Sunday, February 08, 2009

Grace in the OT?

A few weeks ago Jamie and I had a Friday date night and went to an exhibit at our local museum called "Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story". It had some amazing pieces of pottery, tools, art and other items from the time Jesus was alive. They even had a piece of Jerusalem's temple, plus several sections of scrolls from early copies of what we now know as the bible. They had a section of Luke dated around 200 A.D., I believe. The text still stood out clearly on the parchment but it was all Greek to me.

Another section of text there was from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. I wish I could tell you if it was a Greek translation or if it was in the original Hebrew, but I don't remember, because I was fascinated by the English translation posted above the text. What we now know as chapters 43 and 44 of the book tell of the great disobedience of the Israelite people, and how far they've wandered from God. Then Isaiah writes this, as a prophet speaking for God:

"Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you. I have swept away your offenses like a cloub, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.

Sing for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel."

Many times Christians think of the Old Testament as portraying the judgment/ruler side of God, while the New Testatment emphasizes the grace/servant side of God. But things are never so simple. We see plenty of harshness, judgment and even anger from Jesus in the New Testatment. And sometimes pieces of pure grace pour from the pages of the Old Testament, just like this part of Isaiah.

The word for "redeem" in the bolded section above is almost surely not talking about heaven -- it's a reference to the restoration of the nation of Israel, and their freedom from bondage. When Isaiah was writing this (~700 B.C.), his nation was starting to weaken under Assyrian forces, and soon many of his people would be slaves. The book of Isaiah is full of warnings of this impending occupation, and links their military weakness to the preceding cultural, social and spiritual weakness. He basically sees his country falling apart from the inside-out.

Yet peppered throughout the book are frequent passages of amazing optimism and beauty, like the one cited above. And almost every one of them is bookended by long lists of the heinous acts the people have commited. The pattern is like this, as spoken by God:

1) You screwed up
2) Wow, you screwed up big time
3) I love you
4) I have saved you. You are mine.
5) Please come back. You will be so much better for it.
6) You're coming back!
7) Wait... there you go again...
8) Back to #1

Notice the order of #4 and #5, just like in the bolded text. First God saves, then he asks his people to come back to him. The people's strength as a nation is dependent on their strength of heart, because this is a natural consequence of cultures. You can't build a lasting superpower on a foundation of deceit and greed. That's still a good lesson for today, wouldn't you say?

But their status with God didn't depend on their obedience. God chose them anyway, and made them his people. Not because they were awesome. But because he's God, and he said so. The same reason that 7,000 Israelites didn't bow before idols during the time of Elijah (1 Kings 19) -- God reserved them. The original text doesn't give any indication that those 7,000 used their free will to stand strong. It appears God just decided they wouldn't bow to idols, so they didn't.

But like I said earlier, themes of the bible are never quite so simple. There are instances of God's confusing wrath and seeming injustice (Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6, anyone?) and instances of God's confusing grace and seeming softheartedness (criminal on the cross in Luke 23?).

But the confusing moments of grace certainly aren't confined to the New Testament. How odd that because of one man, Abraham, God decided to take millions under his wing, protecting them, building them up as a nation, and telling them they would always be his, no matter how far they strayed. All that forgiveness and blessing over thousands of years, just because God liked the guy who came before them.

That is a theme that surfaces again...

So I stood in the museum, seeing an exhibit linking Judaism and Christianity, being reminded once again that our story truly is the same. And if you read chapters 9 through 11 of Romans, you get an incredibly positive and uplifting picture of the future of the Jews. That's a future I'd be proud to share.

I'm not done yet, but I'm done for tonight. :)


Logan said...

Wow, great post! I look forward to hearing the rest.

Interesting subject indeed...grace and justice, justice and grace.

One thing I find is that this strange combination of mercy and justice that God seemed to reserve purely for Israel in the OT was extended to the entire world by Jesus in the NT.

MamaRose said...

VERY GOOD POINTS, Bud--God's been THE SAME all throughout mankind's 'history'--BEING JUST & GIVING US SALVATION/GRACE!!!!!!!!!

AND, THANK GOD, He included us/we Gentiles--as 'grafted in'!!!!!!!!!

Uzzah, I remember--wasn't he the one who was 'struck dead' because he touched the ark--when it was falling, while they were moving it?

I always thought God 'used' him as an EXAMPLE--NO MATTER for WHAT REASON you do something God tells you/us NOT to do, you/we SHOULD NOT DO IT--something like that--and, after receiving his 'due' punishment, he went to HIS REWARD--IF I remember it right--I'll need to re-read it, to be sure!!!!!

LOVE & MISS YOU ALL!!!!!!!!! Mom

Debby said...

Great thoughts. I look forward to reading more on it. I have a question that you seem on the verge of hitting, so I'm not going to ask it...yet.


One of your trials and tribulations!

Don said...

have you read, "The Isaiah Effect", Gregg Braden. If not, you would love it. Ooops! There I go trying to add to your reading list again..lo siento mucho.

Redlefty said...

Thanks, guys!

Debby, my next post will be about the theme of atonement in the bible. If that isn't close to what you were going to ask, then fire away!

Mom, you may have heard a sermon or commentary making the case that Uzzah got a "reward" or was saved, but it's not in the bible. That's part of the mystery, to me. Crucify the son of God and he asks for the killers to be forgiven. Touch the ark and ZAP!

Don, I'm not surprised that Braden wrote about Isaiah. My next post will be including more of that fascinating prophet's text.

MamaRose said...

Like I said before, I NEED to GO BACK & RE-READ that Bible story--BUT, I still think, I think, that for folks who were 'normally' good & not considered 'bad' sinners, ONCE they 'paid' for their sin--by dying, in the OT., they were RE-instated 'back' to their 'saved'/regular 'spot'--like their physical death 'PAID FOR' their sin, at that moment--not sure WHERE I got that, EITHER--I need to STUDY MORE ON IT & I'll let you know............

MAYBE I got that from God's Salvation going BACK to/through the OT folks & IF HE 'judged' their HEARTS as 'TRUE' & OBEDIENT TO HIM, then, HE SAVED THEM--maybe!!!!!!!!!

I AM THANKFUL & DO KNOW that I'm NOT 'the judge'--THANK GOODNESS--although 'that verse' that talks about we 'WILL JUDGE the ANGELS' kinda gets to me!!!!!!!!! Probably could/should STUDY SOME MORE on 'that' one, TOO!!!!!!!!! LOVE YOU!!!!!!!!!!! Mom

Mike said...

Wow, I've screwed up big time....and there I go again.

Redlefty said...

Here's a stumper, Mom:

If people who were "normally good" have a bad end to life and God strikes them down, the church generally thinks that those people still turned out okay in terms of salvation.

But is the inverse true? What about normally bad people who end their life with an amazing change of heart, or even a selfless act? Are they still condemned because of the big picture of how they spent their years? The criminal on the cross would suggest not.

So does the end only matter if it's in our favor?

You know I love hard questions!

Don said...

Sheesh! I wrote on that subject (The Isaiah Effect) in September, 2008. I guess the memory is the first to go. I'm sure you read it. Isaiah, to me is the most interesting of all the OT prophets. He seemed to have been especially tuned in to the universe (including God of course) or the matrix, if you will.

Redlefty said...

Oops! I see now that I said I would read your article, then IKE hit Houston and it dropped off my radar.

I'll read it this week -- better late than never!

MamaRose said...

I LOVE to consider the 'hard' questions, too, Bud--as you know.

And, I DO think that WHEN/if the normally 'bad' folks REPENT near/at the end of their lives, they are DEFINITELY SAVED by our God--AS the Thief on the Cross with Jesus!!!!!!!!!!

I guess what I think is: That our God is SO FORGIVING & MERCIFUL, IF/when we EVER 'truly' REPENT & ASK FOR HIS FORGIVENESS--no matter HOW BAD a 'thing' it is we said or did--HE FORGIVES US--almost BEFORE we even ASK--THAT'S HOW FORGIVING & MERCIFUL & FULL OF GRACE I think/SEE that HE IS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

BUT, He's ALSO 'JUST'--so that has to 'fit' in there, somewhere, too.......--there's ALWAYS a 'catch', isn't there?????!!!!!!!!
BUT, HE IS 'FAIR', I believe, too!

For ME--IF He 'leans' ANY way--it's TOWARD/'FOR' US!!!!!!!!!!!!!
BUT, He also HAS HIS 'RULES'--things that HE WANTS DONE--certain ways--and, those He does NOT 'waver' on--I DON'T THINK, anyway!!!!!!!!!!!!!--that's FOR US to figure out--THE ONES HE THINKS ARE REALLY IMPORTANT & then, 'DO' THOSE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
He makes it ALL pretty CLEAR, really, IN HIS WORD, I believe!!!!!

I think we believe about the SAME THING on this one--probably!!!!!!!
LOVE YOU BUNCHES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Bob said...

Looking forward to hearing more.
While reading through Genesis and Exodus, I have also been struck by God's repetitive nature and how there is PLENTY of grace in the OT.