The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 Book Analysis & Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology

Mitch Glaser and Darrell Bock team up with nine other top scholars in their respective fields of study to examine and present a variety of ways in which Isaiah 53 has been and should be interpreted by both Jews and Christians, and also how to appropriately use this essential chapter of Scripture today in preaching, teaching, and evangelistic occasions. Glaser, President of Chosen People Ministries asserts, “The Bible is the inspired Word of God and Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel – and the simple message of His death and resurrection has the power to transform the lives of both Jews and Gentiles.”[1] Bock, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary[2] also contributes considerable insight on Isaiah 53’s use in Luke’s accounts, to show that, “His death was a ransom for sin, [which] connects Jesus to all of us, potentially and actually.”[3] This book analysis is written in light of the entire text, but will focus primarily on chapters one, three, and four through six, which reveal how Isaiah 53 was essentially, “God pulling aside the curtain of time to let the people of Isaiah’s day look ahead to the suffering of the future Messiah and the resulting forgiveness made available to all people.”[4] The main objective of this analysis will detail the relationship between the Messiah and the Servant presented in Isaiah, and in the New Testament, and will also examine several key passages and their interpretive issues.

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MESSIAH AND THE SERVANT IN ISAIAH

Two of the key questions Michael Wilkins poses are: “Did Jesus see Himself as the prophesied servant in Isaiah 53 and how did the early church understand Jesus’ life and ministry in the light of Isaiah’s prophecy?”[5] After the baptism and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, He returns to His hometown of Nazareth and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, where He reads Isaiah 61 from the scroll and declares, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:20b). This act would be the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, yet even in His hometown, the people drove Him out and went as far as trying to throw Him down a cliff. It should be no surprise that some people today struggle with identifying Jesus as the Messiah when even His own disciples did not understand when He spoke of His own death and resurrection. Part of the confusion is rooted in the enigma of the corporate and individual servant spoken of throughout the book of Isaiah. Wilkins explains, “The people of Israel understood that God was using them as a people to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah, yet the prophecies of the servant vary in that some allude to a corporate entity, and some allude to a single individual.”[6] In Isaiah 41:8, Israel as a nation is clearly in mind as being the servant of the Lord because God had given them a place of honor and esteem so that they might be a witness to the other nations of God’s blessing. Gary Yates explains, “In the Mosaic Law, God told them that they would become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. In other words, they would mediate God’s presence and blessings to all the nations on the earth.”[7] However, the problem was that Israel, as a nation, had failed in its mission and as a result had become a blind and deaf servant (Isaiah 42:18-25). As John Oswalt demonstrates, “Verse 7 said that the Servant of the Lord would lead the blind and imprisoned out into the light, [so Oswalt rightly asserts] that this Servant could not be the nation Israel, even though in other places (Isaiah 41:8; 43:10) the nation is clearly identified as the servant of the Lord.”[8] Instead of leading the people of other nations to Yahweh, the people of Israel often did the exact opposite by worshipping the false gods of other nations. In the midst of this apostasy, Isaiah promises that God would provide a solution to the problem, which was the raising up of an individual Servant who would restore the national/corporate servant. Another example of this individual and corporate servant paradigm is found in Isaiah 49:3, which first depicts Israel as the servant, but then in verse six, the Servant is an individual who has a ministry to Israel. It is this individual Servant who is going to be the one who restores the national servant.

KEY PASSAGES AND INTERPRETIVE ISSUES

As Christians, it can be very easy to read chapters of Scripture like Isaiah 53 and immediately identify the Servant of the Lord or the Suffering Servant as being Jesus Christ. However, this is problematic, especially when looking at the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. In this passage, the Servant is rejected and dies for the sins of others and Yates reveals how this action highlights four differences: (1) Israel suffers for its own sin, while the individual Servant suffers for the sins of others; (2) Israel fails in its mission, as a blind and deaf servant, but the individual Servant fulfills His mission faithfully and in spite of intense persecution; (3) Israel suffers at the hands of the surrounding nations, yet the individual Servant suffers at the hands of His own people; and (4) Israel complains in its own suffering that God has abandoned and rejected her, but the individual Servant trusts God completely and suffers without ever complaining.[9]

One of the ongoing debates Richard Averbeck discusses is the suffering, sacrifice, and atonement presented in Isaiah 53:10. The main question contested is if Isaiah had in mind a vicarious, sacrificial substitution to make atonement for sin, but what Averbeck says with certainty is, “The main historical issue being dealt with was the restoration of Israel to its land and to its function as God’s servant.”[10] This conclusion fits both a prophetic perspective as well as a real-time context, such as the Babylonian captivity. Averbeck also provides clear insight on the context of ‏אָשָׁם or ʾāšām to mean guilt offering and concludes, “From Isaiah’s point of view, the suffering of the Isaiah 53 Servant was as essential to the restoration of the exiled people back to their Promised Land as the guilt offering was for the restoration of the skin-diseased person to the community.”[11] The shift in third person to first person references is another valuable contribution Averbeck highlights, in addition to the prophet who wrote this adding himself among the “we, us, our” audience. This further advances the argument that Isaiah was not the suffering servant, since as Averbeck shows, “The writer is a recipient of the Suffering Servant’s ministry and is not to be identified as the Servant Himself.”[12]

PORTRAYAL OF SERVANT IN ISAIAH AND IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

Upon addressing both the corporate and individual identity of the servant, Wilkins addresses the paradox of “How could this passive, sheep-like individual be the mighty arm of the Lord (cf. Isa. 51:9; 53:1) that Israel understood herself to be as God’s servant in His plan of salvation and how could He be exalted and yet despised?”[13] Matthew’s perspective on Jesus as the servant in Isaiah 53 is quite profound, and Wilkins shows how he divides Jesus’ ministry into five clear stages: Jesus’s Infancy – Divine Nazarene, Jesus’ Baptism – Righteous Son, Jesus’ Earthly Ministry – Healing Servant, Jesus’ Passion Ministry – Blood Ransom, and Jesus’ Burial and Resurrection – Transforming Master.[14] Ultimately, the Son of Man came to serve and not be served, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). In this passage, R. T. France explains, “Jesus’ belief that He ‘must’ suffer and die may be attributed most plausibly to that OT background, and here the language brings us significantly closer to Isaiah 53. It would be hard to compose a better brief summary of the central thrust of Isaiah 53 than ‘to give His life as a ransom in place of many.’”[15] Mark 10:45 is identical to Matthew’s account and William Lane shows how, “The specific thought underlying the reference to the ransom is expressed in Isaiah 53:10 which speaks of ‘making His life an offering for sin. Jesus, as the Messianic Servant, offers Himself as a guilt offering (Lev. 5:14-6:7; 7:1-7; Num. 5:5-8) in compensation for the sins of the people.”[16] These passages back up Wilkins’ findings that, “The early church applied to Jesus the prophecies of Isaiah 53, in an attempt to understand His crucifixion and death [and] Jesus’ own understanding of His mission and death in the light of Isaiah 53 was clearly the root of the early church’s understanding.”[17]

While the New Testament quotes or alludes to Isaiah 53 more than a dozen times, Darrell Bock offers considerable insight into one of the most revealing occurrences in Acts 8:26-40 as Philip is directed by the Spirit to an Ethiopian eunuch who was traveling on the Jerusalem-to-Gaza road. During this encounter, the eunuch asks Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about Himself or about someone else?” Here, F. F. Bruce illuminates that, “During a time when not one line of any New Testament document had been written, what Scripture could any evangelist have used more fittingly as a starting point for presenting the story of Jesus to one who did not know Him? It was Jesus, and no other, who offered up His life as a sacrifice for sin, and justified many by bearing their iniquities, as the obedient Servant.”[18] As Bock demonstrates by the eunuch’s actions, there is much that can be learned and gained, but most importantly is how, “[Jesus was] unjustly humiliated and He took our place so we can experience cleansing and new life with God, something God showed that Jesus had done by raising Jesus from the dead and taking Jesus to His side in heaven.”[19] This passage of Scripture beautifully contrasts Jesus’s silent humiliation and unjust crucifixion with God’s vindication and resurrection of the suffering Servant, which Bock concludes, “Was actually part of God’s divine work to pay a price, even for those who had rejected Him.”[20]

Craig Evans then offers substantial insight on the theologies of Peter, Paul, John, and the author of Hebrews. Between these epistles, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is quoted or alluded to nearly twenty times. Evan’s section on Hebrews seemed the most insightful, considering this sermon/homily was most likely written to a group of Jewish Christians who were considering going back to Judaism. In Hebrews 9:26, Evans states, “The death of Jesus constitutes a sacrifice on behalf of humanity that need never be repeated, and as heavenly High Priest, who mediates the new covenant, the benefits that Jesus bestows on humanity only continues to grow.”[21] Interacting with the theologies of Peter, Paul, Hebrews, and John demonstrates the suffering and death further proves Jesus was the Messiah, and that all the prophecies are fulfilled in Scripture. Evans closes this section by illuminating, “What is especially intriguing is that the famous Suffering Servant hymn apparently lay at the heart of an evangelism and apologetic primarily intended for the synagogue.”[22] Ironically, it would be the synagogues that would be visited by Jesus, the disciples, and the apostle Paul to spread the life-saving gospel message.

CONCLUSION

The message of Isaiah 53, when illuminated by the rest of Scripture, reveals that the promised Messiah, the suffering Servant is one and the same individual. Only Jesus Christ fulfills both of these roles as He rules and reigns forever, as a result of His perfect faith and trust in God and His suffering and ultimate sacrifice, which saved His people and became a ransom for many. The idea of the Servant of the Lord is indeed a complex idea because in Isaiah this entity is depicted as both the nation of Israel and as an individual Servant who suffers and dies to restore God’s people. After Israel’s failure to be a light to the other nations, they became a blind and deaf servant, but the individual suffering Servant, the Messiah, arose out of this corporate failure and was empowered by God and attains great victories in the power of the Lord and has made a way, as Bock describes, to, “Clear the way to remove guilt and defilement and provide the gift of life through the Spirit of God by removing the obstacle that sin generates between people and God. [However,] the application of that removal requires that we accept the gift of God’s work through Jesus, asking that His forgiveness be applied specifically to us.”[23]

The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 is well suited for anyone interested in discovering and viewing the Suffering Servant’s identity and role through the individual lenses of the Old and New Testament and then through the combined lens of all Scripture. This scholarly work should stand the test of time and have great impact amongst both the Jewish and Christian community.

The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology. By Richard E. Averbeck, Michael L. Brown, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Michael J. Wilkins, Darrell L. Bock, Craig A. Evans, David L. Allen, Robert B. Chisholm Jr., John S. Feinberg, Mitch Glaser, and Donald R. Sunukjian. Edited by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012, 334 pp. $27.99 (Paperback).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bock, Darrell L. and Mitch Glaser, eds. The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012.

Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988.

Dallas Theological Seminary Website. “Darrell L. Bock.” http://www.dts.edu/about/faculty/dbock/ (accessed August 11, 2017).

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.

Glaser, Mitch. “President’s Introduction.” Chosen People Website. https://www.chosenpeople.com/site/our-mission/presidents-introduction/ (accessed, August 11, 2017).

Grogan, Geoffrey W. Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986.

Lane, William L. The Gospel of Mark. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974.

LaSor, William S., David A. Hubbard, and Frederic W. Bush. Old Testament Survey. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Life Application Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988.

Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

________. The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

Webb, Barry G. The Message of Isaiah. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Yates, Gary. “The Servant of the Lord in Isaiah.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Seven Video Presentation, 12:26, (accessed August 14, 2017).

[1] Mitch Glaser, “President’s Introduction,” Chosen People Website, https://www.chosenpeople.com/site/our-mission/presidents-introduction/ (accessed, August 11, 2017).

[2] Dallas Theological Seminary Website, “Darrell L. Bock,” http://www.dts.edu/about/faculty/dbock/ (accessed August 11, 2017).

[3] Darrell L. Bock, “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 143.

[4] Life Application Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988), 1176.

[5] Michael J. Wilkins, “Isaiah 53 and the Message of Salvation in the Gospels,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 109.

[6] Ibid., 110.

[7] Gary Yates, “The Servant of the Lord in Isaiah,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Seven Video Presentation, 12:26, (accessed August 14, 2017).

[8] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 130.

[9] Yates, “The Servant of the Lord in Isaiah.”

[10] Richard E. Averbeck, “Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 53.

[11] Ibid., 59.

[12] Averbeck, “Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53,” 60.

[13] Wilkins, “Isaiah 53 and the Message of Salvation in the Gospels,” 111.

[14] Ibid., 115.

[15] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 761.

[16] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 383.

[17] Wilkins, “Isaiah 53 and the Message of Salvation in the Gospels,” 131.

[18] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 176.

[19] Bock, “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8,” 144.

[20] Bock, “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8,” 143.

[21] Craig A. Evans, “Isaiah 53 in the Letters of Peter, Paul, Hebrews, and John,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 162.

[22] Ibid., 170.

[23] Bock, “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8,” 143.

Hezekiah’s Response to Death & Threat of Assyrian Siege Warfare: Isaiah 38:1-22

God is faithful

It is amazing the vast difference that exists between two people, when one of them puts their hope, faith, and trust in God and the other one wants nothing to do with the Lord. This was the scenario played out in the book of Isaiah as King Ahaz did not have a relationship with the Lord, therefore, he did not trust Him. As a result, when Israel formed an alliance with Syria to attack Judah, king Ahaz decided to place his trust in man (the king of Assyria) and military alliances and while it may have spared Judah from the immediate threat of attack, it would ultimately invite disaster upon Judah in the future. However, his son, king Hezekiah did have a good relationship with the Lord and he was used mightily by God to bring protection and blessing on the kingdom of Judah. In Isaiah 38:1-22, we find ourselves in the middle of Hezekiah’s narrative. Prior to this chapter, the nation of Assyria who had made an alliance with king Ahaz was now attacking Judah, the very nation they vowed to protect, so it seems the sins of the father were attempting to visit the son, but king Hezekiah did not do what his father would have done. Instead of turning to man or alliances in the presence of danger, he turned to God in faith and prayer, despite the immense fear he and his people were experiencing, especially at the prospect of siege warfare, which could last for months or even years. In a letter, the Assyrians demanded the complete and unconditional surrender of the city of Jerusalem, so Hezekiah takes this letter before God and asks the Lord to deliver them. As a result of this faith and prayer, the Lord instructs Isaiah to go before Hezekiah to deliver a “fear not” message and that God would give Hezekiah a sign that his message was received loud and clear and that the Lord had the situation under control. That evening, the angel of the Lord swept throughout Sennacherib’s encampment killing 180,000 soldiers without a single arrow being fired into the city of Jerusalem.

Understanding how and why the narratives of king Ahaz and king Hezekiah compare and contrast each other is very important to understanding the overall message of the book of Isaiah. On the heels of Judah’s miraculous deliverance in chapter 37, chapter 38 presents Hezekiah with a fatal illness and the Lord instructs Isaiah in v. 1 to go and tell Hezekiah he better get his affairs in order “for you shall die, you shall not recover, thus says the LORD” (Isaiah 38:1).

***I do not know about you, but I would be thinking, “Well dang! I thought we really had something good going here God. Am I missing something or did I do something wrong?”***

EXPLANATION OF PASSAGE

After king Hezekiah receives this word from the Lord, his reaction reveals his true character. See, Hezekiah was an honorable man, he was determined to do good in the eyes of the Lord, he followed, trusted, and obeyed the Lord and because of that, the Lord blessed and honored Him in return. In our trials or dire circumstances, character is developed and God uses these tests to teach us patience, endurance, and faith. In fact, trials not only teach character; they also reveal it. With Ahaz and Hezekiah, their decisions and outcomes either revealed a close relationship with God, or a lack of one. The key difference between Ahaz and Hezekiah was when disaster struck, Ahaz put his faith in man and brought judgment and destruction on Judah, but Hezekiah put his trust in God and brought salvation and deliverance to Judah.

***Question: “How can these two men who were father and son be so different?”***

***Answer: “Their response to the crisis was rooted in the type of person they were before it.***

It is impossible to trust God when you do not have a relationship with Him, but Hezekiah did, so lets look at how he would respond to this sudden diagnosis of impending death. The first thing he does is pray and in this prayer he reminds the Lord of three things: his faithful walk, his loyal heart, and his righteous behavior. Being the son of Ahaz, who was one of the wickedest kings, going as far to even offer his own son, as a sacrifice to false gods seems to demonstrate just how far Hezekiah had fallen from the proverbial tree. Our relationship with God provides us with a stable foundation to believe in His promises, especially during difficult seasons. Barry Webb explains, “This serious illness Hezekiah faced was the crisis behind the crisis, which brings each of us face to face with our own mortality, and can put our trust in God on a razor’s edge.”[1] After praying, Hezekiah wept bitterly, submitting his life to God’s will and the Lord answers his prayer immediately, sending Isaiah with a second message that promised two things: God would heal him and add fifteen years to his life and God would deliver him and Jerusalem from Assyria, for God’s honor and David’s sake. John Oswalt believes Hezekiah’s recovery, “Was not merely because God has changed his mind but because of his willingness to keep faith with those to whom he has committed himself in the past. There is no limit to the effect of a faithful life. Although the sins of a person may affect future generations, the results of a person’s faithfulness will reach to a thousand generations.”[2] It is through our prayers, God says He will deliver us and since God never changes, much can be learned about His nature from Scripture.

It is interesting to note here that the Lord would offer a sign, in much the same way He did for king Ahaz, but Ahaz would refuse the Lord’s sign when one was offered because he did not have a relationship with God. However, to ensure Hezekiah of his healing, the Lord would move the shadow back ten degrees on the sundial (2 Kings 20:8). While there is some debate as to whether Hezekiah’s healing predates the attack of Assyria in chapter 37, what is assured is no king of Assyria would ever capture Jerusalem.

APPLICATION AND THEOLOGICAL ISSUES

Just as Hezekiah and Ahaz both received “fear not” messages, the same promises found in God’s Word applies to the church today. Later in Isaiah, (Isaiah 41:10, 14; 43:1-7) the prophet speaks of a future exile coming, but even in spite of what that would mean, God promised to watch over His children, to rescue them, and to bring them home. As followers of Christ, we need to know how we are going to respond to the “fear not” circumstances and trials of our life. Are we going to put our hope, faith, and trust in man, or will we be like Hezekiah and trust in God’s promises.

***The driving question: “How do we respond when God says ‘Fear not?’”

***Our answer will reveal if the Lord is truly our all-in-all and ever present help in time of need.

John 16:33: “Fear not, for I have overcome the world.”

When Hezekiah was on his deathbed, he had become depressed because it felt as though his very life was being robbed from him. Upon this realization, he began to contemplate never again being able to worship the Lord or enjoy fellowship with others. In vv. 10-13, he says he feels like a tent being taken down or a piece of cloth being cut away. He was broken in both body and spirit and in constant pain from what some scholars believe to be an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Despite his condition, he cried out to the Lord in speech and tears and he made a renewed commitment to the Lord (Matthew 23:12; Isaiah 57:15). This renewed commitment pledged to walk humbly before the Lord, to declare His healing power, to acknowledge the love of the Lord, to praise the Lord, to hope in God’s faithfulness, and to worship faithfully in the house of the Lord. These pledges and traits are what God calls each of His children to do. Our humility compels God to give life to His children, our praise and thanksgiving in the midst of trials and circumstances allows us to grow in our suffering, and our strong witness about the Lord, even in the face of death proclaims God’s faithfulness and salvation. One of the best sayings I have heard is, “Complain and you will remain, but praise and you will be raised.” As Hezekiah came to realize the miraculous work God had done in his life, he knew words could never convey his sincerest gratitude for his deliverance and Geoffrey Grogan beautifully explains, “In God, word and deed always perfectly correspond. The king has learned humility from this experience, for through it he has come to recognize that another controls the course of his life and the day of his death.”[3]
As a result of his healing, Hezekiah is moved to worship the Lord in the temple. If this account truly happened before the attack by the Assyrians, it is easy to see how much bolder he was in his prayer and petition before the Lord with the letter from the enemy demanding the complete surrender of Jerusalem. This story is reminiscent of 2 Kings 13:18 where Elisha instructs king Joash to hit the ground with his arrows, but he stops after only hitting the ground three times. Our finite understanding has a tendency to limit our thoughts and actions and this essentially puts God in a box.

***The question we must each ask ourselves is if we are going to allow our circumstances to define us, as we tell God how big our problems are, or are we going to begin telling our problems just how big our God is and that our ultimate prayer is that His will be done?***

ILLUSTRATIONS

Five years ago, I was involved in a very serious accident that nearly took my life. I was on a long-distance cycle ride and a pickup truck hit me from behind going 65mph. I broke five discs in my neck and four in my lower back. The impact separated my shoulder and rendered me unconscious. That moment in time would shape the rest of my life and it is no coincidence that was the very day I became a pastor. It was almost as if the devil was trying to take me out before I could begin my ministry. It would take over five reconstructive surgeries to put me back together again, but throughout the journey to where I find myself today, I remained faithful to the Lord, I witnessed to countless doctors, nurses, techs, and anyone else who would listen to the miracle God was doing in my life. Sure, I had to deal with constant intense pain and depression tried to overtake me as my plans to enter the military were robbed, but God had something better in store for me because I stayed humble and submitted my life to His complete will. In less than a month, I will graduate with my M.Div. and will be going into the Army as a chaplain, which is beyond what I could ever dream of. Through my suffering, God used me to touch countless lives and through my restoration, He has provided hope for many people walking a similar road to recovery. Last year, I ran over 1,300 miles, which is something the doctors said I would never be able to do again. God’s omnipotence and omniscience allows Him to heal us and know everything we need and are feeling. In some cases, God will choose to miraculously heal us, while in cases like mine; He gave me the strength to endure all the medical procedures. In the end, He receives the glory either way and even my suffering has brought me closer to the Lord and a day never goes by that I do not praise Him for the work He has done and is continuing to do in my life.

CONCLUSION

The power of prayer has no limits because there is no limit to God’s power. When we are at our weakest, the Lord is at His strongest and He is close to the brokenhearted. He calls each of us to cast our cares on Him for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. In all of our petitions, we must remain humble, faithful, and maintain an attitude of praise. God will always provide exactly what we need when we need it. In the bad, we must learn to praise and in the good, we must not forget to praise. Hezekiah trusted in the Lord and because of his faithful walk, his loyal heart, and his righteous and humble behavior, God was compelled to act. In our deepest depths of despair, Webb explains, “Such lessons are priceless, but often it is only by looking back, as Hezekiah does in the end of this chapter, that we can see how suffering has been the means God has used to teach them to us (Hebrews 12:11; Romans 8:28).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

Grogan, Geoffrey W. Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986.

Webb, Barry G. The Message of Isaiah, On Eagles Wings. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Yates, Gary. “Trusting Man vs. Trusting God: Ahaz and Hezekiah.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Five Video Presentation, 10:44, (accessed August 4, 2017).

[1] Barry G. Webb, The Message of Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 154.

[2] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 677.

[3] Geoffrey W. Grogan, Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 237.

 

Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews: Book Review

Four Views of Warning Passages in Hebrews

INTRODUCTION

Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews is the culmination of a collection of papers presented to the Hebrews Study Group during the fifty-sixth annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society during November 17-19, 2004. While the denominational orientations of the members are diverse, the group holds to two doctrinal beliefs: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs, and God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”[1] Each of the four New Testament scholars present and defend their exegetical presentations and then critique the view of their fellow contributors. Herbert Bateman asserts, “The purpose of Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews seeks to expose existing tensions and provide various ways in which four scholars with differing theological grids interpret them in the literary and historical context of Hebrews…[And] forces us to address the issue of assurance and the doctrine of eternal security.”[2] The purpose of this book critique will first be to evaluate the main arguments presented, by highlighting the strengths and weaknesses found in each view/approach. Second, one view will recognized as the best explanation, with details as to why it is the best choice. Lastly, an assessment of the book’s overall contribution to the field of study will be presented.

SUMMARY OF CONTENT AND MAIN ARGUMENTS

The book of Hebrews reads much more like an exhortation or sermon/homily, rather than as a typical New Testament letter. It seems the recipients were facing a crisis of faith and were considering going back to Judaism and abandoning their Christian beliefs. This would mean the original recipients were most likely Jewish Roman Christians, who had an extensive knowledge of the Old Testament. The book is also written as a word of encouragement for the recipients to maintain their faith in Christ. God inspired the author to not only encourage, but also to confront the people and warn them of the danger they faced if they remained immature in faith and the judgment that would result if they did not turn back to Christ. By reminding the recipients of the character and nature of Jesus, the writer/speaker encourages them to stand firm in their faith. Bateman believes, “Hebrews 5:11-6:12 is the heart of the author’s concern. Yet together the five warning messages[3] are all emotive exhortations to believers to persevere and believe, rather than distrust and disobey… The wilderness community serves as a reminder that God, in a previous era, punished those who distrusted and disobeyed Him and His messengers.”[4]

Grant Osborne maintains a Classical Arminian view, and immediately explains the six hundred year debate that has been going on, despite the agreement on the meaning of depravity: “For the Calvinist there is no hope until God sovereignly acts and on the basis of His mysterious will elects some to salvation and then overwhelms them with His irresistible grace so that they choose Christ. [However,] for the Arminian, God still acts sovereignly but He sends His Spirit Who convicts every person and overcomes their total depravity so that they make a choice.”[5] The warning passages are a key component of this debate and the audience’s apostasy is one of the few things agreed upon. Osborne asserts, “Faith is a passive surrender to God who saves us, and an opening up of ourselves to God, who works salvation in us. But it is still a free choice. This freedom then passes over into the life of sanctification.” Osborne identifies Hebrews 6 as a hinge point in his argument. The apostasy being addressed to the Roman converts was a real danger, as Osborne maintains when true believers commit an unpardonable sin, there is no possibility of repentance, but only of eternal judgment.[6] Osborne comes to this realization from an understanding of the parallel participles in Hebrew 6:4-6 to mean that true believers have fallen away and he asserts any translation that renders this passage as “if they fall away” is in error.[7]

Buist Fanning’s view on Hebrews is best classified as Classical Reformed and he believes, “It is, strictly speaking, not man but God who perseveres, [which] may be defined as that continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in the believer, by which the work of divine grace that is begun in the heart, is continued and brought to completion. It is because God never forsakes His work that believers continue to stand to the very end.”[8] Fanning identifies the book’s enigmatic character as the one thing almost everyone can agree on. He prefers to use a synthetic approach when approaching the warning passages in Hebrews, while also considering the interpretation of four or five elements or themes that they all have in common.[9] Rooted in this approach, Fanning addresses: the description of those who fall away, the nature of this fall, the consequences of the fall, the desired positive response, and encouragement to the audience about God’s faithfulness.[10] Fanning concludes, “The warnings in Hebrews about falling away and the exhortations to endure are intended to urge the readers to maintain faith in Christ’s high priestly work, not to provoke fear that they may lose their standing with, nor primarily to test the genuineness of their faith.”[11] This essentially communicates those in jeopardy of not possessing salvation never had it in the first place, meaning they were never actually true believers.

Gareth Lee Cockerill maintains a Wesleyan Arminian view and he emphasizes these, “Passages are difficult, not just because they teach that it is possible to fall away from Christ, but also because they appear to teach a falling away from which there is no return, [making these passages] not only a problem for Calvinists, but also for Wesleyans and other Christians.”[12] Cockerill and Osborne both assert it is possible, because of apostasy; to be eternally lost once being saved, but Cockerill emphasizes, “[The] writer of Hebrews is not speaking of salvation from God’s point of view, for only God knows which of the recipients of Hebrews are true believers.”[13] Cockerill also touches on the pastoral implications of the warning passages saying, “The author’s parallel encouragement continues to do for modern Christians what they did for the first hearers of this message, the warnings were not given to generate worry, but to raise concern lest one might fall, the severity of the warnings rests on the greatness of the salvation Christ brought, and they show people are either moving toward God or away from God.”[14] The last point was very insightful because the tendency is to view people as either being in or out of the kingdom of God. As Cockerill concludes, the main emphasis for pastors should not just be whether or not someone has made a decision for Christ; the focus should be on the direction of their lives. This last statement could be misconstrued; really, the focus should be on both.

Randall Gleason holds a Moderate Reformed View and points out the warnings in Hebrews has lacked consensus since the days of the early church.[15] The foundation of Gleason’s interpretation of the warning passages is rooted in Jewish history and context, and he views falling away as much more than simply acting unfaithfully. This unfaithfulness to God parallels the Israelite’s time in the wilderness where an eleven-day journey took forty years because of their attitude and lack of faith in God. By linking the spiritual condition of the intended audience to the sinful nature of the Exodus generation, Gleason presents compelling similarities in the circumstances and the judgment that would follow if the people did not turn back to Christ. Gleason concludes by asserting, “The purpose of Hebrews was to strengthen, encourage, and exhort the members of a persecuted Christian community to hold firmly to their confession of Jesus Christ rather than seek security in the old rituals of Judaism.”[16] This desire to go back to the old ways is associated with the acrostic for Ur, meaning going back to one’s usual routine.

George Guthrie offers a wonderful conclusion to this book and his beliefs closely resemble those of Buist Fanning, so he would be classified as Classical Reformed in his views on Hebrew’s warning passages. Guthrie illuminates, “The manner in which this scholarly dialogue has been conducted represents an irenic, evangelical Christianity that at once aspires to the clarification of truth and the fostering of Christian community – two goals often treated as being unrelated.”[17] Any endeavor in exegesis and hermeneutics should seek to reveal what is contained in Scripture; not what one wants to be there. By seeking to understand what Scripture truly reveals, the interpreter will have the greatest opportunity to communicate the truths of God.

ANALYSIS AND CRITIQUE OF VIEWS

It is amazing how one’s preunderstanding and preconceived notions warp the mind and limit the ability to see God’s truth fully illuminated. Each of the authors are leaders in their respective schools of theology and have contributed much to the advancement of applying God’s Word in the lives of believers today. The way this book is formatted and setup allows it to be read much like a debate with opposing views, by the other three authors, at the conclusion of each chapter. Each author is given ample space ranging from seventy-five to one hundred pages to assert their beliefs and most responses are around twenty pages. The debate seems to revolve around whether the passages are referring to regenerate Christians and the main issue being addressed is if believers can lose their salvation, if they fall away from God’s grace. On multiple occasions, this writer was able to see different views presented in a new light that did not put down another’s viewpoint. When reading or listening to opposing views, the natural reaction is to dismiss what is being said, but that was not the case with this book. Each of these sections were truly enlightening and this is the third book in the last year this writer has read in seminary where differing views were presented and responses were added at the end of each belief, so this seems to be a very successful trend when addressing core doctrinal issues. This format also adds a new level of comprehension and clarification for a wide variety of readers, from new believers, to students, to even scholars in the field. Knowing what one believes is important, but so is being able to interact with the other popular stances on a topic. What really sets this book apart from others is the professionalism each author showed their fellow contributors, even if their beliefs were in conflict. This is an area the church as a whole has been the victim of and as a result, many Christians forget there is only one team: God’s team. Doctrinally, there are surely some hills worth dying on, but many of the trivial translations of a passage have caused such strife and division in the universal church. It was truly refreshing to see these scholars interact with one another and not just point out differences, but point out areas in which there was agreement. Each of the authors were respected scholars in their denominations and while they do not necessarily speak for everyone, in this writer’s opinion, they each presented sound exegetical procedures and conclusions. Because of the complexity of reading Hebrews, it can seem confusing with the contrast of falling away, possibly forever, being juxtaposed with the superiority of Christ as High Priest, so understanding more about the author, the original recipients, and the context are vital to arriving at the most accurate interpretation of the text and what modern day application it presents for believers today.

If one author’s view seemed superior, or at least was better presented, it would be Buist Fanning’s Classical Reformed view. His synthetic approach to the text illustrates how the author includes himself when he is addressing the church and also how Christ is elevated to His High Priestly role. Fanning also does a good job when analyzing the conditional statements and the cause-to-effect relationship between protasis and apodosis. Fanning demonstrates, that not all conditionals express C/E relationships; however, “They all involve a type of contingency with a consequence, but the consequence may be an inference that can be drawn or an equivalence that may be noted, not always an effect produced by the cause denoted in the protasis.”[18] This means enduring faith is the evidence of genuine salvation, which communicates those in jeopardy of not possessing salvation never, had it in the first place, meaning they were never true believers. The priesthood of Jesus is the assurance of salvation and Fanning does a brilliant job illustrating how Christ intercedes for believers and when sinners confess their sins and turn from their wicked ways, God chooses not to remember the sins any longer. Fanning’s approach further seems most valid because it also pictures true genuine believers being able to persevere to the very end because their hope and faith is in Christ.

CONCLUSION

While each of the views of the warning passages in Hebrews had valid points, Fanning’s emphasis of Christ’s power to save over any amount of apostasy is theologically most biblical. To argue otherwise would be to say Christ is unable to forgive certain sins. Fanning raises two interesting questions: “What could cause God to call to mind again what He has pledged never to remember? And what could bring an end to forgiveness or an inheritance that is eternal? To these questions, Fanning asserts, “Why would the author express himself so strongly about God’s absolute faithfulness if human infidelity can short-circuit it, especially since this is the very thing he fears some of his readers may do.”[19] Each of the authors presented considerable insight into how to interpret the warning passages in Hebrews and this book’s contribution will be long lasting in academia and for anyone wanting to properly understand the Epistle to the Hebrews.

 Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews. By Gareth L. Cockerill, Buist M. Fanning, Randall C. Gleason, Grant R. Osborne, and George H. Guthrie. Edited by Herbert W. Bateman IV. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007, 480 pp. $29.99 (Paperback).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cockerill, Gareth L., Buist M. Fanning, Randall C. Gleason, Grant R. Osborne, and George Guthrie. Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews. Edited by Herbert W. Bateman IV. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007.

[1] Herbert W. Bateman IV ed., Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 7.

[2] Ibid., 83.

[3] Hebrews 2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; and 12:14-29

[4] Bateman IV ed., Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, 84-85.

[5] Grant R. Osborne, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 86.

[6] Osborne, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, 128.

[7] Ibid., 111-112.

[8] Buist M. Fanning, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 172-173.

[9] Ibid., 175.

[10] Ibid., 175-192.

[11] Fanning, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, 218.

[12] Gareth Lee Cockerill, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 257.

[13] Ibid., 289.

[14] Ibid., 291-292.

[15] Randall C. Gleason, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 336.

[16] Ibid., 367.

[17] George H. Guthrie, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 431.

[18] Fanning, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, 210.

[19] Fanning, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, 200.

The Explicit Gospel: Book Review

explicitgospel

Matt Chandler is a walking miracle and he is also one of the most gifted communicators whose passion is that we all would know and worship the triune God rightly, that both our minds and hearts would be full of and shaped by Him, and that we all would experience a life-transforming experience upon encountering Christ and the realization of His atoning sacrifice. Currently, Chandler serves as Lead Teaching Pastor of The Village Church in Dallas, Texas and he also is the president of Acts 29, a network of churches planting churches. Here, he brought a fresh vision to the organization, mapping out four specific hopes for its future: (1) plant churches who plant churches, (2) be known for holiness and humility, (3) become radically diverse, and (4) be serious about evangelism and conversion. Chandler has also written four other books: The Mingling of Souls, Recovering Redemption, To Live Is Christ To Die Is Gain, and Creature of the Word, which would make a great companion book to The Explicit Gospel, as it looks how the gospel impacts all the Church is and does. Chandler claims this book first examines the rich, Scripture-based beauty of a Jesus-centered church, and then provides practical steps toward forming a Jesus-centered church.[1] This reading analysis will first assess Chandler’s methodology and approach on the topic of the gospel message and will then evaluate his two vantage point supposition, which he asserts are, “Both necessary in order to begin to glimpse the size and weight of the good news, the eternity-spanning wonderment of the finished work of Christ.”[2]

SUMMARY

The Explicit Gospel reads much like a discourse to remind the reader of the importance of the gospel message, which in today’s world is being watered down and neglected in many churches, leading to people being, as Chandler coins it: “dechurched.” Chandler sets out to show, “It is a call to true Christianity, to know the gospel explicitly, and to unite the church on the amazing grounds of the good news of Jesus. It is inspired by the needs of both the overchurched and the unchurched, and bolstered by the common neglect of the explicit gospel within Christianity.”[3] This indeed is a valiant endeavor; one in which he breaks down into three parts. The first part is called “The Gospel on the Ground,” which “Traces the biblical narrative of God, man, Christ, [and the human] response. [It is here] we will see the power of grace for human transformation, beginning with God’s needless self-sufficiency and culminating in a sinner’s Spirit-abled response to the good news.”[4] Part two then looks at “The Gospel in the Air,” which evaluates how Paul synthesizes human salvation to cosmic restoration in his letter to the Romans. Ultimately, Chandler establishes there is but one gospel, but to fully comprehend it, two vantage points are needed. “The Gospel on the Ground” allows a believer to fully understand the work of the cross and how it not only captures, but also resurrects dead hearts. Then, “The Gospel in the Air” reveals how the atoning work of Christ was part of God’s plan of redemption from the beginning.

Part one begins by looking at the person of God and as Chandler explains, “The deeper we go into God’s glory, the deeper we will find ourselves in the precious work of Christ on the cross.”[5] God has chosen to reveal Himself to His children through two ways: general revelation, which is everything He has created, and special revelation, which is everything recorded in Scripture, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In this section, Chandler illuminates God’s transcendent creativity being infinite, just as He is, and while we require things to make more things, God makes something out of nothing. God knows all, He is completely self-sufficient, and He is also completely sovereign over everything. Chandler explains, “From Him and through Him and to Him are all things, [which] means the origin of everything that exists and will exist can be traced back to the hands of God and no further.”[6] Next, Chandler demonstrates humanity’s propensity to make everything about them and he paraphrases Herbert Lockyer, who said, “The Bible is for us, but it is not about us,” meaning the main purpose of Scripture is to reveal the foremost desire of God’s heart is to bring glory to His name. Humans are hardwired for worship, but what he or she chooses to worship is up to the individual. This is a slippery slope and can easily lead to idolatry if God is not kept first.

When looking at man, Chandler reveals two characteristics of God that Paul uses in Romans 11:22. The first is His loving-kindness, which most are familiar with, but the second is His severity. Chandler cautions, “Failing to note the severity of God is attempted theft of all He is due. To discount, disguise, or disbelieve what God does in response to the falling short of His glory is, in itself, falling short of His glory… All sin, then, is deserving of the severity of God, and no one is exempt from this.”[7] The justice of God demands sacrifice because there can be no forgiveness or remission of sins without the shedding of blood. Here, the Lord’s holiness is contrasted with His wrath as Chandler explains, “The chasm between heaven and hell is illustrative of the chasm between God and us. He is glorious; we are not. He is holy; we are not. He is righteous; we are not. And this chasm between God’s total perfection and our total depravity deserves the chasm of stinking, smoldering Gehenna.”[8]

Upon establishing the chasm that exists between God and His children, Chandler demonstrates Christ became the bridge back to restoring communion with the Father. However, this came at a great cost, as crucifixion was the most humiliating and painful way to die and the Romans had perfected this practice as they conquered the known world. This section does a good job pointing out, “The cross of Jesus Christ was not some surprise, not some plan B, but rather the plan known about within the Godhead since the beginning.”[9] Upon the realization that Christ died so that humanity’s sins might be forgiven and that the relationship with the Lord might be restored, a response is then required on the part of humans. Here, even a choice not to choose or accept this offer is still a choice. In Matthew 12:30 Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Faithfulness and obedience are the keys in a proper response and it was truly enlightening and a little frightening to read that eighty-five percent of the Old Testament contains language saying either, “I am destroying you” or “I am going to destroy you.”[10] The response of faith is the only thing that will overcome the fallen and rebellious nature of humanity and the gospel demands a response. One of the primary things that stands in the way of a response of faith is a hardened heart and this is demonstrated throughout Scripture, but as Chandler states, “No heart can ever be too hard for God, [so we must] live through faith, and die through faith. Everything else is garbage. Even works of righteousness, if not done through faith, are works of self-righteousness and therefore filthy rags.”[11]

Part two looks to “The Gospel in the Air” and begins with the creation account or general revelation. Chandler speaks to a variety of scientific theories and emphasizes that “The context of the gospel message is not our benefit or our salvation; the context of the gospel is the supremacy of Christ and the glory of God.”[12] Creation and nature are essential means by which God has chosen to reveal Himself to the world and over the course of history science has been used to prove and disprove the existence of God. Scripture has also come under scrutiny, but Chandler rightly explains, “The aim of the Scriptures is to direct our worship to the one true God of the universe, and the universe itself is designed not to occupy our worship but to stir our heart of hearts to behold its God.”[13]

The fall of man introduced sin into the world and R. C. Sproul defines sin as cosmic treason. While we were created in the image of God and were meant to bring glory to Him, original sin has corrupted and defiled everyone. Adam and Eve’s sin has, as Chandler puts it, “Created a shalom-shaped hole in our hearts, and no matter how much we throw in there, and no matter how long we try filling it, nothing will satisfy but [Jehovah Shalom.]”[14] As each person searches for love, happiness, meaning, and belonging, if they are not looking to find these in God, they will never be fulfilled. Only when reconciliation happens with God and Christ is put first in a believer’s life will the worship of the Creator supersede the worship of creation. When Christ reconciles a believer, Chandler states, “We are no longer enemies of God and we are reconciled to reconcile.”[15] This means being a part of the universal church and allowing the explicit gospel to transform our vision and mission of the church. When this happens, evangelism and discipleship will become priorities and not something that just randomly happens because as Chandler states, “The single most loving act we can do is share the good news of Jesus Christ, that God saves sinners.”[16]

In part three, Chandler provides some wonderful implications and applications, and illustrates, “When we look at the “Gospel from the Air,” through the grand narrative of the Scriptures, we see that the gospel is not just about God’s forgiving us of sins and giving us eternal life, but also about what we are being forgiven for and what eternal life is like.”[17] Some dangers that must be watched for in a “Gospel on the Ground” too long approach are: missing God’s grand mission, having a singular rationalized faith, and having a self-centered gospel. Each of these is a slippery slope and must be guarded against. Some dangers in a “Gospel in the Air” too long approach are: syncretism, a Christless gospel, culture as an idol, and abandoning evangelism. When dealing with moralism and the cross, Chandler talks about the weapons of grace at our disposal. “The first weapon of grace is the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13), the second weapon of grace is the word of God (2 Timothy 3:16), and the third weapon of grace is the promise of the new covenant (Hebrews 9:15).”[18] Combined, these weapons allow the believer to fight sin and become the first component of a grace-driven effort.[19]

CRITIQUE

The way Chandler presents the two vantage points was enlightening and the section on the fall of man and the glory of God was also explained brilliantly. By understanding that grace is getting something we do not deserve: the forgiveness of sins and salvation, while mercy is not getting what one deserves: punishment and eternal separation from the Father, the believer can truly begin to appreciate all God has done and not done. Chandler further explains, “The grace of God by definition is unearned. You cannot deserve it… Grace is a free gift given to someone who has not earned it and cannot earn it.”[20] Scripture reveals the wages of sin is death and Chandler’s illustration of Gehenna was profound. While most associate this word with hell, it is also a reference to a ravine on the south side of Jerusalem. Horrible atrocities happened here, making the area, as Chandler puts it, “A stinking, smoldering place of destruction and neglect. The image to hold in our mind is putrid and repulsive [and these extremes represent] the slightest falling short of God’s glory.”[21] This illustration of the effects of sin will be hard to forget!

Pertaining to the satisfactory sacrifice of Christ, Chandler hit the nail on the head when he says, “If we do not understand the bad news, we will never grasp the good news.”[22] The problem he identifies is many people have major problems with the suffering and brutal slaughter of Jesus, despite this act being a major foundation of the Christian faith. Only Jesus could satisfy the debt for all past, present, and future sin. He who knew no sin became sin and sacrificed Himself as the Lamb of God in a Yom Kippur fashion. The Day of Atonement is a perfect example as, “One goat absorbs the wrath of God toward sin and is killed. The other goat, the scapegoat, is vanquished into the wilderness, carrying away the sins of Israel.”[23]

In the section “response to the gospel is not the gospel” Chandler makes a clear distinction between needing to divide the gospel and response, otherwise we compromise both. D. A. Carson writes, “The kingdom of God advances by the power of the Spirit through the ministry of the Word. Not for a moment does that mitigate the importance of good deeds and understanding the social entailments of the gospel, but they are entailments of the gospel. It is the gospel that is preached.”[24] For some, the way Chandler presents this section may make some people uneasy, but as Chandler states, “If we confuse the gospel with response to the gospel, we will drift from what keeps the gospel on the ground, what makes it clear and personal, and the next thing you know, we will be doing a bunch of different things that actually obscure the gospel, not reveal it.”[25] A church that does nothing but events and outreach can be five miles wide, but only one inch deep when it comes to impactful life transformation, so balance is key.

PERSONAL APPLICATION

Rick Warren was so right when he said, “If you read only one book this year, make it this one. It is that important.” One of the first takeaways was found in the person of God. As a result of who God is and everything He has done, worship should be the natural response, since worship is the attributing of ultimate worth to something.[26] However, as Chandler illustrates, “Something has gone wrong with our wiring” and instead of worshipping God and putting Him first above all things, many people whether consciously or subconsciously are worshipping something of than God by what they say and what they do. Ultimately, anything placed before God is an idol and this can be people, places, or things, so it is imperative to do a moral inventory and evaluate where one’s time, talents, and treasures are being used, because that is where their heart will be too.

The fact that we are never not worshipping was a profound declaration and as Chandler demonstrates, “Our thoughts, our desires, and our behaviors are always oriented around something, which means we are always worshipping – ascribing worth to – something [and] if it is not God, we are engaging in idolatry.”[27] There is no way to sugarcoat this principle and it is impossible to turn off the worship switch in our hearts. Timothy Keller explains it perfectly, “When your meaning in life is to fix someone else’s life, we may call it ‘co-dependency’ but it is really idolatry. An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, I will feel my life has meaning, I will know I have value, and I will feel secure.’ There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.”[28]

The final takeaway came as Chandler described how, “A grace-driven effort attacks the roots of our sin, not just the branches. Grace is a heart changer, because the heart is where behavior comes from and wherever our heart is, that is where our actions will follow.”[29] This is an area that must be continually guarded. He uses the example that right under the desire for pleasure is lust, but in reality lust is generally just a symptom of a more central perversion of the heart. The grace-driven effort attacks the cause, not just the symptoms, whereas moralism just tries to pacify the manifested behavior. Fear of God is another motivator behind grace-driven efforts and is something many have unfortunately lost sight of. A grace-driven effort is rooted in pursuing holiness, which allows the believer to not just forsake sin, but as Chandler puts it, “Being dead to it… [because] the person who understands the gospel recognizes that, as a new creation, his [or her] spiritual nature is in opposition to sin now, and he [or she] seeks not just to weaken sin in his [or her] life but to outright destroy it.”[30] These grace-driven weapons and strategies are game changers and will lead to a life embodied by the explicit gospel.

CONCLUSION

Chandler’s approach in writing on this topic was refreshing and demonstrates just how complicated the church has made the gospel message. Whether intentional or not, it is the reality the church faces today. By separating the spheres of the gospel, Chandler has shown how the “Gospel on the Ground” operates at the micro level, while the “Gospel in the Air” operates on the macro level. Then, by examining the glorious truths behind God’s plan for salvation and redemption from multiple vantage points, Chandler adequately lays the foundation with the biblical narrative and the human response and reveals the grand display of God’s glory in reconciliation, made possible by the supremacy and atoning work of Jesus Christ. The Explicit Gospel is well suited for new believers, as well as biblical scholars, and is an invaluable tool in the endeavor to know God, our purpose, and how each person has a part to play in God’s plan of redemption in the universal church. It is a true call to Christianity and has the ability to unite the church; where in the past division and strife has been the prevailing paradigm.

The Explicit Gospel. By Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2012, 237 pp. $14.99 (Paperback).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carson, D. A. Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2010.

Chandler, Matt and Jared Wilson. The Explicit Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2012.

Keller, Timothy. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, NY: Dutton, 2009.

The Village Church Website. http://www.thevillagechurch.net/about/matt-chandler/ (accessed July 21, 2017).

[1] The Village Church Website. http://www.thevillagechurch.net/about/matt-chandler/ (accessed July 21, 2017).

[2] Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2012), 17.

[3] The Village Church Website. http://www.thevillagechurch.net/about/matt-chandler/ The Explicit Gospel (accessed July 21, 2017).

[4] Chandler and Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, 16.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Chandler and Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, 32.

[7] Ibid., 41.

[8] Chandler and Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, 48.

[9] Ibid., 57.

[10] Ibid., 64.

[11] Chandler and Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, 85.

[12] Ibid., 90.

[13] Ibid., 103.

[14] Ibid., 120.

[15] Chandler and Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, 143.

[16] Ibid., 151.

[17] Ibid., 172.

[18] Ibid., 210-212.

[19] Ibid., 213

[20] Chandler and Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, 43.

[21] Ibid., 42.

[22] Ibid., 58.

[23] Ibid., 61.

[24] D. A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2010), 68-69.

[25] Chandler and Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, 83.

[26] Ibid., 36.

[27] Chandler and Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, 103.

[28] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (New York, NY: Dutton, 2009), xviii.

[29] Chandler and Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, 213.

[30] Chandler and Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, 216-217.

Isaiah’s Everlasting Covenant, Babylon & Jerusalem, & the Leviathan

Leviathan

PART I: EVERLASTING COVENANT

The everlasting covenant mentioned in Isaiah 24:5 is not a covenant the Lord specifically made with Israel, like the Noachic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, or Davidic covenants. Instead, this everlasting covenant appears to be a covenant that God has made with all the nations, which will hold them accountable for their violence, bloodshed, and iniquities. John Oswalt believes, “While the eternal covenant may have specific reference to the Noachic covenant, with its prohibition of bloodshed, its broader reference is to the implicit covenant between Creator and creature, in which the Creator promises abundant life in return for the creature’s living according to the norms laid down at Creation.”[1] The larger context of Isaiah twenty-four through twenty-seven looks to the final judgment of the wicked and the ultimate salvation of the righteous. Often referred to as the little apocalypse, this passage of Scripture is believed by some scholars to have been written long after the time of Isaiah, but as Gary Yates asserts, “Thematically, it fits very well with what precedes it in chapters thirteen through twenty-three, where we have the judgment of the nations in history and then in twenty-four through twenty-seven, we have the judgment of nations in the last days.”[2] The major takeaway from this portion of Scripture is God’s judgment in history is representative of how and why He will judge the nations in the future. In a similar fashion to how Isaiah speaks to these spiritual and physical laws, Paul in Romans chapters one through three speaks to the fundamental principles of human behavior and as Oswalt emphasizes, “Whether or not persons recognize these principles, living in any other way than in accord with them must ultimately destroy us, as the history of numberless fallen civilizations ought to teach us.”[3] The decline and fall of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Grecian, and Roman Empire were largely attributed to the violations of these laws and the same argument can be made for any nation in the past or future that violates God’s everlasting covenant.

In the immediate context, it is apparent God was going to judge all the earth and all of its inhabitants because they had violated the everlasting covenant. Even nations used by God, like the Assyrians and Egyptians, to pronounce judgment against Israel and Judah would still have to answer for their actions, which had violated the everlasting covenant. Isaiah 26:21 reveals, “For behold, the LORD is coming out from His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain.” Oswalt explains this punishment is the “Result of that intervention and is here expressed especially in terms of those unjustly killed. The earth, which had received their blood, now gives a full accounting, and all the murdered are brought to life. This is in keeping with 26:14. The tables are now fully turned: the killers and the killed are alive forevermore.”[4] This same pronouncement can be found throughout Scripture and the contemporary context for believers today is profound. In Amos 2:1 the king of Moab burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom. Here, Matthew Henry explains, “The evil passions of the heart break out in various forms; but the Lord looks to our motives, as well as our conduct. Those that deal cruelly shall be cruelly dealt with. Other nations were reckoned with for injuries done to men; Judah is reckoned with for dishonor done to God.”[5] This sounds very similar to the language used in the Abrahamic Covenant to bless those who blessed Israel and to curse those who cursed God’s chosen people. Other atrocities such as the Ammonites ripping open the pregnant women in Gilead (Amos 1:13) would be classified as a crime against humanity and would require divine judgment, much like the Babylonians would face because their empire was built upon the blood of their conquered nations. While the United States is not mentioned directly in Scripture, the same standards God has held all previous nations to, by the everlasting covenant, still exists today. God has been in conflict with the powers and forces of evil from the time of creation until the very end of days, but His sovereignty and His righteousness ultimately demand justice and make salvation possible and deliverance available.

PART II: TWO CITIES IN ISAIAH CHAPTERS 24 – 27

When looking at Isaiah chapters twenty-four through twenty-seven, the context is built around comparing and contrasting two different cities. First, there is a condemned and ruined city that is well built and fortified, until the judgment time comes, when the Lord will destroy it. Isaiah 27:10-11 vividly details how “The fortified city is solitary, a habitation deserted and forsaken, like the wilderness; there the calf grazes; there it lies down and strips its branches.” In contrast to this desolate city, there is a secure, blessed, and joyful city portrayed in Isaiah 26:1-2, so the question naturally becomes, “Do these cities represent the actual cites of Babylon and Jerusalem, or are they symbolic?” When looking at the city in Isaiah 27:10-11, Oswalt asserts, “If it is correct to take the city here as the symbol of Judah’s oppressors, then the thought continues the idea of redemption. When Israel’s idols are broken down, then God’s hand will be revealed against her enemies, who are in fact more idolatrous than she. The result will be complete desolation, as that once mighty city becomes a pasture field.”[6] Some scholars argue for a literal representation of this passage, which Frank Gaebelein explains could be interpreted as, “The fortified city of v.10 could certainly be Samaria, and the exile of v.8 would then follow its fall. A reference to Judah is not, of course, impossible, especially if we treat the passage as predictive and the past tenses as prophetic perfects. In this case the city would be Jerusalem and the exile in Babylon.”[7] Because so many of the references to these cities are general and not specific, it appears the immediate context points to the whole people of God, meaning both Israel and Judah, as well as their impending exile. Gaebelein further explains how Isaiah 26:1-2 reveals, “The theme of the two cities links this passage with chapters 24 and 25. In 25:4, God Himself is the refuge of his people, while here (v.1) He gives strength to the city by making salvation its walls and ramparts. The second is not really inferior to the first, for the prophet always thought of such gifts of God as manifestations of what He is in Himself.”[8] In this approach, Gaebelein demonstrates how the visible gifts of God may be distinguishable from Himself, but not those that are invisible and spiritual. Salvation as walls and bulwarks is interesting language, which Oswalt believes expresses, “That access to God’s city is free for those to whom righteousness and faithfulness are paramount.”[9] True deliverance can only come from God, so it seems unlikely that God has set the walls of the city for salvation. Verse two then indicates that only those who keep the faithful covenant may enter in, but as Oswalt explains, “We need think neither that the city is not yet inhabited, nor that the gatekeepers are angels. The point is simply that none can live in this city for whom God’s character is not the passion of their lives, and this entry formula is a way of expressing this truth. The prophet envisions a day when the adulterous spirit of His people will be changed to faithfulness and loyalty.”[10] Isaiah’s imagery of the last days is built around the contrast of these two cities and as John Walton explains, “People in the ancient Near East understood deities having special interest in different towns and cities. Yahweh rules in Zion just as Marduk does in Babylon. Divine ties to specific locations are physically demonstrated by the dedication of temples to them, which serve the gods in a way similar to the function of a palace for a king.”[11] In this writer’s opinion, the immediate context of Isaiah’s judgment of nations points to these cities being Babylon and Jerusalem, during the time of writing. However, in a modern-day context, these texts can easily be applied to nations that choose to honor the everlasting covenant or those that disregard it, and each will have to answer for their choices in the last days. Ultimately, God’s judgment in history is representative of how He will judge all the earth and its inhabitants. Those who trust and put their faith in God will enter through the gates, but those who violate the everlasting covenant will be punished and held accountable for their violence and bloodshed.

PART III: LEVIATHAN IMAGERY

The imagery of the Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1 is intense as the Lord with His great and strong sword punishes and slays the twisting serpent or dragon in the sea. When looking at this passage through the lens of Psalm 74:12-17, the Lord similarly defeats the sea, controls the water of chaos, and crushes the head of Leviathan at the time of creation. Nancy deClaissé-Walford et al. explain, “This section uses the creation myth of the invaders to declare the God of Israel as the one and only legitimate king over the gods and the people. This is clearly theological chutzpah that claims in the midst of a ruined temple that it is the Lord of Israel who stands in the place of Marduk, thus announcing God’s kingship and defeat of all the other gods.”[12] Water is the strongest and most destructive force on the earth and it is also vital for survival, so any god that claimed could control water would surely be worshipped. There is no denying the mythological similarities in this text to the discovery of Ugaritic texts and Hittite literature, so the proper conclusion is Isaiah used similar imagery to proclaim God’s victory over sin and death. Isaiah’s choice of words is also interesting as he uses: ‏לִוְיָתָן or‎ liwyātān ‏to mean Leviathan, נָחָשׁ or nāḥāš‏ to mean serpent, and תַּנִּין‎ or tannîn to mean dragon monster. As Oswalt explains, “Initially, it was believed that they referred to Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt. However, the way in which Leviathan is identified in the Ugaritic texts now makes it appear that this threefold form was simply a poetic convention in the Canaanite area. Note the similarities: ‘If you smite Lotan the serpent slant/ Destroy the serpent tortuous/Shalyat of the seven heads…’”[13]

Another point of interest is how Psalm 74 and Exodus 15 display God using the Red Sea to deliver the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage. However, in Isaiah, this passage’s larger context represents the Lord’s defeat over the enemy nations, while the original myth had this event and the defeat happening at the time of creation. This further demonstrates how God is in a continuous conflict with the powers and forces of evil from the time of creation until the very end, but also how He brought chaos and evil under His control at creation. The important distinction is that theology and mythology were not borrowed by Isaiah, but the use of Canaanite mythic imagery was, in order for the Hebrews to establish Yahweh as being superior to: Baal, Marduk, Lotan, Tiamat, Leviathan, or any other false gods. John Day expresses the Leviathan’s defeat shows, “Yahweh’s victory over the power of Chaos at Creation, Yahweh’s victory over the power of Egypt at the Exodus and over the power of Babylon at the ‘exodus’ from the Exile, and ultimately, as Isaiah 27:1 illustrates, to portray Yahweh’s victory over the power of Satan at the eschaton on the analogy that ‘as the beginning, so also the end.’”[14] The use of old creation’s imagery here to describe the new creation is profound. Then, immediately following this verse is the picture and final message of hope to Israel as the fruitful vineyard, which is a complete reversal of the judgment pronounced by Isaiah in chapter five. Oswalt further shows how God “Is the sole Sovereign of the universe, and while evil and destruction now seem to threaten the principles of justice upon which His order is founded, they will not prevail. God will triumph and those who have kept faith with Him will triumph with Him. But the true monster that must be destroyed is the monster of moral evil and His people may await that day with joy.”[15] The use of Canaanite imagery is present throughout Scripture, especially as it pertains to the future defeat of Satan. In Revelation 12:3, John uses δράκων or drakōn to identify the monster that is no doubt the devil, but the imagery he uses is closely connected to Isaiah’s description. Robert Mounce states, “Ancient mythology is replete with references to dragons. In Canaanitish lore the great monster of the deep was known as Leviathan. Closely associated was Rahab, the female monster of chaos. More often than not, allusions to these dragons in the OT refer metaphorically to Israel’s enemies. In Ps 74:14 Leviathan is Egypt. In Isaiah 27:1 he is Assyria and Babylon.”[16] Similar imagery can also be found in Daniel 7:7 and 8:10 to illustrate Satan’s plan. Mounce says,

The dragon stands in readiness before the woman with child so that when the child is born he can devour it. It began with the determination of King Herod to murder the Christ-child (Matthew 2), continued throughout the dangers and temptations of His earthly life, and culminated in the crucifixion. As Nebuchadnezzar devoured Israel, ‘he has swallowed us and filled his stomach with our delicacies,’ (Jeremiah 51:34), so Satan has determined to devour the child. He has taken his position and now awaits his victim.[17]

Isaiah’s use of the Leviathan imagery to depict the Lord’s defeat over Israel’s enemies is impressive, but what is even more remarkable is how it also refers to the eschatological defeat of the Lord’s enemies.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Day, John N. “God and Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1.” Bibliotheca Sacra 155, no. 620 (October 1998): 423-436. (accessed July 23, 2017).

deClaissé-Walford, Nancy, Rolf Jacobson, and Beth Tanner, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.

Gaebelein, Frank E., ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry Concise Bible Commentary: Isaiah (New York, NY: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.

Mounce, Robert H. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.

Oswalt, John N. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

Sandy, D. Brent. Plowshares & Pruning Hook: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Walton, John H., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. USA: Zondervan, 2009.

Webb, Barry G. The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Isaiah, On Eagles Wings. Edited by J. A. Motyer. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Yates, Gary. “Highlights from the Little Apocalypse.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 18:18, (accessed July 25, 2017).

[1] John N. Oswalt, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 446.

[2] Gary Yates, “Highlights from the Little Apocalypse,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 18:18, (accessed July 25, 2017).

[3] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 446.

[4] Ibid., 489.

[5] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Concise Bible Commentary: Isaiah (New York, NY: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), Chapter 2.

[6] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 499.

[7] Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 171.

[8] Ibid., 163.

[9] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 471.

[10] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 471.

[11] John H. Walton, ed., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel (USA: Zondervan, 2009), 100.

[12] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf Jacobson, and Beth Tanner, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 599.

[13] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 491.

[14] John N. Day, “God and Leviathan in Isaiah 27:1,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155, no. 620 (October 1998): 436. (accessed July 23, 2017).

[15] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 491.

[16] Robert H. Mounce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 232.

[17] Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 233.

Identity of Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 & Matthew 1:23

immanuel

While the issue of Immanuel’s identity in Isaiah 7:14 and its reuse in Matthew 1:23 continues to be a highly debated topic, the interpretation of “עַלְמָה” or “ʿalmāh” also presents an additional layer of exegesis needed to fully understand what this passage meant to the original audience and what implication it possibly makes towards a future fulfillment. Most scholars do not recognize a single fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 in Jesus, so the key question that must be answered is how the birth of Jesus could have fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah. This interpretive essay will assert Isaiah 7:14 contains a double fulfillment, involving sensus plenior, as Matthew expands the meaning of Isaiah’s words to include a reference to Jesus’ conception and birth.[1]

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

When attempting to decipher what the prophet Isaiah is saying, the interpreter must first have a clear understanding of the historical setting and background. During the 8th century, Assyria had become the dominant kingdom and God ultimately uses the Assyrian army to confront the people’s sinfulness and bring about judgment and salvation. “Assyria was the rod of Yahweh’s anger and the staff in their hands was His fury” (Isaiah 10:5). In chapter six, Isaiah takes up his role as prophet, after he witnesses the holiness of the Lord in his vision. During this encounter, he is compelled by the experience, and he confesses his sin, which leads to him being cleansed by a hot coal from the altar. However, the people of Israel and Judah would have a different reaction to the Lord’s holiness, as they would come to experience His divine judgment. Thus, the main purpose of Isaiah’s preaching is to confront the people’s sinfulness and to compel them to repent. The power of God’s grace is a common thread throughout the book, but the people refused to acknowledge God as their king; instead, relying on military prowess, alliances, and politics, while what they should have focused on was their spiritual apathy and apostasy.

In 734 – 732 B.C., Israel and her neighbor Syria made an alliance to stand against Assyria. However, Judah and king Ahaz, one of the most ungodly kings, wanted no part of this alliance, so Israel and Syria planned to invade Judah, in an attempt to replace king Ahaz with a king who would support their alliance. Upon learning Syria was in league with Ephraim, and that the Davidic king and ultimately the Davidic line was faced with imminent demise, Isaiah goes to meet king Ahaz with a message of hope. However, king Ahaz was so terrified of invasion that he called upon the king of Assyria to render aid, who was more than glad to help crush the Syro-Ephraimite coalition. Despite Isaiah’s promise of protection from the Lord, king Ahaz did not trust God because he did not have a relationship with Him. With the aid of Assyria, Israel was reduced to a small area surrounding Samaria and Judah was delivered, but the problem was now king Ahaz and the nation of Judah had come under the control of Assyria, which meant they had to pay monetary tribute for protection. To make matters even worse, following the example of king Ahaz, many would even adopt the pagan religious practices of Assyria. As Edward Young shows, “Ahaz’ wickedness is seen in the fact that by his stubbornness he was in fact rejecting the very foundation of the covenant. God had promised to be a God and a Deliverer to His people. Syria and Israel, therefore, will not overthrow the Davidic dynasty, for if they could, the promises of God would be void and the Messiah would not ultimately accomplish salvation.”[2]

MEANING OF IMMANUEL & ALMAH IN ISAIAH 7:14 & MATTHEW 1:23

Isaiah 7:14 says, “A virgin will conceive and you will call his name Immanuel” and Matthew 1:23 says, “The virgin shall conceive and they shall call his name Immanuel, which means, ‘God with us.’” Isaiah 7 shows the Immanuel child was to be a sign to king Ahaz, but Ahaz declines a sign, which God provides anyway. John Walton proposes, “Perhaps his hesitancy is due to a pagan understanding, that a sign once given inevitably leads to the next event, which Ahaz does not want to encounter, whatever it might be.”[3] Either way, the nature of the sign was to serve as a reminder of his mistake in not trusting God, but since Jesus was born seven hundred years later, it seems difficult to say this was referring exclusively to the birth of Christ. Some scholars believe there is also a connection with king Ahaz and Isaiah in 8:1-4, regarding the Immanuel prophecy, with the birth of Isaiah’s own son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz. They contend there seems to be a correlation between the child prophesied about in chapter seven with the one born in chapter eight, because the prophecy said the two enemies king Ahaz feared would no longer be around. However, if this were referring to Christ’s birth it would not make sense. Because of what both Matthew and Isaiah say, Gary Yates demonstrates how, “Some commentators interpret the Immanuel prophecy: as an exclusive reference to the virgin birth of Jesus, as exclusively referring to a child or group of children born in the days of Isaiah, or as a double fulfillment prophecy with a near fulfillment in the days of Isaiah and a far fulfillment with the virgin birth of Jesus, while others use typology to explain the prophecy.”[4] Bruce Compton explains proponents of a double fulfillment either explain that Matthew basically “Expands the meaning of Isaiah’s words in their original setting to include a reference to Jesus’s conception and birth, [or] they understand the relationship to involve typology, where Matthew takes Isaiah’s words as foreshadowing something beyond their immediate context and applies them to Jesus in a type-antitype relationship.”[5] Each approach used to harmonize what appears in both Isaiah and Matthew is met with hermeneutical obstacles. While this writer holds to the double fulfillment view, it is impossible to argue that sensus plenior does not violate the principle the univocal language. That being said, context is key and determining the author’s intended meaning must be accomplished before proposing a passage of Scripture could mean something in the future that it did not fully fulfill in the time of the original audience. Even typology fails to fully address the issue as Compton reveals, “Ultimately, the difficultly in identifying the Immanuel prophecy with an eighth century fulfillment as the type is that this interpretation fails to link the prophecy with what Isaiah says elsewhere about the child”[6] e.g. when Isaiah 8:8 references Immanuel having control over all the land. This passage raises the same question again: “Is Maher-shalal-hash-baz the initial fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy?” To this question, Oswalt asserts:

Immanuel is the owner of the land, the one against whom Assyria’s threats are ultimately lodged, the one upon whom deliverance depends. That cannot be Isaiah’s son, or even some unknown son of Ahaz. It can only be the Messiah, in whom all hope resides. It is as if Isaiah, plunging deeper and deeper into the dark implications of his sign, is suddenly brought up short by the deepest implication: God is with us, and best of all, will be with us, not merely in the impersonal developments of history, but somehow as a person.[7]

Compton disagrees and sees Isaiah’s message of hope as a single prophecy with two parts, the first part relating to the threat of the Davidic line and the second part pertaining to the threat to king Ahaz. Isaiah says by the time the child would be old enough to know right from wrong the two nations and their kings who threatened Judah and king Ahaz would be overthrown.

As William Klein et al. assert, “We suggest there are instances where NT authors found meaning in an OT text that the OT author did not intend.”[8] Upon this assumption, Paul Wegner determines, “If they are correct, then at least three questions need to be addressed: (1) How is Isaiah 7:14–17 related to its context? (2) How is Isaiah 7:14–17 fulfilled in Christ? and (3) Is there more than one virgin birth in the Bible?”[9] With context already established, looking at how Isaiah 7:14-17 is fulfilled in Christ must now be quantified. Wegner highlights the dilemma with this passage, “First, it is important to remember this is not a prophecy, but a sign, [which Matthew says is fulfilled in Christ and] second, scholars offer a variety of explanations as to how NT writers could use OT passages and apply them to different situations.”[10] Each of these methods walks a hermeneutical tightrope and claims either:

The author intends one meaning, but it can have many applications or significances; an author intends to convey multiple meanings or levels of meaning; a later author invents or reads into a biblical text a meaning not intended by the author; there is a literal sense intended by the human author, but alongside this literal meaning is a hidden meaning embedded by the Holy Spirit that was unknown to the human author; or the biblical author intended the text to have a single meaning, but a later biblical author may have discovered an additional meaning in that text.[11]

Of these approaches, the fundamental key to determining how to use Old Testament passages in a modern-day context is first, understanding that God uses patterns throughout the Bible, and second, the New Testament writers read the Old Testament through the lens of Christ’s arrival. This writer agrees with Wegner’s conclusion that, “Matthew employs the Greek word πληρóω meaning ‘to make full, fill, fill up, complete,’ to indicate that he believes the OT passage is being “filled up” by Jesus. Matthew thus understands the OT passage as a pattern that is being filled up with more meaning.”[12]

The interpretation of virgin in Isaiah 7:14 is the next issue that must be addressed. The main issue revolves around whether Isaiah meant to use “עַלְמָה” or “ʿalmāh” to mean virgin or whether he meant to use “בְּתוּלָה” or “bĕtûlâ” to describe a physically mature woman of marriageable age. As Compton demonstrates, an examination of Old Testament uses of both words reveals ʿalmāh is the less ambiguous term for a virgin, while bĕtûlâ is the term commonly used to describe a young mature and unmarried virgin. Therefore, Compton illustrates, “Assuming then that ʿalmāh is the less ambiguous term for virgin, the prophet selected ʿalmāh over bĕtûlâ to communicate more precisely the meaning intended in the prophecy.”[13] But if Isaiah wished to stress the virginity of the mother here, why did he not use bĕtûlâ? Young, noting some such statement frequently accompanies bĕtûlâ, as ‘she had not known a man,’ argues that it was the ambiguous term. However, Oswalt demonstrates, “This is clearly not so, because, bĕtûlâ has no implication in addition to virginity, whereas ʿalmāh does. The conclusion to which we are driven is that while the prophet did not want to stress the virginity, neither did he wish to leave it aside[14] and he may have used this term because of its richness and diversity.”[15]

With the variety of words available to the authors and the multiple uses each represents throughout Scripture, the real question of Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14 is, “Are there more than one virgin birth in the Bible?” The answer is no and Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 is meant to refer to Mary, who as a virgin, conceived a child through the power of the Holy Spirit, and gave birth to Jesus, the far and ultimate fulfillment of Immanuel, “God with us.” While Matthew uses the text to refer to Mary and Jesus, the issue of whom Isaiah was referring to in chapter seven still remains. Some scholars believe the woman was the wife of king Ahaz, making the child the king’s son. This sign and constant reminder of failing to trust God would be unavoidable had the Immanuel been the king’s own son. Hezekiah has been named by some as a likely candidate, but this does not seem likely due to chronological evidence. Other scholars contend the ʿalmāh spoken of is Isaiah’s wife, the prophetess mentioned in Isaiah 8:3. Herbert Wolf contends, “The birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz is the immediate fulfillment of the prophecy and the designation of Isaiah’s sons as ‘signs’ in Isaiah 8:18 implies that Immanuel was one of those signs.”[16] The problem with this solution is Immanuel was meant to express the promise aspect of the sign that God is with us, whereas Maher-shalal-hash-baz conveys the more judgmental side of God. Wolf rightly shows, “Immanuel denoted the promise that God would be there to defeat Samaria and Damascus, and ‘Maher-shalal-hash-baz’ meant that Assyria would soon carry off the wealth of those two nations, before turning to devastate Judah. The references to the child knowing the difference between good and evil explain each other and refer to the same period of time.”[17] Regarding this proposed solution, it seems most evident the woman referenced as the virgin was a harem in king Ahaz’ court and that she would bear a child named Immanuel. John Walton rightly shows, “Ahaz’ stubborn disbelief brings the response of a sign that is connected with the prophecy of judgment that has been pronounced against Pekah and Rezin. That sign is that by the time the pregnant ʿalmāh from Ahaz’ harem gives birth to her son the political climate will be such that she will give him a name of hope.” This explanation fits contextually and exegetically and Matthew could have easily drawn from this sign in his writings.

OTHER FULFILLMENT PASSAGES

In the same way a child born in Isaiah’s day would announce, “God is with us,” during a time of crisis; a second child referred to in Isaiah 9:6 would be a reference to a child born in the future who would be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This is clearly a reference to the future Messiah because many of these characteristics would have been completely foreign during Isaiah’s time. The future Messiah would be empowered by God Himself and would rule and reign forever. The king was also representative as the people’s father because of the protection he guaranteed. The prophesied Messiah could only have ushered this peaceful rule and reign spoken of. Another interesting passage is Isaiah 11:7-12, which references the root of Jesse being the seed of the Messianic hope in the Old Testament. God keeps His covenant promises despite humanity’s failures and as John Oswalt illustrates, “Not only will he keep His promises to his people, He will also keep His promises to Jesse’s son. Though the hand of God may destroy, it will ultimately be used to redeem. This truth is underlined when we look at the full revelation of the Messiah in Jesus Christ.”[18]

Wolf further illustrates, “Matthew’s use of this passage in the NT is consistent with his references to other OT verses. On occasion he employs a secondary interpretation that differed considerably from the primary message.”[19] For example, in Matthew 2:15 Jesus’ stay in Egypt fulfilled Hosea 11:1, Matthew 2:18, cites Jeremiah 31:15, which describes the agony over Herod’s murder of young boys in Bethlehem, where Wolf demonstrates, “Rachel wept over her children in Ramah and this mourning is related to the captivity of Israel and is illustrative of the intense suffering brought on by Herod’s act. Jeremiahs prophecy also received a ‘new fulfillment’ through Herod’s atrocity.”[20] R. T. France explains how Matthew’s use of Old Testament prophecy, which were generally a single specific fulfillment of a prophet’s prediction, take on a typological pattern that will recur repeatedly throughout God’s dealings with His people. France explains, “In this case, he has good warrant for taking the prophecy concerning Immanuel as having a relevance beyond its undoubted immediate aim, for the name Immanuel will occur again in Isaiah 8:8 as that of the one to whom the land of Judah belongs, and its meaning will be developed in 8:10, ‘for God is with us.’”[21] Further, the prophecy/sign in Isaiah 7:14 of the birth of Immanuel leads to the description in Isaiah 9:6-7 of a child who is to be born for us: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. France demonstrates this theme will be taken up again in Isaiah 11:1-5 with the prophecy of the spiritually endowed shoot from the stump of Jesse. Ultimately, “These last two passages would have been recognized then, as they still are today, as Messianic prophecies, and it seems likely that Isaiah’s thought has moved progressively from the virgin’s child, ‘God with us,’ and it points beyond the immediate political crisis of the eighth century B.C., not only in Matthew’s typological scheme but also in Isaiah’s intention.”[22] Barry Webb agrees and emphasizes Matthew was right to see the ultimate fulfillment of the Immanuel saying in Jesus Christ.[23] [24]

CONCLUSION

It is this writer’s view the virgin referenced in Isaiah 7:14 is one of king Ahaz’ harem and that she would conceive a child called Immanuel. The true identity remains a mystery, but if this child were Hezekiah, this would mean the mother was Abijah, the daughter of Zechariah, the son of Jeberechiah. While New Testament authors were certainly able to view the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus Christ and were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, there still must be considerable care given when trying to determine what the original author intended. As Wegner illustrates, “God’s coming to earth through the birth of a Son to a virgin once again reminds us that God does things we might never comprehend unless He revealed them to us.”[25] When trying to answer the question of whether Matthew used acceptable hermeneutical methods, Walton correctly explains, “Authority is attributed to Matthew’s statements not because of their objectivity but because he is inspired. We believe his subjective conclusions because of his endowment, [and] that does not give us the right to make subjective conclusions and force them on others.”[26] Sound exegesis then reveals a partial fulfillment during the time of Isaiah, and the full fulfillment upon the birth of Jesus Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bock, Darrell L. and Mitch Glaser, ed. The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012.

Compton, R. Bruce. “The Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-16 and Its Use in Matthew 1:23: Harmonizing Historical Context and Single Meaning.” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 12 (2007): 3-15.

France, R. T. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.

Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed. Dallas, TX: Word, 2004.

Oswalt, John N. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

Sandy, D. Brent. Plowshares & Pruning Hook: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Walton, John H. “Isa 7:14: what’s in a name?” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 30, no. 3 (September 1987): 289-306. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 13, 2017).

_________., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the Old Testament – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel. USA: Zondervan, 2009.

Webb, Barry G. The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Isaiah, On Eagles Wings. Edited by J. A. Motyer. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Wegner, Paul D. “How Many Virgin Births Are in the Bible? (ISAIAH 7:14): A Prophetic Pattern Approach.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 3 (September 2011): 467-84. (accessed July 13, 2017).

Wolf, Herbert M. “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22.” Journal of Biblical Literature 91, no. 4 (December 1972): 449-56.

_________. Interpreting Isaiah: The Suffering and Glory of the Messiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 89-92.

_________. “Solution to the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 91, no. 4 (December 1972): 449-456. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 13, 2017).

Yates, Gary. “Prophetic Genres: Part One.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 12:55, (accessed July 5, 2017).

_________. “The Message of Isaiah 7-12.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Two Video Presentation, 11:32, (accessed July 11, 2017).

Young, E. J. The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-18, vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965.

[1] Herbert M. Wolf, Interpreting Isaiah: The Suffering and Glory of the Messiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 89-92.

[2] Edward Young, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-18, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), 5.

[3] John H. Walton, ed., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the Old Testament – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel (USA: Zondervan, 2009), 41.

[4] Gary Yates, “The Message of Isaiah 7-12,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Two Video Presentation, 11:32, (accessed July 11, 2017).

[5] Bruce R. Compton, “The Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-16 and Its Use in Matthew 1:23: Harmonizing Historical Context and Single Meaning,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 12 (2007): 6.

[6] Compton, “The Immanuel Prophecy,” 11.

[7] Oswalt, TNICOT– The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, 227.

[8] William W. Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word, 2004), 121.

[9] Paul D. Wegner, “How Many Virgin Births Are in the Bible? (ISAIAH 7:14): A Prophetic Pattern Approach,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 3 (September 2011): 467. (accessed July 13, 2017).

[10] Wegner, “How Many Virgin Births Are in the Bible?” 478.

[11] Ibid., 478-480.

[12] Wegner, “How Many Virgin Births Are in the Bible?” 481.

[13] Compton, “The Immanuel Prophecy,” 8.

[14] He could have done so by using ʾišŝa or some other term for “woman.”

[15] Oswalt, TNICOT– The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, 210.

[16] Herbert M. Wolf, “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91, no. 4 (December 1972): 450.

[17] Wolf, “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy.” 455.

[18] Oswalt, TNICOT– The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, 287.

[19] Wolf, “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy.” 456.

[20] Wolf, “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy.” 456.

[21] R. T. France, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 56.

[22] France, TNICNT– The Gospel of Matthew, 57.

[23] Barry G. Webb, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Isaiah, On Eagles Wings. ed., J. A. Motyer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 63.

[24] In applying this verse to Christ, Matthew quotes from the LXX, which uses the more specific term parthenos, ‘virgin’ (Matthew 1:23).

[25] Wegner, “How Many Virgin Births Are in the Bible?” 484.

[26] John H. Walton, “Isa 7:14: what’s in a name?” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 30, no. 3 (September 1987): 301. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 13, 2017).

 

Small Group Training Guide

Small-Groups

The future of the local church will largely depend on the successful development of a small group ministry, especially since small groups are vital to both growth and discipleship, on the part of the believer, and the church as a whole. According to Rod Dempsey, “Churches that are not functioning in this manner run the risk of becoming inward in their focus”[1] and inward-focused groups die. Additionally, as Phil Zambaro explains, “Loneliness is the most devastating illness of our day [and] I know of no more potent killer than isolation. There is [also] no more destructive influence on the physical and mental health than isolation… [Because,] our hunger for relationships is an identifying mark of our humanity.”[2] This need for relationships and connectivity makes the role of small groups a fundamental part of any successful church. As a result, this Small Group Training Manual will first define small groups, by illustrating their biblical foundation and by providing the necessary motivations for developing them. Once a clear understanding of a small group’s influence, vision, and mission are formulated, this manual will then address how to grow and multiply small groups, how to develop group leaders, and lastly how to transition from a “with,” model to a “of,” or “is” model using the “S.M.A.L.L. G.R.O.U.P.S.” acrostic.

MOTIVATIONS FOR DEVELOPING GROUPS

Dempsey explains, “The church has a head; the head of the church is Jesus. The church also has members that need to be connected to the head and connected to each other.”[3] Small groups provide the conduit to satisfy all these needs and they also allow for the opportunity of spending time with one another because there is a huge commitment needed to growing and sacrificing as a disciple of Christ. Jesus, Himself said, “Take up your cross,”(Matthew 16:24) illustrating the necessity of commitment and doing life together in small groups. Additionally, the relational aspect of following Christ means followers should join together as brothers and sisters in an attitude of love for one another. This was the identifying mark Jesus said would reveal His true disciples; by the love he or she showed the world (Matthew 22:36-40). Dempsey also points out, “The process must be intentional, individual, and missional in focus, as small groups have the potential to provide and create a perfect environment and context to develop people for God’s kingdom and for God’s glory.”[4]

One’s primary reason for wanting to develop small group ministry must be rooted in love and a desire to fulfill the commandments of the Lord. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is a wonderful representation of what God calls every believer to do as followers of Christ. Dempsey and Earley further explain the importance of, “Loving God, loving one another, and loving our neighbor [because these] are universal principles. They will work anywhere, at any time, and in any political situation. The key to your success is to begin practicing the principles behind the commands Jesus gave us. Live your life purposefully for God and lead by example.”[5] Another important reason for developing small groups is found in the principle of multiplication. Dempsey and Earley illustrate the strongest churches in the world have tens of thousands of members in thousands of small groups. As humans, and with finite minds, it can oftentimes be hard to fathom the omnipotence of God and His marvelous plan of salvation and redemption. As a result, when most churches are planning areas of ministry, the addition of believers is used as the primary litmus test for success; however, God, as Dempsey and Earley convey, “Has given us an exponential plan to reach the world. The question is… are you following an addition or a multiplication plan? Why should you lead a group? That is easy: to follow His command to make disciples of all the nations.”[6] A final reason for forming small groups lies in the desire for community. As Jeffrey Arnold explains, “Jesus Christ is our first and greatest model for how small groups can stimulate faith and growth in others… [Ultimately,] disciples are made intentionally, disciples are made to be like Christ, and disciples are made in relationships”[7] and there is no better place for these to occur than in a community made up of small groups.

BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS FOR GROUPS

At the heart of the Great Commission is the commandment to make disciples and this instruction is why Bill Hull emphasizes, “The small group is the most strategic training environment used by Christ to make the kind of disciples that glorify God.”[8] Small groups are vital to the future success of the local church and as a small group leader, he or she is essentially engaging in the same ministry Christ Himself was committed to. Small groups have the potential to change lives and there are multiple breakthroughs that will happen in small groups, that rarely happen within the four walls of the church, as Chuck Swindoll illuminates, “[In small groups,] fences come down, masks come off, welcome signs are hung outside the door, keys to the doors of our lives are duplicated and distributed, and joys and sorrows are shared.”[9]

While the Great Commission is a wonderful representation of what God calls every believer to do as followers of Christ, the sad reality is many so-called followers of Christ have reduced the Great Commission to nothing more than the great suggestion. However, this command from God points to the small groups as being the perfect environment to develop and train disciples. The early church is a prime example of doing life together. In Acts, chapters one and two, specifically (Acts 2:41-47,) the reader becomes aware of the DNA of early small group ministry. These home churches met together, studied the apostles’ teaching, shared meals together, met each other’s needs, prayed together, had favor with the local people, and went everywhere proclaiming the good news of the gospel. These early churches understood the importance of every person having a role to play in the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23; 1 Corinthians 12:21) and the necessity of serving one another. The final passage that illustrates the role of small groups is (Ephesians 4:16.) Here, Paul explains how some followers of Christ are: apostles, prophets, shepherds, teachers, or evangelists, but how each of their primary duties is to train and equip God’s people for the work of the church. The ultimate goal is for believers to grow into the fullness of Christ, as each member of the body contributes to this growth, but it is small groups, which provide the optimal context and environment for this process to take place.

In the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), Dempsey demonstrates, “Jesus took 619 rabbinical laws and pharisaical practices and reduced them down to two simple principles: Love God and love your neighbor.”[10] Jesus Himself was a small group leader, so Dempsey and Earley raise a very relevant question: “If Jesus, the Son of God, chose to strategically minister to a small group, how much more should you and I?”[11] Jeff Tunnell then illustrates, “By sorting out one’s biblical values, [this] will lead to principles and conducts that glorify God and His ways, which ultimately make the gospel irresistible to some and repulsive to others.”[12] By using the Bible as authority, prayer as a means, dependency upon God as one’s posture, and love as the primary motive, Tunnell reveals multiple principles that are consistent with the truth of the gospel. As a result of embodying and devoting oneself to this truth, Tunnell shows followers were devoted to: “following the apostles’ teaching, fostering unity, sharing meals, practicing prayer, corporate worship, celebrating communion, living in community, and sharing generously, [resulting in,] salvations and favor with all the people.”[13]

Hospitality was one of the major things Jesus was known for; in fact, He set the standard. Jesus is repeatedly seen dining and visiting with outcasts. Joel Comiskey explains, “Most of the ancient world regarded hospitality as a moral practice… [And,] eating together in the household was one of the primary ways to share life together as well as to welcome strangers and those outside the household. Most would agree that sharing a meal is the second most intimate encounter one can engage in outside of the bedroom, which is why sharing meals together is such an important principle for small groups. When Jesus chose to send His disciples out in pairs, this approach showed He knew it was not good to be alone, especially in ministry. Comiskey explains when the disciples entered a home, “They were supposed to convert the members of that particular household, and reach the other homes from a base location – rather than witnessing from house-to-house (Luke 10:7). Remaining in a house only makes sense if, beyond the initial proclamation of the kingdom message, the messengers stayed on to further nurture and establish a faith community.”[14] This strategy led to entire households and villages being converted to Christ and new home churches being formed and by modeling this same strategy, small groups meeting in homes are having great success today.

WHAT IS A SMALL GROUP

Dempsey and Earley use the acrostic S.M.A.L.L. G.R.O.U.P.S. to demonstrate the necessary components small groups must possess. Seek God’s vision and direction from His Word,[15] (Acts 1:8; 2:32-47; Ephesians 4:11-16; Colossians 1:28) which allows the group’s foundation to be set on solid ground. Make sure the lead pastor is in the lead position.[16] Without the senior pastor’s full backing, it will be very difficult for small groups to reach their full potential. Adopt a model that fits who and where you are, as long you are emphasizing: winning people to Christ, helping them grow in Christ, and then sending them out for Christ.[17] Leadership training and recruitment[18] because as Jerry Falwell asserts, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” so this component is vital to the future success of any small group. “Launch the new groups, [while also] providing the leaders with additional training to stay focused and to improve the quality of discipleship.”[19] After careful prayer, planning, and training it is time to launch new groups and according to Dempsey, the best time to do this is after Labor Day, when children are back in school and people are settling into their new schedules and routines.[20]

Two G.R.O.U.P.(S.) acrostics are presented in forming and maintaining small groups. Guided by a leader is the first objective, since, “In order for a group to be successful, the leader of the group needs to view their role as drawing out the new creation God has in mind for every individual in the group.”[21] Regular meeting times are vital to the success of small groups and Dempsey believes, “Meeting weekly is best, so people can gather to serve and share God’s love and gifts with one another and with the world.”[22] Opening God’s Word is mandatory in small groups due to the Bible’s power to change people’s lives from the inside out (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 12:2). Dempsey illustrates, “Studying and applying the Word of God has the power to change us from what we are into what God has in mind for us.”[23] United in service is rooted in the Great Commandment (John 13:34-35). Dempsey explains, “Spiritual gifts are designed to strengthen the body of Christ and to serve the world… [And] every believer has at least one spiritual gift to build up the body of Christ and to minister and serve others.”[24] Prayer for one another is what separates a Christ-centered group from a civic club. As Jerry Falwell so brilliantly put it, “Nothing of eternal significance ever happens apart from prayer,” making this a necessary component to any successful small group ministry.

Dempsey’s second G.R.O.U.P.S. acrostic entails:

Grow the groups in quantity and quality, paying special attention to new groups. Retrain the leaders to retrain the leaders, through personal mentoring and coaching and reward the right behavior. Over communicate, to make sure the small group leaders are getting enough information from the leaders in ministry. Utilize and develop a coaching structure, (Exodus 18) so the groups stay on target with the vision and mission of the church. Pray, because as Comiskey discovered, prayer was the common denominator in multiplying groups where leaders of the groups prayed at least one hour a day. See God’s blessing as new disciples are being made and remember small groups provide the best place to make disciples, because Christianity is more caught than taught.[25]

HOW TO DEVELOP SMALL GROUP LEADERS

According to Dempsey, “Leaders are grown in small groups, most successful churches have an emphasis on small groups, and small groups are a true representation of the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23).”[26] Dempsey and Earley provide eight habits, which will enhance the effectiveness of small group leaders and will, “Create a path that leads to fruitfulness, and multiplication, helping leaders, and those under them, experience greater fulfillment in ministry.”[27] They are as follows:

(1) Dream of leading a healthy, growing, multiplying group. (2) Pray for your group members daily. (3) Invite new people to visit your group weekly. (4) Contact your group members regularly. (5) Prepare for your group meetings. (6) Mentor an apprentice leader. (7) Plan group fellowship activities. (8) Be committed to your own personal growth.

In developing leaders, there is much that can be learned from the early church model and several strategies can be implemented today. For example, by using Rod Dempsey 4 M’s model: “Model it, by being the paradigm; Mentor it and never do anything alone in ministry; Motivate it by personally giving encouragement to people; and Multiply your ministry by handing it off to others so they can have ownership and run with it.”[28] Leaders must realize Satan works in isolation, but God works in community, so find a Paul who can be a mentor; find a Timothy, someone to disciple; and find a Barnabas someone to be an encourager.

HOW TO LEAD A GROUP

As Dempsey asserts, “Anyone who knows Christ can be a leader, since being a leader is all about influence.”[29] Within the framework of small groups, Dempsey and Dave Earley identify three key leadership positions. The first is the small group leader who, “Understands their job is to serve and empower [the attendees] to ‘be all they can be’ for Christ. The small group leader [also] selects the curriculum, finds a good location to meet, and chooses an apprentice who will be trained to start a new group.”[30] The second leadership position in a small group is the apprentice who is basically a small group leader in training, with the goal of leading his or her own small group within several months. The apprentice is involved with all areas of planning and leadership, to provide the best chance for success when facilitating his or her own small group. The third leadership position in a small group is the host, who are primarily responsible for making attendees feel welcome. Dempsey and Earley illustrate hosts are, “Vital to making the small group experience a good one for everyone who comes to their home and [when these three positions are] involved in the planning, preparation, and execution of small groups, the groups have a much better chance for healthy growth and multiplication.”[31]

Leadership was paramount in the house church and much can be learned in the way Jesus first trained His disciples, who would become the first small group leaders. Comiskey illustrates, “Because of the growth of the early church, the need for leadership expanded rapidly… and the early apostles provided the overarching leadership, but depended on the house church leaders to shepherd and care for the rest of God’s church. As in the case of Acts 6, leaders who had proven themselves were chosen to care for the needs of the Grecian Jewish widows, and oversee the distribution of food. In many cases, the individual who opened up their home would assume the leadership role and Comiskey attributes Paul’s use of the oikos structure as the perfect environment to develop leaders naturally.[32] In all small groups, Paul taught on the importance of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and develop leadership. Comiskey agrees and explains how, “The early church believed that the Spirit was given to all believers and was actively working through each member.”[33] Interestingly, it would be in the early church that women found themselves on equal footing with men and on numerous occasions presented in the New Testament, women were actually presented as being significant leaders.[34]

Leadership roles in the early church differ from today, in the sense that in the New Testament, there were no bishops-pastor-elder hierarchy and Comiskey explains these terms were actually interchangeable for the same role. Over the years, one of the unfortunate errors is how elders have been transliterated as overseers, instead of being translated as workers of the church. While the early church met primarily in homes, sometimes those individual entities would gather together for larger meetings. Throughout the New Testament, ecclesia was used to refer to the house church gatherings, the larger gatherings, and the universal church, Ultimately, as Comiskey illustrates, “Churches must determine if they are going to view the cell group as the church and the primary care structure for members, or just another program to keep people coming back to the Sunday gathering. If the church chooses to prioritize cell ministry, those cells and cell leaders need to be equipped, coached, and cared for in a cell structure that includes training, coaching, and celebrating together.”[35]

In addition to the three leadership positions, Dempsey and Earley cite three components/streams that when employed combine to form one powerful, moving force. The first is the biblical stream, made up of the qualities found in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, which relate to the leader’s values and being blameless. This “Means that he [or she] does not have any major spiritual area that could come into question or attack from the enemy.”[36] The second component is the spiritual stream, which is rooted in an understanding and execution of the first stream. This stream is composed of: prayer, spiritual gifts, fruit of the Spirit, armor of God, and Spirit of God. Dempsey and Earley explain, “Many leaders are one the front lines of the battle, but they may not be aware of the [spiritual] weapons and armor that they have as soldiers of the King. Another challenge is that many leaders may be aware of the tools they have at their disposal, but they may not be skilled in using the spiritual arsenal.”[37] The third component is the practical stream, which as Dempsey and Earley demonstrate allows, “The small group leader to receive a vision from God and communicate it clearly to the people entrusted to his or her care.” This stream is made up of: planning, organizing, communicating, training, mentoring, multiplying and vision casting.

HOW TO GROW SMALL GROUPS

Arnold presents one of the best models this writer has come across when looking at the role and dynamics of small groups, especially when one takes into consideration the 80/20 principle he highlights. Arnold illustrates, “As members of the body, we are reliant on one another and on Christ, and mutually responsible to use whatever contribution we make to grow the body into maturity.”[38] When a group reaches inward, the focus is on group care. Arnold demonstrates how, “Groups provide love and care for their members in many ways [and] a loving community offers members a positive body life experience by engaging people in the discovery of their spiritual gifts, developing the lay leadership of the church, and caring for its members.”[39] There is something so empowering about finding one’s gifting and then engaging in ministry fulfilling the role God has called the person to. However, without an environment to first define and second to refine the areas of spiritual gifting(s), many people never reach his or her full potential. In addition to equipping individuals with various giftings, the spiritual maturity of the individual is also a byproduct, which further refines his or her discipline and produces great future leaders. For large churches especially, this inward focus is vital because congregational care, unknown, and unmet needs are a daily occurrence. With a focus on small groups, this is an amazing step in making people truly feel cared for and also provides an area of ministry for other members with the gift(s) of prayer, comfort, love, and compassion.

As groups focus on reaching upward, this cultivates an attitude of nurture and worship. Nurturing allows members to not only get to know one another better, but it lays the foundation and vision for the group to help people get connected to God. Doing life together is an amazing experience and this sense of community is hardwired into humanity. God created His children with this desire to love and be loved by. As small groups develop times of fellowship and walk through trials and circumstances, opportunities to pray and grow their faith are presented. As a result of answered prayers and faith in God’s plans, thanksgiving and praise are the appropriate response. Arnold demonstrates, “When enough people in a congregation start experiencing these worship moments, the entire church begins to change. Spiritual renewal that begins in groups can begin to create revival in the larger body of Christ.”[40] However, neglecting the power of worship is one of the main reasons Dempsey and Earley cite for groups failing to reach their full potential, stressing, “Worship is a moral obligation and a natural response to the absolute worth of God. Worship completes us, is transforming, puts life back into perspective, and intensifies the presence and therefore the activity of God.”[41] Dempsey and Earley could not be more correct on the power of prayer, as they illustrate, “God often manifests His presence in proportion to our expressed recognition of our need and love for Him.”[42]

HOW TO MULTIPLY SMALL GROUPS

When groups begin to reach outward through acts of service and evangelism, they reach their full potential. As Arnold explains, “One of the inherent weaknesses in any small grouping of people is the natural tendency to maintain an inward focus (care), ignoring the outward focus (service and evangelism)… [making] the outward focus the most difficult group discipline to cultivate.”[43] Arnold clarifies how evangelism then leads to both spiritual and numerical growth as healthy groups work to attach people deeply to their God and show them how to minister to the world. Ultimately, as Arnold explains, “Biblical evangelism is not a program but a person-to-person process of sharing the good news about forgiveness of sin and new life in Jesus. Because small groups are likely to be the most personal setting offered by a church, they are natural places for this kind of evangelism to take place.”[44]

HOW TO DEVELOP/TRANSITION TO SMALL GROUPS IN CHURCH

Dempsey provides eleven suggestions for churches trying to develop or transition to being a church “of” or that “is” small groups: First, the leaders must search the Scriptures and come up with a group philosophy rooted in the Great Commission and Great Commandment to make disciples, to gather together and study the Word, and to meet each others needs and the needs of others. The group must also focus on equipping the saints and growing up to be like Christ. Second, the group must make sure the senior pastor and leadership team share the same vision as the group. This is vital because if the group is not contributing to the vision and mission of the church, they are not truly a part of the church. Third, the group must adopt a model that fits who they are and this is done by engaging the culture, while also maintaining the principles of loving God, one another, and neighbors. Fourth, there must be continual leader training and each person in the group should be mentoring someone else how to do their job, so when the time comes for the group to split, there will people ready to assume leadership roles. Fifth, the group is ready to launch, so times, places, and curriculum must all be in place. Sixth, is growing the group by praying, inviting people and having good quality, which will ultimately lead to quantity. Seventh, is rewarding the right behavior by exhorting and pointing out when people are doing the right thing or go above and beyond expectations. Eighth, is over communicating because as Rick Warren says, “People are down on what they are not up on,” so small groups must continually communicate the why, the how, and the next steps. Ninth, is utilizing coaching structures and a great model to use is the 5X5 model, which spreads the load out amongst directors, overseers, and groups. Trying to do everything alone will always lead to burnout or moral failure, so making sure you have a strong team is vital to the success of small groups because groups are only as strong as their weakest link. Tenth, is pray before, during, and after all small groups because the enemy does not want small groups to thrive because individuals are most vulnerable when they are in isolation. Eleventh, is to see God’s glory. The Great Commission’s command is to make disciples and the one promise we find is when we are in the business of making disciples in small groups, Jesus promises to be there with us.[45]

CONCLUSION

This small group-training manual has shown the need for relationships and connectivity in the disciple making process, which makes the role of small groups a fundamental part of any successful church. By illustrating small group’s biblical foundation and by providing the necessary motivations for developing them, this manual can be utilized to become a church “of” small groups or a church that “is” small groups. With a clear understanding of a small group’s influence, vision, and mission being formulated, this manual has shown how to grow and multiply small groups and also how to recruit and develop group leaders.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arnold, Jeffrey. The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Comiskey, Joel. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church. Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016.

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________. “How to Transition to a Small Group System.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 8:17. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196616_1 (accessed June 29, 2017).

________. “Small Group Outreach/Mission.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six Video Presentation, 6:36. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196606_1 (accessed June 22, 2017).

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________. “Why Lead a Group.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_364001_1&content_id=_17196581_1 (accessed May 15, 2017).

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_________. “25 Simple Ways to be Missional in Your Neighborhood.” May 26, 2017. http://www.vergenetwork.org/2011/08/23/25-simple-ways-to-be-missional-in-your-neighborhood/ (accessed June 20, 2017).

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[1] Rod Dempsey and Dave Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 2.

[2] Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson, Building a Church of Small Groups (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 24.

[3] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 2.

[4] Rod Dempsey, “Why Lead a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. (accessed May 15, 2017).

[5] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 10.

[6] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 10.

[7] Jeffrey Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 18, 23-24.

[8] Bill Hull, Jesus Christ Disciple Maker (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), 235.

[9] Chuck Swindoll, Dropping Your Guard (Waco, TX: Word Incorporated, 1983), 22.

[10] Rod Dempsey, “Biblical Foundations,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Two Video Presentation, 7:58. (accessed May 22, 2017).

[11] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 26.

[12] Jeff Tunnell, “Biblical Values and Time-tested Principles,” Joel Comiskey Group Website, http://joelcomiskeygroup.com/blog_2/2011/09/19/biblical-values-and-time-tested-principles-2/ (accessed May 22, 2017).

[13] Tunnell, “Biblical Values and Time-tested Principles.”

[14] Joel Comiskey. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church (Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016), 82.

[15] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 1.

[16] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 182.

[17] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2.

[18] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 183.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2.

[21] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 31-32.

[22] Rod Dempsey, “What is a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 7:08. (accessed June 2, 2017).

[23] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 32.

[24] Ibid., 33.

[25] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2-3.

[26] Rod Dempsey, “Why Lead a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. (accessed May 15, 2017).

[27] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 115.

[28] Rod Dempsey, “Group Multiplication,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Seven Video Presentation, 5:57. (accessed June 25, 2017).

[29] Rod Dempsey, “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. (accessed June 5, 2017).

[30] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 66.

[31] Ibid., 67.

[32] Comiskey, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church, 121.

[33] Ibid., 126.

[34] Priscilla Romans 16:3; Mary 16:6; Junias 16:12; Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis 16:12; Julia 16:15

[35] Comiskey, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church, 185.

[36] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 69.

[37] Ibid., 70.

[38] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 31.

[39] Ibid., 34.

[40] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 37.

[41] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 45-46.

[42] Ibid., 46.

[43] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 38.

[44] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 39.

[45] Rod Dempsey, “How to Transition to a Small Group System,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 8:17. (accessed June 29, 2017).