Friday, 16 January 2015


In a recent post, I referred to the two threads of judgement and salvation that come together in the gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism by John. It strikes me that the "threads" concept is such a powerful tool for understanding the Bible, and yet one which is not always appreciated.

To use that particular example, and explore it a little more deeply: the synoptic gospels refer to Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40 as they describe John's ministry. In Mark 1 the two passages are actually glued together, and introduced as if both by Isaiah, but on looking closely they are two quotes. The NIV does the work for us with carefully separating punctuation:

Mark 1:2-3 ... as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:“I will send my messenger ahead of you,who will prepare your way”— “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,‘Prepare the way for the Lord,make straight paths for him.’” 

What is striking is that the two verses quoted are the sections of the two passages which are most alike, and Mark weaves them into a virtually seamless whole.  But when we look at the context of the two verses, the contrast is stark: 

Malachi 3:1-5 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. 
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. 
Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years. 
“So I will come to put you on trial. 
I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers,
against those who defraud laborers of their wages, 
who oppress the widows and the fatherless, 
and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, 
but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty. 

Isaiah 40:1-5 Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God. 
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, 
and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be raised up, 
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain. 
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 

Both prophets speak of a voice or messenger, preparing the way for the Lord's coming. But that is their only point of similarity: Malachi's coming is terrifying, full of burning judgement against immorality and hypocrisy; Isaiah's is full of comfort and the assurance that punishment is done with. 

I don't know, and I don't know if anyone knows, whether any thinker or movement had put those two texts together before Mark did, but what is clear is that in drawing them together and making quite obvious that he sees them as referring to John and (more importantly) to Jesus, Mark is "doing theology" on a grand scale. He is joining threads, linking themes from past revelation and affirming that they both come to fulfilment in Jesus.

Those two threads, Judgement and Salvation, go way back, of course. At the very beginning of the Bible we see them under different names - they are Cursing and Blessing, which seem to alternate as themes in early Genesis. It is only as the universal nature of the curse of judgement is revealed in practice that blessing becomes inextricably linked with salvation - blessing can only be experienced when the curse is lifted, when sin is paid for, when judgement is removed. This is why Isaiah 40's promise of comfort is because sin is paid for - in the context a reference to exile, but illustrating a broader principle. 

Ultimately we may say that God has only two ways of dealing with the world: salvation and judgement. Extend those into eternity and you get the names Heaven and Hell.  The gospels draw those themes together and say that Jesus is God's agent in bringing both; he is Lord of both. 

The point is that there are many such threads, of greater and lesser prominence. Others could include the Presence/tabernacling of God with his people, or sacrifice, or the Son of Man, or the Shepherd, or the Servant, or the Messiah, or the Rock, or the Word, or Wisdom. It is the gathering of these threads into an interwoven whole in the coming of Jesus that constitutes a specifically Christian reading of the Old Testament. We could go so far as to say that whoever brought together the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and the Terrifying Messiah of Psalm 2 invented Christianity. And the evidence is that this was Jesus himself.  

Contemporary criticism has often dismissed the idea of any unity of thought in the Bible. We are told that the book is a collection of incompatible theologies, and that any idea of an overarching theme or truth is an unworkable construct. Such an approach, it seems to me, rides roughshod over the Bible's own awareness of its internal diversity and yet its affirmation of unity. The New Testament's testimony to Jesus is precisely that he is the One in whom all those diverse and apparently opposing threads come together.  


  1. Beautiful. I unearthed the conflation of the two prophecies when preaching on Mark in Advent 2014 - but didn't manage to develop them in any way that was useful. I may use this (properly attributed, of course!) in 2015!

    1. Thank you, Helen! i find this kind of approach really stimulating.