The Spirit of the Lord, §6: Israel’s Messiah

When we separate freedom-from and freedom-for, when spiritual freedom is not necessarily connected with the life and obedience of the whole person, then we are on the verge of committing the gravest and most common error throughout the history of Christianity: the separation of the Old Testament from the New Testament, Israel from the Church. The strict distinction between the New Testament and Old Testament, however unintentional, forms the basis for the internal-external, spiritual-physical split that ends up dematerializing the gospel. We must beware of the all-too-common spiritualization of Christianity which, disconnected from the radical this-worldliness of the Hebraic covenant, leads to disastrous misunderstandings of the gospel hope.

The division between spiritual and physical thus tends to deemphasize the influence of the gospel upon the whole human person, stressing our internal purity of heart rather than our external pursuit of justice—emphasizing the right state of our soul rather than viewing righteousness in the proper messianic context of wholeness, shalom. In a way, then, this dualism is a kind of hyper-Lutheran, quasi-Gnostic division between gospel and law, in which the gospel only concerns the heart’s sense of security before God and the law merely convicts us of our need of the gospel. When spiritual and physical are divided in this way—when the Prince of Peace only offers inner peace—then we come all too close to the heresy of Marcion, who felt that Christianity had no need of the Hebrew Scriptures and ought to concern itself only with a few select books from the New Testament. More importantly, by failing to hold spiritual and physical together, we obscure the very foundation of the faith: the eternal and intrinsic relation between Jesus and the Messiah. The very confession that Jesus is the Christ (Greek for “messiah”) means that we must interpret the saving significance of Immanuel, the being of God with humanity, in accordance with the Old Testament witness.

At the heart of this whole reflection upon the meaning of ‘God with us’ is the relation between the Old and the New Testaments. If indeed Israel’s longing for a Messiah who would reign on David’s throne “from this time onward and forevermore” (Isa. 9:7) was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, then we cannot separate internal and external. For the Messiah is the one who unites spiritual and physical redemption, who restores creation and inaugurates the kingdom of God upon earth. The Messiah is the mediator between God and humanity, and not only as prophet and priest, but also as king—not only as Christus Magister and Christus Vicarius, but also as Christus Victor. The Messiah is the one who “will establish and uphold” the just kingdom (Isa. 9:7) and who “shall repair the ruined cities” (Isa. 61:4). The Messiah is the promised ruler, the Prince of Peace, the Wonderful Counselor come to “judge between many peoples” and “arbitrate between strong nations far away.” The Messiah “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” so that wars shall be no more and shalom shall reign for eternity (Mic. 4:3). The Messiah is the one who “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases,” who “was cut off from the land of the living … although he had done no violence,” and who “made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich” in order that his life might become “an offering for sin” (Isa. 53:4, 8-10). The Messiah is the one upon whom God has laid “the iniquity of us all” in order that we might become children of God (Isa. 53:6).

Notice, again, that in Isaiah 53, sin and iniquity are intimately connected to physical death; sin concerns the whole human person. The passage makes this point rather dramatically in the image of the Suffering Servant bearing not only “the iniquity of us all” (v. 6), but also “our infirmities” and “our diseases” (v. 4). This famous passage emphasizes the mediating role of the Messiah as the one who lives and dies as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn. 2:2, 4:10). The Suffering Servant is set apart by God for the purpose of bearing the sin of the world and bearing it away. His righteousness and life becomes the righteousness and life of others: “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11b). What is also interesting is the connection between the act of mediation and the descent into Sheol (hell). The Servant-Messiah makes his “grave with the wicked” and his “tomb with the rich,” meaning that he goes to be among those consigned to the depths of Sheol. The Messiah descends into the abyss of death. But this is not all. At the end of this hymn to the Suffering Servant, we read: “he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (vv. 12b). Not only does the Messiah number himself with the transgressors by making his grave with the wicked and the rich, but the Messiah also bears their sins away, thus mediating on behalf of the rich and wicked who otherwise reside in the depths of the pit. No person, no matter how lost that person may seem, is out of reach of God’s scandalous grace. Why so scandalous? Because Immanuel, ‘God with us,’ means that God is with the wicked, the unjust, and the oppressors; moreover, the Messiah reconciles them to God by bearing their iniquities and blotting out their transgressions. God’s grace reaches into the pit and redeems those lost in the depths of Sheol.