Was Isaiah’s vision in the temple a theophany of Jesus?

Q. When Isaiah had his vision in the temple, who did he see? Was this a theophany of Jesus?

Actually, Isaiah’s vision would not be considered a theophany. That term means literally an “appearance of God” and it refers to those instances in the Old Testament when God, initially seeming to be human, appears to people and visits with them. The Bible often describes this human-like figure as the “angel of the Lord,” but sometimes the narrative shifts and it  calls the figure “the Lord” (i.e. Yahweh, God Himself).

For example, in the story where Hagar flees from Sarah’s mistreatment, the text depicts the “angel of the Lord” speaking with Hagar. But at the end of the episode, it describes Hagar giving the name El-Roeh (“the God who sees”) to “the Lord who spoke to her.” Similarly, at the start of the story of the burning bush, the “angel of the Lord” appears to Moses in the flames. But the text then describes “the Lord” or “God” speaking to Moses from the bush.

When the angel of the Lord first appears to the future mother of Samson, she thinks he is a “man of God” (a prophet). When he returns, her husband asks him, “Are you the man who talked to my wife?” But eventually they both realize that he’s actually the the “angel of the Lord“—when he ascends to heaven on the flames of a fire they make to offer a sacrifice! Then the husband says, “We have seen God!”

So a theophany is an appearance of God on earth in human form, interacting with people who only eventually realize that He’s really God. Many Christian interpreters believe that these are actually appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ, that is, of Jesus in the human form that he would eventually have when he took on human flesh by being born to a human mother.

Isaiah’s vision in the temple is different. For one thing, there’s no question, right from the beginning, that Isaiah is seeing God. He says: “I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.” So this is not a case in which God appears in human form. Rather, it’s a vision of the divine throne room, as Daniel would later have when he saw “thrones set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.” John reports a similar vision of the heavenly throne room in the book of Revelation.

In addition, while the Lord interacts with Isaiah during the course of the vision (He asks, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah replies, “Send me!”), this isn’t a case where God actually comes to earth to visit and speak with a particular person. Other biblical figures interact similarly with characters in their own visions, but this is not the same thing as a theophany. And so we should conclude that Isaiah saw not the pre-incarnate Jesus, but the “Ancient of Days,” identified with God the Father, on the heavenly throne.

Michelangelo’s portrait of Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The book he’s holding may symbolize the other Scriptures, to which Isaiah referred frequently, or to Isaiah’s own prophecies, which he began to deliver after one of the seraphs in his temple vision touched his lips with a live coal from the altar, purifying them to speak God’s words.

Does the sign in Revelation 12 forecast doom on September 23, 2017?

A 12th-Century illustration of the vivid imagery in Revelation of the woman, child, and dragon.

Q. What is your take on Revelation 12:1-7? With all the speculation surrounding September 23, the question has become a timely one. To my mind, it was was fulfilled 2,000 years ago: imaged first by Mary, the infant Jesus and Herod standing in for the dragon and then more completely as the nascent church had to endure the persecutions of imperial Rome.

I agree with your interpretation of this passage. As I say in my study guide to Revelation:

John first describes how Jesus came from the nation of Israel as the Messiah, the ruler and deliverer sent by God. The imagery of the sun, moon and twelve stars identifies the woman in this vision as a symbol of Israel. This imagery is drawn from a dream that Joseph, one of the ancestors of the Israelite tribes, had. (It’s recorded in the book of Genesis.)

The woman’s son is identified as the Messiah by the quotation from Psalm 2 that says he will “rule the nations with an iron scepter.”

We’re told within the vision itself that the dragon represents the devil. The seven crowned heads (a number of completeness) symbolize the devil’s authority over every part of the world that’s in resistance to God. The ten horns (another number of completeness), an image drawn from Daniel’s first vision, depict the dragon’s great power.

The dragon attempts to devour the woman’s son: The gospels record how Jesus’ life was in danger from the moment he was born, and how his enemies ultimately killed him. But God raised him from the dead and he ascended to heaven (he was “snatched up to God and to his throne”). From there, ever since, he’s been leading a growing insurgency against the world’s entrenched forces of injustice and oppression.

So all of the sensationalism and publicity surrounding an end-of-the-world (or “end of life as we’ve known it”) date of Sept. 23 is really a very unfortunate misappropriation of biblical teaching. It seems to be a real discredit to our faith that unfortunately will make it harder for people to understand and consider the genuine teachings of Christ and his followers.

Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to be named Emmanuel?

Q. In Isaiah, the Messiah’s name is Emmanuel. Why did Gabriel say to call the baby Jesus?

“The Annunciation” (detail), Bartolomé Murillo, 1665-1660. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, announces that she’s going to give birth to the Messiah, and tells her to name the baby Jesus.

This is a bit of a puzzle, particularly since the Bible calls direct attention to the difference in names.

According to Luke, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.” In other words, he will be the Messiah.

According to Matthew, an “angel of the Lord” also appeared to Joseph and told him, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.” The angel refers to Joseph as “son of David” to show that he’s in the royal line of Judah and that as his legal (though not biological) son, Jesus will be in that line as well and so can be the Messiah.

But Matthew then adds, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel.'” So how could the prophesy have been fulfilled that said a virgin would bear a son named Emmanuel if the Virgin Mary instead named her son Jesus?

The issue depends on what it means for a Scripture to be “fulfilled.” Let me quote here from another post on this blog that addresses that specific question:

The very first book of the New Testament, in its very first claim that a prophecy was fulfilled, rules out the understanding of “fulfillment” as a foreseen future coming to pass.  Matthew writes that when Mary had borne a son, and Joseph had called his name “Jesus,” the prophetic word was fulfilled that said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” We would expect that if the passage quoted from Isaiah here really were a future foreseen and described, Mary would have actually named her son “Emmanuel,” not “Jesus.”  So something different is going on.

The necessary conclusion is that when Matthew speaks of “fulfillment,” he does not mean that a foreseen future has come to pass.  Instead, he means that words spoken at an earlier time in redemptive history have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later, more developed redemptive-historical circumstances. This, to me, is actually a much more powerful concept:  not that humans were given an advance glimpse of what was going to happen in the future, but that the God who superintends and overrules human affairs has demonstrated His unchanging character consistently through time and has revealed more and more of his purposes while reaffirming the earlier-revealed ones.

We may appeal to American history for an illustration of this sense of “fulfillment.”  When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said this to dispute the premise that kings ruled by divine right and that their subjects therefore owed them the kind of unquestioning loyalty they would offer to God.  (That is, he said this to justify a revolutionary independence movement.) 

But when Abraham Lincoln observed in his Gettysburg Address of 1863 that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he meant instead that slavery was incompatible with the fundamental premises of American society. 

And when Martin Luther King said, in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 (appropriately delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial), that he longed for the day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:  ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,’” he explained that in such a nation, people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  This is how the “true” or “fulfilled” (fullest and deepest) meaning of Jefferson’s words would be realized, according to King.

By this same analogy, when Matthew says that Isaiah’s words were “fulfilled” when Mary bore her son and named him Jesus, he means that those words have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning.  The Greek translation that Matthew quotes has helped this happen:  Isaiah uses a Hebrew term that arguably can best be translated “maiden,” while the Greek reads, more intensively, “virgin.”  Moreover, “Emmanuel” is no longer the boy’s name, but rather an explanation of his identity—“God with us.” These two intensified aspects of meaning are brought out when the original statement is heard in the light of later developments as the plan of God unfolds.

So, to summarize, instead of being named Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” Jesus actually is “God with us.” That’s the deeper meaning of the earlier statement that can be recognized as God carries out the plans he announced.

And the name “Jesus” itself is not without significance. Mary and Joseph were told to choose this name precisely because of its significance. It’s the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, or more specifically Yehoshua, which means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” That’s why the angel said to Joseph, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

So Jesus is “God with us,” as the prophetic name Emmanuel indicates, and he does save us from our sins, as his actual proper name describes.

Is prophecy being fulfilled by Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Ishmael sharing the promised land?

Q. I’d always thought of the promise of the land to Abraham as applying to his descendants through Issac. But now I notice that this promise, “To your offspring I will give this land,” comes prior to the birth of either of his sons, Ishmael or Issac. I also notice that when God later makes the conditional covenant of circumcision and reiterates the promise of the land, Abraham asks that God would bless Ishmael: “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” In response, God reiterates that he will establish his everlasting covenant with Issac and his descendants, but then adds, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him.” My thought is that since the land that had been promised is now being shared by the descendants of Issac and Ishmael, perhaps the promise of land has already been completely fulfilled. Is this a reasonable interpretation of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis? Thank you for your thoughtful reflection.

You are not alone in reflecting on this promise and wondering how God wanted it to be fulfilled. The New Testament authors have much to say about this, and I would turn to them to help answer your question.

The author of the book of Hebrews, for example, comments on something very significant along these lines that he finds in Psalm 95. He quotes from the psalm, beginning with “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” and ending with the place where God says of the disobedient exodus generation, “I declared on oath in my anger,They shall never enter my rest.'” The author then argues that the opportunity for members of God’s covenant community to “enter his rest” (that is, to settle in the promised land) must still be open: “If Joshua had given them rest” (that is, if the conquest and occupation of the land of Canaan had fulfilled the promise), “God would not have spoken later about another day.” But “God again set a certain day, calling it ‘Today,’ . . . when a long time later he spoke through David.”

So in the understanding of this inspired Scriptural author, the opportunity to “enter God’s rest,” that is, to settle down in the promised land, is perpetually open to all who trust God by faith: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.” (I don’t have the space to develop this theme here, but the author of Hebrews is echoing the close connection that the Old Testament draws between Sabbath rest and the settlement of the land. To give just one example, in the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.“)

This is just one of the many passages in which the New Testament understands the promises to Abraham to be fulfilled in a spiritual sense, not a literal one, and to all of his spiritual descendants, not just his physical ones. Paul explains to the Galatians, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” He tells the Romans, a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, “The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”

We see this same understanding in the book of Revelation, where a vision that’s initially of a finite number of people of a single ethnicity (“144,000 from all the tribes of Israel“) opens up to embrace “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.” (See my discussion of this passage in this post.) This is the fulfillment of another of the promises that God makes to Abraham in Genesis, “You will be the father of many nations.” Paul cites this promise in Romans right after saying, “He is the father of us all.”

This, too, is a spiritual fulfillment, as Abraham is not the physical ancestor of these “many nations” (though the nations themselves are literal enough). As such, it helps us understand how the promise about the land also needs to be fulfilled more spiritually. It wouldn’t be possible to fit “every nation, tribe, people and language” into the small land of Israel! So the promise that Abraham’s offspring would possess this land is now fulfilled as those who place their faith in Jesus through the new covenant enter God’s spiritual “rest”—a life settled in God that is characterized by security, trust, dependence, and co-operative activity to advance his purposes in the world to reach out to every nation.

So then what about the land within the borders of the present state of Israel? My belief is that under the New Covenant, God’s purposes for the physical descendants of Abraham are the same as God’s purposes for every other group on earth. God wants to draw them into that great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language who follow and worship Jesus as the one who brought all of God’s saving purposes throughout human history to their culmination.

This means, in my view, that the modern state of Israel should seek to fulfill God’s purposes for itself the way any other nation should: by providing the same full rights and privileges, including rights of property and land ownership, and expecting the same civic responsibilities and contributions, from all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, background, language, or religion. I believe that it is in the context of such equality and freedom that people have the best opportunity to hear and understand the good news about Jesus and to respond to it honestly, without threats or rewards.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you as you continue to reflect on God’s promises to Abraham and their fulfillment.

An image of Ishmael and Isaac growing up together. (I have not been able to determine the artist and I would appreciate any leads so that I can give credit. Thank you.)
An image of Ishmael and Isaac growing up together. (I have not been able to determine the artist and I would appreciate any leads so that I can give credit. Thank you.)

What is a “man of the Trinity”?

Q. Several years back, a few of my close Christian brothers and I met a guy who was gifted, it was said, with the ability to prophesy. (That still exists, right?) If someone were to prophesy over you and tell you, “When I look at you, I see a man of the Trinity,” how would you interpret that?

First, I do believe that God still gives some believers the gift of prophesy. That is, God gives them insights about the character and gifting of a person or group to encourage them, and also gives them insights about the likely future consequences of the course that a person or group is on, either to warn or encourage them. But believers also have a responsibility to “weigh” what self-described or popularly-accepted prophets say, assessing it by the full counsel of the Scriptures and by the community’s collective wisdom. “Prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

As for what a (presumably genuine) prophet might mean by a “man of the Trinity,” I suspect that this involves more than just a belief in God as three-in-one. I would take it to be describing someone who had a relationship with God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We know that in some mysterious way, God is three persons in one being. A man or woman of the Trinity, I’d say, would know each of these persons individually, without in any way compromising the unity that they have together.

In other words, such a person would know God as their kind, loving, generous, care-giving but also disciplining heavenly Father. (“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” “The Lord disciplines those he loves, and corrects each one he accepts as his child.”)

Such a person would also know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and in addition as their brother and friend. (“Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family, so Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.”)

And a man or woman of the Trinity would also know the Holy Spirit as comforter, companion, helper, counselor, and advocate—all the various translations of the term paraclete that’s used at the place in the gospel of John where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit shed a bit more light on the role that the Spirit is supposed to play in our lives.

So your question provides, for all of us, a good point of reflection. How well do I know each of the persons of the Trinity? Do I know God as Father, or do I have “father issues” that make me keep my distance from a God I regard as stern, harsh, and remote? Do I appreciate Jesus primarily for something he did for me 2,000 years ago, or can I say with the hymn writer, “What a friend we have in Jesus”? Is the Holy Spirit primarily a mysterious force to me, or do I speak and pray to the Holy Spirit and recognize the voice I hear in response? (If you’re not used to praying to the Holy Spirit, consider as examples the many hymns and songs that do this: “Gracious Spirit, Dwell With Me”; “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”; “Spirit of the Living God”; “Spirit Fall”; “Breathe On Us.”)

May we all become “men and women of the Trinity”!

Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, representing all three as full persons. (Portraying divine symbolism behind Abraham's three visitors.)
Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, representing all three as full persons. (Portraying divine symbolism behind Abraham’s three visitors.)

Does Jesus have a tattoo on his thigh?

Q. In the book of Revelation, when Jesus appears a rider on a white horse, it says, “On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.'” Does this mean that Jesus has a tattoo on his thigh?

The book of Revelation is so highly symbolic that I doubt we are meant to take this literally.  The name that’s “written . . . on his thigh” is a symbol of Jesus’ supreme authority.  At the time when the book of Revelation was written, in the AD 80s or 90s, the Roman emperor Domitian was being called “Lord and God,” so the book is disallowing his claim and asserting that Jesus is “Lord of lords” instead.

I talk about Domitian and the book of Revelation in this post.

I discuss tattoos in this post.

And there’s an excellent further discussion of tattoos and Jesus as the rider on the white horse in this post by Jannette Hicks, which is where I also got the image below.

When will the rapture take place, before or after the great tribulation?

Q. When will the rapture take place, before or after the great tribulation?

Probably the best way for me to begin answering your question is to explain that the doctrine of the rapture is a relatively recent innovation in Christian teaching.  It dates back only to about 1830 and the work of John Nelson Darby.

Darby’s starting point was the doctrine of the “ruin of the church.”  He felt that the church, the body of Christ on earth, had become hopelessly corrupt and compromised.  It could no longer fulfill its purpose in God’s plan.  However, as Darby considered the Scriptures, he came to feel that maybe this had been inevitable.  He decided that all of the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament had to be fulfilled literally, and for that to happen, Israel would have to become the “people of God” on earth once again.  Darby concluded that the church had only been a “parenthesis,” an interval between the times in the Old Testament and in the future when Israel played this role.  It therefore made sense to him that God would remove the church from the earth at some future point.

Darby himself specified that the “ruin of the church” was an insight he had received from God by direct revelation, and that without it, a person would not derive his system from the Bible.  I personally find that the Bible teaches something very different.  I believe that Israel is actually the parenthesis.

The Bible begins with a universal scope, with God dealing with all of humanity at once, up to the story of the Tower of Babel, when humanity is divided up into languages and nations.  At that point, the Bible narrows to a particular scope, as God deals with Abraham and his descendants, who eventually become the nation of ancient Israel.  But the aim all along is to reach all of humanity through them.  God promises Abraham that through his descendants, all peoples on earth will be blessed.  On the day of Pentecost, the scope of the Bible becomes universal again, as the community of God’s people becomes multinational and speaks all languages.  Creating such a multinational community was God’s aim all along.  We see this purpose realized in the vision in Revelation of the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

So it’s difficult for me to comment either way about the timing of the “rapture,” the presumed removal of the church from the earth, relative to the “tribulation,” another innovation of Darby’s system, because I don’t believe God will ever take the multinational community of Jesus’ followers off the earth until it is combined at the end of time with the multinational community of Jesus’ followers in heaven.  In its final scenes, the Bible depicts the creation of “a new heaven and a new earth.” It shows the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, so that heaven and earth are joined together and “God’s dwelling is with humanity.”  So the whole idea of God’s faithful people, as an entire community, somehow being taken “away” from earth “to” heaven doesn’t seem to me to fit the Bible’s vision of the culmination of God’s purposes.

Nevertheless, it is true that the Bible promises Jesus will come back and gather his people.  In the gospel of John, in the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus tells his disciples, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  Paul writes in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

I’m personally looking forward to this wonderful event very much, though I don’t believe I can fit it into a particular sequence of predictable events that will herald the return of Christ.  Rather, I try to live out what the Bible says are the practical implications of this hope.  The Bible says we should “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

In other words, rather than feeling I can draw any definite conclusions about the timing of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him” (as Paul describes the event in his second letter to the Thessalonians), I ask myself, “Is there anything that will make Him ashamed of me, or make me ashamed of myself, when He comes for me?”  In my view, that’s the most important question we can ask about this event, and the one that most affects us right now.  May we all examine ourselves and, by God’s grace, live in a way that will make us glad to meet Jesus when He comes.

“The Second Coming of Jesus,” unidentifed stained glass window, photograph by “Waiting for the Word” via Flickr.