Heaven’s Flames & Hell’s Gates

For several years now, I’ve seen churches hosting a dramatic presentation called Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames. The one I went to focused on the horrors of hell, the uncertainty of life – we could die any moment, and the necessity to get right with God RIGHT NOW!

One of the difficulties contemporary United Methodists face is a propensity toward soteriological universalism. Our obsession with the love of God – surely a good thing to be obsessed about – leads us to believe that everyone will be saved because a loving God would never send anyone to hell. Of course, when we make this move we have to throw out the biblical imagery about a negative end-state (whether that be called “hell” or not) for humans. On the other side, we could argue that a loving God (that God is love is a root conviction of Christianity, after all) would not compel people to spend eternity with God.

Either way, we UMs are usually not very comfortable talking about hell. But what if it’s a real possibility for some people? What if eternal separation from God, however visualized, is a possible outcome? If we love God and love our neighbors, what would we do in light of such a possibility? It’s in this context that I can understand why some churches put on plays like this. They love God and love people and desperately want people to choose eternity with God rather than eternal separation from God.

My hold up is that the main motivation appears to be fear. Hell is gruesome and horrible; we should fear going there. Heaven is the obvious better alternative. I don’t like motivating people with fear – even when I think the context justifies fear (one’s eternal destiny, wearing a seat belt, avoiding smoking, etc.). Fear is a much better motivator in the short term than the long term.

When we use fear in the context of eternal life, the act of becoming a Christian too easily reduces to getting an eternal fire insurance policy. “I’ve walked the aisle, I’ve prayed the prayer, I’ve joined the church.” I have my eternal destiny settled, so now I can get on with life. I just don’t see that perspective in the Bible.

Consider for a moment the possibility of Heaven’s flames. Such an odd idea, isn’t it, since we usually associate flames with hell – the abode of God’s enemy, the devil. We’ve seen the cartoons of the guy with horns, tail, and pitchfork, torturing people among the flames. That’s hell. Hell has flames. Surely heaven doesn’t have flames.

But what do we make of Hebrews 12:29 – “Our God is a consuming fire.” Is God starting to sound dangerous? What about Isaiah’s vision in Isa. 6? He sees God high and lifted up. How’s he respond? “Hey God, good buddy! Good to see you?” No. He falls down like he’s dead. Knowing the depth of his sin, he knows he’s in serious trouble.

Or what about Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 3:9-15?

9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. 10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

Paul’s talking to Christians here. Christians, according to this passage, go through the judgment. Flames are involved! Are we preparing for God’s judgment, or are we resting on a decision (a GOOD decision!) we made at some point in the past to follow Jesus? Will we be ready for heaven’s flames?

Or what about hell’s gates? Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 16. He’s asked the disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They give a variety of answers. He then asks them who THEY think he is:

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.

Jesus is assuming that our warfare will take us to the very gates of hell – and they will not stand against us. Why on earth would we want to even approach the gates of hell? Surely we want to be safe and secure from the devil and his minions, separated from all the unholy and godless people flocking there through the wide gate?

But, no, that is not the Jesus way. In his incarnation, in becoming one of us, Jesus himself charged the gates of hell. He did so to rescue those running headlong trying to enter. He calls us to do the same. Instead of separating ourselves from the world, so that we will be unsullied by its sin, we take up our crosses – as Jesus commanded – and follow him into the fray. His love for (us) sinners was so great, he gave his very life for us. He calls us to embody that same kind of love and to go after sinners as well. There’s no superiority involved here: our motivation is love, our attitude, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” We’ve been there – we’ve done that – we know the pain and don’t want anyone, even our enemies to go that way.

C.T Studd, a British missionary of a hundred years ago, put it this way:

Some want to live within the sound of a church or chapel bell;

I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.

When we recognize the reality of Heaven’s Flames, when we charge Hell’s Gates to deter or rescue those trying to go in, our lives will be anything but escapist. Sure the world is sinful, broken, hurting. But our allegiance to Jesus means that we follow him wherever he goes, loving him, loving the people he died to save.

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What Are They Supposed to Think?

What are my black friends supposed to think, with yesterday’s acquittal of Officer Yanez in the shooting of Philando Castile?

  • Blacks may (in theory) have second amendment rights, but if they exercise them they’re more likely to receive an instant death penalty?
  • They’ll have to find ways to become paler – and make everyone they care about paler – lest armed people in authority be afraid of them?
  • Armed people in authority have a presumptive right to act violently toward them when afraid?
  • If I don’t do exactly what the armed people in authority tell me to do, even if I don’t understand what they’re telling me to do the exact way they understand what they’re telling me to do, they are justified in killing me (or my son, or my friend, etc.)?

It would be nice to be able to relax and point to statistics. The vast majority of armed people in authority never kill anyone. The vast majority of encounters between armed people in authority and black people do not result in deadly violence. If your experience is that people like you are more likely to be shot in encounters with armed people in authority and that those armed people in authority who do the shooting are universally not held to account for the shooting, it is rational to conclude that you and people like you could be next.

But the statistics show this conclusion is irrational! If we were the kind of being that lived purely in terms of statistics, that might be true. We’re not that kind of being. The microscope of the 24 hour news cycle combined with social media makes sure that these events, even if statistically rare, are ever before us.

Ah – so let’s blame the news cycle and social media! Surely there would be no problem if these incidents weren’t magnified!

But consider what I said. The 24 hour news cycle put these events under a microscope. These incidents are being magnified. The incidents are real. They actually happened. The details may not be report wie es eigentlich gewesen (as things actually happened), but historians since von Ranke know that’s an impossible standard. The incidents, however described, happen often enough, and are vividly reported enough, that my friends perceive themselves (and the people they care about) to be in mortal danger, even if at any given moment they are safe. Philando Castile was safe. Driving down the road, enjoying the day, perfectly safe. Until he wasn’t; until he was dead. (But he was a criminal! He was smoking pot! – And this infraction of the law warrants the death penalty? If I thought the smallest infraction of the law – or even perceived infraction of the law, given the theory that people are innocent until proven guilty – I’d be living a life of anxiety.)

When my friends suffer, my heart is broken. How long, Lord?

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Church as Ecology

In his Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Alasdair MacIntyre draws from W. Edwards Deming and Wendell Berry:

“Individuals who farm need to regard themselves as contributing to a larger project, that of making their particular farm productive while sustaining its land through generations of care. Farmers have to understand the particularities of each of their fields and of their farm animals, acting in the light of standards that they have made their own rather than responding to pressures to maximize productivity and short-run profitability. Those individuals at work on a particular farm serve the good of the farm and through so acting achieve their own goods.”

As one whose family has been off the farm for a few generations, I can’t speak authoritatively on this claim. I can make a few comments relating this kind of thinking to a field I do know – church.

netherlands-82126_640Before I dive into what MacIntyre says, a comment about my use of the word “ecology” in the title. When I posted this quotation on Facebook earlier today, my brother – who as an agronomist knows farming – took this to be a comment about ecology. I think he’s right. We tend to talk more about the other eco- word – economics – these days. The Greek root is the same in both cases: oikos – or “household.” If etymology could be relied on to give us the meaning of a word (occasionally it can, though more often, at best, it vaguely points us in the right direction), “economics” is “the law of the household” and “ecology” is “the study of the household.” Obviously the notion of a “household” in each has expanded greatly.

We most commonly encounter “ecology” as a word associated with the “environment:” plants, trees, animals, bodies of water, etc. I take it as broadly referring to the study of systems conducive to life and flourishing. If I can get away with taking it this way, “ecology” is directly relevant to our life together in the church.

The first thing I notice in MacIntyre’s claim is a network of relationships. The farmer is related to the land, the things farmed (whether flora or fauna), and the practice of farming. Without this network of relationships, the farmer is not a farmer. (I think of a saying I first heard from John Maxwell: “He who thinks he is leading when no one is following is only taking a walk.”) Each of the elements that we associate with farming are defined in relationship to each other. None are independent of the others.

Likewise, church is also a network of relationships. While Jesus uses more examples drawn from agriculture, Paul, who speaks more about the church, uses the metaphor of the Body of Christ. Each member of the Body is a part of the Body. The Body is only healthy to the extent each part is contributing and doing its part. Each part is only what it is in relation to the other parts of the Body.

The second thing I notice is the place of productivity. For the farmer, productivity matters. Getting a crop in, raising animals for food, these are ways the farmer “makes a living,” or better, achieves the goods of farming. If there is no crop, if the animals neither grow nor reproduce, the farm fails.

In church life we are also concerned with productivity. We look for results as we pour in our time, labor, and resources.

In both farming and church life, however, productivity is not an end in itself. If we “maximize productivity” in either context, we run our enterprise into the ground. In church life, an unbalanced focus on productivity leads to burnout and alienation as people feel used. Seeking and achieving the good requires time and attention to the long haul. A metaphor I’ve heard is that the life of discipleship is more like a meal cooked in a Crockpot than one in a microwave.

I also notice that MacIntyre describes the need for detailed knowledge on the part of the farmer. The farmer must not just know about cattle in the abstract, but about the particular cattle on his/her farm. Likewise, in church life, we must pay attention to the particularities of each member of the Body. If we treat everyone the same, as some sort of generic Joe Blow ChurchMember, we fail to understand the uniqueness of each person and thus to partner with them in achieving their highest good and flourishing in the Kingdom of God.

Finally, MacIntyre sees that the good of the individual and the good of the group are inextricably connected. My good as a member of the Body is achieved in and through and with the other members achieving their own goods. Our individual goods find their measure in the good of the whole, with neither being entirely subsumed in the other.If this way of looking at things is at least close to accurate, then it is worth our while to pay more attention to what the good of the church as a whole is – what it means for the whole Body of Christ to flourish. If we do no more than ask of particular programs, “Will this program be productive?” we miss the point. First, by using the farming metaphor (or the Body metaphor, for that matter), we find ourselves in an organic process. Programs find their natural home in a mechanical or industrial process. Second, we will easily lapse into treating people as resources to use toward our ends. The ends we pursue might be good, positive, and agreed upon: but if they require us to treat people as things to be used, we are being led astray.

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Preparing for Communion

This Sunday we celebrate communion. How can we prepare for it?communion

Some of you will say, “It’s obvious! The way to prepare for communion is, get some bread and juice.”

Well, yes, we do use bread and grape juice. The communion stewards (commonly in our case, members of the worship committee) will acquire the elements, prepare them, and set them on the altar.

But how do we prepare to celebrate communion? What steps can we take to be be kind of people who respond well to Jesus’ invitation to feast with him?

The Invitation is really simple:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.

The first thing to note is that Christ himself extends the invitation. The pastor presiding at the table utters these words, but the pastor is only passing on what we take to be the words of Christ. The table – the bread and cup – don’t belong to the pastor. They don’t belong to the local congregation. They don’t belong to the general church. It is Christ’s body and blood we encounter in the elements, and Christ invites us to partake.

To whom is this invitation addressed? It is quite clear. It is addressed to:

  • All who love him;
  • All who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.

(If there had been a comma after “sin,” I would have counted three lines rather than two. The punctuation forces me to reckon the “repenting” and the “seeking to live in peace” as two parts of the same thing.)

The first quality of those invited is that they love Jesus. Notice that there is no further qualification on this love. It’s not only for those who love Jesus “with all their heart” or “with full understanding.” If you’re like me you’d like both of those to be true of you, but know yourself well enough to know not only that you’re not there yet, but also that your capacity for self-assessment is open to question. So we see the simple question, “Do you love Jesus?” Answer “yes” as a little child would, and that’s good enough for this purpose.

We get more qualification on the second aspect of those invited. Here we see first that the invitees “earnestly repent of their sin.” We repent not merely superficially, or with a dollop of guilt from having gotten caught out, or with a half-hearted (yet desperate. “well, if I HAVE to).” Again, as with love, I wouldn’t say that our repentance has to be “perfect” – if there even is such a thing. But it includes not just the act of repentance, but our attitude toward repenting.

Bridging to part two of this qualification we see that our sin is not just an offense against God, or against the Law (or propriety, etiquette, or some other system of rules). Our sin hurts other people and our relationship with them. My sin is against God, but not only against God. It is also against my neighbor.

When we respond in the affirmative and come for communion we are declaring not only that we are repenting of our sin, but that we seek to live in peace with one another. This can be really hard. We can easily imagine repentance as something that happens on the inside, something we do privately in our own head, where only God can see. “Seeking to live in peace with one another,” however, has a public dimension. People can look at us and be at a loss as to whether we are “earnestly repenting.” Maybe they’ll take our word for it. But if we’re “seeking to live at peace with one another,” people will see that. Or, they’ll be able to see how it matches up with reality as they see and experience it. If they see us separating ourselves off from others, from those who have offended or hurt us – or those we have hurt or offended – they will have reason to doubt our words.

This qualification may scare some of you off. You may think, “If I have to seek to live in peace with those people I think I’ll just sit in my seat (or find a church with a more user-friendly, more esteem producing invitation).” This is quite realistic, since unless your church is very small – like just yourself, or if it’s a large church you and one or two others, you’re going to be in the presence of people who have offended you or whom you have offended. Feeling discomfort about this is normal – and good. Letting it scare you away from receiving communion isn’t good, however. When we stay in our sin or despair of reconciliation with our fellow sinners and forsake communion, we cut ourselves off from the exact grace we need for forgiveness and healing. Remember that little word here: “Seek.” Are you seeking reconciliation? Or maybe it’s a prior step: Are you willing to seek reconciliation (though not yet acting on it)? Take your baby steps and come to communion.

So Christ has invited us sinners to his table. He has specified that we love him and repent of our sin and seek to live in peace with each other. Now we start actually doing that: the Invitation enjoins us to actually confess our sins. Once again, a merely silent confession isn’t the starting point (though our liturgy has a place for that). No, we “confess our sins before God and one another.” We do this confession together. Why?

First, we do it together because we are in these enterprises called “church” and “salvation” together. We pursue Jesus together. We together seek to live together as parts (members) of his Body.

Second, we do it together so that we don’t hide behind a pretense of our own righteousness. We confess together that we are sinners. It’s not that I’m really pretty good, coming along with the rest of those folks. We’re all sinners in need of grace.

Third, some of our sin is sin we do together, what we call “corporate sin.” Some of our sin consists of things we do as individuals. Other sins are things we do together. We may or may not even be aware of the depth of our sin (of either kind) – more often not. I know that many times I only become aware of my sin well after the fact. We sinners can be just blind to our own sinfulness.

That brings us to a fourth and final reason we confess together. As we confess together, we encounter an opportunity to step out of blindness to our sinfulness. Our liturgy leads us in confession of things we may may never have realized we did – or realized were sin.

A common response might be, “But I didn’t do that! Why should I confess it?” Try thinking of it this way. If our confession has you confessing something you aren’t aware of having done (I know, many will say more: it’s not just that you’re not aware of having done it, you’re absolutely sure you haven’t done it). Take it either as an opportunity to say something like, “If I’ve done this according to your assessment, God, it really bothers me and I need your forgiveness,” or, “We as a community have done this. I may not be the chief of sinners in this particular regard, but take my repentance here, Lord, as indicative of the repentance of the body as a whole.”

So here’s our Prayer of Confession:

Merciful God,
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
      through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This starts us in exactly the right place: God’s mercy. It’s not the prayer, “O God who gives me exactly what I deserve.” As sinners, we don’t want what we deserve. I know I’d be in serious trouble if I got exactly what I deserved. After all, the Bible says “the wages of sin is death.” I need and depend on the mercy of God.

Notice that the list of sins here is very limited. That’s a feature of its generality. Most – if not all – our sins can be be subsumed under one of these headings.

Also notice that most of these are sins of omission: things we haven’t done. We have

  • Not loved God with our whole heart (see comment way back at the beginning);
  • Failed to be an obedient church;
  • Not done God’s will;
  • Not loved our neighbors;
  • Not heard the cry of the needy.

On the positive side (positive only in that they are sins of commission), we confess that we have:

  • Broken God’s law;
  • Rebelled against God’s love.

Ideally, we take some time to pray this slowly, thinking of the particular ways we have sinned and how they fit under each heading.

Note: the focus is not on “those other people,” the people around us whose sins we know very well. We are not saying, “Lord, those people over there really need your forgiveness because they’ve done these things.” It may be perfectly true that they have done these things. But we confess our own sin here, individually and corporately. We point the finger at ourselves, not at others. It’s God’s job to convict them, not ours.

We confess these sins and ask for forgiveness. We say of these sins what God says of them, that they are horrible, offensive, destructive, etc. We are sorry we’ve done them. We turn from them (that’s repentance). We ask God to wipe our account clean.

But we take another step. We don’t just ask for forgiveness, we also ask God to “free us for joyful obedience.” That last phrase always gets me. Ancient culture understood the obedience part, not so much the joyful part. Our culture’s assessment reverses things, counting the joyful part as most important, and the obedience part as practically abhorrent. Obedience is for children and the uneducated. We’re moderns. We’re liberated. It’s surely not for us. And yet we pray, “Free us for joyful obedience.”

In John 8 Jesus utters the famous line, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?” Yet Jesus’ audience was deeply insulted by his words. They insisted that they weren’t slaves and didn’t need to be set free from anything. When we pray “Free us for joyful obedience” we take a very different stance. We recognize that we’re in bondage to sin. We desperately need forgiveness and freedom. We can get neither by ourselves through our own intelligence, systems, or efforts. We need Jesus to do it for us.

As you prepare for communion Sunday, keep these things in mind. It would be a good idea to bring this prayer before God in advance. If you’re brave, ask God to show you your sin and where you need to repent. If you’re a serious sinner like I am, such a revelation can be very painful. But letting Jesus, the divine surgeon, see the depth of my disease and do something about it, that’s the way to life.


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Reviewing Meet Generation Z

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00018]My introduction to James Emery Miller’s recent book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World came through an interview on Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast. My first thought was, “I need to read that book.” Imagine my happiness when only a week or two later the opportunity to review the book for Baker Book Bloggers arrived in my inbox.

The most attractive aspect of both the interview and the book was the passion White has for connecting with young people. He’s clearly not content to put forth a rigid approach: “This is the way we’ve always done it – get with the program and believe what you’re supposed to believe and do what you’re supposed to do!” This isn’t just an attitude he has for himself; it’s shaped the way he leads his congregation, Mecklenburg Community Church.

The first section of the book, what he calls “The New Reality,” deals with “Understanding” the current generation of young people. Having already read extensively in this genre, I didn’t find this so useful. I’ve read many books and worked for years with young people, so I’m good with the theory.

The second section of the book, “A New Approach,” shows how to put understanding the generation to work. This was more useful. The “new approach” has one eye to those outside the church, and one to the church itself. As we engage with outsiders, we must have solid apologetics that addresses the questions they are asking. As White observes, this generation looks at Christian beliefs and practices and thinks we’re crazy. We need to be able to communicate lovingly, clearly, and winsomely why we believe and act as we do. Of course, this also requires that what we do be in line with Scripture, lest we present the world yet another picture of hypocrisy.

The biggest roadblock to reaching this generation is the way we’ve been “doing” church. He says, “What is killing the church today is having the mission focused on keeping Christians within the church happy, well fed, and growing… The mission cannot be about us – it must be about those who have not crossed the line of faith.”

He’s certainly right here. The church today does have a propensity to meet our own needs first. And we do this spiritually, also, talking about “discipling” those in the body first. As a long time pastor, I do see this as a necessity. But this work of discipling those in the body cannot be separated from the making of disciples of those who are not yet in the body. If the separation occurs, we end up with something less than biblical discipleship.

For me, the most useful part of the book was the examples White included in his appendix. This enabled me to see the kind of message he’d described earlier in the book and see how they come across.


Note: I received my review copy for free from Baker Book Bloggers.

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Reading Isaianic Prophecies

In church this morning we looked at a few texts that Christians have traditionally taken to be prophecies of the coming Messiah, prophecies of Jesus.

Most Christians, upon reading Isaiah 52:13 – 53:  see the text as descriptive of Jesus. we see how the Servant is described and we think,  “How could people in his era have missed it?”

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (NIV)

The Suffering and Glory of the Servant

13 See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.

53 Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.[e]
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors.

Or we look at Isaiah 7:14. We find there a prophecy of a sign given by God, a virgin giving birth to a child who will be called “Immanuel.” We Christians know – of for no other reason than the use of this text in Matthew 1 – that this is Jesus. It is completely clear and obvious to us. Again we think, “How could they have missed it?”

But then, perhaps, we read more of Isaiah 7.

Isaiah 7:1-20 (NIV)

The Sign of Immanuel

When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.

Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.

Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field. Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, “Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” Yet this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘It will not take place,
    it will not happen,
for the head of Aram is Damascus,
    and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years
    Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.
The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
    and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
    you will not stand at all.’”

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the Lord your God for a sign,whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”

13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”

In this larger context we see that the sign of 7:14, the son born to the virgin, is not just a sign given to everyone but specifically to King Ahaz. Ahaz was worried about the two armies that were surrounding Jerusalem. He knew he couldn’t stand against them for long. God sent Isaiah to give him reassurance. God’s promise was that these two enemies would soon pass from the scene. They would not overcome the Kingdom of Judah.

God spoke to Ahaz through Isaiah the prophet: “Ask me for a sign that what I have told you will come to pass.” Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, hiding behind a superficial spirituality. So in v.14 God himself offers a sign – the sign of the son. This son, we read in the next few verses, will still be a young child when the Armies of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Aram (Syria) are complete taken care of. Read this way, this son to be born could not be Jesus – as Jesus was born over seven hundred years too late to be a sign to Ahaz.

So what do we make of this? We keep reading. We examine the context further. As we continue to read in Isaiah we find in chapter 9:

Isaiah 9:1-7 (NIV)

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
    you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
    the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

Notice particular v. 6. Here again the prophet points as the son who will be given. Now we move far beyond a sign offered to Ahaz. This son will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” These features fit no one in the age of Ahaz; these do fit Jesus.

So where do we stand?

If all we read is Isaiah 7:14, we find an obvious reference to Jesus. If we expand the context a bit to include the verses around 7:14 we find that it’s instead an obvious reference to someone other than Jesus, someone who lived centuries before Jesus. But when we continue on and consider the still larger context, this simple distinction is thrown into question. Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy of a child being born who will be a sign to Ahaz and his contemporaries. This same prophecy is also of a child who will be much more than that, a child we Christians recognize as Jesus. In other words, this text has multiple levels of fulfillment. We miss this when (a) we take single verses out of their context, and (b) when we don’t look at the full context.

So what about Isaiah 53 and the Servant? Christians have traditionally taken this to be Jesus. Jews have traditionally taken it to be Israel. There are reasons to consider both possibilities. Let’s consider a neighboring text, also in the Servant Songs of Isaiah, that throws some light on the question.

Isaiah 49:1-6 (NIV)

The Servant of the Lord

49 Listen to me, you islands;
    hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
    from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
    and concealed me in his quiver.
He said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
    and my reward is with my God.”

And now the Lord says—
    he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
    and gather Israel to himself,
for I am[a] honored in the eyes of the Lord
    and my God has been my strength—
he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
    to restore the tribes of Jacob
    and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

As in Isaiah 53, we find the Servant here. In v.3 we finally see the Servant identified: the servant is named “Israel.” There it is – it can’t be more obvious. The Servant is Israel. So much then for the traditional Christian reading. But wait! Consider the Servant’s vocation in v.5. Here we see that the first part of the Servant’s job is to “bring Jacob back” to the Lord, to “gather Israel to himself.” So here the Servant is something other than Israel who will save Israel (and, in v. 6, all the rest of us as well). Once we consider this whole context then, the Servant is Israel  and just as clearly, the Servant is more than Israel.

How can this work?

I’ve already suggested that prophecy is capable of multiple forms of fulfillment. That’s one thing happening here. There’s another. Jesus – the Servant – came not merely as the embodiment of Israel’s God, the God who created the whole universe (the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation), but also as the embodiment of Israel. Where Israel had failed in its mission, Jesus would take up that mission and save Israel and fulfill the mission in the course of his life, death, and resurrection. If we want to understand Jesus biblically, we need to understand him (and the scriptures that tell of him) in the context of Israel. Jesus was not out to start a new religion (which we have come to call Christianity); Jesus came instead as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, his chosen people. Now we, the people of Jesus, join that same story, and become part of God’s project of bringing healing, life, and salvation to all of creation.

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Book Review: Greek for Everyone

9780801018916I just finished reading A. Chadwick Thornhill’s, Greek for Everyone: Introductory Greek for Bible Study and Application published by Baker Books (Note: My copy of the book was provided to me by the publisher for purposes of review.)

I minored in Greek back in my undergraduate days. My seminary required study of Greek, so I added a couple more courses in New Testament exegesis then. All that was many years ago, however, and my Greek has grown rusty. I thought this book would be a good review for me and be worth considering to share with serious Bible students in my church. I was not disappointed.

First some comments on the content. Thornhill takes the reader from an introduction to the Greek language – what the letters and sounds are – through a comprehensive overview of the grammar. The material is up to date – more than what I had been taught 30 years ago – so in spite of my extensive courses on the subject, I found myself learning quite a bit.

Second, Thornhill structures the book so there are examples throughout. Each grammatical feature is amply and simply illustrated with brief excerpts (verses and partial verses) from the actual New Testament text. The organization of the book as a whole and of each chapter in particular is clear and easy to follow.

Third, each chapter gives some vocabulary and brief exercises for the student. These are by no means extensive enough to constitute a whole course in Greek, but they suffice for the introductory work this is intended to be.

Fourth, as the author brings everything together in the final chapter, I appreciate his wisdom and helpful suggestions. I’ll mention two. First, Thornhill is emphatic that biblical interpretation is a communal activity. As I teach my own students, he insists that we’re more likely to get the Bible wrong when we read it alone, in isolation from other readers. Second, there is an emphasis on epistemic humility. Thornhill hammers home the fallibility of readers. Because we can be wrong, and often are, we need to practice being open to correction.

The main weakness of this book is probably common to the genre, and more a feature of our culture than the book itself. Ordinary church folk seem desperately afraid of Greek (Shakespeare didn’t help us here). Thornhill’s book, if read carefully, will help dispel some of that fear. I’m not sure, however, that a majority will be willing to give it a chance.

There are two contexts I would be inclined to use this book. The first is the New Testament exegesis class I taught to undergraduates. That class required no knowledge of the original languages, and this would have made a nice addition to the course. Second, I would happily use it with advanced Bible students in the local church, particularly those who are or aspire to be teachers.

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