The Gospel of John: The Difference between Would and Could.

“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.” Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” (John 12:37-41)

What is the difference between the words “would” and “could?” Aside from each word beginning with a different consonant (w and c), do they each have a distinctive meaning or are they effectually saying the same thing?

The word “would” is a verb which implies an intended action, presumably in a specific period of time. For example, “He said he would love her forever.” Or, “They promised that tomorrow they would help.” Inherent in the implied and intended action is the person’s “desire” to perform or fulfill the implied and intended action.

At the same time, the word “could” is also a verb. It also refers to an action in a specific period of time; more than likely a period of time in the past. Therefore, we identify “could” as the past tense of “can.” However, while the word “would” implies inherent “desire” to perform a particular act, the word “could” refers to the “ability” to carry out an act. Consider the statement, “I would if I could.”

You may be wondering what this examination of English grammar has to do with John 12:37-41. Simply this. John is commenting on why the masses of people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and witnessed His many miracles still did not believe in Him as Savior and Lord?

The answer, John says, is found in the prophecy of Isaiah. John quotes from Isaiah 53:1 which says, ““Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” He also quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10 which says, ““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.” John explains that the reason the Jewish people would not believe in Jesus is because, according to Isaiah, they could not believe in Jesus. The Jew’s unbelief was due to their hardness of heart. They lacked both the desire and the ability to believe.

Dr. R.C. Sproul provides great insight into this passage when he says, As the Lord kept many people from believing Isaiah, so did He harden the hearts of many first-century Jews against Jesus (john 12:39-40). This may sound harsh or even “unfair,” but note that the biblical authors have no problem attributing an individual’s rejection of divine truth to the working of both the one who rejects it and to God Himself. As we see in the case of Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, God is not dealing with people who earnestly want to believe in Him when He hardens the hearts of men and women. Instead, He hands over to unbelief those who, because they are born in sin, have no desire to believe. He does not have to create fresh evil, as it were, in a sinner’s heart. Instead, in His judgment He gives fallen people what they want, and apart from divine grace, they want nothing to do with God and His glory.”

Augustine of Hippo comments that, “God. . . blinds and hardens, simply by letting alone and withdrawing His aid: and God can do this by a judgment that is hidden, although not by one that is unrighteous.”

John Calvin tells us to “remember that the prophet (Isaiah) speaks of unbelievers who had already rejected the grace of God. It is certain that all would continue to be such by nature if the Lord did not form to obedience to Him those whom He has elected. At first, therefore, the condition of men is equal and alike. But when reprobate men have, of their own accord, and  by their own wickedness, rebelled against God, they subject themselves to this vengeance, by which, being given up to a reprobate mind, they continually rush forward more and more to their own destruction. It is their own fault, therefore, if God does not choose to convert them because they were the cause of their own despair.”

In today’s church, there are those who teach that sinners can or could come to Christ. They just don’t have the desire to do so. However, the Scriptures teach that not only do sinners lack the desire to come to Christ, they also lack the ability to come to Christ. See John 6:35-66.

 John finally comments that the reason he quoted Isaiah is because Isaiah saw Jesus in His resplendent glory, as recorded in Isaiah 6. The individual Isaiah saw seated on throne, high and lifted up, etc. was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ.

Dr. John MacArthur states, “This is a reference to Isaiah 6:1. John (the Apostle) unambiguously ties Jesus to God or Yahweh of the OT (John 8:58). Therefore, since 12:41 refers to Jesus, it makes him the author of the judicial hardening of Israel. That fits his role as Judge (see also 5:22-23, 27, 30, 9:39).”

We do not have to fret or worry about evil people in this world. God uses even the evil intentions of others to accomplish His purpose. As Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

Rejoice today that Jesus Christ is the sovereign Lord of the universe.  Rejoice also that while we as sinners “would” and “could” not come to God in and of ourselves, He came to save us because He would and He could. See John 6:35-66.

Soli deo Gloria!



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