Notes for John 12:34-40 on the mysteries of God and His hardening of some and quickening of others unto His own glory and for His own pleasure
12:34-36 So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”  So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going.  While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them.
Who is this Son of Man?
What the crowd was really saying here is not “who is this Son of Man” but “what kind of person is this Son of Man?” They were confused about the role of the Messiah, as we’ve discussed before. They had an odd conglomerate of ideas as to what the Messiah would be and do, but interestingly none of those ideas included the sacrificial death of their great hope!
Now, as we look at the crowd’s reaction to Christ’s sayings we ought to note that earlier in John’s gospel Jesus has mentioned being “lifted up” – it’s during His discourse with Nicodemus (chapter 3). After telling Nicodemus that he must be “born again” in order to see the kingdom of God, He goes on to tell him “heavenly things”:
If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:12-15 ESV)
The moment in history Jesus was making reference to is recounted for us in Numbers:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way.  And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”  Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.  And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.  And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”  So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:4-9 ESV)
Interesting that when the people were being bitten by serpents they thought it was a good idea to look up at the bronze serpent, but by the time we arrive at this moment in history God’s chosen people were so hardened in their hearts that the serpent was no longer simply an enemy but their leader (see John 8)! Besides, they didn’t need to look up to heaven for help, they had their laws and their moralism and they were just fine working things out on their own. Sound familiar? We often don’t deign to lift our eyes to heaven for help and beg for mercy, nor do we trust that it is through the spectacle of the crucified Christ that we find our hope and strength. We would much rather work things out on our own, we would much rather plunge into Canaan on our own. But God will not be with us that way. Only through surrender is there safety for our souls.
Walk in the Light or Darkness will Close in…
During the time that Christ walked upon the earth, people from all over had the opportunity to listen to Him and repent, but few did that. Not until His resurrection and the sending of the Spirit and proclamation of the gospel did many millions of souls come to faith in Him.
Yet His call is not simply for those within earshot but for us as well. We all can guess at what it means to walk in the light, but we may easily miss what Jesus says in verse 35, “Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you.” The presumption here is that without the help of Christ, there is no hope. When the light is gone we cannot manufacture light on our own! No amount of moralism or good deeds will bring you safely across the threshold of eternity. No amount of self-generated piety will create light enough for you to see your way through the darkness of the death that surrounds you.
In short, without Jesus’ light you are damned to the darkness of this world, and of Hell after you die. Outside of Jesus there is no light and there is no life.
Look how Paul describes people who are searching for God during his discourse at Mars Hill:
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, (Acts 17:26-27 ESV)
These people were searching around, feeling with their hands for the light switch. But it was not far from them…
Listen to what Christ stated in chapter eight of John’s gospel:
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” (John 8:12)
And so let us not presume that we can generate a life outside of the life Christ gives us that is worth living. All “life” outside of Christ is darkness and a life of living death. It is a life of darkness, insecurity and eternal peril. Furthermore, if we have been given this light, why would we seek to turn off the light switch and live in darkness? Let us walk as people who can actually see their steps, and not trip over things we see very well but others do not. Let us walk in a manner worthy of our calling. As Paul says:
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, (Phil. 1:27)
12:37-40 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.”
The Total Depravity of Man
Let’s just take verse 37 first, for it’s the foundational verse in this series of verses. It states that Christ had done “so many signs” in front of these people, and what was the results? “They still did not believe in him.” What is John trying to say here? He’s undoubtedly saying that no one in their right mind could see the outrageously wonderful things Jesus was doing and not believe in Him. Yet, somehow these people “still” couldn’t find it within themselves to believe in him…and that’s exactly how I think its best expressed, they couldn’t “find it within themselves.”
A.W. Pink says:
“Fearful proof was this of the depravity of the human heart. The miracles of Christ were neither few in number nor unimpressive in nature. The Lord Jesus performed prodigies of power of almost every conceivable kind. He healed the sick, expelled demons, controlled the winds, walked on the sea, turned water into wine, revealed to men their secret thoughts, raised the dead. His miracles were wrought openly, in the light of day, before numerous witnesses. Nevertheless “they”—the nation at large—”believed not on him.” Altogether inexcusable was their hardness of heart. All who heard His teaching and witnessed His works, ought, without doubt, to have received Him as their Divinely-accredited Messiah and Savior. But the great majority of His countrymen refused to acknowledge His claims.”
J.C. Ryle says:
“The prevalence of unbelief and indifference in the present day ought not to surprise us. It is just one of the evidences of that mighty foundation-doctrine, the total corruption and fall of man. How feebly we grasp and realize that doctrine is proved by our surprise at human incredulity. We only half believe the heart’s deceitfulness. Let us read our Bibles more attentively, and search their contents more carefully. Even when Christ wrought miracles and preached sermons there were numbers of His hearers who remained utterly unmoved. What right have we to wonder if the hearers of modern sermons in countless instances remain unbelieving? ‘The disciple is not greater than his Master.’ If even the hearers of Christ did not believe, how much more should we expect to find unbelief among the hearers of His ministers? Let the truth be spoken and confessed: man’s obstinate unbelief is one among many of the indirect proofs that the Bible is true”
John is provoking us to ask the questions “why?” “What is going on with these people that they can see all of these supernatural things and still not believe in Jesus?” Well, as it turns out, it’s not what is going on with them, but rather, what is not going on within them.
John signals that he’s going to explain when, at the beginning of verse 38, he says “so.” That word “so” in the ESV is iva in the Greek, which is best transliterated “that” or “in order that” or “so that”, and it signals that the reason for the aforementioned unbelief is about to be given, and it is namely that “the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.” In other words, “their unbelief has occurred in order that Isaiah’s prophecy would come to pass.”
Well, what is this prophecy exactly? “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” and 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.”
And the result? “Therefore they could not believe.” God has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart in order that they not believe. This is an incredible passage, the closest one I can find that’s comparable is found in Exodus where a series of passages explains that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh.
How Do We Understand This “Hardening”?
In order to understand this Biblically, we need to first understand what it means for God to harden a heart, only then will we be able to understand verse 44 when we look at that, and realize that God is hardening hearts, and at the same time calling on people to believe in Christ for salvation. Our feeble minds want to ask, “How can these two things happen in fairness simultaneously?”
We believe that God is pure and holy and perfectly righteous, and there is no evil in Him whatsoever, so that we know that He does not harden a human heart by reaching in and infusing it with evil! Rather, when scripture talks about God hardening a heart, it is God’s turning us over to our own desires. Without His arm of grace, without His showering us with protection from ourselves, we become completely given over to our own sinful desires. Paul explains in Romans:
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:24-28 ESV)
Three times Paul says that God “gave them up”, paradidōmi, to themselves. And what happens? They go from bad to worse. They continue in sin and their minds become more and more depraved. And so when God hardens a heart, all He is doing is allowing us to have what we naturally want, such is the ignominiously depraved condition of mankind’s heart.
God is Still Sovereign Over All…and That Means ALL
Lastly, while we understand that our own desires are naturally evil, and that God can give us up to these desires, we cannot run the fact that He is in complete control over all things. It is difficult for us to understand these truths in our finitude, and we usually like to find ways to vindicate God of some kind of self-perceived problem of God being involved in creating evil. These attempts at theodicy have resulted in the past in many errors, and its not surprising that many of these errors are rooted in an inappropriate view of God and a wildly distorted view of man. In his day John Calvin addressed many of these difficult questions and said (in chapter 18 of book one of Institutes) that we cannot excuse God from involvment in the hardening of men’s hearts simply because we do not understand His reasons. Those who suppose God is not sovereign over all details of our lives suppose incorrectly that he only “permits” things as though He had no control at all. Here is what Calvin says to sum up the matter:
The sum of the whole is this, – since the will of God is said to be the cause of all things, all the counsels and actions of men must be held to be governed by his providence; so that he not only exerts his power in the elect, who are guided by the Holy Spirit, but also forces the reprobate to do him service.
And so it is that God works all things according to His will, even in the lives of those who are not Christians, for nothing is out of His control, nor does He simply take His hands off the situation as if to allow Satan to rule independently. As Calvin points out, “With regard to secret movements, what Solomon says of the heart of a king, that it is turned hither and thither, as God sees meet, certainly applies to the whole human race, and has the same force as if he had said, that whatever we conceive in our minds is directed to its end by the secret inspiration of God.”
Therefore, though this is complex, and difficult to understand, we can know in the final analysis that God does all things according to His pleasure for His glory, and allows justice to be done upon those whose hearts He has turned over to their own evil desires. God does not owe man anything; He certainly does not owe every man mercy for man, in his natural state is depraved and will always seek the darkness and not the light (John 3:19-21).
As Augustine summarizes so well:
Great is the work of God, exquisite in all he wills! So that, in a manner wondrous and ineffable, that is not done without his will which is done contrary to it, because it could not be done if he did not permit; nor does he permit it unwillingly, but willingly; nor would He who is good permit evil to be done, were he not omnipotent to bring good out of evil… (Augustine re: Ps. 111: 2).
I think I have clearly stated the truth of God’s work here above, and so I cannot spend much more time addressing the question, but I recognize that this is a difficult concept to grasp. Just how does God deal with man and why does He do it. But we can know that God is not the author of evil, while still maintaining that He is sovereign and involved in every detail of our lives. We also know that we all deserve Hell for our sins, and if God was not merciful to any of us it would be just for Him to send us to Hell. God is also completely sovereign over whom He quickens unto spiritual life. It is obvious that some go to Hell and some go to Heaven. But why He chooses some and not others is up to Him and not us, for who can question the Lord (Job 38)? It is also true that those evil people who are given over to their sinful desires cannot blame God for the justice they receive – for no one receives what is unjust. Some receive mercy, and others receive justice. Furthermore, we cannot know now why it is that God so chooses to use the evil deeds of men who are destined for Hell for His own glory – as He did when His Son was crucified in a monstrously evil act that has brought about more good than anything ever has in this world. I cannot understand why God chooses to act through these means, or why He allowed evil in the first place, or why He permits any of us to continue on in this life, as we must so often His holy nature by our dreadful sins. I simply know that it is His will and pleasure to do these things the way He does them, and I do not excuse Him from these acts as if He needed an excuse. He is both sovereign and hands-on, and completely just and loving. His ways are far above my ways and your way. His mind is so infinitely beyond our questioning that I dare not probe into His secret counsels. I simply stand in awe and fear of His might and magnificence, and wonder at the depth of His mercy to me, a sinner.