Chapter # 3 Paragraph # 1 Study # 10
January 22, 2006
4 As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;
6 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
1901 ASV Translation:
4 as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled, And every mountain and hill shall be brought low; And the crooked shall become straight, And the rough ways smooth;
6 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
- I. The "Summons".
- A. In the Isaiah 40 text, the order of the summons is to "turn one's face toward the path of Yahweh and make the highway for the Lord straight". The words tend to generate the metaphorical meaning of "coming to focus" (by turning one's face toward an object) and "determining to permit movement straight to the objective" (by making the road a completely unencumbered means of movement).
- 1. This raises the issue of "object/objective".
- a. This issue is addressed by the identification of both the "path" and the "highway" as being directly related to Yahweh.
- 1) The meaning of the "path of Yahweh".
- a) The phrase is first used in Genesis 18:19 of Abraham's commitment to command his household to "do justice and judgment".
- b) It is also used in Judges 2:22. It shows up as a pattern of behavior which Yahweh has commanded.
- c) It is used again in 2 Kings 21:22; Psalm 27:11 and 86:11.
- d) Thus, the phrase means "the behavior which Yahweh has commanded". It raises the issue of the human willingness to pursue Yahweh's objectives. The "large" idea is the actual determination of just "who" will be acknowledged and relied upon to be the "God". There seems to be an echo in Paul's "turned to God from idols" phrase in 1 Thessalonians 1:9.
- 2) The meaning of the "highway for Yahweh".
- a) The issue is a "highway upon which Yahweh will travel".
- b) The imagery seems to be that Yahweh is coming and the summons is to make sure the highway upon which He is traveling has no obstacles built into it or lying upon it.
- c) Thus, this phrase raises the issue of Yahweh's movement toward an object/objective. However, in the larger scheme of things, it is not a critical matter "who" is to be permitted to have unimpeded travel; the critical matter is whether "I" will throw up ungodly impediments to the efforts of "anyone" who would travel on "my highway". Naturally, God is the greatest Person who would be "offended" by my ungodliness, no one should be so "offended".
- b. The "objective", then, on one hand, was to be ready to receive the coming Lord. This is precisely what John was doing: attempting to get the people ready to "receive" the Lord Who followed him.
- 1) This "readiness to receive" was, fundamentally, a deep-heart issue in which one "faced" the reality of the "path of the Lord" and took whatever steps one needed to take in order to "receive the Lord of that path".
- 2) This "readiness to receive" was, therefore, the willingness to not only take an honest look at "the highway of my heart" (to see its twistedness), but to also respond to the personal relationship issues that such a look would demand -- i.e., to both acknowledge the reality and to appeal for forgiveness. There is, in these things, no serious thought that "I" can "fix" what I see.
- c. The other side of the "objective" issue was that which is the "objective of Yahweh" in His coming. What was it He was interested in accomplishing? The text declares that one major "result" was to be the fact that all flesh would see the salvation of Yahweh.
- 1) The "seeing" of that salvation was going to result from the divine action of leveling the mountains, hills, and valleys, and of straightening the crooked and of smoothing the rough...i.e., people would see the changes as the outworking of salvation.
- 2) The "seeing" of that salvation was, however, first going to be experienced by the one who was to be the instrument of the sight of others...i.e., the instruments of Yahweh in demonstrating His salvation were to be the first to experience that salvation.
- 3) In the final analysis, the salvation was Jesus; and He was to be "seen" in terms of His "works" of actually building the smooth highway. As people were changed by His labors, all flesh would be able to see that He can really save (salvation being far more profound than simply eliminating the condemnation of Justice -- being, actually, the changing of the heart, mind, and behavior that calls for the execution of that Justice) at the root-level of inter-relational love and peace.
- B. In the Lukan text, there are some subtle changes.
- 1. First, there are several alterations of the Hebrew text by the text of the Septuagint.
- a. The Hebrew text says "The voice of one crying in the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh make straight in the desert a highway for our God every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low and the steep ground shall become a level place and the rough places a plain and the glory of Yahweh shall be revealed and all flesh shall see together for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken" [the absence of punctuation is deliberate].
- b. The Septuagint text says "A voice crying in the desert prepare the highway of the Lord make straight the paths of our God every ravine shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be brought low and all the crooked ways shall be unto straightness and the rough place unto smoothness and the glory of the Lord shall be seen and all flesh shall see the salvation of God because the Lord spoke."
- 2. Then, there are some lesser alterations of the Septuagint text by Luke. The text of Luke says "A voice crying in the wilderness prepare the highway of the Lord make straight the paths of Him every ravine shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be brought low and the crooked places shall be unto straightness and the rough places unto smooth highways and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
- 3. The significance of the alterations focuses only upon a small correction by Luke of the Septuagint in the direction of the Hebrew text and does nothing significant to the meaning of the quotation. The issues are yet two: a "summons" and a multi-part promise.
- C. The Content of the Cry.
- 1. "Prepare the highway of the Lord...".
- a. The word translated "prepare" is the point at which the Jews "stumbled" into their theology of self-help and personal merit.
- 1) The word "prepare" indicates the expenditure of significant labor and points toward the description that follows: every valley will be filled, every mountain and hill will be brought low...
- 2) This "command" to spend labor and intense effort "seems" to indicate that God is telling people that they are responsible to "do" what He is commanding and, thus, capable of "doing" what He is commanding.
- a) The first assumption is correct: man stands responsible under divine imperative.
- i. The great foolishness of man is that he tends strongly in the direction of thinking that he is not responsible to submit to God. It is a "knee-jerk" response of man, when faced with a command, to resist it unless it falls within his own already-developed inclinations. It is also a "knee-jerk" response of man to immediately begin to question the imperative and simulataneously justify his resistence to simple obedience.
- ii. The fact is, however, that man is a creature with an automatic obligation of loyalty to his Creator that ought to issue forth in obedience to all divine imperatives without demanding "understanding" or any kind of "justification" of the imperative. The demonic resistence to the Servant-Kingdom is always in the background: Satan's temptation of man in the Garden put this resistence in place and man's willingness to follow in that resistence resulted in a bondage of the human race that fills the totality of man: body, soul, and spirit. There is no justification for irresponsibility by man toward God, and especially no justification that has its roots in the argumentativeness of intellectual jousting with God. God has already turned the wisdom of man into foolishness and the finite knowledge of man is turned, by intellectual arrogance, into infinite ignorance. Man has walked from the light into the darkness and great is the darkness he has embraced.
- b) The second assumption is incorrect: man's "death" in trespasses and sins makes it impossible to "do" in the realm of righteousness and truth.
- i. This assumption is natural to man. It is ingrained in the essence of his thought-patterns that he is a "capable" person with a "free will" who has the ability to look the requirements in the face and proceed from there to "do" them. The assumptions of capability and freedom of will are a direct rejection of the "death" thesis that is at the heart of Paul's theological system. Death is, by definition, the inability to function in a given realm. It is not any kind of declaration of cessation of existence; it is, rather, a declaration of incapacity in regard to the realm in view. Physical death is the cessation of the body's ability to function in the physical realm. The body is not, by death, declared to not exist; it is simply declared to be unable. The "requirements" are the inescapable imperatives of the realm of righteousness. They are beyond the reach of the "dead", who are in the realm of trespass and sin. Paul said this in Romans 6:20 as well as Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13.
- ii. This assumption arises from a particular perception of "Law": that it was given to regulate man's behavior by directing his choices and actions.
- 3) Taken in that light, there is no escape from the "conclusion": salvation is up to man. By obedience, man can prepare the highway of the Lord and, by extension, he can boast afterwards of being "obedient unto the reward".
- b. The man "proclaiming" this message was "John", a man whose name clearly identified a completely different conceptual grasp of the God of the Message.
- 1) "John" was the name given to indicate the necessity of a focus upon Yahweh as "gracious".
- 2) The concept of "grace" in the nature of God, then, becomes a major issue.
- a) The New Testament development of the concept of grace as it relates to God is that it is absolutely not moved into action as a response to man's efforts to do what is right. Paul argued vehemently that "grace was no more grace" if it was cast into the conceptual mold of "a response to man's efforts" (Romans 11:6).
- b) The fact that "grace" is a divine response to man's need quite apart from his character and whether he "deserves" to have his need met, or not, is the reason that Paul, in Romans 3, took a completely different view of "Law" from the view held by the vast majority of his contemporaries. Paul said the "Law" was never intended to regulate what cannot be regulated by the imposition of justice. The "Law", Paul argued, was "revelatory" of man's sins, not "regulatory" of his behavior. "Law" and "Grace" are extreme opposites. The extremity of their opposition was the impetus for Calvary, where the Son of God fulfilled the just demands of "Law" in order that the "Grace" of God might be free to treat man better than he deserves. The plain fact is that "sin" cannot be regulated by the imposition of justice. There are only two ways that "sin" can be blunted: either it must be removed from its place in the inner workings of the "sinner's" essential makeup, or a greater power of "righteousness" must be set against it so that it is overpowered and kept in submission. It cannot be controlled in any other ways. Thus, the heart of "salvation" is the promise of the Spirit and the promise of "regeneration" beyond "resurrection" -- the re-creation of men who have been delivered from the inner presence of sin by death.
- i. But even the triumphalism of the New Testament doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (that the Spirit of Jesus is capable of producing the Life of Jesus in the inner man) is heavily muted by the realities that come to the fore every day in the lives of the people of God. When the apostle Paul was writing to Timothy about what the local church needed to do about the widows in their midst, he frankly forbade the "younger widows" from being "put on the list" because, he said, they would prove to be unfaithful over time. He didn't say they "might" be; he said they "would" be (note carefully 1 Timothy 5:11). And, after a lifetime of putting others first, Paul himself discovered that when crunch time came, no one would stand with him (see 2 Timothy 4:16) except the Lord Himself. This is a sorry commentary on the state of the Spirit-indwelt believers. And not only that, but the letters to the Corinthians reveal the awful reality that the presence of the Holy Spirit of God did not seem to have a really significant impact in blunting the eruptions of the "old man" in the lives of believers who had an abundance of evidence of the gifts of the Spirit in their midst.
- ii. I am not being "defeatist" here; it is significant that Paul's doctrine of the "faith of Abraham, whose children we are..." was a doctrine of faith in the God Who calls things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17). In other words, God's words to Abraham were "A father of many nations I have made you" (past tense action implying a "done deal"), but the reality was that in history Abraham was not the father of any nations until way past the end of his physical life on this earth. This, of course, fits Abraham's expectations from a God who said what would be long before it was and fulfilled His words by way of resurrection. Thus, to call His people "saints" while they live in their various and many bondages as believers is a demonstration of the reality that sainthood will not be significantly realized until the post-resurrection reality has actually occurred.
- c. This means that "John's" hearers needed to pay particular attention to the switch in "voice" in the verbs he used to describe what would happen at the point of repentance.
- 1) The theology of Judaism was built upon an "active voice" grasp of the verbs. Fill in the valleys, bring down the mountains and hills, straighten out the crooked, and smooth the rough roads.
- 2) The theology of grace is built upon the "passive voice" of the verbs. Though it is beyond you to do this, it will be done. This is the point, Paul claimed, of God's refusal to give Abraham a son by Sarah until there was absolutely no question as to Abraham's inability to produce him. This is the word of "Promise": though it is beyond you to do this, it will be done.
- 3) John's "call" was not a summons to people to come to "dedication to a task"; it was a summons "in the wilderness" to "acknowledge" the wilderness and turn from self-confident dependence upon themselves and their "free" wills to the God of Promise Who sets the captives free and provides the "grace" of life.
- a) The objection is often made that it is singularly obtuse to "command" men to do what they are incapable of doing -- so that obtuseness proves that God believes men can do what He tells them. But, this objection ignores Paul's teaching of the purpose for the Law. The Law was designed to condemn men and to bring them to hopelessness before the Judgment of God. This can be the dawning of hope if the hopelessness creates an abandonment of one's "willfulness" and "pride of ability" and a casting of oneself upon the mercy of God.
- b) Paul knew this; Luke knew this. The inability to meet demand is the foundation of faith in the promises of One Who is willing to both promise and fulfill.
- 2. "Make straight His paths."
- a. The "problem" in Israel was that the "paths" (the 'cast up roadways' by which a person moved from point A to point B) had become extremely tortuous by means of the "self-help-legalisms" of attempting to make the "trip" humanly possible. The laws regarding "Sabbath" are one of the classical illustrations of just how micro-managed the divine summons to "remember the Sabbath day" had become under the obsessions of men who wanted to prove just how adept they were at "being righteous". Every single "adjustment" that became a "tradition" for men to observe regarding what God meant by His summons became a "twist" in the straightness of the "path". As men "piled on" an ever growing number of "explanations" of what God "meant", the more tortuous the "paths" became.
- 1) The first word Isaiah used is translated "way". Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says that it means the result of people's stepping in the same place over and over.
- 2) The second word Isaiah used is translated "highway". Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says it refers to the elevated roadway that resulted from people "casting up" a "road" (so that it could be traveled regardless of the condition of the land on either side which was lower).
- a) In Hebrew, the word translated "highway" is singular.
- b) In the Septuagint, the translators used a Greek plural to indicate the meaning.
- c) Luke (also Matthew and Mark) quoted the Septuagint translation...including the switch from the singular to the plural. This is likely because of the metaphorical sense that applied to John's call to many to come to repentance so that many "highways" would be built in many hearts.
- b. Thus, the "summons" to "make His paths straight" was, actually, a summons to break away from all of the "legalisms" and the underlying theology of self-determination. In response to the "what shall we do?" question of those to whom John cried out, there is a refreshing simplicity that defies the micro-management of the pharisaical scribes who wished to control every one in every way.
- II. The Promises.