John says that Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus (Jn. 12:41). Is this a reference back to the “glory” of God that Isaiah saw in the temple? Or is it something else? Well, I’m going to say that it was something else, not because I’m anti-trinitarian but because I don’t think that’s what John means at this moment in the narrative.
So we need to try and get a sense of what is happening.
Jesus enters into Jerusalem riding on a young donkey, and is acclaimed as one who comes in the name of YHWH, on YHWH’s behalf, “even the king of Israel.” In some sense, he is fulfilling the role imagined by Zechariah: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15; cf. Zech. 9:9).
The disciples do not immediately grasp the significance of the occasion, but “when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him” (Jn. 12:16).
John has introduced quite openly here the perspective of the later church, knowing how things worked out, looking back on the troubling circumstances of Jesus’ confrontations with his own people. It sets up a clear trajectory: in life Jesus was misunderstood, even by those who followed him, but later he was glorified.
Andrew and Philip tell Jesus that some Greek-speaking Jews want to meet with him. Jesus replies: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn. 12:23). That clearly gives us the theme of the passage.
He also speaks about the need for his disciples to follow him: they must fall to the ground and die before they bear fruit; they must lose their lives in order to live in the age to come; if they serve and follow him, “the Father will honour” them (Jn. 12:24-26).
So the Son of Man will be be glorified, and those who suffer for his sake will be honoured by the Father. The participation of the disciples in the suffering and vindication of Jesus is a central theme in the New Testament.
We then have John’s version of the Gethsemane hesitation and recommitment: “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour” (Jn. 12:27).
A “judgment of this world” is imminent, and the ruler or prince of this world will be cast out. As in Revelation, the satanic power is associated with the oppressive and deforming weight of pagan domination in the present chaotic, evil age. The expectation is always that something will happen in the foreseeable future to transform the world as Jews in the first century knew it.
The means of that transformation will be the death of Jesus: when he is “lifted up from the earth” on the cross, he will draw all people to himself. The Son of Man who dies will be glorified when the current earthly and unearthly régimes are overthrown. Again, the glory of Jesus belongs not to the past but to an eschatological future.
Now John brings Isaiah into the argument. The refusal of the Jews to believe, despite the great signs that Jesus had performed, notably the revivification of Lazarus, in some sense fulfils two passages in Isaiah:
Lord, who believed our report, and to whom was the arm of the Lord revealed? (Jn. 12:38*; cf. Is. 53:1)
He has blinded their eyes and he hardened their heart, in order that they might not see with the eyes and understand in the heart and turn, and I will heal them. (Jn. 12:40*; cf. Is. 6:10)
John then explains that Isaiah “said these things because he saw his glory, and spoke concerning him” Jn 12:41). What does he mean?
Since the second quotation comes from the account of Isaiah’s vision of YHWH in the temple and his commissioning as a prophet to Israel, it’s understandable that commentators have often interpreted “he saw his glory” as a reference to the vision in Isaiah 6:1-4.
So, for example, Beasley-Murray: “The glory of God that Isaiah saw in his vision… is identified with the glory of the Logos-Son.” Or Ramsey Michaels:
The Gospel writer’s startling claim is that “the Lord,” or “Lord of hosts,” in Isaiah’s vision was none other than Jesus, that the “glory” filling both “the house” (or temple) and “all the earth” was Jesus’ glory, and consequently that when Isaiah spoke he was speaking of Jesus.
There is, in fact, no mention of the “glory” of YHWH filling the temple in the Hebrew text; rather, the seraphim declare, “the whole earth is full of his glory.” The Septuagint, wary of the anthropomorphism, has “the house was full of his glory” for “the hem of his robe filled the temple” in Isaiah 6:1.
The quotations, however, do not seem to presuppose the vision. The thought is rather of the “suffering servant,” who had “no form or glory,” who was “dishonoured and not esteemed” (Is. 53:2-3 LXX); and of the prophet sent to Israel, whose words would not be believed, leading to the devastation of cities and desolation of the land (Is. 6:9-11).
This emphasis on disbelief, suffering, and judgment, of course, fits the context in John 12 very well; and Jesus goes on to say that he has been sent by the Father to be rejected by some and believed and seen by others, just as Isaiah was sent to Israel (Jn. 12:44-48).
Ultimately, however, it is not Jesus who is believed in and seen but God; it is not Jesus who will judge but God. In this passage, at least, Jesus plays a markedly subordinate role: “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak” (Jn. 12:49). The identification of Jesus with the glory of the God who commissions the prophet would seem to be badly out of place here.
So what does John mean when he says that Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus? The answer, I think, lies to hand.
Verse 42 begins with a strong conjunction: homōs mentoi (“Nevertheless”); so presumably John sees an important connection between Isaiah’s words and what follows. Many of the leading Jews believed in Jesus but “because of the Pharisees did not admit it so that they would not be banned from the synagogues.” John explains: “they loved the glory of the people rather than the glory of God.” This is not glory as epiphany but glory as reputation, whether in the eyes of people or in the eyes of God.
I suggest, therefore, that “he saw (eiden) his glory” is a prophetic statement, similar to John 8:56: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he might see my day, and he saw (eiden) and was glad.” Isaiah “saw” or “foresaw” that God would send someone to Israel—a suffering servant—who would be despised and rejected, who would get no glory from people, whose message would not be believed. But he understood that this person would get “the glory that comes from God.” Isaiah, in other words, saw that the suffering and crucified Son of Man would be glorified (Jn. 12:23).
Finally, we should note that, while the future orientation of John 12:41 corresponds to “glorify me with you yourself” in John 17:5, the reference in this later verse to “the glory which I used to have before the world was with you” adds a backward looking aspect. That may be worth investigating some time.