Tuesday, December 18, 2007

'The Glory=Salvation of God'-- 'All Flesh will see it Together'

One of the major and glorious choral sections in Handel's 'Messiah' has the choir singing over and over about 'the glory of the Lord, which all flesh will see together'. This is, of course, a repetition of Isaiah 40.5.

Luke, at Lk. 3.6, as is his want, is drawing on the LXX rather than the MT version of Isaiah 40.5, as there is a salient difference between the two versions. Lk. 3.6 reads "and the whole human race will see God's salvation'-- the other directed rescue work of God. The term 'glory' in the Hebrew has been rendered as 'salvation' in the Greek translation of Isaiah 40. 5. Apparently the translator of the LXX was convinced that glory=salvation here. Now this is very interesting indeed, and there are several minor points to unpack.

The first of these is the oft noted universalism of Luke, by which I mean that Luke stresses not that all human will eventually be saved, but that it is God's purpose and intent that all will be saved. Thus here the emphasis is on 'all flesh will see God's salvation'. This is simply the Lukan way of saying what we find in John 3.16-- God so loves the world and sent his only Begotten to save the world, not condemn it.

In Lk. 3.6 we have an echo of the speech of Simeon in Lk. 2.30-32-- "For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel." Both Gentiles and Jews, both the previously non-elect, and the elect will be included in this revelation and salvation. Notice as well how the term glory parallels the term revelation in Lk. 2. 31-32.-- in fact the Greek literally reads 'a light for/unto revelation of the Gentiles and [for/unto] glory of your people Israel'. The revelation is for the Gentiles just as the glory is for Israel.

The second thing to stress about the quotation of Is. 40.5 in Lk. 3.6 is that since Luke follows the LXX here rather than the MT we must assume he agrees with the LXX rendering of the text, and is comfortable with the equation 'glory=salvation' here. What then does it mean to say God's salvation, which the whole race will see, is equivalent to God's glory? In the context of the Lukan discussion, he has already prepared us for the answer to the question in Simeon's speech in Lk. 2.32. Light of revelation to the Gentiles and light of glory to Jews is just two parallel ways of discussing the very same subject, which is salvation.

God's glory is manifest not only in revealing himself to both Gentiles and Jews. It is not just a matter of the demonstration of the divine presence or character to the world. No, Luke presses further for listen to what Simeon says before Lk. 2.32--- "For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared according to the face of all the people" (a literal rendering). In Lk. 2.30-32 then we hear in close succession about salvation, revelation and glory, all closely associated. The term salvation of course makes clear the end or aim of the revelation, and also the glory. The aim is the rescuing, saving, redemption of both Gentiles and Jews.

Here I think, in our wonderful Christmas story is as clear a revelation of the other-directed character of God, which involves God revealing, saving, and bringing glory to his people.

Luke was not the first to associate Isaiah 40.5 with eschatological salvation. We find this idea at Qumran as well at 1QS 8.14-15; 9.19-20, but also in Bar. 5.7 and Testament of Moses 10.3-4. It appears there were many thinking along these lines about Isaiah 40.5, associating glory with God's redemptive work. And here is the punch line. The glory of God is most revealed when God indiscriminantly saves people, whether they are part of his chosen people or not. The salvation 'which all flesh will see' reveals the real heart and character of God-- which is other directed, and self-sacrificial, even to the point of giving up his only Begotten Son. In other words, God doesn't just exhibit a covenant love to those whom he has always and already promised redemption, help healing-- his Jewish people. God comes and saves those he has made no promises to, and has had no covenant relationship with at all! Paul explains further the nature of this radical indiscriminant love in Romans 5--"You see at the right time , when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly... while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son...'

Throughout the Psalms, and in various places in the OT, we hear about God vindicating the righteous, the upright, the holy. What is different about the Gospel, whether in Luke or in Paul, is the theme of the saving/justifying/setting right of the unrighteous, the sinners, the enemies of God, which has as its presupposition 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God'. This was a scandalous message then, and it still is now. How dare God do that?

The baby lying in the manger reminds us, not of the inherently righteous character of those God came to favor. It reminds us not of the inherently good character of all humanity. It reminds us that in spite of everything we have become, God still loves us, and has provided a means by which we may be saved, if we will but respond to the Good News, if we will but welcome this one child into our homes and lives.

Handel was right when he finished writing Messiah and said 'I did think I saw heaven open, and the glory of God revealed'. Indeed, what redounds to God's glory more than anything else is his salvation plan of other-directed love that includes the least, last, and lost, as well as the first, most, and found. The Hound of Heaven has come down, and is on the loose in the world, in the form of an unassuming, beguiling child. Christmas is for everyone, everywhere--- but will you merely 'keep Christmas', or will you give it away?

This is a Christmas message worth celebrating forever.


Charlie said...

Very interesting, Ben. I have always read glory as some sort of visual display of God's holiness, something awesome that we will see with our eyes. But I've never made the connection before with glory=salvation as in these passages, and it makes much clearer what Luke was trying to say. It is astonishing, as you say, that God came not only for those with whom he had a covenant, but for those of us outside of the gates.

Unknown said...

I have a question about the Greek and Hebrew. Do you happen to know if the Hebrew word in Isaiah 40:5 that the LXX renders as the Greek equivalent of 'salvation' is always so translated in the LXX? I'm wondering if there are two different Hebrew words that are translated in English as 'glory' that the LXX translates differently, i.e. one with the Greek equivalent of 'glory' and the other the equivalent of 'salvation'.

If that is so, I can imagine someone making the argument that what we learn from this interesting situation with Luke, the LXX, and the MT isn't probative on issues dealing with God's character in the way you have it set up. (The thought would be that this teaches us about God's salvation but not necessarily God's glory... that we can't equate them the way you have. But if there is one Hebrew word translated variously in the Greek as the equivalents of 'glory' and 'salvation', your argument is much more convincing.)

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Timothy:

Excellent question. The Hebrew here in Isaiah is 'kabod' the basic word used throughout the OT for glory, whether God's or someone else's. This is indeed the word regularly translated by the 'doxa' root in Greek, and by the English word 'glory'.


Ben W.

Paul said...

"if we will but respond to the Good News, if we will but welcome this one child into our homes and lives"

Ben, I'm new to the Arminian/Wesleyan fold, and I know these discussions usually end in bulging veins (for some, at least), but is it possible you could explain to me how your experience as an NT scholar has led you to these conclusions?

This is coming from someone considering entering the ministry.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Paul:

I take it that by 'these conclusions' you mean reading the NT in a Wesleyan manner? First of all, I really don't believe in reading the Bible through the filter of a particular theological grid or sieve. I think you need to know your theological inclinations and take them into account and indeed correct for them where necessary.

I attended and received a very fine seminary education at a basically Reformed seminary. The thing that I noticed more than anything else, is that while the exegesis classes started from the text and worked up to theological conclusions, all of the theology classes, including the Biblical theology class started with a particular theological system, and then tried to help us see how that made best sense of the Bible.

I found this problematic then, and I still do now. Systematic theology should be based on Biblical theology which in turn should be based on detailed exegesis of the NT text. For example, you don't start with Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon, Edwards, Wesley, Asbury, or Watson. You start with the Bible. You then ask the question how the very earliest interpreters of the Bible who spoke the same Greek as we find in the NT understood the text. The Reformation took place a long time after the formation of the NT.

Of course any theological orientation has their favorite or pet texts which are used to support a particular point of view.

What I discovered in the writing of commentaries on the whole New Testament is that while the New Testament doesn't fit neatly into any pre-existing theological system, on the whole a Wesleyan approach or view makes better sense of the vast majority of texts that are of relevance to the discussion of these matters. It makes better sense of God's character, God's relationship to human beings, and God's plan of salvation. It certainly also makes better sense of all the ethical texts in the NT that warn Christians about the dangers and possibility of committing apostasy.

Ben W.

Paul said...

Thanks Ben. The only reason I originally commented was because, since I became a Methodist, I've encountered a lot of reading that frames the theological leanings of Arminianism as man-centered, un-Biblical, etc. It made me momentarily reconsider, but then I realized that anyone who gives the history of Methodism an unprejudiced reading would realize that God was definitely at work in the movement, and still is today. If Wesley was way off, it would show.

Anonymous said...

This probably makes the most sense. I came to a similar reading of Luke and of 1Cor10:31-11:1 when studying for a sermon last Sunday. In the Corinthians passage Paul says to do all things to the glory of God, meaning, so that many may be saved, possibly it also has to do with partaking of things with thankfulness. So, the glory of God has to do with people finding their deliverance in and wellbeing/joy God, a sort of subjective appropriation of what God is, infinitely glorious.

I didn't think to meditate on Handel at all, I'm artistically challenged. Thanks for this.

Brigitte said...

Quote: Dr. Witherington:
"For example, you don't start with Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon, Edwards, Wesley, Asbury, or Watson. You start with the Bible. You then ask the question how the very earliest interpreters of the Bible who spoke the same Greek as we find in the NT understood the text. The Reformation took place a long time after the formation of the NT."

Excuse me: the reformation started with a return to Greek New Testament. Just then was the language rediscovered and the call was: "ad fontes", "to the source!", i.e. back to the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. Scholars applied themselves diligently to this task.

Systems were not grabbed from heads and then forced onto the Bible. Not initially, at least. I can't speak for different reformed theologians.

Your comment is a very broad brush stroke that paints all kinds of theology as inferior, just because it is not yours, or you think it is not worth the time analyzing.

When Romans 7 becomes "rhethorical" in some sense, is that starting with the Bible, or with your theology?

Yours, Brigitte.

Ben Witherington said...

You are right that the reformers wanted to return to the original text of the Bible. Unfortunately all they had was Erasmus' Greek NT, and even worse Hebrew mss. They called us in the right direction. You will be interested to know that Melanchthon and other Reformers recognized the rhetorical character of all the New Testament, including Rom. 7.

We are in a much better place today than the Reformers when it comes to the actual text of the Bible-- much closer to the original.

The cry of the Reformation-- semper reformanda -- always reforming, still needs to be applied.


Ben W.

IlĂ­on said...

Mr Witherington,
I was wondering something similar to Paul's question. You see, somehow (apparently erroneously), I'd got it into my mind that you were a 'Calvinist' (even if not what some call "utlra-Calvinist").

While I think that 'Calvinism' is incorrect on some important points (while also recognizing that 'Calvinists' do sometimes make valid criticisms of 'Arminianism' as it is worked out in America today), it wasn't whether you are or are not a 'Calvinist' that piqued my interest. It was the logical disconnect between (my belief that you are a) 'Calvinist' and the statement "... God still loves us, and has provided a means by which we may be saved, if we will but respond to the Good News ...."

I agree with your response.

One does need to recognize one's preconceptions and then work at engaging the Bible without filtering it through those preconceptions.