Monday, December 28, 2009

Why Israel Means Israel, Part 2

In the first blog on "Why Israel Means Israel," I looked at the many OT promises concerning the restoration of Israel (e.g. Amos 9:11-15; Jer 33:6-12; Ezek 36:24-32) as the starting point for the belief that the Bible teaches a future for the people of Israel. However, many theologians would argue that the national and land promises to Israel in the OT are fulfilled figuratively and spiritually through the church in the New Testament and that the church has completely and for all time replaced Israel. In his essay, "The Kingdom Promises as Spiritual," Bruce Waltke argues that the prophets "represented the new under the imagery of the old." The national promises to Israel in the Old Testament are merely typological of Christ and the church in the New Testament. The earthly Jerusalem of the Old Testament merely anticipates the heavenly Mount Zion of the New Testament (cf. Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22), and the type becomes obsolete when replaced by the antitype. The spiritual kingdom of the New Testament replaces the earthly and physical kingdom of the Old. Waltke argues that "not one clear NT passage mentions the restoration of Israel as a political nation or predicts an earthly reign of Christ before his final appearing."

In response, I would agree with Waltke's perspective at a number of points. The NT teaches that the church in a very real sense has replaced Israel as the people of God. By appointing twelve disciples corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, it appears that Jesus is symbolically reconstituting a new Israel, and the church that Jesus forms has become the new covenant community (cf. Matt 18:16-18). The apostles apply the names, titles, and roles of Israel to the church (cf. Gal 6:16; Phil 3:3; 1 Pet 2:9). In addition, the distinction between Jew and Gentile is completely removed in Christ (Gal 3:28; Eph 2:11-22), and all who believe in Christ are part of the spiritual seed of Abraham (Gal 3:29).

Waltke is also correct that the last days and kingdom era promised by the OT prophets was inaugurated with the first coming of Christ and his death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father. At the synagogue in Galilee, Jesus announced that he was the herald of God's eschatological salvation promised by Isaiah (cf. Luke 4:18-19; Isa 61:1-3). On the day of Pentecost, Peter explained that the pouring out of the Spirit was the fulfillment of what Joel had promised for Israel in the last days (cf. Acts 2:14-21; Joel 2:28-32). At the Last Supper, Jesus informed his disciples that the cup represented the blood which brought into effect the new covenant (Luke 22:20). Quotations of the new covenant prophecy from Jeremiah 31 in the book of Hebrews clearly demonstrate that the church inherits and presently enjoys the blessings originally given to the house of Israel and Judah (cf. Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:8-13; 10:15-17). The NT perspective is that we are already living in the last days promised by the OT prophets (cf. Heb 1:2; 1 John 2:18).

I would also agree that the NT writers often read the OT typologically because of their conviction that persons, events, and institutions pointed forward to spiritual realities in the NT. The NT writers often employ typology as a means for reading OT prophecy. Matthew, for example, applies OT prophecies to Christ in a typological way to draw a comparison or analogy between the experiences of Israel in the OT and the life of Jesus (cf. Matt 1:22-23 and Isa 7:14; Matt 2:15 and Hos 11:1; Matt 2:18 and Jer 31:15).

It is also true that later prophecies often modify, revise, or expand earlier prophecies. We see this even in the Old Testament itself. Jeremiah prophesies that Israel will return from exile in Babylon after 70 years (Jer 25:11-12; 29:10), but Daniel later clarifies Israel's full restoration will not occur until after seventy weeks of seven years (Dan 9:24-27). The OT prophets viewed the future kingdom primarily in terms of Israel's past and present—there would be a return to the glories of the Davidic-Solomonic empire and Israel would enjoy great blessing and prosperity in the Promised Land. The spiritual blessings of the NT certainly expand and transcend these earlier promises. The OT prophets looked forward to a restored Jerusalem and a new temple; the NT ultimately promises a New Jerusalem where the whole earth becomes the dwelling place of God and there is no need for a temple (Rev 21-22). God promised Abraham that his descendants through Isaac would possess the land that extended from "the river of Egypt to the Euphrates" (Gen 15:18); Jesus promises his followers that they would inherit the entire earth (Matt 5:5).

In spite of these areas of agreement, Waltke's view that the promises concerning Israel's restoration are merely typological and figurative of spiritual realities in the NT is not the best way to understand how these prophecies are fulfilled. As noted in the previous blog on this topic, the promise of Israel's restoration as a people and nation are grounded in eternal covenants that God has obligated himself to fulfill by sworn oaths. These promises cannot be reduced to mere typologies of what God had designed for the church. Rather than arguing that the promises concerning Israel in the OT must be fulfilled by either Israel or the church, I would see the NT teaching to be that these promises are fulfilled by both the church (now) and Israel (not yet).

Despite the fact that the church inherits and enjoys the spiritual blessings promised to Israel in the OT, the NT continues to affirm that God's specific purposes for the people of Israel remain a critical component in the working out of salvation history. As David Lowery has stated, Israel is a "people both first and last in the plan of salvation." Jesus came to earth in order to accomplish the long-anticipated and promised deliverance of the people of Israel (cf. Luke 1:74-78), and he focused his public ministry on "the lost sheep of Israel" (Matt 10:6; 15:24). Paul's strategy was to take the gospel to "the Jew first" (Rom 1:16; cf. Acts 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1, 10, etc.). As Lowery explain, Paul's methodology was "more than a practical strategy" and reflects "Paul's understanding both of the historical priority of the people of Israel in God's plan of salvation and also the importance of preaching the gospel to Jews until God's plan is completed." Paul teaches in Romans 11:26 that the climax of God's plan will be the salvation of "all Israel." Just like the prophet Zechariah in the OT, Paul anticipates a national repentance and turning to God on the part of Israel (cf. Zech 12:10-13).

Romans 9-11 is clearly the most definitive passage on the future of Israel in the New Testament, but theologians continue to dispute the meaning of "all Israel." N. T. Wright argues that "all Israel" refers to the Jews and Gentiles being now saved (vv. 5-6, 11-12) who form the people of God and that Paul has thus redefined the term "Israel." However, the view that "all Israel" refers to the present church does not fit with the consistent use of Israel to refer to national, ethnic Israel (Paul's "brethren" and "kinsmen according to the flesh") throughout Romans 9-11. Equating "all Israel" with the church in 11:26 is particularly difficult in light of the immediately preceding reference to the "hardening of Israel" in v. 25. Witherington observes, "Paul gives no hints or qualifiers to lead the listener to think that Israel means something different here in v. 26 than it meant in v. 25." Moo also argues that Paul using the term "Israel" to refer to the predominantly Gentile church is incompatible with the "polemical purpose" of Romans 11 where Paul is warning Gentile believers not to "boast over the branches" and believe that they have completely usurped Israel's place in God's economy (11:17-24). Moo writes, "For Paul in this context to call the church 'Israel' would be to fuel the fire of Gentiles' arrogance by giving them grounds to brag that 'we are the true Israel.'" Even Waltke and a growing number of Reformed/covenant theologians who reject premillennialism recognize that "Israel" in Romans 9-11 cannot be simply equated with the church. Waltke views Romans 11:26 as pointing to the future salvation of a remnant from "ethnic Israel," but rejects the idea that this restoration involves the reconstitution of Israel as a nation in the Promised Land during a millennial kingdom.

In Romans 11, Paul explains both the "now" and "not yet" aspects of Israel's restoration. The present unbelief of Israel does not abrogate God's covenant promises to Israel but does result in Israel's restoration being carried out in two stages. At present, God is saving a remnant of Jews who like Paul become a part of the predominantly Gentile church through faith in Christ (Rom 11:1-2, 5-6). The present hardening of Israel is only temporary "until the full number of Gentiles has come in," and then God will graft Israel back into the olive tree so that "all Israel will be saved" (Rom 11:25-26). Seifrid comments, "The final act in the drama of redemption is not the formation of a church that consists largely of Gentiles, but the creation of salvation for the people of Israel."

There are two distinct groups who make up "all Israel" in Romans 9-11—the "elect" remnant in Rom 11:6 and the "rest" of Israel (Rom 11:7) that is hardened in unbelief. Paul's explanation of how Israel will be saved does not just focus on the inclusion of currently believing Jews but also on the transformation of the corporate unbelief of the "rest." The root "hardened" describes corporate Israel and provides an inclusio for Paul's discussion of Israel's present unbelief (verbal pwro,w in v. 7, and nominal pw,rwsij in v. 25). However, their present "transgression" will be turned into "fullness" (v. 12) and their current "rejection" into "acceptance" (v. 15). These branches that have been "broken off" will be regrafted into their own olive tree (vv. 19-24). The term "fullness" (plh,rwma) as used by Paul with reference to Israel in verse 12 and the Gentiles in verse 25 provides confirmation that verse 26 is looking forward to a restoration of national or corporate Israel. If the "fullness" of the Gentiles in verse 25 refers to the Gentiles who have and will be saved, then the "fullness" of "all Israel" in verse 26 also involves "the adding of the now-unbelieving Jews to the believing ones to make a full complement." Thus, if "all Israel" is taken as a reference to all of Israel's elect believers, then it must include those Jews who will turn to the Lord as part of this national conversion in the end times.

While Romans 11:26 promises a national turning of Israel to the Lord for salvation, "all Israel" does not mean that every Jew without exception will be saved. As Witherington notes, the term "all Israel" is a corporate term for the nation (cf. 1 Sam 7:5, 25; 1 Kgs 12:1; 2 Chron 12:1; Dan 9:11; Jub 50:9; Test Lev 17:5; M. Sanhedrin 10:1) and refers specifically to those Jews who will make up the future remnant. The timing of this salvation of Israel would appear to be the second coming of Christ. The references to the future resurrection "from the dead" (v. 15) and the entrance of "the fullness of the Gentiles" (v. 25) point to the eschaton. As Moo explains, "the current partial hardening of Israel will be reversed when all the elect Gentiles have been saved; and it is unlikely that Paul would think salvation would be closed to Gentiles before the end." The use of the future tense for the verbs "will be grafted in v. 24 and "will be saved" in v. 26 also points in the direction of an eschatological fulfillment. Paul bases his confidence of Israel's future restoration in a combined quotation of Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9. The original reference to the coming of the Redeemer in Isaiah 59:20 speaks of Yahweh coming to deliver his people from exile, but here most likely refers to the second coming of Christ.

As noted in the first blog, the ultimate issue in this discussion of the future of Israel is God's faithfulness to his word and his covenant promises (cf. Exod 34:6-7; Num 23:19; Mal 3:7-10). It is significant that emphasis on God's covenant faithfulness frames Paul's discussion of the future of Israel in Romans 9-11. In chapter 9, Paul begins by providing the reminder that the covenants essential to the outworking of God's plan of salvation history belong to Israel (9:4). After affirming that God will save "all Israel" in 11:26, Paul asserts in verse 29 that the "gifts and calling of God are irrevocable." Paul's confidence in Israel's salvation is founded upon the "covenant" referred to in Isaiah 59:20-21, in which God promises to remove Israel's sin and to make a "covenant" with his people. This covenant involves God permanently placing his Spirit and word within his people. God will ultimately act unilaterally to overcome Israel's unbelief and disobedience. God's dealings with Israel reflect his faithfulness to promises made long ago, his sovereign power to overcome human unbelief, and his infinite wisdom in using Israel to extend his salvation to the nations and then in turn using the salvation of the Gentiles to bring his people back to himself. As Paul exclaims, "Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways" (Rom 11:33).


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why Israel Means Israel, Part 1

One of the questions that continues to divide Christians is whether there is a future for national Israel as the people of God. By Israel, I am not referring to the present state of Israel established in 1948 (another question entirely) but rather to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The view of replacement theology (or supersessionism) is that the church has replaced Israel and that the promises given to Israel in the Old Testament are fulfilled exclusively in the church. In a series of blogs, I would like to address the issue of "why Israel means Israel" and the reasons why a future for national Israel is an important component of Christian eschatology (the doctrine of last things).

I believe there is a future for national Israel's in God's plan first and foremost because the promise of Israel's future restoration is one of the major themes in the Old Testament prophets. The prophets assure that Israel's return from exile will usher in a kingdom era in which Israel will permanently enjoy peace and prosperity in the Promised Land. Israel's historical return from their exile in Babylon do not completely fulfill God's promises to Israel, because the prophetic vision is that Israel will forever enjoy the covenant blessings in their land. The three passages that follow reflect the restoration theology characteristic of the Old Testament prophets.

Amos 9:11-15 "In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, 12 that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,"declares the LORD who does this. 13 "Behold, the days are coming," declares the LORD, "when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. 14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. 15 I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them," says the LORD your God.

Ezekiel 36: 24-32 "I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. 30 I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. 32 It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel."

Jeremiah 33:6-12 "Behold, I will bring to it health and healing, and I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security. 7 I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. 8 I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. 9 And this city1 shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it. 10 "Thus says the LORD: In this place of which you say, 'It is a waste without man or beast,' in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again 11 the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD: "' Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!' For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the LORD. 12 "Thus says the LORD of hosts: In this place that is waste, without man or beast, and in all of its cities, there shall again be habitations of shepherds resting their flocks."

Other prophetic passages reflecting this promise of Israel's restoration include Isaiah 54:4-8; Jeremiah 31:23-25; Hosea 14:4-7; and Zephaniah 3:14-17.

As previously stated, these promises were fulfilled in part when Israel returned from the Babylonian exile in 538 B.C. However, there are two reasons why the return from exile did not exhaust the prophetic promises concerning the restoration of Israel. First, the return from exile hardly fulfilled all that Yahweh had promised for Israel's future. As Routledge notes, post-exilic Israel came to realize that "the return was not as glorious as the people expected. It did not result in the establishment of God's kingdom, and, from the way old sins quickly re-emerged, it was clear that the crisis of the exile had not brought about the hoped-for inward renewal." Second, the post-exilic prophets continue to look forward to a future restoration of Israel even after Israel is back in the land. For example, the prophet Zechariah anticipates a future renewal of Israel that includes the following:

  • Zech 9:9-10 a future king who will bring peace to the nations
  • Zech 10:6-12 a return of Israel to the land after a future scattering among the nations
  • Zech 12:10-13 Israel's repentance and return to the Lord
  • Zech 13:1-6 the cleansing of Israel from its past sins
  • Zech 12:1-9/ Zech 14:15 the deliverance of Israel from a future enemy that will attack Jerusalem and take away half its citizens into exile

The return of Israel from the Babylonian exile is merely the prelude to the great and final renewal that God has in store for Israel in the future.

The next blog on this topic will explore in more detail the view of replacement theology that these promises of Israel's restoration are fulfilled exclusively in the church. However, there are two primary reasons why we should continue to read the Old Testament prophets as guaranteeing a restoration of the people and nation of Israel that has not yet occurred. The first reason for a literal understanding of the promises concerning Israel is that the basic function of prophetic prediction was to speak of actual events that were anticipated realities in space and time. Prediction was only a small component of the prophetic message, but when the prophets did speak of the future, there was a basic expectation that the prophets' predictions would come to pass. As Richard Hess notes in his essay, "The Future Written in the Past," prophecy was not unique to Israel, and it was understood throughout the ancient Near East that prophets referred to actual events with words that anticipated literal fulfillments. When an Assyrian prophet delivered a prophecy that a king would have a prosperous reign or defeat his enemies in battle, it was expected that the prophet's words would come to pass as he had spoken. In Israel, the key test of a true prophet was whether or not his predictions came to pass (cf. Deut 18:21-22). The belief that the prophets' promises concerning Israel are fulfilled only at a figurative and spiritual level is fundamentally inconsistent with the basic expectations associated with prophetic language in Israel and the ancient Near East at large. Hess comments, "The prophecies of the Old Testament are best interpreted in a manner that would agree with a one-to-one historical correspondence. Those who listened to the prophets and who read their words would not have instantly assumed a metaphor when the future was being described."

At the same time, the prophets often used highly figurative, stereotypical, and idealized language when speaking of Israel's future restoration and the kingdom era of "the last days." The prophets promised that Mount Zion would be exalted above all the mountains of the earth, that the sun would turn to blood, that the trees would clap their hands, and that the lion and the lamb would lie down together. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the restoration of Jerusalem as the creation of "new heavens and a new earth" (Isa 65:17-19), recalling an Akkadian prophecy that the reign of a new Babylonian king would necessitate the redrawing of the plans for heaven and earth. D. Brent Sandy, in his work Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic, demonstrates the high degree of metaphorical language in the prophets and provides a primer on how to read prophecy as figurative language. One of the common faults of many popular treatments of biblical prophecy is an insistence on woodenly literalistic readings of the prophets and forced harmonizations of the prophets' vision of the future with contemporary events. However, even with their use of highly metaphorical language, the prophets were still speaking of real events. For all of these reasons, the safest reading of the prophets is to read them at face value.

The second reason for a literal understanding of the prophets' promises concerning Israel is that these prophets are grounded in specific covenant promises made to the people of Israel. God promised descendants, land, and blessing to Abraham (cf. Gen 12:1-3; Gen 15:12-18) and specifically promised that Abraham's physical descendants would possess the Promised Land forever (Gen 13:15). When Abraham demonstrated his faith in God's promises by his willingness to sacrifice his promised son Isaac, God swore by himself a binding oath to Abraham guaranteeing the fulfillment of these covenant promises (Gen 22:15-18). Similarly, the Lord promises and swears an oath to establish the dynasty of David forever (2 Sam 7:12-16). Jeremiah prophesies a new covenant that will bring about Israel's restoration in which Yahweh writes his laws on Israel's heart so that they will never disobey him again (Jer 31:31-34), and the prophet assures that Yahweh's covenant with Israel will endure for as long as the sun and the moon (Jer 31:35-37; cf. Jer 33:23-26). Reformed theologians who deny that God has a future for Israel place themselves in the strange position of arguing that Israel's unbelief can in some way thwart God's sovereign decrees and oaths.

The real issues in this debate over the future of Israel are the reliability of God's promises and the faithfulness of God to the covenant he has made with his people Israel. When Paul reminds us in Romans 8:38-39 that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, he immediately demonstrates the reliability of God's love by pointing to his continued faithfulness to Israel in Romans 9-11. If God keeps his covenant promises to Israel, and he does, then we can also have confidence that he will keep his promises to us.

Friday, December 18, 2009

“Too Good to Be True”: A Sermon on Isaiah 40-55

I think one of the ways we can effectively preach the Old Testament is covering large blocks of material in some of the larger books that we could not realistically preach verse-by-verse in our churches. I offer an example of such a sermon below. I have taken one of the major sections of the book of Isaiah and attempted to faithfully reflect the message and major themes of this section for the people of Israel and for us today as God's people. The section begins with God's announcement of release from exile and forgiveness of sins (Isa 40:1-11) and it concludes with a call for Israel to act upon God's gracious offer of restoration (Isa 55:1-7). The primary purpose of this section is to give those living in exile reasons to believe in God's promise of restoration and forgiveness. This section helps us as Christians to reflect on why we can believe God's promises when in reality they seem too good to be true.


How many of you believe it when you receive those emails that say: "The prince of Nigeria needs you to send him $500 so that he can recover the $20 million that was stolen from him and promises to share half of his fortune with you?" How many of you believe it when you get the phone call telling you that you've won an all-expenses paid vacation to Hawaii and they only need your social security and VISA number to process your prize?"

In 1957, the BBC aired a three-minute report on the Swiss spaghetti harvest beside Lake Lugano as an April Fool's joke, and there were people all over Great Britain who called in to find out where they could get their own spaghetti trees. None of us wants to be the gullible person who buys the spaghetti tree. We are trained to think, "If it's too good to be true, then…..

After preaching a relentless message of judgment where the prophet Isaiah announced that God was going to destroy his people and send them away into Babylonian exile, Isaiah's ministry reaches a turning point in chapter 40 where God commissions the prophet to preach a new message. Instead of preaching gloom and doom, God tells the prophet to comfort, to speak tenderly, and to announce good news. The good news is that after God sends his people away into exile, he is also going to act in a powerful way to bring them home.

The problem is that many people would hear this message and say exactly what we say, "If it's too good to be true, then…." Defeated nations did not come back from exile—they disappeared, they were assimilated, and they were forgotten. And yet, somehow and some way, God says, "I am going to deliver Israel from her exile and bring her back to her homeland."

The Bible is filled with promises that seem too good to be true. "I will never leave or abandon you." If you confess your sin, he is faithful and just to forgive." "All things work together for good." My grace is sufficient for the struggles in your life." It's easy to say: "Great promises; I wish I could know they are true. I wish I could believe them, but if it's too good to be true….God understands our doubts and our struggles to believe. As Isaiah speaks for God, he not only tells us what God promises; he tells us how and why we can believe in those promises. When you think that God's promises are too good to be true, here are the unchanging things about God and his promises that you need to remember.

First, we need to clearly understand the nature of God's promise to his people in Isaiah 40:

God's Incredible Promise

Isaiah 40 intertwines two incredible promises. The Lord first of all extends to his people the promise of freedom. God promises that he is going to bring them back from their exile. Israel and Judah sinned against the Lord for more than 800 years and God finally drove them out of the Promised Land and sent them away to Babylon as punishment for their sins.

Isa 40:2—"Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and tell her that her hard service (or her time of warfare) is over." This was the most comforting message God could give. The time of warfare was over and the time of serving on the chain gang in a foreign land was about to come to an end.

Isa 40:10-11—God is going to be a powerful warrior who rescues and delivers his people from captivity and he is also going to be like a shepherd who carries his lambs in his arms and brings them back to their resting place. In chapter 48, the Lord tells Israel, "Leave Babylon and flee from the Babylonians" (Isa 48:20) because this section of Isaiah is all about God's people going home.

The exile was the greatest theological crisis in the Old Testament, not just because it made Israel homesick, but because home was their Promised Land and home was where they met with God at the Jerusalem temple. The exile would cause them to say: "What has happened to our homeland? Has God terminated his covenant with us?" But, God gives them home by promising that he will bring them home even before he even sends them away. The punishment hasn't even started, and God is already assuring his people that the punishment won't last forever.

The Lord also extends to his people the promise of forgiveness. The greatest promise in Isaiah 40 is not that God is going to bring his people home; the even greater promise is that God is ready to forgive the 800 years of sin that has caused the exile in the first place. Verse 2 once again says: "her sin has been paid for" and "she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins." The Lord is finished with punishing his people (that time is over). They have received a double punishment for their sins, and now God is ready to forgive.

The promise of forgiveness was so incredible that the people could hardly believe what their ears were hearing. The prophet had to repeat this message of forgiveness over and over so that it would really sink in. The word of the Lord in Isaiah 43:25- "I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins." Isn't it great to know that the one thing that the God of the universe chooses to have selective memory loss about is my sin. This message really is too good to be true, and so God says it again: "I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you" (Isa 44:22). They had wearied God with hundreds of years of sin and rebellion, but God was willing to forgive them. And when God forgives, our sin is like a mist and a vapor that disappears into thin air.

Forgiveness is an unbelievable, unexpected gift any time we receive it. I was driving home late one night on 460-West and didn't remember the place in Appomattox where the speed limit quickly drops from 70 to 45 until I saw the flashing blue lights in my rear view mirror. For some reason, the state trooper took pity on me and said, "The next time you drive through here, try to do it a little more slowly." I drove home like a free man whose life sentence had been commuted, but God's forgiveness doesn't just cover one act or one transgression. It covers our past, our present, and our future—it's comprehensive. It doesn't matter how much sin you bring to the cross; when you leave the cross, your sin is blotted out and it disappears like a vapor.

All of this brings us back to our initial problem—the Bible is filled with great promises, but how can I know that they are true and trustworthy? "God forgives me—are you kidding? I can't even forgive myself." When Isaiah announced this promise of freedom and forgiveness, that's exactly how the people responded to him. The prophet announces: "God is going to bring us home and God is going to forgive us—sure, yeah right. Is the prince of Nigeria ready to send me my million dollars? Would you like my credit card and social security number now?"

Notice Isaiah's strategy when he proclaims this promise. His first message in chapter 40 gives the promise, and then for the next 16 chapters, he explains why the people can believe that the promise is true. He speaks to people who believe that God's promises are too good to be true, and he gives them reasons to believe. We can't look at everything he says in these chapters, but I want to give you three simple things you can absolutely hold on to when you think that God's promises are too good to be true.

The Reasons to Believe God's Promises

God's promises are sure because of his unchanging love

We get an idea of how the exiles responded to God's promises of freedom and forgiveness in chapter 40, verse 27: "My way is hidden from the Lord; my right is disregarded by my God." "God doesn't care about us. If he did we wouldn't be prisoners in this foreign country." And then they basically say the same thing in 49:14 "Zion said, 'The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.'" They thought, "Out of sight, out of mind." God has forgotten about us. And let's be honest. When we're going through tough times, we often feel the same way.

But, notice how God responds to their complaint: "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?" (Isa 49:15) Not likely that a mother is going to forget, but even if she somehow could, God can't forget or turn his back on his people. After talking about mothers and their love, the Lord then uses an image for his love that is going to disturb every mother here: "See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me." I'm not sure if we're ready for this or not, but the picture here is of the Lord having a tattoo on the palms of his hands. On one palm, it says "Zion" and on the other palm, there's a picture of Zion's walls" (the good news—at least it's not "Mother" and "barbed wire"). What does it mean that God has a Zion tattoo? God has inscribed Zion on his palms, because he is forever committed to his people. The first thing that God sees, the first thing that God thinks about, the thing that dominates the thoughts of the God of the universe is the people that he loves. It's us. God loves us way too much to pass out empty promises. The Lord reminds us of the same thing in Isaiah 54:10-"'For the mountains may be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,' says the Lord, who has compassion on you."

Back in the spring, the Lynchburg paper had a story about a young guy from New York named Jeff who brought his girlfriend Laurel to Charlottesville for a concert and to ask her to marry him. Charlottesville was his hometown, and he wanted everything about the proposal to be just right He took her out for breakfast at the Downtown Mall and then they walked outside over to the "Free Speech Monument," where you can write anything you want. Jeff had written a quote from their favorite song and then the question, "Will you marry me, Jeff?" Jeff got down on one knee, and there was even a place for Laurel to check "yes" or "no." When Laurel saw those written words, she didn't think that her friends were trying to punk her or that some guy named Jeff was trying to stalk her. She trusted the words because she knew Jeff and she knew Jeff's heart. We can trust God's promises because we know his heart, we know his love. There is nothing we could do to cause God to love us more and there is nothing we could do to make God love us less. God's unending love means that there are no expiration dates on his promises. God will never make a promise to us that he fails to bring to completion.

God's promises are sure because of his unlimited power .

Isaiah 40 and the chapters that follow focus on God as Creator in order to say: "Remember the power of the God who is making these promises to you." When we are struggling to believe because of the greatness of God's promises, then we need to remember the greatness of the God who makes those promises to us. There is an amazing picture of God in Isaiah 40:12. God creates the world like a Master Craftsman sitting at his work bench. He pours the waters of the oceans into the palm of his hand. He measures off the heavens with the span of his fingers, and he weighs the dust of the continents on his scales to make sure he has done it just right.

When Israel was in exile, they thought about all of the problems and the obstacles standing in their way. Their situation seemed hopeless. They thought about the power of their enemy. Babylon was the most powerful nation in the world. Nebuchadnezzar had marched down on Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and taken the people away into captivity. The city of Babylon was like a fortress. Herodotus said that its walls were a hundred foot high and wide enough in places for two chariots to race side-by-side.

And so God says to them: "Here's what I think about the power of the Babylonians?"

Isaiah 40:6—All flesh is grass; and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord stands forever." The power of the Babylonians is fleeting; my power is forever.

Isaiah 40:15—the nations are like a drop in the bucket and like dust on the scale; 40:17—all nations are as nothing before me; 40:22—God sits above the circle of the earth's horizon as the sovereign , creator, king of the universe and the people below him look like grasshoppers. The Lord says, "You look up at the Babylonians and see giants. I look down at the Babylonians and see grasshoppers."

I can make all kinds of promises to my kids, but those promises are only as good as my ability and capacity to carry out those promises. We serve a God with unlimited power, so there's nothing that can stand in the way of the fulfillment of his promises. John Piper reminds us that you might have seen a good visual demonstration of the difference between the power of man and the power of God if you went to the beach this summer. The little rectangular or circular body of water at your hotel was man's swimming pool. The other body of water at the end of the sand was God's swimming pool. There's the difference. We live in culture that worships man's accomplishments. We believe that scientists, politicians, and physicians are going to solve our problems. We are fixated with celebrities, athletes, and movie stars. But, in the process of magnifying men, we have ended up minimizing God. We have brought God down to our level and forgotten his unlimited power. Isaiah says: "The God who made these promises to you is the God who created the heavens and the earth."

God's promises are sure because of his track record of doing the impossible

Isaiah 40-55 closes with a call for the exiles to believe the great promise that God has made to them. "Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live…. (Isa 55:3). However, the promises of freedom and forgiveness seem so great that they are still struggling to believe. And so, the Lord reminds them of one final thing they need to hear—the Lord has a track record of doing the impossible.

Throughout this section, the rescue of the exiles is pictured as a second Exodus—what God has done in the past, he is getting ready to do once again in the future. Back in chapter 40, the Lord gives a command to prepare a way in the desert because he is going to lead his people through the wilderness just like he did when he rescued the slaves from Egypt (Isa 40:3). In Isaiah 43:2, the Lord promises that he will be with his people when they pass through the waters, and the rivers will not overwhelm them. Figuratively speaking, the Lord is going to take Israel through the waters just like he did at the Red Sea. The future is going to be just like the past. When you're struggling to trust God in the present, it always helps to remember what God has done for you in the past. Think it through and ask if there has ever been a time when God or one of his promises has failed. Has there even been a time when God was not there for you?

Here in chapter 55, the prophet reminds us that God's ways seem strange to us because his ways are not our ways (Isa 55:8-9). God had this really strange-sounding plan for getting his people out of Babylon. When I think of a great rescue operation, I think of something like the Raid on Entebbe. The Israeli commandos stormed the airport, yelled "get down" in Hebrew and shot everybody that didn't. That's how you rescue hostages—go in guns blazing. But, listen to the Lord's strategy for rescuing Israel out of exile. See if you would want to bank your life on this plan. God says, "Stage one of my plan is that I am going to send a foreign king named Cyrus. He is going to conquer Babylon and send my people home. The exiles say: "Sure, a foreign king is going to help us and be our deliverer. Why would a pagan, idol-worshipping king trying to build his own empire want to help us? Great plan, God." If you think stage one is strange, it gets even better in stage two. Stage two is that God is going to use a suffering servant to save his people. He is going to be hated, rejected by his own people, and put to death (Isa 50, 53). The exiles again had to hear this and say, "We need a deliverer stronger than our enemies and you're sending us this suffering servant. How can someone who is so weak that he cannot deliver himself become the instrument of our deliverance?" The Lord answers: "This suffering servant is going to pay for the sins of my people and bring them back to me."

There's the plan—foreign king and suffering servant. There have been endless replays of the last play of the 2007 football game between Trinity College and Millsaps. Trinity needed to go 61 yards, and so they used a very ordinary, conventional play to win the game—they executed a 10 yard pass with 15 laterals and scored a touchdown to win the game. It was an amazing play, but no coach in his right mind would draw up a play like that. Here in the book of Isaiah, you can see the Lord calling the play, and he tells his prophet, "Here's how we're going to win the game—we're going to run the foreign king and the suffering servant."

The plan worked exactly as God designed. 150 years after Isaiah, Cyrus came, defeated the Babylonians, and sent the Jews back home. 700 years after Isaiah, Jesus Christ was the suffering servant who died on the cross to save his people from their spiritual exile; who died to pay the penalty for our sins that we could not pay for ourselves. If God can work out that plan, then God can work out the seemingly impossible situations in your life as well. Every day, God is asking someone here to trust him for something that seems absolutely impossible. When you're that someone, it's great to know that our God has a track record of doing the impossible.

Have you ever noticed it's easy to talk about trusting God when it's someone else's problem and hard to practice when it's yours. God's promises often seem too good to be true, but we have real reasons to trust in those promises. You can trust God's promises because they are an expression of his unchanging love. You can trust God's promises because they are backed by his unlimited power. And you can trust God's promises because he specializes in doing the impossible.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"It's About Following, Not Finding" (Nehemiah and the Will of God)

The following is something a little different from my other blogs. The following is a sermon manuscript on the difficult topic of knowing the will of God, looking at this topic from the life of Nehemiah. The sermon looks at several passages and episodes from Nehemiah's life in attempting to help us better understand how we can know the will of God for our lives.


The question I have probably been asked more than any other as a professor and a pastor is “How can I know God’s will for my life.” I want to suggest that the story of Nehemiah provides some important lessons for us when it comes to knowing God’s will. Why Nehemiah? Number one, there’s no question that Nehemiah had a clear sense of God’s direction for his life—God had called him to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem destroyed in the Babylonian invasion. Number two, Nehemiah is a lot like us in how he came to know God’s will. He didn’t see a burning bush like Moses or a Macedonian man like Paul. He didn’t become a wall builder by seeing a glowing presence over Home Depot or having an ecstatic experience watching Extreme Makeover City Edition. If Nehemiah could know the will of God, then perhaps we can as well.

If you are serious about knowing God’s will, then it’s important to begin with an understanding of how God leads us. We learn from Nehemiah that knowing God’s will is more about following than it is about finding.

How God Leads

Nehemiah teaches us that God leads his people in three specific ways.

God leads us by precept (Neh 1:5-9)

God leads us into His will by the instructions and commands that He communicates in His Word. Nehemiah’s prayer of confession demonstrates that God’s Word was his guidebook for living. Nehemiah is broken because he and his people have not followed the will of God that was clearly revealed in the commands of God. The exile had happened to Israel in the first place because of hundreds of years of not following God’s commandments. God’s word also informed Nehemiah that there was hope for Israel’s restoration and that God would forgive and bless his people if they turned back to him.

During the time that he has been suffering with ALS, Ed Dobson made the decision that he was going to attempt to live a year of his life just like Jesus lived. Doing research for that, he read through the Gospels repeatedly and he has talked about the profound effect that reading God’s Word over and over again has had on his life ( There are no short-cuts in the process—we can’t know the will of God without serious and sustained reflection on the Word of God. In his own life, Nehemiah had reflected so deeply on the Torah that God’s words became his own words when he confessed his sins and prayed for God to bless his people. He didn’t just claim God’s promises; he also submitted to his requirements. He placed his life under the authority of Scripture.

When Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem, he also understood that living by God’s Word was more important than rebuilding a wall. After the wall is rebuilt, there’s a worship service in Nehemiah 8 (Neh 8:2-8) where Ezra reads and explains the law of God for six straight hours. And believe it or not, no one complained about the length of the service or got angry about missing the kickoff. Ezra read the law, explained its meaning, and applied its principles. And it says the people listened attentively as he taught them. You can’t know the will of God treating the Bible like a magic book, getting your verse of the day off of Twitter or letting your Bible fall open and pointing your finger at a passage. It takes serious and sustained reflection, and it’s worth the effort because that’s how we learn to live the kind of life that pleases God in every way.

We also learn from Nehemiah that God leads us by providence (Neh 2:1-6).

Providence means that God directs and controls the circumstances in our lives. Providence is what Romans 8:28 is talking about when it says that “all things work together for those that love God.” The circumstances that come into our lives are not random accidents but instead are part of God’s overarching, individual plan for my life.

We can clearly see God’s providence in leading Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. It was the hand of God that had made Nehemiah the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, the King of Persia. Do you think it was an accident that a God-fearing Jew had the ear of the king? Was it an accident at other times that Joseph was the vizier in Egypt, that Daniel was in the court of Babylon, or that Esther was the Queen of Persia?

Nehemiah has to trust God’s providence when he goes before the king in chapter 2 and asks permission to go to Jerusalem. It wasn’t even kosher to show a sad expression in the king’s presence. So, when the king asks, “What do you want?” Nehemiah breathes up a prayer for help. He prays, and God’s providence takes over. The king not only gave him permission; he gave him the money, materials, and manpower to get the job done. God pulls the strings of the king’s heart and works out His providential plan for Nehemiah’s life.

God leads us by personal desires (Neh 2:11-12)

When Nehemiah hears of the broken-down condition of Jerusalem more than 140 years after the exile, he has a desire to do something for the city that God had chosen as his dwelling place. When Nehemiah is responsive to God’s leading, he receives further directions. As a politician, Nehemiah did something very surprising when he got to Jerusalem--he didn’t call a press conference or take a video crew to tape his fact-finding mission. He went out alone in the middle of the night to inspect the walls. One reason for this secret inspection was that he wanted to map out a strategy before he announced his mission. But Nehemiah also went out in the middle of the night to listen to God and to confirm that God was the one leading him to rebuild the walls.

There’s a phrase that jumps out at me in verse 12. Nehemiah says, “I told no one what God had put in my heart.” When God leads by personal direction, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we hear voices or see visions, but it does mean that God has the power to prompt our hearts.

In The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren tells the story of how God led him to plant Saddleback Community Church. After doing extensive research with census data and praying over a map, Warren became convinced that God was leading him to plant a church in Orange County, California. Following God’s leading, he wrote a letter to the Southern Baptist Director of Missions expressing his interest in planting a church. At the same time he was writing his letter, the mission’s director was writing a letter to Warren asking him to consider Orange County.

It won’t happen with every decision that you make, but there will be times when God will communicate just as personally to your own heart. The work of the Holy Spirit is in part to prompt us in personal ways when we read the Bible. When Dietrich Bonheoffer was lecturing in America in 1939, he read Paul’s words to Timothy, “Do you best to come to me before winter” (2 Tim 4:21) and became convinced that God was leading him to go back to Germany and take a stand against the Nazis. The Spirit and the Word work together because the Bible is a living book.

It appears that there are two extremes when it comes to the question of personal guidance. One extreme denies it. There are examples of God personally leading and directing people throughout the Bible, so I find it difficult to believe that God lost his voice in the first-century or that he has stopped leading us in personal ways simply because the canon of Scripture is closed and complete. In Acts 13, God directed the leaders of the church at Antioch to send out missionaries after they had prayed and fasted. Does God respond to our prayers and our earnest seeking of him in lesser ways?

The other extreme is people who believe that God is like a third-base coach who gives signs and confirmations for every important decision we have to make. God may or may not give you a confirmation, and he will ask you at times to act in faith even when the details are sketchy and unclear. Reading signs from God often becomes a way of just confirming what I wanted to do in the first place. “I’m going to give up because I’m discouraged and it looks like God is closing the door.” Maybe what God wants is for you to be faithful in a difficult place or situation. What if Nehemiah had decided that God was “closing the doors” when the enemies of Judah opposed him and tried to use military force to stop the rebuilding of the walls. What if he had said, “This is hard—I feel God leading me to go back to the palace?” It’s amazing how often Christians are led by God to take the job or ministry that involves making more money. Is that an “open door” from God or is it just what looks good to me?

Several years ago, there was a TV show called Early Edition, where a regular guy named Gary Hobson mysteriously received the Chicago Sun Times newspaper the day before it was published. He knew what was going to happen every day the day before it happened, and then tried to live accordingly. There are Christians who seem to think that God has promised to deliver that kind of newspaper to their front door. God’s leading becomes a form of insider trading—“God, I’ll follow you if you give me advance information on how all of this is going to work out.” God promises to lead us through life, but he has never promised to give us a pre-flight itinerary. Faith means that you may have to act without God mapping out every detail of your future. God promises to give us wisdom if we ask for it (James 1:5), but he has never promised to act as your divine Garmin and to give you a directional indicator every time you come to a fork in the road of life.

God prompts our hearts and leads us in personal ways, but God’s leading is never an excuse for acting irresponsibly. Some people believe that “God told me to do this” means that I have a blank check to do whatever I want. Even when God prompted his heart, Nehemiah had to pray, to petition the king, to plan, to raise the money, and to take his fact-finding ride in the middle of the night. When we are making life-changing decisions, we have to invest the same kind of thought and prayer. We may have to seek the wise counsel of ten different people and persistently pray for God to give us his wisdom. “God told me to do it” is only the beginning of the process; it’s never the end.

Clearing Up the Confusion

When you understand how God leads, it helps to clear the fog that surrounds the mystery of God’s will. Some of the strangest notions that Christians have are related to this idea of finding and knowing God’s will. When I was in college, one of the guys in our dorm approached a girl and said that God had told him they were supposed to get married. She was wise enough to say that she would get back to him when God told her the same thing. Some have an idea about God’s will that goes something like this. I hear a missionary from China speak at church and have the fleeting thought that God is calling me to be a missionary. I try to forget about it, but on the way home, my wife suggests that we go out for the lunch, and out of the blue she says, “Let’s get Chinese.” I turn on the TV when I get home and there’s a documentary on the Discovery Channel about the Great Wall of China. I get a birthday present from my kids later in the week and on the bottom it says, “Made in China.” All of a sudden, I’m starting to think that God really is calling me to China. But, if God’s will is central to our lives, does the Lord really want us to find His will by searching for hidden clues like we’re out on a scavenger hunt?

Understanding how God leads shows us that God’s will is something that I follow, not something that I need to find. Bruce Waltke (Finding God’s Will: A Pagan Notion?) even suggests that the whole notion of “finding God’s will” is more pagan than biblical. The pagans read everything from the stars to sheep livers trying to discover the will of their gods. Instead of calling us to find God’s will, Scripture commands us to follow God’s will—His revealed moral will. Ephesians 5:18 tells us that it is God’s will for us to be filled with the Spirit and to live our lives under his influence and control. 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says that God’s will is for us to avoid sexual immorality and to live a pure life. That issue is a simple act of obedience that is more important to God than what you do for a living. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 informs us that living in God’s will involves being prayerful, joyful, and thankful in all circumstances. We worry about whether God wants us to sell our house and move to Texas; God’s concern is whether we’re thankful and content where we are. God tells us his will; it isn’t something that we have to find through some mysterious process.

Understanding how God leads shows us that God’s will is something that frees us, not something that confines us. Some Christians talk about finding the “perfect will of God for their lives,” and they imagine something like a dot in the center of a circle (for a critique of this view, see Garry Friesen’s Decision Making and the Will of God). The perfect will of God means living in the right city, in the right house, doing the one job, and going to the one church that God has picked out for me. The problem is in knowing how to get all of those things right. It becomes paralyzing to think that I might make one bad decision and ruin the “perfect” will of God for my life.

The Bible teaches that God has a plan for our lives and “works all things for good.” But, that plan is God’s job, not mine. The will of God as it concerns me is to obey his precepts, trust his providence, and respond to His personal direction. Instead of being a dot in the circle, God’s will is more like a box. The Bible gives us clear direction about what’s right for us and what’s wrong for us—what’s inside the box and what’s outside the box. God has painted the out-of-bounds lines very clearly. When we are living inside the boundaries, then God gives us the freedom to prayerfully choose between equally viable options when it comes to education, vocation, and other aspects of our personal lives.

The Choice to Follow

For Nehemiah, the important thing about God’s will wasn’t whether he was a cupbearer or a wallbuilder. For us, the real issue is not if you’re married or single, or if you’re a missionary in China or a truck driver in Virginia. The important question is whether you have committed to follow God, His Word, and His plan for your life. When you make that choice, all the other choices fall into place. Even when my choices aren’t perfect, God honors the choices that I prayerfully make. Augustine said that we can “love God and do as we please.” The psalmist says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” The great thing about ministry is that there isn’t one formulaic way that you have to serve God. You take small steps of obedience; you get involved in people’s lives, and you have to hold on because God begins to lead you in ways that you could never have imagined. Can you imagine what it was like for Nehemiah to have this dream of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and then to see that dream come to life in 52 days?

How great would it be for God to do the same thing in your life and to make those impossible-seeming desires of the heart become a reality? The question then becomes how far are you willing to follow? The desires of your heart will never happen by accident. Nehemiah would have never seen the desires of his heart if he would have just maintained the status quo and stayed in his comfortable position in the palace. When Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, the enemies of Judah did everything they could to stop Nehemiah from rebuilding the walls. Even more than Nehemiah, Jesus was fully committed to doing the will of the Father and it led him to the cross to die for our sins. The desires of your heart will never become a reality unless you’re willing to follow all the way.

God wants us to learn that living in his will is the right place to be and the right way to live. It all begins with a choice to follow.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Temple in the New Testament

In his work From Eden to the New Jerusalem, T. Desmond Alexander explores how the beginning of the Bible (the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3) is related to the end of the Bible (the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22). God’s original design was for Adam and Eve to extend the boundaries of Eden throughout the earth. The rebellion of Adam and Eve separated them from God, but the meta-story of the Bible focuses on God’s attempt to redeem fallen humanity, and the New Jerusalem will ultimately restore what was lost at Eden. Throughout the Bible, God is at work to restore his presence through the Tabernacle and the Temple in the OT, and through the Incarnation and the Church in the NT. The OT temple is symbolic of the full presence of God that redeemed humanity will enjoy in a perfect way in the New Jerusalem of eternity.

In two previous blogs, I have reflected on Ezekiel’s vision of a new temple in Ezekiel 40-48 and the reasons for believing that a literal temple and an earthly millennial kingdom are part of God’s future plans. At the same time, the NT clearly teaches that the temple where God dwelled in the OT era is replaced in the NT by a fuller and more direct enjoyment of the presence of God because of the coming of Christ. This blog will focus on the NT theme of the replacement of the temple and the Bible’s incredible promise of God’s presence in our lives.

The Temple Replaced by Christ

Ezekiel’s prophecy of a new temple is transcended first and foremost by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who brings heaven to earth in a far greater way than the dwelling of a deity in an architectural structure. Jesus is “God with us” (Matt 1:23) and is thus the “one greater than the temple” (Matt 12:8). The Transfiguration accounts found in all of the Synoptic Gospels reveal that the glory of God is now associated with the person of Jesus apart from the edifice of the temple (cf. Matt 17:1-3; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36). With his authority to provide direct and immediate forgiveness of sins (cf. Matt 9:2-5; Mark 2:5-9; Luke 5:20-23; 7:47-49), Jesus supersedes and ultimately renders obsolete the sacrificial system associated with the temple and the Old Testament economy. At the Last Supper, Jesus pointed to the bread and wine symbolic of his death “as more acceptable to God than regular sacrifice” (Matt 26:26-28; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19-20).

The idea of Jesus as the replacement of the temple runs throughout the New Testament and is especially pronounced in the Gospels of Mark and John. In Mark, the motif of Jesus’ replacement of the temple provides an ironic twist to the account of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus is condemned to death in part because of the false accusations that he had threatened to destroy the temple (Mark 14:57-58). Though the accusation was false, the reference to the building of a new temple in “three days” demonstrates that Jesus’ resurrection would in fact bring about the symbolic destruction of the temple (cf. Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34). When Jesus is on the cross, passersby mock him for his warning that the temple would be destroyed at the very time he is fulfilling this prophecy (Mark 15:29-30). The rending of the temple veil from top to bottom (Mark 15:38) is the heavenly pronouncement that access to God via the temple and its sacrificial rituals is no longer in effect. In fact, one should likely view the inclusio provided by the “rending” (schizo) of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus in Mark 1:10 and this “rending” of the temple veil at his death as a statement of how the incarnation of Jesus brought about the obsolescence of the ancient Near Eastern constructs of temple and sacred space as the vehicle of God communicating his presence to and among his people.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and the accompanying statements concerning the rebuilding of the temple in connection with the “three days” of his resurrection are placed at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This teaching appears in close proximity to the statements in John 1 that the glory of God “tabernacles” in the person of Jesus (John 1:14, 18), and that Jesus is now the intermediary between heaven and earth (John 1:50-51). Jesus informs the Samaritan woman that true worship no longer centers around the temple sites of Jerusalem and Gerazim and must be offered to God in spirit and in truth (John 4:20-24). When Jesus invites the thirsty to come to him and to drink on the last day of the Feast of Tabernalces (John 7:37-39), he is identifying himself as the source of the “streams of living waters” that the prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah promised would flow out of the new Zion and temple (cf. Ezek 47:1-12; Zech 14:1-8). What was promised concerning Jerusalem and the temple in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament.

The Church as the Temple of God

Ezekiel’s prophecy of the future temple is also transcended by the experience of the unmediated presence of God by the Christian community through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The church has now become the “living temple” of God, and the service and godly lives of believers takes the place of the temple cult (cf. Rom 12:1; 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19-20; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:4-9; Rev 1:6; 5:10). Using tabernacle typology, the writer of Hebrews explains that believers have this access to God because Christ has entered into the heavenly sanctuary with his blood as the perfect sacrifice for sin (Heb 9:23-28; 10:1-22). Rowland explains, “The cross becomes the moment when unmediated access to God becomes a possibility.” Christ provides a connection to the divine presence that enables believers to follow him into the Holy of Holies (Heb 10:19-22), to presently enjoy the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22-24), and to anticipate by faith the heavenly city that awaits them at the end of their earthly pilgrimage (Heb 11:13-16). Rowland further explains, “What is above, in heaven, is what is to come and is what will be revealed in the end time; but what is to come is now already revealed . . . and to which the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews have access.”

The New Jerusalem and No Need for the Temple

The prophets’ promise of a new temple is ultimately transcended by the New Testament promise of the fullness of God’s presence that is to be experienced in the eschatological age. In the new heavens and the new earth, there will be no need for a temple because God’s presence will fill everything (Rev 21:22). There are two interesting features of the New Jerusalem portrayed by John in Revelation 21-22. First, the city is a perfect golden cube (Rev 21:16), recalling the square dimensions of the Holy of Holies where God’s presence dwelled in the Old Testament (cf. 1 Kgs 6:20). Second, the New Jerusalem is immense in size, measuring to roughly 1,380 miles (12,000 stadia) on each side (length, breadth, and height). As Beale notes, these proportions convey that the new heaven and earth is completely dominated by the garden-like city of Jerusalem (Rev 21:1-3, 10-22:3). There are no “forests, rivers, mountains, streams, valleys, and the many other features of a fertile worldwide new creation,” but instead there is only “an arboreal city temple.” In other words, the whole world will become a temple, and all peoples will enjoy the unfiltered experience of God’s glorious “face” as he rules from his throne (Rev 22:4-5). The New Jerusalem will be a new Eden where humanity once again has the unlimited access to God that was lost in the fall (Rev 22:1-3; cf. Gen 3:8-10, 23-24). The temple symbolism of the Bible ultimately points to the reality of “a huge worldwide sanctuary in which God’s presence would dwell in every part of the cosmos.”

Some Concluding Thoughts

While I believe that Ezekiel 40-48 is picturing a literal temple, the symbol of temple points to something far greater than a building. The temple is a reminder that God desires to be in relationship with fallen sinners and that the best part of our salvation is knowing God and enjoying him forever. The symbol of temple points to what we now enjoy in Christ and what we will enjoy forever in the New Jerusalem. We celebrate the same thing at Christmas—the great promise that “God is with us.”

Friday, December 4, 2009

Future Temple and Future Kingdom

In a previous post, I argued that the most natural reading of Ezekiel 40-48 is that this passage prophesies a future literal temple. Blomberg states, “The biggest obstacle to rejecting a literal “third” temple is the exquisitely and seemingly superfluous detail of Ezek 40-48 if all this is fulfilled fully in the new-Jerusalem community of the redeemed in the new heavens and earth.” The OT prophets as a whole have a consistent view of the eschatological future, in which they anticipate that: 1) Israel would return from its exile and dispersion; 2) an ideal Davidic king would rise to power; 3) Jerusalem and its temple would be rebuilt as a center of worship; and 4) the nations would come to Jerusalem in submission to Israel’s God. Revelation 20 affirms an intermediate kingdom between the second coming of Revelation 19 and the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21-22, but this passage and the NT as a whole offers very little description of this future kingdom. The OT prophets are our best source of information for the detailed specifics concerning this kingdom, and Ezekiel’s future temple is one of those significant details.

The NT in places confirms the Israel-focused, earthly kingdom promised by the OT prophets. Paul asserts that there will be a future restoration of national/ethnic Israel in connection with the second coming (Rom 11:25-27) and bases this promise on the unchanging nature of the Lord’s covenant promises to Israel (cf. Rom 9:3-5; 11:28-29). Paul believes that the eschatological promises of the prophets remain intact and retain their eschatological meaning. Jesus envisions Jerusalem being trampled until the times of the Gentiles reach their conclusion (Luke 21:24) and promises his disciples that they will share in the future eschatological banquet and join with the twelve tribes of Israel in administering his kingdom rule (Luke 22:30). When the disciples ask Jesus prior to his ascension if he is about to restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6-7), Jesus does not deny a future kingdom for Israel but simply states that it is not for the disciples to know the timing of the restoration. The roots for “time” (chronos) and “restoration” (apokathistemi; aposkatastasis) reappear in Acts 3:20-21 when Peter makes reference to “the times of refreshing” and “the restoring of all things.” Peter looks forward to Israel’s restoration but informs his hearers that this time of eschatological blessing will only come when Israel recognizes Jesus as its Messiah.

Robert Saucy appears to provide a good rule of thumb regarding how to read the kingdom promises found in the OT prophets: “The lack of detail about the Old Testament prophecies in the New Testament does not necessarily mean they are invalid or superseded. To the contrary, the situation of the early church suggests that we should consider the prophecies valid unless there is explicit teaching to the contrary.” Jesus and the NT writers are still looking forward to the fulfillment of the kingdom promises found in the OT and anticipate a kingdom that is essentially the same as what is found in the OT prophets. The future temple is an important component of those prophecies.

One of the problems with the idea of a future sacrifice is that the prophets speak of there also being sacrifices offered there (Ezek 40:38-43; 42:13-14). These offerings actually “make atonement” for sin, and the Davidic prince (the Messiah?) even offers a sin offering for himself and the people (Ezek 45:22). Chisholm reminds us that Ezekiel’s vision of the future temple has been contextualized for the prophet’s sixth-century audience:

He describes the reconciliation of God and his people in terms that would be meaningful to this audience. They would naturally conceive of such reconciliation as involving the rebuilding of the temple, the reinstitution of the sacrificial system, the renewal of the Davidic dynasty, and the return and reunification of the twelve exiled tribes. Since the fulfillment of the vision transcends these culturally conditioned boundaries, we should probably view it as idealized to some extent and look for an essential, rather than an exact fulfillment of many of its features.

Thus, one can see a future temple in Jerusalem in the millennial kingdom without there necessarily being animal sacrifices as in the OT era. The people of Ezekiel’s day could not imagine proper worship of God without sacrifices, but a return to animal sacrifice in the millennial kingdom would represent a strange salvation-historical regression in light of the perfection and finality of Christ’s sacrifice for sin (cf. Heb 9:11-15, 23-28; 10:5-14). I. Howard Marshall comments: “The material sacrifices . . . are understood as temporary pointers to the death of Jesus. They provide categories for understanding it, but in doing so they render themselves obsolete.”

Ultimately, Ezekiel 40-48 and the vision of the new temple anticipates much more than simply a new and improved version of a physical structure like that of Solomon’s temple. The opening and closing of Ezekiel’s vision in 40:2 and 48:35 indicate that God’s presence will cover all of Jerusalem and not just the holy of holies in the temple. Similarly, Jeremiah 3:16-18 states that there will be no ark of the covenant in the future Jerusalem and that all of the city will become Yahweh’s throne. The city itself becomes the temple, and the presence of extends beyond any type of sacred building. Isaiah promises that the cloud and smoke of Yahweh’s presence will cover “all of Mount Zion” (Isa 4:5-6). In a very real sense, the Old Testament promise the presence of God for all peoples on earth in a way that far transcends anything associated with the temple as an architectural structure. As Beale observes, the promise that the temple will become a “house of prayer” for the nations (Isa 56:7) presents a “universal purpose” that “will make the localized temple obsolete.” In the “new heavens and new earth” of Isaiah 65-66, only the entire creation will be able to fully house God’s saving presence as he openly dwells among the righteous (66:2, 12-14, 20-23; cf. 57:15). More than a new temple, Isaiah is anticipating a new Eden where God’s presence extends throughout the earth (Isa 51:3-8). The presence of Yahweh will be so direct and pervasive that there will no longer be a need for the sun and moon to provide light (Isa 60:19-20). Ultimately, Revelation 21:22 promises that a temple will not be needed in the New Jerusalem because of God’s direct presence with his people. The temple, both past and future, points to the restoration of perfect fellowship with God that was lost because of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. One final blog on this topic will explore how the concept of temple is developed in the NT.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Isaiah 6: Isaiah's Cleansing and the Burning Coal

A friend asked me recently why Isaiah in the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah has his sin taken away after being touched by a burning coal, yet the Bible says in Leviticus 17:11 that the blood of a sacrifice was needed for forgiveness of sins. It is important to remember that the sacrificial system only provided a partial solution for the problem of Israel’s sin. The sacrifices provided cleansing and forgiveness for sins done “unintentionally” (Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15, 18). The Hebrew term for “unintentionally” is shegugah, and it probably means sins done out of ignorance or human weakness. Whatever it means, it’s clear that the sacrifices did not provide a perfect solution to Israel’s sin problem. The sacrifices offered for the nation on the Day of Atonement were for Israel’s “rebellion” and provided cleansing for all of the other sins not covered by the individual sacrifices (Lev 16:16) so that Israel could live in God’s presence for another year. An Israelite was truly forgiven when offering the sacrifice with a repentant spirit, but the forgiveness needed for a personal relationship with God went even deeper than the sacrifices. As an observant Jew worshipping God at the temple when he has his vision, Isaiah would likely have offered any sacrifice necessary for him to have the purification required to enter into the presence of God, but he needed something more.

In order to be God’s prophet, Isaiah needs a deeper cleansing than what is offered through the sacrificial system. He is aware of deep-seated personal corruption, reflected in the fact that he is “man of unclean lips.” The cleansing provided by the seraphim touching his lips with the burning coal represents a fuller and complete cleansing than is what is provided by the cleansing/forgiveness associated with the individual sacrifices. God’s grace and forgiveness are not exclusively tied to the sacrifices—i.e. forgiveness could be extended without the specific act of sacrifice. When David confesses his sin of adultery and murder, Nathan the prophet announces that God has forgiven him (2 Sam 12:13-15). God’s free choice to forgive was the only way David could be forgiven because there was no sacrifice that David could have offered for the defiant sins of adultery and murder (cf. Psalm 51:16-17). Similarly, Isaiah needs a more thorough personal cleansing than what could be offered through the sacrificial system. God provided this cleansing for the prophet and would have done the same for the nation as a whole if they had repented and turned from their sinful ways.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The New Temple in the OT Prophets: Literal or Figurative

The restoration of Jerusalem and the temple as the center of worship for all peoples is a central feature of the eschatological vision of the Old Testament prophets.

Isaiah 2:2-4 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Isaiah 56:6-7 And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant -these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."

Zechariah 8:20-23 "Thus says the LORD of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, 'Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the LORD and to seek the LORD of hosts; I myself am going.' Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'"

Zechariah 14:16-19 Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain on them. And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the LORD afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths.

Ezekiel 40-48 offers an extended vision of the future temple, but interpreters continue to debate whether the passage should be interpreted literally or figuratively. In his commentary on Ezekiel in the NICOT, Daniel Block adopts an idealized view of the vision that sees Ezekiel’s temple pointing to the restored relationship between the Lord and his people and the fact that Yahweh will take up permanent residence among his people rather than the building of a physical temple. In support of this interpretation, Block points to symbolic, ideal, and non-literal elements in the description of the temple and the nation of Israel in Ezek 40-48:

1. the dimensions of the temple and the temple mount in 42:15-20 are roughly equivalent to the ancient city of Jerusalem from the second temple period.

2. the city forms a perfect square with three gates on each side for the entrance of the 12 tribes (48:16)

3. the emphasis on the twelve tribes reverses the loss of the tribes in history

4. the territorial allotments for the Israelite tribes run in straight lines from east to west without consideration of the geographical peculiarities of the land

5. the dimensions of the city are given with recurring multiples of five and twenty-five

6. the only recorded dimensions are horizontal

7. the water flowing out from the temple in ch. 47 becomes deeper as it flows out of Jerusalem without tributaries, and the fresh water of this river transforms the salinity of the Dead Sea.

Block concludes: “All in all Ezekiel’s scheme appears highly contrived, casting doubt on any interpretation that expects a literal fulfillment of his plan.” (p. 502)

There is no question that there are idealized elements in Ezekiel 40-48 and that Ezekiel’s prophecy envisions far more than the building of a physical temple. However, Richard Hess’ recent essay, “The Future Written in the Past: The Old Testament and the Millennium” (in A Case for Historical Premillennialism), in my opinion provides a more compelling argument for the view that Ezekiel is prophesying a literal future temple. He makes four key points:

1. Prophets appeared in the ancient Near East outside of Israel, and their prophecies clearly refer to specific events and literal persons and places. For example, the neo-Assyrian prophets speak of the future destruction of the Elamites, an enemy nation. There is no doubt that the people who spoke and heard them would have expected a literal fulfillment.

2. The description of the temple in Ezek 40-43 is quite detailed and calls to mind other passages in the OT that describe the construction of an actual sanctuary. There is the tabernacle description and construction in Exodus 25-40, and similar passages dealing with Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 6-8 and 2 Chronicles 2-7. Hess notes, “Indeed, of all the temple descriptions in the OT, Ezekiel’s description is the most detailed in terms of measurements and specifics of the rooms.” Since these other passages deal with real buildings, we would expect the same in Ezek 40-43.

3. The book of Ezekiel is built around Ezekiel’s 3 visions of God, and the vision of 40-48 provides the mirror image of the vision found in Ezek 8-11. In Ezek 8-11, the glory of the Lord departs Jerusalem because of the sin and idolatry of the people. The prophet Ezekiel, who was in Babylon, clearly wishes to convey that he saw a vision of the real temple in its last days before its destruction by the Babylonians. If this first vision is realistic, then it seems most likely that the vision of the new temple and the glory of the Lord returning to Jerusalem (Ezek 43:1-9) should be read in the same way.

4. Various specifics of temple architecture found only in Ezek 40ff are found in the Persian-period temple on Mount Gerazim, in Josephus’ description of the second temple, in the area of the Herodian temple mount, and in the future temple envisioned in various writings of the DSS. Throughout the Second Temple period, there was an understanding among the Samaritans, mainstream Jews, and the Qumran community that the Ezekiel prophecy referred to an actual physical temple.

If a literal temple is in view, then the question arises as to when this prophecy was fulfilled. Was it the second temple built by Zerubbabel in the post-exilic period that was expanded and remodeled by Herod at the beginning of the NT era? Hess correctly observes that this temple could hardly match what is envisioned in Ezekiel’s prophecy: “It is clear that the pure and magnificent temple of Ezekiel was not fulfilled by the construction of the second temple, whether we consider the one constructed immediately after the return from exile or the one that Herod the Great began building and that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Herod built a temple that could perhaps be compared to the one in Ezekiel in terms of its splendor but hardly in terms of its purity” (p. 34) Additionally, the Book of Revelation clarifies that there will not be a temple in the New Jerusalem because God and the Lamb will be the temple in that eternal city (Rev 21:22). Taken together, these details suggest that the construction of the temple envisioned by Ezekiel “must take place sometime in the future before the appearance of the new heavens and the new earth” (p. 34). This future time best fits with the millennial era when the kingdom of God comes to earth in fulfillment of the promises made by the Old Testament prophets (cf. Rev 20:1-10).

The various issues associated with the fulfillment of the temple promise in the prophets will be addressed in future blogs, but we will begin with the starting point that Ezekiel’s prophecy most naturally infers that a literal future temple is part of God’s plan for the eschatological future. When Jesus cleansed the temple at the end of his earthly ministry, he reminded the people of the words of Isaiah 56:7—“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?’” (Mark 11:17). Jesus had announced that the kingdom of God promised by the Old Testament prophets had arrived in its inaugural form (Mark 1:14-15). In quoting Isaiah 56:7, Jesus endorsed the idea of the temple playing a vital role in the eschatological kingdom as a place of worship for all nations. However, Jesus denounced the present temple and warned of its impending destruction, because even though the kingdom had broken into human history through his coming as Messiah, the temple was not fulfilling its divinely-appointed function.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Literary Features in Jonah (Jonah 1:1-6)

I’m teaching Hebrew syntax/exegesis this semester, and our class is working through the books of Jonah and Ruth. I will be making some brief posts on features of the Hebrew text of the passages we work through in class (primarily literary and rhetorical features). Many of these comments are not original to me but are things that I have particularly gleaned from Robert Chisholm’s A Workbook for Intermediate Hebrew and Phyllis Trible’s Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah. I find that paying attention to these types of literary features from the original languages has two major benefits for teaching the biblical text. First, these literary features often provide clues regarding the key theological emphases of the text. Second, an understanding of the poetics of the biblical text helps us to be more creative and vivid in our own retelling of the passage.

Verse 2:
The two imperatives “get up” (קומ) (qum) “go” (לך) (lek) joined without the conjunction convey the urgency and seriousness of the Lord’s command to Jonah. Prophets do not have the option of accepting or rejecting the Lord’s call to deliver his word. In other passages where the Lord commands a prophet to “get up and go,” the prophet’s compliance simply mirrors the Lord’s command (“he got up and went”; cf. Num 22:20-21; 1 Kgs 17:9). Jonah “gets up” (קומ) (qum), not to obey but rather to flee away from what God is commanding him to do. As Chisholm states, “Jonah is the anti-prophet.”

Verse 3:
Repetition often highlights what is important to the biblical writer. The place name “Tarshish” appears 3 times—it is in exactly the opposite direction of where the Lord is commanding Jonah to go. The phrase “from the presence of the Lord” also appears twice in this verse. Here’s Jonah’s real motivation—he believes that getting on a ship and going to Tarshish will help him to escape the Lord’s presence. The book of Jonah is characterized by Jonah making theologically precise confessions that he completely ignores in the way that he acts. In verse 9, Jonah confesses that he worships the Lord, who made the sea and the dry land—if that’s the case, then how does he think he can escape from God’s presence by getting on a ship?

The verb yarad (ירד) (“to go down”) is also prominent in Jonah 1. Jonah “went down” to Joppa and then “went down” into the ship (v. 3). He will later “go down” into the inward parts of the ship (v. 5). The conceptual idea of “going down” continues when Jonah is thrown into the sea in ch. 1 and then descends to the point of Sheol itself in ch. 2. This idea of downward progression is an effective way of demonstrating the consequences of Jonah’s disobedience—sin leads downward to death.

Verse 4:
In the Hebrew text, weyhwh is the first word of the verse. A waw + a non-verbal form at the beginning of a sentence/clause indicates disjunction and here there is a contrast between Jonah’s actions and the Lord’s response. There are clear consequences to Jonah’s choices, and the Lord ultimately acts to accomplish his original intent of getting Jonah to Nineveh.

The name “Yahweh” is the last word of v. 3 and the first word of v. 4, indicating that Jonah was not successful in his attempt to evade the Lord. Jonah attempts to flee from the Lord, but the Lord merely “hurls” a storm in Jonah’s direction to make his presence immediately felt. The verb “to hurl” (טול) (tul) is prominent in chapter 1 (vv. 4, 5, 12, 15). Yahweh is sovereign in that he controls the forces of nature and is able to “hurl” a storm. The human characters in this drama merely act in response to Yahweh’s sovereign power—the sailors “hurl” the cargo into the sea (v. 5), Jonah tells the sailors to “hurl” him into the sea (v. 12), and the sailors comply and “hurl” Jonah overboard (v. 15).

The repetition of the adjective gadol (גדול) in v. 4 reflects the ferocity and intensity of the storm—there was a gadol (“mighty”) wind and a gadol (“violent”) storm. The figurative description of the ship in this verse helps to make this same point. The Hebrew literally reads “even the ship thought it was going to break up.” The ship itself is personified and given human thought so as to portray the sheer terror of this storm. If the ship itself was afraid of breaking up, imagine the fright of the sailors on the ship. The Hebrew involves a sound play (השבה להשבר) hishebah lehishaber for emphasis and a form of onomatopoeia (where the sound of the verb “to break” imitates its meaning). With the sound play, the reader can practically hear the ship about to shatter into pieces. The imagery is even more impressive when we consider the type of seafaring vessel in view. King and Stager (Life in Biblical Israel, 179-81) provide photos of two 8th-century B.C. Phoenician ships (shipwrecked) that each carried cargoes of wine in excess of 12 tons. A storm threatening to destroy a similar-type ship headed for Tarshish was certainly a violent storm.

Verse 5:
This verse makes a vivid contrast between the pagan sailors and Jonah, the prophet of God. The first half of the verse describes the activity of the sailors, and the second half (introduced by the disjunctive we + Jonah) depicts the inactivity of the prophet. Three verbs are associated with the sailors (they feared, they cried out, and they hurled) and three with Jonah (he went down, he laid down, and he slept). While the pagan sailors are sensitive to the working of God and respond with prayer, Jonah is oblivious and sleeps on. The irony of pagans being more spiritually aware than the Lord’s prophet continues throughout this chapter and carries over into Jonah’s interaction with the Ninevites in chapter 3. The prophet states in v. 9 that he “fears” (ירא) (yara’) the Lord, but it is the sailors here who “fear” (ירא) (yara’) the storm that is sent by the Lord.

Verse 6:
There is further irony as the pagan captain has to confront the man of God and urge him to pray to his god. Rather than the prophet instructing the captain, the captain informs the prophet of the theological truth that God may respond to their prayers and deliver them from danger. It is further ironic that these are the first human words spoken in the book, because God’s willingness to spare from judgment and death is the very truth that Jonah resists and is the ultimate reason for his refusal to obey and go to Nineveh (cf. 4:2-3). The captain instructs Jonah to “get up and call” (קום קרא)(qum qera), echoing the Lord’s earlier command for Jonah to “get up [and] call” (קום ... קרא) (qum qera) to the city of Nineveh. The prophet has tried to run away from God’s presence and calling, but has been unsuccessful in doing either. God has made his presence felt in a very real way through the storm, and now Jonah hears the divine commission once again in the words of the captain. However, Jonah will continue to attempt to evade God’s calling, even to the point of telling the sailors on the ship to throw him overboard. He ultimately would rather die than do what God has commanded him.


Friday, September 4, 2009

Psalm 46, Chaos, and the Cross

Psalm 46 is a song of trust celebrating God’s protective presence with his people in Zion. By its very structure, the song highlights that God’s presence is the source of the believer’s security. It opens with the confession that God is a “refuge” and “very present help” for his people in times of trouble, and the refrain, “Yahweh of armies is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” appears at the middle (v. 7) and end (v. 11) of the psalm.

Psalm 46 makes two audacious claims concerning God’s ability to protect those who trust in him. The first is that God provides security for his people in the midst of a catastrophic storm on the scale of the Noahic flood (vv. 2-3). The earth trembles, the mountains “tumble” (מוט) (mot) into the sea, and the raging waters “roar” (המה) (hamah) and “foam” (חמר) (chamar). The malevolent forces of chaos threaten to destroy the earth and humanity in the process. Gerald Wilson writes, “The radical confidence of the psalmist is exhibited in the ability to stand without fear in the face of what constitutes a threat of uncreation” (Psalms: 1, NIVAC, 716). Even in the midst of worldwide tsunami, God provides a protective presence for his people.

After focusing on natural disasters, the psalmist turns to catastrophes of the man-made variety. God not only protects his people from the storm, but he also delivers Zion from the hostile armies that assault the city and seek its destruction (vv. 4-7). The violence of verses 2-3 contrasts with the peaceful calm of verses 4-5. Zion is a place of security even as the earth is falling apart. The mountains of the earth may “tumble” (מוט) (mot), but Zion is “not moved” (בל-תמוט)(bal-tamut). The peaceful river of God’s presence (represented by the Gihon spring in Jerusalem) may seem insignificant by appearance, but it is in fact more powerful than all of the threatening seas. The waters that flow from God’s presence are a source of blessing and joy.

Like the raging seas, the enemy nations also “roar” (המה) (hamah) and “foam” (חמר) (chamar) against Zion. These hostile armies are a human embodiment of the forces of chaos as they threaten Jerusalem and its inhabitants (cf. Jer 4:23 where the prophet hyperbolically warns that the assault of the Babylonian army on Judah will return the earth to a state of chaos and darkness). Even under attack, Zion is secure because the armies of the earth are nothing compared to the “Lord of armies.” The Lord dispatches these enemies with only his voice, which has the power to melt the earth. As previously with the raging waters, the whole world threatens to dissolve, while the tiny hill-fortress of Zion is safe and secure.

The Lord’s deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrian army in 701 B.C. provides a historical example of what Psalm 46 envisions (see 2 Kgs 18-19; Isa 36-37). The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, demanded the unconditional surrender of Jerusalem, warning that the Lord would be no more effective in protecting his people than the gods of other conquered peoples. When Hezekiah turned to the Lord in faith, the prophet Isaiah promised that the Assyrian army would not enter or even fire an arrow into the city. The angel of the Lord miraculously destroyed the Assyrian army in the middle of the night, putting an end to the threat against Jerusalem.

The final stanza in verses 8-11 is the difficult part of this psalm because it is the point of personal application. The psalmist invites all worshippers to share his radical faith and to “be still” and recognize the greatness of the God in whom they have trusted. There is once again a contrast between the swirling, surging violence of the first half of the psalm and the peaceful quietness of those who trust the Lord in the second half. The Lord is worthy of trust because he will one day silence the forces of chaos and bring an end to warfare and violence on the earth. If God is able to protect his people in the greatest natural and man-made disasters imaginable, then he is able to give security to us, no matter what circumstances or situations we are facing in our lives.

The subjugation of the sea and the defeat of the waters of chaos are common images for the Lord’s sovereignty in the Old Testament. The Canaanites believed that Baal had risen to kingship over the gods by his defeat of Yam (Sea) and Nahar (River). In defeating the unruly waters, Baal had also slain the sea monster, Leviathan (Lotan). The Old Testament writers use this imagery for the polemical purpose of asserting that it is Yahweh who rules as king and not Baal. Yahweh subjugated the sea at creation by putting the waters in their place and establishing their proper boundaries (Job 38:8-11; Pss 65:5-7; 74:12-17; 89:9-13; 93:3-4; 104:6-9). Yahweh further demonstrated his power over chaos by using the sea to deliver the Israelites and to destroy the Egyptians at the exodus (Exod 14; Pss 77:16-19; 114:1-5). Egypt is Leviathan (Ps 74:17), Rahab (Ps 87:4; Isa 30:7), and the “dragon” (Ezek 29:3-5).

The Old Testament also promises God’s eschatological victory over Israel’s enemies as the ultimate and final victory over the sea and the forces of chaos (Isa 27:1; 51:9-10). Daniel 7 portrays this cosmic drama unfolding throughout human history as successive empires arise out of the sea and culminate in a hideous beast that is finally destroyed when the Ancient of Days confers an eternal kingdom upon the Son of Man and the saints of the Most High. Jon D. Levenson (Creation and the Persistence of Evil) explains that the motif of Yahweh subjugating the sea is an important component of Old Testament theodicy. God controls evil from the time of creation, but evil is not eliminated or removed until the eschatological future.

The tenacious faith that God’s presence would bring real and permanent peace to Zion pervades and even extends beyond the Hebrew Bible. N. T. Wright (The New Testament and the People of God, 247) comments:

Again and again in the Pentateuch, the psalms, the prophets, and the subsequent writings which derive from them, the claim is made that the creator of the entire universe has chosen to live uniquely on a small ridge called Mount Zion, near the eastern edge of the Judean hill-country. The sheer absurdity of this claim … is staggering. The fact that [more powerful nations] had made explicit mockery of the idea did not shake this conviction, but only intensified it.

The problem is that the beauty of the poetry in Psalm 46 often bears little correspondence to the ugliness of the real world. This confidence in Zion’s security and the larger Old Testament hope of the final dissolution of evil is a noble sentiment, but is it really anything more than wishful thinking? The Bible explains that the fall of Jerusalem to enemy armies in 586 BC and 70 AD was the result of disobedience and unbelief, but the righteous and wicked suffered together. There were other inexplicable defeats when Israel was not guilty of national infidelity (Ps 44:9-22). As an old man, David asserted that he had never seen the righteous lacking bread (Ps 37:25), but one suspects that David may have needed to get away from the palace and the temple a little more often. The holy city of Jerusalem seems no closer to enjoying lasting peace today than it did in the days of the Babylonians and the Romans. The surging waters of the Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina swept away the godly and the ungodly. The brutal murders of two Christian college students this past week here in Lynchburg are a stark reminder of the pervasiveness of evil and seem to mock the psalmist’s confidence in the Lord’s protection.

What keeps us from throwing away our confidence in the final victory over evil is the historical reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sins and absorbed the violence of the cross so that the endless cycle of evil and death could be broken. The motif of God’s conflict with the sea offers another demonstration of how Jesus completes and fulfills what is promised and anticipated in the Old Testament. Revelation 12 reminds us Christ came to engage the dragon (Satan) in a cosmic battle that lasts until the end of time. In his miracle of calming the sea (cf. Matt 8:23-27), Jesus announced that the eschatological kingdom of God was breaking into human history and that the days when death and evil would rule over the earth were numbered. In subjugating the sea, Jesus acted with the power and authority of Yahweh himself. As Schreiner (New Testament Theology, 181) observes, the miracle of Jesus walking on the water “hearkens back to Yahweh who walks upon the sea” (cf. Matt 14:25; Mark 6:48; Job 9:8 LXX; Hab 3:15). The conflict between Christ and Satan reaches a climax at the cross. The darkness and earthquake accompanying the death of Jesus recall the cosmos-shaking storm in Psalm 46 (cf. Matt 27:45-53) and symbolize the destruction of the powers of evil carried out even as Satan unleashes the full torrent of his hatred. The ultimate irony is that Jesus triumphs as the Divine Warrior by sacrificing his own life and then overcoming death through his resurrection:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Col 2:13-15)

Longman and Reid (God is a Warrior, 150) comment that Christ’s triumph is “not the victory of a more powerful being over less powerful beings (as if it were a cosmic struggle of strength against strength in which salvation was achieved by a tour de force); it is the victory of holy, righteous, and creative love over the destructive forces of evil.” The decisive victory is won, but we are continually reminded of the powerful grip that death and evil still hold over the earth. The conflict between God and evil will only intensify until the final beast that rises out of the sea and Satan himself, the great dragon, are ultimately destroyed (Rev 13:1; 19:19-21; 20:7-10). The biblical promise is that there will be no more sea in the new heaven and the new earth of the eternal future, no more of the rebellion, violence and death that has infected the old earth we live in now. Even in the darkest of times, Christ is our refuge and our source of hope. He gives substance to the Old Testament’s lofty aspirations for the peace of Zion, and the final promise of Scripture is that God will eternally extend that peace to all of creation when heaven and earth meet in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21-22).