Salvation for 'All flesh' and Isaiah 66:22-23

I've been reading Isaiah 40 to 66 recently, back and forth, because our church is preaching through this section at the moment. It turns out this part of the Old Testament prophetic literature is highly relevant for my studies into Universalism because it informs our understanding of a number of key NT passages in the debate.

Just as one example, this section defines a new concept of 'Israel' with its language of the chosen 'offspring' - which in turn should inform our understanding of the 'all Israel' in Romans 9-11 (cf. Isa. 41:8; 43:5; 44:3; 45:19,25; 48:19; 53:10; 54:3; 57:3,4; 59:21; 61:9; 65:9,23; 66:22).

And it is in this context that we get Isaiah 45:22-25: "Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: 'To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.'"Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him. In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory."

The picture builds and crescendos right to the end of Isaiah, with judgment and salvation and a new heaven and a new earth and the new Jerusalem, and ending with this very significant conclusion:
Isaiah 66:15-24
"For behold, the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. (16) For by fire will the LORD enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the LORD shall be many. (17) "Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig's flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the LORD. (18) "For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, (19) and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. (20) And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. (21) And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the LORD. (22) "For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. (23) From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD. (24) "And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh."

It's highly significant because these words (verse 24) are picked up by Jesus and quoted in his description of hell: (Mar 9:48) 'where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.' Rather than simply a 'metaphor', Christ was clearly pointing us back to Isaiah 66, where we see on the one hand 'all flesh' coming to worship him, and on the other hand these very ones looking in abhorrence upon another subset of humanity -- those who have rebelled -- who in contrast to those who like the new heavens and the new earth will remain before him forever (verse 22), will suffer irreversible ('undying' and 'unquenched') judgment.

Free Bible study software:

I've been using e-sword happily and without major limitation for years now (though still cringing at the name). After 5 years without upgrade, I've downloaded the latest 2011 version when moving to a new PC. And it's all still working quite seemlessly and effectively. And (dare I say it) it's a 'powerful' little tool when used with wisdom.

As well as Bibles, Dictionaries, Commentaries, Maps and graphics, you can also download other stuff too for free such as Topic Notes like the Fathers or the Institutes.

Interestingly, when I first downloaded e-sword in 2006 I got the NIV for free, but now I notice the ESV is available there for free download but the NIV costs $30 bucks or so.

If you don't have something like this, I'd recommend a look. Although freeware you can make a donation to their cause, which is something I ought to have done by now!

Christians arguing about schooling

My wife and I were grieved this week to read online some Christians we know arguing so divisively about whether homeschooling is a matter of right or wrong. Christian homeschooling for some is based on very strong convictions; in fact, for some, Christian parents who fail to home-educate their children are sinning because they fail to serve God's law in their families (Psalm 1:1-3). On the other side, some who disagree with this premise may feel so strongly opposed to this notion that they risk being just as judgmental on home-schoolers as they attack this biblical basis in justifying their own freedom to not home school.

In these situations, I'm reminded of Paul's approach and caution to the church at Rome when he commanded that divided community to stop condemning one another in areas that involve convictions of faith as we each seek to obey Christ according to our own understanding and conscience.

Romans 14 is the passage I'm referring to, where Paul does concede that even in regard to these issues, it nonetheless is a matter of weaker or stronger faith. If it is a matter of faith that causes the divide, it is even more surpising that Paul commands:
"Accept him whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters (vs. 1) ...
...and everything that does not come from faith is sin." (vs. 23)
Even though an issue may depends on understanding and confidence in God's word, or a love of his law, it does not for that reason mean that the issue is a matter of sinfulness or obedience; for all may be obeying Christ. We cannot for this reason enforce a rule about the issue upon other Christians.

Notice in this passage, what is sinful is not actually related to what we actually do or don't do -- whether we drink or don't drink alcohol, or whether we observe of don't observe the Sabbath (and I'd infer, whether we home school or don't home school).

But what is sinful is to either (or both):
1). Fail to accept other Christians who are acting to obey Christ according to their own understanding and conscience (Rom 14:1, 13, 19)
2). Fail to obey Christ according to our own understanding and conscience because we seek instead acceptance from other Christians (Rom 14:5, 14, 23)
Legalism and Judgmentalism

Much more important in working out what is right or wrong for us to do is why we are doing what we are doing. It's about our motives. Sin is always about the 'heart' of the matter. That's why the Apostles don't prescribe rules about right conduct (moralism), but they command right attitudes of obedience: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

It is legalism to insist that homeschooling is an absolute matter of Christian righteousness for all. But it is also judgmentalism to condemn as moralistic another Christian who believes that their own homeschooling of their children is for them obedience to Christ.
"So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves." (Rom 14:22)

Pitfalls of the Bible reader

Not only is knowledge basic to the Christian life, it follows that error is detrimental to it. Truth leads to godliness; error not only leads to godlessness, but it also comes from it. I've given some positive suggestions for the Bible reader, all of which are common sense, the type of thing we should do without thinking when reading any book. The following article is an excerpt and helpful caution from Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen  (1973) giving some pitfalls that Bible readers would do well to be wary of (1):

1. Flights of fancy.
The man who interprets the Bible must always be asking himself ‘What did the human author mean?’ When he ascertains this he will be close to the meaning which God wants him to have.

Trouble is caused by those who wish to see the plan of salvation (or something else) everywhere in the Bible. Thus Naaman’s seven dips in Jordan have been used to give the seven points of conversion (contrition, confession, conversion, commitment … etc.) or the seven points of sanctification, or any seven points the speaker has in mind. Whatever we end with, it is not God’s word!

Similarly the parable of the good Samaritan has been abused, so that every detail of the story stands for something—the man for Adam, the priest for the law, the Samaritan for Christ, and the inn for the church. Anyone can read any meaning he wishes into the Bible if this is permitted.

Fantasies have been read into the high priest’s garments, Elijah’s robe, and Christ’s seamless robe. Someone recently said that he thought that the institutional churches were represented in the Bible by Saul, for whom God withdrew his Spirit!

There is no end to such examples: but the sad result is the same. The word of God is stolen from the Lord’s sheep and they are not fed. A man’s relationship with God requires true knowledge.

2. Fixation.

This describes the habit of being so engrossed in one doctrine (e.g. predestination) as to read it everywhere in the Bible.

3. Wrong presupposition.
We must come to the Bible very carefully and humbly, knowing that our culture and theology have conditioned us to read it in a certain way.

Thus, a person who has a firm conviction that God’s love is irreconcilable with punishment may well explain away those passages in the Bible which speak of his wrath. Some have even gone so far as to abandon the whole of the Old Testament on these grounds; others omit parts of the Psalms in church; others retain the unpleasant sections by unconsciously re-interpreting the Biblical language to suit the twentieth century.
We are all subject to this. We hear a Biblical word or phrase, read our own meaning into it, and then proceed on the assumption that the Bible is speaking like that.

4. The misuse of narrative.
This is a common evangelical failing, and especially in relation to the book of Acts. We hear that the early church did something and we assume that it is a command from God for us to do it—that is, we turn a description (an ‘is’) into a prescription (an ‘ought’). In this way open-air preaching is justified; or small cell-group meetings; or appeals for commitment at meetings and so on.

Christ has granted freedom in these and many areas; some teachers seek to remove our liberty by turning narrative into commands. No one pretends that we must always ask anyone we meet who is reading the Bible, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ (Acts 8:30) as Philip did; or that we must pool our resources as the primitive Christians did (Acts 2:45);1 or that we must sing hymns at midnight if we are in gaol as Paul and Silas did (Acts 16:25). That men did these things is wonderful and interesting; that we must do them is nonsense.

A further example will illuminate the point. In 1 Corinthians 15:29 the practice of receiving baptism on behalf of the dead is referred to. This is the only mention of it in the New Testament, and Paul does not condemn it. If anything, he is favourable about it.

The Mormons actually practise the baptism for the dead, basing their activities on this text. Yet no one else does, for it is plain to most people that the description of a happening in apostolic days is not in itself a command for us to do the same. An ‘is’ is not an ‘ought’.

This example illustrates, too, the main problem with unexplained narratives—they cannot give the whole story. The author selects some details to tell us, but does not give us all; thus when we come with our questions, questions which did not trouble him, we find the text silent or ambiguous. One instance of this is in Paul’s conversion which is noted on page 33. The careless reader, too eager to see what is already in his mind, will be led astray.

Naturally, narratives have some use. They can, for example, confirm that a certain practice is not contrary to the gospel. So we may be confident that open-air preaching is not contrary to God’s word, since both Jesus and the disciples did this; but we are not to assume that it is commanded in God’s word. We may gather imperatives or doctrines from narratives where the author himself has given the details a theological significance known to us. This significance may be learned from his writings as a whole, or from the immediate context, or both. But taking a narrative on its own clear terms is rather different from the unfettered inventiveness so typical in much Biblical interpretation.

To take an example, Peter’s dealing with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) is not a model for us to follow. But it appears to be in Luke’s terms an illustration of the authority of the apostles (Acts 5:11, 12). Speeches given as part of a narrative are of the same character. We may indeed gather commands, promises, and doctrine from the words of an apostolic speech addressed to the public whether general or Christian.

(1) Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen (Sydney: Anzea Publishers, 1973, p. 7-16): The Quest for Power. Reproduced here with permission.

Suggestions for the Bible reader

Knowledge is basic to the Christian life, and so if follows that of primary importance is our proper reading of the Scriptures. The following article is an excerpt and helpful advice from Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen  (1973) giving some suggestions on reading the Bible (1):

1. Clarify the words and phrases used.

Most of us use a translated Bible. This means that words or phrases need to be studied for their meaning both in English and Greek. It will not do to assume that the English word is always exactly equivalent to the Greek or Hebrew word that it translates. And example of this is the key word ‘kingdom’. In English this almost always means a place, a geographical location. Although the word can have this meaning in some New Testament passages, yet often it would be better translated ‘rule’ or ‘reign’, a rather different concept. Another example of a word whose meaning is wider in the original than it is in modern English is ‘righteousness’. So it is obvious how important study is, even for a well-known text like Matthew 6:33!

2. Note the ‘terrain’.
That is to say, the Bible has within it many types of literature: prose, poetry, fable, proverb, allegory, parable, etc. One ought not to handle the prose of a Pauline epistle in the same way as the poetry of a Psalm.

In Job we find statements about God and the world which are not meant to be true. The book is a dramatic poem, the speakers disagree and fall into error, and the whole needs to be read before we can get the message. This is quite different from the use to which a Pauline letter may be put.

3. Note the immediate context.
Words plucked from mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, even sometimes mid-book, are in danger of being twisted. Read and understand the whole before separating the parts.

There is the story of the careless preacher whose bishop ironically suggested that he preach a sermon on ‘hang all the law and prophets’ (AV), a text wrenched from Matthew 22:40; or another of the missionary who saw the words ‘flee to Egypt’ (Matt. 2:13) as a command for him to do likewise. These are obvious examples of a practice which is perhaps the most frequent of all lapses in regard to the Bible.

Often a Biblical statement is taken from the context of the conversation being reported. Thus, for example, while no one thinks for a moment that we must all buy linen waistcloths because the Lord told Jeremiah to do so (Jer. 13:1), yet we have been told to ‘go, sell what you have, and give to the poor…’ (Mark 10:21) because Jesus told a rich young man to do this. In this regard a study of Coverdale’s advice is essential: we must ask ‘who is speaking?’ and ‘to whom?’

4. Know the background.
Although the main message of the Bible is available to anyone who will read it by itself, yet the meaning of various parts will be enhanced greatly if the historical and geographical background to the passage is known.

To pick an example, the meaning of Christ’s injunction about swearing oaths is clear enough (Matt. 5:33-37), but it is helpful to know something of the lengths to which the contemporary legalists went in avoiding the implications of the Old Testament teaching.

Psalm 137 benefits from geographical and historical knowledge in the reader. A glance at Babylon and Jerusalem on the map and an acquaintance with the history of Babylonish/Jewish relationships will go far to explain the tone of this song.

For some passages the background information is not only desirable: it is necessary. This is especially true of the prophets.

5. Note the Biblical context.
Because the Bible says so much about God, and our understanding is so limited, there are unresolved tensions in its pages, for example that between the sovereignty of God and man’s responsibility. It can never be right to resolve such tension by ignoring a Biblical doctrine.

6. The consensus of Christian opinion.
Amongst those who believer in the full inspiration and authority of the Bible, there is agreement on a large range of important issues, such as the trinity, the atonement, and the deity of Christ. Sometimes this agreement is expressed in creeds or in confessi0ns. It is wisdom to treat these summaries of Bible teaching as fallible, but with great respect, and to ask ourselves whether we are certain that we have the Bible’s meaning clear when we find that we have stepped beyond the bounds of agreement reached by many different Christians over a long period of time.

It may indeed be that a new Luther or a new Calvin needs to emerge. But the onus is surely on the new interpretation to prove that it is accurate as over against the old, and we are wise to adopt a flexible conservatism.


(1) Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen (Sydney: Anzea Publishers, 1973, p. 7-16): The Quest for Power. Reproduced here with permission.