Throughout the Gospel of John we see Jesus performing numerous miracles and signs that reveal his true nature to us. Whether he is demonstrating his authority over creation by walking on water (John 6:16–21) or turning water into wine (John 2:1–11) or claiming to be the one through whom one has access to God (John 3:1–21) or showing his power to heal, even from a great distance away (John 4:46–54), Jesus reveals himself to be God in human form. Still, many do not actually believe in him, even as they are amazed by his abilities. In John 12 John explains the unbelief of the people.
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?”John 12:37–43 ESV
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.”
Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
In Isaiah 6 Isaiah is commissioned by God and told quite clearly that his mission would be a failure: the people will not listen to him. Ultimately this was so that God’s purposes could be fulfilled, yet it is puzzling that God said this was so that he would not heal them. There is a purpose in judgment and the purpose is connected to God’s glory. John wrote that Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory. Here is what he’s referring to:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”Isaiah 6:1–7 ESV
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Isaiah saw the Lord himself, seated on his throne. What an awesome sight this must have been! The seraphim were shrieking back and forth so loudly and so powerfully that the foundations of this heavenly temple shook. Surely the glory of the Lord was on display. I’m not sure this is what John meant, however. Luke tells us a similar story.
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.Luke 5:1–11 ESV
Peter’s response to what would have been the biggest paycheck of his life was to plead with Jesus to leave his presence, for Peter was a sinful man. Notice that Peter wasn’t about to leave! He was drawn to Jesus, to be in his presence, yet he recognized his guilt before the Lord. Peter understood something about Jesus in that moment: Jesus is holy. He is utterly unlike anything or anyone Peter had ever known. This is what Isaiah saw. Isaiah declared that he, too, was a sinful man. God sent one of those terrifying seraphim to the altar to grab a coal and touch it to Isaiah’s lips, signifying that God is the one who qualifies Isaiah to proclaim his message. In a similar manner, Jesus declared to Peter that from now on he would be in Jesus’ service, to catch men rather than fish.
God’s glory is seen most clearly in his mercy. When we read of God’s judgment we understand this. It makes sense. We all have an innate sense of justice. Murderers should not go free. Theft should not be tolerated. Even littering should receive some sort of penalty. Each one of us gets this. God’s glory is revealed in judgment, for God protects and defends his holiness. What is difficult to comprehend fully, if it is even possible to comprehend fully, is God’s mercy. Whether we read of God calling Isaiah to his prophetic ministry or calling Peter and the others to their apostolic ministry or God calling you and me to serve him in ordinary, every day ministry, the reality is he must first qualify us. He does this as an act of mercy and grace and he first forgives our sin and claims us as his own. He gives us a new identity in Christ. While judgment displays his glory, it is in his mercy and grace that his glory is seen most clearly. Let us rejoice today that God in Christ qualifies us to be his people as a display of his great glory.