Isaiah 6:6-7: An Example of God’s Temporal Authority

Someday I think I might actually write a paper around this issue. At the moment, however, it’s just a thought… a thought that I want to consider and hold on to. C.S. Lewis argued that God stands outside of time, that he is beyond time and thus that he is capable of experiencing all times simultaneously. It’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around, but this idea has a lot of implications. For one, it explains how God could have knowledge of the future. I was going to say that it explains how God could be all-knowing, but it really doesn’t. I’m not actually sure that is explainable. However, if God experiences all times simultaneously, then to him the future is the same as the present and the past. This also explains the concept that for God a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day. God is not bound by time in the way that we understand it.

That being said, Isaiah 6 is the record of Isaiah’s vision calling him to speak for God to the people of Judah and Israel. In this vision, Isaiah is brought before the throne of heaven and he realizes his utter impurity (a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips), and that because of this he is not only unworthy to stand in the presence of God, but also unworthy to speak for God. In Isaiah 6:6-7 one of the Seraphim that worship in God’s presence takes a coal (Gary Smith argues that this is best understood as one of the coals from under the throne of heaven from Ezekiel 10) and presses it to Isaiah’s lips. The Seraph then announces that this action has ‘removed’ Isaiah’s guilt and that his sin ‘has been atoned for’.

This, of course, begs the question of who atoned for Isaiah’s guilt. Obviously this happened long before the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ, and so from a purely human perspective God seems to simply be casting away Isaiah’s sin and guilt into some void of nothingness. This then leads to the question of why he can’t do the same for all believers. If God can simply cast sin aside without sacrifice, then why did Christ die? Why does Hebrews tell us that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins? The most direct answer is that God cannot simply cast sin aside, a concept that the use of the word ‘te-kuppar’, which carries with it the meaning of forgiveness or atonement, reinforces. Isaiah’s sin was not simply cast aside, it was ‘we-sar’ (taken away from him) and ‘te-kuppar’ (atoned for).

The most obvious solution to this conundrum is, it seems to me, to remember that (as Lewis posited) God is the lord over time, not simply space. While the death of Christ would not happen for several hundred years from Isaiah’s perspective, it was happening and had already happened from God’s perspective. The atonement of Christ had already been completed when God cleansed Isaiah of his sin, and this helps our understanding of how he could simply take the sins of Isaiah and cleanse them. Of course, this then raises anew the question of who Christ preached to when he traversed the spiritual cosmos and entered hell (1 Peter 3:18-20). Traditionally this has been seen as Christ bringing the believing Jews from ages past out of prison and into atonement. However, if God has temporal authority and can apply the atonement of Christ backwards through time (at least from a human perspective) then why wouldn’t he have done this for other believing Jews? Was Isaiah a special case or is there perhaps another answer to the question of who Christ preached to in hell? These are questions to which I do not yet have an answer. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out.

Complaining, Grumbling, and The Truth

Today an acquaintance of mine pointed out something that was true in the particular, but very, very wrong in the principle. I love my job. It doesn’t pay much, but it’s fulfilling in ways that I’d never honestly imagined, and it what I’ve always wanted, and still want, to do with my life. I honestly can’t imagine being as happy doing anything else. That being said, this has been a very long summer and I am pretty completely exhausted. I’ve also been teaching the same class over and over for most of the year, and grading the same papers (albeit written by different people) every day for six+ months gets very, very old.

So, today when I left my work to sit down with this acquaintance I mentioned that I was tired of grading papers, which was true. I’d been grading papers for about 5 hours, and I was on my second to last paper for the day, so I was actually quite tired of grading papers at that moment. This acquaintance (I can’t actually remember her name… let’s call her Sally) asked me why I’m always complaining about my job, and pointed out that ‘God says we should do all things without complaining’. I asked her where God says this and her reply was ‘the bible’… when I asked her to be more specific she couldn’t remember where it was found, but promised to get back to me (we’ll see if that happens).

Sally was talking about a verse in Philippians 2 that is a part of the following passage: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me” (Philippians 2:12-18, NASB – bold mine).

So, first the practical: I have been very tired lately, and honestly I haven’t really enjoyed my job much. I’m at the point were even grading good papers feels like a chore, and that makes it hard to enjoy. Add to this the fact that I actually read my students sources (at least some of the time) and grading papers really becomes a lot of work. I’m not quite at the point where I really mind doing this, but I can’t say that I’m really enjoying it either. The thing is that I really do love my job, and that should come through to the people who know me. Sally was right that I’ve been less than enthusiastic about teaching for the past few months (she hasn’t known me very long), and I’m glad that she pointed that out. My attitude could use some adjustment, and I’m thankful to have people in my life who aren’t afraid to point that out.

However, the principle: Sally took a simple statement of truth as a complaint, and the assumed that all complaining is always wrong no matter what. So, in principle we must ask a simple question, “Is it better to be honestly grumpy or dishonestly enthusiastic?”

It can be argued that there is a difference between complaining and ‘grumbling and dispute’, but for a moment let’s assume that these are the same thing. Even if this is so, the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:28-32 would imply that it is better to grumble and obey, than to be enthusiastic and disobey. God has much more to say about hypocrites than he does about grumps, and so it is safe to say that it is distinctly better to be an honest grump than a dishonest enthusiast.

Now, to return to the argument that complaining is different from ‘grumbling and dispute’: while the word ‘γογγυσμῶν’ (gognusmon or goggusmon) can be translated as complaining, this isn’t quite the actual meaning of the word. Grumbling is a better translation, as is murmuring. The idea that ‘γογγυσμῶν’ brings across is one of secret or concealed discontent. It is the idea not of a tired desire to be finished, but of a hidden distaste for what one is doing. This then combines well with the idea of disputing. The word ‘διαλογισμῶν’ (dialogismon), commonly translated as disputing, dissension, doubt, or argument, brings with it the idea of human reasoning that solidifies an existing prejudice or errant belief. It can also, biblically, carry the idea of thought that raises in one ideas against God, or (as John might put it) thought that carries within it the spirit of Anti-Christ.

So, when we put these ideas together, to do something without ‘grumbling or disputing’ is not the idea of being always cheerful, but instead the idea of acting without secret desires or contempts that contravene God’s will. The context of this verse, Philippians 2:12-18, is the sanctification of the individual. We have ‘always obeyed’ and are ‘working out our own salvation’ so that we might be ‘blameless and innocent’, ‘above reproach’ to be ‘lights in the world’. In this context and with the above understanding of ‘grumbling and dispute’ it becomes quite clear that the issue here is not one of simple grumpiness or discontent, but of hidden discontent that adds to our human reasoning a desire to contravene the will of God in our sanctification.

Speaking of this, I have another friend (let’s call him Billie Bob) who is flirting with this at the moment. He has good reason to be. This is a man who has dealt with a lot of pain in his life, some of which I can only imagine, and he is immensely frustrated with God. He is, however, honest about this frustration. He does not hide it from himself, and he doesn’t try to hide it from God. At the moment, he doesn’t understand what God is doing in his life, he is in a lot of pain (physical, spiritual, and emotional), and he struggles to believe that a loving God would leave him in the kind of pain that he’s in. I understand pain, though perhaps not his pain in particular, and how easily it can make you question God. However, God has brought me through a lot, to the point of suicide and back, and he’s taught me that I can trust him, even when I don’t understand what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, or how he intends to use it in my life.

Sometimes, God puts us in places that we don’t like, that we don’t understand, and that we can’t deal with, and he does so for a variety of reasons. In my experience, the only answer in these situations is to trust that he knows what he’s doing, and pray that he will bring us peace.

Jesus Said What?

Sometimes I want to choke people to death. This isn’t actually as big of a problem as it used to be. I lived for a very long time (we’re talking decades here) on the constant verge of homicide. I got so used to simply wanting to kill someone that I didn’t even realize how angry I’d been until I wasn’t angry anymore. Releasing that kind of anger is kind of like putting down the Empire State Building. Still, there are times when I just want to throttle some poor bastard. It’s not random anymore though. I don’t walk down the street and suddenly want to grab someone and beat them to death. Now it’s specific things that set me off. Plagiarism tends to be one of them, but another is when people take scripture completely out of context.

Honestly, I’m not going to say that this is a Christian response. Not even remotely, but that doesn’t keep me from wanting to leap across the table and tear a man’s arms off when he tells me that Jesus said that we shouldn’t judge anyone after I’ve just confronted him for cheating on his wife. However, something that possibly makes me even madder than people taking scripture out of context is people accusing others of taking scripture out of context when they haven’t.

I have a friend… we’ll call him John. John has a bad habit of accusing people of taking scripture out of context whenever he disagrees with them. For instance, the arguments that Christians should be charitable to the needy are met with a derisive, ‘that’s out of context’. My response to this… ‘No, no, Jesus actually said that we should take care of the poor, and he even said that we should give to our enemies, I can show you.’ See, I’m growing.

My friend isn’t the only one who does this. All too often, instead of actually looking at the text and seeking to understand what it says and why someone might interpret it the way they do, we simply react to any position that doesn’t match our personal worldview with the claim that it must be out of context. People do take scripture out of context… a lot… for instance, Paul’s famous “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” in Philippians 4:13 does not mean that I can be president someday. Paul says this in the context of adapting to, and being joyful in, various circumstances. For instance, because Christ strengthens me I can be joyful even when I’m unemployed. Because Christ strengthens me I can respond in love even when someone makes me angry.

There are thousands of cases of this, and to some degree we all take things out of context. Ideally, our hermeneutic (i.e. interpretation of scripture) should 1) be good (duh…) and 2) determine our theology, and our theology should determine how we live. All too often our lifestyle determines our theology, and our theology determines our hermeneutic. We are, all of us, blithering idiots on the verge of complete mental collapse, and it is only grace that keeps us marginally sane and capable of rational thought (… ok, that’s probably a little bit too far. Still, we all have our idiotic moments).

However, the fact that people do take scripture out of context doesn’t mean that everyone who disagrees with me is taking scripture out of context. Amazingly enough, I have found that I am not the final arbiter of proper hermeneutic and theology (almost put them in the wrong order there). I might have my beliefs, but my beliefs don’t determine what scripture says, and I need to keep this very, very close to the top of my bubbling cesspool of a brain or I go completely wonky and decide that I should be the emperor of all mankind. Needless to say, that would be a bad thing.

How many times do we wish, ‘If only everyone were more like me’. Because apparently I’m… what? The second coming of Christ? The goal of mankind, Christians especially, shouldn’t be to be more like me, or more like you. The goal is to be more like Christ. My goal should be to be more like Christ, and allowing the scriptures to shape my theology (instead of allowing my theology to shape the scriptures) is a major part of that process.

Scripture is a living, breathing thing, and (while it is not the only way that God communicates with his people) God speaks to us consistently through scripture. The meaning of various passages seems to change as I mature in my faith, and suddenly I see things that weren’t there before. This is normal. It’s called the devotional hermeneutic and it’s one of the ways that God speaks to you. Note that I said speaks to you there, not speaks to the Church, or provides us with elements of doctrine. What you get out of the devotional hermeneutic doesn’t apply to anyone else. It is God speaking to you (… oh, and if it contradicts what scripture says, then it probably isn’t God. For instance, if you read ‘I tell you that if you lust, you have committed adultery’ and think that God is telling you to go commit adultery, you’re wrong).

We all need to be less concerned about what we think a verse or passage means, and about proving everyone else wrong. We should be much more concerned with letting God use the scriptures to shape us in the way that he desires. Yes, there are people out there who get it wrong. Guess what, if God wants them out of the way, it isn’t exactly hard for him to make that happen. After all, he’s God. He doesn’t need you or me to protect him.

Well… that turned into a little bit of a rant there didn’t it. I hope you get something out of this. If not, well… I would say ‘sorry’, but honestly I don’t really think I am. I said at the beginning that this was going to be my journal, which means that you’re probably going to have to deal with rants every now and then.