I'm neck deep in another book review. This book written by Rabbi Itzhak Shapira is pretty stunning. Though difficult to read at times, it is becoming my favorite book of the year. Look for the review next week and maybe even some audio notes (where I won't be speaking Hebrew).
In this space I'm going to apply some of the insights Rabbi Shapira presents in his book. I've had my fair share of conversations about Calvinism recently and the echoes of those conversations are still reverberating in my head. Those echoes found a way into my head and reading resulting in some serious distractions. So I'm writing to remove the distractions. So let me do a long circle around the intended subject (Calvinism) and arrive safely at the end with a conclusion.
One of Rabbi Shapira's major claims in The Return of the Kosher Pig is the New Testament is a Jewish book. Written by Jews and mostly for Jews, it cannot be understood apart from the Old Testament and the history of interpretation throughout Jewish history (I'll address this more in the review).
I bring this up because reading the New Testament through the Old Testament helps us avoid misappropriation of Biblical texts. Perhaps the conclusions we come to are true. But we are called to understand and "rightly divide" God's word (2 Tim 2:15). So let's get to today's example which highlights a common misappropriation that is used to support Calvinism.
The Mountain of the Lord
In the third chapter of The Return of the Kosher Pig Rabbi Shapira's presents an interesting argument for the Divine nature of the Messiah. His argument provides some insightful background for interpreting important passages in the New Testament.
For starters, Rabbi Shapira presents an historical interpretation that Zechariah 4:7 and Psalm 121:1 are speaking of the Messiah,
7 "Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” - Zechariah 4:7 (ESV)
121 I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. - Psalm 121:1 (ESV)
The ESV does a poor job translating the same Hebrew word (har H2022) into two different English words. But the link is clearer when these passages are read together. In Zechariah the Messiah is the "great mountain" that shall "become a plain" (meaning he will bring equality and justice to the nations). This imagery corresponds to the prophet Isaiah's depiction of the Messianic reign (Isa 2:1-5). There too "the mountain" (Isa 2:1) is exalted and "lifted up" (Isa 2:2) with great blessings of peace (Isa 2:4).
Rabbi Shapira demonstrates that many Jewish sages linked these passages to "the mountain" (or Messiah) of the psalmist. However, for the psalmist there is more to "the mountain" than meets the eye. In fact for the psalmist the help and support of "the hill" is also directly from "the Lord!" And so in this manner Rabbi Shapira begins a small argument for the Divine nature of the Messiah. Independent of the persuasiveness of his argument, it helps us as we interpret the New Testament.
Fulfilled in Jesus Christ
Here is where things get interesting. Because as Christians, we expect the fulfillment to be found in Jesus Christ. And the place where this fulfillment occurs also sheds light on a misappropriated text. Both fulfillment texts come from the Gospel of John,
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. - John 3:14-15
32 "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. - John 12:32-33
In the first passage Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus His Divine purpose. He must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (as an aside, Rabbi Shapira shows that the Hebrew would for "serpent" has the same numerical value as "Messiah" and applies this fact to this text). Jesus is saying that He must be lifted up and looked upon for deliverance. He is "the hill" (Psa 121:1) that brings salvation. He is the Messiah with a Divine nature.
In the second passage Jesus again provides this type of imagery. He must be "lifted up" and all people will be "dragged" (the literal interpretation) to Him. Calvinists have appropriated this verse because of the grammatical value in saying that Jesus "drags" people to Himself. But this misses the Messianic context of the verse and its fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah,
2 It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it. - Isaiah 2:2 (ESV)
With the Old Testament prophecy in mind, it is clear that Jesus is claiming that He is the Messiah: The Divine Messiah. He is "the mountain" and He will be firmly established in His death (John 12:33). By being "lifted up," both a reference to Isaiah and the literalness of His crucifixion, He would "drag" the nations to Himself.
If this is the proper interpretation, then this passage is not about individualistic salvation or election. This is Jesus Christ clearly proclaiming Himself to be the Messiah of Israel. This is Jesus promising to incorporate the Gentiles into salvation just as the Old Testament promised.
The Example of Athanasius
Far from being just the simple ramblings of Rabbi Shapira or myself, this was actually St. Athanasius' interpretation,
How could He have called us if He had not been crucified, for it is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched? Here, again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in Himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death, "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Myself." (On the Incarnation, 20)
I am a Calvinist. I have a card and everything to prove it. But the misappropriation of texts like John 12:32 has to stop if we are going to be faithful to Biblical and valid historical interpretation. In the end, theological differences, debates and discussions must be used to push each other further in our understanding of who God is and what He has revealed in the Scriptures. But that can only be done when we treat the texts honestly and faithfully. And so we are all called to "rightly divide the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15).