Seeing the Story from the Other Side (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 30)

NOTE: This is part 30 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book from Amazon and other retailers. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

We’ve spent a lot of time in this book unpacking the expectations of John the Baptist and his contemporaries from one side of the resurrection—the side that looked ahead to it. And we’ve seen how the actions and words of Jesus didn’t seem to fit. Yet, they did, and it’s the view from after the resurrection that shows us how. Wisdom is vindicated by her children, Jesus said. The results will verify the claims.

So what does the gospel look like, post-resurrection?

First, Jesus’s resurrection means Yahweh actually did return to Israel. And as the New Testament tells the story, he didn’t merely do so by speaking or working miracles through a human vessel like he did in Moses’s time. Instead, he took on human flesh and came as a human being. When Isaiah said the Messianic king would be called “Mighty God, Everlasting Father”—well, it turned out to be a literal prophecy.

When Isaiah said elsewhere that Yahweh would put on the garments of vengeance and do the work of deliverance and justice himself, without relying on human agents, that was literal too. What no one could have imagined happened. The Messiah wasn’t just God’s servant. He was God, intimately united with humanity forever. Jesus made the claim to be uniquely one with the Father in many subtle but ultimately undeniable ways. The resurrection means his claim was true.

From the other side of the resurrection, the identity of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant also became plain and clear, and it turned out that the Servant and the Messiah were one and the same after all. Jesus was despised and rejected, beaten and ultimately killed by men. He was, as Daniel and Isaiah both foresaw, “cut off.” Yet his death was not the end. He was raised from the dead, and in so doing, he conquered not just human enemies but death itself.

At the same time, as Isaiah foresaw, he somehow mysteriously bore the sins of the whole world in his body and destroyed them in the cross. With sins finally paid for and the debts of all humankind written off, Jesus rose from the dead to offer full and complete forgiveness on the basis of his own actions—and to offer life and a new covenant in his own body and blood. He became the long-awaited redeemer of Israel, offering freedom from the curse forever—but more than that. In the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises to Abraham to bless all the nations through his seed, Jesus also effected forgiveness and redemption for the entire world. It wasn’t only Israel, after all, that was suffering under the weight of sin and death. It was all of us.

So when we say there is forgiveness in Jesus, we aren’t just saying we can have an inner feeling of peace and absolution. And we aren’t just saying we can experience something good in the afterlife. We are saying that Jesus actually did something, in human history, that dealt with sin and made redemption freely available to us. Grace, which Paul identifies as the saving agent of the gospel, is God’s leaning toward us, reaching for us—like a father bending down to take the hand of a small child and draw the child near. It’s not just a nice thought or a metaphor. It’s not just a reality in some subjective sense, some sense of inner peace or enlightenment attained through a philosophical approach. It’s something Jesus did.

In his role as the Suffering Servant, Jesus also embodied and fulfilled the calling of Israel as a nation. This is a frequently missed point, but it’s an important one. We saw earlier that God, speaking to Isaiah, identified the Servant as Israel. Yet he also indicated that the Servant was not all of Israel but was a faithful person or remnant who would fully embody Israel’s ancient calling and summon the whole nation back to God.

This person would be an Israelite and would personify everything Israel had been called to be and to do. He would worship God faithfully, live a holy and devoted life, destroy the idols and evil powers of the world, and bring justice, mercy, and compassion to his fellow Israelites and to the whole world. He would love the law of God and carry it out authentically and fully. He would perfectly represent God as his “image” in creation and be a prophetic voice to the nations. All of these things, Jesus was and did. He was “the seed of Abraham,” the Israel of God.

Jesus was also a king. We saw earlier that God entwined his own kingdom with David’s when he made a covenant with David and promised to put one of his descendants on the throne of the kingdom of heaven. Much like the wording of Isaiah 9, which gave the coming king names that sounded divine, this language seemed like a metaphor of some kind—just a promise to give David a long-lasting royal line and to bring justice through them. Of course, after David’s family fell into apostacy they lost the throne, going into exile with the rest of the nation and never regaining their royal heritage. But Jesus, who was Yahweh enfleshed, was also fully human through his mother, Mary.

The early Christians formulated their belief in the nature of Jesus as fully man and fully God. One of the earliest confessions, which Paul preserved in his first letter to Timothy, reads:

And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory. (1 Timothy 3:16, KJV)

In the world’s greatest sleight of hand, God kept his promise to David and placed himself directly on the throne. In Jesus, he eternally joined the kingdoms of humanity with the kingdom of God. This is a true fulfillment of the promises to David, but it is more than David himself likely ever imagined.

“Are you the One,” John asked, “or do we look for another?” Jesus did not appear, to John’s eyes, to be anointed to destroy the enemies of Israel and sit on Israel’s throne, judging and ruling the nation and the world. But this is because John couldn’t see the wider picture. In fact, John himself ceremonially purified Jesus by washing him in baptism, preparing him to begin his ministry.

As a Nazirite, John was unusually “clean”—unusually prepared for carrying out a ritual purification. And not long after John’s death, Jesus was anointed with oil—anointed as the Messiah—not by a high priest or a powerful leader but by a disreputable woman overcome with emotion, who anointed his head and his feet with fragrant oil and then knelt down and wept on his feet, kissing them and drying them with her hair. People protested her action because it seemed so inappropriate, so scandalous. Then Jesus made the scandal even worse by connecting her act of worship with his coming death—and in a turn of phrase that must have seemed incredibly strange to everyone present, he connected his death with gospel or “good news”:

But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:12–13, ESV)

Jesus was the Messiah, foretold by the prophets and born to fulfill everything that was promised. Yet it was all so much more than anyone would have—could have—seen coming.

And it wasn’t necessarily what many people wanted. They wanted their old expectation to come to pass, not this very different picture of fulfilment. If we are willing to get really, painfully honest with ourselves, we may have to admit this is the reason for some of our doubt too. We may not be willing to accept Jesus as he is, because who he is isn’t who we want him to be. What he’s doing isn’t what we want him to do. We can’t control God or make him in our image, but we sure do have a long history of trying.

To be continued …


This is Part 188 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Mark Boss on Unsplash




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