Getting saved in the Gospels

Christianity is reckoned by most people, I imagine, to be at core a religion of salvation. The defining event is the cross, understood as an act of atonement or redemption, the means by which people are saved. If you are not a Christian you are “lost” or “perishing”. If you become a Christian, you don’t simply convert or join: you admit that you cannot save yourself, that you need a Saviour, therefore you repent of your sins and are saved. You then become part of a community of saved individuals, the church, and are expected to do what other saved people do, until eventually you die and go to heaven.

This has certainly been the overriding paradigm for the modern conservative and evangelical church, and we all naturally assume that it’s biblical. At the heart of the New Testament must be the simple and consistent gospel proclamation: you are a sinner, but the good news is that Jesus died for your sins; so believe in him and be saved from lostness before death and annihilation or worse after death.

If we resist the pressure to impose this basic evangelical theology on the Gospels, however, and ask instead about the historical meaning of the “salvation” that Jesus proclaimed, we will arrive at a rather different understanding of the term.

What I have done here is simply list, first, the places where the words “save”, “salvation” and “Saviour” are found in the Synoptic Gospels. It does not give us the complete picture (forgiveness of sins is only touched on, for example), but it will illustrate clearly enough the basic narrative shape of the concept. Then I have listed passages that indicate what people are saved from in the Synoptic Gospels. There is bad news as well as good news. Finally, I have drawn some conclusions about what it means to be saved today.

Apart from a brief mention at the end, I have excluded John’s parallel, theologically more complex, multilayered version of the story of Jesus.

Salvation in the Synoptic Gospels

  • Joseph is told that Jesus will save his people Israel from their sins (Matt. 1:21).
  • Mary calls God “Saviour” because he is about to overthrow the powerful and wealthy in Israel and raise up the poor and wretched (Lk. 1:46-55). Zechariah expects Israel to be saved from its enemies in order to serve the living God without fear (Lk. 1:71). John the Baptist will “give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk. 1:77). The salvation of Israel will be a light to the nations (Lk. 2:29-32).
  • The coming salvation of Israel will be comparable to the return of the Jews from exile (Lk. 3:5-6).
  • The disciples are saved from drowning on the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 8:23). Peter is saved from drowning by Jesus when he tries to walk on the water (Matt. 14:30).
  • In a number of passages the verb sōzō appears only to mean “heal, make well”. The woman with the flow of blood is saved when Jesus heals her (Matt. 9:21-22; Mk. 5:28, 34; Lk. 8:48). He saves Jairus’ daughter and she lives (Mk. 5:23; Lk. 8:50). Many sick people are saved as Jesus travels around the region of Gennesaret (Mk. 6:53-56). The Gerasene demoniac is saved when a “legion” of demons are driven out of him (Mk. 5:9; Lk. 8:30, 36). A blind man is saved by his faith and recovers his sight (Mk. 10:52; Lk. 18:42). Jesus tells the leper who came back to give thanks that he has been saved by his faith (Lk. 17:19).
  • A “woman of the city, who was a sinner” is forgiven and saved by her faith, having expressed her great love for him by kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment (Lk. 7:50).
  • The seed that falls along the path is taken away by the devil, so that people “may not believe and be saved” (Lk. 8:12). The seed is the word of God concerning Israel (cf. Is. 55:10-11; Amos 9:13-15).
  • The disciples will be saved by enduring through to the end of the persecution that will attend their kingdom-preaching mission to Israel (Matt. 10:22); by their endurance they will gain their lives when Jerusalem is surrounded by armies (Lk. 21:20). Jesus assures them that they “will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”. He says elsewhere that some of them will still be alive when the Son of Man comes (Matt. 16:28). Likewise, those who endure to the end, when “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations”, will be saved (Matt. 24:14; Mk. 13:13).
  • Some of the disciples will be saved because the “great tribulation” associated with the Roman invasion and destruction of Jerusalem will be cut short (Matt. 24:22; Mk. 13:20).
  • The disciple who wishes to save his life must be prepared to lose his life for Jesus’ sake (Matt. 16:25; Mk. 8:35; Lk. 9:24).
  • People are saved—including, at a stretch, wealthy people—by leaving behind houses, possessions and family and following Jesus as he proclaims the kingdom of God to Israel (Matt. 19:23-30; Mk. 10:23-31; Lk. 18:24-30).
  • When Zacchaeus promises to give half of his possessions to the poor and restore fourfold what he has defrauded, he is saved and becomes a true “son of Abraham”, he is restored to Israel (Lk. 19:8-10).
  • Only those Jews who “enter through the narrow door” leading to life will be saved (Lk. 13:23-24).
  • Jesus saved others from sickness and death, but he would not save himself (Matt. 27:39-42; Mk. 15:29-31; Lk. 23:35-39).

What people are saved from in the Synoptic Gospels

  • There is a narrow and difficult road leading to life, but most Jews are on a broad road leading to destruction (Matt. 7:13).
  • Unrighteous Israel faces the judgment of Gehenna (wrongly translated “hell” in many English Bibles), which was the fate formerly suffered by Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian invasion (Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8) and which would be repeated, as Josephus relates (Jos. War 5.12.3), at the time of the Roman siege of the city in AD 68-70.
  • Israel has built its house on sand; it will be swept away when the flood and storm of God’s judgment on his people come (Matt. 7:26-27).
  • The lost in the Synoptic Gospels are the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; 15:24).
  • Unrighteous Israel will be destroyed body and soul in Gehenna—there will be no prospect of resurrection (Matt. 10:28).
  • The wicked tenants in the vineyard of Israel and the guests who spurned the king will suffer military destruction; Jerusalem will be burned (Matt. 21:41; 22:7; Lk. 20:16).
  • The blood of the prophets “will be required of this generation” of Jews (Lk. 11:51).
  • Jesus came not to bring peace but to cast fire on the land, to bring a sword, to divide households (Matt. 10:34-36; Lk. 12:49-53).
  • If the Jews do not repent, they will perish in the same way that the Galileans killed by Pilate or those killed by the fall of the tower of Siloam perished (Lk. 13:2-5). Jesus is not speaking about spiritual death; he has in mind the physical destruction of the city and the slaughter of its inhabitants by the Romans.
  • The coming judgment on Israel will be like the flood or the destruction of Sodom (Lk. 17:26-30).
  • Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed by an invading army, its inhabitants will fall by the sword and be led captive among the nations (Matt. 24:1-28; Mk. 13:1-23; Lk. 21:5-24).

The narrative-historical frame

So to summarise the narrative-historical frame for salvation in the Synoptic Gospels:

  • The basic story is about the salvation of Israel, not the salvation of individual humans, and is conceived in social-political terms. What is at stake is the survival and continued witness of the family of Abraham.
  • When people are sick or in physical danger they are saved by their faith in or appeal to Jesus. This is not just a demonstration of the power of personal faith in Jesus. It is a sign of the coming salvation or healing of Israel in fulfilment of Isaiah 61:1 or Hosea 6:1-2. The associated forgiveness of sins is a sign of the forgiveness of Israel (cf. Is. 40:2; Jer. 31:34).
  • People are saved by abandoning their wealth and family and literally following Jesus. This involves radical faith in Jesus, clearly, but it is meaningless if it is not acted out in the dramatic context of the mounting eschatological crisis.
  • In the context of their mission to Israel, the disciples will be saved on the basis of how they face persecution: if they are willing to lose their lives, if they remain steadfast and endure through to the end of the period of suffering, they will be saved. This is unequivocally a salvation by works: if they do not do what Jesus has called them to do, they will not be saved.
  • Everything has to do with events that would take place within the next 40 years, culminating in the catastrophe of the war against Rome.

Salvation today

It is clear from this quick little survey that there is no modern-evangelical “gospel” of personal salvation for all humanity embedded in the Gospels. It’s simply not there. The Synoptic Gospels tell the story of the salvation of Israel, bounded by the horizon of an impending war against Rome, which Jesus regarded as God’s final judgment on the wicked tenants that had for so long refused to give him the fruit to which he was entitled.

The historical shape of John’s account is obscured by a layer of theological sediment, but it can be discerned if we look closely:

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. (Jn. 11:49–53)

So what should we do about it?

Two things, I suggest.

First, we should let the New Testament documents speak for themselves in their own historical context. There is nothing to be gained by putting our words into their mouths.

Secondly, we should proclaim good news today as part of the outworking of the New Testament narrative. So, at least with respect to the story in the Synoptic Gospels, salvation today means becoming part of a people that was saved from destruction two thousand years ago by the Messianic-prophetic ministry of Jesus to Israel. Becoming part of the people of the living God has all sorts of wonderful personal benefits for evangelists to promote. But it also carries the overt historical responsibility of serving the living God, of bearing credible witness in our aggressively secular context, during our own period of “eschatological” crisis.


This is great. There are a few other good things about reorienting our understanding of salvation in the Bible to its historical contingencies:

1 — It puts forgiveness of sins in its appropriate historical context. Forgiveness of sins is something that happens as part of God saving and reestablishing Israel. Forgiveness of our personal, individual sins may still be something that needs to happen and that we should seek out, but it is subservient to larger story of being the people of God in the world, just as it was for Israel.

In my opinion, this helps dislodge the rather narrow and somewhat narcissistic focus of how does an individual get their sins (which is also defined historically) forgiven which dominates evangelical understanding and replaces it with a much larger picture of what God is doing in the world and how we are to be a part of that in our context.

2 — It removes the whole “escape from Hell” thrust of modern evangelism and replaces it, instead, with a call to be something — specifically a manifestation of new creation in a world that needs it. People come to the church because they want to be part of that project rather than escaping torment. Not only do I personally find this more compelling and a much healthier basis for group identity, but it is a project that people can get behind even if they are leery of Christian theology or the Christian church.


This was fantastic!  Just one small clarification if you don’t mind.

You quoted John, I understand, for the purpose of an application for believers today.  I assume you had this section in mind:

…he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

Am I correct you see in the words, “but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad”, as a reference to the Gentile believers then and throughout time?


Andrew PerrimanRich | Wed, 10/12/2016 - 16:49 | Permalink

In reply to by Rich

Thanks, Rich.

I’m not at all sure what John thought or what John thought Caiaphas said. Arguably he is saying that Caiaphas “prophesied”—in some sort of formal, official capacity—that by executing Jesus the Council would not only save the nation from destruction by Rome but would also trigger the regathering of diaspora Jews.

Alternatively John ironically reinterprets Caiaphas’ words, at least insofar as the “children of God” are those who have been “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but God”—a definition that presumably includes Gentiles (Jn. 1:13).


Thanks for your clarification. I, too, don’t see in the statement anything concerning the Gentile. I see it, as you stated, “the regathering of diaspora Jews”. I thought you had something different in mind since you placed it under the subtitle “Salvation Today”.

Hey Rich,

I took the opposite away. I think the quotation from John is to prove that the personal salvation gospel isn’t in the Gospels. Caiphas’ remarks show that Jesus’ death is to prevent the nation from perishing as well as gathering those outside the nation into the people of God.

I don’t think the quote was meant to establish that the personal salvation gospel is present in John, but rather that it, like the Synoptics, is concerned with the historical destiny of the people of God at that time. In light of this comes the question, “What should we do about it?”

peter wilkinson | Thu, 10/13/2016 - 12:19 | Permalink

This post seems to have jumped from an unfinished conversation I was having on the preceding post. Whilst not disagreeing with some aspects of the simplification of evangelical theology in the first paragraph, it does not help to begin with caricatures, certainly not of what I think, which act as straw men to be easily demolished.

The caricature picture of the train careering over the edge of a cliff is amusing, but where is the alternative train taking us? I wonder how many people would really be convinced in a faith which was defined as

becoming part of a people that was saved from destruction two thousand years ago by the Messianic-prophetic ministry of Jesus to Israel

and that it had “all sorts of wonderful personal benefits”, including the possibility of

bearing credible witness in our aggressively secular context, during our own period of “eschatological” crisis

I seriously wonder what these benefits are, or what would be credible about the witness of this kind of faith?

Anyway, the word lists you have provided show the great variety of ways in which the word save/salvation is used. I’ve no problem with that, and if you want to use it to demonstrate the oversimplication of the use, in some circles, of the words save/salvation, I’ve no problem with that either. But do the lists “illustrate clearly enough the basic narrative shape of the concept” which you are wanting to promote? I don’t think so.

You then go on to to summarise what you see as the “the narrative-historical frame for salvation in the Synoptic Gospels”.

Your first bullet point is both wrong and misleading. Israel was a nation state, a theocracy, which became a kingdom. The identity of its citizens entailed numerous things, but in almost every case these were superseded by a new covenant which reconstituted the people as “neither Jew nor Greek” — Gal. 3:28. The church is not Israel, and never was described as such except once by Paul as “the Israel of God”, where it makes more sense to understand its use as figurative. The first statement in the paragraph defines where the second in the same paragraph is misleading: “the survival and continued witness of the family of Abraham”. There is a constellation of difficulty in this apparently uncontroverisal phrase, which is to do with your interpretion of what it means.

Your second bullet point hits the mark partially. When Jesus validates his ministry to the envoys of John the Baptist in Matthew 11, he does so in language that echoes Isaiah 35:5 and Isaiah 61:1, which includes healings and much else. The realities he is pointing to go much further than restoration of Israel, since they include worldwide salvation (that word again) — Isaiah 49:6. They include new heavens and new earth — Isaiah 65:17. This is the Isaianic vision which Jesus provides as the lens through which to see and understand him. But a key question is what would this go on to look like? It did not look like a continuation of Israel. It looked like Acts of the Apostles, and the realities described in the epistles.

The narrative was not restoration of Israel and survival through persecution to triumph over idolatrous pagan Rome. It was a renewed humanity, the model of which was Jesus himself, and “one new man” — Ephesians 2:15, now abolishing the “the dividing wall of hostility” in himself, in his own flesh.

The model for the renewed people of God began with Jesus pouring himself into the disciples, and through their worldwide proclamation, pouring into the lives of the Gentiles. It was a reality not for the renewal of Israel, but the renewal of creation — Romans 8:19. The progression of the story is uninterrupted, and not divided into compartmentalised horizons.

Which brings us to Gehenna. In previous posts, I have illustrated that it is a mistake to limit or even identify Jesus’s warnings about Gehenna with the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem. In the light of the broader, Isaianic purpose of his ministry, what emerges is not the survival of Israel beyond the crises of the 1st century, but a renewed people, reconstituted around himself, whose identity was not the same as Israel, but in himself — through faith and the Holy Spirit. The future of creation depended on this renewed people, and eschatologically, their existence pointed to the new creation to come.

Gehenna is not the proposed mythical burial site of bodies thrown out of besieged and conquered Jerusalem in AD 70, but the alternative destiny for those who will not be part of the renewed humanity in the new creation to come. The Pharisees and rulers of Israel were those in the first place for whom this future was designed, and by rejecting Jesus, they were the first to be warned of the destiny which was the alternative for them.

The question remains: who will constitute the new creation to come? Clearly, those who embrace it now. But is the new creation exclusively for those who embrace it now? Is it only for those who hear and respond to the gospel of Jesus now? A moment’s thought will highlight the need to be less absolute about this. The balance would be: those who embrace the new creation now have the responsibility of modelling that in their lives and proclaiming it. But it should not be seen as an exclusive privilege. Jesus came at a moment in history, before which nobody had the opportunity of hearing or responding to him.

Something similar could be said for parts of the world which also have had no opportunity of responding to him today. It’s not a question of whether our orthodoxy is generous or mean, to misquote Brian McLaren, but letting God be God, whilst taking seriously the responsibilities of what we do with what we already know and experience.

Anyway, to conclude, I hope, amicably: I think there are serious questions to be raised about your reframing of the narrative, Andrew. I think there are serious questions to be raised about a framework of faith which reduces things to the options of going to heaven or roasting in hell when you die. But don’t blame ‘modern evanglicalism’ for this. Go to the duomo in Florence, and many others in Italy and Catholic Europe. They were promoting ‘modern evangelicalism’ as far back as the 12th century, before ‘modern evangelicalism’ was a twinkle in Bill Graham’s eye.

Hi Peter,

There’s a lot that could be said about everything you just posted. Neither of us are probably interested in a point by point refutation of your list, but I do want to at least hit a few high points that I think will help you out.

1. No one is denying that the plan of God for His people draws in the Gentiles. But if you look at the historical outworking as presented to us in the Scriptures, God makes promises to patriarchs, continues those promises to their descendants, then it is -after- the work of Jesus that faithful Gentiles receive Israel’s promised Spirit and are made one people with faithful Israel. Paul’s metaphor about broken and grafted branches is certainly appropriate here.

An issue in what you wrote is that you are collapsing historical developments into one, continuous abstraction that governs God’s people at all times, and it is highly unlikely that the people living through this history, writing about it, prophesying about it, etc. would have understood their situation in that way.

2. In this vein, you might want to read some works about the Old Testament use of cosmological language, especially “heavens” and “earth.” I think you’ll find it is highly unlikely that Isaiah is talking about the entire literal planet. If you have a better grasp of the authors’ frame of reference for these images, I think it’ll help you exegetically put “renewal of creation” into it’s place as a historical outcome. It’s not that renewal of creation has no place on the biblical radar but, once again, you are collapsing the progressive and intimately historically conditioned trajectory of God in the world into a single meta-narrative you are applying to the entirety of the Bible. The Bible itself wasn’t even written that way.

3. It is overwhelmingly obvious that Paul saw faithful Gentiles being grafted into God’s people in a manner continuous with Israel’s promises to the patriarchs. Otherwise, his reasoning about Abraham and justification and the Law is nonsense. His explication of the relationship of Law and promise loses coherence. You have to look more deeply than “did anyone ever call Gentiles ‘Israel.’”

Thanks Phil for some interesting comments.

I don’t really have a lot more to say, except that I’m aware of alternative understandings of ‘heaven and earth’ — especially as it relates to the temple. I’d put it the other way: that the temple was a microcosm of heaven and earth, and that with the temple gone, the reality was coming.

I’m not sure that gentiles were ‘grafted in’ to God’s people quite in the way you suggest. They were grafted into the cultivated olive tree as wild branches — alongside some that remained. But the root was hardly Israel. Possibly Abraham, whom Paul has presented as demonstrating a righteousness that preceded Israel and the law.

But I may be misreading you. Thanks for your thoughts.

Hi Peter,

Well, I’m not so much arguing for alternate interpretations as I am trying to pinpoint the most likely points of reference of the authors writing in their context.

I’m not sure “heavens and earth” refers to the Temple, although if it did, obviously Isaiah is written before 70 AD and, depending on when exactly we ended up with that text in its format, before the destruction of the Temple by Babylon as well. So, if your theological point — i.e. the Temple is a representation of the planet Earth and the sky, and without the Temple, the actual planet and sky is the primary referent for heavens and earth — is true, it still couldn’t apply to Isaiah. Even if Isaiah is receiving divine verbal communication from God, he certainly wouldn’t have understood a reference to the Temple to mean the planet Earth, and neither would his audience.

That’s just an illustration of what I mean. Like I said, I don’t know that “heaven and earth” refers to the Temple, but I do find it highly unlikely given the Old Testament use of cosmological language that we’re to understand -Isaiah’s- reference to a new heavens and a new earth as a new physical planet. Yes, there are all kinds of -possible- things that phrase could stand for, but what is likely given Isaiah’s points of reference?

For instance, when we read in Luke 2 that Caesar declared all the world to be taxed, we know this does not mean the proto-Inuits who crossed the Bering Strait received his decree. This is because, given the historical contingencies of Luke’s gospel, the idea that he would be referring to the Americas, Australia, Norway, Little Whinging, etc. is highly unlikely. We would be reading more contemporary concepts back into a writing that had a different frame of reference. If we had continued adding to the Bible, and someone in the 21st century wrote the book of Steve or whatever, and he used the word “world,” we might easily assume they meant the planet as we know it, but that would not influence how we interpreted Luke’s statement about taxation.

Well, the Bible itself is written over the course of many centuries with many varied circumstances in play for the people of God at that time. So, when we take an issue like “inclusion of the Gentiles” or “eternity in Hell as traditionally defined,” it’s unwise to take any of those concepts as a controlling paradigm and find it wherever -possible-. Sure, it’s -possible- that every biblical author’s concept of the people of God always included faithful Gentiles, and that they always knew that their historical experiences with war and famine were nothing compared to the fires of Hell for the individual soul, and that the ultimate eschatological outcome for the faithful was immortality on a new planet, but is any of that -likely-?

And if it isn’t likely, then doesn’t it behoove us to follow theological threads as they progress historically rather than assert these categories wherever it is strictly possible to find them?

Incidentally, I agree with you that the root is the patriarchs/their promises. Ephesians seems to state clearly that faithful Israel and faithful Gentiles are being made into one, new people rather than the Gentiles becoming Israelites. However, the covenant promises made to the patriarchs are inherited by Israel, and those are the same promises received by faithful Gentiles. The historical survival of faithful Israel in the mid first-century takes the historical form of incorporating faithful Gentiles, which is something new. It’s not like OT Israel’s survival depended on their influx of proselytes.

In this way, I, you, or any who have faith in what God has done in Christ become part of that ongoing story, which -appears- not to originate in a context of a soul going to Heaven or Hell, but rather the context of God’s people testifying to his faithfulness by existing as a faithful community over and against everything thrown at them. This is our story and, given the components of being the faithful kingdom of God, has tons of benefits on the ground.

You and I might dicker over the particulars, but I think we can both agree that it is currently a plague on modern Christianity that the average evangelical story is that you pray the Special Prayer to avoid going to Hell, then you try to get others to pray the Special Prayer, and in the interim, you avoid sinning. This is an anemia that seems to have very little plausibility given actual Scriptural data.

I do appreciate your point that this anemia set in long before modern evangelicalism. I think perhaps modern evangelicalism’s contribution might be the radicalized individual nature of it.

They include new heavens and new earth - Isaiah 65:17.

Have you read Isaiah 65-66? He is not talking about cosmic renewal. He is talking about the renewal of Jerusalem:

But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. (Is. 65:18)

There is still death (65:20), and it is only on God’s holy mountain that the wolf and the lamb, lion and ox will get along peacefully (65:25). Read the whole passage. The making new of heaven and earth is patently a metaphor for the restoration of Jerusalem. The nations participate only insofar as they assist in the regathering of scattered Jews (some are also recruited as priests and Levites).

Those coming, finally, will go out of the city 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” (Is. 66:24). Jesus certainly uses this as a lens to interpret his own ministry to Israel and impending events, but not in the inflated universal sense that you suggest.

The unquenchable fire in context, like the valley of the Sons of Hinnom in context, is a figure for military defeat and slaughter. There is nothing either in the prophets or in the Gospels that points to a generalised post mortem sense.

Your response is full of sweeping statements that disregard the exegetical evidence.

Yes, I’ve read Isaiah 65-66, and in trying to describe the new heavens and new earth, which refer to the renewal of the original heavens and earth of Genesis 1:1, the passage uses the language of metaphor. It is trying to describe an almost unimaginable future in terms of things familiar (so Derek Kidner).

For example: “The former things will not be remembered, neither will they come to mind” … “the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more” … “Never again will there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth”.

You are wanting to have it both ways. You say that the new heavens and new earth are metaphorical, and then the new Jerusalem is historical and literal. Then you cite the wolf and the lamb feeding together “in my holy mountain”, as if that proved a literal fulfilment historically, when it’s plainly metaphor, or at least, not history as we have known it.

It is “all flesh” which looks on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against God — a phrase used elsewhere by Isaiah of all mankind. The context is not simply historical; there is clearly metaphor here also. And anyway, we were looking at the verse in the context of Jesus quoting it in Matthew and Mark. Let’s decide which context we are looking at.

Your final comment is as sweeping as the charge brought against me. I’m happy to substantiate all of my comments.

…in trying to describe the new heavens and new earth, which refer to the renewal of the original heavens and earth of Genesis 1:1, the passage uses the language of metaphor.

But Isaiah is not “trying to describe the new heavens and new earth”. He’s trying to describe renewed Jerusalem, that’s what the passage is about, and in order to convey something of the impact and scope of that renewal he compares it to a new act of divine creation.

You are wanting to have it both ways. You say that the new heavens and new earth are metaphorical, and then the new Jerusalem is historical and literal.

I really don’t see the problem. Isaiah has in view the historical restoration and renewal of Jerusalem. That is the literal subject of the passage. He uses a number of metaphors, some quite extended, to speak about it: it is (like) a making new of heaven and earth; the past sinfulness of Israel will be forgiven/forgotten as though it were an old world that passes away and is no more; Mount Zion will be a place of peace and well-being, where (it is as though) domestic animals will no longer be killed by wild animals.

Isaiah includes the nations in the event, as I noted already: they will look on, they will bring scattered Jews back to Jerusalem, they will participate in the worship of YHWH in the temple. That is the sense of “all flesh” in Isaiah 66:23-24.

It is the same in Isaiah 49:22-26, which is about the return from exile. God signals to the nations to bring his people back to the land. He will make their oppressors eat their own flesh, drink their own blood. In this way “all flesh”—the peoples of the ancient world looking on—will know that YHWH is Israel’s saviour. “All flesh” dos not mean all humanity throughout history. It refers to all the peoples who will see YHWH’s extraordinary redemption of Israel from captivity in Babylon.

Sorry Andrew, I disagree. You are welcome to your opinion, but it is not universally held. Derek Kidner is at least one scholar who disagrees with you. Alec Motyer is another.

Of Isaiah 65:17, Motyer says: “Heavens and earth represent the totality of things, as Genesis 1.” Of the passage which follows, he says: “Throughout this passage, Isaiah uses aspects of present life to create impressions of the life that is yet to come.”

Of Isaiah 49:22-26 Motyer contrasts the meagre return from Babylon in 539 BC with “the spiritual reality, people returning to the Lord due to a divine work of salvation and redemption.”

Of “all flesh” (Isaiah 6:23-24), Motyer says: “i.e. the redeemed community who enjoy the new creation.” He goes on: “The context requires that the locus of this worship is the new Jerusalem. That ‘all flesh’ could come to one city shows that Isaiah is running beyond the concept of a single location. This is the world city of the redeemed which we met in chapters 25-26.”

You may disagree with Motyer, and Kidner, but you need to know that your own viewpoint is not the only one to be reckoned with. If you want to criticise Motyer, I suggest you read the 544 pages of his commentary, the fruit of 30 years work and a lifetime study of Isaiah.

No need to apologise.

It looks to me very much as though Motyer has overstated matters because he is trying to impose on Isaiah a generalised Christian eschatology. Isaiah 65-66 is not a vision of the “consummation”. It is the continuation of the story of Israel, Jerusalem and the land.

Isaiah says:

No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. (Is. 65:20)

Motyer writes:

This does not imply that death will still be present… but rather affirms that over the whole of life, as we should now say from infancy to old age, the power of death will be destroyed. (530)

This is calling black white. Isaiah is unambiguous. The righteous shall fill out their days and die in old age; a sinner who lives to be a hundred will be accursed—but most sinners, presumably, will die much younger. The emphasis on descendants in verse 23 comes because people will still die. There will also be a continuing tension between the righteous and the unrighteous: we are still very much in the real world of Israel’s experience (Is. 65:8-15).

Motyer claims that in 65:19-25 “the whole earth will be the Lord’s holy mountain” (528). But Isaiah doesn’t say that, and the whole point of the pilgrimage theme is that the nations will come to Zion. Jerusalem remains a distinct location in the middle of the earth.

I think Watts has a much better grasp of the political character of the text:

Westermann understands these eschatologically. Only after the old present order has gone can a new age be created, but the references in chaps. 40–66 presumed a position in which the former age is already gone and a new age with Cyrus and his successors has begun. Here, too, the new order that is being created is (like chap. 45) the one in which Persia holds sway over the entire area so that Jerusalem can be rebuilt….

The שׁמים חדשׁים, “new heavens,” may well represent the new order, divinely instituted, which chaps. 40–66 have revealed and in which the Persian Empire has YHWH’s sanction and Israel is called to be a worshiping and a pilgrim people with Jerusalem as its focus. (John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66, 924)

The story is that in the post-exilic period there is still division in Israel between the righteous and the unrighteous, but YHWH will come and judge the wicked, who practise pagan sacrifice, etc., his enemies, and Jerusalem will be reborn as a place of peace and prosperity; YHWH will “create Jerusalem to be a joy”; and in response to this salvation the nations will come bringing the scattered Jews, etc.

I personally wouldn’t approach Isaiah in the way Motyer does — but would have to respect his scholarship on the subject — of course I would. There is a huge amount of detail in the commentary which deserves attention.

The heart of the issue is: which eschatological event(s) is Isaiah describing in 65-66? I don’t  think it’s tenable to say that Isaiah is using the language of hyperbole and metaphor to describe what happened in 539 BC and following. Ezra Nehemiah and Haggai tend to confirm this in their descriptions of what was actually happening in the return. Here, and elsewhere in Isaiah, I think he is looking beyond the 539 BC return. Maccabees and the history of Israel also tend to confirm such a view.

As regards “new heavens and earth” — dredging the depths of my memory, isn’t there some argument that this is a metaphor to do with covenant renewal? Even so, I don’t think the language of Isaiah 65-66 bears this out, or indeed that the description can be shoe-horned into historical events. “All flesh” would be just one “thorn in the flesh” for a historical interpretation — whether you agree with Motyer or not.

Anyway, I think this conversation has gone far enough. Over and out. (Unless you want to pursue Gehenna a bit further).

Regarding John’s section:

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the (Jewish) nation, and not for the (Jewish) nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad (Ephraim/Paul’s audience). So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. (Jn. 11:49–53)

There’s a narrative going on the the NT that it seems most are ignoring. It’s the regathering of the descendants of the 10 northern tribes (gentiles) so that all Israel (all 12 tribes) could be saved from the judgement required by the Old Covenant. (Rom11)

John’s portion there is the same as Paul’s portion in Eph2:

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles in the flesh (circumcision) and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you (Ephraim) were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel (excommunicated) and foreigners to the covenants of the promise (cut off by the old covenant), without hope and without God in the world (Hosea 1 called *not my people*). 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away (the scattered of Ephraim) have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (the ‘far off’ and those ‘afar’ always referred to scattered Israelites)

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups (Judah and Ephraim) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new (covenant) man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (hostility between Judah and Ephraim)17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away (Ephraim) and peace to those who were near (Judah). 18 For through him we (Judah & Ephraim) both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (New Covenant)

Paul reaches the scattered of Ephraim (sheep not of this fold/Judah) and ‘fishes’ them out of the nations (Rev5 “out from the nations”) to create the New Covenant bride (Rev7) which consisted of only the remnant of the 12 tribes (144k). John hears the symbolic number of the 144k, then looks to see them as the regathered scattered great multitude ‘from every tribe nation tongue and people’. 

Hope that helps with the John portion. They were still being ‘saved’ from the final judgement that was required by that Mosaic Covenant. (Rom2:12)


David, you have given no justification for allegorically interpreting “the nations” / “Gentiles” (ta ethnē) as a reference to the ten tribes. All you have done here is superimpose it on the text of Ephesians 2:11-18.

  • There is no basis in the text for identifying “Gentiles in flesh” with “circumcision.”
  • Elsewhere in Paul “foreskin” (akrobustia) refers to the pagan peoples of the Greek-Roman world (eg., Col. 2:13; 3:11), as also in LXX (eg., 2 Sam. 3:14; 1 Macc. 1:15).
  • It is really difficult to see how there is any differentiation in the context of the Pauline mission between ta ethnē which are the pagan nations and ta ethnē which are the ten lost tribes.
  • The “uncircumcised” are those who are not descended from Abraham according to the flesh (Rom. 3-4).
  • I don’t see why Judah and Ephraim would be divided by the “law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Eph. 2:15). Why would the ten tribes be “foreigners (xenoi) of the covenants of the promise”?
  • There is no reference to Hosea 1 in Ephesians 2:12.

Why assume that Caiaphas is referring specifically to the tribes of the northern kingdom? In the first century context surely the reference is to the synagogue communities of the diaspora (cf. Acts 15:21)? These would be expressly the object of Peter’s mission, not of Paul’s (Gal. 2:7-9).