Shelby G. Floyd
Previously, we have observed that many of the Jews rejected the message of Christ, and had thereby fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, when he said, “Lord, who hath believed our report? And to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed” (John 12:38). This unbelief on the part of the Jews had been in the face of the greatest of evidence, miracles, signs and wonders performed by the Lord himself, confirming his identity as God’s only begotten Son, and confirming his speech as being inspired of God.
But the unbelief and rejection of Christ, and his message, by the Jews, also fulfilled another statement of the prophet Isaiah: “Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. These things said Esaias, when he saw his glory, and spake of him” (John 12:39-41).
During the Reformation, John Calvin originated the doctrine later known as Calvinism which consists of five propositions, namely: (1) hereditary total depravity, (2) foreordination, (3) election, (4) irresistible grace, and (5) the final perseverance of the saints. Those who advocated this doctrine claimed that a certain number had been foreordained to be saved, and a certain number foreordained to be lost, and that number cannot be changed by even one. Perhaps those who have taught and believed that doctrine would try to find in our text some proof to substantiate their theories.
While on the surface it may appear that God arbitrarily, immediately and directly hardened their hearts and blinded their eyes so they could not see and believe. Yet, upon closer observation such will not be found to be the case. We observe in our text that the apostle John said that “they could not believe” (John 12:39). Now obviously if it was physically impossible for them to believe because of something that God had done unto them, then of course they were not responsible for their unbelief, but rather God could be charged with that responsibility.
But, “could not” does not always mean that it is absolutely impossible for someone do this or that, but it means that it is only morally impossible to do this or that as long as a certain state of mind or attitude prevails. Let me give you some examples: (1) When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than them, the Bible says that, “…they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him” (Genesis 37:4). This simply means that as long as hate for Joseph existed in their hearts, they would not speak peaceably unto him. They could not because they would not, and therefore it was a moral impotency and not a physical impotency on their part. (2) Jesus said concerning his disciples, “The world cannot hate you” (John 7:7). Jesus meant by this that the world would not hate his disciples as long as they had the ways of the world. The world could not because it would not hate those who were of its own. (3) Jeremiah asked the question, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jeremiah 13:23). The meaning here by a figure of speech means that the sins of Israel were so inveterate, and in such a settled state that it would be very difficult for them to change their ways and therefore avert the disaster which was coming upon them.
B. W. Johnson gives us this very fine explanation as to why they could not believe. “The cause of their failing to believe is not the fact that God, through Isaiah, said thus and thus, but he simply points out the cause of their unbelief in what he said. The reason why they could not believe was not that God had decreed their unbelief and destroyed their free agency, but that, in the exercise of their free agency, they had made themselves, by the operation of God’s moral laws, incapable of belief” (B. W. Johnson, The New Testament Commentary On John, p. 197). Adam Clarke quotes Augustine on this passage to the effect, “If I be asked why they COULD not believe? I immediately answer, Because THEY WOULD NOT. And God, having foreseen their BAD WILL, foretold it by the prophet” (Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, Vol. 5, p. 613).
On this verse, B. F. Westcott observes that, “This ‘cannot’ expresses a moral and not an external or arbitrary impossibility” (B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According To St. John, p. 185). A. T. Robertson also gives the following excellent remarks: “John is not absolving these Jews from moral responsibility, but only showing that the words of Isaiah ‘had to be fulfilled, for they were the expressions of Divine foreknowledge’” (A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures In The New Testament, Vol. 5, p. 231).
Therefore the reason why the Jews rejected Christ and his message, and could not believe is because they were prejudiced, full of sin and would not listen to the council of his will.
Copyright © 2019 Shelby G. Floyd, All Rights Reserved
Shelby G. Floyd
Heartland Church of Christ
1693 West Main Street
Greenwood, Indiana 46142