Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Meeting God in the Prophets

My most recent class, one of four Bible survey classes for my seminary program, covered the Old Testament books of the prophets. Although this chunk of scripture doesn't include all the unpopular books of the Bible (!), it does include most of the obscure ones (like Obadiah and Zephaniah).

I suppose the Old Testament as a whole is kind of tricky. What is there here for us? The prophets’ words detail expectations which do not seem to apply to us or prophecies denouncing the behavior of people who lived long ago and kingdoms far away. If you're a Gentile - as I am - Israel may seem quite a foreign nation or the people of an old an outdated covenant, and what do we care about, say, the Amonites or the Jebusites? Yet God reveals himself and the ways he works with men and women and their communities through the stories, conversations, and prophecies of the Old Testament. It was cool to have the help of scholars to get more of the inside scoop on what these guys were saying and what it meant, historically.

Take the book of Isaiah.
He's the prophet most quoted in the New Testament. How does Isaiah show us God? I mean, besides the passages we know because they get quoted a lot?

I had an assignment to study the titles Isaiah uses for God and to write a paper about one of them. It was one that Isaiah uses a couple dozen times, and it only appears a few other places in the Scriptures: The Holy One of Israel (Is. 1:4; 5:19, 24; 10:20; 12:6; 17:7; 29:23; 30:11, 15; 31:1; 37:23; 41:14; 43:3, 14; 45:11; 47:4; 48:17; 54:5; 60:14, 2 Ki. 19:22; Ps. 71:22, 29:18; Jer. 50:29, 51:5, Ezek. 39:7).

Great. Israel. What's the big deal about Israel here, and who is the Holy One of Israel? I was suspicious; I didn't want to fall - inappropriately - into the trap of believing the answer is always "Jesus." Because sometimes the terms the Bible uses for Jesus can also be used to describe someone else. Other people are even referred to as "saviors," "anointed ones," or "messiahs."

When I pulled together all the references to the Holy One of Israel, though, it was pretty clear. They were divine in every case. The Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe, and Holy One of Israel are one and the same.

Any exploration of Isaiah’s teachings on the Holy One should take into account the centrality of God’s holiness in Isaiah’s understanding of him. Think about it: what's the big, formative event in Isaiah's life? Surely it's his encounter with God at the time of his calling as a prophet (6:1-8). He saw his own sin and God’s holiness and it is likely he never forgot it. Let's take a look.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (6:1-5).

Remarkable things happen as the scene unfolds. Isaiah sees his sin atoned for and his guilt taken away; immediately he responds to the question, “Whom shall I send?” and is given a mission and a message. What a transformation!

The ministry he is given is to be God’s spokesman to his people in a time when they are committed to sin, to anything but what God says. Isaiah calls them to turn back. He describes the consequences of their choice not to trust in God, the Almighty God, the Holy One of Israel. The book of Isaiah speaks words of judgment but also words of comfort and hope as God continues to call his people to return to him and speaks of the day when this return will happen.

Many of the passages that speak of God as the Holy One of Israel underline Israel’s lack of holiness and rejection of their holy God. In the first couple chapters of the book, Isaiah calls on the heavens and earth to listen to the accusation: Judah had forsaken the Lord. The people had turned their backs on him and spurned the Holy One of Israel (1:2-4). They spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel and rejected his law (5:25), causing his anger to burn against them – and this even as they said they wanted to see God show himself.
Woe to those who draw sin along with the cords of deceit,
and wickedness as with their cart ropes,
to those who say, “Let God hurry,
let him hasten his work
so we may see it.
Let it approach,
let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come,
so that we may know it.”   
How tragic that though the people knew God as the Holy One of Israel, they were otherwise greatly misguided about holiness. In fact, they called evil good and good evil, Isaiah says, and God will strike them down (5:20-25). Many other passages in Isaiah and the other prophets detail the sins of Israel and the nations; throughout, God’s holiness stands in stark contrast to the people’s lack of holiness. While Sennacherib king of Assyria is later rebuked because he has insulted and blasphemed the Holy One of Israel (27:23), the people of Israel have often done much the same thing.

One of God’s strongest accusations against the people of Isaiah’s time was that they looked to human powers rather than their Almighty God in times of trouble. They carried out plans, but not God’s plans. They formed alliances, but not by his Spirit. They sought help from Egypt without asking God for direction about this (30:1-2). As Assyria threatens them, they put their confidence in their old enemy Egypt, now perhaps an ally. These hopes that will prove to be misguided. If only they had trusted in God! They are like rebellious children and unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instructions. Furthermore, they are impatient with God’s prophets, to whom they say, “Stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” (30:9-11).

Understanding Isaiah’s use of the term “the Holy One of Israel” not only helps us understand the character of God as seen in his relationship with Israel, it also shines light on the deity of Christ. Reading the New Testament and taking its words at their modern-English face value, we might well question whether Jesus actually claimed to be divine or was seen that way by his first followers. Was he just a good man or anointed prophet later “deified” inappropriately by the emerging church?

Isaiah helps us answer this question. The writers of the New Testament must have had the words of the prophet Isaiah much in their minds to quote or refer to them as frequently as they did. They knew they worshiped the same God as Isaiah, the God who revealed himself and his plans through this prophet. When Isaiah talks about the Holy One of Israel, he is always talking about God. So, when Christ is referred to as “the Holy One” (Mark 1:21-24, Luke 4:31-34, John 6:68-69), hearers steeped in the words of Isaiah would understand that to mean he was not just a good person but a divine one.

The first place we here about Jesus’ position as the Holy One spoken from a surprising source – a demon. When Jesus and his disciples go to Capernaum, Jesus goes to the synagogue and teaches with an authority that amazes the people there. While Jesus is teaching he is apparently interrupted by a man in the synagogue possessed by an evil spirit. He cries out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:21-24, Luke 4:31-34).

In both accounts of this event, Jesus commands the spirit to be quiet and to come out of the man. Yet the situation makes such an impression on the people that news about Jesus, who he is, and what he is doing spread quickly throughout the whole region of Galilee (Mark 1:27-28, Luke 4:36). Jesus’ teaching and healing made an impression, but were the people also impressed by his “authority” as the Holy One? Jesus heals many and casts out demons, but will not let the demons speak because they “knew who he was” (Mark 1:34). That Jesus was the Holy One as well as the anointed one or Messiah may have meant a great deal to Jews who had been waiting for the fulfillment of many prophecies in Isaiah.

The disciples of Jesus also saw and acknowledged that Jesus was divine in calling him the Holy One. John reports Peter using that term when the people start to desert Jesus. Jesus asks the twelve if they want to leave him, too.
“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:68-69). 

The Holy One of God! In using this term, is Peter acknowledging that Jesus is God’s answer to the separation between a holy God and sinful man? Is this title a statement of the gospel? Certainly Peter’s response to Jesus brings to mind Isaiah’s response to the Lord in Isaiah 6, or the response he longed for from the people of Israel when he pleaded with them to trust the Lord and not their own strength or the strength of their neighbors.
“Come now, let us reason together,”
says the LORD. 

“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool" (Isaiah 1:18).

How will we respond to God’s plea to be reconciled to him? If we respond with surrender and trust, we become the Holy People of whom Isaiah had spoken (62:12). In fact, Peter uses strikingly similar language in his letters. The Holy One of Israel has even raised up Gentiles to be, now, his people.
"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:9-12).

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