Saturday, 21 May 2016

Why did Jesus and Paul misquote Isaiah?

Once a week some friends and I get together for a little midweek Bible-study. For the past few months we have being going through the book of Isaiah and this week we tackled chapters 59-61. While there are a lot of incredible things going on in these chapters, the one thing that I wanted to write about today was the observation that we made on how both Paul and Jesus quoted from this portion of Isaiah in a way that most evangelicals I know would frown upon.

The first passage I would like to highlight is a familiar one in Ephesians chapter 6 from verse 14 to 17 which says:-

Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness.  For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

While Paul is not attempting to quote Isaiah verbatim, it is obvious that he is drawing inspiration from Isaiah 59:17 which says:-

He put on righteousness as his body armor and placed the helmet of salvation upon his head. He clothed himself with a robe of vengeance and wrapped himself in a cloak of divine passion.

The interesting thing about these two lists is that Paul has taken the body armor or the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation from Isaiah but has left out the robe of vengeance. Remarkably, Paul replaces the robe of vengeance in Isaiah’s list with the shoes of peace in his own. He also adds the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit (which is not a literal sword but Jesus Christ who is the Word of God) to his list. I was wondering about these differences between Paul and Isaiah but the only related verse that I could really find on the armor of God was from Paul again in 1 Thessalonians 5:8 which once again omitted vengeance from the list saying only:-

But let us who live in the light be clearheaded, protected by the armor of faith and love, and wearing as our helmet the confidence of our salvation.

Looking a bit closer at Isaiah 59 again I also quickly discovered that violence itself was strongly condemned (especially verses 6 and 7). On its own, this could be something I could just brush off but once I got to chapter 61, I started to see a bit of a pattern emerging. The first 2 verses in that chapter read as follows:-

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me,
    for the LORD has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed.
He has sent me to tell those who mourn
    that the time of the LORD’s favor has come,
    and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.

Many of us are familiar with this passage as Jesus once quoted it in a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. But like Paul, Jesus left out the part about vengeance. Luke 4:20 actually says that after reading up until the second last line quoted above that He stopped mid-sentence and “rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat back down”. Now usually when I am reading the Bible I will stop at the end of a chapter, sometimes if I am reading something deep and hard hitting I might only read one or two verses but I can’t ever recall stopping mid-sentence in something. Who does that? No one stops reading before the word 'and' and thinks, "yeah I will pick there again tomorrow". This action was not lost on Jesus' audience; Luke’s account continues and says that “everyone was amazed at the gracious words that came from His lips” (verse 22).
     These gracious words did not sit well with them. They were all for the day of the Lords favor as long as it rested on them and they were all for being liberated from oppression but they were not so keen on seeing their enemies escaping God’s anger. Jesus responds to them but telling them that although there were certainly many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time during a three and a half year drought he was not sent to any of them but rather to a foreigner, a widower from Sidon. Likewise, many had leprosy in the time of Elisha but the only one healed was a Syrian named Naaman (verses 25-27). This infuriated the crowd to the point that they tried to throw Him off of a cliff right there and then.

As I have already mentioned, it would be easy to dismiss these verses if they were rare exceptions but we actually see this over and over again throughout the New Testament. Paul does the exact same thing probably about a dozen more times in the book of Romans alone where Old Testament verses that originally spoke of violent retribution against Israel’s enemies are intentionally edited to extend grace and mercy toward outsiders. You can see a long list of these subverted Old Testament texts in this excellent article by Derek Flood by clicking over here.

I don’t want to assume too much as to why Paul and Jesus did this. I’m more of a student than a teacher who likes to flesh out his thoughts by writing them out online. For now though I will share three impressions that I get from reading this.

1 – Firstly, the New Testament does not deny the punishment or the destruction of the wicked. There is still a strong sense of warning toward those who stray from Christ. These cautions are not just found in the words of others but in Paul and Jesus’ as well. Paul and the others then are clearly making a different sort of statement with their quotes.

2 – The shift in the New Testament seems to come from the idea of where violence and destruction come from. In the Old Testament there is a sense that everything comes from God Himself. Life, death, blessings, curses, creating and destroying, the Lord gives and the Lord takes. But from Christ onward death, destruction and suffering are more clearly presented as things that are adverse to God. They are portrayed as things originating from the devil or as the natural consequences of sin. God on the other hand is revealed as one who is at war with these things. He is the giver of life and creator of all that is good, He is the one who restores what has been stolen by the enemy.

3 – Apart from what is mentioned in the point above I think that the primary reason Paul and Jesus seem to reinterpret (or bring greater clarity to) what was written elsewhere is simply to proclaim that the Lords favor was on all people. The good news is meant to be a blessing to all nations reaching far beyond the borders of Israel. This was good news for the gentiles and a word of caution to the Jews that heritage alone was not enough to save them. Yes, there is a grave side (pun intended) to aligning oneself against God but that is not part of the gospel; that is what happens outside of the gospel.
Whether you agree with me on these points or not, I think that there is a comfort in knowing that when we read something that we perceive to be harsh, unjust or even morally repugnant in scripture, we can take comfort in the fact that Christ revealed to us the true image of God (Hebrews 1:3). He is the one that we are to build our theology and our very lives upon. Our own understandings and interpretations may fall short but we have a sure and constant person to fall back on.

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 3:11

PS - One last final note, a few hours after posting this I began to consider that neither Jesus or Paul had technically misquoted Isaiah. One simply alluded to it while the other quoted correctly but not completely. The point remains valid though even if my title is a little inaccurate.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Unveiling of Christ

Hi all!

I have to apologize for being so quiet here of late. I have sort of pushed the blog aside so I could focus on writing my book about the cross. Even that has being hard to get time to do but this morning I managed to write out an introduction to one of the final chapters and I thought that I would share it here as a bit of a sampler for everyone. The chapter will be about the book of Revelation and how it ties in with everything else that I have said about the cross beforehand. This is what I wrote this morning and it's only a first draft but I hope you like it...

My desire for this chapter is twofold; first I would like to take everything that I have said about the cross up to this point and argue that this is the truest picture of what God is like. Then secondly, I would like to take our understanding of the atonement and make it something practical for you and me in the 21st century by pointing to the examples of believers in the first century and to Christ Himself. In achieving this I would like to go to a place which may surprise you which is the book of Revelation.

Revelation was a book that I was fascinated with as a youngster. I ate up anything I could find related to the end times; from the ‘Left Behind’ series to sermons and videos by other dispensationalist theologians. I went from holding to a pre-tribulation rapture viewpoint to a post-tribulation and later on still a pre-wrath escapist belief. I mention this only because normally when we talk about the book of Revelation we have something along those ideas in mind. We like to think of it as a book that reveals hidden information about the last seven years of the earth’s history before God destroys it and starts all over again.

While John’s epistle to the seven churches in Asia Minor does give us some insights into how everything eventually wraps up, I would like to submit the idea here that we have completely missed the point of the book if we read it this way. Allow me to deconstruct a little before proposing something entirely different.

Jesus, the same yesterday, today and until Revelation?

I remember about 9 or 10 years ago sitting in a home cell meeting and someone saying to me that the first time Jesus came as a lamb but the next time he is coming as a lion. I never thought much of it at the time, probably because I was in full agreement with him at that point in my life.

There is no denying that this popular perception we have of Jesus in the book of Revelation looks far different than the Jesus that we read about in the rest of the New Testament. The first Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to bless and pray for those who persecute us. The second Jesus kills his enemies. The first Jesus condemned all forms of violence; He rebuked His disciples when they wanted to call fire down from heaven to consume their enemies. Likewise, He rebuked Peter when He was getting arrested and Peter tried to defend Him and cut off a man’s ear. Christ’s words to His disciple in that moment, right before miraculously healing the man’s wound, was that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword”. The second Jesus has a sword coming out of his mouth which he kills his enemies with. The first Jesus took the blows of the Roman soldiers and then turned the other cheek and took more. The second Jesus strikes his enemies again and again and again as taught in the eternal conscious torment view of eschatology. The first Jesus bled for His enemies, the second Jesus makes his enemies bleed.

Reading the book of Revelation in the way that all the books, sermons and videos I heard growing up taught me to, I have to conclude that Jesus’ mercy does not endure forever as the Psalmist said. This Jesus is not different than us or the other gods, he is exactly like me and everyone else. He has limited grace and a dangerous fuse and when love, mercy and forgiveness reach a certain line they give way to violence, killing and punishment.

Please don’t misunderstand; I am not saying that the wicked get away with being wicked or that God sit’s by idly as evil spreads and devours. Neither am I saying that Jesus’ first and second comings will be the same, they will be different. All I am saying for now is that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever as is God the Father. With that in mind, let me offer one more reason that we should be cautious of interpreting the book of Revelation with Jesus as a God fashioned in the image of Rambo.

It is no secret that the Jews who lived in Jesus’ day were living under Roman occupation. Everybody was awaiting a messiah that would come to liberate them from this oppression. One who would set the captives free by overthrowing their Roman rulers and liberating the nation. Said another way, the Jewish people wanted their Robin Hood, their William Wallace, a new Judas Maccabeus to come and rescue them.

It is often overlooked that when Pilate offered the crowd the opportunity to release either Jesus or Barabbas during the Passover feast what kind of prisoner Barabbas was. Many scholars believe that Barabbas was a revolutionary of sorts that was involved in instigating a riot. Another thing that often gets overlooked is that Barabbas literally translates into English as ‘son of the father’. Some ancient manuscripts in fact give his full name as Jesus Barabbas! The fact that we have two men named Jesus, one who says He is the Son of the Father and the other whose name literally is ‘son of the father’ is too incredible to be a coincidence. What we have here is a true messiah and a false messiah, the true Christ and a counterfeit Christ. This was the kind of false messiah that Israel had mistakenly being expecting and wrongfully put their hopes in to rescue them from oppression.

I submit that today the church has largely fallen into the same error as Israel had. We are looking for a messiah who is going to come and kill all of the bad guys and free us from oppression. We choose and place our hope in Barabbas. Even though Jesus has already walked the earth once before, we say No! Next time will be different, next time He is coming like Judas Maccabeus or like William Wallace and the only difference is that He will be unstoppable. Could we be as wrong as Israel was? I think so and so I would like to offer an alternative approach to the book of Revelation, one that is not so much ‘future-centered’ as it is ‘Christ-centered’; one that brings us back to the cross.