Author: Ron Graham
Christ and His Church
—Three symbols in Isaiah
The New Testament writers Peter and Paul, draw on the words of Isaiah the prophet when they are teaching about the relationship of Christ to the church. The apostles draw our attention to three images in Isaiah's poetry which evoke a heightened understanding and appreciation of Christ’s pre-eminence in the church. In this lesson we will dwell upon this imagery and upon Paul and Peter’s discussion of it.
1 A Rock and Stone
Isaiah 8:14, Isaiah 28:16, 1Peter 2:4-8, Romans 9:23, Matthew 21:42-44
These two passages in Isaiah (Isaiah 8:14, 28:16,) are linked together by Peter and Paul as noted below. But first some comments on the imagery of rock and stone...
The imagery of a rock or stone represents Christ. This stone is meant to be regarded as "an expensive corner stone", a carefully hewn stone block, which is accurately laid down as the chief reference point in a building’s foundation. The building is the temple of God, the church. However for many this stone is rejected for what it is meant to be. So for them it becomes a "stone of stumbling and a rock of offense." A rock or stone can protect you or it can injure you. As a foundation for a house, it makes the house withstand the elements (Matthew 7:24-25). On the other hand, you can stumble over and fall upon a rock, or a rock can fall down upon you, resulting in injury and even death. This imagery is used to illustrate the two ways in which people can react to Christ.
Peter used these passages from Isaiah (1Peter 2:4-8). along with a passage from the Psalms (Psalms 118:22). I suppose this image of a stone was very special to Peter, because he would remember his confession of faith in Christ as the Son of God, and Jesus’s blessing upon him in response.
Jesus made a play on words with Peter’s name Petros, which means a stone, and is related to petra, which means a rock (Matthew 16:15-18). Jesus there spoke of the rock on which he would build his church. Jesus, in his teaching, also linked the passages in Isaiah and Psalms (Matthew 21:42-44).
It was the work of apostles such as Peter and Paul to lay down the foundation of the church. They understood, as Paul says, that "No man can lay a foundation other than the one that is laid, which is Christ Jesus" (1Corinthians 3:10-11). The church, "God’s house", is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone" (Ephesians 2:19-22).
Paul, like Peter, links the two passages in Isaiah (Romans 9:30-33). It is interesting, incidentally, to note how Paul edits the passages. As we would say today, he does a "cut-and-paste", omitting the words in Isaiah 28:16, "a choice stone, a precious corner stone", and inserting in their place the words of Isaiah 8:14, "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense". It is nonsense to suggest that Paul made a mistake here, getting the two passages mixed up in his head, resulting in a misquote. Paul was simply melding the two passages skilfully to bring out his point. So long as we do not distort the scriptures, it is legitimate to quote them in this manner when appropriate.
2 A Root and a Branch
Isaiah 11:1,10, Romans 15:12
Another important image in Isaiah is that of a tree cut off at the trunk and the root and stump left in the ground to grow again. There are many kinds of trees that can recover from this, and will send out new shoots which will grow into a new tree. In Australia we are familiar with this. Some of our eucalypts are very robust and will grow again after being cut down.
When Israel, and later Judah, were destroyed by the Assyrians and Babylonians, it seemed that the tree of Jacob had been cut down and made desolate. But God ensured that a root and stump was left, a remnant from which he would create a new Jerusalem, a new House of David. This new tree (the church) would grow from the Branch (the Christ) who would spring up from the root and stump.
An important aspect of this prophecy is that the tree will be made up of all nations not just the one whose remnant was preserved. So the Gentiles also have hope in Christ and are welcomed into his church (Romans 15:8-13).
Jesus represented this truth, with somewhat similar imagery, in the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus tells of a small seed that grew into a large tree for the birds of the air to come and nest in (Luke 13:18-19).
Note —MUSTARD: A small hard seed of certain Brassicas (the “cabbage family”). Some mustard varieties are perennial. In good conditions they can, although a herb, grow into a small tree (Matthew 13:31, Mark 4:30, Luke 13:19). Mustard seed (usually either white Sinapis alba or black Sinapis negra) is ground to make the pungent mustard paste, or cracked in a little hot oil to start a stir fry or curry.
3 A Barren Woman
Isaiah 54:1, Galatians 4:27
A third image in Isaiah represents Jerusalem as a barren woman who will be made fertile and will therefore rejoice. After the destruction of Jerusalem it was a forlorn and desolate place, a woman not only barren but widowed. Isaiah uses this emotional image to represent the sorrow of Jerusalem, yet he tells Jerusalem to rejoice for her children will be many, even more than if she were a woman happily married and fertile (Isaiah 54:1-3).
Paul takes this passage in Isaiah (Isaiah 54:1-3) and links it to the story of Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21-31, Genesis 21). He sees the true story as containing an allegory..
The fertile woman mentioned by Isaiah is represented by Hagar, Sarah’s slave girl who was fertile and who bore Abraham a son Ishmael. The barren woman whom Isaiah tells to rejoice is represented by Sarah who, although barren and old, gave birth to Isaac according to God’s promise. Isaac was the ancestor of Christ, and a type or symbol of Christ. The Jerusalem that was once so rich and fertile is represented by Hagar, but like her it was cast away. Jerusalem was destroyed and became desolate and barren like Sarah. However just as Sarah gave birth after many years, so the Christ would arise. He would create a new Jerusalem (the church or heavenly Jerusalem) and its children will be a great multitude.