Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I'm just going to post the King James Version. Feel free to reference your preferred version at your leisure.

John 12:40

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.

Is this saying that God blinded and prevented the understanding of some, thus preventing them from being converted and believing in Christ?

share|improve this question
This seems like a doctrinal question to me (different doctrinal perspectives might give different answers), but I'll bite ;) – Dan Feb 20 '13 at 4:51
Honestly, I just want to know the meaning. Surely "What does John 12:40 mean?" is an appropriate question for BH.SE. :) – Simply a Christian Feb 20 '13 at 4:53
Maybe they needed to disbelieve so that Christ would be crucified and His gospel spread to the gentiles. I don't know if it means they disbelieved forever, or just then, on the eve of His crucifixion. – user4282 Jun 9 '14 at 19:44
up vote 4 down vote accepted

The Text

John 12:40 literally reads:

[He] has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, in order that they would not see with their eyes and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.

A parallel passage also seems to exist in Matthew 13:14-15. Slight manuscript variance exists, but the variant readings have little significance for translation in this passage (since textual analysis is not the primary objective of this response, I will elaborate no further). A parallel passage also exists in Matthew 13:14-15, which could be used to illumine information about the source that was used for Isaiah's prophecy (but this will not be done for this response due to its focus on meaning, since this analysis sheds little additional light on the meaning of this verse).

The Basic Meaning

The immediate context of this passage tells us that the Jews refused to believe in Jesus despite him having performed many miracles (v. 37). It specifically states that this was so that the word of the prophet Isaiah would be fulfilled (v. 38). This is an apparent reference to Isaiah 6:9-10, which is then quoted (vv. 38-40). John 12:40 is thus a quote of Isaiah 6:10. John 12:41 goes on to interpret this passage of Isaiah as being a response to having seen "his glory" (presumably Jesus' glory based on the context). In Isaiah 6, the prophet sees the Lord sitting on a throne, who he calls the "King, the LORD of hosts." After exclaiming that he is a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips, a seraphim flies to Isaiah and touches a burning coal from the altar to his lips, and states that Isaiah's "guilt is taken away," and his "sin atoned for."

In John 12, the author is equating the Lord/LORD of Isaiah's vision with Jesus Christ. The Jews' unbelief in the context of this passage is seen as fulfillment or continual evidence of Isaiah's prophecy concerning God's people (they refused to turn to God). The implication also seems to be that God is the cause of (or at least a contributor to) the Jews' blindness and hardness of heart (getting into this any further would be impossible without introducing significant doctrinal speculation).

A deeper and more nuanced meaning could no doubt be argued on the basis of the entire relevant context of the passage in Isaiah by comparison to the situation in John's gospel, but this would be exhaustive and beyond the scope of John 12:40.1

1 If you are interested in how early Church Fathers interpreted this passage, St. Augustine writes extensively on this passage when discussing predestination in:

Augustine of Hippo, "A Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance", trans. Robert Ernest Wallis In , in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume V: Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 539. This can be read online for free.

He also writes about it in Tractate LIII:

Augustine of Hippo, "Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel According to St. John", trans. John Gibb and James Innes, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume VII: St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 291-95. This can be read online for free.

For an alternate perspective free from the lens of predestination and divine determinism, see St. John Chrysostom's homily on these verses:

John Chrysostom, "Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. John", trans. G. T. Stupart In , in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume XIV: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 252-53. This can be read online for free.

Several other early Fathers discuss or reference this passage, but Augustine and Chrysostom represent the main two streams of thought (Chrysostom's thought was more common in the early Church, Augustine became popular along with his views on original sin and predestination later in history in the Western Church).

share|improve this answer
I should mention that it is very important in my tradition to see what the Patristic consensus is on a given passage before attempting to interpret it on my own. That's the reason for the extensive footnotes – Dan Feb 20 '13 at 6:36

Any reference to eyes and blindness must be traced back to the opening of the eyes of Adam and Eve. It has to do with "judicial maturity," becoming a wise judge, able to differentiate between light and darkness as God does.

The biblical process is "credo ut intelligam," or, I believe (the simple trust of an obedient priest as God's servant) that I may understand (the wisdom of the king). Hence the Torah comes first and the wisdom literature responds to it.

We can also think of Isaac's "liturgical" blindness, favouring the son who acted like a king with no desire to obey God over the priestly, obedient son. Then there is Samson and Eli.

When God's priestly people Israel disobeyed Him, they lost their kingdom. Because they loved darkness rather than light, He blinded them. Yet He still turned this into a blessing for the nations. Israel would be made a spectacle (something to see!) and the nations would believe in Israel's God and His justice.

The final example is the blinding of the Jewish sorcerer in Acts, a judgment which converts a Gentile ruler. This was a microcosm of the event that Jesus, and later, Paul, would refer to: the blinding of all Israel that the Gentiles might see. Paul himself was blinded and received his sight again, with serpentine scales falling from his eyes.

Another interesting structural correlation is of the Lampstand with the seven eyes of God, the sun moon and stars (the kingly lights visible to the naked eye), and the Day of Pentecost, all of which are at the centre of their respective sevenfold patterns.* After priestly obedience comes the filling of the Spirit. After disobedience comes a filling with demons. Just as Saul received an evil spirit when David received the Holy Spirit, the same occurred on the Day of Pentecost. Many believed and were saved, but the Jewish rulers who did not believe, but blasphemed the Holy Spirit, were filled with demons and began murdering the saints.

The Bible also ties sight with food. We are to "taste and see" that God is good. Adam and Eve at kingly food and their eyes were opened - to their nakedness. Daniel refused the king's food temporarily (a priestly act of faith) and the king gave him a new robe and a higher office. The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not perceive Jesus until He broke bread, then their eyes were opened. When a sinner hears the Gospel and obeys it, submitting to Christ, his or her eyes are opened.

Sanctification is thus not a process of greater holiness by any miracle, but by having one's eyes opened wider and wider to reality in a judicial sense - we see sin for what it is and we see Christ for who He is. Communion is an act of "seeing oneself" (self-examination) and then seeing Christ in greater glory, preparing us to go out once again as priestly bread upon the waters of the nations.

*Jesus' sermon on the mount follows the pattern of the Tabernacle furniture/Creation week and His reference to "eyes filled with darkness" aligns with the sun, moon and stars and the Lampstand. After Israel rejected Him, the light of her lamp would be taken away. The graphic depiction of Roman soldiers carrying the lampstand on the Arch of Titus is testimony to her blindness.

share|improve this answer
"Any reference to eyes and blindness must be traced back to the opening of the eyes of Adam and Eve." -- please cite your sources for this. – Dan Esparza Jun 12 '14 at 16:36

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.