as over a favorite son.” Observe also that yachid is set in parallel to the term ‘firstborn’ in this passage, which further supports the figurative meaning of yachid. A firstborn son, while not necessarily an only son, is certainly beloved and favored. So we note that both the LXX and the JPS Tanach are taking yachid in it’s figurative sense in these passages.

What I propose for John 1:14 is that the author is thinking Hebraically in using monogenes as one would use yachid when writing in Hebrew, but that he expects his readers to understand it in the figurative sense rather than the literal sense. Further evidence that John may be using monogenes in it’s figurative sense is the fact that the synoptic gospels portray Jesus’ relationship to God predominately by the term “beloved son” {Matt. 3:17; 12:18; 17:5; Mk. 1:11; 9:7; 12:6; Lk. 3:22; 20:13} but never by the term monogenes. Whereas John uses monogenes but never apagetos. Could it be that John’s monogenes is equivalent to the synoptic’s apagetos? The figurative meaning would be something like special, beloved, favored, privileged. So from this perspective the text would be saying that the glory of this one is like the glory of a specially favored one of a father. More proof that this is what John had in mind is found in 1:18, where the monogenes son2 is said to be “in the bosom of the Father.” Despite the fact that ECF tended to see in this statement some eternal metaphysical or ontological relationship between the Father and son, this language may simply be nothing more than an idiom expressing the the dearness and the place of special privilege this son, over all others, possesses in relation to God3. We saw earlier that yachid in the Hebrew text of Zech. 12:10 and agapetos in the LXX were parallel to firstborn, which denotes a privileged position over other siblings in relation to a father. This is consistent with Paul’s understanding as laid out in Romans 8 where from v. 14 – 25 he speaks of the sonship of believers and in v. 29 concludes that “he (i.e. the son) should be the firstborn among many brothers.”

So the glory of this one, which was beheld by his disciples, was the glory of a specially loved and particularly privileged Israelite, who held a special place in God’s purposes for Israel. His status with God was above that of every other Israelite. Therefore, the way they beheld his glory was in all the ways this special privileged status was made manifest in Jesus’ life; in the fact that he was given the spirit of God, which was demonstrated in the wisdom he displayed as well as in the miracles he performed, in his willingness to lay down his life on behalf of the nation, in his resurrection from the dead prior to and apart from the resurrection of the righteous, in his ascension into heaven, in the fact that he shall reign as king over the house of Israel on the throne of David. All of this together is the glory of this monogenes son, for which he is worthy of glory and honor.

John 2:11Jesus performed this first sign in Cana of Galilee. He displayed His glory, and his disciples believed in him.

In performing this first of his miracles, Jesus displayed his glory to his disciples. This shows that the ability to perform miracles was one aspect of what made Jesus praiseworthy. Whereas the glory in 1:14 encompassed all he accomplished in his ministry and beyond, here the glory is limited to his ability to perform miracles. That this ability did not, in the minds of his disciples, translate to Jesus being himself divine is evident in what Luke records in two places:

“Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people . . .” ESV

“Fellow Israelis, listen to these words: Jesus from Nazareth was a man authenticated to you by God through miracles, wonders, and signs that God performed through him among you, as you yourselves know.” ISV

Luke 24:19 and Acts 2:22

What this means is that Jesus is worthy of glory and honor not because he is God who has somehow become man, but because he is a man whom God has chosen and exalted and upon whom God has set his seal of approval.

John 12:41Isaiah said these things because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke
about him.

Christian apologists often employ this verse and it’s context as a proof-text for the deity of Jesus. They imagine that John is saying that Isaiah saw Jesus when he had the vision recorded in Is. 6:1-2. The Hebrew text says that Isaiah saw Yahweh and so John must be equating Jesus with Yahweh. In actuality, John said nothing like that. I have already written an article on this very passage, so I will not rehash the whole thing here. Here is a link to the article : Why John 12:37-41 Is Not A Prooftext For The Deity Of Jesus. Let me simply state here that Isaiah most certainly saw, by revelation and vision, the glory that would come to the Messiah. The glory spoken of in this passage refers to the exaltation of the Messiah after his sufferings per Is. 52:13-15.

John 17:5Now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with that glory I had with
you before the world existed

Once again, we have here a passage which is often used as a proof-text by apologists for the deity of Jesus. It appears that Jesus is asking the Father to return to him the glory that he formerly had with him prior to his incarnation; I say ‘appears’ because only if one holds a certain presuppositions will the verse seem to say this. But if one does not hold to these presuppositions concerning the nature of Jesus the verse can still make perfect sense within the cultural context in which it was written. I spoke of this passage earlier in the article and noted the apologists’ failure to recognize the idiom in use in this passage. First I will offer two translations in which the meaning of the idiom is given, then I will explain the idiom. Here are the translations:
Now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with that glory you have
predestined for me before the world existed.

Now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with that glory you have
had in store for me before the world existed.

Either of these translations expresses the meaning of the idiom Jesus used. When a ancient Israelite wanted to express the thought that God had some blessing or reward laid up in store for him, one way to do so was to say that the reward or blessing was his but that it was with God, the idea being that it would be bestowed upon him at the appointed time. Another example of this idiom is found in Matt. 6:1 where the Greek text reads literally “you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” While some versions retain the idiom most translate the idiom as “you will have no reward from your Father. . .,” putting the receiving of the reward from the Father in the future. Is. 49:4 conveys the same thought:

But I myself said: I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and futility; yet my vindication is with the LORD, and my reward is with my God. – HCSV

Now look how the NET translates the idiom to a future tense:

But I thought, “I have worked in vain; I have expended my energy for absolutely nothing.” But the LORD will vindicate me; my God will reward me. – NET

The idea of having something with God before the world began which is then later received as an actual possession is seen in passages like 2 Tim. 1:9b and Romans 5:2:

. . .  the grace that was given to us in the Messiah Jesus before time began.

Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand . . .

It is evident that this grace which was given to us before the ages of time was only given to us in prospect, in the plan and intention of God, for none of us actually existed at that time. Only later, at some point in time, did we actually receive this grace as an actual possession. The glory that Jesus asked of the Father was the glory that had been given him in prospect before the world existed, in the predestined plan and intention of God, and to be actually experienced by Jesus only after his suffering. This glory speaks of his resurrection to immortality and his subsequent exaltation to the position of ruler over God’s kingdom.

John 17:10All that is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine, and I have
been glorified through them

Jesus is here referring to his followers. Some of them had been faithful followers of Yahweh and were given by God to the Messiah to be his disciples. Some had just recently repented through Jesus’ preaching and became his followers and thus belonged to God. But whatever the case, Jesus had been glorified in them, i.e. in the fact that they accepted that he was from God and followed him. So the glory spoken of here pertains to the honor that came to Jesus by the fact that men were willing to follow him at great cost to themselves.

John 17:22 – The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be
one just as we are one.

Now this passage is not typically employed by apologists as a proof-text for the deity of Jesus, but since it deals with a glory that belongs to Jesus I have included it in this study. This statement by Jesus is somewhat enigmatic and so we have to get more of the immediate context to rightly interpret what is being said, paying careful attention to the idioms and figures of speech which pervade this whole chapter. If we back up to v. 18 we read, “As you have sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” Jesus is speaking of his immediate disciples, the 12 apostles. He says that he has sent them into the world, but what does this mean? First of all, it shows that Jesus’ being “sent into the world” does not entail that he pre-existed somewhere outside of this world and was then sent into this world. He says that his sending them into the world is just as the Father’s sending of him into the world. This implies that whatever it means in the one case it must mean in the other. We have here an another idiom. To be sent into the world is idiomatic for being commissioned to openly and publicly proclaim a message. This is what being “sent into the world” means for both Jesus and his apostles; Jesus being commissioned by the Father and the apostles being commissioned by Jesus. That this is what Jesus means by this idiom is confirmed by v. 20 where Jesus speaks of “those who will believe in me by means of their message,” i.e. the message they were commissioned to openly and publicly declare. Jesus goes on, in v. 21, to ask the Father that “all of them” i.e. the apostles and all who believe through their preaching, “may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” The later half of that verse is an idiom expressing oneness of will and purpose. For two persons to be in each other simply means they are one. So Jesus’ statement amounts to saying ,“that all of them may be one, Father, just as you and I are one” {see v. 11}. That this is not referring to some kind of ontological oneness is seen in what Jesus says next, “May they also be in us,” i.e. may they be one with us. Jesus is praying that the disciples would not only be one among themselves but one with himself and the Father. This oneness involves a unity of will and purpose, with each participant fulfilling his part. The Father has a will and purpose to exalt the son; the son must willingly submit to the Father’s planned means for him to attain this exaltation i.e. death; and the disciples must acknowledge and submit to the exaltation of the son. This oneness would result in the world i.e. the unbelieving among the Israelites, believing that Jesus was indeed the Messiah

Now we come to our passage in v. 22. There are two ways to understand Jesus’ past tense verb “I have given them” – either literally, i.e. he had already given them the glory that God had given him, or proleptically, i.e. he is speaking of something yet future as if it is already done. Also, the glory that was given to Jesus by the Father must be understood in either of these two ways. I contend that Jesus is speaking proleptically of the glory that will be given to him in the resurrection and his subsequent exaltation,the same glory he asked of the Father in v. 5, which had been predetermined for him from before the foundation of the world. Jesus wants his disciples to experience the same glory i.e. resurrection to immortal life and to be co-rulers with him in the kingdom of God. Jesus can speak of his having already given them this glory because it is in his intention and will to do so {see Jn. 5:21, 28-29}.

John 17:24 – Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am,
so that they can see my glory, which you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

This passage solidifies my contention regarding v.22 being proleptic in nature. If Jesus were speaking of glory that was actually given to him during his ministry, as in God performing miracles through him, this would be a glory that the disciples had already beheld {see 1:14}. But Jesus seems to be referring to a glory which his disciples had yet to behold and this must refer to the glory in which he will appear the second time {see Matt. 19:28; 24:30; 25:31; 2 Thess. 1:7-10}. For now Jesus’ disciples acknowledge and confess his glory by faith, calling him Lord, but then we shall see him in all his glory and our faith will be turned to sight.

This glory, which was still in the future when Jesus said these words, had already been given to him in the mind and plan of God before the foundation of the world. If you think this sounds too strange, I remind you of 2 Tim. 1:9 where Paul says that grace was given to believers before the ages of time {see also Eph. 1:4-6} That something can be given to someone in the mind and plan of God before the world began does not necessitate that persons actual existence before the world began. That Jesus could be loved before the foundation of the world simply means that he was foreknown and chosen in the plan and purpose of God, but then made manifest at a point in human history {1 Pet. 1:20}.


So we have seen that there is nothing in these texts themselves that demand us to understand the glory of Jesus in the gospel of John to be the glory of divinity. It is merely tradition that dictates that perspective, a tradition inherited from ECF, based upon an interpretation which they derived from reading scripture through the lens of their former education in Greek metaphysics. When the passages are read in their own cultural setting, taking into account idioms and figures of speech then current, they make good sense from the perspective of a purely human Jesus.


  1. Matt. 5:9, 45; Lk. 6:35; Rom. 8:14, 19; 2 Cor. 6:18; Gal. 3:26; 4:6-7; Heb. 2:10; 12:6-7; Rev. 21:7 – these verses use the Greek word huios (a son) for believers.
    John 1:12; 11:52; Rom. 8:16-17, 21; 9:8; Eph. 5:1; Phil. 2:15; 1 Jn. 3:1-2, 10; 5:2 – these verses use the Greek word technon (a child).
  2. In verse 18 we have a famous textual variant. Did the text originally read “only-begotten son” or “only-begotten God” ? While the vast majority of Greek manuscripts read “son”, three early and weighty witnesses support “God”. Quotations of the verse in church fathers is a mixed bag. Most have “son”, some have “God”, and a few even quote the verse both ways. I don’t think manuscripts or church fathers are going to resolve the issue. I take the original reading to be “only-begotten son” because this designation is given to Jesus three other times in John’s writings {John 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9} while “only-begotten God” never shows up again. Another reason I prefer the “son” reading is that to me “only-begotten God” always did have a gnostic ring to it. There is evidence that the Valentinians used this designation for the Arche within their system, along with Son.
  3. See also Deut. 13:6; 28:54, 56; Is. 40:11

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 chapter 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, nor that they should think this vision of Yahweh is a vision of the coming Messiah. 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 said to his readers, “This passage is about Jesus of Nazareth.” By that same reasoning 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 get 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 proof-text 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.