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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Purifying Judgment

In 3:16-4:1 of his book, the prophet Isaiah proclaims a searing warning of doom on the women who live in Jerusalem.  Though at the time of the prophecy those wealthy women were richly adorned, pampering themselves in their beauty and strutting with pride, their city would be devastated, and they would be widowed, befouled, degraded, and desperately impoverished in the process.

But then Isaiah's prophecy takes a jarring turn.
At that time
the crops given by the LORD will bring admiration and honor;
the produce of the land will be a source of pride and delight
to those who remain in Israel.
Those remaining in Zion, those left in Jerusalem,
will be called "holy,"
all in Jerusalem who are destined to live.
At that time the sovereign master will wash the excrement from Zion's women,
he will rinse the bloodstains from Jerusalem's midst,
as he comes to judge
and to bring devastation.
Then the LORD will create
over all of Mount Zion
and over its convocations
a cloud and smoke by day
and a bright flame of fire by night;
indeed a canopy will accompany the LORD's glorious presence.
By day it will be a shelter to provide shade from the heat,
as well as safety and protection from the heavy downpour [4:2-6].
There are certain principles that I have learned to employ when reading Old Testament prophecy from an apostolic, New Testament perspective.  One of these principles is, when I see "Jerusalem," first I look at what fulfillment there might have been for the Jerusalem of the time of the prophecy.  Then I look for a fulfillment for the church.  I do this largely because of Paul's teaching about two Jerusalems, earthly and heavenly, in Galatians 4:21-31 (compare to the similar typology in Heb. 12:22-24) and because John's vision of the New Jerusalem also seems to be a symbolic way of describing the church (compare the wife/bride imagery in Eph. 5:22-33 with Rev. 19:6-9; 21:1-22:5—which, by the way, has significant implications for interpreting the Book of Revelation).  This interpretation of the apostles is linked to Jesus' claim to fulfill all the Old Testament Scriptures in himself and to the picture of the church as the body of Christ.  I mention all of this because perhaps this interpretive principle will prove helpful to you when you read the prophets as well.

But I also mention it because it elevates the power and import of Isaiah's prophecy for us.  What does God say through Isaiah is his ultimate plan for the church?
  • The church will experience prosperity and blessing arising from harmony with the earth.
  • All believers will be holy—the special possession of God by association and affinity with him.
  • The filth and degrading results of our sins will be scoured away.
  • We will be overshadowed by the visible presence of the God who saved us even more broadly than what the Exodus generation experienced (a canopy as opposed to a pillar or local cloud).
  • We will be permanently protected from all trouble.
Could there be a more wonderful destiny for the church than this?  But let's look at the third part of this, God's cleansing of the degrading filth of our sins.  The NET here says that the Lord does this "as he comes to judge and to bring devastation" (v. 4).  A literal rendering of the Hebrew is "by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning."  "Judgment and . . . burning" may describe God's attitude as he washes and rinses, or it may describe the Holy Spirit's role in this process (or perhaps these are the same thing).  But either way, judgment and burning are part of God's plan for his people, part of his indescribably wonderful destiny for them.  It reminds me of a similar prophecy by Malachi that in one breath describes the coming Lord as "a refiner's fire" and "a launderer's soap" (3:2).

But it also reminds me of what Jesus and the apostles say about the church's experience of cleansing judgment.  Jesus says when describing the end of the age that
they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you.  You will be hated by all nations because of my name.  Then many will be led into sin, and they will betray one another and hate one another.  And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many, and because lawlessness will increase so much, the love of many will grow cold.  But the person who endures to the end will be saved. . . . For then there will be great suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the world until now, or ever will happen.  And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved.  But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short [Matt. 24:9-13, 21-22].
Let's understand this clearly.  God's plan is for there to be vicious persecution of the church and enormous suffering, in part so that people who claim to be Christians but are not truly among those chosen by God will show their true colors and betray the rest, will follow false teaching, or will launch themselves headlong into sin.  That way those who remain true will demonstrate themselves really to belong to God and be saved.  This painful sifting is a judgment on the church, but it is not to condemn it (how could it be?) but to purify it.

What Jesus is talking about sounds like some really big and bad thing that's going to happen in the future, at the very end.  But the apostles believed that this had already begun in their lifetimes.  Peter wrote to his persecuted readers,
Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. . . . For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God.  And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God?  And if the righteous are barely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinners? [1 Pet. 4:12-13, 17-18].
Paul echoes this theme when talking about the Lord's Supper.  He warns the Corinthians that if a person eats the body of Christ (the bread) without paying due respect to the body of Christ (the church, i.e., his/her brothers and sisters in the Lord), then that person "eats and drinks judgment against himself.  That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead.  But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged.  But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world" (1 Cor. 11:29-32).  Once again, God is scouring away sins from Christ's bride so that she may be perfectly radiant and able to receive the immeasurable, loving blessing that he has for her.

This all sounds like a downsizing process for the church, and in one way it is.  But this winnowing can and often does go hand in hand with numerical growth.  Peter and Paul wrote of this purifying judgment of the church during one of the most (perhaps the most) explosive periods of growth in the church's history.  And Jesus himself promised that the end of the age would not only feature persecution, apostasy, betrayal, and false doctrine, but also that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole inhabited earth as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come" (Matt. 24:14).

This pattern happens to the universal church throughout the ages, and it happens to local churches as well.  God wants to give his people so much, but he comes with fire and judgment, with soap and hot water to make us fit to receive it.  He will get what he wants—a purified church.  But to a certain extent how we experience his purification lies in our hands.  Granted, many great saints have suffered severely for nothing other than doing the right thing, just like Jesus did.  But then there are saints like the sick and the dead in Corinth.  Their physical affliction was a judgment for thinking entirely about themselves and disrespecting their brothers and sisters while partaking of such a holy thing as the Lord's Supper.  Ultimately they are saved; their sickness and even premature death was God's discipline to shield them from being condemned with the world.  However, God was bent on removing sin from his people on this earth even in the 1st century, and if the only way to remove the sin was to remove the sinning believer as well, then so be it.

And that's really the choice we have.  When we became part of the church, we were enrolled in a cleaning machine.  The excrement and blood and vomit on us, the residue of our sinfulness, will be removed from the church; there's no question about it.  The only question is whether we cling to our sinfulness so tightly that the only way to get rid of it is to get rid of us.  In the end, after our resurrection, we'll all rest under the glorious canopy of cloud and fire in the New Jerusalem, but how we get there is another issue.

I don't know about you, but I want to hate my sin and its results in me.  I want when God comes to scour me clean to be delighted to let that stuff go.  I don't want to make his job and my experience any more difficult than it already is.  And the last thing that I want is for my experience in the church in this life to be one of getting yanked out of it somehow because I refused to let my sin get yanked out of me.  I would much rather linger with the saints and experience the foretaste of the glory of the Jerusalem to come.


  1. Very good post. I need to read it again when I am not pressed for time. we are studying end times at our church, so this seems to tie in. I'll definitely read it again.

    Question for you: if you were part of a group of people designing a church sanctuary, and you in particular were tasked with choosing seven scriptures to display in the sanctuary (seven being the perfect number), which ones would you select? I am talking about fairly short passages, ideally just one verse; each something that theoretically could be designed into a single stained glass window. Thanks.

  2. Ruth, that is one of the most fascinating hypotheticals I've ever heard. I'll need to give this some thought and get back to you. I'd love to see other readers' answers too!

  3. One question: I'm picturing three windows on each side. Is the seventh window at the front (where the congregation faces) or the back (where they enter and exit)?

  4. I was thinking three windows on each side, and a verse at the front, but not necessarily on a window... perhaps over a baptismal.

  5. I read this again, and looked at all the scriptures this time. I heartily agree with what you say here.

    The church we attend has been going through Revelation. They teach the traditional, Dispensationalist view... pre-trib rapture, literal 1000 reign of Christ and His people before Armageddon, etc.

    I have trouble seeing Revelation this way. Everything I've seen in prophesy suggests to me that it is written circularly, not linearly. The idea of a pre-trib rapture goes against everything I see in Matthew 24, as well as everything I see in Revelation 1-2 where the 7 churches are all warned to stand firm and (where appropriate) clean up their acts so they will be ready for what is coming.

    These things lead me to lean in an amillenial (sp?) direction, as does your post here. God pours out judgments to purify us, to prove us and to prepare us. Although most of God's judgments in Revelation are poured out on unbelievers, the response seems often to be that they turn around and persecute the Christians in return. Revelation often speaks of the martyrs crying out to the Lord for justice.

    I think it is plausible that there is a fulfillment of Revelation in our day, that we are going through times that winnow us and set apart those who are truly the Lord's.

    It also seems to me that there is a lot of repetition in Revelation... that John describes everything up to the very end, and then he describes it again, from a slightly different point of view, and then again from yet another point of view (I get confused when I try to count exactly how many times this happens, but a few times it is pretty clear). This is consistent with things I have observed in other books of prophecy: there is a lot of circling around and repeating ideas in new ways. So, while I don't think we probably will be raptured before the tribulation (although I wouldn't complain if it happened!!), neither do I think there will be as many steps in the tribulation process as a literal, chronological, sequential reading of Revelation would suggest.

    I think, in a way, all Christians endure a type of tribulation along their faith journeys, and this is true throughout the entire history of the church. How we respond to our trials is significant, and I think it is probably a serious responsibility that pastors hold to prepare and encourage people to respond rightly.

    Anyhow, I'm rambling now. It's a lot to think about. Your idea here was really more of a book sized idea than a blog sized idea, I think.

    How are you coming with the seven scriptures? I've received two responses so far, and my own first pass attempt is here: