Monday, December 19, 2011

Jesus’ Use of Isaiah 66 (Unquenchable Fire, Part 5)

Many little details in Isaiah 66 resonate so clearly with the ministry of Christ and the apostles.
66:21 continues the theme of the Gentiles coming in. “Who are the people meant by ‘and some of them also I take?’” asks Claus Westermann in his commentary. “Taking the words by themselves, there seems to be no way of getting around interpreting them in the sense of ‘not only from the Israelites, but from the Gentiles as well’.” (Westermann’s commentary Isaiah 40-66 A Commentary, p. 423). This, of course, immediately brings to mind the missionary activities of the apostles. Verse 19 even mentions missionary work – the sending out of individuals to distant peoples to proclaim God’s glory. Interestingly, the apostles self-consciously invoke the “all nations and tongues” of Isaiah 66 to show that God is doing this work now in and through His servant Jesus.
The mountain of God and the valley of perdition in Isaiah 66 thus become symbolic for two types of realities on the earth All flesh coming to worship God (Isaiah 66: 23) suggests that Isaiah is no longer thinking specifically about the mountain in Jerusalem on which the temple was built, but a figurative world mountain, symbolic of the entire earth
But the return of YHWH to his people also included the sombre element that God would judge His own people.
Those who claimed to represent the true worship of God but who had become unfaithful would receive the brunt of God’s judgment. The book of Malachi is taken up with this theme, as is Zechariah 11 and the first half of Isaiah 65. God would indeed vindicate His people, but this vindication would involve a separation between the true Israel and those who claimed to represent a tradition that they had in fact abandoned.
Throughout the gospel, Jesus’ takes up this theme of judgment. The kingdom parables tell the story of Israel’s God returning to them yet radically redefining the covenant around Himself and His ministry. The parable of the vinedressers (Mt. 21:33-44), the wedding feast (22:1-14) the foolish virgins (25:1-13) and the talents (25:14-30) all invoke this idea of a king returning in judgment. Clearly, the returning king is Jesus, who comes as yhwh’s representative to vindicate His people and to judge His enemies. 
It is this theme of judgement that animates the section of Mark 9 where Jesus invokes the unquenchable fire of Isaiah. Yet He does this in a way that would have been deeply subversive to His hearers. He has redrawn the covenant around Himself and then pronounces the type of judgment on those who reject Him which the Jews were expecting to be applied against the Gentiles. Those who thought they were in will find themselves excluded (and there are many parables which point to the same reality).
This is characteristic of Jesus’ method of invoking a familiar narrative but investing it with a new twist. Throughout the gospel we find Jesus, on the one hand, confirming the people’s expectations, but we also find Him going about things in a radically unexpected way. For example, earlier in Mark 9 (9:31-32) Jesus had predicted His death and the disciples were afraid to ask him about it.
Jesus’ use of Isaiah 66 is one more example of this and would have been equally troubling to his audience. On the one hand, the words in Mark 9:42-48 invoke Isaiah’s whole narrative that would have been common knowledge among Jews of the Second Temple period. It is Jesus’ way of saying that he is the Servant who restores the earth. He is the Servant who is bringing all flesh to worship Him. Isaiah’s story, the story of the New Exodus, is unfolding right then and there in front of the disciple’s eyes. Yet He is not merely bracketing His ministry within the context of the Isaianic narrative that we have already explored at some length; He is also characteristically investing it with a new twist.
The subtext of Jesus’ use of Isaiah 66 is that the Jews who believed they had Abraham as their father, will find themselves cast into Gehenna if they continue to reject Jesus. By telling the people to cut off their offending hand, foot or eye, Jesus is essentially saying: “abandon everything that is standing in the way of embracing My agenda of New Creation.”
We know that there were many things standing in the way of the Jews’ accepting Jesus work, not least their own ideas of how the kingdom would unfold, including but not limited to their nationalistic aspirations. Those nationalistic aspirations would eventually bring about the destruction of Jerusalem and the literal death of the generation that refused to heed Jesus’s warnings. In AD 70 the unbelieving Jews did parish in exactly the way Isaiah and Jesus describe. Rotting and smoking corpses became a literal reality.
This is one of the reasons we need not invoke the idea of eternal hellfire to explain Mark 9. It points to a judgment within the space-time continuum – not hellfire but Roman-fire. It is the same reality towards which the Olivet discourse points (see Mark Hornes’ The Victory According to Mark for the reasons why “Everything about the Mount Olivet prophecy indicates a local fulfillment”.
Mark 9 stands as a solemn warning throughout the ages that destruction comes upon those who reject Jesus. Whether that destruction includes endless hellfire is a question that must be settled from an appeal to other passages.
Rethinking Unquenchable Fire (complete series)

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