The Need for Positive Ethics

The current implosion of Western society reveals that we are great at criticizing cultures, but ill-equipped to present a positive vision of a good life. Philosophies like existentialism, Darwinism, postmodernism, Marxism, and critical theory can tear down ideas, but do not build anything in their place. They criticize the patriarchy and wonder where the fathers went. They criticize capitalists and wonder where the jobs went. They criticize the police and wonder why crime rises. They say there is no objective purpose to life and wonder why the youth commit suicide. They say humans are evolved animals and wonder why they rape and kill.

It may be objected that Marxism, for example, has a clear vision for the future. But Marxist eschatology is merely a daydream that Marxists have no power to actualize. Decades before Russia’s revolution, Dostoyevsky notes in The Brothers Karamazov that socialism isn’t just about labor, it’s an anti-God philosophy; they don’t believe that God will bring Heaven to Earth, so they try to do this by other means. But only God can bring about utopia by making people altruistic, and so Marxists attempt to do it by coersion. The twentieth century shows that this vision inspires more destruction than production.

The effects of these philosophies are beginning to catch up with us. My parents were divorced, their parents were divorced, my step-dad’s parents were divorced, and I never met either of my two step-moms’ parents. In environments like this, is it any wonder that millennials lack direction? I was told that I could be whatever I wanted to be, but I wasn’t told very clearly what a man should be. Public school taught me that I should go to college and get a good job, but it couldn’t possibly tell me why I should do this. When I began to ask these questions as a teenager, I was left with no foundation, and became depressed. I loved Ecclesiastes because of the ways it criticized things that other people cared about, but the only thought that positively gave me a sense of purpose was that the church and my relationship with God would last forever.

In hindsight I see three deficiencies in younger me’s view of Biblical ethics and purpose. First, I started with the end instead of the beginning. Faced with mortality and entropy, I only wanted to know what would last forever. I knew that God is the beginning as well as the end, but it didn’t cross my mind to build my life around a verse like Genesis 1:28. But if God has told us what to do, we don’t have to wonder how to live a meaningful life. When I realized that God doesn’t actually need my help to make disciples, I had to pivot from doing things because they will last forever to doing things because God told me to.

Second, my understanding of ethics was largely negative. I knew that I shouldn’t hate, covet, lie, be lazy, lust, and cheat. But what should I be doing instead? Sure I shouldn’t be lazy, but what should I be working toward? In a healthy culture, people would basically understand what humans are supposed to do, and these negative commands would keep them from going about it in the wrong way. But as the counter-culture becomes the mainstream culture, we need to build our system of ethics from the ground up, which requires a clear positive vision.

Third, my positive understanding of ethics was too vague. Modern Christians know that we should value the weighty things of the law like justice, mercy, and love. But what does this practically look like? Answering this question requires knowing what our neighbor needs, what God’s blessings look like, and the specific moral commands of God’s law. It requires a knowledge of what the good life is and the wisdom to achieve it.

When I started this ethics series, I didn’t realize how transformative it would be for me, and the reason is that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the positive vision of Genesis 1:28. I’ve learned that a lot of my desires, both righteous and sinful, are explained by this verse, because it is a description of what man was made for. With a clear vision of what my life is supposed to look like, it is easier to turn down the counterfeits.

Today I meant to write on the positive vision of ethics taught in Malachi, and this post happened by accident. Maybe in a couple weeks.

Isaiah 49:8 and Three Ways Jesus Has Begun to Fulfill the Land Promises

Thus says the Lord: “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages.”

Isaiah 49:8 ESV

The Lord continues to speak to the servant of the Lord. The servant had faith that the Lord was His strength (Isa 49:6), and so the Lord helped him, saved him, and kept him. This is true for Jesus, whom God raised to eternal life and seated at His right hand. But it is also true that the day of salvation is today (see how Paul uses this verse in 2 Cor 5:20-6:2). Whoever will be reconciled to God through Jesus’ death and resurrection will be helped, saved, and kept by God. The mission that looked like a failure in Isa 49:4 will overwhelmingly succeed by the power of God.

Jesus is given as a new covenant, and what may surprise Christian readers is that the blessings he brings are what we normally associate with the old covenant. The goals of the old and new covenants are not different; the difference is that the new covenant enables us to fully reach the goals. “Apportion desolate heritages” means to divide up the promised land between God’s people. But in Isa 49 we’ve already seen that the promised land is not only Canaan, but will grow to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6). So when Jesus says “the meek will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5), he means the Earth.

A notoriously difficult question is whether the land promises have begun to be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. I remember G. K. Beale giving an uncharacteristically weak answer to this question in his New Testament Biblical Theology (I have no idea what page, so just read the whole book): he said the land promises may have begun to be fulfilled in Jesus’ resurrection body. That is a glorious beginning to the physical new creation, but is it really the most we can say about the present fulfillment of the land promises? I haven’t given this enough thought to answer that question, but I think it should be raised. So here are a few quick thoughts.

  1. Paul speaks to this issue when he says the Spirit is the down payment of our inheritance (2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:14). These three verses are looking forward to a future fulfillment of land promises, but see the beginning of fulfillment in the gift of the Spirit. What does the Spirit have to do with land? The land promises will be completely fulfilled in the new creation, and the Spirit has begun the new creation in us (2 Cor 5:17). The blessings described in Isa 49:9-10 will be fully experienced after Jesus returns, but today the Spirit truly gives us spritual sight, light, life, provision, security, and guidance.
  2. The New Testament authors see New Jerusalem as a heavenly city, and in a sense we are already there in Christ (Gal 4:26-7 Heb 12:22-4, c.f. Eph 2:7). We look forward to the same city as Abraham (Heb 11:8-16), and we are already citizens of that city (Phil 3:20). I’ll probably write more on this when I cover the second half of Isa 49.
  3. Most controversially, if Jesus already has all authority in heaven and in earth (Matt 28:18), then can Josh 1:3 be applied to Jesus and therefore the church? “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you” (John 1:3). Just as the Israelites filled Canaan little by little (Deut 7:22), Jesus is conquering the world gradually. Matt 13:24-43 would be an interesting passage to consider, because the parables about the gradual growth of the kingdom are shoved in the middle of a parable that flattens out this age and sees the whole world as Jesus’ kingdom. Finally, if Acts 2:8 is fulfilled in the resurrection (Acts 13:33), then hasn’t Jesus already begun to receive the nations as his heritage (Psalm 2:9)?

I’ve raised the question. Comment if you have an answer.

What Does it Mean to Abide in Christ?

Today I was asked this question and I wasn’t sure what to say. It is a familiar phrase, and a powerful image, but what exactly did Jesus mean by it? I did give a sermon from John 15 about 8 years ago, but I don’t trust the exegesis of 20-year-old me, so I’m back to square one.

Abiding is passive.

It is no work for a branch to remain connected to the vine. The basic meaning of “abide” is to stay somewhere, like spending the night in a house. Jesus gives us no credit for attaching ourselves to him (John 15:3, 16), but just tells us to stay where we are.

Abiding is a salvation issue.

Any explanation of the vine metaphor has to go through trial by fire. What I mean is that whatever “abiding” means, if you don’t do it then you’ll be thrown into the fire and burned (John 15:6). So if you say, for example, that abiding in Christ means waking up early every day to pray, then you’re saying that anyone who doesn’t wake up early every day to pray will burn. The opposite of abiding is apostasy, so abiding means remaining in the faith.

Abiding means believing.

Jesus doesn’t need to explain “abiding” here, because he already explained it in John 6:56: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” In context, feeding on Jesus’ flesh means believing in him, and leads to eternal life (John 6:35-40). This belief is not a one-time decision, but an intimate trust that endures forever. Just as we trust bread to keep us alive for another day, feeding on Jesus and abiding in Him means trusting Him to produce fruit in us and to keep us alive forever.

The fruit of abiding is righteousness.

In Isaiah 5:1-7, Israel is compared to a vineyard that doesn’t produce fruit. The “fruit” the Lord was looking for was justice, but what He found was bloodshed. Likewise, Jesus tells us to abide in his love by keeping his commandments (John 15:10). We do this by loving one another and laying down our lives for one another (John 15:12-13). Apparently, abiding in Jesus’ love is different than abiding in Jesus. It means being treated like the vineyard of Isaiah 27, and not like the vineyard of Isaiah 5. It means asking for blessings and receiving them (John 15:16).

Abide = Believe ==> Fruit = Righteousness = Love ==> Abide in His Love = Be Blessed

Abiding is mutual.

So how should I abide in Christ today?

If you believe in Jesus, then his gospel already dwells in you and makes you clean (John 15:3). You are in Christ, and the Spirit is in you, and so you are being conformed to the image of Jesus. Living waters of eternal life are flowing inside of you. Abiding in Christ is not work, it’s rest. Continue to receive these things in faith, be transformed by the renewing of your mind, and be fruitful and blessed, so Jesus’ joy will abide in you (John 15:11).

Having said that, the fruit of our abiding in Christ is love, which involves a lot of work. Abiding is rest, but abiding looks like work. It looks like worshipping God, encouraging the saints, studying the Bible, praying, loving your family, and working with your hands. When we abide in Christ, we live like Christ.

Fine, I’ll say it.

As much as I tried to avoid the stereotypical John 15 message, it all comes back to this: go to church, read your Bible, and pray. When we remind ourselves of God’s truth, study His law, and meet with His people, our faith is invigorated and the paths of righteousness are illuminated.

We may have ended with a cliche, but I hope you enjoyed the ride.

Isaiah 49:1-7 and the Servant’s Mission

Listen to me O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.

Isaiah 49:1, ESV

This monologue by the Servant of the Lord begins with no indication that the speaker has changed, except that someone other than the LORD is now speaking. Is it Isaiah? Or Israel? Or Cyrus? We will gradually discover that this is the Servant of the Lord who is introduced in Isa 42, who speaks in Isa 48:16, and whom Christians recognize as their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In Isa 42:4, the coastlands waited for his law– and now he speaks to them. The universal scale of the message is due to the servant’s unique qualifications (Isa 49:1-3) and the universal scale of his mission (Isa 49:6). He is named Jesus while in the womb, because he will save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21).

He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away.

Isaiah 49:2

The servant is the Lord’s secret weapon, hidden in the Lord’s eternal plan until the right moment. A sharp sword for close combat, and a polished arrow for long range, he is effective in any battle. David built his kingdom with a sword, but the son of David judges the wicked with his mouth (Isa 11:4). Cyrus conquered with a sword, but Jesus simply annouces the arrival of his kingdom and commands obedience (Matt 4:17). Like God, he creates and destroys by his words. The sword he brings creates war within households, because his gospel demands absolute allegiance (Matt 10:34-37). In Revelation, Jesus uses the sword of his mouth to make war against heretics (Rev 2:15-16), and at his coming he will kill the lawless one with his breath (2 Thess 2:8). Christians continue Jesus’ kingdom building work by wielding the word of God as a sword (Eph 6:17, c.f. Heb 4:12, 2 Cor 10:5).

And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Isaiah 49:3

Jesus is the righteous remnant of Israel, the heir of its blessings and responsibilities. He can be called Israel for the same reason he is called David (e.g. Hos 3:5): He is the son and heir of the man named Israel. He is also the head and source of the renewed kingdom of Israel. He inherits and fulfills the calling passed from Abraham to Israel, to bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). He glorifies God (John 17:1-4), and when his people abide in him they also glorify God (John 15:5-8).

But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.”

Isaiah 49:4

The servant has poured out all of his strength, and it looks like it was all for nothing. But the Lord will always enforce justice, and so the righteous servant expects a reward from God. The Lord Jesus preached and did good to people his whole life, and what did it profit him? Few truly believed in him, and only a few friends stood with him during his execution. But the Lord raised him to eternal life, and gave him all authority in Heaven and Earth. Likewise, we should trust that our labor is not in vain, because the Lord will reward all of our work.

And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him– for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength–

Isaiah 49:5

Bringing true repentance is a spiritual task that Cyrus is unfit for, but this is what the servant was born to do. The Lord’s spirit (Isa 42:1) and the sword of the servant’s mouth (Isa 49:2) perfectly equip him for this task. The servant is now confident that the Lord will give him the success he deserves. Don’t miss the paradox between this verse and verse 3: The servant is Israel, and the servant is born to bring back Israel. This implies that Jesus is the beginning of a renewed Israel that can be distinguished from the nation of Israel. Jesus is Israel, he is on mission to Israel, and he himself fulfills the mission of Israel.

he says– “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:6

Far from failing in his mission to Israel, Jesus was overqualified! Jesus began his ministry with the lost sheep of Israel (Matt 15:24); and after his death, resurrection, and ascension he expanded his ministry to grant repentance even to us gentiles (Acts 11:18). Paul and Barnabas see Isa 49:6 as a command to them: since the Jews aren’t listening, they must do Jesus’ work of bringing salvation to the gentiles (Acts 13:46-7).

Light and darkness are recurring images in Isaiah, and the extended descriptions in Isa 8:16-9:7 demonstrate their complex meanings. Darkness is the aimlessness that comes from ignoring the Lord’s teaching, and it results in the further darkness of judgment (Isa 8:16-22). Light is the opposite of this, and will be seen in a kingdom of peace, justice, and prosperity under a divine son of David (Isa 9:1-7). Jesus is this light of revelation and salvation for Israel and for the ends of the earth (Luke 2:32).

Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Isaiah 49:7

Jesus was hated by his own nation of Israel, and he was a servant of Rome. Then he rose to eternal life and ascended to the right hand of God as king of kings. The kings of the earth will either submit to him willingly, or be conquered on the last day. The kingdom of light will fill the earth, and its enemies will be cast into outer darkness.

Why Isaiah Wrote “Deutero-Isaiah”

I promised a post on the fulfillment of Isaiah 49-55. That was silly of me; instead, expect about 10 posts on it this year. But before I write about that, I’d like to throw some bologne into a blender to prevent Isaiah from getting chopped into pieces.

The phrase “deutero-Isaiah” is just the beginning of a huge problem that modern scholars created for themselves. The reasoning is that Isaiah would have spoken to his own generation, so he wouldn’t speak in response to the Babylonian captivity. So if Isa 40-55 is about a return from exile, it must have been written during the exile. And the end of Isaiah was probably written after the exile. Oh, but we’re just getting started. The oracles against the nations in Isa 13-23 also speak to a context later than Isaiah. The eschatology of Isa 24-27 is too advanced to have been written by Isaiah. Isa 11 mentions the “stump of Jesse,” so it must have been written during the exile. Chapter 1 is an introduction to the book, so it was written after the exile. I could go on, but then Isaiah would become a minor prophet.

And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive…’ Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away.”

Isaiah 6:9, 11-12, ESV

In an Old Testament class at a conservative seminary, I was told that the reason the prophets warned of judgment is so the people would repent and turn away the judgment. It sounds plausible enough, but I had to ask why God told Jeremiah not to pray for the people, since the judgment was certain (Jer 7:16, 11:14). I think the answer was along the lines of “Yes, that is a difficult exception to the rule.” In the Isaiah quote above, God tells Isaiah not to expect widespread repentance until after the exile. Was his mission really limited to his own generation?

Vos (pages 189-190) makes a helpful distinction between the former prophets and the latter prophets. The former prophets (like Elijah) spoke to their own generation to bring repentance under the law of Moses. The latter prophets (like Isaiah) also did this, but they knew that their ultimate hope was in the destruction and regeneration of the present system. That is why the former prophets only spoke, but the latter prophets also wrote. The words of the latter prophets “dealt with things in which future generations would have a share and supreme interest” (Vos, 190).

Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples.

Isaiah 8:16

Isaiah sees dark days approaching (Isa 8:17-22), so he commands his disciples to preserve the teaching until the divine Son of David brings light (Isa 9:1-7, see Isaiah 7-12 and the Divine Son of David). There would come a time when justice and righteousness would be done in Israel, but not before judgment comes upon those who ignored Isaiah’s teaching.

Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the LORD. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.

Isaiah 39:6-7

The shift from Assyria to Babylon happens in the narrative chapters that precede what is called “deutero-Isaiah.” The angel of the Lord defeats Assyria at Jerusalem, and in Hezekiah’s later years he shows off his wealth to envoys from Babylon. Isaiah predicts the Babylonian captivity during Hezekiah’s children’s generation, and Hezekiah joins modern scholars in calling this irrelevant. But if Isaiah foretold a Babylonian captivity, is it crazy to think he also foretold a return from captivity? The truth is that Hezekiah should have been concerned for his sons, and his sons would need hope when the darkness came.

The former things I declared of old; they went out from my mouth, and I announced them; then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass. Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, “My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them.” You have heard, now see all this; and will you not declare it? From this time forth I announce to you new things, hidden things that you have not known.

Isaiah 48:3-6

There is an especially great irony in saying that Isaiah wouldn’t have written Isa 40-48 because it is about future generations: the Lord explains why He is telling the future over (Isa 41:21-29) and over (Isa 42:8-9) and over (Isa 43:9-13) and over (Isa 44:6-8) and over (Isa 45:20-21). The Lord’s precise foretelling of what He will do in the future shows that He is the only God and Savior. He has the power to bring about all of His purposes, so Israel should not fear. When He brings about salvation, idols should receive no credit, and all of the glory should go to the Lord. The nations should see that He has the power to save, and they should turn to Him.

When Jesus had said these things, he departed from them and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.

John 12:36-41

Why would Isaiah talk about Jesus? Because he saw his glory. John’s first quote from “the prophet Isaiah” is from Isa 53, which an incredible number of scholars would say was not written by “the prophet Isaiah.” But even more powerfully, John quotes from the same “Isaiah” in Isa 6, when Isaiah sees the glory of the Lord– and John says that Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory. And the hard-hearted Israelites Isaiah spoke of were not only his own generation, but the generation that killed Jesus. Isaiah did not speak about Jesus on accident, and Isaiah 53 was not (as I’ve recently read) about the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. Anyone who believes the teaching of the apostles should believe that Isaiah intentionally spoke about Jesus, because he saw his glory.

SFUSD Votes to Name All Schools After Jesus Christ

San Francisco, CA— After days of deliberation, San Francisco Unified School District has decided to name every school in the district after the only person they could think of who has never done anything wrong: Jesus Christ.

The process started when the school board realized that all of their schools were named after people who have held racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or able-ist beliefs at some point in their lives. This was clearly unacceptable, and they made the common sense move to remove the names.

“Imagine being a BIPOC student at a school named after a racist like Abraham Lincoln,” explained one school board member, “or an LGBTQIA+ student at a school named after a homophobe like Senator Dianne Feinstein. All-too-common situations like those are literally violence.”

The problem came when the board struggled to think of anyone, living or dead, who has never held a belief that is now taboo. They considered generic names such as “San Francisco Elementary School,” but quickly realized that San Francisco is Spanish for Saint Francis, who founded an order of monks that colonized California. In fact, putting any Spanish name on a building reeks of cultural appropriation.

“Naming everything after Jesus was the obvious choice. Everyone knows that he tolerated all kinds of people, and would never judge them.”

The district is having some doubts after some problematic Bible verses were brought to their attention.

“Who knows? Maybe we’ll just forget names and give each school an interpretive dance.”

The Command is a Blessing

When God made man, He did not leave them to guess what they were supposed to do. He did not tell them to follow their heart and find their purpose. Man does not exist before he is defined. The individual human is not autonomous.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Genesis 1:28

In this one verse that I can’t seem to stop writing about, we have a summary of human purpose. It is a picture of the good life, and God commands us to make it happen. It is not a command for each individual to obey at the expense of his neighbor, but a command for mankind as a whole to flourish through work, families, and government.

In each of these three areas, there are counterfeit ways to “fill the earth and subdue it” as an individual while being counterproductive for mankind. A man might become powerful through theft, exploitation, and corruption; and he might have children through sexual immorality. A government might become powerful through unprovoked conquest and heavy taxation.

There are also counterfeit versions of Gen 1:28 that aren’t actually productive at all, but they make you feel like you’re being fruitful and powerful. Most kinds of sexual sin can’t produce children, but they make you feel like you’re doing what you were made to do. Completing all of the objectives in a videogame or cheering for a winning sports team might feel like accomplishments, but they aren’t productive. Expensive status symbols feel like wealth, but are often wasteful vanity.

God commands man to rule over the earth with justice and compassion, so all mankind can fill the earth and subdue it for the glory of God. This command isn’t a burden; it’s a blessing. The command is inseparable from “And God blessed them,” here and in Gen 9:1. God’s desire for man is that he receive the blessings of children, wealth, land, and power. He wishes for man the blessings he would promise to Abraham. He wills that man receive the blessings described in Deut 28:1-14. It is the blessing that Laban wishes for Rebekah (Gen 24:60). It is the blessing that Jacob lied to steal (Gen 27:28-29).

If the command is also a blessing, then it cannot be obeyed apart from the favor of God. Adam failed to fully obey Gen 1:28 precisely because he failed to obey Gen 2:17, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Adam’s mission and blessing were thwarted by the curses that came through disobedience. His work produced thorns, and he and his family were destined to be subdued by six feet of earth.

And so we cannot hope to obey Gen 1:28 and enjoy its blessing apart from right worship of God. Even if it’s possible to live a productive and compassionate life without loving God, that life is a ticking time bomb, waiting to unleash the wrath of God that undoes every blessing. But if we start with right worship, and then learn from God how to work, raise children, and do justice, then we will be blessed, and will help mankind to flourish in this age and in the age to come.

Swords into Plowshares into Swords into Plowshares

A subconscious reason for starting this blog was to confront exactly the kind of scholarly hubris I just read. In an article on True and False Prophecy in the Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, James Brenneman spends a considerable amount of ink trying to convince the reader that either Isaiah or Joel was wrong about the end of the world, because Isaiah says the nations will beat their swords into plowshares (Isa 2:4), and Joel says the nations will beat their plowshares into swords (Joel 3:10). Obviously, if Joel inverts Isaiah’s language, he must be arguing against him, and if you disagree then you’re “ethically irresponsible” (p. 786). With incredible ethical responsibility and nuance, Brenneman points to a turn of phrase and declares once and for all that one of God’s prophets lied to generation upon generation of God’s people about God’s final act in redemptive history.

Liberal scholars think they are doing service to the Biblical authors as they dissect the Bible– by cutting it into a thousand pieces and throwing the chaff to the wind. The New Testament does real service to the Biblical authors by pressing them together into a clear and multifaceted diamond. It presents a kingdom of peace that brings God’s law to the nations, so that they (metaphorically) beat their swords into plowshares and make peace with one another. And yet, the nations rage against the Lord and His people, and beat their plowshares into swords to make war on them. The Lord violently judges His enemies, and all that is left is His kingdom of peace. So much peace that, if you took Jesus’ advice and sold your cloak to buy a sword, you can literally beat that sword into a plowshare.

Brenneman’s low view of scripture rules out the method of interpreting the prophets that I advocate and test on this blog: inaugurated fulfillment in the gospel. The way I’m phrasing it until someone proves me wrong is: The prophets are truly fulfilled by Jesus’ first coming, and visibly fulfilled by his second coming. Plowshares are truly turned into swords as Jews, Herods, Romans, and Greeks kill Jesus and persecute his people; as false teachers invade the church; as families divide over the gospel. Swords are truly turned into plowshares as Jesus makes peace between men of every nation by his blood, and gathers them by the Spirit into one body. Plowshares are visibly turned into swords as the Antichrist gathers the nations to make war on the saints. Swords are visibly turned into plowshares when Jesus judges the nations and brings the New Jerusalem into the New Earth.

As a mob rushes toward the church with swords in hand, Brenneman draws his sword and swings it at Joel– or Isaiah. The saints look up to see the beheaded prophet ruling with Christ. They look back down, wield the sword of the Spirit as a plow, and get back to work, sowing the word of the kingdom.

Isaiah 49-55 Fulfills Genesis 1:28

This post should be the climax of this project of laying a foundation for Christian ethics. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the centrality of Genesis 1:28 to a proper understanding of human purpose. Today I’ll look at a chunk of Isaiah that describes the fulfillment of God’s purposes for Adam, for Abraham, for Israel, and for David. It is a poetic celebration of how God’s chosen servant would do what man was always meant to do. This post will team up with a future post for The Prophets Fulfilled series on how Isaiah 49-55 is fulfilled by Jesus. I’ll start by looking at how this passage describes the obstacles for man fulfilling his mission, then I’ll describe the passage’s solution to this problem, and finally I’ll look at the accomplishment of the mission.

The Problem: Sin

You are in constant dread all day long because of the fury of the oppressor, who has set himself to destroy.

Isaiah 51:13, HCSB

Even in the context of this verse, it is clear that oppressors are not Israel’s ultimate problem; but I want to start by acknowledging that they are a real problem. Assyria (who will be followed by Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome) brings “devastation and destruction, famine and sword” (Isa 51:19). How can Israel fill the earth and subdue it if they are being killed, enslaved, and oppressed? This is an illustration of how human sin works against man’s mission. Assyria breaks up families, steals, kills, and destroys, leaving devastation instead of fruitfulness.

Stand up, Jerusalem, you who have drunk the cup of His fury from the hand of the Lord.

Isaiah 51:17

The sin Israel really needed to worry about was their own, and the fury they needed to fear was the Lord’s. There was no man in Zion to answer the Lord’s call (Isa 50:2), so the Lord divorced Zion (Isa 50:1). When the Lord led the Israelites into the land, he told them how to be blessed and fulfill their misison. If they obeyed Him, they would be blessed with children, animals, crops, and security, to eventually become the greatest nation of the earth (Deut 28:1-14). If they did not obey him, the opposite would happen: futility, death, disease, oppression, famine, slavery, and exile (Deut 28:15-68). Instead of subduing the earth, they would be subdued. Instead of ruling the animals, they would be ruled over by the beasts of Daniel 7.

The Solution: Obedience, Teaching, and Atonement

The Lord God has opened My ear, and I was not rebellious; I did not turn back. I gave My back to those who beat Me, and my cheeks to those who tore out my beard. I did not hide My face from scorn and spitting.

Isaiah 50:5-6

There was no man to answer the Lord’s call, until the Lord set apart his chosen servant from the womb (Isa 49:1). This servant would obey God in everything, even when it meant being beaten, mocked, and killed. His life may have looked futile, but because he obeyed God he would be vindicated in the end (Isa 49:4). Because he is the representative of all Israel (Isa 49:3), his obedience will bring blessings to all Israel.

Coastlands, listen to me; distant peoples, pay attention. The Lord called me before I was born. He named me while I was in my mother’s womb. He made my words like a sharp sword; He hid me in the shadow of His hand. He made me like a sharpened arrow; He hid me in His quiver.

Isaiah 49:1-2

The servant’s mission to bring Israel back from oppressive exile (Isa 49:5) isn’t accomplished with traditional weapons, but with words. He is instructed, so his words sustain the weary (Isa 50:4). He preaches good news, “saying to the prisoners: Come out, and to those who are in darkness: Show yourselves” (Isa 49:9). This gospel undoes the power of the oppressor to kill and enslave (Isa 51:13-14). The Lord’s words in the servant’s mouth plant a new heavens and earth, and establish a covenant (Isa 51:16).

But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds. We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished Him for the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:5-6

The Lord’s servant, as Israel’s representative, took Israel’s punishment. Just as Israel was oppressed because of God’s judgment, “He was taken away because of oppression and judgment” (Isa 53:8). It looks like futility, but it is wisdom (Isa 52:13) because it leads to the justification of many (Isa 53:11). The servant, after his death, is rewarded with children, long life (Isa 53:10), and power over rulers (53:12). In other words, he will fill the earth and subdue it, as man was always meant to do. This is the good news of the kingdom of God (Isa 52:7). Because of the servant’s atonement, God’s anger turns from Israel to her enemies:

“Look, I have removed the cup of staggering from your hand; that goblet, the cup of my fury. You will never drink it again. I will put it in the hands of your tormenters, who said to you: Lie down, so we can walk over you.”

Isaiah 51:22-23

Mission Accomplished: Fruitfulness and Dominion

“Rejoice, childless one, who did not give birth; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the forsaken one will be more than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord. “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let your tent curtains be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your ropes, and drive your tent pegs deep. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendents will dispossess nations and inhabit the desolate cities.

Isaiah 54:1-3

The result of the servant’s obedience, teaching, and atonement is that Zion is taken back to be the Lord’s wife again (Isa 54:5-8). This union produces so many children that they cannot fit in the old borders of Israel (Isa 49:18-21). The kings of the earth give up Zion’s children and bow to her (Isa 49:22-23). Her children are righteous, prosperous, and safe forever (Isa 54:11-17). They multiply like Abraham’s children (Isa 51:2), and the land is as fruitful as Eden, which leads to worship and gratitude to the Lord (Isa 51:3). The Lord’s word produces fruit according to His good plan (Isa 55:10-11). Blessings depicted as water, bread, wine, milk, and rich food are available for free in David’s kingdom (Isa 55:1-3).

The servant’s work causes the kingdom of God to spread throughout the world. The nations find the Lord’s instruction, justice, and salvation (Isa 49:6-7, 51:4-5). The servant receives the promises of David, and gathers the nations into his kingdom and instruction (Isa 55:3-5). “Your God reigns!… all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (Isa 52:7, 10). The curse is undone, and creation glorifies God as it was always meant to (Isa 55:12-13).

Significance for Ethics

I think the next post will be a better time to discuss the direct relevance of the Kingdom of God to modern ethics. For now, I just want to note what is involved in the blessed life that man was always intended to live. When the command of Genesis 1:28 was given, there was only one family in the world. Multiplication was in the context of this one family, and subduing the earth meant working the ground and ruling the animals. These responsibilities of man remain, but the world is more complicated now.

As seen in this Isaiah passage, the purpose of a kingdom is to provide security and justice to its people. This is necessary because there are sinners inside and outside of the kingdom. Sin works against man’s mission, and good government gives some protection against this. Another thing to consider in light of sin is that obedience to God may look fruitless in this life because of oppression and injustice, but it ultimately leads to the only lasting fruit. A brief message to expansionist empires trying to fill the earth and subdue it: you will be accountable to God if you do this by unlawfully killing, stealing, and destroying. Finally, in a world where morality is disputed, men need to be instructed by God.

Stay tuned to see how Isaiah’s prophecies are fulfilled in the New Testament, and what it all means for you.

The Penultimate End of Man, Part 2

I am God almighty. Live in My presence and be blameless. I will establish my covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you greatly… As for Me, My covenant is with you: you will become the father of many nations. Your name will no longer be Abram, but your name will be Abraham, for I will make you the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful and will make nations and kings come from you. I will keep My covenant between Me and you, and your future offspring throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant to be your God and the God of your offspring after you. And to you and your future offspring I will give the land where you are residing– all the land of Canaan– as an eternal possession, and I will be their God.

Gen 17:1-8, HCSB

As discussed in The Penultimate End of Man, Part 1, man was made to glorify God by working and raising kids. In a fallen world, people still work and raise kids, but there is something wrong with the way they do these things, so that they do not rightly glorify God and spread his kingdom. Outside of covenant with God, men build the city of man. When work is not done with justice, the world is subdued for Satan instead of God.

Through Abraham, God begins again to build His kingdom on Earth, and this time the mission will not get derailed. God’s kingdom is established by a covenant, received by Abraham’s faith (Gen 15:6), and demonstrated in circumcision (Gen 17:11) and justice (Gen 18:19). The blessings promised to Abraham are that he will multiply, fill the land of Canaan, and rule over it, and thereby bless every family in the world. The covenent and its blessing is passed to Isaac, then to Jacob, then to the nation of Israel, then through David to Jesus; and through Him it is passed to everyone who has faith like Abraham. This post is an overview of how God’s kingdom is built by faithful (but flawed) people working and raising godly children.

Abraham’s Family

Abraham is to become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him so that he will command his children and his house after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. This is how the Lord will fulfill to Abraham what He promised him.

Gen 18:18-19

Abraham is a rich and powerful man who obeys God, and his greatest achievement is raising a son. Without a son, he would not care for anything else in the world God could give him (Gen 15:2). God creates a new people through the miraculous birth of Isaac. Abraham teaches Isaac to trust God, circumcizes him into the covenant, and leaves him a large inheritance. Isaac is blessed because of Abraham’s obedience (Gen 26:5). The purpose of Abraham’s military power is to protect his family and their possessions (Gen14:14-16).

One of the greatest demonstrations of Abraham’s faith is the way he goes about finding Isaac a wife. If Isaac marries a Canaanite he will likely be corrupted, but it is also unacceptable for Isaac to leave Canaan. So Abraham is confident that the Lord will give success to a servant sent on a nearly impossible mission to bring a woman from Abraham’s family to Isaac. By the rules Abraham sets up (Gen 24:2-8), if this servant fails, then Isaac will never get married, and what will come of God’s promises? So the Lord gives the servant success in his mission to bring Rebekah to Isaac.

Isaac sows and reaps, digs wells, and keeps livestock. Abraham had left his whole inheritance to Isaac because of God’s promise, but Isaac does not have this attitude when God chooses Jacob from the womb. Esau falls into the trap of marrying Canaanites, and Jacob has to flee Canaan. This seems to go against all of Abraham’s wishes, but through God’s blessing and 20 years of hard labor, Jacob comes back to Canaan with a large and prosperous family. The rest of Genesis describes how they multiply to 70 people, survive a famine because of Joseph’s work, and are given their own land in Egypt.

Israel

But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

Exod 1:7

Like Jacob, the Israelites take refuge outside of Canaan while they multiply. They pass the knowledge of God and his promises down to their children until the time comes for God to bring them back to their land. As slaves they are generally kept alive because of their labor, and even while Egypt kills their sons God makes them continue to multiply. When they leave Egypt, there is a shortage of faith, so God spends 40 years raising the next generation Himself, giving them food, water, discipline, and guidance.

The Lord gives each family in Israel (except the tribe of Levi) land. Each family would work their own land to provide for the family’s needs, and they would pass the land down to their descendents forever. They are called to teach their children to obey God and worship Him. Military force is often necessary to defend the land. The Old Testament wisdom literature gives instruction for being productive. Some of the produce grown on a family’s land would help take care of widows, orphans, immigrants, and Levites.

God’s promise to bless and multiply Israel is conditioned on them 1. loving Him and 2. treating their neighbor fairly. The Levites also work and raise children, for the purpose of leading the people to worship and obey God, and to receive His peace and forgiveness through sacrifices. This work preserves the nation, and the Levites are preserved by the nation’s offerings. In the end, idolatry and injustice bring God’s curses, which are the opposite of the blessings promised to Abraham.

The Church

So the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:7

Though the New Testament adds new meaning to the household, it does not forget the mission given to Adam, Noah, and Abraham. A concept taught sometimes in the Old Testament and more frequently in the New Testament is that marriage, fatherhood, and motherhood are pictures of God’s relationship to His covenant people. We are to perform our household roles not only for for the good of our family and to raise godly children, but also to give a picture of spiritual truths.

In the new covenant, God’s people multiply and bear fruit by the labor of preaching of the gospel. Paul, a single man, is more fruitful than many families, taking the roles of both mother and father to his young churches (1 Thess 2:7-12). The Spirit produces “fruit” in us as He sanctifies us (Gal 5:22-23). Jesus is appointed ruler over the earth, and we make his rule visible as we teach the world to obey him (Matt 28:18-20). Those who are spiritually circumcized by putting off the flesh (Col 2:11) are counted as sons of Abraham because they belong to Jesus (Gal 3:29) and share Abraham’s faith (Gal 3:6-7).

Obeying Jesus, for most Chistians, involves managing a household, physically working, showing hospitality, and raising children. Much of the ethical teaching in the New Testament revolves around these, because they are the basic good endeavors of humans. The household is the context where human needs are normally met, and most young Christians should plan to get married (1 Tim 5:14). Managing a household well can prepare a man to manage the household of God (1 Tim 3:4-5, 15).

Managing our own household is the bare minimum ethic, but Christians are also concerned with one another and with the world. Work and family are not our ultimate goal, but they are inherently good things that can also be used for the good of the church and the world. A stable household can be hospitable, share with widows and orphans, and preach the gospel. And it is the place where the next generation of Christians is taught to worship God, work, raise children, and preach the gospel.