Sinai and Zion: How Learning the Terrain of God’s Holy Hill Helps Us Read Isaiah

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[This blogpost is one of many on Isaiah, this month’s focus book in the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan. For more resources on Isaiah, see here].

In the book of Isaiah, the word “Zion” and the concept of the Lord’s holy mountain is prominent. Yet, Zion is not something that only appears in Isaiah, it is a theme that runs through Scripture. In the days ahead, I hope to put a few notes down on this concept.

For starters, consider the observations of Stephen Dempster, author of Dominion and Dynasty: A Study in Old Testament Theology. Describing the connection between Zion and Sinai, he writes (on an old blog that had so much promise . . . but little fulfillment :-):

I have been just reading and thinking about the whole relation between Sinai and Zion. Hartmut Gese’s chapter on The Law in his book Essays in Biblical Theology is extremely stimulating. . . . Gese makes the point that the Torah given at Sinai was given to one nation and there was an exclusive emphasis on it—a wall of separation was erected between the Holy and the Unholy. When the covenant was made and the atonement was made, representatives of Israel were allowed to ascend the mountain and eat and drink with God. The text clearly says that they saw God and were not harmed (ch. 24). They had unbroken fellowship with their Creator. Continue reading

Two Rivers Run Through It: Tracing Zion and Zera’ (Seed) through the Book of Isaiah

matt-lamers-328906Isaiah is massive book that displays an even larger vision of God’s glory. And because of the scale and grandeur of its message, it often seems difficult to grasp its meaning. Sure, there are those familiar verses we often return to, but how do we grasp at the whole message of Isaiah?

In what follows, I am going to trace out two key themes that may help us see the forest and not just a few trees. The first stream relates to Zion, the key place in the book. The second relates to the messiah, or the seed (zera’), the key person in the book. By holding these two streams together, I think it helps us see the arrangement of the forest so that we can climb the heights in this glorious book. Continue reading

From Sinai to Chile to Zion: Why Visual Aids Do and Do Not Help Us See Christ in the Bible

I am not a big fan of visual aids.  So, when I preach or teach, I do not use powerpoint and rarely use other forms of multimedia to explicate the biblical text.  There is much to debate here, but as a personal conviction, I aim at–i.e. pray for and work at– letting the Word of God speak in and through the words that I speak.  Why?  Because the word of God is effective and the Spirit is able.  Likewise, visual imagery has a way of overshadowing the text and effectively dulling us from the power and precision of God’s Word (Heb. 4:12-13). 

Yet, with that said, there are still times when visual imagery helps us discern Scriptural truth, where without the “visual aid” we would not understand the biblical text as well.  For instance, in 2005, as I stood on the Mount of Olives overlooking the temple mount, the Kidron Valley, and the Valley of Hinnom, the drama of Jesus’ last supper, arrest, and trials before Pilate and Herod took shape in my mind as I imagined him walking with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane and then back through the City of David to encounter the unrighteous judgments of his accusers.  All told, passages of Scripture like Matthew 26-28 and John 13-19 were illumined by the geographical imagery of Jerusalem

Still, coming back from Israel, I realized that a “holy land experience” is not necessary for understanding the Bible, even if it provides visual images for biblical texts.  Thus, I learned in a fresh way, that the word of God is sufficient for everything I need to know and love God.  As 2 Peter 1:4 says, through our knowledge of Christ (as found in Scripture), God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Deut. 29:29). So while my travels in Israel were profitable for visualizing the Bible, such a pilgrimmage is not necessary for salvation and sanctification. 

With that grid in place–namely that visual aids can be selectively helpful for understanding the Bible– I introduce a ‘visual aid’ that I ran across today, and which prompted thoughts of Exodus 19-24 and Hebrews 12.

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Lightning bolts appear above and around the Chaiten volcano as seen from Chana, some 30 kms (19 miles) north of the volcano, as it began its first eruption in thousands of years, in southern Chile May 2, 2008. Picture taken May 2, 2008. (Carlos Gutierrez)

As you ponder the picture, consider Moses words in front of Mount Sinai:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up (Ex. 19:16-20).

This electrifying image of a thunderstorm on top of a volcano in Chile provokes images of  what it must have been like to encounter the living God at Sinai.  Yet, that historical event, which may have looked something like this, is not spectacular because of its atmospheric power,  as much as its redemptive-historical significance.  Consequently, as terrifying as such an image is, Scripture tells us that the people did not fear the cosmological occurence, nearly as much as the One who stood behind the smoking curtain and SPOKE (cf. Deut. 4:33).  What terrified the people was not just the smoke on the mountain, but the Word of God itself.  Listen to their plea:

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was (Ex. 20:18-21).

What this picture and these texts remind us is that God’s world is frightening, and he is present in the world; but his word is even more fear-producing and his presence to save and to judge is mediated through his Word.  Accordingly, the people of God begged Moses for a mediator, and God was pleased to speak to them through Moses (Deut. 5:28-33).  The people’s fears were both incited by God’s Holy Word, and allayed by God’s merciful mediator.

The same is and should be true for us.  In the fullness of time, God sent another mediator, a greater Word, His own Son, Jesus Christ to confirm the words spoken at Sinai and to speak to God’s people as a sympathetic mediator.  Hebrews 12, in fact, says this very thing recalling the temptuous events at Sinai to beckon us to believe in Jesus Christ with greater fear and faith.  Consider these fearful words

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven (Heb. 12:18-25).

While we can picture Sinai, we have no way to preview Zion, but here is where the sufficiency and severity of God’s word is most powerful: The truth of the matter is that Zion is more awesome–terrible and glorious–than anything visible today.  Visual aids cannot helps us discern Zion, only God’s word can do that.   We can only apprehend Zion’s reality by faith in God’s word.  Thus we prepare ourselves for the kingdom’s arrival by meditating on God’s Word and prayerfully anticipating the coming of Jesus Christ, the final Word and the perfect mediator.

Thus as we look on the image of this Chilean mountain we are helped to imagine what it must have been like for the people of Israel to stand before God, but our hearts must not be contented to only look backwards.  By the revelation of God’s word, we are beckoned to look forward to the coming, unshakeable kingdom of God, remembering this fact: Our God is a Consuming Fire!  What happened at Sinai is only a foreshadowing of things to come.  In this respect, the visual aid above both furthers our understanding of Exodus 19-24, but fails to do the same for us and our impending encounter with God.  It is only God’s Word, written and incarnate (cf. John 1:14), that enables us to envision Zion and the reality of entering God’s presence.  Thus with fear and faith, may we respond in faith to the Holy Word of God (cf. Heb. 4:2).

Sola Deo Gloria, dss