Isaiah 6 in the New Testament – Theological Implications

Nothing speaks greater volume to the substance of an OT passage than its reapplication throughout dispensations. Isaiah’s prophecy in ch. 6 of his book is excerpted in all four gospel accounts, as well as Luke’s book concerning the acts of the apostles – Matthew 13:14, Mark 4:11-12, Luke 8:10, John 12:39-41, and Acts 28:25-27.

To see introductory comments, as well as contextual and textual analysis, see the whole paper here.

THEOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS

In spite of textual discrepancies, the major theological theme that scholar’s suggest is consistently manifested in each account’s incorporation and modification of Isa. 6 is the soteriological item of God’s sovereignty and human choice. Simply, some assert that by textual emendations to Isaiah 6:9-10 in the NT, the writers are seeking to alleviate (if not abolish) its brute and harsh emphases on God’s hardening and blinding of people’s hearts.[18] Yet, this conclusion is only held by contextual negligence and textual isolation, and will be proved unfounded in the study. Three truths need to be expounded in regards to this theological implication, and the conclusion will incorporate and summate mentioned points to end analysis.

Drawing Distinctions

Firstly, the NT writers were presumably disinterested in expressing the dividing lines of God’s sovereignty and human choice.[19] The only logical deduction from observing the text-at-hand is that both are emphasized, and the seemingly contradictory aspects of such are inconsequential. Even amidst the textual alterations of the NT quotations, “the rhetorical effect is… not very different.”[20] The prophecy still depicts that God must have intended the outcome. It is an inescapable truth; and yet, the NT writers apparently do not see a need to escape from it. For example, Matthew’s alteration according to the LXX, which renders the people’s numbness contrived by their own self-hardening, “is not in direct contradiction to the Hebrew, which attributes it to the divinely intended effect of Isaiah’s proclamation; they are two sides of the same coin.”[21] John noticeably expresses both human responsibility and human inability in his interpretation of Isaiah 6:9-10 in correlation with another. The beloved disciple may then be termed a ‘theological compatibilist’. Divine sovereignty, in his passage, does not quell man of their free choice or rejection. There is a presumption of human culpability and “reprehensible human motive for unbelief” (John 12:37, 43).[22] Therefore, this ostentatious theological contest of rightly drawing distinction between divine causation and human freedom appears to be a non-issue for the NT writers.

The Direction of Modern Scholarship

Secondly, the direction of modern scholarship is greatly askew in its labored attempts to dissolve God’s sovereign condemnation of ‘outsiders’ presented in these texts. Such attempts will result in a negation of the soteriological tension. Bock claims, “it is wrong to see the parables functioning only in a concealing role.”[23] Their function is too accentuate the enlightened and unenlightened. Even amongst the scholastic debate regarding the condensed quotation of Isa. 6:9-10 in Mark 4:12 and Luke 8:10, the principle of God’s sovereignty is not threatened in the least.[24] Though Stein proposes proof-texts from Mark’s own gospel to alleviate the dominance of God’s causation in Mark’s quotation, his assertions remain incomplete and exegetically unsatisfactory.[25] C. F. D. Moule proposes a dispute hoping to annex the apparent subjectivity considering a limited “predetermined circle of favored followers;” yet the issue is not ultimately resolved, rather it “is merely pushed one stage further back.”[26] Furthermore, despite the several attempts to render ἵνα (hina, in order that) and μήποτε (mepote, lest) in a less harsh translation, the functioning thought of predestination remains: Jesus’ parabolic teaching was ‘intended’ to keep those who are ‘outside’ from understanding and repenting.

Pausing here, a pivotal point is revisited – asserted in the prior section. Although Mark and Luke’s ‘lest’ “complements the earlier ‘in order that’ to express the purpose of Jesus’ parabolic method,” in Matthew’s linguistic formation it expresses the “result.”[27] Simply stated, Mark=Luke emphasize the divine purposing of God’s causation and Matthew underscores the result of human choices. Although Matthew and Mark=Luke are “nuanced differently”, they “are in essential agreement.”[28] Herein, a student clearly observes the soteriological tension that presents itself. Conclusively, since both divine causation and human choice are truthfully presented in complement, any attempts to diminish one will quell the other.[29]

The Accentuation of the Synoptic Writers

Thirdly, the NT writers were not seeking to diminish God’s sovereignty, and if they were attempting anything in regards to this soteriological issue, they were modestly seeking to ‘describe’ the necessary human response. Hence, the NT writer’s direction provides glorious truths emphatic for those in – not outside of – Christ. France elegantly states, “To focus on the problem of the unenlightened misses the point of these sayings, which is the positive blessing of God’s gift of knowledge.”[30] The concern of the quotation does not function primarily to condemn ‘others’ or ‘outsiders,’ though this is the natural byproduct of the dialectic tension, but rather it concerns the ‘portrayal’ of the blessed ones of receptivity. For added emphasis, the enlightened cannot be revealed without the revelation of the unenlightened.

Specifically, in the gospel accounts, the enlightened are represented by the disciples. Exhaustive proof for such a claim is in “the fact that the disciples, and they alone, receive an interpretation of the parable” in the gospels.[31] The larger crowd’s rejection provides Christ with the austere contrast to accentuate the antithesis – the enlightened disciples. Agreeably, in the gospels, “what the disciples get in parables is insight into the Kingdom.”[32] The contexts of these quotations in the NT “are revelatory of the kingdom and of the hearer’s hearts.”[33] Therefore, the stress is inasmuch on who are included in the Kingdom as who are not included.

Observing the proceeding context in Matthew, one finds hopeful paradigms (contrasting the cynicism of Isaiah) of ‘holy seeds’ – those, who compromise the Kingdom, that truly hear and see the message of Christ (cf. Isaiah 6:13). Those with fertile ground experience the magnificent growth likened to that of a mustard seed and the leavening of bread (Matthew 13:32-33). Their beginnings are small, but the granted condition of soteriological fecundity provides the splendor of abundance (cf. Matthew 13:12). Moreover, Mark’s specific function focalizes on the Kingdom and those that are in it.[34] Thus, concerning assurance, the narrative’s depicted rejection and unbelief by the ‘outsiders’ was according to the divine will, foretold in the Scriptures, towards the Kingdom of God. Indeed, “somehow all this was in accord with the will of God and has taken place ‘in order that’ what God has decreed would find fruition.”[35] Austerely and remarkably, Mark uses the brute and tinted-grim passage of Isa. 6 as a comfort and reassuring message for the disciples and those who truly hear Christ’s message.

Theologically, John’s narrative notably provides Isaiah 6:9-10 – a weighted passage for divine sovereignty – a necessary credence of human responsibility. Aligning with the covenantal principles seen in Isaiah ch. 6, John emphasizes that “the nation of Israel” has “refused the regeneration through the Spirit that lay at the core of the promised new covenant” (c.f., John 3:3-5; Ezekiel 36:26-27).[36] Importantly noted, John does not nullify the prophet’s message, but rather exposes it in alliance with the current context. Additionally, in Luke’s second book, the enlightened are represented by Paul’s mentioned progression unto the believing Gentiles – a similar function to John. The Jews’ rejection aids Paul in describing a more vivid picture of the soteriological make-up of the Kingdom.

CONCLUSION

Conclusively, Isaiah’s prophecy is not fundamentally modified in its message, but rather its essence is revealed in the apotheosis of its indivisible complement. The NT’s accentuation is in exposing the subjectivity of human freedom, complementing the objectivity of divine causation, thus generating the vision of the dialectical balance. An attempt at simplicity: at the heart – or essence – of soteriology there motions a tension between God’s sovereignty and human free choice. The former is accentuated in the rhetoric of Isa. 6, and the latter is accentuated in the context and textual emendations of its NT citations. The mentioned objectivity of God’s sovereignty must penetrate the subjectivity of one’s existence for salvation to occur. Soteriologically, this is commonly expressed as ‘saving grace’ and ‘saving faith.’ One process cannot occur without the other. Yet, one process seems to become nullified in the solitary observance of the other, and the rationalistic circulation thence begins. Herein, the emphasis of human responsibility throughout the NT’s citations of Is. 6:9-10 can be rendered as functioning to uphold the tension by accentuating the subjective. Certainly, the tension must be preserved as to reckon each process its valid function. Again, and in summation, the quotations of Is. 6:9-10 in the NT do not contradict the essence of Isaiah’s prophecy in the OT, but rather accentuate its subjectivity as to aid in the existential engagement.[37]

[18] “Emendation” may be a dangerous word, but it is simply expressive of the NT’s definite superficial interaction with the OT text; there is no condemning connotation meant here.

[19] From now on, ‘NT writers’ will be used only in reference to those NT writers that cite the text of the study – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

[20] France, Matthew, 514. Regarding Matthew’s modification of Isa. 6:10: “it is hard even in that version to avoid the conclusion that this is the way God has planned it”, pg. 508.

[21] Ibid., 508.

[22] Carson, John, 447. Emphasis added.

[23] Bock, Luke, 728.

[24] Rikk E. Watts gives a most possible reason for the omission, in that, Mk. 3:1-6 “has already raised the issue of stubbornness/hardness of heart.” The argument of Mark’s omission bypasses the very text that was included, thus, making it a departure from the essential passage. Luke is resolved in the inclusion of the full citation in Acts 28. Watts, “Mark,” in Commentary On the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 151.

[25] Robert H. Stein has failed to correlate ‘those outside’ in his proof-texted Lk. 15:1-2 to the phrase’s use in Mk. 4:12. Are ‘those outside’ really just the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ as mentioned in Lk. 15? Mk. 12:12 does just as little to provide a more meaningful definition to such ‘outsiders’. Certainly, an effortless resolution to Stein’s supposed issue is found that ‘those outside’ are not distinguished through the religious standards of the Pharisees and scribes, but rather, as reference to those who do not believe – who are not of God’s sheep (cf. John 10:26-29).

[26] C. F. D. Moule, “Mark 4:1-20 Yet Once More”, in Neotestamentica et Semiticia (FS M. Black), eds. E. E. Ellis and M. Wilcox (Edinburgh, England: T. & T. Clark, 1969), 97-103. Moule contends that the oi peri auton, those whom Jesus answers in Mk. 4:11, are made up of people ‘doing the will of God’ as expressed in Mk. 3:35. Thus, the conditions of these people merit “the gift of special revelation” that is “offered to those who ask for it”; the group is “self-selected, rather than predestined.” However, no one (in their right senses) claims that people do not respond differently to the gospel, but the argument hinges upon the rationale for the differentiation. By what prevenient grace were they alleviated from their moral inability and empowered to strive towards believing (cf. Romans 8:7)? Logically deduced, it must be resolved, that these people either were smarter or better than those who left – whereby they have grounds to boast – or they were granted the condition of faith by God and led in that same motion. Thus, despite the use of contextual notions, questions still remain unanswered and evidence is still attainable for the opposing view.

[27] France, Matthew, 515. Pao and Schnabel discuss Luke’s involvement: “the telic force of hina (‘in order that’) in Mark 4:12 is retained in Luke 8:10”, pg. 307. Bock summarizes it well: “Matthew has a ὅτι (hoti, because) clause instead of ἵνα, which shows that the background of this remark is not the parables considered in abstract from the rest of Jesus’ ministry. Rather, the parables are introduced because of the previous lack of response to Jesus’ teaching, as the movement in Luke already shows.” Bock, Luke, 729.

[28] Bock, Luke, 729.

[29] This truth will be unpacked and proved in the next section.

[30] France, Matthew, 508. Emphasis added.

[31] France, Matthew, 507.

[32] Bock, Luke, 729. Emphasis added.

[33] Watts, “Mark” in Commentary On the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 155.

[34] Ibid., 154. He notes the “often missed… parallels” that “exist between the setting of Is. 6 and Mark’s presentation” – e.g., “the fundamental datum is Yahweh’s kingship” in Is. 6 and the inauguration of Jesus and the kingdom of God is central in Mark’s Gospel

[35] Stein, Mark, 212.

[36] Carson, John, 448.

[37] “Existential” is meant in its most basic sense, as to pertaining to one’s ‘existence’. Thus, the NT unpacks the abstract and implements practical obedience.

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