Monday, December 19, 2011

Unto Us a Son is Born! (Unquenchable Fire, part 4)

Over the last week we have been exploring the themes of the book of Isaiah in our ongoing series on unquenchable fire. Today I would like to explore how all the themes we have been exploring come to play in and through Christ’s messianic work. In Jesus the entire narrative Isaiah is telling reaches its eschatological climax. And that, my friends, is what Christmas is all about.
Jesus is the Servant who brings God’s people back from exile and vindicates YHWH’s name by making a spectacle of the dark powers. Jesus is the one who holds out the promise of comfort to Jerusalem. Jesus is the Servant who brings His people back from exile and vindicate them (65:18-19; 66:5-13). Jesus is the one who begins to extend the worship of the Lord to the Gentiles and to spread God’s images throughout the whole earth. In short, it is through Christ that the entire story of Israel reaches its fulfillment and dramatic climax.

In the second chapter of Luke’s gospel we read the account of angels announcing Jesus’ birth to shepherds. In Luke 2:14 the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men.” The phrase, as it occurs in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, follows directly after the angelic announcement of the “good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” (Lk. 2:10) It is hard to imagine a more direct reference to the Isaianic narrative. To a first-century Jew, phrases such as these would have bound together the whole network of associations and expectations related to the return from exile, the establishment of God’s physical kingdom over the face of the earth, the renewal of the covenant, the vindication of God’s people, and so on. Above all, however, the words invoke the Isaianic narrative.
We have already seen how Isaiah 40:9-11 and 52:7 announce a royal herald bringing glad tidings that Israel’s God has come to restore His people, to renew and reign in the earth and to bring to fruition the eschatological climax towards which Israel’s history has been striving. When the angel’s in Luke’s narrative invoke the ‘glad tidings’ to describe Jesus’ ministry, they implicitly invoke this whole story-line. It is no wonder that the shepherds got so excited. When the angels announced ‘peace on earth, good will to men’, this was a reference to the peace the Messiah brings when all the earth is submitted to His sovereign rule of justice (Isa. 9: 2-7, 11:1-5, 42:3-4; Zech. 9:9-10; Mic. 4:2-3). The great Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 9:6-7 pointed to this same reality:
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called “Wonderful, Counsellor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
As this and so many of the other Messianic prophecies made clear, the purpose of the Messiah coming would be to bring God’s kingdom to the earth, which meant justice and peace for everyone. Seen within the context of God’s covenant with Abraham, this makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, however, we’ve had it drummed into our heads to think of Jesus’ work as ‘spiritual’ in the sense that it belongs to a separate sphere to the material world. We’ve been taught to think that Jesus’ mission was merely to save our souls so that we can be taken away from this earth rather than to heal this earth.

As we read the gospels through the lens of Isaiah, however, we find that it’s all about new creation breaking into the space/time universe. It’s not about God gathering as many people as possible to take to heaven so that the earth can just be abandoned or destroyed; it’s about a renewed Israel being rescued from exile. It’s about the earth being put to right.

During Jesus’ day the people still thought of themselves as being in a state of spiritual exile. Although the southern tribes had returned from the geographical exile during the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, and even rebuilt the temple, the great covenantal promises of Deuteronomy 30 and Daniel 9 were still unfulfilled. The people had returned to the land but God had not returned to His people. God’s presence had not returned to the temple in the way described in Ezekiel 40-48 and the Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine had a daily reminder that they had yet to be vindicated from their enemies.

This is why, according to many Jewish theorists of the time, the real return from exile was still future. The real return from exile would be when Daniel’s Son of Man came and assumed dominion of the kingdom, when God returned to His people to bless and vindicate them and judge His enemies. This was, of course, was what Messiah was expected to bring about.

The theme of yhwh returning to bless His people and judge His enemies goes back to the great covenantal blessings of Deuteronomy 30. There the Lord promised that yhwh’s return to His people would be marked by an end of captivity, blessing in the land God has given them and judgment on his enemies and theirs. After the people of Judah were exiled to Babylon in BC 586, Daniel took up this same theme, showing that there would be a return from exile when God vindicated His people (Daniel 9). This too would be marked by the Lord coming back to His people: specifically the “the Son of Man coming” (Dan. 7:13) to assume dominion of His kingdom and to make a judgment in favour of the saints of the Most High.

Jesus draws on all these themes in a way that would have resonated deeply with a 1st century Jewish audience. Yet he also invests many of these ideas with unexpected meaning. One of the ways he does this is through the gradualism of his ministry. Though the idea of gradualism is firmly rooted in Isaiah, who had prophesied about the Messiah’s government increasing (thus implying process), Jews in the Second Temple period were expecting what my pastor calls “a silver-bullet solution.”

In the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus went to His own region of Nazareth where, in the synagogue, he read the traditional reading from Isaiah 61.

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
Because the LORD has anointed me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD; (Isa. 61:1-2)

At this point in the reading Jesus closed the book and sat down (Luke 4:20). This must have seemed very strange to Jesus’ listeners, for traditionally the reading would have continued. But Jesus stopped in the middle of the sentence. No wonder we are told that “the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him” (Luke 4:20). Then Jesus utters the following words: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (4:21).

If we review the things mentioned in this passage – the passage Jesus claims is now fulfilled - we will see that Jesus fulfils all of them. The Spirit of God was upon Him (Luke 3:22); He has been anointed to preach the good news to the poor (Mat. 4:23); He has a ministry of healing the brokenhearted (Mat. 4:23); He liberates those who are captive (Eph. 4:8); He opens the prison to those who are bound and He proclaims the acceptable year of the Lord. All these things can be said to be fulfilled, or at least partially fulfilled, in Jesus’ healing ministry. Jesus’ miracles are the signs of the kingdom. (In fact, in the original Greek of John’s gospel, Jesus’ miracles are always referred to as ‘signs.’)

What Jesus does not do are the things spoken of in the rest of this Isaiah passage which normally would have been read. The passage goes on to mention “the day of vengeance of our God”, various symbols which seem to indicate an end of suffering for God’s people, the restoration of desolate places, the elevation of God’s people [now those who are in Christ] above the Gentiles [read: uneblievers], and the fulfilment of the promise for God’s people to inherit the land. Jesus does not say of these things that they have been fulfilled in the people’s hearing.

So we see that Jesus fulfilled some of the criteria for the Messiah but not all the criteria. The most important aspects are left undone. Even those things which Jesus does fulfil are fulfilled only in part in a very localized region and not throughout the whole earth. So the question is, has Jesus really brought in the Messianic era or not? If not, how can Jesus legitimately be considered to be the Messiah?

Jesus’ answer to such questions seems to be this. “The Kingdom of God is indeed something that is yet to come (future). But you now see the firstfruits of that kingdom. I have fulfilled enough of the promises now for you to believe that I will fulfill the rest later.” This explains why Jesus and the Apostles sometimes speak of the kingdom of God as if it is yet to come while elsewhere they speak of the kingdom as if it has already arrived. It has already arrived in the sense that it has been inaugurated and the firstfruits of it have been given to mankind. That is why Jesus could say to the people, “surely the kingdom of God has come upon you [present]” (Mat. 12:28) and yet pray, “Your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven [future]” (Mat. 6:10). The Apostle Paul could both refer to the future appearing of the kingdom (2 Tim. 4:1) as well as say that the Lord has “conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love [present]…” (Col. 1:13).

So there is an already and a not yet. And again, this is what we should expect given the way Isaiah prophesied about the Servant. Isaiah 42:4 spoke of the God’s Servant not growing discouraged till he had established justice the earth and the coastlands wait for His law. The wonderful Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 9:7 speaks of the Messiah’s government, not as something that arrives fully formed, but as something which increases. Paul echoes this gradualism when he told the Christians in Corinth that Jesus must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet (1 Cor. 15:25).

This gradualism may help to explain the strange juxtaposition we found at the end of Isaiah 66 between the new heavens and the new earth side by side with the sufferings of Gehenna (which itself closely parallels Zechariah 14:16-19 where worldwide revival is juxtaposed with harsh judgment.)

Since I have already argued that both realities describe events within the space-time continuum, this may seem to be a contradiction. The answer lies, I believe, in the gradualism of Christ’s ministry. There is an overlap time when the Messianic age is being inaugurated. This overlap time occurs between the inauguration (Jesus’ first coming) and the consummation (Jesus’ second coming). It is a period that involves judgment, since judgment is one of the means by which the redemption of the nations percolates to an ever wider radius. (This is what I concluding when studying Christ’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats)

Further Reading

Rethinking Unquenchable Fire (complete series)

Hell, Universalism and Some Remaining Questions

Read my columns at the Charles Colson Center

Read my writings at Alfred the Great Society

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