The Gospel of John: A New Genesis

Before John produced a written account, Paul wrote about “new creation.” To the Corinthians, he wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), and to the Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). There are two manners in which new creation appears in the New Testament: as a present reality and a future expectation. The current fact was what Paul and John wrote about in the passages above, and the gospel was in the present tense, but they also each wrote about the future expectation of new creation (Rom. 8:18–23; Rev. 21:1–5). Most of us have owned used things but have referred to them as new. For example, my wife’s car is new to us but preowned. When we bought our home a few years ago, it was new to us but was built in 1984. A new creation in the present tense is similar. 

Until this point (c. 96), John’s gospel had only ever been oral. The former fisherman, now an older man with gray hair, was the last apostle of Jesus remaining. He had seen the church grow by leaps and bounds. He’d testified of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah with signs and wonders. With him was Polycarp, a protege who’d be martyred when in his eighties (c. 156). Jerusalem had been destroyed just over twenty-five years earlier. In the last few years, the Jews assembled in Jamnia (c. 90) to establish a school of religious study of the Jewish Law. According to tradition, one of the first appointed deacons, Prochorus (cf. Acts 6:5), was with Peter, who’d set him a minister of Nicomedia. However, Peter was crucified just before Jerusalem fell (c. 64), so Prochorus joined John and aided him. Now, John was about to send Prochorus to oversee the work at Antioch, but before he was to depart, Prohorus was to help John with one crucial work. 

John had read Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He thought them each well-written and accurate accounts of the ministry of Jesus, though only Matthew was by a fellow apostle. However, the Synoptic accounts overlooked the earlier years of Christ’s ministry. John believed that the church ought to know about this period of Jesus’ ministry since he witnessed it. John wasn’t taking this task lightly because the Spirit had been speaking to him about writing another gospel account.

Nevertheless, as an aged man whose eyesight wasn’t the best and whose hand wasn’t steady, Prochorus would serve as his amanuensis—John would speak, and Prochorus would write. The Spirit had told John, “Write a new genesis,” so John knew what he’d do. So, as Prochorus sat poised at the writing table, John first spoke, “In the beginning.” 

John’s gospel retells the Genesis story, but instead of being separated from God, humanity is reconciled to Him this time. Rather than falling prey to sin and futility, freedom is given through the sacrifice of God on a cross. Yes, Jesus is God, and John identifies him as such in the prologue and throughout. Instead of being ruled by sin, the new Adam, Christ, conquers it so that His new creation can exist and operate in the newness of life. The entire framework of this is accomplished in the guise of the temple. When we read Genesis 1–2, ancient easterners would have read it as God creating a temple in which to dwell. We call it heaven and earth, but the story sounds much like the construction of an ancient temple. Images were placed in the temple, and when God rests, readers/hearers would have associated that with Him taking up residence after a period of conflict. The conflict was ordering creation from chaos. 

God constantly desired fellowship with humanity. His plan to achieve this: He takes on flesh and once more merges heaven and earth in the Incarnation (John 1:1–3, 14). This time, the divine humbles Himself to take on flesh (cf. Phil. 2:5–8). Humans have approached God through the temple for centuries, a sacred space designated where humanity and God met. Before this, it was the tabernacle, and when Jesus came in the flesh, He came to “dwell” (literally, “tabernacle”) among us (John 1:14). God steps out from the Holy of Holies to walk among humanity and redeem it. 

God begins recreation. That is, He’s making all things new. Following the creation story itself, John shows that Jesus is God and created the heavens and earth. The earth was void and without form upon creation, and darkness reigned. This is the beginning of God’s creating a new temple without defilement. In Christ are the fullness of Temple, sacred space, and rest (cf. Matt. 11:28–30). Temple is no longer a building on a specific site but the person of Christ Himself (John 2:19–21). Jesus is redefining Temple for us all because God placed man in His Temple Garden (Gen. 2:8), but now He who sets us notes that we have displaced ourselves. Therefore, He comes to us where we are. 

God spoke light into existence in the first creation to illuminate His temple (Gen. 1:3–5). Living without light would be impossible. The sun and the moon, which give us light, also provide us with power, the sun especially. Today’s excellent discussion is to rely more on things solar-powered, but even forms of energy that are not solar power are powered themselves by the nutrients the sun gives. How cold might earth be without the sun? It would be uninhabitable, that’s for sure, to see a connection between light and life. You can’t have the latter without the former. 

Now, the light of God has come to the world, and John the Baptist’s mission was to declare the light (John 1:6–9). The first day of recreation corresponds to the first day of creation: light. Jesus later said he was the Light (John 8:12; 12:46), and throughout this gospel, we see Him mentioned as such. Jesus asks that we all believe in the light for eternal life (John 12:36). The reconciliation process has begun (2 Cor. 5:18–19), and it takes the face of recreation in Jesus.

Setting the Record Straight: Luke’s Prologue

The past few years have been ripe with disinformation, misinformation, alternative facts, etc. Facebook has become a catalyst for spreading such, with algorithms set to pop up what suits one’s fancy. We have no certainty about what is trustworthy anymore, but truth-seekers can sift through the material—identifying both the true and false. It’s easy to use our preferred sources because they validate our preconceptions, but we should use caution because they may blind us in the process. When Luke wrote his account of the good news, he wrote against the backdrop of other circulating versions. He carefully investigated the matter, knew eyewitnesses, and drafted an orderly arrangement to straighten the record. 

Eusebius (4th-century bishop) wrote that the order of the Gospels is according to their composition. He noted that the apostle John, after obtaining copies of the Matthew, Mark, and Luke (synoptic gospels), “welcomed them … and confirmed their accuracy” (Eccl. Hist. 3.24). Eusebius identified other gospels such as the Gospel of Hebrews, Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and others (Eccl. Hist., 3.25; cf. Origen, Luke 1.1–3), but these were disputed. Luke noted that “many” had tried to write narratives (Luke 1:1), so he wrote in response to inadequate or false gospels. His own, however, was from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2)—neither of which he was. The other accounts contributed to confusion rather than clarity. Luke wanted to give an orderly arrangement (Luke 1:3). His meaning of “orderly” differs from what we might initially think. He doesn’t give a chronological but a topical account. His arrangement differs from Matthew’s and Mark’s but contains some of the same material though placed in a different order. 

He notifies the reader that he has investigated the things about which he writes—“having had a perfect understanding of all things from the very first” (Luke 1:3). This phrase could be translated, “Since I had carefully followed all of it from the beginning.” It’s like saying that a person had kept up with the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard debacle from when it was simply accusations. Luke followed things closely and used various sources, one of whom might have been Mary, the mother of Christ. The first two chapters are full of information that she would have known (Luke 2:19, 51). Peter (cf. Luke 6:14) and Mark might have also been a source for Luke, given the call for Mark—Peter’s companion—in 2 Timothy 4:11 and his presence in Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 24 with Luke.  Being a traveling companion of Paul, Luke would have no doubt received information from him. Paul quoted from Luke 10:7 in 1 Timothy 5:17–18 and referred to his gospel (Rom. 2:16; 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8), which has led to the speculation that Luke wrote Paul’s gospel, though it doesn’t bear the latter’s name. Nevertheless, we mustn’t discount the work of the Holy Spirit to have provided information otherwise unknown to Luke since this Gospel gives attention to the ministry of the Spirit (Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67). 

The audience of this gospel was likely Gentile-Christian to whom Luke explains various details of Jewish customs. He also uses the Septuagint when quoting from the Old Testament. One scholar suggests that Luke was written toward the end of the first century and to the third generation of Christians—predominantly Gentile. His writing more or less explains why fewer Jews than in the first decade of Christianity believe in Jesus. Both the Christians and Jews have the same Scriptures, but many Jews rejected Jesus as the Christ. Yet, Luke aims to show continuity between the story of Israel and the church. He doesn’t see it as two separate religions but as the continuation of the one.  

Theophilus’ (“he who loves God”) identity has been widely debated as that of either a Roman official (cf. Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25), a financier of Luke’s work, or a wealthy Christian who housed a church. Another possibility was that Theophilus was Luke’s inspiration—not in the sense of the Holy Spirit’s inspiring one—and the mention of his name was a mere dedication of the work to Theophilus. This writing was to give him certainty of what he’d already learned. 

Some interesting facts about Luke:

  • His gospel account appears in all early lists of the New Testament canon.
  • His gospel and Acts are written in sophisticated Greek.
  • They are also written as ancient epics were (e.g., Homer, Odyssey; Virgil, Aeneid).

A Second Chance in the Land

“Maintain justice,” God commands (Is. 56:1; cf. 61:8). Not only had idolatry been a problem for Judah, but perverted justice had too: 

O LORD, how long shall I cry, and you will not hear? Even cry out “Violence!” And you will not save. Why do you show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; there is strife, and contention arises. Therefore the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore perverse judgment proceeds.

(Hab. 1:1–4)

Much of what follows is God explaining justice. The foreigner and eunuch might have otherwise believed themselves excluded (Deut. 23:1–3; cf. Lev. 21:18–20), but God welcomes them and urges the same of his people (Is. 56:3–8). The corrupt rulers of Israel have led many astray, but some have even known to follow the Lord despite the instruction of their leaders (57:1–2). God plans to refuse the idolater (57:11, 13), but if an idolater returns to God, he will accept and heal them (57:15–21). Yet, the one who perverts justice and engages in idolatry presumes that they are still favored because of their worship, but worship will not cover their sins, especially if they exploit others and the holy days (58:3–10, 13–14). This behavior landed them in exile (59:1–4, 14–15), so returning home should accompany repentance (59:20). God wanted his people to be a part of injustice’s solution (59:16).  

Considering all that Judah has done, chapter 60 paints a beautiful picture of God’s forgiveness and restoration. “Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you down, but I have had mercy on you” (60:10). “Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age” (60:15). Isaiah saw a restored Jerusalem as a renewed Jerusalem (60:19–22), and John saw the heavenly Jerusalem as something similar yet better (Rev. 21:9–11, 22–26). 

Either the servant or the prophet announces the good news to rebuild what had been torn down (61:1–4). When Jesus read from Isaiah, he identified himself with this servant (Luke 4:16–21). Rather than rebuilding the city of Zion, he rebuilt the people of God by preaching the good news of the kingdom of God and restoring those to God who had been “exiled” from him despite being in Judea. One of my favorite passages in Isaiah is 61:10 (cf. 62:5), “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Similar imagery of Christ and his bride, the church, appears in Ephesians 5. 

In Churches of Christ, brethren have sometimes erringly taken verses and transposed them for our theology. For example, Isaiah 62:2 has often been used to describe how we came to be called “Christians,” but that wasn’t what Isaiah was speaking about. Just two verses later, the explanation of verse 2 is given, “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.”Also, verse 12 adds,  “They shall be called, ‘The Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD’; and you shall be called, ‘Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.’” Just because a verse might suit a preconceived belief doesn’t mean that’s the best way to use that verse. The whole of chapter 62 is to show how God will forgive and bless Judah and Jerusalem, and 63 explains why God punished them and remembered his mercy towards them (v. 11). A prayer of repentance is given in 63:15–64:12. The servants of the Lord will be blessed, but those who rebel will suffer (65:1–16). 

In Isaiah 65:17, a familiar theme arises—new heavens and new earth. This is something that both Peter (2 Peter 3:13) and John (Rev. 21:1) write about too. Isaiah’s new heaven and earth have one significant difference—death remains (65:20). It no longer exists in John’s new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:4). I don’t take Isaiah’s as an end-times (eschatological) reading because death is still present. Everything listed can be read as juxtaposed to exilic suffering, with the former things being that which is written in the preceding verses. Furthermore, the messianic promises have yet to be fulfilled, so this can’t refer to the new creation that is post-resurrection and judgment. As we read chapter 66, God’s worshippers who also engage in pagan rituals and unjust living have their offerings regarded as actual sins (66:3). The end-times new creation doesn’t need sacrifice, nor will there be unrighteousness, as depicted in verse 4 (cf. Rev. 21:8). Finally, Isaiah’s new heavens and earth will be “before” God (66:22), but God will be “in” John’s (Rev. 21:3).  

God’s Plan of Hope

Isaiah 49–55 belongs in the greater narrative of 40–55—post-exilic material. That’s to say, the exile has occurred, and God is speaking to his people about his plans. Israel’s sins have been atoned for, and God has promised his forgiveness and hope to them. However, they’re still coming to grips with Zion’s falling. As God has previously tried to do, he continues to explain that they shouldn’t misunderstand—their sins were the cause (50:1). 

Israel, the servant of the Lord (49:3), is to be a light to the nations going forward. God’s salvation would reach the ends of the earth as they did this (49:6; cf. 42:4, 6). Isaiah wished to comfort the exiles (50:4), reminding them of how he was treated before and how God would vindicate him (50:5–11). The righteous need only to continue being faithful because God will return them to his goal of creation—Eden and the garden (51:1–3). In this case, however, the imagery is applied to a return to Jerusalem. 

Since some were living in a foreign land and under constant worry (51:13), God promised that they wouldn’t go to the grave in Babylon (51:14). For those still in Zion, they too were worried—what had happened? They felt abandoned by God, and in some respect, they were (54:7–8). Yet, a messenger comes to Zion with the news—“Your God reigns” (52:7) and that he will return to Zion (52:8). 

The suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13–53:12 was Israel and is the final of several servant songs throughout Isaiah (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11). Israel, the servant, was severely wounded, but his resurgence would astonish the nations (52:14–53:1). Israel grew from Jacob as a young nation—nothing overtly special about his appearance. Very common indeed (52:2–3). What Israel suffered through conquering and exile made it seem as if God rejected him, and his wounds were for the transgressions and iniquities of the people (53:4–5). Everyone was guilty of this sin (53:6). His suffering was God’s way of restoring all people to himself, and the servant’s grief led to his exaltation. The early church saw in this passage the suffering of Jesus (Acts 8:32–35). Did they misappropriate the passage? Certainly not. Jesus was the embodiment of Israel (Matt. 2:13–15).  

God promises an eternal covenant of peace with Israel (ch. 54), and he invites them all to himself in a state of repentance (55:6–7). When Israel looks at how she’d treat others, they may think that an eye for an eye is the method for those who’ve wronged them. However, God’s ways are far different (55:8–9). Unlike a mortal man, he does not regard others as humans would. This was his promise, and because he has given his word, it would not return empty but come to pass (55:11). 

A Conquered Judah in Babylon

Jerusalem lies in rubbles. Many inhabitants have been carted off to Babylon, especially those of the aristocratic (e.g., Daniel) and priestly (e.g., Ezekiel) lineages. The exiles weep about their homeland in a foreign land (Ps. 137). Those remaining in Jerusalem receive a word from the Lord (Is. 40:2) given 150 years earlier, looking to this very moment. Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah and was contemporary with Jeremiah, who prophesied in the decades leading up to the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon. If you were to read Scripture chronologically, you could insert Zephaniah, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah between chapters 39–40 of Isaiah. Yet, in Isaiah, a 150-year leap is made to those who’ve witnessed the city’s destruction. 

They’re wondering, “Now what?” The worst has happened. What they’ve dreaded has occurred. No Davidic king occupies the throne. Those who remain will suffer heavy taxation, foreign occupation, and rule. They will also live with the trauma of seeing Jerusalem fall and the changes that follow. They feel abandoned by God (40:6–8, 27), but he assures them that they are redeemed (43:1, 25; 44:22–23). God was abandoned by them first (cf. 42:24–25). What’s odd is how God’s people often feel neglected, seldom examining whether or not they had ignored him previously. Israel had continued worshipping God, which cannot be a metric (1:11–15). 

Nevertheless, the cry anticipates God’s return (40:3–5) as a tender king (40:9–11). God reassures Israel that though their present circumstances might seem contrary to the idea, they are still his people, his servant (41:8–10; 42:1–4). As God’s servant Israel needed to worship God (43:22–24) and not idols (44:9–11). Though they have suffered by other nations, whom God allowed doing so to punish their sins, those nations won’t get off easy for their wickedness (41:11–13; 43:14). 

Since God used Assyria to chastise Israel and Babylon Judah, God will use Persia to restore Judah (44:24–45:7). He had previously referred to Assyria as his ax to cull the forest of the nations and Israel. Still, the ax would break—denoting the end of Assyria, which happened at the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah had described Nebuchadnezzar as God’s servant (Jer. 25–26). Isaiah refers to Cyrus as God’s shepherd (Is. 44:28) and messiah (45:1). Judahites in Babylon don’t respond positively to a foreign king being their messiah and not a son of David (45:9–13; 46:8–13). On the one hand, they want deliverance from Babylon, but they don’t like how God will bring it.

Babylon sees herself as God (47:7–8). Israel isn’t much better because God’s faithfulness and grace do not alter Israel’s mood (48:1–15). God finally declares that they should have kept his command, and they would have enjoyed peace (48:18). Unfortunately, Israel has consistently been deaf and blind. It has led them to captivity and ruin, and persisting in it will not bring them the peace God promises. 

Isaiah? Deutero-Isaiah? Trito-Isaiah? Who Authored Isaiah?

Few scholars hold the traditional view that Isaiah wrote the entire book. The majority acknowledges that the prophet wrote chapters 1–39, and from there, disagreement exists as to how many other authors or sections make up the book. Chapters 40–66 are often agreed to have had one or more authors. The language of chapters 40–55 reads like after the exile, and the remaining chapters read like returning from exile. These two sections are respectively referred to as Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah. Some believe there are two divisions, while others hypothesize there are more than three divisions. Indeed, authorship would not have been a concern to earlier audiences, and it’s only a topic due to a scientific method of interpreting literary texts alike—a combination of higher and lower criticism. Scripture, therefore, is reduced to academic work and not as highly esteemed as divinely inspired. 

As far back as 1100 CE, Moses ben Samuel denied Isaiah was the author of specific chapters. A few years later, Ibn Ezra (ca. 1167) questioned certain sections as being from the hand of Isaiah. Finally, in the 18th century, Johann Doerderlein suggested that Isaiah could not have foreseen the fall of Jerusalem, the 70-year captivity, the return, or the Persian king, Cyrus. Since his thesis, scholarship has advanced in supporting dual or multiple authorship. This is readily accepted in academic circles and in some churches too. 

From chapters thirty-nine to forty, we skip ahead about 150 years. The opening passages of chapter forty suggest Israel’s sins have been paid for and that they need to be comforted (40:1–2). When we left off in chapter thirty-nine, Hezekiah had survived the Assyrian assault and sickness that threatened to take his life. Isaiah told him that Jerusalem’s destruction would not happen in his lifetime, concluding eighth-century Isaiah. Jerusalem fell in 586 BCE, and exiles returned after 538 BCE. Isaiah 42:24–25 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem as a past event, but this isn’t altogether a reason to believe in multi-authored Isaiah. The early chapters of Isaiah speak of things as both present and past—especially the first five chapters, which are not wholly chronological. However, Isaiah 43:14 reads as if the Jews were in Babylon, and Cyrus is explicitly named in 44:28. When we arrive at Isaiah 66:20, the second temple is under construction. The language of multiple timelines is a big reason for the thesis when placed alongside the other mentioned details. Plus, after chapter thirty-nine, Isaiah isn’t mentioned again. 

The belief in multiple authors has some merit, but it denies the prophet’s ability to speak about and predict future events. The German schools of biblical studies rely heavily on this scientific method of interpretation, contributing to scholarship significantly. Still, it depends upon naturalism without leaving room for divine inspiration or the miraculous. This was, in part, a result of David Hume’s Enlightenment philosophy which grew from Newtonian reasoning. He believed that a miracle was a violation of the laws of nature, as he so wrote in Of Miracles in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, so they simply did not exist. This would remove the ability of a prophet of God to be moved by God’s Spirit to talk about future events with the voice of God, thus limiting God. Hume would write, “It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experiences, which assures us of the laws of nature.” Because he and most of his peers never “experienced” such a phenomenon, the divine is reduced to naturalism. Philosopher Peter Kreeft observed, “In fact, all the essential and distinctive elements of Christianity are miracles: creation, revelation (first to the Jews), the giving of law, prophecies, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Second Coming and Last Judgment.” 

The cases of multiple authors can be convincing, but I hold to the traditional view that Isaiah is the primary source of the book bearing his name (cf. John 12:37–38; Is. 53:1). The oldest extant copy of Isaiah dates to 175 BCE and is a single scroll without any notes from copyists about a shift from chapters 39–40. Archaeologists found twenty-one copies of Isaiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls and six manuscripts of commentaries on Isaiah. Isaiah has also been referenced as the only author of the book. It is the most quoted book in the New Testament, with Isaiah as only ever cited as the author and the quotes attributed to him from the various sections of texts that scholars dispute (cf. Matt. 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; et al.).  

I agree with John Oswalt, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Seminary, that the entirety of the book was assembled over the years by Isaiah’s disciples from his speeches, remarks, and other verbal communication. Isaiah, therefore, is the source of the entire book, but its compilation was likely the work of disciples. Just a few centuries before Isaiah, we read about schools of prophets (1 Sam. 10:5, 10; 19:20). In the first passage from Samuel, the Targum (Aramaic translation of the Old Testament dating to 516 BCE) uses the phrase “band of students.” In the second passage, Samuel is the leader of the band of prophets. Elijah and Elisha exhibited the disciple-teacher relationship within a prophetic background (2 Kings 2:3). Elisha served Elijah (2 Kings 3:11) and was anointed by him (1 Kings 19:16). Isaiah and his disciples and learned ones may be another example of this relationship (Is. 8:16; 50:4). Given the notion of destruction and exile in the earlier chapters of Isaiah, it makes sense that he would have spoken to future generations. Later, his disciples may have redacted portions of his speeches and writings to fit the times, which scribes often did (compare Gen. 14:14 to Judg. 18:12). We also can’t discount the usage of dictation to scribes, which biblical authors often employed (cf. Jer. 36:4; Rom. 16:22), when accounting for variations in syntax. 

The matter isn’t a hill to die on but another perspective to the recently formed (18th century) and common thesis. Some might contend that the evidence of Cyrus’ name is compelling, but the name may have been inserted by later scribes based on the description provided. The same may be said of other portions that lead readers to conclude multiple authors regarding Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah. Scribes could have changed the language to show the fulfillment of specific prophecies. We don’t know. The only copies we have are from the second century BCE and later, and a study published in 2021 concluded that two scribes wrote the Great Isaiah Scroll. The final form of Isaiah may have emerged in the post-exilic period. Still, it doesn’t mean another version may have predated what we have that’s original to the eighth-century prophet. 

King Hezekiah’s Reign

Isaiah has been building up to the reign of a righteous king (cf. 32:1; 33:16), and in chapter 36, we finally arrive at the reign of Hezekiah. Isaiah and Hezekiah witnessed the northern kingdom fall to the Assyrians. Now, the Assyrians are at the backdoor of the Judahites—taking the fortified cities (36:1) because Hezekiah had rebelled against them (2 Kings 18:7–8). Hezekiah panics and offers to pay tribute to stop the siege—his father, Ahaz, having aligned with the Assyrians, Hezekiah wanted to only trust in God. Sennacherib names his price, but it doesn’t stop there (2 Kings 18:14–16). When Sennacherib sends a message, the scene is similar to Isaiah’s prophecy in 31:1–9. It’s a folly to trust in Egypt, which Israel tried to do under King Hoshea (2 Kings 17:1–4; cf. 36:4–6). Egypt couldn’t stop the Assyrian conquering of Israel, so Judah and Jerusalem had best not even entertain the idea. God, however, has promised to deliver Jerusalem. 

Rabshakeh (a royal title meaning “chief of the officers”), Sennacherib’s mouthpiece, derides any talk of Hezekiah trusting in his God (36:13–20). They believe that Hezekiah has offended God (36:7; cf. 2 Kings 18:3–6) and that YHWH sent the Assyrians to punish him (36:10). Given his language usage, Rabshakeh may have been privy to Judah’s internal affairs (compare 36:6 with 10:5–6). Nevertheless, his words so upset Judah’s high officials that they tear their clothes and tell Hezekiah what was said, and he, in turn, rips his clothes and adorns himself with sackcloth (36:22–37:1). What else is a king to do but inquire of God’s prophet (37:2)? 

God’s message to Hezekiah is, “Don’t worry about what’s being said because I will distract him” (37:6–7). Rabshakeh is still so focused on Judah and Jerusalem even while Sennacherib moved on to war against others, so he was sure to try to keep them in fear (37:10–13). Hezekiah doesn’t dwell on the message. He doesn’t get unraveled by it. Instead, he takes it to God and prays (37:14–20). Isaiah delivers God’s reply to Rabshakeh’s message to Hezekiah, and the word is that Assyria will not succeed in their endeavor to take Jerusalem. Before any of this ever came to be, God promised to break Assyria (14:24–25), and he does so (37:36–38). The Assyrian threat has subsided, and Sennacherib has died at the hands of his sons.  

Having prayed for deliverance from the Assyrians, Hezekiah now prays for deliverance from death (38:1–3). God grants his request and sets his reign distinct from his father, Ahaz’s (38:8). Ahaz had been subject to Assyria, resulting in hefty tributes and Assyrian gods introduced into the temple. Hezekiah had torn down all such altars and shrines, the very thing Rabshakeh believed offended God (36:7) was something that pleased him. Hezekiah recovered from his illness, but the Babylonians would learn of this and send messengers with a letter. Hezekiah would show them all the riches of his dominion (39:1–2). Isaiah’s reply to Hezekiah’s actions is matter-of-fact (39:3–7). Hezekiah’s reply to that seems even odder (39:8), but some linguists suggest that the king accepts God’s judgment and then, under his breath, mutters or thinks the last line. The Chronicler, however, reads the scene differently (2 Chron. 32:24–31). Hezekiah had become proud but then humbled himself to God. Hezekiah knew Judah would fall, but not during his reign.

God’s Judgment of Judah and Jerusalem

Many commentaries equate God’s intentions in Isaiah for the earth with the end-times (Is. 24:1–3) since he had previously pronounced judgment against the world for sinfulness (13:5, 9, 11). However, the language of 24:5 is reminiscent of the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:16; cf. 6:5). Several references to “the land” also lead us to think about Judah and Jerusalem (Is. 26:1)—“the land” is a reference to them (24:3, 13, 23). The same can be said of “this mountain” referring to Zion (25:6–7, 10). Judah here appears as a microcosm of the world. A great responsibility is placed on God’s elect. We were meant to have been royal priests from the garden, maintaining sacred space. Instead, God made his dwelling place among Israel, which shrunk to Judah and Jerusalem. Now that they have sinned, the world God envisioned has become smaller and smaller—sacred spaces now being corrupt. The leaders of Judah have sinned (28:7–8, 14–15) and Jerusalem (29:1–8). Jerusalem, however, pretends piety when God knows differently (29:13). 

As Ahaz trusted Assyria for his relief, they trusted Egypt (30:1–3; 31:1–3). Contrasted to those who trust Egypt are those who trust God (30:18–26). God’s people in Judah and Jerusalem are divided—some trust in earthly powers while others trust in God. Those spoken against tend to be the elite, as shown here. The simple folks are those who look to God. They have no standing among the elite, so the day of judgment is to them a day of reckoning (29:18–20). If there’s one thing we must all learn, the “experts” aren’t always right. They could defer to them as religious leaders when they thought of priests and prophets. Yet, God spoke against them for their drunkenness. Similarly, it may not be wine on which folks are drunk today, but on power, influence, or complacency (32:9–15). 

Hope is available (26:3–6). Finally, the chief cornerstone of 28:16–17 resembles the restored city of 1:26 and looks to a new faithful community. This stone is a precious cornerstone to many, but to others, a snare (28:13). God also promises to deliver Jerusalem (31:4–9), foreshadowing when they will attempt to siege Jerusalem in 701 BCE. A reign of righteousness is upon Jerusalem (32:1–8; 33:17–24), and this applies not only to Hezekiah but also to Jesus. Jesus often identified himself with figures from the Old Testament: 

  • Jonah (Matt. 12:39)
  • Solomon (Matt. 12:42)
  • The Temple (John 2:19)
  • The brazen serpent (John 3:14)

Peter described Noah and his family’s salvation through the water as a type of baptism, while Paul said Adam was a type of Christ. 5:14). So we may be safe in saying that Hezekiah was also a type of Christ, for the most part. He was one of the final faithful as Jesus. Here are similarities between Hezekiah and Jesus:

  • Hezekiah cleanses the temple (2 Chron. 9:1, 5, 15–16)
  • Hezekiah restores Jewish fidelity to God (2 Chron. 30:6–13, 26–27)
  • He prays for sinful Israelites (2 Chron. 30:18–20)
  • Hezekiah’s reign was faithful to God (2 Kings 18:1–7)
  • Hezekiah’s healing after being told he would die was three days, just as Christ rose from the grave on the third day (2 Kings 20:1–6)  

In Hezekiah’s days, Zion would be a city of glory (35:1–10), and the Lord’s glory in Christ would also occupy it. Jesus’s ministry on earth would resemble Hezekiah’s reign, but to a greater degree.

The Fall of Judah’s Neighbors

God is called “LORD of hosts” over 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, over 60 times appearing in Isaiah. “Hosts” can be understood as a significant number or an army. The notion of an army seems to be more plausible (cf. 2 Kings 6:15–17) because by the time we arrive at chapters 13–23, where God pronounces judgment, the language is interesting when we follow it. God calls his “holy ones” and “mighty ones” (13:3). God musters these for battle, coming from the end of heaven (13:4). Earlier in chapter 6, we saw an assembling of the heavenly court, God, with the seraphim. There’s one similar passage to Isaiah 6, and that’s 1 Kings 22:19–21. In both of these passages, God is seated on a throne, he asks for a volunteer, the court has a verbal exchange, a volunteer announces himself, and the mission is to deceive God’s people who have angered him with their sinfulness. 

A heavenly court is attested to not only in the passages mentioned and in Job 1:6–11; 2:1–6; Zechariah 3:1–5. Isaiah 6:10 seems like a problematic passage when God commissions the prophet to dupe the people essentially. However, when taken with the passage from 1 Kings 22 and Ezekiel 14:4–5, it makes sense that God would answer them according to their heart’s desire (cf. Is. 19:14). Against whom, then, will this heavenly army war? Other hosts of heaven were assigned to oversee the nations, but some became rebellious and received worship as gods (Deut. 32:8 [LXX], 17; Ps. 96:5; Dan. 10). The battle of the faithful and rebellious hosts ensue with the results being mirrored on earth—sometimes the angels fighting against the physical enemy. Divine warfare is a motif in Exodus. Each plague corresponds to YHWH attacking one of Egypt’s gods: e.g., the first plague is directed at Ḥapi, the Nile-god; the second at Ḥeqet, the frog goddess; the fifth at Apis, the bull and Hathor, the cow; the eighth, ninth, and tenth plagues at Ra. 

Angels minister to those who are to obtain salvation (Heb. 1:14), so it would stand that they would offer protection of the righteous one (Ps. 91:2, 11–12). A common belief was that earthly rulers mirrored the actions of the divine beings, so when the king of Babylon is spoken against, later believers associated some of the jargon used of him with Satan (Is. 14:12–15). Lucifer, meaning “Day Star,” is plausible as usage for Satan, given other passages about stars and their link with angels (Job. 38:7; Rev. 12:3–4). 

By the time we arrive at Ahaz’s death—anywhere between 715–725 BCE—Philistia is urged to not rejoice at the transition of monarchs. Ahaz had agreed to Assyrian domination, but that would change upon the end of his reign and the beginning of Hezekiah’s. Hezekiah changed allegiance to Egypt and led a rebellion against the Assyrian king. Isaiah 14:29 seems to refer to Ahaz as a serpent, and a viper comes from him like a seraph. Hezekiah, we will learn, subdued the Philistines (2 Kings 18:8), and did much good for Judah and Jerusalem as the rest of Isaiah’s oracle points out (14:30–32; cf. 2 Kings 18:6–7).  

The remaining oracles are poems of promised judgment against evildoer nations. God judges Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Syria and Israel, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Jerusalem. Yet, God gives a couple of rays of hope. First, he will have mercy on Jacob and settle Israel in their land (14:1–2). Second, God will set one on David’s throne to judge with justice (16:5). Judgment sounds harsh, but God will give grace too. 

Isaiah Goes to Ahaz

In the final years of his life, while a leper in seclusion, Uzziah’s son reigned with him. Yet, the reign of Jotham doesn’t figure prominently into Isaiah’s ministry. Since the prophets often presided during times of crises, Jotham’s reign did not need prophetic intervention. Yet, things changed when Ahaz became king. By the time of the events of chapter seven, Israel has allied with Syria to make war against Jerusalem. The king of Assyria had chipped away at Israel’s territories (2 Kings 15:29), so the weakened kingdom believed an alliance with Syria was necessary. When Israel and Syria go against Jerusalem, Ahaz requested the help of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7–8) thus demonstrating a lack of faith (cf. Is. 7:4–9). The goal of Israel and Syria was to install a puppet king over Judah (Is. 7:7), but God didn’t allow it.  

Isaiah urged the king to ask for a sign, but he refused to do so. God, nevertheless, gave Ahaz a sign to reinforce the promises previously made about the Davidic line. A young woman would bear a child and call him “Immanuel” (God with us) thus confirming that God was keeping his promises. When Isaiah gave this sign by the Lord, I’m sure he did not have the future messiah in mind. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be understood that way, which I’ll get to shortly. There are four possible ways to understand the sign as they understood it. 

  1. King Hezekiah was the promised son. This is a very popular interpretation and some conclude that Hezekiah is referred to in 8:8. Furthermore, the description of the government in chapter nine seems fitting to Hezekiah in the immediate context, especially when read with chapters 36–39. I favor Hezekiah as the fulfillment of the prophecy, but I also hold that the next option is viable.   
  2. Others contend that this is Isaiah’s son mentioned in 8:1–4, whose name means “Speed the Spoil, Hasten the Prey.” He is referred to as a sign (Is. 8:18) and that argument could be made that 8:8 references him, but Isaiah and his wife already have a child (7:3). The son mentioned in 8:1–4 seems to be a sign to Isaiah while Immanuel was a sign to Ahaz.  
  3. Another interpretation is that it refers to an unknown woman fulfilling the promise, but if she were unknown they wouldn’t be aware of the sign when it came to pass. This is viable but highly unlikely. 
  4. Some believe Jesus is the only fulfillment of this prophecy, but that wouldn’t have brought comfort to Ahaz if something far off was meant. Jesus is a fulfillment of this prophecy on the macro level, but not on the micro level. The Hebrew term could mean a virgin, but more often it was a young woman. Matthew borrowed from the Septuagint which, in the place of almah is the specific term parthenos (“virgin”).  

Hezekiah, I contend, is the micro fulfillment of this prophecy, but Jesus is the macro fulfillment of the prophecy. The sign is about God saving his people, and he saved Judah and Jerusalem through Hezekiah. However, Judah and Jerusalem would continue in their infidelity, which necessitated God’s judgment and his ultimate savior of his people and all humanity—Jesus. 

The prophecy can be viewed as a type/antitype sort of thing, such as we see in 1 Peter 3:20–21. As Noah and his family boarded the ark, they were saved by being on it when water came. When we board the ark that is Jesus, through baptism, we too are saved. Similarly, Hezekiah was righteous and brought about God’s will, and Jesus is the one who has perfectly brought the will of God. The micro interpretation has to do with the immediate context of the author and their audience. The macro is the whole redemptive story of creation, so there’s an immediate and greater meaning to the text. The prophet gave us immediate meaning, and the Holy Spirit gave the church greater meaning. This is how Matthew used the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures—Jesus was the embodiment of Israel. 

God promised to punish Samaria (Israel) and Assyria, and that a remnant of Israel would return. Assyria is depicted as an ax in God’s hands to reduce Israel to briers and thorns (9:19), but in using the ax, it would break and be reduced to briers and thorns (10:17; cf. 10:34). Deforestation of Israel appears in 9:8–10:4, and out of this deforestation is a rod from the stem of Jesse (11:1). It’s very easy to read this chapter as messianic because so much applies. After Judah successfully defended herself, a new age of government and peace is expected. The predatory and preying animals dwelling together in harmony is a way of communicating peace among nations, given the language used about them (cf. 5:29; 9:12, 20–21; 10:14), and through Christ, the nations have ceased warring in that people have become Christians and identify as such rather than as the nations from which they hail. It’s easy to see Jesus in this passage (cf. 6:13) and I’m willing to accept this passage as a future hope, albeit one that’s distant.  

Isaiah’s Call

What does it mean to see God? We know that no one has seen God because the gospel tells us this (John 1:18; 6:46). Isaiah didn’t see God so much as his glory (John 12:41), but what he saw in this vision was life changing. Some may wonder why this isn’t the first chapter of the book. After all, the calling of a prophet should precede his message. The greater part of the first five chapters are poetry, setting the conditions that spurred God’s employment of Isaiah. There’s a literary genius to the structure, but we’ll not delve into literary criticism. Not only did Isaiah’s life change, but the makeup of Judah did too.   

There’s a particular irony in Isaiah’s calling. He was given a vision of heaven’s court in the year King Uzziah died (6:1; 740 BCE). The irony is that King Uzziah was banned from the temple—a shadow of a heavenly reality (cf. Heb. 9:11–12, 23)—after he presumptuously entered to burn incense on the altar of incense—something only a priest could do. This specific altar was outside the holy of holies, and as close as one could get to the literal presence of YHWH. Uzziah was subsequently struck with leprosy and lived the rest of his life as a leper, banned from the temple. During his isolation, his son served as coregent, overseeing the affairs of the kingdom (2 Chron. 26:16–21). While the king was prohibited from the temple, Isaiah sees something greater than the temple—he sees God in heaven. This scene expresses the changing of an era. An age of stability has ended, and the ensuing problem of the Assyrian threat began. 

What Isaiah saw was the actual temple—doorposts, smoke, altar, and burning coals. Yet, it’s the heavenly temple and not the one at which he worshipped in Jerusalem. The year of Judah’s king dying, Isaiah sees the king of heaven—seated on a throne, high and lifted up. He’s not in a palace, but a temple (v. 1). The reminder is that YHWH still reigns and is in control no matter who reigns and wars on earth. Isaiah seeing God as reigning, surrounded by hosts, was to reinforce to the prophet and Judah that despite threats on earth, God wars in the heavenly places against those evil forces (cf. Eph. 6:12). 

Isaiah, next, sees seraphim. This is the only place they are mentioned, but elsewhere, the term is used in reference to serpents and their venom (Num. 21:4–9). The conclusion has been made by some that these angels were winged serpents of some sort. The Nehushtan was destroyed during Hezekiah’s reign (2 Kings 18:4) and may have very well occupied space in the temple when Isaiah received his commission. Next is the trisagion chanted by the angels—it is antiphonal and causes the foundations to shake. This reminds me of a passing car whose bass is so loud that your car or windows rattle. Such is the nature of their voices and praise. YHWH is one of the “hosts.” Other passages attest to God being surrounded by multitudes (cf. Deut. 32:8 [LXX]; Job 1:6–11; 2:1–6; Ps. 82; 1 Kings 22:19–23; Ezek. 14:4–5), but this might be better rendered “armies.” Isaiah would have understood it that way, and in the coming struggles with the Assyrians, it would have been significant (Is. 13:4; 24:21; 31:4). 

Imagine for a moment seeing the most august scene ever. There’s the majesty of God, flanked by fiery angels from whose wings you can feel the breeze. They continually chant this chorus with such beauty that it sends chills down your spine. At the same time, their voices are so rich and powerful that the foundations quake. Not only do the words of their chorus strike you, but the performance of them is something you feel pierce your very being. Smoke engulfs the area, and it reminds you of what you’ve heard your ancestors saw in Sinai many centuries ago. The effect is terror. You pause from the awe of taking it in to the realization of where you are and what you’re like, and who you’re before. 

‘Woe is me; I am  lost!” Why does he feel so? The ending of the passage tells us why, but not so much in English as in Hebrew. “The king, the LORD of hosts, my eyes have seen.” It’s vital to note here that the term used of Uzziah is the same used of God—hammelek. The death of the king threatens stability, but God is all the stability that Judah needs. Isaiah appears before God in a state of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. In our present existences, no one can see God and live (Exod. 33:18–20; cf. Gen. 32:30; Judg. 6:22). This was what frightened Isaiah. He assumed the sins of the people as well as his own and believed there was no way to survive this. However, the very God whose holiness can consume the profane (cf. Lev. 10:1–2; 2 Sam. 6:6–7), can also cleanse. In similar temple imagery, one of the seraphim takes burning coal to cleanse the prophet, atoning for his sin. Isaiah need not fear. He is cleansed. He can remain. 

Isaiah’s commission began with seeing God. Now, it turns to hear him. Isaiah readily accepts God’s commission, but the message he is to deliver will fall on deaf ears. The wonders that he’ll work will be seen by blind eyes. The hearts of the people are already turned against God, and Isaiah’s ministry will be unsuccessful in terms of people responding positively to it. When the prophet inquires how long this will last, we see that God has decided to judge Judah. It’s going to last until judgment comes. Why bother? God bothers because he cares. He bothers because he wants them to know that they have heaped up judgment on themselves, not only through Isaiah’s ministry, but even through all those who’ve come before him. Success here isn’t defined by how many people respond to the prophetic call, but how faithful the prophet is to God in delivering the message. Fidelity to God—that’s success. 

A Prelude to Isaiah

The above image is a painting by James Tissot (c. 1896) titled “Isaiah,” from the Jewish Museum

The prologue to Isaiah in The Wycliffe Bible reads, “Isaiah is worth to be said not only a prophet, but more, a gospel, for he declares so openly … of Christ and of [the] Holy Church, that you guess him not only to ordain and profess a thing to come, but to ordain a story of things passed.” Reading Isaiah as Christians leads us to look for nuggets of Messianic material. Having read the New Testament, Isaiah is quoted at large, with passages being connected to the life of Jesus. I want us to resist the urge to read Isaiah that way primarily. Why? That’s likely not how the original audience read it. They were concerned with their lifetimes and the prevailing circumstances and not something centuries ahead. Nevertheless, in the unseen and distant future, some things would occur, and in the immediate context, we’ll see how they would have understood it and how it became just a part of the larger story of God’s people—even to the time of Christ. 

Isaiah was written during a crisis by a prophet bearing that name—which means “Yah is Salvation.” So anytime you see a name ending with –ah or –el, that’s Hebrew for God’s name. For example, Samuel means “name of El” or “El has heard.” Jeremiah’s name means either “Yah will exalt” or “appointed by Yah.” The first thirty-nine chapters detail the crisis Isaiah faced, spanning four kings, the prophet having access to them (7:3). Isaiah’s ministry was from 740–681 BCE, receiving his prophetic call when Uzziah died (Is. 6:1), 740–739 BCE. His access to the kings and priests (8:1–2) has led to the suggestion that he was aristocratic, royalty, or priestly. 

During his tenure as a prophet, he’d see the tiny kingdom of Judah exist in a world of three superpowers—Egypt to the south, Assyria to the north, and Babylon to the east. In 721 BCE, he’d see the northern kingdom of Israel fall to the Assyrians. Judah sought the military aid of Egypt to protect them from Assyria, but Isaiah would preach that Judah needed to trust in God alone. In 701 BCE, he’d see the Assyrians attempt to besiege Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah. After, Hezekiah invites the Babylonians over to see the wealth of Judah and to provide protection from the Assyrians. Isaiah rebukes Hezekiah for this, saying that Babylon would destroy Judah—something that would occur in 586 BCE. In 681 BCE, he detailed the Assyrian King, Sennacherib’s death (37:38), being put to death himself during Manasseh’s reign by, according to tradition, being sawn in two. 

We all have ideas of what a prophet is, but we need to understand (biblically) what a prophet did. The Hebrew nabi is translated as “prophet” but can also be translated as “spokesman.” The prophet spoke for God, delivering His message. But, as Isaiah 6 will disclose, they also saw visions of heavenly matters to talk to their current events (cf. 1 Kings 22:19–23; Ezek. 1, 10; Dan. 7:9–14). One way to think of a prophet is to think of a holy person who counsels kings, peoples, and priests. Their counsel was often the word of the Lord, but at times, it was based on just natural wisdom from being a holy person of God (cf. 2 Sam. 16:23). Prophets could also have a voice in the heavenly court through prayer (Gen. 20:7, 17; 1 Kings 13:4–6), and Moses was said to have received the law through the mediation of angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2) when he was immersed in the clouds (Ex. 24:1–2, 9–11, 15). 

His message is one of judgment and hope. God’s judgment will purify Jerusalem to make it possible for God to fulfill His promises. The first promise is a Davidic king whose kingdom is forever established (2 Sam. 7:12–16). All kings of Judah were descendants of David, but their kingdoms were only temporary. The Kingdom of God through Jesus would be this specific rule of which the Lord promised on the grand scale, while in the context, it may refer to Hezekiah. The second promise was fidelity to the covenant (Exod. 19:5–6). The third promise was that Israel would be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:2–3). 

I’m going to suggest we read Isaiah the following way: 

  • Isaiah 6 details the prophet’s call and the focus of his message. 
  • Isaiah 1–6 speaks about Old (current) Jerusalem and New (future) Jerusalem. 
  • Isaiah 7–12 addresses King Ahaz. 
  • Isaiah 13–23 tells about the fall of Israel’s neighbors, including Babylon. 
  • Isaiah 24–27 speaks about the lofty city (sinful Jerusalem).
  • Isaiah 28–35 detail the rise and fall of Jerusalem. 
  • Isaiah 36–38 records the rise of King Hezekiah. 
  • Isaiah 39 records the fall of King Hezekiah. 

This is only the first section of the book with its themes. Once we get to the second section, we’ll set a similar structure, and I’ll address the notion of 1 & 2 Isaiah. 

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