The Immanuel Sign

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, when he knoweth to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land whose two kings thou abhorrest shall be forsaken” (Isaiah 7:14-16).

The Kingdom of Judah seemed to be in deep trouble.

Around 735 BCE, faced with the ascendant power of Assyria to the north, Rezin king of Aram and Pekah king of Israel solidified their alliance and not so subtly suggested to Ahaz king of Judah that he should join their league. Ahaz resisted, and Rezin and Pekah retaliated by invading Judah and fighting against Jerusalem, intending to depose Ahaz and install a more compliant pretender on the throne (ca. 735-732 BCE, sometimes called the “Syro-Ephraimitic War”; Isaiah 7:1-6). Just before the invasion, when Judah was told of the confederation, they were terrified: Israel was likely stronger than Judah, let alone a Syro-Ephramitic alliance against Judah. How could Judah stand (cf. Isaiah 7:2)?

In the midst of this trial YHWH God of Israel sends a message to Ahaz through His prophet Isaiah. YHWH knew the plans of Aram and Israel and wanted to assure Ahaz that nothing would come of it (Isaiah 7:7). Within 65 years YHWH would see to it that there would be nothing left of Ephraim in Israel (Isaiah 7:8). All Ahaz needed to do was to do nothing, put his confidence in YHWH, and all would be well (Isaiah 7:9).

Yet Ahaz is famous (or infamous?) in Scripture for not putting his trust in YHWH but instead into the gods of other nations and what seemed like intelligent foreign policy (cf. 2 Kings 16:1-20). Now, it seemed, he was facing an existential threat to not only his own life but to the throne of David and Jerusalem itself. To do nothing while his adversaries encircled him and destroyed him? It seemed preposterous!

YHWH wishes to give a sign to Ahaz so that he can have confidence in the word He delivered through Isaiah (Isaiah 7:10-11); Ahaz, attempting to appear humble and pious, demurred (Isaiah 7:12). In so doing he wearies YHWH (Isaiah 7:13), yet the Lord will give a sign regardless: a woman will conceive a child, bear a son, called Immanuel (“God with us”; Isaiah 7:14). Before he knows how to choose good and refuse evil, likely within eight to fifteen years of his birth, he will eat butter and honey, signs of prosperity, for the land of Aram and Israel will be forsaken by that time (Isaiah 7:15-16). The danger will pass away if only Ahaz would just sit tight and trust in YHWH for deliverance.

Ahaz does not put his trust in YHWH. Rezin and Pekah invade Judah and besiege Jerusalem yet prove unable to overcome it (2 Kings 16:5-6). In distress Ahaz ends up beseeching the agent YHWH intended to use to judge Aram and Israel, Assyria, but does so at a high cost: he collected the gold and silver in the Temple and his own palace to give to Tiglath-pileser III king of Assyria and became a vassal of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7-8). Yet Tiglath-pileser III king of Assyria did not really need inducement to attack Aram and Israel; he would have likely done so without Ahaz’s appeal. In 732 BCE, Tiglath-pileser invaded Aram and Israel, exiled the inhabitants of Damascus and killed Rezin, then invaded Israel and made all of the land save for Ephraim part of his own empire (cf. 2 Kings 15:29, 16:9). About ten years later, in 722/721 BCE, Sennacherib king of Assyria finished the task by overcoming the defenses of Samaria and fully conquering the northern Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:1-6). A child conceived in 735 BCE and born in 734 BCE would have been about 12 or 13 in 722/721 BCE, at the age of knowing to choose the good and refuse evil. YHWH made sure that the Immanuel sign was accomplished in its own time, but Ahaz’s foolish action cost Judah dearly. Had Ahaz listened to YHWH and done nothing, his foes would be gone and his (relative) independence would be maintained. Yet he voluntarily submitted to Assyria as a vassal; when his son Hezekiah rebelled against Sennacherib king of Assyria and stopped paying tribute, the full force of Assyria was unleashed against Judah, leading to the destruction of the walled cities of Judah save for Jerusalem (ca. 701 BCE; 2 Kings 18:7, 13-19:37). Ahaz sought a worldly way to maintain his throne and his head; it nearly cost his son both. They only obtained deliverance because God was with them.

Over the next seven hundred years there were many times when the Jews could have easily doubted the idea that God was with them: Babylon accomplished what Assyria sought to do, the people were exiled, returned to the land, remained under foreign domination, and experienced intense persecution at the hands of pagan oppressors for maintaining their confidence in YHWH their God. Yet through all of this the people hoped for the ultimate fulfillment of the Immanuel sign: the Child born of a virgin who would truly represent Immanuel, God with us, and He was born in a most humble way to a Galilean peasant girl in Bethlehem (Matthew 1:21-25, Luke 2:4-20). Yet again the people of Israel were beset with foes that seemed to threaten their very existence, but the time for their concerns had passed. The sign was no longer that the child would see prosperity and the destruction of the national foes of Judah by the age of 15; the Child Himself is the sign, for He is Jesus, the Immanuel, God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14). He came in the flesh to overcome the enemy of all mankind, to deliver them from sin and death, if they would only put their trust in Him to that end and stand firm (Acts 2:14-38, Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-10). By persevering to the end, Jesus obtains the Kingdom promised to the descendants of David, an everlasting Kingdom, and He serves as its Lord (Daniel 2:44, Colossians 1:13).

God was with Judah: He provided the sign of the child who would be able to enjoy peace and security at 15, and it came to pass. YHWH was able to defend and protect Judah without Ahaz needing to go compromise himself through the pursuit of what passed for human wisdom and sensible foreign policy. The cost of Ahaz’s foolishness was high, but God remained faithful to Hezekiah and preserved a remnant of Judah. Yet YHWH’s presence among His people was only ultimately demonstrated through the embodiment of the Word in Jesus of Nazareth, and it is through Him that God provides the ultimate deliverance for all mankind. We can only obtain that deliverance by trusting in Him and doing what He says; attempting to establish the fulfillment of the promise through what passes for worldly wisdom is foolhardy and can only postpone the ultimate end and danger we all face. Let us be thankful for the Immanuel sign, and unlike Ahaz, let us put our full confidence in God and seek to serve Him and glorify His name through His Son Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Confession

But [Jesus] held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and saith unto him, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”
And Jesus said, “I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62).

It was one of the only things He said, but it was all they needed.

It was really a show trial; the final decision had already been reached, and it was only a matter of formality when it came to how to get there. The Jewish religious authorities had conspired to have Jesus arrested and fully intended to hand Him over to the Roman authorities for execution (cf. Mark 14:1-2). The trial was not going well; the testimony of the witnesses were not only false but did not even agree (Mark 14:55-59). Jesus had not answered His accusers, and the time came when the High Priest again asked Him whether He was the Christ, the Son of the Blessed (Mark 14:60-61). Jesus then gave His confession, and it was all they needed: He said He was, and that they would see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62). All of a sudden they had everything they needed; the High Priest rent his clothes, indicating mourning and shame on account of the “blasphemy” just heard, and they all summarily condemned Jesus to death for what He had said (Mark 14:63-64). The next morning He was delivered over to Pilate; He was dead that evening (Mark 15:1-39).

Jesus was right, of course. On the third day God raised Him with power; forty days later Jesus ascended to the Father, exalted and given all authority, and as long as the religious authorities remained authorities they had to reckon with the sect of the Nazarene (cf. Mark 16:1-8, Acts 1:1-5:42). The religious authorities thought they were doing God’s will, and they were, but just not as they had thought or had expected (cf. Acts 2:23-24, 3:13-17); in attempting to eliminate Jesus’ threat to their existence, they unwittingly accomplished the very mechanism by which God would redeem mankind, rescue many from Israel, and ultimately to seal the condemnation of all they treasured in Jerusalem (Matthew 24:1-36, Romans 5:6-11).

Thus we understand that Jesus made His confession knowing quite well that it would be the basis of the charge of blasphemy and for His execution. And yet He says everything He says in that confession for good reason: it has been, in fact, one of the primary means by which He has attempted to make clear who He is and what He is doing throughout His ministry.

Jesus’ confession is saturated with prophetic references. And of all the various prophecies regarding the Christ, He focuses on Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7:13-14 in terms of Psalm 110:1: the “one like a son of man” receiving dominion, glory, and a kingdom from the Ancient of Days, thus sitting at the right hand of God, the right hand of power. Thus here, toward the end of His life, we are given the key to understanding what He has been saying throughout His life: His self-description as “Son of Man.”

Jesus also provides the key to understand what will happen: He will reign over His Kingdom (Colossians 1:13). His Kingdom will not be like any other in history: it has no capital, no defined physical boundaries, no army with physical weapons. It certainly was not about re-establishing the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem and overthrowing the Romans as the Jews had fervently hoped! Instead, it is as Daniel saw in Daniel 7:27: the Kingdom of the Son of Man is an everlasting Kingdom, and all dominions will serve and obey Him.

So it is that Jesus confesses before Pilate the good confession that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36-37). Christ’s Kingdom is spiritual, able to encompass people of all nations (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). It has one ruler perpetually: Jesus of Nazareth, raised from the dead, ruling from heaven (Matthew 28:18, Hebrews 13:8). Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess His name, thus saying what He declared before the religious authorities whether they affirmed it in life or not (Philippians 2:9-11).

Throughout His life Jesus proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17). He is its Ruler; we are His subjects. As Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, God has made Him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36); it is incumbent upon us to heed His word and do what He says (1 John 2:3-6). Will we affirm Jesus’ confession in our own lives, recognizing that He is the Christ, and sits at the right hand of Power, and then act like it? Or will our confession come too late and with great bitterness?

Ethan R. Longhenry

Distorting Scripture

And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unstedfast wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction (2 Peter 3:15-16).

As Peter is concluding his letter, describing what will happen at the end of time and exhorting Christians to understand that God is not “slow” or “delayed” but patient and longsuffering toward us so that we might repent and be saved (2 Peter 3:1-15a), he goes out of his way to show that Paul had also written to them regarding “these things” (2 Peter 3:15b-16). Peter says they are written according to the wisdom given to him, and that some things are hard to understand. These difficult matters are “distorted” (Greek streblousin, “to torture, wrest,” thus, to pervert) by those who are “ignorant” (Greek amatheis, unschooled or unlearned) and “unstable” (Greek asteriktoi, unfixed, vacillating, unsteadfast; used also in 2 Peter 2:14; these three Greek terms used only in these instances in 2 Peter in the New Testament). Peter then encourages those Christians to whom he writes to beware lest they also get carried away with the error of the lawless and fall from their own steadfastness, but should instead grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:17-18).

Peter’s affirmation of Paul and his writings is quite important: it represents a strong challenge those who seek to find discontinuity and inconsistency between Peter and Paul, making much of Galatians 2:11-14. Peter affirms that he and Paul have taught the same things; not only that, but Peter proves willing to cite Paul’s writing as further confirmation of the things which he is teaching, giving great credibility and honor to Paul’s writings. Paul is not an outlier in Christian theology and thought: Peter makes that clear.

What are “these things” to which Peter refers (cf. 2 Peter 3:16)? Perhaps Peter refers to “salvation,” the nearest concept (cf. 2 Peter 3:15): Paul has much to say about the nature of salvation in terms of election, grace, faith, obedience, etc., throughout his writings. Yet “these things” are plural, and the final section of the letter, 2 Peter 3:1-15a, has focused on Jesus’ return, the end of time, and the Lord’s patience, another theme regarding which Paul has many things to say (cf. Romans 2:4-11, 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-2:12, among others). Peter’s letter has also featured encouragement through testimony and warnings about false teachers, other themes which feature in Paul’s writings (cf. Galatians 1:6-2:10, 1 Timothy 4:1-4, 6:3-10, 2 Timothy 2:14-19, 4:3-4, although the parallels are stronger between 2 Peter 2:1-22 and Jude 1:3-23). Peter, therefore, likely has Paul’s warnings about false teachers and particularly discussions of the end of time in mind.

While the tone of the passage is negative in many ways, we can derive positive encouragement from it. Some things in Paul’s teachings are hard to understand: yet many things are more easily understood, and even though some parts may be difficult, it is not impossible to understand them. Yes, the unlearned and unstable distort the Scriptures: but we can be learned and stable, and handle the Scriptures properly (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 2 Peter 3:14-15). The Scriptures can be understood; we can gain encouragement from them. We can learn of God’s will and purpose for us.

Yet the focus is undoubtedly on the negative in 2 Peter 3:16: the unlearned and unstable distort and pervert not just what Paul writes but also other parts of Scripture. We do well to consider these matters so that we may not be guilty of them!

Peter warns about the “unlearned” distorting Scripture. “Unlearned” is not synonymous with “a lack of formal or higher education”; Peter himself is reckoned as one without formal education and a common man in Acts 4:13. One can have many degrees in higher education and still be “unlearned” or at least “unstable”; one may not have a lot of formal education but be wise in the Scriptures. Yet Peter’s warning is apt: many people, even good-intentioned people, end up distorting Scripture because they are not familiar with much of the story. Many false doctrines have begun and spread because men with less than stellar understanding of Scripture began teaching what made sense to them and refused to accept correction from those with better understanding of what God has made known through Scripture. We must remember that the sum of God’s word is truth (Psalm 119:160); many times people will focus on some passages or statements in Scripture to the detriment and neglect of others and come out with unbalanced, unhealthy teachings. These days many teachings of Scripture are discussed and attempted to be applied without any consideration of or respect given to their original contexts: this is a particularly relevant concern in light of 2 Peter 3:15-16 and discussions of the “end of time” (apocalypticism or eschatology), when many seek to understand apocalyptic images purely in terms of the present day, as if Ezekiel, Daniel, and John were talking specifically and directly about the early twenty-first century.

Peter also shows concern regarding the “unstable” distorting Scripture. Some perhaps are “unstable” because they are “unlearned”; nevertheless, one could be “learned” yet “unstable.” Few persons prove more dangerous in a congregation than one who has great Scriptural knowledge but is seriously lacking in practicing the message of Scripture and developing in maturity. They are “puffed up” by knowledge, and do not “build up” in love (1 Corinthians 8:1). There is a vast difference between an academic understanding of Christianity and a practical, “full-of-faith” understanding of Christianity. The practice of Christianity leads to proper understanding of love, humility, grace, mercy, and compassion; an academic understanding of Christianity often leads to presumption, pride, division, and often perversion of and departure from the message of Scripture when people begin to think they “know better” than that which has been revealed. So it was with the Gnostics in the first centuries after Christ; so it is to this day.

Peter affirms that Scripture can be understood, but warns that it can be misunderstood and distorted. Let us take Peter’s warning to heart: none of us are “above” or “below” distorting Scripture, however intentional or unintentional. Let us instead continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, derive encouragement from Scripture, and do all things for God’s glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry