[K:NWTS 6/1 (May 1991) 32-44]
Isaiah 40-66 is a book of comfort for an afflicted people, an exiled people, a people under judgment, an oppressed people held in captivity in Babylon. God's "comfort" is administered in the proclamation of "Good News" (Is. 52:7)—that they shall be free from the tyrant (49:25); that they shall depart from Babylon as though raised from the dead (52:2); and that they shall be brought back to restore the land. The call to "come out" in 52:11 is God's call to his priestly people that they "come out of Babylon."
They were in Babylon because of their sinful covenant-breaking. Yahweh, having forewarned them, placed them under the covenant sanctions of cursing. Within this section, rich in literary and redemptive-historical themes, is placed probably the most famous text of the Old Testament—Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the Suffering Servant pericope. This text, pregnant with the future (the "new things" the Lord is about to do), raises Isaiah 40-66 to a new prophetic and eschatological highpoint. For the real Babylonian deliverance is from the evil tyrant of this world, a redemption accomplished through the Servant's sufferings. The real deliverance from the curse of the broken law is a result of the propiatory sufferings of the Lamb-like One who would render himself a guilt offering for the sin of many (Is. 53:7,10,12). Due to his groaning labor, the Father will "allot" and "divide" to him the booty of redemption (53:12). Such Old Testament terminology is consistently associated with the apportioning of the promised land of the inheritance. But under the cover of the New Covenant this terminology reveals to us the reality of the resurrection of the Servant wherein he enters into and gains the inheritance of the heavenly land, the final homeland of the people of God (54:1-3). The jubilant "shout for joy" (54:1) is due to the subsequent packing of the land with a seed set free from cursed captivity and coming out of Babylon to resettle the empty but growing land. But this land upon the prophetic horizon is canopied by the holy tent of God's dwelling which can barely contain its spreading numbers. Here, in Old Covenant language, is a prophecy of New Covenant blessing. Holy cult and holy culture become undifferentiated in the eschaton introduced by the Servant. People and priests, land and temple, are one and the same.
The Old Covenant call to "come out of Babylon" is heard again in the covenant proclamation of the "Good News" that Isaiah's prophecy anticipated (2 Cor. 6:17; Rom. 10:15). Thus, the Babylon of the Old Covenant was anticipatory of the whole fallen order, the world under Satan, "this present evil age" (Gal. 1:4). And like the Babylon of old, this world too, having first surrendered the people of God, will come under the devastating judgment of God (cf. Rev. 18). Again, at the end of the world, that ancient call is heard for the last time: "Come out of her my people" (Rev. 18:4).
Our Relationship to Babylon
In light of this overarching biblical-theological outlook, we are faced with the well-worn question: what is the Christian's relationship to the world?
One of the loudest voices today in directing Christians's minds to settling their relationship to the world comes from the Reconstructionist school. This model anticipates not merely salvation from the world but salvation for the world in the transforming power of the Kingdom of God in culture and commerce. The Kingdom is seen as exerting its rule over the powers of this world so as to bring them into line with the law of God. This is called "theonomy". These Kingdom labors are expected to produce an eventual global victory, an expression of postmillenialism. Thus Babylon is reclaimed for Christ.
Another voice, enduring but not loud, is heard from the Anabaptist or Mennonite perspective. Here, when faced with the Babylonian world, only one piece is claimed, separated out and then run on the basis of Christian principles of discipleship. "Discipleship" becomes mingled with a distinctive cultural baggage separate from the rest of "worldly" culture. In other words, one creates a subculture. Yet, biblically speaking, this world and this age is simply Babylonian, and headed for damnation/destruction.
Babylon is part and parcel of this world. It is part and parcel of this age. The whole thing is coming under destruction. At this point one can begin to see that, though the Reconstructionist and Mennonite perspectives seem light years apart, they are in reality quite close. The Mennonite perspective draws from the world at large a portion of disciples in order to create a separate community with its own distinctives. In Reconstructionism there is a central ideological hub from which the program spreads outward. But in either case, Babylon is being Christianized, whether it is a small chunk separated out or the whole conquered by spreading out. In either case it is Babylon! That is why both perspectives are mistaken. Both are seeking to Christianize Babylon, and both consequently retain only a thin layer, if any, of common grace. In both cases the pure, spiritual mission of the church in proclaiming the gospel gets mingled with a fleshly struggle with the world. Quite simply God does not call us to Christianize either part or the whole of Babylon. Rather, he calls us to "come out of Babylon." But how do we "come out of Babylon" and at the same time live in this world?
Life in Babylon
Let's look at Jeremiah 29:4-14 for some insight on how to live in this world. The historical situation is that Israel has been ousted from the promised land to live in Babylon, away from their homeland as exiles. What are they to do while they are there? Build houses, make gardens, continue to marry and multiply and be a blessing to the city. They should pray for the welfare of the city and be there for its blessing. So, they are to live in and participate in Babylon.
Now, generally speaking, two things should characterize life in Babylon: allegiance to Yahweh and hope. First of all, participation in Babylon would be free of idolatry. At any point where living life in Babylon presents a compromise with allegiance to Yahweh the brakes must be applied. The book of Daniel is illustrative of this principle. Daniel was in Babylon. He rose high in the political process in a terribly demonized society. Daniel was cultically separated but culturally involved. When Daniel was required to stop praying what did he do? He prayed. He did not seek to implement the demands of the Mosaic law within that society. He engaged in no campaign to knock down idols. When given an opportunity to seek the execution of the magicians he spared their lives and never actively pursued their elimination. But were he back in the promised land he should have done all of it. Yet when his life and allegiance to God were put on the line, he stood firm, unwilling to give one inch, trusting the consequences to God. Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego are also examples of stout adherence to this principle of allegiance to Yahweh while in exile. Contrary to these principles, the Anabaptist-Mennonite outlook would say Daniel was dead wrong, for he was participating in the world. And Reconstructionism would question Daniel's failure to implement theocratic law.
The second thing which should characterize or shape one's life in Babylon is the location of one's hope. Israel's great hope was that someday they could return to the freedom, the belongingness, and the holiness of their homeland. Their hope was grounded in the land of the theocratic kingdom. But what is a theocratic kingdom? A theocratic kingdom is basically a religiously confessing, geopolitical institution. Old Testament Israel was constituted a theocratic kingdom. As a nation they were covenantally bound to Yahweh. Religious freedom was not the order of the day in the promised land. The death penalty was the proper way to deal with idolatry and lawlessness. Israel was a religiously confessing kingdom. It was also a geopolitical institution. The land with its perimeters constituted a specific geography. And over that land was a God-appointed political institution organized with a king and subjects, a court, taxes and levies. That is what a theocratic kingdom is, namely, a religiously confessing, geopolitical institution.
Israel and the Church
Are Christians part of a theocratic kingdom? Yes. Obviously, in the Old Testament, Israel was part of the theocratic kingdom. But when they were in Babylon, they were not in the theocratic kingdom for they were not within its geographical boundaries. At that time, though they were the people of the kingdom, they were not in the kingdom. While away, their hearts yearned to return to the land, free from captivity where Yahweh's rule could be exercised and his worship instituted with all the blessings flowing from it. The New Covenant Church is in an analogous situation. We are citizens of the theocratic kingdom living in Babylon as exiles, sojourners in a strange land. The same basic instructions in Jeremiah 29 on how to act while in Babylon are applicable to us in the church. Daniel becomes a model for the church's relationship to the world. The apostle Peter tells us that we are aliens and strangers in this world (1 Pet. 2:11). So was Israel when they were in Babylon.
There is a critically subtle point to be clarified in this comparison between Israel and the church. The Israel in Babylon was the people of God of the typological theocratic kingdom. They were alienated from the typological kingdom when in Babylon. We are the people of the antitypological and final theocratic kingdom. We are alienated from our homeland. We are in Babylon now, in the flesh. There is a good deal of discussion today about whether the kingdom is now or in the future. It is both! It is now and it is future. "Now" the kingdom has arrived in the power of the Holy Spirit. But where are our feet? On the earth. Our feet are in Babylon. So in the realm of the Spirit, we are in Christ, and thus in the kingdom of heaven, delivered from Babylon. What does it mean to be "in Christ"? It means to be in the heavenlies, up there. Colossians 3 says: "your life is hidden with Christ in God. Seek those things above where Christ is seated." Where is he seated? At the right hand of God. He is seated on the throne. He is seated in the kingdom. And that is where our life is found.
When the children of Israel were in Babylon, where was their life? It was called the land of life, the land of the living. In the Old Testament, to possess God's blessing was to have "long life in the land." Now, to have God's blessing is to have eternal life "in the land." In other words, the Old Testament blessing of "prolonged days in the land" (Dt. 5:33; Ps. 91:16; Is. 53:10) anticipated eternal life in the New Covenant kingdom. Christ is now in the kingdom, in the land. In the Old Testament, the word "inheritance" primarily applies to "the land." "The land" is the geographical inheritance of the Old Testament Kingdom of God. They inherited "the land." The book of Joshua records how they moved into their inheritance—"the land." The New Testament speaks of our inheritance too. It too is "the land," but it is the heavenly one, the earthly real estate anticipated. 1 Peter 1:3 states, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." I am born again through the resurrection of Christ. When I find myself in Christ, what has happened to me? I have been born again, that is, new life emerges. I am raised up. I am joined to Christ in the newness of resurrection life and I experience the exodus. His resurrection life becomes my life within my soul. I have new life. I have eternal life. I am born again.
Now, that resurrection life has removed me from Babylon and placed me with Christ in the promised land. Where does that life lead? It leads to "an inheritance" (1 Pet. 1:4). This inheritance is "imperishable, undefiled...does not fade away." But where is it? It is reserved in heaven. By virtue of Christ's resurrection he entered into the inheritance. He entered heaven and exited out of this world, this Babylon. By his resurrection he came into life eternal. He came into the land eternal, the kingdom of God. His resurrection led him up to David's throne (Acts 2:27-34). He is raised up to the inheritance. So now, when we are brought to faith in Christ, we have that resurrection life within us. Our inheritance is where? It is in heaven where Christ is. Do we share in it now? Yes, in the Spirit. But, on the other hand, we are still waiting for it. We are still waiting in Babylon for that inheritance. We are still waiting for our homeland to appear, while the Holy Spirit is a down payment of the inheritance of life in the land (Eph. 1:13-14).
So, the kingdom of God has come in the power of the Spirit. I have been raised up spiritually in Christ to inhabit the heavenly places. I have come out of Babylon and I have come into the Kingdom of God in that sense. But in terms of my present earthly existence in the flesh, the inheritance is on reserve; it hasn't appeared yet. So, the land, the physical land where my feet will one day be settled, will not come until Jesus returns. And that is the future aspect of the kingdom of God. So because of the "now/already" character of the kingdom, we share in the power of the Spirit as a down payment of our inheritance to come; and at the second coming that inheritance which is reserved in heaven for us appears as our eternal homeland in the new creation "not yet." Consequently, the kingdom of God is here "already" and it is "not yet" here. It is here in the Spirit. It is not here in its manifest glory of the consummation. So, my relationship to this earth/world is one of a stranger and an alien while my true "politic" (the New Testament word "commonwealth"), my true "citizenship" is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).
Now, what is Israel's politic? Where is Israel's commonwealth?
This is a hot topic today. Ephesians 2 tells me where Israel's politic is. Paul declares: "Now therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh who are called uncircumcised by the so-called circumcision which is performed in the flesh by human hands, remember that you were at that time (i.e., prior to the advent of Christ) separated from Christ, and excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, (that is, the political citizenry), and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now (you were then strangers to Israel's commonwealth), but now in Christ you who were far off have been bought near" (Eph. 2:11-13). Verse 19 continues this train of thought: "So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints and of God's household." What is the point? The point is simply this: Israel's Old Testament typological commonwealth has come into actual existence in the heavenlies in Christ. Christ has entered into it as the resurrected Davidic King. The kingdom of God has come. We should never, never think that Israel's commonwealth, Israel's citizenry, Israel's theocratic kingdom is something that is to be presently reproduced or is going to occur in a future millenium in some linear manner on earth as it occurred in the Old Testament. That notion denies the reality of fulfillment in Christ. That notion denies the type-antitype dynamic. That notion denies the simple principle that the New Covenant fulfills, and in fulfilling transcends, the Old Covenant. The way that Israel's commonwealth and citizenry is fulfilled is in Christ. And as such it has been transformed into its full intention in the already/not yet Kingdom. The Old Covenant inheritance of the land in the New Covenant that Christ brings is that land where Christ is in the heavenlies—that land which will one day dawn in the emergence of the new heavens and new earth at his return.
So, are we part of Israel? Yes and no. No, we are not part of the Old Covenant typological situation. We are part of the New Covenant situation which the Old anticipated typologically. And yes, therein we are part of Israel. Because it is Israel's promises that "in Christ" have been fulfilled and realized. In them, along with the Jewish remnant, we share. As Ephesians 2:19 says: "We (Gentiles) are fellow citizens with the saints" (Israel's remnant).
Christ the True Israel
Christ is the fulfillment of the whole thing; this is the basic presupposition; in him the theocratic kingdom that Israel anticipated has come, and it has been transformed. The Old Covenant caterpillar has become the New Covenant butterfly. All that the Old Testament anticipated regarding Israel's theocratic kingdom finds its fulfillment in the already/not yet dynamic of the kingdom heralded by Christ. The "not yet" sphere will be realized in the second advent of Christ in the consummation at the appearance of the new heavens and new earth, the new Jerusalem, the temple and the resurrected people of God with Christ dwelling in their midst. But now, "already," these very realities exist in the heavenlies, communicated by the Spirit to earth.
So where is the temple now? Hebrews tells us. It is where the land of the Kingdom is—in heaven! Christ entered the Holy Place in heaven, the real, eternal, of which the Old Covenant was merely a symbol. Believers now enter the Holy Place by faith. When the church assembles on earth for worship, by faith, they sit around Christ in the true sanctuary. There we enjoy, by the Spirit, our true homeland in heaven. With physical eyes we are seen as any other Babylonian assembly, where people gather to sit, speak and listen. The physical, earthly dimensions are the same. But to interpret this assembly biblically, we are in the Holy Place, the true sanctuary where Christ our Priest/King resides, perceived only by the eye of faith as informed by the Word and Spirit. Here we are in the midst of the cherubim and the angelic host. We are in the heavenlies with Christ. We are seated around him in worship, in the land, in Jerusalem, in the temple of the Lord. And we too "in the Spirit" have become the temple of the Lord with him dwelling in the midst. We have been united to Christ in his death and have been resurrected and removed from Babylon to join our King in the homeland of his theocratic kingdom. In union with Christ's death and resurrection we have "come out of Babylon." You can't see it. It is all hidden. Our life is "hidden with Christ in God." But it is going to be revealed when he returns in manifest glory (Col. 3:1-4). So, all that Ezekiel's temple anticipated (40-48) has begun now in the power of the Spirit. Yet, it will be revealed in the consummation when Christ returns to destroy Babylon forever in the final exodus of the people of God.
Consequently, Isaiah tells us, "Come out (of Babylon), you who bear the vessels of the Lord" (i.e., "you priests," 52:11). As the real, New Covenant priests of the Lord we are to come out of Babylon. Why? Because our cultic identity and our cultural identity are merged in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is separated from the religious as well as the political rudimentary principles of the world. Christian utopianism in either a conservative or liberal postmillennialism is plainly unbiblical. Thus, drawing swords "in the name of Christ" for dominion over this earth is contrary to the origin of our true "commonwealth" where we have become fellow citizens with the people of God (Eph. 2:12,19). "Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly wait for our Savior" (Phil. 3:20).
Our Present Citizenship
Then what, as Christians, are we to be doing on earth? We are "ambassadors" (2 Cor. 5:20). As such, our homeland is elsewhere, in heaven with Christ. Yet we are now, in the flesh, in Babylon. On earth we are strangers because we are not home. We are ambassadors, away from our homeland, commissioned by the King of our commonwealth with a message to Babylon. What is that mission? Is it the theocratic reconstruction of the whole of Babylon? Or are we to create a culture within a culture? No, neither of these. Our mission is to proclaim that the judgment of God which is upon Babylon and about to destroy it has been exhausted in Christ. Thus the urgent cry is "come out of her my people" (Rev. 18:4; Is. 52:11; Jer. 51:6,45). This call of the gospel is a call for resurrection life in the city of sin and death made effectual by the Spirit of the resurrected Christ. In order to "come out of Babylon," the curse abiding on the elect dwelling in Babylon must be removed through the Suffering Servant's death on their behalf. To "come out of Babylon" is to be joined to Christ in his resurrection and be seated with him in the land of life in the kingdom of God. That resurrection shout at the second advent to "come out of her my people" (Rev. 18:4) is echoed backward into the present preaching of the gospel. In this way, some will be raised from their Babylon tombs, while others will be left to ripen for the judgment to come. Reconciliation is nothing less than the removal of hostility and the joining of alien parties. Biblically, the removal of that wrath is accomplished by Christ (2 Cor. 5:21), the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Hostility, wrath, judgment, and the just execution of the curse are about to fall. So we cry out, "Come out of Babylon."
Our Present Mission
What therefore is our mission while we are in Babylon? Well, we do indeed participate in the daily culture and commerce of the world. This "participation" perspective as opposed to a militant dominionism or cultural isolationism is the only perspective consistent with the theological idea of common grace. But though participating in the world we do not "make full use of the world" (1 Cor. 7:31). Why? Because this world is not the homeland of the people of God. It is not our reason for living and can provide no ultimate or lasting purpose. Thus, in "seeking first the kingdom of God" we are living for another world, the world to come. And in the meantime, we have a message of reconciliation—that though wrath is going to come upon this world, the enmity has been removed in the cross of Jesus Christ. The holy war that is coming upon this world from the other country has already been finished and exhausted in Jesus Christ. Paul says in effect, God reconciled the world to himself and he is on his way to destroy the unrepentant; in the meantime, we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19,20). Our mission, as we are strangers, away from our homeland, to the Babylonians of this world is to call them to be reconciled to God because judgment is coming. Babylon will be destroyed! And that is why the call of the gospel is to "come out of Babylon." Yet, how do we "come out of the world?"
How do we "come out" of Babylon? We come out of the world/Babylon when we are joined with Christ in his death, burial, resurrection and ascension in the heavenlies. As people seated in the heavenlies, we have tasted of the world to come, ahead of time, so that now we live differently in Babylon. That difference of life is reflected fundamentally in three ways.
First, when we come out of the world, God becomes our God and our idolatry is forsaken. 1 Thessalonians 1:9 tells us what conversion is. Paul says, "You turned from idols to serve the living God."
Second, we come out of the world when our hope in life is no longer set upon either large or small earthly circumstances. In other words, when neither the productivity of one's personal career nor the eventual political justice and peace on earth is the quest of our existence, but rather the return of Jesus from heaven (1 Thess. 1:10). Where my hope is constitutes the location of my heart's treasure. My hope is my reason for living. As a believer I hope for the new world at Christ's return. I live for another world. My hope is set in another place. No matter what happens in this world, I have hope. I may be terminally ill, but I have hope. If you have hope in the returning kingdom of God to replace Babylon, the worst thing imaginable cannot swallow you in despair. As painful as life may be, the Christian has the hidden joy and strength within—he has hope. Paul's summation of conversion in 1 Thess. 1:9-10 consists in the same two Old Covenant distinctives for living life in Babylon: allegiance to the living God and hope in arriving in another land, the land of the theocratic kingdom of God.
The third way the Christian's life is distinctive in Babylon is that his mission is unique. The position of the church is not one of competing for world dominion with other Babylonian powers. Such a view is totally mistaken. Certainly believers will participate in the world commercially, politically and culturally. Sometimes we will do significant things. But this is not our mission. Our mission is based on the principle that the land of the kingdom of God is not this earth. We are not to labor to "kingdomize the world." We are not called to plant the kingdom here. God is going to remove this world. As Revelation 18:2 announces (quoting from Isaiah 13:12): "fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!" But the land of the kingdom of heaven where Christ is, will remain. It is this which gives the church an urgent message. Each Christian has a message and mission, not of Babylonian reconstruction, but of reconciliation through repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ. The world, Babylon, is under the wrath/curse of God. Yet the Christian's message is not a gloomy or self-righteous dirge of "you are doomed—period." But rather "Gospel", "Good News", "Exodus", "Release to the captives", "Come out of Babylon", "Your God reigns"—for "How beautiful are the feet of him who brings Good News!"
Covenant Congregational Church