Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Highway to Zion

In Matthew 11:1-6, Jesus is asked a question by John the Baptist: "Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?" The response of Jesus is fascinating: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me."

Now, for those who have been paying attention to the larger narrative of Matthew's gospel, when Jesus gave this response, he had just finished giving his first commission to the twelve disciples. Their mission, should they have chosen to accept it, was clear: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and proclaim as you go, saying 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, so give without pay." (Matt. 10:5-6).  In this narrative, the twelve apostles are like the twelve disciples in the wilderness, sent into the promised land to spy it out, and Jesus, like Moses, is the representative of Israel throughout this mission (Num. 13:1-2, 17-20). The twelve apostles go into the land with the authority of Jesus resting on them, performing the miracles which only Jesus has shown can be done.

Just before the twelve disciples permeate the land to proclaim the news about the kingdom of God, Matthew records a series of ten miracles performed by Jesus, miracles of healing and restoration which cover all of chapters 8 & 9. Within this historical framework, Jesus shows compassion toward the people of Israel because they are like "sheep without a shepherd" (Matt. 9:36), which was a worry of Moses in the wilderness as well (Num. 27:17).

These are significant factors if one wants to understand the larger narrative of Matthew's gospel. After all, it was in the wilderness that Israel rebelled ten times (Numbers 14:22). But instead of judging Israel for rebelling ten times, their Messiah comes to heal and restore ten times. In chapters 8 & 9 of Matthew's gospel, the people of God are seen as wandering in a wilderness of barren spirituality, but Yahweh is in their midst to restore them to fullness. Yahweh is quenching their spiritual thirst and bearing their infirmities so they can walk on the highway of holiness which John the Baptist prepared for them (Matt. 3:1-3; Luke 3:1-6). All of this information helps place the people of Israel within a type of "wilderness" setting in Matthew's narrative at the time of Jesus' response to John's question, "Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?"

Within this larger "wilderness" motif of healing and restoration, Jesus gives sight to the blind, strength to walk for those who are lame, as well as the ability to hear for those who were previously deaf. And lest we forget, such signs of authoritative healing and restoration are the evidence that Jesus presents to John when asked if he is "the One."

But there is more to Jesus' response than what ordinarily meets the eye. Jesus' response to John is also a very clear allusion to the ministry of the Lord himself as presented in Isaiah 35:5-6.

Isaiah 35
1.    The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus.
2.    It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.
       The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
       They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
3.    Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
4.    Say to those who have an anxious heart, "Be strong! Fear not! Behold your God will come with
       vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you!"
5.    Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6.    Then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
        For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
7.    The burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.
        In the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8.    And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness.
        The unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way.
        Even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.
9.    No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it.
       They shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
10.  And the ransomed of Yahweh shall return and come to Zion to singing.
       Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.
       They shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

In Isaiah 35, Israel is a "wilderness" and desert being restored with the "glory" and "majesty" of great cities, and even the "glory" and "majesty" of God Himself (verses 1-2). Israel is fatigued like a man with weak hands and knees, wandering in a wilderness; but God Himself is coming to save them (verses 3-4). Pools of water will cool the scorching heat of burning desert sand, and streams of water will quench the thirsty ground of this "wilderness." Even the places where wild jackals used to lie down and wait for their prey in this wilderness will become inhabitable because of the great flood of salvation promised to come (verses 6b-7). A highway of holiness is being paved for the people of God, even people who were formerly fools (verse 8). No lion or ravenous beast will remain on this path which God is laying down as a highway of holiness. And only the "redeemed" ones -- the "ransomed of the Lord" -- will walk on this highway, singing with everlasting joy, on their way into the city of Zion (verses 9 & 10).

In the middle of this grand description of salvation and entrance into the city of Zion, we find the passage which Jesus alludes to in his response to John the baptist. Blind eyes are opened. Deaf ears start listening. Lame men start walking, all because the gospel of God's coming Kingdom is preached to them. But within the larger narrative of Matthew's gospel, Jesus is not merely proclaiming God's good news. Jesus is God's good news. In Isaiah 35, a highway of holiness is being paved so that the "ransomed of the Lord" can travel with everlasting joy on their way to Mount Zion. But in Matthew's gospel, Jesus is not only the Coming One who paves the way for Israel's healing and restoration; He is also the One to whom the blind, deaf, and lame of Israel come. 

In the very beginning of the ten miracles (chapters 8 & 9), Matthew records three distinctive accounts in a row: Jesus heals a leper first, a gentile second, and a woman third. And according to first century records, these three categories share interesting similarities with the three intrinsic boundaries of Herod's Temple in Jerusalem (by which all of God's people would draw near to Him). Outside of Herod's Temple there was a court for women, surrounded by a court for gentiles, surrounded by another outer court. These constructed boundaries were the product of theological innovations among first century Judaism.  Such boundaries were not prescribed in God's Law. Modern research also confirms other first century Jewish customs which were not prescribed in God's Law. For example, a leper was never allowed within the Temple walls, a Gentile was not allowed access beyond the "Court of Gentiles," and women were not allowed beyond the "Court of Women." And yet, in Matthew's gospel, the first thing Jesus comes to heal and restore is access to God. In Matthew's "wilderness" account, the first places of restoration are the lawless boundaries of first century Judaism which restrict access to Mount Zion.

In Isaiah's "gospel" the people of Israel are called to draw near to Yahweh in the city of Zion. But in Matthew's gospel, the people of God draw near to Jesus. In Isaiah's "gospel" Yahweh has come to save His "redeemed" ones. But in Matthew's gospel, Jesus has come to save them. This was a tremendous offense to those who idolized Herod's Temple and it's theological construction. Herod's Temple was a world attraction, and many Jews idolized it because people would come from all over the world to see it and to learn about their god through it. But in Matthew's narrative, the world doesn't come to Herod's Temple. Instead, the world comes to Jesus. And Jesus says, "Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me."

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