KERUX: A JOURNAL
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ISSN 0888-8513 Vol.4, No.2
A Sermon on Hebrews 13:8
These words of the epistle attach themselves in the most direct manner to what immediately precedes. Although there is no connecting particle, there can be little or no doubt that the author wishes to urge a reason for the exhortation he had just addressed to the readers: "Remember them that had the rule over you, which spake unto you the word of God; and considering the issue of their life, imitate their faith." The exhortation is not meant in this sense–that the Hebrews ought to imitate their former rulers by adhering to the same faith–for the reason that the Christian doctrine is the same and unalterable for all times. In that case "Jesus Christ" would stand here for the content of the Christian religion in the sense of the doctrine about Christ. It is certainly far more natural to take the phrase "Jesus Christ" in the usual personal sense which it elsewhere has in the epistle and to find here accordingly the affirmation of the unchangeableness of the personal life and character of the Savior.
The question then is what bearing this personal unchangeableness of Jesus Christ has on the duty of the reader to imitate the faith of
their former rulers by considering the issue of their life. Because this is not immediately apparent, some have thought it necessary to go back to the 5th and 6th verse for making the connection where the author quotes from the Old Testament: "For himself has said, I will in no wise fail thee, neither will I in any wise forsake thee. So that with good courage we say, the Lord is my helper, I will not fear: What shall man do unto me?" To which then this verse would add the reason: we can rely upon the Lord not failing us nor forsaking us; we can consider him our helper, we need not fear because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yea and forever.
The Issue of Life
But this also is less plausible. When we look clearly at the immediately preceding words, we shall perceive that the connection, while not at first apparent, is nevertheless of the closest and most convincing character. The author had been speaking not merely in general of the life and faith of their former rulers and pastors, but particularly of the issue of their life. The issue of their life does not mean the effect of that life either for themselves in the future state or for others in the present world; it refers to the manner in which their life has come to an end, the manner in which at the time of death they had exhibited and triumphantly maintained their faith. In all probability, the end of life referred to had been the end of martyrdom. The rulers who had spoken unto them the word of God had sealed their faith and crowned their profession of Jesus Christ with the testimony of their blood. Now the author looks upon this triumph of martyrdom not so much as a single exhibition of faith but as the ideal culmination of the entire career of faith. The words used in the original prove that by the issue of life he does not mean the end of physical life, but the climax of spiritual life. It is not the telos tes zoes but the ekbasis ten anastrophes that he speaks of. This is the reason why a consideration of this climax of the life of their rulers in martyrdom can be held up by him before the readers as a model upon which to fashion their own faith. What the author means to say, I take it, is nothing else but this: Behold in them, whose martyrdom you have
witnessed, what the highest point is to which faith can attain; therefore keep your faith to this–shape your walk in such a manner that in your own case also, when the necessity arises, it will not be a hard and strange thing to lay down your lives for the sake of Christ, but a natural thing the issue of your whole previous Christian conversation because it has been at every point inspired by the thought of self-denial and suffering and voluntary renunciation.
The Heroic Character of Faith
There is in general a heroic strain in this conception of faith as the author writes it out, especially in the 11th chapter of the epistle. There martyrdom also appears as the supreme exhibition of the spirit of faith. The whole catalogue of the great exemplars of faith issues into the description of those who were tortured and would not accept their deliverance and had trials of mockings and scourgings and of bonds and imprisonment and were stoned and sawn asunder and thus had witness borne to them through their faith. With this agrees also what precedes in the 12th chapter where the writer exhorts the Hebrew Christians to follow in the footsteps of this great cloud of witnesses, reminds them that they have not yet resisted unto blood and urges upon them as the fundamental grace of which they stood in need, the exercise of patience in the midst of suffering.
Now it is as a motive for the cultivation of such heroic faith, a faith that had thoroughly familiarized itself with the idea of hardship that could without shrinking face the crisis of martyrdom as the natural issue of its own course. It is as a help for the cultivation of such faith that the author tells his readers: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yea and forever." This means, first of all, the same grace that sustained those who preached unto you the word of God so that not only resignedly but joyfully and triumphantly they laid down their lives–the same grace stands at your disposal. If, as some modern writers of name think, the epistle was written to a company of Christians in the city of Rome, there might be a reference in this to the martyrdom of Paul and possibly of Peter (at least if the statement
"who spake unto you the word of God" be not understood of the first preaching of the gospel). In that case, the reminder would come with peculiar force and richness of association since it would mean in substance: remember that the Christ in whose strength the great apostolic leaders fought their battle of faith and gained their crown is still the same Christ today, who can nerve you also to an equally glorious and triumphant fortitude in your conflict with the world.
But be that as it may, even though those who had had the rule over them were less illustrious leaders of the church than Peter and Paul; at any rate the appeal to the unchangeableness of Christ has great force in this connection. And to us it gives an insight into the spiritual condition of the Hebrew Christians to which the letter addresses itself. Evidently after the first transport of enthusiasm in the earliest days of the Christian profession of these believers, then had followed a period of reaction in which their zeal had begun to decrease, their courage had begun to wane, their hope had become drained in which they had lost the strength of faith to maintain themselves on the same high plain they had lived on at the beginning. All through the epistle we can feel that this was the situation which filled the writer with solicitude because he discerned in it not merely the symptoms of a deplorable retrogression in Christian attainment, but even more because he perceived in it the forebodings of apostasy. It was true then as it is now that, strictly speaking, there can be no standing still in the spiritual life; for precisely because it is life–a growing, developing thing–progress is of its very essence. The suspension of progress means that there is something wrong, that a decline has set in which, if not arrested, must lead to a fatal issue. Such a thing as a stationary Christian in reality does not exist. It is only the outside appearance of the Christian life that may seem stationary–within the forces and processes are always working either in one direction or in the other.
How appropriate then it was for the author, in this their state of languor and depression, to unroll before them not merely the annals of Old Testament history in which faith shines in its full glory; not
merely to hold up before them the example of their former leaders or their own noble past, but above all to point them to Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever, through faith in whom their Christian life might be lifted above all danger of fluctuation, by laying hold of whom they could bring back into their wavering souls the same all-conquering strength and courage that had been theirs before. And perhaps there was one specific element in their spiritual discouragement which made such a reference to the unchangeableness of Christ even more pertinent than has been indicated. In all probability, they felt keenly the loss of those leaders who had formerly between them and the world stood as living examples of the Christian ideal and had communicated to them something of their own faith so as to draw them upward to the same height of courage and joy in believing. But now these fathers in Christ were gone and they were thrown back upon their own spiritual resources and distrust of themselves had taken hold of them and for the moment they did not know whither to turn for that guidance and inspiration on which they had become so dependent. For this reason also the writer reminds them that although men may come and go; while the human supports on which the Christian's faith has sometimes to lean are from the nature of the case transitory, nevertheless Jesus Christ goes with his church through all the changes and vicissitudes of time, the same yesterday, today and forever, always accessible, under every condition reliable and therefore the one proper object of faith, the only safe source of confidence because in him alone is that eternal certainty which faith needs to rest upon if it is to be faith at all.
The Immutability of Christ
This is a truth which we ourselves may well lay to heart, especially at the present time in the history of the church. It is easy in our days to come to feel as if the common people of God were more than ever left without great leaders such as former generations have known, exceptional men of God, who by their extraordinary power of faith and by the mighty utterances of their word rallied around them the army of believers, inspired them with ever new courage and thus prevented the
enemy from gaining advantage over them. But if it does not please God to raise up such men in his church for the present or if it pleases him in his wisdom to take them from us, we should not anew ourselves to be tempted by this to unbelief and despondency. We should remember the truth of which the author puts his readers in remembrance–that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, that even when the plain people of God seem most destitute of leadership, the greatest leader is always there, that not for a moment does he leave the helm or abandon either a single believer or the church as a whole to the waves of the world. Perhaps this will explain to us why the writer has placed the two propositions together without a connecting particle. First: "Remember them that had the rule over you... and imitate their faith." And then: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." The proper frame of mind is at the same time to honor and appreciate all the gifts and graces which God has bestowed upon eminent men for the service of the church, to honor them especially by imitating them and yet to go back of all this and cast the anchor of our faith for the future of God's kingdom in the world in Jesus Christ himself: remember the men of the past, but trust in him alone who has the power of an endless life and dwells in an everlasting present.
The Immutability of the Son of God
Such then seems to be the primary meaning of the words as determined from the connection. But I would not have you forget that these words have back of them the whole peculiar teaching of the epistle in regard to the person and work of Christ. And it is only because the author assumes his readers have assimilated the gist of this teaching that he expects his appeal to come with convincing force to them. They would understand that Jesus Christ must indeed be the same yesterday and today and forever because they remembered who Jesus Christ was and in what terms he had been described to them in almost every sentence of the epistle. He was the Son of God, the effulgence of the Father's glory, the very image of his substance. To him the author had applied the words of the 102nd Psalm: "Thou
Lord in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of thy hands: they shall perish; but thou remainest. And they all shall wax old as cloth a garment, and as a mantle shalt thou roll them up. But thou art the same and thy years shall not fail" (vv. 26,27). To him therefore belongs the attribute of unchangeableness that is inherent in the conception of divinity itself. Indeed the very form of the words–the same, yesterday and today and forever–reminds us most vividly of the sublime description which the New Testament Apocalypse gives of God himself as the one that is and that was and that is to come who fills with his being all the possible categories of time because he is eternal; and also it reminds us of that other no less sublime description which we find in the same book of both God and Christ himself as the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Christ belongs throughout the epistle to the heavenly world in which everything bears the character of the unchangeable, the abiding. In this respect, the teaching of the epistle stands nearest to our Lord's own teaching concerning himself in the fourth gospel where also the emphasis is continually thrown on this–that Jesus is from above and not from beneath and that consequently he is free from all the relativities and imperfections and vicissitudes that necessarily belong to everything earthly. Christ is the truth, the reality of God incarnate, and therefore we can sustain to him the same religious relationship, address to him the same religious trust that we sustain and address to God himself.
Now this is not a mere speculation of the epistle, just as little as it is a mere speculation in the Johannine teaching of our Lord. For we must observe in the second place that the whole beautiful representation which the author gives of the saving work of Christ both as Revealer and as High-Priest is the direct outcome of this conception of Christ as a divine, eternal Person. If you take this away, you take away the foundation of everything that is taught concerning Christ as the Savior not merely because it would be impossible for us to approach him in a religious spirit, were he divested of these attributes, but even more so because it would be impossible for him to approach us and encompass us and enlighten us and atone for us and bring us
back to God if he be not rooted with his personal life in the soil of divinity and eternity. There is not a writing in the New Testament which teaches so emphatically the absolute indispensableness of the divine nature of Christ for the work of redemption as the epistle to the Hebrews does. He is the climax of all prophecy because he is the Son who does not speak the truth for a small portion or in a limited manner as it came unto the fathers through the prophets, but who speaks it as the echo of the voice of God himself and therefore speaks it to all the ages so that we may say of himself not only, but of his speech–it is the same yesterday and today and forever, the same in authority, the same in freshness, the same in vital power as when it first resounded from the background of eternity.
An Immutable Priesthood
And the same is likewise most literally true of his priestly work. In that also we recognize the impress of what he is. The whole epistle is full of this thought. It is not necessary to state more than the main lines along which its profound and splendid exposition of Christ's priesthood moves. The central theme from which the author starts and to which he returns is: he is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. And what this means is shown us in the type. When Melchizedek appears in Scripture as a priest who derives nothing from ancestors or predecessors in office, but everything from his own royal personality, it is only because he has been by inspiration made alike in this respect unto the Son of God that he might prefigure the Son of God. Christ draws the qualification for his priesthood from his divine nature as well as from his human nature because it can be said of him that he is without beginning of days and end of life; therefore he remains a priest forever. He has his priesthood unchangeable because the power of an endless life is in him. He transcends and abrogates by his ministry the Levitical priesthood because in his, the undying person, he has forever assumed all its functions and prerogatives in an infinitely higher sense. Through the eternal Spirit, he offered up himself without blemish unto God and therefore he has perfected forever by one sacrifice all them that are sanctified. Finally, his
eternity and priesthood are seen most closely united in this–that for the main part the discharge of his priestly functions takes place according to our epistle in heaven where he ministers in his glorified state. The two are so inseparable that the author simply says: "If he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all" But being in heaven, he is the one priest, and his priestly state partakes of the unchangeability which is the supreme law of that world. He is a priest upon his throne (to use an Old Testament phrase) and his throne, as we have seen, is everlasting since it stands at the right hand of the throne of God himself. Even when the priestly work in the specific sense of the application of his redemption shall have ceased, when it no longer will be necessary for him to make intercession or plead his merit for us because all sin and all consequences of sin shall have been removed–even then he will remain the everlasting High-Priest of humanity offering up to God the united adoration and praise of the redeemed race of which he is the Head.
A Sympathetic Savior
It is necessary to keep this in mind because we sometimes emphasize the other side too much. Undoubtedly his earthly experience as a weak, limited, suffering man was necessary to qualify him for his office. Without it he could not have the experimental knowledge of our temptations and the sympathy, the assurance of which is so precious and consoling to us in our times of trial and affliction. But let us not forget, brethren, that it lay far from the author's thought to make this sympathy work for us merely in a subjective way just as we say that the sympathy of a person helps us though he can do nothing more for us than express to us a fellow-feeling with our infirmities. No–the sympathy of Christ works for us with all the endless resources that his divine nature and his glorious humanity put at its disposal. It is the sympathy of one who is the same yesterday and today and forever; of one who remembers, as only absolutely perfect human nature can remember, what he himself passed through while on earth, when he offered prayers and supplication with strong crying and tears. It is the sympathy of one
with whom to feel for us and to act upon us is one and the same thing. It is the sympathy of one who has access at every moment to every part alike of any distressing or perplexing situation in which any believer may find himself as well as to every recess of our heart, to the most secret fears and the most silent griefs which we can share with nobody else. And then it is the sympathy of one who can never grow weary of our complaints because in him there is an exhaustless store of pity which is adequate for the consolation of ages of believers which flows as freely at the present day for you and me as it flowed in the day of the Hebrew Christians for the simple reason that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, unchangeable in this as in everything else. It is only by thus uniting the divine and the human, the temporal and the eternal aspect of Christ's activity for us that we can draw from them that rich profit and consolation which the reading of this wonderful epistle is intended to supply to us.
Princeton Theological Seminary,
Princeton, New Jersey
January 7, 1903; Preached: January 11, 1903
The New Point of View
Translated by H. David Schuringa
For the love of Christ constrains us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again. Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new (2 Corinthians 5:14-17, NKJV).
Brothers and Sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ:
Even if this word of the apostle Paul, upon first hearing, is not in every respect clear to us, it nevertheless is clear that it contains one especially great thought, namely, the new point of view of the congregation of the Lord Jesus. In general, it is of course an important matter from what perspective we view things and in what light we see
life. When the sun shines, like today, it is as if everything is different. It is the same world as yesterday but it is another world than the one we have seen for so long and have had to endure. This is also so in the life of man in general. When you are under the pressure of life's disappointments you see things differently, in another light. You feel your world closing in around you and everything is gloomy. On the contrary, when you are living in joyful expectation, when you have the feeling that you can cope with life, things are also different–those same things. You then go about things in another manner, you view life in another way and you become another person. We could go round and round on whether it is a question of optimism or pessimism, but we would not get very far. Naturally it is more pleasant to be an optimist, or to have an optimistic wife, than to be a pessimist, but it finally boils down to what reality most closely approximates. You can also be too optimistic.
The church, the congregation of Christ, also has her point of view, her faith point of view. She received it from Christ and from the Bible. If she lives according to the Bible, she views things in a particular light, from the particular viewpoint of faith. That is why the congregation in her confession and the believer in his confessing usually speak a different language and characterize things in a different way than people who do not stand in that faith. That is why the confessions and declarations of the church are sometimes so difficult for the unchurched to understand. They are annoyed by what the church says. They say, "it is nothing but idle chatter. That does not harmonize with the experience of life. The church is out of touch with the real world! She uses a lot of fancy words! She speaks with an impressive style, but there is nothing to it."
Who would not object, congregation, to a cheap use of language? Nevertheless, there is the viewpoint of faith. And this is what our text is talking about. Here in the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul is waging a war against those who are criticizing the way he views and characterizes things. He is waging war against the Jews and the Judaizers, as well as the Greek philosophers, who all were viewing and
characterizing life in their way and instructing the people in their perspective. The Jews kept busy with the law, busy teaching people morals, busy bringing life to a higher plane with good works. The Greek philosophers had another point of view. They saw things in terms of the apparent irrationality of life. They kept busy trying as much as possible to make yet a little sense out of the riddle and tragedy of life in order to somehow rise above it all.
When Paul comes and speaks his word as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he goes against what the Jews were saying and what the Greeks were teaching, the apostle himself even calling it foolishness. Then come the attacks against this Paul who, as they maintain, makes things much nicer than they are in reality and who speaks with arrogance–Paul himself calls it boldness, but they call it arrogance–as if he has a corner on wisdom and as if he is able to understand the world better than they. Paul answers these attacks in this second letter to the Corinthians. He is making room for that new point of view and does so in a variety of ways in this deep and beautiful letter.
He also speaks of this in our text and he holds up what inspires and moves him as an apostle of Jesus Christ. He says, "the love of Jesus Christ constrains us." That means, the love of Christ overwhelms us, has overpowered us. What inspires Paul is that he has learned to know the love of Christ. He has come so much under the power of Christ's love, that he is viewing life in another way and, therefore, also the congregations–and those congregations did not really amount to much in those days. Those little, weak, unsightly congregations that he organized, he nevertheless dares to characterize in terms of that which is from all appearances far from reality. This is all due to the fact that he has come under the influence of love, Christ's work of love. He says we are convinced that One has died for all. That is how he sees Christ's death. Earlier he had thought quite differently about it, and that he will also mention, but now he has been brought under the conviction that the death of Christ was an act of his complete and all-embracing love.
Paul sees the Lord Jesus Christ as the center of a new humanity.
He sees Him as One who has come in order to bring an end to the old existence of man and to make a new existence possible. Paul sees that in a unique, all-embracing way; the great event for all mankind has taken place in that One man. That is, congregation, how it is in the world and in life. We often think that we stand all alone and that life is a matter of every man for himself. That is not how things are in reality because our lot and life are in so many ways bound up and interwoven with those of others. There are in history, for example, various great figures who dominate and who must make important decisions for the rest. In the history of one's country and of the world, it is not difficult to point to such figures to whom we refer, for example, as "the father of our country," a figure with whom the destiny of an entire nation is decided. Similarly, Paul sees Christ not merely as One who has fallen prey to destiny or as One who did not stand for himself, but as he who embraces all mankind in his love, and as One who, when he died, died for all. How mysterious and unfathomable this may sound to us. Paul describes this in a unique way with the following words: "Then all died." That is to say, when Christ died, he died not for himself, he did not die alone, but they all were with him then. At that moment he embraced them all in his love and he carried them with him into death. For, congregation, Christ has united his destiny to ours. Christ died for all because he came to be like us and he took upon himself our existence, our existence which is tempted by sin, suffering and death. So that when he died, he bore all that. Or it could be put this way: He came as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. That is why you can say he died for all; he died on behalf of all. But you can say that even more strongly: "Then all died." They were all with him when he underwent that existence of the old man, when he submitted himself to that sin–and death-ravaged life, when in great love he gave himself over to the cross of Golgotha.
Now that, says Paul, changes my perspective on life. This has happened so "that those who live, should live no longer for themselves, but for him who died for them and rose again." In other words, so that they should no longer exist in themselves and no longer
exist for themselves. For that, congregation, is really the curse of our life: that we are alone, that we must carry our own weight, that we must keep plodding along, that we must stand up for ourselves. There are indeed people who contend that the real meaning of human existence is, after all, every man for himself. When push comes to shove, no one is going to do it for you. It does often appear to be this way and this is at any rate often how life is when we are not taken up into the new fellowship of Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism says that our only comfort in life and death is that we are no longer our own but that we belong to him. That is what Paul means when he says that they "should no longer live for themselves." They should realize that their life stands no longer on its own and that they no longer live for their own account, but that they have been taken up into the great salvation deed of Christ, when he died. For he who died, congregation, is also the One who has risen. He not only suffered with our life and suffered for us to the death, he also arose with our life. He had us, if I may put it this way, constantly in his hand and in his heart, when he rose from the dead.
That is why, says Paul, that is why life is no longer "every man for himself" and that is why he is no longer alone, responsible to no one but himself. He is united with Christ, living for him who died and rose again. Bound to Christ, in union with him, he has become a new creature in Christ who is risen. That is why Paul says, "from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh." That is to say, now we regard no one as he is in himself. I have received another perspective. I look at them with another point of view. He says that if earlier we have done that, we do it no more. If before I viewed Christ according to the flesh, I do so no longer. With this he wants to say that there was also a time when he still looked at people according to the old point of view and that he was also not able to see Christ except as One who became a victim of destiny or, perhaps even worse, as One who received his just reward for going against the law of the Jews. to any case, he earlier viewed Christ as One who also could not stand up to death.
This is also how Christ was viewed by the women who went to the grave. They came there also according to the old pattern of life and with the old point of view. They could believe nothing else than that Christ had died and would not rise again. That is to view Christ according to the flesh, to view him as he was before he arose. That is also why you see a short-circuiting at the resurrection. Precisely there the two points of view meet head on. There come the people, those who still view Christ according to the flesh; they come to the grave with spices. They have everything which death proclaims. They are pallbearers for the dead. Oh, they do it with love. They had expected so much from Christ. But they come to the grave under the old point of view. "It began to dawn," it says, but they do not see the sun. They see only the darkness of the grave and that their hope had vanished. But then, congregation, come the questions of the resurrection from the other side. Then come the questions to the women: Why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking? You might say that those are questions with quite obvious answers! After all, who else would the women be seeking than Jesus who was crucified? And for what other reason would they be crying than that their Lord has been taken away? But that voice that is ringing from the other side sees things from another point of view. It sees things from the viewpoint of the resurrection and says to them, "Why are you weeping?" That is the short-circuiting. Two points of view are colliding with each other.
On the evening of that same day, you see the same thing with the men on the road to Emmaus. They are absorbed with their gloomy thoughts as they talk about what had happened. They see everything according to the viewpoint of death. They cannot see even a tiny ray of light any more. When Jesus comes, it says, "their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know him." That is to say that they still see everything according to the old point of view. Then Jesus starts to ask questions from the new point of view. "Why are you so sad?" He is looking at it from the side of the resurrection. The men respond, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have you not known the things which happened there in these days?" Are you out of touch with reality? You cannot understand what is bothering us and why we are
so upset and grieving? Then Jesus again asks, "What things?" It is as if he is astonished–just like the angel that morning! Jesus then explains it all and shares with them the new point of view. It is with this new point of view that the disciples go back to Jerusalem and their way must have seemed much shorter than when they were going to Emmaus. It had become evening but for them the lights had come on. They say to each other, "Did not our heart burn within us while he talked with us on the road?" Did we not have a feeling that there was nevertheless something more and that something had happened! They no longer see Jesus "according to the flesh."
In this way, says Paul, I see things. I see people and I see congregations no longer according to the flesh. I view them with the view-point of life and not with that of death.
For us as people of the here and now, as we like to refer to ourselves, this is now the question of faith and conversion. If we do not see things in terms of the reality of Christ, then we can never speak the language of faith. It is a difficult matter for us because it does indeed appear as if nothing really changes. Paul says otherwise. He says, "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." He who is in Christ is a new creation. With this he is saying that he who is in Christ, he who belongs to Jesus, belongs to the new order of things. He does not say that the person becomes new in every respect all at once, but that he belongs to the new creation. He is taken up into the new life-context. He may also have that new perspective on things. "The old things have passed away." What has passed away? Yes, that death has the last word, that has passed away. That death is stronger than life, that has, as the final and supreme wisdom, passed away.
Oh congregation, we are so often seized by the old point of view. We often live, in our personal lives, in our view of the world, people and the church, merely "according to the flesh." We do not take into account the resurrection of Jesus even though we still confess that resurrection so often. We are more under the impression of the flesh than of the Spirit. We are more under the impression of death than of
life. This is the question with which we are confronted whenever the gospel of the resurrection, of which we are especially reminded in these weeks, is again proclaimed to us: with which point of view now do we really view things? Is the confession that Jesus is risen a piece of dogmatics or orthodoxy about which you must say, "Yes, that is what the church has always confessed"? Or has the new point of view made its striking impact upon us so that we can say, "therefore, from now on, we regard nothing and no one according to the flesh"? That is the theology of hope. More: it is living out of the hope.
Oh, when in our lives we come into contact with the reality of death, sin and disappointment–all those things with which the wisdom of the world is also kept busy, the Jews, the Greeks and the wisdom of modern man–we have a tendency to dismiss Paul's words as grandiose language. We do not understand his words because we so easily walk along in the funeral procession of death. There are indeed reasons for this. Today, here in the congregation of Kampen, only an hour or so ago, a sister died who just this morning was in church with her husband. We then say, "Death is so dreadfully powerful!" There seems to be nothing else we can do than go along as pallbearers for the dead, wailing and lamenting the power of death. Indeed, in the life of every man, even when that last enemy has not yet taken its toll, there is so much that tunes us to despair. What a tremendous struggle there is against sin and against all sorts of brokenness. You feel compelled to ask, "What's the use?" When you look at society around you, is there not too much about which you must say that it is the kingdom of evil, and not the good, that is victorious time and again? It is no wonder that people who think deeply about life are pessimistic. It is no wonder that optimism is not taken seriously. It is no wonder that in our day, if it matters, in spite of all the prosperity and all the apparent cheerfulness, there are nevertheless more pessimists than optimists.
But congregation, Christ is risen from the dead. That is the new point of view. And it is with that point of view that the apostle Paul wants us to look at life, our own life and the life of the world. Yes, also the latter. For if we only see the world, as many Christians do,
from the viewpoint of evil, then we are acting as if the devil is the boss in this world and as if Christ is not risen.
It is Christian, congregation, to go into the world as people of hope and to expect something from the world. Not because the world is something in itself but because Christ died for the world. Perhaps you say, "The whole world?" Doesn't the apostle see it that way? And let me tell you that Paul has a much better understanding of these things than any of us: that paradox, that tension, that intense struggle. Paul says, "we have this treasure of the gospel in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power," the power which rises above all, that new point of view with which we view things, "may be of God and not from us." Paul says, "we are hard pressed on every side;" but, he adds, "yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed–always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body." That is the tension and the paradox: the old order still makes its power felt, but the new has come. When we say that the old has passed away, that means that as the controlling point of view it has passed away and that a new point of view has come. That is why we live differently, that is why we go about things differently in the world, and that is also why we cannot abandon the world. That is why this is not only a text for the congregation and her personal living, but it is also a text that, in spite of everything, can see past the power of death and sin. For we say, "Christ is risen."
You may finally ask, "But how can you be so sure and know this with such certainty? How can the church remain in the confession of the resurrection of Christ? How can she believe it and keep believing it?" The answer is that with which our text begins: "For the love of Christ constrains us." That is to say, we can believe that Christ has risen from the dead because the love of Christ was so great. He has embraced everything with his love. In his love God has come to us. We cannot by ourselves believe that he is risen. With the Lord Jesus Christ, we can believe that he is risen because his love constrains us, overwhelms us and gives us that point of view on things. When we see
that love we must say that God himself has come to us. He has not abandoned us. He has taken our misery upon himself. There is something other than the power of death.
It is certainly not as if the resurrection of Christ is a product of our faith. We do not say that Christ is risen because his death makes such an impression upon us! No, there were also many witnesses of the resurrection, and the testimony of the resurrection constitutes the heart of the whole Gospel! It is the Christian church's only ground of existence and the only reason for her to let herself be heard. Therefore, we can only believe this in its full meaning because he is risen. For we know him whom we have believed, and we confess that God, who has revealed himself in Christ, is not the God of death, but is the God of the living. He did not bring his love from heaven to earth in order with that love to let us go to ruin. He brought that love so we could live.
For this reason, congregation, let us not be faithless, but faithful, in spite of everything. Let us keep before our eyes the love of Christ, so that we may keep and preserve that point of view for the church, for our personal lives, for that brother who now is so alone, for all those people about whom you say, "It is hopeless for them." Let us see these with the viewpoint of the new and not of the old. Let us have hope for the world. Let us, in the midst of the world, not be as those who only judge the world, but those who direct the hungry eyes of mankind to the love of Christ, so that we will live up to what we confess and what we now with each other will sing:
Amen, Blessed Jesus, Amen!
You shall in the whole world wide
Evil's kingdom rack and ruin
And its darkness nullify!
Original Title: "Het Nieuwe Gezichtspunt," in God is Liefde by H. N. Ridderbos. Comp. G. Vander Veere. Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1979, pp. 17-26. Translated with the kind permission of J. H. Kok Publishers.
Jesus' Spring House Cleaning
R. SCOTT CLARK
Even with the latest in household appliances spring cleaning is unpleasant. Things come to such a state in the garage, basement and in the children's rooms that we find it necessary to really clean house. From time to time in the history of God's people, things have come to a state which forced the Lord to clean house and begin again. In the flood God was doing nothing else "in the world that then was" but making a fresh start and removing the refuse left by sin and rebellion. Five hundred and eighty six years before he came in the flesh, God again swept his house, Jerusalem, free of his people. His providential broom swept them all into the Babylonian wastebasket.
It's Immediate Cause
It is about a month before Passover. Jesus is making the week long walk south from Capernaum to Jerusalem for the Passover. Because of the distances traveled, many Jews did not bring their own
sacrifices. So a pious Jew had to buy meat. Not only did God's people have to buy a sacrificial animal, but all Jews had to pay the half shekel temple tribute. Both the half shekel and the sacrifice had to be temple certified (Ex. 30:11-16, 22). The worshipper also needed the coin of the temple to purchase the unblemished sin-bearing animal from the temple for the Passover and then to pay for an inspection of the animal.
There was much work for the money changers to do in the temple because of the conflux of so many different cultures and economies in Jerusalem. Roman, Persian, Syrian, Greek, Egyptian and Palestinian coins were used as currency. Even though the rate to be paid to the money changers for their services was fixed, the priestly aristocracy still made a great profit.
The dove sellers were one class of profiteers. The doves were offered by those too poor to offer a lamb (Lev. 12:6-89). Some people, being both poor and ignorant, were duped by fast-talking temple salesmen who overcharged them. In Lk. 2:24, we read that Mary and Joseph were too poor to bring a lamb to offer as a consecration of Jesus to the Lord. No doubt, Jesus himself was familiar with exploitation in the temple.
That sin invaded the holiest of places is not new. As it was in the beginning it is now. Our first parents made unwholesome bargains in the Garden-Temple of the Lord! In the garden, the Lord came with terrible wrath calling for his children, "Where are you?" And as it was in the beginning God is coming. Through Jeremiah he says:
Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, "We are safe–safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching declares the Lord...Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the Temple you trust in,
the place I gave to you and your fathers. I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your brothers, the people of Ephraim (Jer. 7:9-11,14,15, NIV).
By the time he reached Jerusalem, Our Lord had walked about seventy-five miles. On his walk he had probably encountered currency exchange houses annually set up in the villages along the routes to Jerusalem. When he reached the temple, he found the exchange houses moved into the temple. Because they had the blessing of the temple authorities, those entrepreneurs–who likely said to themselves, "If we don't provide this service someone will"–thought themselves sheltered from trouble by the imposing temple structure. What safer place could one choose in which to do business than a house which the Lord himself had designed?
The Baptizer had declared, "Make straight the way of the Lord". The Baptizer promised, "I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, he will baptize you with Spirit and fire. And his winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly clean his threshing floor, and he will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Mt. 3:11,12).
As the Righteous One of the Lord
Jesus was absolutely enraged with holy anger. Taking whip in hand he drove everyone–worshippers, money changers and animals–out of the temple. He overturned the tables of commerce, utterly shocking the sensibilities of the temple authorities.
Israel could not have been prepared for this sort of coming of the Lord. In their minds they are conducting God's business. What could be holier than appeasing Yahweh's wrath with approved sacrifices purchased with the divinely sanctioned shekel offered in the divinely appointed place at the appointed time? Who dares to interrupt God's business?
We must admit this is an astonishing sight, the Servant-Messiah
who is bound to suffer on the cross for the sins of the many, taking whip in hand and literally emptying the temple. The temple is a large place. During Passover there were several hundred people in the temple at any one moment. In fact, rather than overstating the case, John is somewhat subdued and understated in his account of the clearing. How did Jesus clear the temple? By the force of his moral power. Jesus was utterly correct and righteous and everyone there, in his heart of hearts, knew Jesus was righteous. One writer notes that "Christ had a powerful confederate in the consciences of the offenders."
We might not like to picture the Savior out cleaning house in this way. But Jesus is being obedient to his Father's will in so doing. This is why Jesus says, "Take these things away, stop making my Father's house a house of merchandise." Jesus had the authority to forcefully clear the temple because he was doing only what his Father had told him to do. In contrast to the dove sellers Jesus was seeking to glorify not himself, but his Father (cf. Jn. 5:19-30; 8:42-58).
Malachi 3:1 provides helpful background for Jesus' actions. The covenant Lord says, "Behold I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold he is coming, says the Lord of Hosts."
The sudden coming of the covenant messenger and the Lord of Hosts are two parts of one event. The Baptizer has "made straight the way of the Lord" and now the Lord has come to his temple. Verses two and three describe the Lord as a "refiner's fire" and "fuller's soap" as he sits as a "smelter and purifier of silver."
Israel's God is not interested in metallurgy, but he is interested in worship which is pure and undefiled. As he bodily throws over the tables of commerce, Jesus, the eschatological Elijah, is cleaning his Father's house. He is cleaning that which is typical of himself. The old covenant Scriptures made clear that the temple must be kept holy because God is holy and the temple is God's dwelling place. The
temple must be kept holy because Jesus is holy and he is present there.
God promised father Abraham "...all the land which you see, I will give it to you and your descendants forever." The epoches of the conquest and the theocracy have primarily to do with fulfilling that promise, sanctifying God's dwelling place and keeping it holy. Israel was unable to keep either itself or the land holy, so she was ejected from the land. Old covenant believers looked forward to a day when both the people and God's resting place would be holy.
Zechariah 14:21 promised a cleansing of the temple on the great day of the Lord with these words, "So when that time comes there no trader shall again be seen in the house of the Lord of Hosts" (NEB). The word translated "trader" is very close to the word for "Canaanite". Canaanites were traders and hence the close association between the two ideas. Perhaps the most prominent sin of the theocratic era is addressed here: conformity to the nations. Those profaning the house of the Lord of Hosts have in fact become Canaanites.
The End of the Temple
Contrary to our expectations this is the appropriate activity of the one on his way to the cross. This action is not merely that of "a Jewish reformer, it is the sign of the Advent of the Messiah." For John (and for Jesus), Jesus' coming into the temple, the prophetic clearing and the discourse on the resurrection, all speak of the doing away with the temple and the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus' action is God's last call for repentance. This action forces the Jewish authorities to take a stand for or against Jesus. This action pits the authority of Jesus over against the power of Judaism. When Jesus says that the temple will be raised up he is not thinking of an edifice as John makes clear, but of the eschatological coming of God.
The ultimate demonstration of Jesus' identification with God's purposes is his "lambhood". John correctly proclaimed to those
gathered for baptism at the Jordan, "Behold the lamb of God" (Jn. 1:29)! God's people no longer needed to haggle over the exchange rate for lambs because God's eschatological lamb is in their midst.
The Spirit brought to John's remembrance Ps. 69:9 ("Zeal for thy house will consume me"), the words of the righteous sufferer. The Psalmist writes as the righteous one who is hated by the enemies of God. The Psalmist's enemies are the enemies of the Lord because the interests of the Lord have become the interests and concerns of the Psalmist (cf. vv. 6-12). It is God himself who must come and rescue the righteous one from the scoffers and this is why John "cites" this verse in association with the temple.
Not only does John reveal Jesus as the eschatological Word-Lamb, but also as priest. To declare that one is consumed with zeal for God's house is also a priestly declaration. Priesthood requires a wholly consuming zeal. To properly serve in God's house, the priest must consecrate his entire life to service (Num. 3; Lev. 8). The purity of the place of worship is a priestly responsibility. So neglected is God's house that the usefulness of the old priesthood is exhausted. A human priesthood is inadequate and it is God himself who must perform the final priestly ritual. God promised as much by his actions when he passed between the pieces (Jer. 34:18-20; Gen. 15:17,18).
According to the writer to the Hebrews, Moses (unlike the temple authorities) was faithful in all God's house. But Jesus has even more authority in God's house because he is God's Son. Not only is he the Son, but he is worthy of greater honor because he is the house builder. The builder alone has authority to destroy the temple as he has the power to rebuild it (Heb. 3:1-6).
Jesus is indeed consumed with the vision of his Father's glory, the glory he himself had left in the incarnation (Phil. 2:5-11). But for Jesus, the righteous one, being consumed with jealousy for his Father's house has fatal consequences. The Son's holy love for his Father's honor requires the destruction of the Son. Zeal would consume Jesus, consume him as he thirsted on the cross. Zeal for God means death.
As the Temple of the Lord
The Jews ask literally, "What sign do you show us because you do these things?" The Jews recognized Jesus' action as clearly "prophetic" and challenging to their authority and they want an explanation of the action. The problem of the Jews (illegitimate) high priestly aristocracy is that their hearts and minds were so cold and dead from so many years of mechanical ritual that they could not comprehend Jesus' motives. They are functional liberals! Jesus speaks to them in ways that are utterly mysterious to them because they do not love God's house.
It is ironic that those who were to care for God's resting place, the place symbolic of God's covenantal communion with his people, should be so insensitive to Jesus' actions and words. What the priestly aristocracy does not realize is that by opposing Jesus, the temple guardians are opposing the temple itself! As in the garden and in the theocracy, God's people have again desecrated God's temple. Not only have they polluted piety for profit, but they fail to recognize the very purpose for which the temple stands–it is a house for God. We know this because they failed to recognize God when he came to the temple!
Because they lacked the Spirit, the Jews completely misunderstood Jesus to be speaking about the temple in which they were standing. Jesus is saying that his body is the temple. He is the "true" or the "real" temple (Jn. 6:32,33). Jesus' temple supersedes the Herodian temple. Jesus' and John's words explain his act of cleansing the temple. Jesus is prophetically foreshadowing the final destruction of the temple.
Our God is a temple-dwelling God. In the exodus, God reveals himself to his people as an Immanuel-God, one who dwells in the midst of his people in the tent of meeting which serves as a proto-temple. His people understand this presence of God to be the primary benefit of the covenant, "I will be your God and you will be my people". So great is Israel's dependence upon God's presence that Moses refused to advance across the Jordan unless God swore to be
present with them (Ex. 33:13,14).
Upon its completion the temple was filled by the glory of the Lord (1 K. 8:11). Integral to the old covenant revelation of Yahweh is his presence in the temple. God's dwelling with his people is a sign of his covenant Lordship, his kingship over them. As he dwells with them, he rules them. His kingship and his dwelling place are closely associated throughout the theocratic period. One of David's gravest responsibilities is to restore God's king and God's presence to the throne in Israel. Solomon's temple dedicatory prayer illustrates the relationship between kingship and temple. The powers and authority which Solomon ascribes the covenant Lord are those of the King.
Still the Jerusalem temple is an unsatisfactory habitation for our God. Like everything else connected with the old covenant, the temple is an incomplete expression of God's grace. To redeem us, God must tabernacle in our flesh (Jn. 1:14). In this way the destiny of the temple is bound to the destiny of the Christ.
The destruction of God's dwelling place is a prominent theme in the Old Testament. Even before God's people entered the land which God was giving them their Lord warned Moses about the impending apostasy and consequent judgment. Over a period of several hundred years, the Lord warned his people of the impending "cleansing" and destruction which would begin with Jerusalem. Just after Solomon dedicated the temple the Lord promised:
But if you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them and will reject this Temple I have consecrated for my name...and though this Temple is imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff and say, "Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and this Temple" (1 K. 9:6-8 NIV)?
In the exilic period the removal of the Glory-Spirit functioned as a form of destruction. From the exodus onward, it is the presence of the Spirit-Cloud which separates God's people from the nations. If the
Jerusalem temple lacks the Spirit it has no more standing before God than any other temple. In their rebellion, God's people become so defiled that they can only be cleansed by being symbolically destroyed in the exile. Yet this cleansing, like other aspects of the old covenant are lacking in permanence and finality. For John, it is in Jesus' entrance into the temple that we are witnessing the real cleansing of the temple. Thus he consciously ties together the notions of cleansing and death because God's dwelling place cannot be made holy without first being destroyed.
To accomplish redemption, the temple must be cleansed, destroyed and rebuilt. Jesus must be crucified and he must be raised. For John the resurrection of Christ is the sign which shows that Jesus has the right to come in and perform the Messianic cleansing of the temple.
Jesus says, "I will raise it up". The New Testament overwhelmingly attributes Jesus' resurrection to God the Father. Here however, the Lord uses the first person singular. Why does he speak this way? Christ is restating what we learned from the prologue: "in the beginning was the Word...." How powerful is the Word? So powerful he can raise himself from the dead.
Inasmuch as those astonished temple worshippers, the disciples among them, appreciated Jesus' shadowy destruction and purification of the temple, they participated in the coming apocalypse on the cross when the God-Man temple having "learned obedience through the things which he suffered" (Heb. 5:8) presented himself for the final high priestly sacrifice, destruction, wrath-bearing. As the living temple, he presented himself also as a living sacrifice and in so doing he passed through the holy place and now not only serves in the eternal Holy of Holies but also is seated with the Father in the temple (Heb. 9:11,24; 10:12).
Earlier I said that our God is a temple-dwelling God. The crucifixion of Jesus has not changed that. Though not visibly present at the temple in Jerusalem, the Spirit is certainly present in the
eschatological temple, Jesus. In Christ the Spirit returns to his rightful temple dwelling place. This is another reason for Jesus' forceful hallowing of God's house. Yet the Spirit will not depart forever at the destruction of the temple. John tells us that the Glory-Spirit will return after the crucifixion in the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.
The destruction and reconstruction of the temple at Calvary was followed by the return of the Glory-Spirit itself to its temple abode. But the new covenant temple exists only by virtue of union with Jesus, the temple, through the eschatological Spirit. For the apostle Paul because the Glory-Spirit indwells believers they become individually temples of the living God (1 Cor. 3:16,17).
This is also true corporately. The presence of God in his Spirit is an important consequence of holiness. In Is. 4:4, God's people are related to the Spirit in the same way as the temple is related to the Spirit. The promised blessings associated with the coming of the Branch of the Lord are the washing away of filth by a Spirit, as a canopy over the God's people.
God's requirements for the holiness of his dwelling place have not been watered down in the new covenant. In fact they are greater. Coexisting with the other "living stones" (1 Pet. 2:5) joined together to become a "dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (Eph. 2:21) means even greater holiness than that of the old covenant. We no longer have to watch Moses go to the tent to meet with God; he has come to us in his Son and now in his Spirit.
Paul's argument for the sanctity of the covenant people turns on our existence as God's temple dwelling place (2 Cor. 6:16-18). The temple of God has no agreement with idols. Jesus has cast out idols, God's people cannot go about replacing them! God dwells in our midst in the person of the Holy Spirit, as our covenant God. We are his covenantal resting-ruling place. The writer to the Hebrews says "and we are God's house" (Heb. 5:6, NIV). The apostle Peter also makes use of similar temple imagery when he says, "the Spirit of Glory
and of God rests upon you" (1 Pet. 4:12-19).
New covenant believers are God's more glorious temple! God is not speaking of any mere building when he promises that the "glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house..." (Hag. 2:9, NIV). Indeed we have a temple glory which shall not depart because it has been obtained by divine temple cleansing by one who is able to do it through the power of an indestructible life.
Not only are we God's temple, but we still have a religious life in the temple. For the evangelist, to truly be in the temple is to be in Christ because he is the true temple. John wrote his gospel to the end that we might find ourselves standing in the temple (Jn. 20:31; Col. 3:3). To be in the temple is to be in communion with God. It is to have intimate, personal fellowship with God. Whoever is united by the Spirit to the ascended Lord is now in the true, heavenly, Spirit-filled, temple and worships truly.
Church, Reformed Church in the United States
Kansas City, Missouri
A Tale of Two Cities: Isaiah and Worship
Isaiah 1:1-31; 6:1-8
JAMES T. DENNISON, JR.
The great English Protestant allegory of the 17th century is John Bunyan's, Pilgrims Progress (no Protestant seminarian is adequately educated who has not read it). This Puritan product (yes, the Puritans were gifted with literary and theological genius)–this Puritan product has become justly famous for its description of the pilgrimage motif–the sojourn from the city of Destruction to the Celestial City. Less well known, but no less brilliant, is the great English Protestant allegory of the 16th century–Edmund Spenser's Fairie Queene. This Puritan or proto-Puritan product is justly famous for its dramatic portrayal of the Christian warfare.
Spenser's hero is the Redcrosse knight appropriately attired with a scarlet cross on his shirt, thus making him the symbol of the Christian. The Redcrosse knight is the champion of the fair lady Una who rides a gentle donkey beside which walks a lamb (Una is the symbol of the
church). The sojourn of Redcrosse and Una involves combat–conflict with the forces of evil. They encounter Archimago (chief magician), Duessa (the false Una), Lucifera (Daughter of Hell) and Orgoglio (Pride). Spenser crafts a conflict on the Biblical model–a model well known to all spiritual warriors. Here is his principle theme: error and falsehood when bold, plain, self evident are quickly recognized and defeated. So it is when Redcrosse delivers Una from the fearsome dragon in the dungeon of black, horrid Error. But when Archimago, the magician, conjures up a duplicate image of the Lady Una in the embrace of another, Redcrosse runs away out of grief and hurt at being betrayed. Yet he has not been betrayed–only deceived by the false Una (Duessa). For a great while, Redcrosse is ensnared by Duessa, but Una pursues her knight, finds him and draws him back to herself out of her great love for him. Spenser's genius is to show us how the apparent is not always the real; how the discernible–even in spiritual matters–is often the opposite of the genuine; how deceit often drives the faithful from the truth. Like Bunyan, Spenser's allegory is the tale of two cities–the heavenly Jerusalem and the citadel of Babylon. For Spenser, the great whore of Babylon is the Roman Catholic church–where appearance is deception, the guise of religion like a magician's spell, a chimera of lies, a phantasm of treachery and impurity.
Jerusalem As She Is
The great whore for Isaiah is Jerusalem. Strange allegory this! Zion, the city of the great king, is a harlot (1:21). She has become Sodom and Gomorrah (1:9,10). Indeed, appearances are deceiving. Jerusalem is not what she seemed. A city intended as the jewel of justice–the ruby of righteousness–a city set on a hill; Jerusalem is a harlot, unfaithful, treacherous, a city of rebels, a citadel of iniquity.
The chief locus of this duplicity was the temple. And in particular, the central deception was the worship service. At the temple, there were throngs of people. Multitudes trampled the courts of the temple–hustle and bustle, service upon service, activity upon activity. On the
Sabbath; at the monthly new moon service; at the appointed feasts–Passover, Pentecost, Yom Kippur, Tabernacles. Why you couldn't keep the good folks away. And offerings–did they bring offerings! Burnt offerings, peace offerings, grain offerings–why what more could you ask? All that Moses prescribed, they brought. Piety by the bushel; holiness by the herd; sanctity by the sheepfold. And the fellowship–oh, the friends they met and the people they talked to, the news they caught up on and the gossip they passed on. And the motions–why they spread out their hands in prayer. They lifted their arms to the sky–what a pious sight, the smoke of their offerings ascending and the ascension of these holy hands. What ecstasy! What piety! What religiosity!
Why was all this apparently pious worship so much hypocrisy? Why were the temple worship services in Isaiah's day, the big con? Why was Sabbath assembly a most unholy convocation? Why was this apparent sanctity so much phoney baloney? One obvious answer is formalism. God doesn't like formalism. True and Is. 29:13 could be cited for support: "this people honoreth me with their lips but their hearts are far from me." Formalism was certainly part of Jerusalem's problem. But formalism is always a symptom. It is the outward motion of an inward public relations game. Well, what was the game? In the big con, you always hedge your bets–you may worship in the temple on Sabbath, but during the week you are sure to pay your respects to the gods of everybody else. Now in 8th century B.C. Israel, those gods were: first, sex (call him Baal for the playgirls and Astarte for the playboys); second, power (call him King Manipulation whose wife is Greed and offspring is Oppression); third, injustice (call him blind to the fatherless and the widow, but with big eyes for the big bucks–bribes, gifts, pay-off).
We are inclined to think that this Old Testament idolatry problem is pretty crass and easy to avoid. We tend to think it is pretty tepid stuff–after all, metal gods and wooden goddesses? Come on, we live in the 20th century!
I don't want to minimize the emptiness and vanity of idolatry.
Isaiah doesn't in the masterful satire of the idol and its craftsman in chapter 44. But Isaiah knows what lies underneath the penchant for idols. He understands the psychology of idolatry–the psychical magic of cultic ritual. He knows the trappings of superstition which abound wherever idols are adored, fondled, kissed, carried, etc. Isaiah understands the fundamental pillar of idolatry–the attraction which it has and the reason it bedevils every generation. Idolatry is a form of psychological manipulation. You may take away the concrete image, but the manipulation will remain.
What was Baal but a god to be manipulated! Manipulated out of a sense of dependence–dependence on the mythical, the numinous, the mysterium tremendum. Reenact his death and rebirth and you control the seasons–winter to spring. What was Astarte but a goddess to be dominated and used–submit to the sacred rite of prostitution and you control the female consort of the big boss god, Baal himself. But to manipulate requires the tactile, doesn't it–it requires the physical. Whether physical sex or the physical crafting of the image, to control the god you must touch, feel, handle. Feed the god with sacrifices. Attract the god with incense. House the god with a temple. Duplicate the god's sex life with your ritual sex life. Become the intimate of the god–so much so that your representative image of him is like having a friend on the hearth. So the god is your good buddy–your really, truly friend. He's so familiar, you know all the right moves to control him.
Now because your idol adoration is fundamentally manipulative, it is also fundamentally anthropocentric–man-centered, Pelagian, pagan. How do you keep it relevant? Keep the audience mesmerized with glitter–keep them feeling good. Idolatry–ritual manipulation. Worship in which the worshipper is in control. His needs are primary–he is stroked and affirmed. The god he adores is the god he controls–by raising his hands, by performing proper motions, by bringing the proper offerings, by entering the proper and prescribed activities of the religious group. Idolatry–psychological anthropocentrism–man in
control of the gods through worship. Bewitching, seductive, alluring. Idolatry is Satan's perfect counterfeit of the truth. Because it feels so good; oh, Baal had an edge on us here–sexual pleasure is surely the supreme ecstasy. But make worship pleasure–focus on the good feelings of the worshippers–create that modern atmosphere where entertainment is the key (some may call it "celebration"–it is simply another more subtle form of idolatry).
Jerusalem As She Will Be
But this is the tale of two cities. Chapter one–often called the prologue to Isaiah–chapter one is even crafted around these two cities. You will notice the pattern of Sodom and Gomorrah in vss. 9 and 10. Further you will notice the pattern of reversal in vss. 21 and 26–the faithful city (Jerusalem) has become a harlot (vs. 21); she will be a city of righteousness, once again a faithful city (vs. 26). The inclusio is exact in the Hebrew. The eschatological reversal is emphatic. Even more dramatic is the structure of the entire chapter–a structure centered about these two cities–Jerusalem as she is; Jerusalem as she will be in the eschatological era. The transitional bridges in the Hebrew text are remarkable clues. Sodom and Gomorrah (vss. 9 and 10) are the bridge to the description of Jerusalem as she is. The duplication of Sodom and Gomorrah indicates a focus on the real Jerusalem. The transitional bridge in vss. 26 and 27 is indicative of the focus on the redeemed Zion. She is a righteous city (tsedek, vs. 26) filled with the righteous (tsedekah, vs. 27). She has judges (shôpêt, vs. 26) redeemed with justice (mishpat, vs. 27). She is restored (shuv, vs. 26) with the penitent (shabeyeh, vs. 27). There are two cities–two Jerusalems; the Jerusalem which now is in the 8th century B.C. and the Jerusalem which will be in the day of the eschatological redemption.
Into that eschatological city, the prophet Isaiah is ushered proleptically, by way of anticipation. Proleptically from the now to the not yet. From the Jerusalem which now is to the Zion which will be. (The vision is recorded in chapter 6.) In the Jerusalem which now is–
in the temple of the Jerusalem which now in is–the house of Shalom on the hill of Salem. A house desecrated with pretense–a temple where worship has been a liturgy of idolatry–a sanctuary where the creature adores the work of his hands. In this temple-sanctuary, Isaiah sees the Lord himself. In this house where the theophanic presence of God was displayed to Solomon, where Mt. Zion became the designated replacement of Mt. Sinai–in this house, Isaiah is given a glimpse of the royal throne room of the Almighty. In the royal temple house on the royal temple mount, Isaiah is ushered into the heavenly city of the great king. He is brought into the inner chamber–the qodesh qadashim. This is the meeting room of the Most High–the house of assembly of the All Glorious: glorious in loftiness, glorious in exaltation. This is the glory-presence on the mount. A theophanic glory-presence on the temple mount–in a cloud, through a cloud, with a theophanic cloud–glory upon the throne. In the council chamber, immense glory–all pervasive glory–glory which fills the house, the chamber, the royal throne room, the cosmos. For in this room, heaven and earth meet; indeed, in this room heaven is incarnate on the earth.
And the sound. Isaiah hears the chorus of the heavenly court–the liturgy of the spheres above the cosmos. These are antiphonal choirs–celestial antiphony in the rich cords of the trisagion–the threefold qadosh–the triple sanctus. Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth–Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts. The seraphic anthem is the introit to the approach of one whose voice shakes the foundations of the house–the voice which causes mountains to quake and the earth to tremble–the voice which convulses the cosmos–heaven and earth groaning in antiphonies of yearning. Dread voice–awesome voice–voice veiled with cloud and smoke and darkness. Summoning voice–commissioning voice–summoning the servant, commissioning the prophet-servant–the servant of the voice–summoned, commissioned to be the echo of the voice–the echo of the kol Yahweh!
In all the divine council, with all the royal attendants in this throne room, there is none to echo the voice to the children of men.
Who will go for us? The seraphs cover their lips and are mute. Whom shall we send? And no foot stirs. Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips. How can my tongue duplicate the voice of the Lord? What is pretense in the presence of such glory as this? What is hypocrisy before such a presence as this? All is transparent at this footstool–the creature, the sinful creature, is abased, ashamed, unclean, undone. No contrivance; no manipulation; no counterfeit. This is real worship–no sham–no con–no man-centered domestication and trivialization of the thrice Holy One.
It is the fire that purifies. It is the fire that purges and consumes and sanctifies. It is the altar fire which cleanses–fire from the altar of holocaust, the altar where all is consumed in devotion and full consecration. This servant of the voice is commissioned in fire–fire which burns away sin and iniquity and self–fire which sears and heals and cleanses, so that those servant lips are now readied for the Word of the Lord. Readied to go at the bidding of the thrice Holy One–ready to speak what the Holy One lays upon those lips. Not the opinions of men; not the theories of the culture; not the agenda of church bureaucrats and public relations image makers–nothing but the Word of the Lord.
For this Word–for this word, a great multitude hungers–hungers and thirsts as they stream forth from the nations to go up to the hill of the Lord. Stream forth from the city of this world in pilgrimage to the city of the world to come. Stream up the cosmic mountain to worship at the feet of the Great King.
The Servant and the Way to Zion
Isaiah's prophetic vision is the vision of this road–a way through the wilderness to the cosmic mountain–a path through the valley of sorrows to the hill of the Lord–a highway via death and suffering to the temple mount in the Jerusalem which is above. Even Isaiah sees this road must first go through the Valley of the Shadow–the shadow of smoke rising from a smoldering city–the shadow the flames reflected on the ashen faces of shackled captives–the shadow of death
which hangs over Judah and Jerusalem. The servant-prophet sees the servant-nation humiliated, rejected, executed. The Lord's servant-people captive, in bondage, led away to Babylon. The road for the servant-nation leads to suffering, death, exile.
And those who trudge down that road are like one other servant of the Lord. Ebed Yahweh–humiliated, rejected, executed. Ebed Yahweh–a man of sorrows in the Valley of Sorrows. Ebed Yahweh–who walks the road alone–and the shadow lying across that road is the shadow of a wooden cross. It is stained with blood–the blood of the Servant. It is a criminal's gibbet–no road of wealth and success for this Servant. No prosperity gospel on this highway. This road goes to glory, but by way of a gory tree. This road goes up to the cosmic mountain by a blood-stained path pioneered by the Suffering Servant. And you cannot come–no you cannot come up the city of the Great King except by the road the Servant takes. You cannot climb to the Zion above without first bearing the reproach of the Servant of servants below.
The real road to glory–the genuine path to that new city–the authentic highway to the everlasting throne room–is a road of scandal and offense–a road the world does not understand, a road the world despises. The road to glory is the road which echoes with suffering and death–for it is the road of the eschatological Servant-prophet of the Lord.
The One commissioned as the Word of the Lord in the sanctuary of the Most High. The One who is not merely the echo of the kol Yahweh, but the One who is the Word of the Lord. The One whom angels sing and seraphs praise. The One who passes through the fire–takes the wrath–endures the searing flames of judgment for others.
He has opened the path to the temple mountain. He has torn down the barriers to the qodesh qadashim. He has driven away the clouds–banished the smoke–driven away the darkness because he is the light of glory. He has taken an innumerable company by the hand and shepherded them to a city set on a hill. He has brought them into
the holy of holies–purified them with his own blood–blood from the altar of his own sacrifice. He has brought them nigh to the throne of grace and placed the words of the antiphonal chorus on their lips–Holy, Holy, Holy; Worthy, Worthy, Worthy. And their hearts burn with them to worship in his temple city. In that Zion which is above, idolatry, anthropocentrism, self-serving ritual can never be real. For in that city, anything other than the glory of the Lord and his Servant is a sham, duplicitous, idolatrous.
A tale of two cities–a tale of two temples–a tale of two servant-prophets–a tale of two servant-nations and their destinies. A tale of two methods of worship–the one a sham, the other a realization of the glory of the spheres. Unlike Bunyan and Spenser, Isaiah's tale is no allegory. It is the normative model for all who understand his vision–the vision of the Lord, his Servant and the glory–yes the glory in worship–a glory which will be theirs about that crystal sea for ever and ever.
Westminster Theological Seminary
From the Librarian's Shelf....
Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, editors. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. ISBN: 0-674-87530-3. $29.95 (cloth).
I picked up this volume with a great deal of anticipation. In recent years, literary and narrative studies have brought fresh insights into the character of the written word. Blurbs by John Barton and Amos Wilder encouraged the hopes of fresh investigations of the various books of the Bible. But I have put the book down with deep disappointment. There is very little which is "new" here, a great deal which amounts to pedantic rehashing of old liberal-critical views and precious little interaction with the better recent literary and narrative materials. Indeed, if this volume is truly indicative of the new literary and narrative approaches to Scripture, the movement is still-born–a repristination of standard higher critical positions. In fact, this volume represents critical fundamentalism at its worst. The promise of new insights is unfulfilled (with the exception of J. P. Fokkelman on Genesis and Exodus and John Drury on Mark). The essays in this volume for the most part simply repeat the conclusions of the standard liberal-critical Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, commentaries and study Bibles.
The by now familiar dogmas of liberal-critical fundamentalism abound in these pages: (1) the Bible is not revelation since the Biblical writers could neither bridge Lessing's ugly ditch or Kant's epistemolo-
gical antithesis; (2) the Bible is a checkerboard of conglomerate sources from disparate traditions; (3) the Bible does not contain a unified message, rather it is a religious thesaurus evidencing the religious quest of numerous individuals and communities; (4) the Bible was never really understood until the enlightened, rationalistic experts of the 18th century unlocked its non-mysteries; (5) the importance of the Bible does not reside in historicity, but in the religious truths imparted through its pages. I ask our readers–is this a breathtakingly new advance in Biblical studies? Is this pushing back the shutters and opening the windows of understanding?
This is in fact more of the same old stuff. More of the tired dogma of the past 200 years of liberal Biblical scholarship. When its pages are not trite, they contain the obvious; when they are not absurd, they are ridiculous (cf. pp. 596-97 for an utterly incredible reading of the "fishers of men" motif). And when they are not heretical, they are often blasphemous. What a waste of ink and wood pulp! These liberal truisms have all been said before and better–try Otto Eissfeldt's, The Old Testament: An Introduction for the standard liberal-critical line on the Old Testament; or, Feine, Behm, Kummel (Introduction to the New Testament) for the New Testament.
There is another facet of this volume which borders on outright dishonesty. Take the essay by Bernard McGinn on Revelation for instance. In a volume alleged to provide literary analysis of the Apocalypse, McGinn offers a survey of the history of interpretation of the final book in the Christian canon from the first to the twentieth century. Since he has recently completed a book on Joachim of Fiore, we learn a disproportionate amount about the Joachimist interpretation of the Apocalypse. So much for incorporating pet projects into a survey of 2000 years of interpretation! Yet where is the literary analysis of Revelation? McGinn tells us about Augustine's view of the work; he discusses, albeit much too superficially, Thomas Brightman, Daniel Whitby and even Jonathan Edwards (in passing). J. N. Darby even receives a nod. But what does this have to do with the literary character of Revelation? History of interpretation–yes. But the title
on the dust jacket of our volume does not read: A Survey of the History of Interpretation of the Books of the Bible from the First to the Twentieth Century. Hence McGinn's essay does not belong in a volume with our title–save insofar as modern literary analysis has nothing more to offer than a reprise of the history of interpretation.
Robert Alter has written two stimulating books on Biblical narrative, both of which contain fresh insights into the nature of Biblical texts. If the present volume is indicative of the direction Alter believes the new literary approaches should be going, then he should not have expended the effort to produce his own two volumes. The present volume is opposite his own efforts in virtually every way. Meir Sternberg's trenchant comment in another context is certainly applicable to Alter in this context: "Rarely has there been such a futile expense of spirit in a noble cause; rarely have such grandiose theories of origination been built and revised and pitted against one another on the evidential equivalent of the head of a pin; rarely have so many worked so long and so hard with so little to show for their trouble."
No friends, save your money. The new insights in this volume are not worth $29.95. In fact, laid end to end they would be worth little more than a plug nickel.