Isaiah (Part 66): Preserving Justice (Ch 56a)
As we enter the last major section of Isaiah (chapters 56 through 66), we should keep two overall, background ideas in mind. One is that, although in the last three or four chapters we have concentrated on the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, there are two fulfillments—a more immediate one and the ultimate one—that apply to these chapters. Remember that the immediate fulfillment has Cyrus in the role of Messiah Servant; in the ultimate fulfillment, it is Jesus. In his role, Cyrus rescues the Jews from Babylon. Jesus rescues humankind from sin and death. Cyrus returns to his Persian throne, while Jesus sits on his throne beside God. The Jews return to their land—that place in which they communed with God. The redeemed of Jesus also find that they are in a place of communication through the Spirit with God. But it still held true that though rescued, the Jews were surrounded by nations who were the enemies of God. In the ultimate fulfillment, while those whose faith is in Jesus are redeemed, they also are still surrounded by the sin-cursed world. We will see how that plays out in the coming section.
The other idea to bear in mind is one of perspective. In chapter 55, verse 5, we read that the Servant would “summon a nation.” We talked of what this meant for the prophecy’s ultimate fulfillment: Christ, having made a way to realize God’s purpose for everlasting love relationship with his image bearers, gathers them through revelation and faith. But notice that the terminology does not concentrate on individuals. It speaks of a nation. In the Gospels, Christ spoke of a kingdom. Over and over the Bible emphasizes the community of believers in covenant relationship with God. To be sure, individual entrance to the kingdom is necessary. The “we” of our community is made up of individuals each of whom has a personal relationship with our Lord and God. But we must be careful to maintain the perspective that begins with God’s holistic purpose. The perspective starts with God’s purpose, which was for that everlasting love relationship with a community of image bearers. The emphasis of that goal continues in the New Testament with Christ presenting “the church” (group; community) to himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless” (Eph 5:27). The emphasis in Ephesians, Galatians, Romans, parts of Corinthians, and other places is all about the community of believers—to be one (John 17:22), one body (Rom 12:5), knit together (Col 2:2, 19). Thus, when we pursue gospel intent, we emphasize in our witnessing what that “good news” is ultimately—the accomplishing of redemption to realize the purpose of God—before we break the good news down further to the individual—the application of redemption so that person individually may find entrance to the kingdom and escape the punishment of hell.
The last 200 years of American Christianity has reversed that image somewhat with a concentration on individual rescue rather than the fulfillment of God’s purpose. This may sound as if I’m splitting hairs, but I think the distinction of perspective is important. A primary focus on individual rescue makes all creation and redemption settle first on our own glory (in rescue and lifting up). The infinite love of God (the immeasurable giving of self) is not focused primarily for our own individual aggrandizement. The purpose of God in relationship must bound our thinking about our individual rescue.
It is true, however, that many simply miss this perspective, and the result is a markedly self-centered Christian life (generally speaking). A recent article posted on a fundamentalist website attempted to discredit N.T. Wright by characterizing his gospel ideas as dangerous:
In the various presentations of the New Perspective on Paul or NPP, the centrality of the call upon sinners to repent and believe in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, and the promise of forgiveness and eternal life with God when they do is seriously compromised.” … The difference between everlasting life and abiding wrath is belief in the Son. What is it that must be believed? The answer to that question is the reason why John wrote his Gospel. After recounting the crucifixion and resurrection John focuses upon Tomas’s doubt and the Lord’s answer to that doubt. Jesus stresses belief in Him in that context. Then John adds his summary: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (Jn. 20:30) So what is the gospel? Venema quotes N.T. Wright as saying, “Let us be quite clear—the gospel is the announcement of Jesus’ Lordship which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham; now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. Justification is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family on this basis and no other.” … What Wright appears to be saying is that the gospel which we must believe is that Jesus is Lord. There is no mention here of the cross and Christ becoming sin for us. There is nothing said about His death and resurrection for us. All that needs to be done, so it seems, is that people believe that Jesus is Lord and that includes them in the covenant family in Him. No word about our sin and God’s judgment!”
As is evident from the author’s perspective, the gospel is equal to salvation. In other words, the author does not see the nuanced separation of the gospel as that which accomplished the way of redemption from the application of that redemption itself. When I objected to this point in his article through a comment, the author responded to me. Included in his response was this point:
I am not saying that the Cross is absent from Wright’s view of the Gospel as such (and neither is Venema): Only the personal, individual element which through faith in the cross brings justification. Wright alters the message so as to focus more on the community of covenant faith which is now counted together in belief that Jesus is Lord.
Of course, Wright did not say that believing only that Jesus is Lord brings salvation. Wright differentiates between gospel and the means of entrance to the kingdom. Gospel is the good news that Christ made entrance. Salvation is how we enter. And Paul makes this distinction too as he writes in Romans 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God to salvation to everyone believing” (my translation). The gospel is the way made possible and therefore becomes the power by which an individual may be saved. There is a subtle but distinct difference.
Mark said in 1:14 of his Gospel, “Jesus went to Galilee, preaching the good news of God.” Then he quotes Jesus to let us know what that “good news” or gospel was: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” The good news gospel is that the kingdom of God has come near. How did this happen? It happened in that Christ had come to make everlasting relationship with God possible. That’s the good news. As we continue to study Isaiah 56-66, we must bear in mind that the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy sees our individual rescue through the greater context of God’s purpose being realized in his relationship with a people, a nation, a kingdom, a community of his image bearers who rest in him as Caregiver Lord.
These last eleven chapters of Isaiah can be titled, “Entering the Sabbath Rest.” The section begins with the first two verses of chapter 56 which emphasize preserving justice. Obviously, Isaiah is using legal terminology once more. Remember that “covenant” itself is a legal term describing a binding contract. Justification is the finding of someone to be in line with the covenant. Righteousness is a condition or status of faithfulness to the covenant. When God tells us to “preserve justice,” he means for us to continue in covenant faithfulness—in other words, to remain righteous. Although the verses seem like he is urging us toward some work, note carefully that his urging is toward not desecrating the Sabbath. The Sabbath is rest. Therefore, in keeping the Sabbath, we rest. That restful Sabbath is shown especially in the OT to be a faithful trust in God as Caregiver, and that is, in fact, our only duty in regard to the New Covenant established by the Servant. We must have faith in God. He is the Caregiver. He will provide.