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In John 12:40, it is written,

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. KJV, 1769

Μʹ Τετύφλωκεν αὐτῶν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς καὶ πεπώρωκεν αὐτῶν τὴν καρδίαν ἵνα μὴ ἴδωσιν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς καὶ νοήσωσιν τῇ καρδίᾳ καὶ ἐπιστραφῶσιν καὶ ἰάσωμαι αὐτούς TR, 1550

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

  • 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. :) – user862 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
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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 exists 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). This parallel passage also 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).

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    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
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It is a figure of speech in Hebrew. Here is a concise explanation from Bullinger's Figure of Speech, Idiom

Active Verbs are used to declare that the thing has been or shall be done, and not the actual doing of the thing said to be done:

The Priest is said to cleanse or pollute according as he declares that the thing is clean or polluted. See Lev 13:6; Lev 13:8; Lev 13:11; Lev 13:13; Lev 13:17; Lev 13:20, etc., where it is actually translated “pronounce.” See under Metonymy (of the subject) and Synecdoche.

Act 10:15.-“What God hath cleansed (i.e., declared to be clean) do not thou pollute (i.e., as in A.V. [Note: The Authorized Version, or current Text of our English Bible, 1611.] “call common”).”

Isa 6:10.-“Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy,” i.e., declare, or foretell that the heart of this people will be fat, etc. (See Metonymy).

In Mat 13:15, this idiomatic use of the verb is not literally translated, but is idiomatically rendered “the heart of this people is waxed gross.” So in Act 28:27. While, in Joh 12:40, it is rendered literally according to the Hebrew idiom: “He hath blinded,” etc.; but who hath done so is not said.

Jer 1:10.-“I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down,” etc.: i.e., to declare or prophesy concerning the nations that they shall be rooted out, etc.
Eze 43:3.-“According to the vision that I saw when I came to destroy the city,” etc.: i.e., when I came to prophesy or declare that it should be destroyed.

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"Blinded eyes" and "hardened heart" are of course metaphors for an inability and unwillingness to believe. John is referencing Isaiah's prophecy of a temporary partial judicial hardening of the Jews to the messiah:

Isaiah 6: 9He said, "Go, and tell this people: 'Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.' 10"Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, And their eyes dim, Otherwise they might see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed." 11Then I said, "Lord, how long?" And He answered, "Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, Houses are without people And the land is utterly desolate,… New American Standard Bible

Isaiah 6: 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go to this people? And I said, Behold, I am here, send me. And he said, Go, and say to this people, 9 Ye shall hear indeed, hut ye shall not understand; and ye shall see indeed, but ye shall not perceive. 10 For the heart of this people has become gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. 11 And I said, How long, O Lord? And he said, Until the cities be deserted by reason of their not being inhabited, and the houses by reason of there being no men, and the land shall be left desolate

Brenton, L. C. L. (1870). The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament: English Translation (Is 6:8–11). London: Samuel Bagster and Sons.

The Paul seems to suggest that the Psalms say that the means of this hardening was a "trap" laid for the feet of the Jews in their devotion to the Torah:

Psalm 69: 22May the table set before them become a snare; may it become retribution andb a trap. 23May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever. 24Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them. 25May their place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in their tents. 26For they persecute those you wound and talk about the pain of those you hurt. 27Charge them with crime upon crime; do not let them share in your salvation. 28May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.

NIV Romans 11: 7What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened, 8as it is written:

“God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.” 9And David says:

“May their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them. 10May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.”

The hardening was temporary ("How long? Until..."), judicial ("For they persecute those you wound" and also partial, which is the theme of Romans 9-11:

NIV Romans 11:25 I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in,

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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.

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  • "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