The Modern Relevance of an Ancient Voice continued...
We live in an age that, because of the general abandonment of the biblical worldview, has made status, position, power and identity politics the absolute good. A major function of education has become not the acquisition of knowledge but the enhancement and influence of unrealistic self-centritic thinking. I call it passive aggressive narcissism. The irony in all of this, as we processed earlier, is that in the non-biblical worldview, humanity has no significance whatsoever. We are an electrochemical accident. If that were true, then the more we cut ourselves off from the transcendent Creator, the less significant we become. The result, can be clearly seen in the most prominent secular voices of the last one hundred and fifty years. Albert Camus (French philosopher of Absurdism), Jean-Paul Sartre (French writer of Existentialism - Nothingness), and Franz Kafka (Jewish-Bohemian writer of Realism), and finally German born Frederick Nietzsche (the father of Nihilism). Theirs is a downward spiral of the ultimate hopelessness of humanity and despair. At the end of the day the more we try to elevate ourselves by separating ourselves away from God, the less of us there is to elevate. Apart from God - we don't get better, we get worse. Marinate...
More than ever we need to hear the words of Isaiah, who tells us that the way to significance is not through arrogance and self-elevating but through humility, not to demand that others serve us but to serve others. How much we need to recover from Isaiah the prototype for what the apostle Paul called “the mind of Christ.” This “mind” or attitude is almost completely foreign to us fearful and phobic descendants of Adam and Eve. We are so afraid of loss we can’t talk about it, so afraid of discomfort we can’t live with any of it, and so afraid of pain that we will sacrifice almost anything, or anyone, to avoid any of it. Yet, as Isaiah shows us, the way to real power is through powerlessness. Marinate...
If you share in any way my belief of that, then you and I need to be on the same page with Isaiah’s teaching. We need to be reminded again of the foolishness of depending on human glory for anything lasting. We need to hear again that God can be trusted—trusted enough to lay down our own arrogance and pride. We need to be motivated in deep ways by the realization that the sole Creator of the universe, the just Judge, the betrayed Father, has not cast us away or forgotten us but rather has chosen us to be the living evidence to the world that HE alone is God. We need to learn or relearn that keeping His honor before the world is so precious, and that it is worth any price to him to find a way to renew his character in us.
All of us modern Christians who have allowed our ways of thinking to be reshaped according to this terribly wrong and toxic model, need to allow Isaiah’s view of servanthood to reshape our outlook. Like the apostle Paul said nineteen hundred and fifty years ago “the cross is foolishness to the Greeks.”
Guess what? It still is - all of it. To win is to lose? To lose is to win? To die is to live? To live is to die? To rise is to fall? To fall is to rise? To take the lowest place is to sit with the King? To take the highest place is to sit in the dust? C’mon man - right?
Yet, as we who have found God in Christ know, all of that is absolutely true. But how are we going to believe that unless we consciously allow our minds to become saturated with that point of view? If we do not, the other understanding of reality will take us by default.
The Sovereign God of History
Considered simply as a philosophy (separated from God the Creator), transcendence has some serious weaknesses. This is why, apart from perhaps Confucius and Aristotle, it has rarely been considered seriously by philosophers. In the first place, anything that is utterly removed from the psycho-socio-physical universe would have no contact with that universe and could not communicate with it. Thus, transcendence would seem to be an interesting and perhaps useful intellectual process, but it would have no relevance to everyday life.
Both the Greeks and Confucius sought for a way around this by positing the existence of certain norms in life that reflect the activity and nature of this transcendent element, which Aristotle called “the Unmoved Mover” and Confucius called the “Tao” or “Way.” Why is it that no culture where everyone lies or everyone steals can survive too long? Is it not because there is a single, transcendent originating force behind all cultures? This argument seems to have been more persuasive in China than it was in Greece, because the following of “the Way” became a major cultural force through a great part of China’s history, whereas this way of thinking had largely died out in Greece by the beginning of the Roman period. But even in China the Tao had no means of intervening in the life of the world to right any wrongs that might be there.
This highlights the second serious weakness of transcendence: the necessary impersonality of the originating force. One of the characteristics of human personality is its transitoriness. Our moods flit back and forth like hummingbirds. So do our affections and even our convictions. Surely the element from which all things extend and which forms the foundation of all that is could not have those characteristics. Furthermore, that force must of necessity be completely unconcerned with our response to it. It determines all things and is not itself determined by anything. All of this is much too ethereal and cerebral for most people caught up in the business of daily life, trying to survive for another day.
The other worldview, that of continuity, seems to offer a much more useful and practical way of understanding the way things are. Here the forces of the universe are given personalities on the analogy with us humans. But a study of mythology convinces one that the forces are forces still, only wearing masks that give them the illusion of personality and approachability. But behind the masks they are just as inscrutable and implacable as any “Unmoved Mover.” What the overlay of human personality does give them is an element of capriciousness and arbitrariness that is not good news.
So how do we arrive at the biblical view, which is definitely not the worldview of continuity, but neither is it the same kind of transcendence that we just described? If we ask the Hebrews where they got their concept of God, they will tell us that they did not get it either by extrapolating from this world or by logical deduction. Instead, they tell us of a God who broke into their experience, revealing a distinct will for their behavior and calling them to submission and obedience. They tell us of a God who interacted with them in their choices and in the consequences of those choices, revealing a complex and many-faceted personality.
How can we ever find God, if he is truly transcendent? The answer is that we cannot. As the New Testament says it, “No one has ever gone into heaven” (John 3:13). On this point the philosophers are right. But suppose the philosophers’ logic is too limited. Suppose the transcendent One can retain his otherness while intersecting his world at any point and in any time. And suppose the problem of personhood is ours and not his. Suppose it is possible to be fully personal and yet entirely self-consistent. Suppose it is possible to interact deeply and faithfully with other persons and never yet vary from what One is in Oneself. This changes the question of knowing completely.
If such a being chose to, he could come to us, somehow translating himself into terms we could comprehend. For the One who spoke the universe into existence, that kind of translation should not be so hard. But what language should he use? Should he use the language of nature? How can he? How can nature convey personhood? How can nature convey an intended will? How can nature convey the necessity of surrender and obedience? How can nature convey ethical absolutes that are a concomitant of a loving, committed relationship? The language God chose was the language of human interaction through relationships, the language we call history. Why is it that the earliest examples of extended works of history are found in the Hebrew Bible? It is because that is the arena in which God chose to make himself known. In the arena of human relationships, choices, and decisions, God revealed his nature and character and the nature of reality to his people.
The Hebrews would deny that their creation of historical narrative betrayed any special perception on their part. Rather, they would tell us that God simply broke in upon them and called them to make certain choices, telling them what would be the consequences of the various choices. When they discovered that those consequences did follow, we can imagine that they said to themselves: “It would be a good idea to record this so that when we come this way again, we won’t make the same mistakes.” That was precisely what God wanted. How could he teach them a complicated truth like monotheism, especially when all their more brilliant neighbors were polytheists? He could call them into a historical covenant relationship, whose first stipulation was that they must worship him alone. How could he teach them he was not a part of this world, an even more complex idea? He could make it a covenant stipulation that they not make or worship idols. How could he teach them that there truly are ethical and moral absolutes? By requiring them to emulate the character of the one transcendent deity. Thus, their own historical experience became the basis for their knowledge of God.
All of this is portrayed for us in the book of Isaiah. There we see the truth of God being worked out in Israel’s experience. Religion is not about mystic rites and rituals. Rather, it is about what you are going to do about the Assyrian threat. It is about how you treat the poor and downtrodden. It is about how you represent yourself and your God to foreign ambassadors. It is about how you continue to function when your entire life has fallen in on you, largely as a result of your own stupid choices. Religion is about ethics in daily life. This is the truth that is always in danger of being lost, and it is especially in danger now as the West progressively cuts loose its Christian moorings and all unconsciously drifts off into a pagan sea.
The study of history is dying around us. Why? Because such a study must believe that real choices are possible, that real progress toward a worthwhile goal may be made, and that there is a single overarching standard by which those choices may be evaluated and by which progress may be judged. Without these (and biblical transcendence is the only basis for them) the whole reason for studying the past at all is lost. The only thing that matters is me, now. Who cares what some old dead people did? As for learning from them, that’s crazy. We all do what we have to do. The past is gone, and the future will be more of today, only maybe worse.
So what can counter these tendencies? A strong dose of the truth of Isaiah, that there is a God who is at work in the corporate history and in our individual histories. We can know him in the daily experiences of life, as the Israelites did. Knowing him in that way, we can then recover for ourselves, and maybe for our culture, the reality that human choices matter, that we are headed somewhere, and that the transcendent God is calling us to go with him.
Realization of Righteousness
One of the chief values of studying the New Testament in the context of the Old is the corrective value of the Old. Many of the weaknesses in the church today are a result of misreading the New Testament because of ignorance of the Old Testament. For instance, the excessive individualism and privatism of the modern evangelical church is only possible if one is almost wholly ignorant of the Old Testament. To be sure, the Old Testament cannot be read alone. To do so is to fall into the opposite ditch from the one into which exclusive New Testament readers fall. By reading the Old Testament alone, one can easily miss the love of God that is clearly there and come to see him only as an austere and implacable Judge. But when the two Testaments are read together, there is a wholistic, invaluable presentation of the truth.
Because Isaiah sums up so many of the Old Testament teachings, it is especially helpful in achieving a balanced theology. One of these areas of balance desperately needed today is in the area of realized righteousness. Modern evangelical theology has become dangerously one-sided, and this is especially apparent in American public life. At the same time that evangelicalism has become the dominant expression of Christian faith in America, public morality has collapsed. Is this a coincidence? I don't think so. Reacting against the loss of a concept of personal salvation in the so-called mainline denominations and mega churches and an increasingly cultic mentality in the holiness movement, evangelical theology in the first half of the twentieth century put increasing emphasis on “imputed righteousness.” That is, God calls us righteous because we have accepted the saving work of Christ on the cross. There was a strong reaction against “works righteousness” with its suggestion that one could somehow earn merit with God by doing good things. Gaining this understanding can be liberating. We don’t have to wonder whether our behavior is good enough to deserve a relationship with God; we can know we are His simply because we have accepted his offer of eternal life in his Son. This is not hype - this is genuinely good news.
But the problem with this overemphasis on “subjective righteousness” is that it cuts the nerve of “objective righteousness.” The believer can easily feel that in the end his or her actual behavior is of little significance. If this is then coupled with a false idea of the security of the believer, the effect can be spiritually harmful. We can essentially live in conscious sin, secure in the fact that God sees us as righteous and that we can never lose our salvation. Thus, we see persons in the highest offices in the land claiming to be “born-again Christians” while living lives of conspicuous immorality and showing neither remorse nor repentance when caught. This is why the voice of Isaiah is relevant and needs to be heard today - 2018! The people of God must manifest in our lifestyle the life and love of God, or give up the right to be called the people of God.
As always, the truth has two sides, and Isaiah makes this masterfully clear. On the one hand, it is true that in ourselves we are incapable of being righteous on the standard required of us by God. We are doomed to failure and deserve the condemnation that comes on that failure. We cannot ourselves to God by ourselves, and the failure of the good Hezekiah underlines that point. If we are ever to have a relationship with God, it must be on the basis of His grace alone. He must come to us as he did to the captive Judeans with words of comfort and grace, assuring us that he has not cast us off and that he has provided a means through his Servant whereby we may be restored to a life-giving relationship with our Father. That is one side of the truth, a side that dare not be lost.
But there is another side that equally dares not to be lost. This is the truth relating to the whole purpose of salvation. Why does God bring us into a relationship with him? A google view based on a misreading of the New Testament alone would say that it is so we can spend an eternity of bliss praising our Savior. This is an incredibly self-serving picture, both from a human and divine point of view. That is not, however, the New Testament teaching, as becomes clear when we read the two Testaments together. God calls us into a relationship with him so that his original purpose may be realized for us. What is that purpose? That he might share his character with us. This is obvious from the covenant. God’s purpose in giving the covenant is so that the people might be holy as he is holy. Such holiness is not an unhealthy cultic thing but a way of right and peacefully living in the world and with other people.
As discussed above, Isaiah represents this point in a powerful way in chapters 56–66, where he synthesizes the demand for righteousness from chapters 1–39 with the offer of free grace in chapters 40–55. In chapters 56–66, Isaiah, just as much as Paul does in his letters, asks what that grace was for. Was it in order that God’s people should revel in their chosen-ness while engaging in religious practices that were self-serving and ultimately perverse? Of course not! It was in order that they should live lives of justice and righteousness and in so doing become a lamp through which God’s light should shine on the nations.
But how is that possible, given a long history of failure? It is possible through the same grace that restored you to a relationship with God in the first place. The demand is from God, but so is the provision. Clearly Isaiah is not promoting some arrogant claim to having arrived spiritually. Nor is he suggesting that the believer’s relationship with God is ever on any basis but divine grace. But he is saying that if a believer is not a conduit for the Holy Spirit’s righteousness (32:15–16; 44:1–5), then he or she is missing a large portion of what the grace of God came to do.
And, if we miss this grace and the true righteousness of God then we have missed the Messiah...