Peter

Biblical Approaches to the Trinity 3: Figuring It Out

This is the third post in a series.  Read the first post here and the second here.

Does the Bible teach that God is Trinity?  While the word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible, we have discussed how the Old Testament presents God as united and unique, but it also hints at something more about God.  Jesus, a devout Jew, affirmed the unity and uniqueness of God, but he also claimed for himself divine authority, roles, attributes, and prerogatives on the basis of his unique unity with the Father, whom he identified as the God of Israel (John 8:54).  How did Christians get from there to the Trinity?  And what do Christians mean by the Trinity anyway?

The Apostles on God and Jesus

Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would bring to the mind of his followers everything he had said to them (John 14:26), and the earliest Christians certainly collected what they remembered Jesus as saying and reflected on it.  But the apostles were not primarily philosophical theologians coining new jargon for church doctrine; they were far more concerned with proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus and setting up churches to carry on the message after them.  They were also limited people like us, not understanding God fully and growing over time in their knowledge of him (John 2:22; 12:16), even while struggling with doubts (Matthew 28:17).  (I do believe, however, that what they wrote on the subject which made it into the Bible was divinely inspired!)  So the apostles certainly did not use the word “Trinity.”  But they did worship Jesus (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:52), a divine prerogative which mere humans and even angels were required to reject (Acts 10:25-26; 14:14-15; Revelation 22:8-9).  Worshiping anything other than God would break the very first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3), so clearly the apostles believed that Jesus deserved divine honor.

The apostles, all of whom were devout Jews, believed that the God of Israel was the only true God.  Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.'” (1 Corinthians 8:4; cf. Romans 3:30).  Earlier, he and Barnabas had contrasted the “worthless things” of sacrifices to Zeus with “the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (Acts 14:15).  James affirmed that God’s oneness is so incontrovertible that even demons acknowledge it (James 2:19).  John ended his first letter with a closing warning: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).  So the apostles did not believe that worshiping Jesus contradicted their monotheistic belief.  It did lead to some puzzles.

The apostles experimented with what to call Jesus in relation to God.  They called him God’s Servant (Acts 3:13; 4:27), God’s Messiah (i.e. “Christ”: Luke 9:20; Acts 2:36; 3:18; 1 Corinthians 3:23), God’s Son (Mark 1:1; Romans 1:4; 1 John 5:20).  All of these are correct.  These same apostles were even increasingly comfortable explicitly calling Jesus himself “God,” starting very early.  Already one week after the resurrection, when the apostle Thomas faced the risen Jesus, he called him, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).  Paul wrote to the Romans that Jesus Christ “is God over all, forever praised!” (Romans 9:5).  To the Christians in Philippi, Paul described Jesus before his birth as “being in the form of (i.e. as) God” who possessed “equality with God” (Philippians 2:6).  Writing to his friend Titus, Paul spoke of the expected return of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).  Peter likewise opened his second letter by appealing to “the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” which gives faith to Christians (2 Peter 1:1).  Finally, and most famously, John penned the opening lines of his gospel about Jesus as God’s Word, using phrases which evoke the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1; cf. 1:18).

So the apostles did not use the term “Trinity” and did not work out a detailed philosophical explanation, but they believed that there is only one living God, the creator of all things and the God of Israel, and yet they worshiped Jesus and were willing to call Jesus “God’s Son” and even explicitly “God.”

Good Theories and Bad

Some Christians after the apostles had a bit more time on their hands and a desire for philosophical consistency, and were inclined to ask nosy questions and suggest possible answers.  (I might be one of these.)  The question arose, “How can God be the Father of Jesus, and Jesus also be God, and yet there be only one God?”  Various answers were suggested.  Some people had the idea that maybe Jesus was just a man, yet God adopted him, so Jesus was called “God” by courtesy, or like a family name (a viewpoint called, unsurprisingly, “adoptionism,” and believed again today by various liberal groups suspicious of supernaturalism).  Others suggested that there was only one God, but sometimes he acted in the role of Father and sometimes in the role of Son (which we label “modalism” or “Sabellianism” and which is held by Oneness Pentecostals today).  Yet others proposed that Jesus was more than a mere human, and was the first created thing, through whom all else was created, and is called “God” as a form of honor (this position, accepted by Jehovah’s Witnesses today, is “Arianism,” not to be confused with “Aryanism“).

Each of these viewpoints was considered and rejected by the majority of ancient Christian leaders, as incompatible with one or another aspect of God’s revelation in the Bible.  Adoptionism runs afoul of what God said to Isaiah: “I will not give my glory to another” (Isaiah 48:11).  It seems to counter Jesus claiming to exist before Abraham’s birth (John 8:58) and Paul speaking of Jesus, before his birth, as “being in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6).  Modalism satisfies those passages, but how can that theory explain the baptism of Christ, where a voice from God the Father spoke and sent down the Holy Spirit like a dove upon Jesus being baptized (Matthew 3:16-17)?  According to a modalist view, the many times that Jesus said, “My Father sent me” (fourteen times in John) would all reduce to “I sent myself in a different costume,” and that does not seem to make sense.  Arianism preserves the different actors in the interactions between Jesus and God the Father, and allows for Jesus speaking of his existence before Abraham’s birth two millennia earlier, but how then could Paul worship and serve Jesus, when he condemned people who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised” (Romans 1:25)?  Arianism also founders on God’s statement to Isaiah cited above, that he would not give another his glory, which is no doubt why Jehovah’s Witnesses carefully mistranslate the passages cited above in which the apostles called Jesus “God.”

Instead of these faulty explanations, ancient Christian leaders, and their successors and followers to the present, identified a few key necessary ideas, hinted at in the Old Testament, claimed by Jesus, and held by the apostles.  There is in fact only one God, and no created being can be called God.  Jesus’s Father is God.  Jesus is God.  Jesus is not his own Father.  But there is more.

And the Holy Spirit, Too!

The Old Testament had mentioned God’s Spirit already in the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:2), and had referenced God’s Spirit performing divine actions, such as inspiring prophets.  Jesus had promised his close followers that after his departure, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17).  The fact that the Spirit is another, suggests that in some sense the Spirit is the same sort of thing that Jesus is.  After rising from the dead, Jesus commanded his followers to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), suggesting a shared authority among the three named persons.  Indeed, although “Spirit” is technically a neuter noun in Greek (an “it”), Jesus chose to refer to the Holy Spirit as “he” and “him” (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7-8, 13-14) instead of what would be expected and considered non-offensive, “it.”  Perhaps the grammar was making a point.

The apostles likewise spoke of the Holy Spirit frequently, often in the same breath with God and Jesus (Acts 10:38; Romans 15:30; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 3:3; 1 Peter 1:2).  Peter rebuked a couple for having “lied to the Holy Spirit,” which he described as having “not lied just to human beings but to God” (Acts 5:3-4); this may hint that the Spirit is also God.  Paul, speaking of the variety of spiritual gifts, nevertheless emphasizes the unity of “the same Spirit… the same Lord… the same God at work” in the different spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

Later Christians puzzled about the Holy Spirit for even longer than they puzzled about Jesus.  Some suggested that God’s Spirit is another way of saying “God” (but this runs into the same trouble as modalism when God sends his Spirit).  Others concluded that the “Spirit of God” was another way to refer to Jesus (but then how can Jesus describe the Spirit as “another advocate”?).  Yet others seem to have argued that the Spirit of God was just not God, but instead someone created by Jesus (this is the view ascribed to the “Pneumatomakhoi,” those who “fight against the Spirit”) – but in this case how could a mere creature know all the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:10-11)?  In the face of these explanatory failures, Christians eventually came to the view that there is still only one God, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son, but is the same God as the Father and the Son.

The Oneness and Three-ness of God

The conclusion of the long process of early Christians figuring out what they believed about God, Jesus, and the Spirit, can perhaps most briefly be summed up in the words of the Athanasian Creed: “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God.”  Christians have continued to insist that there is only one true God, and yet the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit are three distinct individuals who are jointly the same God.  The Old Testament’s hints about God’s complex oneness, Jesus’s claims to full participation in divine unity without singleness, and the apostles’ appropriation of Jesus’s claims and their implications that he and the Spirit are “also God,” together force Christians to recognize that there is not only a oneness about God, but there is also a certain “three-ness” to the one and only God.  The Latin word for “three-ness” is trinitas, from which English gets the word Trinity.

So when critics say the “Trinity” is not in the Bible, they are right about words but wrong about meaning.  It is true that the word “trinity” is not to be found there.  But as we have observed, it is possible for the reality described by the word to be expressed even without using the word.  The notion of God’s “three-ness” (trinitas) is an attempt to understand and synthesize what the Bible teaches about God’s complex unity, and about the simultaneous divinity and distinction of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)

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Peter’s Amicus Brief

In a local Bible study group, we just read 1 Peter, and this time through I was struck by how consistently the theme of judicial persecution of Christians remains near at hand through the whole letter.  Indeed, seeing more of the letter in light of this consistent theme forced me to revise my understanding of several passages.  These re-assessed verses include every reference to suffering in the letter, as well as two very famous verses, the one most often cited by Evangelicals as the clarion call for apologetics (1 Peter 3:15) and the one warning about the devil’s activity (1 Peter 5:8).  I thought I’d chart here some of this new (to me) reading of Peter’s letter in light of persecution. (more…)

Basic Ecclesiology 2: Jesus

If, as I argued before, the Greek word ekklesia just means a gathering, then what makes an ekklesia into the Christian Church?

Being an adult convert, I never actually went to Sunday School, but I am told that there is often a single answer that works for every question.  I enjoy a little joke which plays on this observation: A new Sunday School teacher comes and tries to start his relationship with the class to a good start, and so asks a simple question: “What’s gray, runs in trees, eats nuts, and has a large bushy tail?”  No student raises a hand, but one girl in front has a big frown on her face.  The new teacher asks her, “What’s wrong?” and receives the reply, “I know the answer’s Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel!”

It is not a squirrel which makes a gathering into the Church (except perhaps sometimes); the Sunday School answer is correct.  It is obvious, and true: Jesus Christ is what makes a gathering into the Christian Church. (more…)

“The God of All Comfort”

This post is not actually about 2 Corinthians 1, from which the title phrase is taken, but rather about 1 Peter, which I was reading recently.

Peter is writing to Christians scattered throughout what is today Turkey to encourage them because “is necessary for a little while now that you be grieved by various afflictions” (1:6), whose faith was being tested (1:7).  He praises their faith and counsels reverence for God and holiness in life.  He describes their relationship to God with some amazing language which bears repeating: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, so that you may declare the excellent qualities of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light, you who once were ‘not a people’ but now are God’s people, who had ‘not received mercy’ but now have received mercy” (2:9-10).

And he simply assumes that Christians will be hated and will suffer because they are Christian: (more…)

The Argument from (Dis-)Similarity

Will the real Church please stand up?  Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering.  Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed!  How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?

One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors.  This is the argument from similarity.  I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning.  It was not the first time.  I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity.  I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present.  I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. (more…)

Petrine Primacy: An Idiosyncratic Suggestion

One of the perennial dividing issues between Roman Catholics and other Christians is the issue of Petrine Primacy.  The Roman Catholic Church claims that our Lord gave his apostle Peter universal jurisdiction over Christians everywhere, and that the popes are Peter’s successors in this role.  Unsurprisingly, other Christians have taken a dimmer view of papal claims to universal jurisdiction.  (Papal claims are not, however, unique: some have suggested that the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” for the Patriarch of Constantinople implies a claim to universal jurisdiction, and a few scribes in the Church of the East title their patriarch the “Catholicos-Patriarch of the East and of all the inhabited world.”  Indeed, a scribe in Mosul in northern Iraq even gave the so-called “Nestorian” Catholicos the title “Vicar of Christ” [syr. natar duktheh da-mshiha]!)

A few years back, as I was re-reading Boniface VIII’s encyclical Unam Sanctam (as one does), I observed that his interpretation of John 21:17 flips the imperative: Jesus commanded Peter to “Feed my sheep,” but Boniface interpreted the text as a command to Christ’s sheep to be fed by Peter.  This got me thinking.

Many critics of the papacy throughout the centuries (perhaps beginning with Origen?) suggested that when Christ said to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I shall build my Church” (Matt 16:18), the rock in question is not Peter but something else, perhaps Peter’s confession, or perhaps Christ himself.  (Paul tells us that Christ is the cornerstone, but we may not require the architectural metaphors for the spiritual community to be fully consistent.)  I think this idea is nonsense: if, as is most likely, Jesus was speaking Aramaic, then what he said is, “You are Peter [Aramaic kefa, “the rock”], and on this kefa I shall build my Church.”  We know from other NT texts that the Aramaic name of Peter is Kefa.

(I shall not consider in this post whether the Roman popes are the heirs of Peter or not.  I actually have little at stake in the question, the reasons for which will become clear later, I suspect.  If they wish to claim to be Peter’s heirs, let them live according to Peter’s call.)

So, having established that Christ singled out Peter in this passage, the question is what did he single out Peter for.  What did Petrine primacy consist of?

In the context of Matt 16, there are two things mentioned, neither of which is fully clear.  “The keys of the kingdom” would suggest that Peter can open God’s kingdom for others.  The very curious grammar of the “binding” and “releasing” (something close to “what you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven”; future perfect periphrastic constructions are rare!) is surprising, but whatever the authority consisted of, it was then given by the Lord to the disciples more generally at Matt 18:18, sandwiched between instructions for confronting a fellow believer regarding sin (confronting as a peer, one might note) and references to any two or three Christians gathered together in Christ’s name for prayer.  Neither of these phrases are very clear regarding the content of Petrine primacy, which is no doubt why Boniface only cited Matt 16 to declare that papal authority has a divine origin, not to define the content of that papal authority.

Fortunately, other passages are clearer about what is required of Peter.  Luke 22:31-32 again singles out Peter, and indicates that once he has repented of denying his Lord, he should “strengthen [his] brothers.”  In John 21:15-17, Jesus three times commanded Peter to feed Christ’s sheep.  The command is not to the sheep, but to Peter, to provide food for the sheep.  Peter’s role in the early Church was to encourage, to feed, and to serve.

And this should not surprise us.  Christ himself “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).  In that same context, Christ made clear what Christian primacy had to look like: “You know that those who intend to rule over the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It will not be this way among you, but whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).  Christian leadership does not consist in exercising authority and lordship, but in serving.  If Peter was singled out for primacy of Christian leadership, after Christ, then he was called to serve more than all others.  If Peter was called to universal Christian leadership, this means that he was obliged to serve all Christians everywhere.

And Peter understood this!  His instructions to Christian leaders forbid “lording it over those entrusted to you” (1 Pet 5:3) and admonish these leaders to be “eager to serve” (1 Pet 5:2).  That is why, in spite of all his faults and failures, Peter is a great saint and a model for us all.

But think how different the history of Christianity would be if the popes had understood Petrine primacy as a call to serve rather than an opportunity to be served.  Patriarch Michael Keroularios of Constantinople was by reputation suitably pugnacious, but it was the papal envoy Cardinal Humbert who stormed into the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople and inaugurated the schism of 1054 by excommunicating the Greek patriarch in the pope’s name.  Who was served by this?  One of the most severe spiritual crises under papal jurisdiction was the papal schism of 1378-1415, when for over a generation multiple different people claimed to be pope and were recognized by different countries.  It’s easy to see that as politics, and easy to miss the degree to which, on medieval understandings of salvation’s dependence upon allegiance to the (correct) pope, the salvation of large segments of the population was brazenly endangered by papal grasping.  That was the crisis which gave rise to the Conciliar movement in Western Europe, the notion that when popes were sufficiently refractory, they themselves were subject to ecumenical councils.  The Conciliar movement itself was outflanked by Pope Eugenius IV at Florence, and then banned by Pope Pius II in his bull Execrabilis of 1460, which then hampered the papacy’s ability to respond positively to criticism from friend and foe alike.  Pope Leo X was not the innocent Daniel in the lion’s den of the Roman Curia, as Luther portrayed him in his dedicatory letter to his treatise The Freedom of the Christian, though Luther himself was hardly docile.

The irony is that by the time of these medieval popes, a papal title invented centuries earlier had become a fixed part of papal self-designation.  In the late 6th C, Patriarch John IV of Constantinople assumed the title “Ecumenical Patriarch.”  This might be taken to imply jurisdiction over the entire inhabited world (the “oikoumene,” from which the title “ecumenical” is derived).  Pope Pelagius II protested the title as a usurpation of papal prerogative, but his successor Pope Gregory I had a different response: he disliked John IV, but he did not dispute the title.  Instead, Pope Gregory adopted the title servus servorum Christi (“the servant of Christ’s servants”).  If John of Constantinople claimed preeminent status, Gregory claimed preeminent service, and in so doing he captured perfectly the Lord’s calling for Peter.  According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, the title was used by some popes after Gregory and not others, and occasionally by bishops or others, but by the tenth century the title was claimed by all subsequent popes, and after 1200 or so was used exclusively by popes, even the very popes whose arrogance and lordliness contradicted Christ’s teachings on the nature of Christian leadership.

I suspect that the more that popes take this title and Peter’s calling as their agenda, the more Christians will wish to be fed by the Roman pontiff.

Where are the Whirled Peas?

This afternoon, over lunch, I was asked by a friend who is neither Christian nor Jewish how I might respond to the contention that Jesus could not be the Messiah because he did not usher in an era of world peace.  (For an online Jewish website presenting this objection, see here.)  Honestly, it’s not a topic which exercises me greatly, but I thought I’d present my answer here for future correction.

Basically, I have two answers.  The first looks at what Jesus taught about the Messiah, and the second at what the Hebrew scriptures themselves say about the Messiah.

(Prolegomena: the words “Christ” and “Messiah” are distinct in English, but refer back to the same thing.  Hebrew haMoshiah was Aramaicized as meshiha, which was occasionally (e.g. John 1:41 and 4:25) transcribed into Greek as messias, thence to Latin messia, thence to English messiah.  On the other hand, already in the Septuagint Greek translation of Leviticus (date debated, but before 100 BCE likely), the Greek adjective khristos was used to translate the Hebrew haMoshiah, and it was similarly used in the two passages of the Gospel of John cited above.  It was used as a substantive adjective, i.e. an adjective-turned-noun, in the Septuagint translation of Psalm 2:2, and thus became the common way of referring to the Messiah in Greek.  Greek khristos was transcribed into Latin usually as christus, and thence to English as Christ.  I will not distinguish between the nuances in English between Messiah and Christ, because they have a shared pedigree.)

The Messiah According to Jesus

1. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.  He asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and when Peter said, “The Christ,” which Jesus approved (Matt 16:13-20), and when asked under oath by the High Priest if he was the Christ, Jesus answered in the affirmative (Mark 14:61).  When a Samaritan woman expresses hope that the coming Messiah will sort out religious questions for them, Jesus claims to be the answer (John 4:25-26).  Thus it is not surprising that the earliest Christian texts use the title for Jesus unreservedly.

2. Jesus disclaimed inaugurating an age of peace.  For example, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34).  The sword that he speaks of is not the sword of conquest, but division within a family in the first instance (Matt 10:35), and the promise that his followers would be killed for following him (Matt 10:38-39, remembering that a cross at that time was a mode of execution, not a bothersome difficulty).

3. Jesus spoke of God’s Reign (more often translated “Kingdom of God,” but a phenomenon rather than a place) as something both present and to come.  Thus he taught his disciples to pray, “may your kingdom come” (Matt 6:10), even while he was announcing, “God’s reign has come” (Matt 4:17; the verb sometimes translated “at hand” is more literally “has come close”).  He even said, “God’s kingdom is within you” (Luke 17:21).

4. The immediate Kingdom of God  will include Christians suffering a lot of violence (e.g. Matt 10:23; John 16:2), but also a kind of peace given by Christ (Mark 5:34; more generally, John 14:27 and 16:33).  Jesus does not say much of anything about the notion of future world peace, although he likens it in a parable to “entering into the joy of [one’s] master” (Matt 25:21,23), and elsewhere he likens it to a feast (Matt 8:11).  He also uses the traditional language of Daniel 7:13-14 to describe a future coming of the Messiah (Matt 24:30-31).  At that time, the “Son of Man” (i.e. the Messiah) will condemn all injustice and wickedness (the chief obstacles to peace) and bring the righteous to “the kingdom prepared for you” (Matt 25:34).

Thus, it appears from the teaching of Jesus that there is a distinction between the first coming of the Messiah, to “bring the kingdom near” despite ongoing violence and suffering, and a second coming of the same, to bring an end to all evil and inaugurate the fullness of the kingdom.  This is called “inaugurated eschatology,” “partially realized eschatology,” or “the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.'”

But critics may say that the Messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures do not support such a bifurcated Messianic mission.  So that is the second piece of my response to the question.

The Messiah According to Isaiah

(Yes, I know there were other prophets than Isaiah, and the arguments I make for Isaiah could be generalized to other prophets.  But in the interest of writing a blog post rather than a book on the subject, I’ll limit my discussion to Isaiah.)

Isaiah certainly foretold world peace.  Most obviously, “And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  / Nation will not lift up sword against nation, / And never again will they learn war.” (Isaiah 2:4)  When will this come about?  Isaiah tells us: “In the last days” (Isaiah 2:2), when the Lord “will judge between the nations and will render decisions for many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4).

But what does Isaiah say of the Messiah?  This is where things get a little more tricky.  Isaiah refers to Cyrus of Persia as the Lord’s “anointed” (45:1), but leaving that aside for now, more to the point are various prophecies which do not necessary use the term “Messiah” but were understood by an ancient Jewish audience to refer to the prophesied Davidic ruler.  The only one to use the term “anointed” is Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord
And the day of vengeance of our God.

(This passage was quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, and pronounced fulfilled.)  This passage does not say anything about world peace, as it turns out, but presumes that people have been afflicted, brokenhearted, taken captive, and made prisoner.

Other prophecies from Isaiah are debated as to whether they pertain to the Messiah or not.  Most notable are the “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12), which speak of the Lord’s Servant.  The most common Jewish interpretation is probably that these songs refer to the Jewish people collectively, while Christians have traditionally interpreted them with respect to the Messiah.  What do they tell us?

In Isaiah 42:1-4, the Lord speaks of choosing his servant and putting his Spirit upon him, in similar language to Isaiah 61:1 though without the word to anoint, and that this servant will bring justice to the world.  In Isaiah 49:1-6, the servant speaks, claiming to be hidden in God’s hand and quiver (49:2).  While he is addressed by God, “You are my servant, Israel” in 49:3, he is also given the mission “To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him” (49:5).  This implies some identification between the servant and Israel, but also a distinction: the servant is to bring Israel back to God.  And not only Israel: the Lord says to his servant,

It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (49:6)

So the Lord’s servant is chosen by the Lord, anointed by the Spirit, and given a mission of restoration of God’s people and salvation to all the peoples.  If the servant is simply the people of Israel, as some suggest, I do not see how the people of Israel can restore themselves.  One might propose that the righteous people of Israel would bring back those who have strayed, but even “the preserved ones of Israel” need restoration.  And this passage’s double reference to God choosing the servant from the womb (49:1,5) sounds more like the Lord’s call of Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), referring to an individual.  The reference to the servant’s law in 42:4 may then imply that the Lord’s servant is a king, and these passages are likely among the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah.  And they do foretell a Messianic restoration of all things.

In Isaiah 50:4-9, the servant speaks again, indicating his obedience to the Lord, and yet his suffering of beating, beard-plucking, and being spat upon (50:6).  Although he protests that the Lord will help him and he will outlast his opponents (50:9), there is nothing in this passage about world peace or even victory, just confidence in a courtroom.  Instead, it mentions his suffering and endurance.

The final Servant Song is even more direct, and it is small wonder that it is so frequently quoted in the New Testament.  This is the passage in which the servant is described as “a man of sorrows” and “surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried.”  It describes how the servant is killed unjustly (53:7-8) among criminals (53:9,12), though in fact buried by a rich man (53:9), and yet his suffering was to take away the sins of the people (53:5-6).  Nevertheless, “If he gives himself as a sacrifice for guilt, he will see offspring, he will prolong his days, and the Lord’s pleasure will prosper through him” (53:10).  How someone who gives himself as a sacrifice can live longer is a puzzle in this passage, simply unanswered here.

But the prophecies of Isaiah speak on the one hand of world peace, and on the other of the suffering servant of the Lord.  Both are speaking of the Messiah.  This Messiah is Jesus, who as the Lord’s suffering servant has indeed dealt with our sins, “and by his wounds, we are healed.”  The fact that the Messiah’s sufferings would not immediately usher in a period of world peace was understood and clearly articulated by Jesus, and implicit in Isaiah’s various prophecies regarding the suffering servant.

The question how can the Messiah suffer rather than ushering in an age of prosperity is not new.  Jesus faced the question himself (John 12:34).  But the fact of the matter is that the current brokenness of the world, which is very broken indeed, and the incomprehension of the crowds are no surprise to him and no ultimate obstacle to his redemptive plan.

“All Things are Yours”

After the divergence of Christian denominations, important spiritual writers were located in different branches.  I think of Brother Lawrence among the Roman Catholics, John Bunyan among the English non-conformists, Fyodor Dostoevsky among the Russian Orthodox, more recently C. S. Lewis among the Anglicans, and Billy Graham among American Evangelicals.  But when people of another denomination read and cite with approval such a writer, members of that writer’s own denomination sometimes object to what feels like poaching.  Surely, the sentiment may be expressed, that writer is “ours”; what write have “you” to appropriate him?  Indeed, some Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox feel that way even about writers from before the schism.  I have heard Eastern Orthodox Christians object to any “Western Christian” (Roman Catholic or Protestant) claiming Athanasius or the Cappadocians, and I have heard Roman Catholics object to members of other churches citing Aquinas or Gregory the Great.  Is there any legitimacy to this objection?

The short answer is “no.”

The present is not the first time that Christians have fought over names.  Already in Corinth in the middle of the first century, Christians were claiming to belong to different denominations, whether Peter’s, Paul’s, Apollos’s, or Christ’s (1 Cor 1:11-12).  (It is unclear whether this last group were claiming to be mere Christians, including the others, or holier-than-thou, excluding all the others.)  Among Paul’s many responses to this sorry state of affairs is the following gem:

So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Cor 3:21-23, NASB)

All those, then, who belong to Christ may rightly claim and profit from all those who have gone before.  I am a late-comer to Christ, I know, but even so my heritage includes Moses and all the prophets, all the apostles, the early Christian writers, the medieval Christian writers of East and West (and of whatever language, whether Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, or any other), the early modern reformers (such as Erasmus and Luther) and mystics (such as Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross), and modern thinkers and activists (such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr.).  We have this great shared heritage, because it is Christ’s “inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18) and we are “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).  Let us all, then, profit from the riches of that heritage and be prompted by it to fulfill the New Command of our Lord: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, NASB)

“Choose Life”

At a climactic moment of his preaching career, Moses stood before the descendants of Israel and said to them, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!”  The point was that, by loving and obeying God, things would go well for them, whereas if they disobeyed God, things would go very badly.

This is not an individualized guarantee, of course, however much prosperity gospel preachers hype it as such, but is a general statement that doing bad things leads to bad outcomes.  The clearest counter-example to an individualized interpretation of this statement is Jesus, who loved and obeyed God perfectly, and suffered horribly.  The fact that he knew the punchline three days later does not mitigate the amount of suffering Jesus experienced.  People who wonder what all the fuss was about in the Garden of Gethsemane, if Jesus knew the outcome on Easter morning, have never experienced such intense physical pain.  It is possible to feel pain so intense that you crave only for it to end by whatever means are to hand, no matter what good may theoretically come from it.  Jesus experienced intense pain, and knew ahead of time what he was in for.  No wonder he preferred, all things being equal, to dodge the bullet.

And yet, in that garden, though he asked his Father for a reprieve, for any other way, yet he chose to obey.  And in that sense, he chose his own death.  Not that he desired to die, or that he forced the Romans to kill him, but he had the means at his disposal to avoid his death and yet he did not.  (He made this point in Matthew 26:53-54, rebuking Peter’s resort to the sword.)  He had the honesty to wrestle with God about his desire to avoid experiencing torture, and he had the courage and humility to accept the Father’s plan.

Jesus chose death, so that we can choose life.  As he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Why does this matter?  Is Jesus just a nice augment to an otherwise affluent life, enjoying all the benefits of Western economic and educational success?

I received an email today from someone whom I don’t get to see very often because we live so far apart.  She said to call; she would have called, but she didn’t have my number.  We played phone tag all afternoon, and when I finally got to talk to her, she shared the bad news: a mutual friend, who I knew well a number of years ago, took her own life yesterday.  I knew of some of this mutual friend’s troubles, but we had not corresponded for almost two years.  I had been intending to email her again “soon” with some good news I received recently, but hadn’t gotten around to it.  I don’t know what she had been going through.

Christianity has traditionally taken a sterner rather than a more comforting line concerning the case of people who cause their own death.  In this case, when last we corresponded, my friend did not share my Lord.  We had read large portions of John’s Gospel together and discussed them, and she had been interested in reading widely about spiritual matters.  After we moved to different American cities, we corresponded by email occasionally and even spoke on the phone a few times.  I had hoped I might some day see her share in the joy of the Savior.

In cases like these, I feel grief for the loss of a friend, especially one so gifted in a number of different ways.  I have enough humanity to wonder the what-ifs: what if I had emailed her a month ago, when I first received the good news I wished to share?  What if I had been a more consistent pen pal?  Could I have done anything?  Might it have mattered?  And I pray for God’s mercy on my friend, and for his comfort for her family.

But I have no use for wishful thinking.  Jesus was not a sentimentalist: he willingly died on an instrument of Roman torture.  He said he came to give life: that is not a pleasant enhancement to life, nor an additional dose of prosperity to an otherwise okay existence.  We will all die some day, unless Christ returns first, and this physical life is temporary.  The life that Jesus came to give is the only life available, the only life that lasts.  These are matters weightier than merely physical life and death; eternity is at stake.

So let us not fool around with trivialities.  Our message to the world needs to be the same message Moses gave to the people of Israel: “Choose life!”