Isaiah 53: John’s Metaphor
Bareback riders must have a terrible time finding tuxedo’s that fit. It must be difficult to find a jacket that has one arm 6 inches longer than the other. Bareback riders wedge their hand into a riggin’ and then hang on for dear life for 8 seconds as their body gets contorted into shapes that make Cirque du Sole seem like beginners yoga class. When asked: “why do you fight bulls?” my answer is simple: “I wanted to be involved in Rodeo without harnessing my self to any large animals!” Bareback riding is exactly what I was trying to avoid. Bareback riders arms is how they make their money. The bend in the elbow, the compression of the bicep, and the grip in the hand make their arm and their power pay off. See it wasn’t just Isaiah who saw the importance of a powerful arm.
John uses Isaiah’s metaphor of God’s arm (aka. His power) to understand Jesus’ ministry to this world.
The imagery of the arm of the Lord is used throughout the Old Testament. It is in reference to God’s power to redeem his people (Deut. 4.34), as Creator (32.27), performer of the miraculous (Deut. 26.8), and Judge (Jer. 21.5). The underlying message, however, is the power and the capability of God to accomplish his purposes. Be it a showdown with Pharaoh or a conquering people, the Old Testament authors knew their God had the upper hand…or should I say arm.
As for Isaiah, the “arm of the Lord” was one of his favorite metaphors. Fourteen times from his pen, we find this imagery. In every instance it is used in the context of salvation. God will save his people! Isaiah wants to make this overwhelmingly clear. John would later expand on one of his salvation passages (Isaiah 40.10-11), where Isaiah is describing the arms of the Lord like a shepherd looking after his sheep. It is a metaphor Jesus would get great use of in John 10. Isaiah uses the idea of “the arm of the Lord” as a description of the past and a prescription of the future. A God who has done wonders for his people and a God who will some day bring back his people from exile. He would accomplish this future mission by sending a servant with his power described in Isaiah 53.
But why does John use this verse on this occasion in John 12.38?
John 11.37-38 says: “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still did not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: ‘Lord who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?'”
The reason, I think, is because it is in these few verses that all of the book of John comes to a head. It is a convergence of sorts, where all the aspects of John’s testimony come together.
- Jesus Ministry: His worldly ministry began when he first changed the water to wine in chapter 2. He then spent all of his time in the public eye, doing ministry in the world, but beginning in chapter 13, all of his time will be spent pouring into his disciples. This quotation is an epilogue to his public ministry in John.
- Division in John: John might be the only guy ever to center his narrative around division. Throughout the entire gospel people are divided over the question: “Who is Jesus?” In our text: “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him (37)….Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him (42).” When Jesus arrives, people divide.
- Signs in John: Jesus began his public ministry by turning the water to wine in Cana (John 2). This was the first of seven signs that Jesus would perform in John’s gospel. The last of the signs was Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11) in the prior chapter, thus concluding his public ministry as mentioned before. Our text, John 12.37 mentions these “signs”. John refers to them as signs, where as the other gospel writers use the term miracles. As it pertains to our text, the word “miraculous” in the NIV does not appear in the greek text…just in case you were wondering. The sign discussion leads me to the next point…
- Belief in John: “Even after he had done all these signs in their presence, they still would not believe…”(37) Ninety-Eight times is the word translated “believe” (gk. pisteuo) used in John’s gospel. That is nearly half of the times in the New Testament. Belief is often used in connection with the signs that Jesus performed. Jesus even sums it up in John 6, immediately after feeding the 5,000 (sign 4) and walking on the water (sign 5), when he answers the question: “What must we do to do the works God requires?”. Jesus answered: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” Belief is paramount.
- The Purpose: John’s purpose for writing is stated in John 20.30-31: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Again, “miraculous” is added by the NIV and not in the greek, but still, the signs recorded here were meant to bring them to belief. But what does our text say? “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous sings in their presence, they still would not believe…”(12.37) Diametrically opposite!
The Jewish leaders have found themselves in a collision of greatest importance. Before them stands Jesus Christ, with all his signs, all his statements, all his accolades…and all his Power. That is what this is really all about. Jesus and his power.
In Hebrew prophecy and poetry, there is a literary device known as parallelism. The second line, in our case “to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”, repeats the message of the first line. This device equates the two ending clauses. Therefore, the “arm of the Lord”, a metaphor extolling the “Power of God”, is equated with the “message” being preached in line 1.
If its been a while, you should go back and read John 1 and answer the question that has plagued us the entire book of John: “Who is Jesus?” John 1 begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus Christ was the message of God to the entire world and in him was the Power of God. Isaiah 53.1 and John 12.38 is where the message of God, “For God so loved the world…” (John 3.16) and the power of God, “My Father, whom yo claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me” (John 8.54) stand before them in the person of Jesus; and it will soon be shown greater still in his death and resurrection, yet they could not bring themselves to believe. So John lifts the question from Isaiah 53.1:
Who has believed our message; and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?