Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Matt 24 Watch, 81: On Acts 8:26 - 39, the message of Isaiah 52 - 53 and 1 Cor 15:1 - 11

I am a little late with a for-Easter discussion this year.

Pardon, though the matters focussed at that time are always relevant.

A good place to begin is Acts 8, thus about 35 AD, with the report of Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza; doubtless returning from a pilgrimage, and probably bound for a ship to Egypt.

As Luke reports:
Ac 8:26Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." 27So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it."

30Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked.

31"How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

32The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:

"He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
33In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth."

34The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" 35Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

36As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized? 38And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
Here, the Eunuch is deeply puzzled by a famous passage, Isaiah 53. We should particularly note that (a) he -- on a plain reading of the text -- immediately recognised that it spoke of an individual, the suffering servant of YHWH, and that (b) he was puzzled no end as to who this strange but important individual was.

Philip therefore began from the passage and taught the gospel, leading to the foundation of the Ethiopian church. (And yes, on an historical side-note, the Christian Faith was in Asia and Africa at least as early as it was deeply planted in Europe.)

So, too, we can see that Isaiah 52 - 53 -- of course, the chapter and verse numbers were inserted many centuries later -- played a pivotal role in the C1 church's understanding of the Old Testament, and of the gospel. A glance at the text -- with a few points of emphasis added for clarity of focus -- will at once show why:

ISA 52:13 See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

ISA 52:14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond human likeness

ISA 52:15 so will he sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

[What globally celebrated feast did we just have? Why?]

For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

ISA 53:1 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

[ . . . ]

ISA 53:4 Surely he took up our infirmities [Cf Mt 8:15 - 17]
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.

ISA 53:5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

ISA 53:6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

[ . . . . ]

ISA 53:8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

ISA 53:9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked

[cf. Jesus' condemnation in exchange for a malefactor and crucifixion between thieves],
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

[Cf Pilate's judicial findings on sentencing him to death]

ISA 53:10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

ISA 53:11 After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

ISA 53:12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Now, first, we must note that this text is self dating.

For, as Is 52:4 reads: "At first my people went down to Egypt to live; lately, Assyria has oppressed them . . . "

Which of course puts us near the time of the Assyrian invasion of Israel and Judah, that led to the exile of the Northern tribes in 721 BC and wreaked much havoc in the South. (It also helps to know that there are two Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts, at least one dating to about 160 BC; which in all essentials read just as the above. Similarly, from the centuries just before Christ, the Greek language translation of the OT known as the Septuagint was in widespread circulation. The above text is not manipulated after the fact.)

That before the fact-ness is important, as the passage is plainly the direct "according to the Scriptures" context of the famous summary of the Church's official testimony to the gospel, in 1 Cor 15:1 - 11 (about 25 years after the event -- i.e. well within eyewtiness lifetime).

In the key parts of that summary we may read:

1CO 15:1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

1CO 15:3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared . . . [lists the chief "official" witnesses: Peter, James [Jesus' brother], the twelve [less one of course . . . ], 500+ at one go, all the apostles, Paul himself]
So, now, we see that the C8 BC Isaiah 53 predicts a messianic suffering servant of YHWH, whoo would die for sins, pouring out his soul as a sin offering, would be assigned a place of death with the wicked, and would also be with the rich in his death, and yet would see the light of life thereafter and the will of the LORD would prosper in his hand.

So much so, that kings across the nations would look up to him.

As Isaiah 52 observes:
10 The LORD will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God . . . .

14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him c]">[c]
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond human likeness—

15 so will he sprinkle many nations, d]">[d]
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

And yet -- oh how hard our hearts almost always are, we men in rebellion against God -- Isaiah 53 has to begin with a paradox:

1 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

All of this has been fulfilled, all of it.

In just one individual (and the Ethiopian eunuch ws plainly right, we are dealing with an individual, not a nation or a group) in the long, long -- and ever so painful -- history of Israel. the one who, being despised and rejected, was crucified between brigands (literally taking he place of the ringleader), and who waas buried in a ricvh man's tomb. the same who was seen alive on the third day and thereafter by over five hundred people, of whom we can identify about twenty from the official list and the more detailed accounts int eh gospels and Acts.

So also we have a sign: a breaking into history seven hundred years in advance to predict what would be -- and was plainly beyond the power of one who was taken by force and pushed in front of one unjust and abusive kangaroo court after another (Judaean elites, Herod's Palace or the Roman Governor's seat makes but little difference: do lawyers and Judges today first reflect on this indictment on their professions, when they sit down to craft ever so clever arguments and to make judgements that can ever so easily unjustly take away liberty or life?) -- then was shunted off to die as the convenient solution to the problems of power.

Then, too, we have a second sign: even as the sickening play of injusticve in the halls of power and where it leads passes in front of us, the despised and rejected one does not react with rages and curses. Instead we see a sign of the God who loves. For, the unjustly dying servant of YHWH reaches out with forgiveness and intercession for us, even reachig out to the fellow dying man on the next cross over.

So, we learn the depth of God's love: even a self-confessedly guilty brigand, now a penitent at the last hour, can be saved by God!

And, it was Friday.

The now dead servant is taken down, mourned by broken-hearted followers -- notice, mostly the women [the men having (all but one) fled in fear for their lives] -- and buried by wealthy men fromt he same tribunal that unjustly first condemned him. men who werer plainly making a statement to the tribunal -- imagine having the unjustly condemned prophet's tomb jusrt outside your city gates -- but who may also have been subtly signalling their sympathy and discipleship.

But, Sunday was coming.

(As Tony Campolo is ever so fond of reminding us.)

Come Sunday Morning, some of the same women begin from Bethany at the crack of dawn, collecting others in Jerusalem, and reach the tomb site as the sun comes up. They were debating how they would be able to get into the tomb to do some last, pitiful acts of devotion by anointing the much-brutalised and broken body of the martyred prophet.

One of all too many across the course of history.

But, in the meanwhile, all Heaven had broken loose!

And ever since, history has not been the same.

So, now the Easter Morning challenge is to us today: whose report will we believe?

And, why? END


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