The Spirit of the Lord, §3: Deus Nobiscum

All of this is evident from the pericope itself, but things become even clearer when we place Isa. 9 in relation to other prophetic texts. For our purposes, Isaiah 61 and Micah 4 will be sufficient to make clear the meaning of Immanuel—God is with us. If we turn to these texts, we will see that any attempt to interpret the Prince of Peace as offering merely an internal, spiritual peace is bound to deconstruct. In fact, such an interpretation undermines the very heart of the gospel.

One of the important elements of Old Testament prophecy is that they are temporally multivalent; that is, prophecies simultaneously refer to different periods of time, including the present, the near future, and the distant future. As such, they are open to multiple interpretations, since not all temporal meanings are equal in value. For example, Isa. 9:6-7 is most immediately a reference to Isaiah’s own son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isa. 8:1-4), but of course as Christians we also read this passage as a reference to the coming of the Christ child. But there is another reference in the text to the eschatological future when Christ comes again in the parousia to reign on David’s throne “from this time onward and forevermore.”

Isaiah 61 is a key chapter in Third Isaiah (Isa. 56-66). The chapter is written from the perspective of the prophet himself as one called to offer a message of hope and liberation to the refugees in Babylonian captivity. His message is unabashedly holistic; there is no separation between spiritual and physical. The proclamation of liberation is not only to people who are oppressed by sin and guilt; the liberation is proclaimed “to the captives” and “to the prisoners.” They are “brokenhearted” because of their physical displacement and their sociopolitical devastation. In the world of the Old Testament, damnation is death and salvation is life—not just “spiritual death” or “spiritual life,” but rather death as Sheol and life as the kingdom of God. The same goes for the New Testament, where Jesus declares, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). Any attempt to read “life” as something internal, psychological, and spiritual fails to due justice to the radical wholeness of shalom.

The connection between Old and New is strongest precisely here in Isa. 61, because it is this passage which Jesus himself quotes in the temple at the start of his ministry in the Gospel of Luke. When Jesus came to Nazareth and began to teach in the synagogue, he spoke these words:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lk. 4:18-19)
And after rolling up the scroll and sitting down, Jesus then tells his astounded audience: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). Here we see the prophetic multivalence at work in a very rich way. The original text from Third Isaiah speaks most directly about the prophet himself in his calling to proclaim hope to the people in captivity. Then in Luke we see that this text applies to Jesus as the promised Messiah. But the passage has a third application to the eschatological future—“the year of the LORD’s favor”—about which the enthroned Christ says, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

The point is that Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, fulfills this prophecy in a twofold sense. On the one hand, in his life, death, and resurrection, he truly completed the threefold messianic office (munus triplex) of prophet, priest, and king, according to which he accomplished liberation for those in captivity. On the other hand, what he accomplished has not yet been consummated and his proclamation of good news has not yet reached all the poor and the oppressed. In a sense, this is what we mean when we say that the kingdom of God is “already” and “not yet.” However, the already-not yet dialectic can be misleading unless we clarify its meaning. We do not mean that the kingdom of God is “already started” but “not yet complete,” nor is it “already a possibility” but “not yet an actuality.” What we mean to say is that the new creation is “already complete” but “not yet consummate,” or “already an actuality” but “not yet manifest as a possibility for all,” or “already perfected” but “not yet revealed”—the work is finished (Jn. 19:30), but the reconciliation in Jesus Christ awaits its final unveiling at the end of the age. The new creation has come in fullness for all but remains hidden from all. Indeed, the old order has been definitely nullified by the arrival of the new ontological order in Jesus Christ—“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)—but this new creation awaits ontic-existential correspondence. Jesus Christ effected the new creation in his very being, and thus, in a true sense, everything has become new. However, not all creaturely being corresponds to the being of Christ, and thus the fullness of God’s liberative grace has not yet reached “to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).

The danger we must strenuously oppose is the unbiblical notion that Christ’s first coming is spiritual while his second coming is physical. We see hints of this in Scripture and the church has allowed this dichotomy to seep into our way of thinking about the two comings of God. So we speak of the first as dealing with our sin and guilt, and we speak of the second as bringing about the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” We speak of the spiritual comfort and deliverance which Jesus brought to the world in his incarnation, but then of the physical comfort—“he will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 21:4)—and physical deliverance—“when this perishable body puts on imperishability” (1 Cor. 15:54)—that comes with his parousia. And to an extent this is true: Christ indeed came to liberate us from our bondage to sin and guilt, and our bodily redemption awaits its fulfillment in the resurrection of the dead.

These biblical caveats notwithstanding, we must remember that the distinction between present and future is not between spiritual and physical. While there is indeed a strong strand of ancient thinking that tends toward this kind of sharp dualistic distinction, we must insist that God’s liberative reign encompasses the whole of life even now. Even though, in a certain sense, Christ’s act of liberation is not truly complete until the eschatological reign of God comes and Christ consummates the redemption of the world, we must remember that the eschaton is not a second liberation but merely the universal revelation of the one act of reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ. We must appropriately distinguish between what God has accomplished and what God will accomplish—in which what God will accomplish is the revelation of what God has accomplished—but we must not make the error of dividing the work of Christ into spiritual and physical categories. Dualistic thinking has grave theological consequences, and in what follows I present five theological reflections on why dualism runs contrary to the gospel.


WTM said…
You might think about re-working the 'already, not yet' stuff as being perfect but hidden, that is, actual but not yet entirely manifest.
D.W. Congdon said…
That's what I intended to convey, but I'll add a line to make that clearer.
byron said…
what God will accomplish—in which what God will accomplish is the revelation of what God has accomplished

Jesus' resurrection from the dead was not yet the resurrection of the dead. It was the first fruits (1 Cor 15:20) and he is the firstborn (Rev 1:5), but the harvest, the great family, is not yet here. ‘The Christ event cannot then itself be understood as fulfilling all promises, so that after this event there remains only the sequel of its being unveiled for all to see.’ (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 214). Indeed, according to Moltmann, Christ himself is not yet who he shall be (1 Cor 15:20-28; Crucified God, 186-88).

Is the believer’s present experience of an unredeemed groaning world mere appearance awaiting the exposure of its hidden redemption? In one sense yes, but in another, isn't death still the last enemy awaiting its final defeat? Death is defeated in the risen Christ, but the universe has not yet been summed up in Christ. So I agree that now vs not yet is not 'spiritual' vs 'physical' (thanks for this great critique of that insipid assumption), but might it be 'in Christ' vs 'not yet in Christ'?