Forward and Backward

These are interesting times. Last Monday and Tuesday I was out of town, part of a departmental review committee at another University. Wednesday, seeing the writing on the wall, I spent half of my class introducing my students to our video conferencing software. By Thursday classes were canceled and effective yesterday everything at our University was moved online. I even gave my regularly scheduled midterm last night – but in a somewhat different format, with my students scattered across the country. (We were asked to stick with the regular schedules as much as possible so students wouldn’t have scheduling conflicts.)

We are not the only ones affected, of course. Churches look to online services, which seemed to work relatively well last weekend. It is strange to lecture or to preach to cameras instead of faces.

It is probably no surprise that I haven’t had time to dig deeper into Ben Witherington’s book (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) for a new post today. Instead I though I’d repeat a post from several years ago from Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture, his chapter on Jesus and Isaiah.

Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_Emaus dsLuke 24 relates a story immediately following the resurrection account (image):

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them … He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (v. 13-15, 25-27)

The Scriptures Jesus explained were in the writings we refer to as the Old Testament. The Old Testament Scriptures provide the context for understanding Jesus as Messiah. The disciples needed to be able to read these Scriptures in a new light. But what does this mean? What did Jesus tell his disciples? Walter Moberly digs into this issue focusing on Isaiah, but touching on other prophets as well.

The nature of prophecy. Many (most?) Christians have a rather distorted view of the role of prophecy in the Old Testament. There is no “Bible code” with messages foretelling specific events in the future. Prophetic speech in the Old Testament takes several forms – but this isn’t one.

Classical prophetic speech is a “moral and spiritual challenge that seeks response.” The prophet is focused on the present situation. “Correspondingly, the future is seen to be contingent in relation to the response given: God can take into account people’s responsiveness and not carry out the prophet’s warning or promise if the circumstances have changed.” (p. 147) Although Christians often take Deuteronomy 18:22 and Jeremiah 28:9 as proof texts for the accuracy of prophecy, these do not undercut this contingency. Jeremiah is facing a specific situation: As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet. Moses speaks of the future of Israel, but the curses and blessings of Moses himself were contingent on the responsiveness of the people.

This isn’t to completely deny the affirmation of specific events in the Old Testament, especially in the histories where subsequent events are said to “fulfill the words of the Lord.” Moberly points to Ahijah’s words to Jeroboam as an example (1 Kings 11:29-40, 12:15). “The fulfillment of the divine word within the course of human history is an important motif.” (p. 148) Of course the fulfillment here is not in some far off future, but in the lifetime of at least some of the persons involved.

Apocalyptic literature provides an outgrowth of prophecy. The visions in Daniel provide an example of the apocalyptic. The nature of apocalyptic literature is worth some discussion, but would sidetrack the main point – Isaiah and Jesus.

Isaiah is classical prophecy, a moral and spiritual challenge that seeks a response. As such it is grounded primarily in the contexts in which it was written. The Immanuel prophecy of 7:14 isn’t looking to the distant future but to immediate events. “Within the world of the text, the Jesus of the Gospels is not envisioned.” This is true of other key passages as well. But this doesn’t remove the Christological significance from the passage. There can be layers of meaning drawn from the text beyond the obvious first reading located in the original context. Later knowledge can change our reading of the older text. Moberly quotes David Steinmetz: “But I do not have to believe that Second Isaiah had an explicit knowledge of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth to believe that he was part of a larger narrative that finds its final, though not its sole, meaning in Christ.” (p. 160)

This idea of layers of meaning is consistent with the way that New Testament authors use the Prophets. Matthew can truly claim that the birth of Jesus fulfills Isaiah 7:14 (Mt. 1:22-23) and that the side trip to Egypt fulfilled the words of Hosea in 11:1 “Out of Egypt I called my Son” despite the fact that Hosea is not making a prediction about some future individual. The triumphal entry fulfills Zechariah 9:9 although the prophet was speaking to current conditions not a distant future. Jesus is the center of a larger narrative that fulfills the sweep of Scripture. He is the faithful seed of Abraham, the faithful Israelite, the longed for faithful Davidic king who sets everything to rights – although in a far different manner than ever envisioned.

So what about Jesus and Isaiah? Moberly begins with Mary’s Magnificat. In Mary’s yet unborn son God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, exalted the lowly, filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty. The themes of exaltation and abasement run through Isaiah. Isaiah 2 is clear on this point. YHWH alone is exalted. The proud and haughty will be brought low. “The appeal is to “turn away from mortals” to cease to trust in human attempts at exaltation rather than walking in YHWH’s way.” And then: “The elevated mountain of the temple brings justice and peace for all under God. The exalted things that humans esteem and create lead to idolatrous priorities that issue in ultimate fear and debasement.” (p. 168) Among humans, those who are “humble and contrite in spirit” will be sought.

The faithful Davidic King and servant of YHWH continue the theme. The royal king of Isaiah 9:2-7 is “appropriately sharing in YHWH’s exaltation because of his practice of YHWH’s qualities.” (p. 173) He will establish and uphold the kingdom with justice and with righteousness. Justice and righteousness are divine qualities deserving of divine epithets … Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. In the servant of YHWH in 52:13-53:12 the theme recurs. Despised and rejected by men and yet “He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted.”

The servant is a supreme exemplar of motifs associated with exaltation and with what is required for exaltation, motifs in Isaiah as whole. Greatness, as symbolized by exaltation, whether it be for Zion as a whole, or for particular figures, is consistently construed by Isaiah in the moral and spiritual terms of faithfulness to God’s revealed will and the rejection of self-aggrandizement. (p. 175)

These themes resonate with the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament … and with his words recorded in the Gospels. “Indeed, the idea of inverting usual priorities of exaltation and superiority lies at the very heart of Jesus’s teaching, not least with regard to his own mission and practice.” (p. 175-176) Matthew 23:12, Luke 14:11, 18:14, Mark 8:35, 9:35, 10:43-45, and most importantly the cross as a place of exaltation and glorification in John 12:32-33, 13:31-32. We could easily come up with more examples to flesh this out – John 13:1-17 for example. Paul repeats the theme in what may well be a very early hymn of the church, Philippians 2:5-11. Christ took on the nature of a servant and was exalted to the highest place.

The vision of “the day of YHWH” in Isaiah finds its meaning for Christians in Christ. Moberly concludes the chapter:

For Christians it is the coming of Jesus, supremely in his death and resurrection, which constitutes that which is final – not in the sense that history does not continue, but in the sense that God has definitively revealed and enacted His judgment on the world. This judgment is such that, at any subsequent point in this world or beyond, that which is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus remains the ultimate yardstick by which human aspiration and endeavor is measured by God and either affirmed or found wanting. …

It thus becomes appropriate to see the self-revelation of God in Jesus as the supreme realization of Isaiah’s vision of “the day of YHWH.” This is one way of approaching John’s understanding of Jesus as the human face of God, such that Isaiah “saw his glory and spoke about him” (John 12:41). This is not what is envisioned in Isaiah’s own frame of reference. But this is how his subject matter can be understood and appropriated when his words are recontextualized as part of Christian Scripture. (p. 179)

The power of Isaiah in resonance with Jesus is not in a few apologetic proofs. That Isaiah did (or more likely did not) predict the virgin birth is neither here nor there. Although I am sure that there are aspects of Moberly’s view worthy of spirited discussion, the overall theme is important. Jesus is the fulfillment of the overarching themes and sweep of Scripture. This isn’t as easy as some simple check boxes or proof texts, but I find it far more deeply satisfying and convincing.

How do we see Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets?

What does it mean to read the Prophets, especially Isaiah, as Christian Scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

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