Experiencing the New Exodus

Having considered why we can believe that the New Exodus will surely come to pass in its fullness, we now consider how we are to respond to participate in it. We will pick up from where we left off in our exposition of the New Exodus in Isaiah 49-53, which focuses on the Servant-Messiah, whose atoning death redeems humanity from sin so that His mission to bring justice to the nations may be accomplished.

Immediately following Isaiah 53 the nation of Israel is exhorted to “shout for joy” because they will not only be restored but will also “spread abroad to the right and to the left [to] possess nations, and they will resettle the desolate cities” (54:1-3). This and other similar statements (11:14-16; 14:1-2; 49:22-23; 60:10-14; 61:5-6) that seem to suggest Israel’s domination of the nations are not to be taken literally. In the language of the New Exodus, the mission of the Messiah is described using imageries reminiscent of the Exodus, which concluded with the conquest and occupation of Canaan. In its context, the statement just means that as a consequence of the atoning death of the Messiah the Kingdom of God will encompass all nations.

How then do Israel and the nations participate in the New Exodus and thus enter the Kingdom of God?

On the basis of the atoning death of the Messiah the invitation is given: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (55:1). Couched obviously in figurative language, this invitation is to “Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (55:6-7).

In other words, the invitation is to receive freely God’s salvation from sin when the opportunity is still available. Though salvation is free (by grace) it must be received with repentance, which is here defined as forsake one’s wicked way and unrighteous thoughts and return to God. Hence Biblical repentance is not about “turning over a new leaf,” and not even just about turning away from sin. It involves both turning away from sin as well as returning to the Creator, against whom all humanity have sinned and thus turned away from.

One cannot “return to the LORD” without faith in Him and His word. Conversely one cannot have faith in God and His word without repentance. Faith and repentance are both sides of the same coin. This explains why in the New Testament, salvation is sometimes said to be received through faith, sometimes through repentance, and sometimes both. For this reason, integrated into God’s word concerning the New Exodus (Isaiah 40-66) is the powerful argument for the trustworthiness of God and His word (Isaiah 41-48). So it will certainty come to pass because “the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (40:5). This is to help them believe in God and His word and so repent.

As we have seen, following that powerful argument and the revelation of the atoning mission of the Messiah (Isaiah 49-54) is the invitation to seek God and receive His salvation (55:1-7). Following this invitation is the strong reaffirmation that God’s word concerning the New Exodus will certainly be fulfilled. For God’s word, “which goes forth from My mouth … shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing that which I purpose, and succeeding in that for which I sent it” (55:11). They are thus to believe that the New Exodus is a foregone conclusion (55:12). And this includes the nations turning to God, so much so that one day “to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance” (45:22-23; cf. Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:10-11).

Isaiah 56-59 then elaborates on the theme of repentance before concluding with a preview of the (ultimate) fulfillment of the New Exodus in Isaiah 60. Isaiah 56 begins with a direct call to “Preserve justice, and do righteousness, for My salvation is about to come, and My righteousness to be revealed.” Here again we see God’s salvation and His righteousness presented as though they are synonymous (cf. 51:5). To better appreciate why this is so, we first consider the distinction between repentance and the fruit of repentance.

Repentance involves forsaking one’s wicked way and one’s unrighteous thoughts. Now “unrighteous thoughts” include thoughts that lead to covetousness (intention to do wrong) and covetousness itself, which in turn leads to the “wicked way.” Repentance then involves turning away from sin by changing one’s thoughts concerning sin and so change one’s intention towards sin (forsake it), as well as returning to God by changing one’s thoughts concerning God and so change one’s intention towards Him (trust and obey Him). In fact the Greek word for repentance in the New Testament literally means “change of mind.” This involves changing one’s thoughts as well as one’s intention as the Greek word for “mind” actually means “heart-and-mind.”

This does not mean that the repentant person will never sin again, but it does mean his intention is to not sin anymore, with the result that he will increasingly bear the fruit of repentance (cf. 1 John 3:4-10, which is not talking about sinlessness). And whenever he sins his repentant heart-and-mind will cause him to confess it and trust in God to be set free from it. Repentance in itself is thus not (yet) “good works.” So when we receive salvation by repenting, no “good works” is involved. But genuine repentance will bear fruit in “good works.”

When God calls Israel to “Preserve justice, do righteousness,” He is talking about the fruit of repentance. Historically it was through John the Baptist that God made this call in view of the imminent coming of His salvation and the revelation of His righteousness. And it is also through John the Baptist that the distinction between repentance and the fruit of repentance is highlighted and elaborated. When some religious leaders came to him to be baptized he doubted their sincerity (to repent). So he challenged them to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8; see also Acts 26:19-20).

When different groups of people asked him what they should then do, John said those who had more than what they needed should share with those who lacked; tax-collectors should not collect more than what they were told to collect; soldiers should be content with their pay and not abuse their power (Luke 3:10-14). Hence repentance has social, economic and political implications.

In other words, genuine repentance will bear fruit in righteousness. We have seen in our exposition on Abraham’s faith development that genuine faith will also bear fruit in righteousness. Since salvation is received through faith and repentance it will surely bear fruit in righteousness. This is especially the case in the context of the New Covenant. For with the circumcision of the heart by God Himself, together with the empowering presence of the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26-27), bearing the fruit of repentance is not only certain but also quickened. Therefore salvation and (human) righteousness are inseparable (see 62:1-2).

However, Isaiah is talking about salvation and God’s righteousness. Under the New Covenant righteousness as the fruit of repentance is in a sense righteousness of (from) God, inasmuch as it is rooted in God’s circumcision of the heart and the empowerment of God’s Spirit. But in Isaiah 40-66, “God’s righteousness” means God’s own righteousness. It may refer to His righteousness which upheld or supported Him in the work of salvation (see 59:16). In other words, His salvation for humanity is an expression of His own righteousness. This is in part because He has promised salvation even as early as in Genesis 3:15. He would be unrighteous if He does not fulfill His promise.

More significantly, in view of Paul’s teaching on “justification by faith,” it may also refer to God’s gift of His own righteousness that comes with salvation. For God says He would (freely) grant His salvation, that is, His own righteousness to people “who are far from righteousness” (see 46:12-13). As E. J. Young (1972: 229) put it, “God manifests His righteousness in the salvation of His people, and also in the fact that in this salvation His people receive His own perfect righteousness.” This means, though they are still “far from righteousness,” God’s New Exodus people are reckoned as righteous with God’s own righteousness.

Isaiah 53:10-11 specifically reveals that it is the righteous Servant who through bearing their iniquities as a Guilt Offering “makes to be righteous” (that is, “justify” or “makes to be accounted righteous”) those who are saved (cf. Motyer 1993: 441-42). Since this is revealed in the context of the (implied) resurrection of the Servant, it gives the New Testament the basis to develop the teaching that salvation and thus justification are based on not only the death but also the resurrection of Christ (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:16).

In Isaiah 56:1, God says His righteousness is about to be revealed. In Romans 1:17, Paul declares that in the Gospel, “the righteousness of God is revealed,” obviously affirming that what God promised in Isaiah 56:1 has come true. It is thus difficult to deny, as some New Testament scholars do, that “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 does refer to God’s gift of His righteousness.

For in Isaiah 40-66 all the above three meanings of “righteousness” are inseparable (one implying the other two), even though in a particular context the focus is only on one of the three meanings. So even if the focus in Isaiah 56:1 is the revelation of God’s own righteousness in bringing His promised salvation, the gift of His righteousness is also implied, as it comes with this salvation. Hence it would still be correct for Paul to say that in the Gospel, God’s gift of righteousness is revealed. That Paul does have God’s gift of righteousness in mind is confirmed in Romans 4 where he refers twice to Abraham’s faith being reckoned by God as righteousness (verses 3 and 22; cf. Genesis 15:6) in his argument that, like Abraham, believers in Christ are “justified” (reckoned as righteous) by faith alone.

Having highlighted the need for repentance in view of the coming of God’s salvation, Isaiah then reproduces prophecies against the nation previously delivered in Jerusalem when they were still in the Promised Land, so as to review the sins the nation had committed there (56:9-58:12). This is to give the audience a better idea of what they need to repent of so that they could participate in the New Exodus.

Isaiah begins with the failure of the prophets (“watchmen”) and the rulers (“shepherds”) to hold the people accountable to God; in fact the rulers themselves were corrupt (56:9-12). As a result idolatry and injustice were rampant and blatant among the people (57:1-58:12). Idolatry went as far as religious prostitution and child sacrifice (57:5-8). They did not love God with all their heart. And God said that though He is the high and exalted One, He will dwell with the contrite of spirit to revive their heart and restore them (57:14-21). This is to assure the audience that if they would repent they will dwell with God again in the Promised Land.

As for injustice, Isaiah highlights a case related to the Sabbath. On God’s holy day, the people would fast and expect God to answer, and yet “on the day of your fast you do as you please and oppress your workers” (58:3). Even on God’s holy day, they did not love their neighbor as themselves. In response God said if they would repent and honor the Sabbath they will be richly blessed (58:13-14).

Isaiah then goes as far as identifying with Israel in confessing the past sins of the nation (59:9-15), as well as in confessing God’s gift of salvation through the atoning death of the Messiah (59:16; cf. 53:12) for those who fear Him and thus repent, whether they are Israelites or foreigners (59:19-20). But just before the confession Isaiah emphasized that “the LORD's hand is not too short to save and His ear is not too deaf to hear, but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear” (59:1-2). This would prod the audience to join him in confessing sins and God’s salvation through the Messiah.

This is God’s response to the confession: “‘As for Me, this is My covenant with them,’ says the LORD: ‘My Spirit who is on you, and My words that I have put in your mouth, will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouth of your children, or from the mouth of your children’s children, from now on and forever,’ says the LORD” (59:21).

The “them,” with whom is God’s “covenant,” refers to those who fear God and thus repent (59:19-20), and the “you” (singular), upon whom is God’s Spirit, is the Messiah, who is thus empowered to execute the New Exodus (11:2; 42:1; 61:1; cf. Smith 2009: 605). Since the “covenant” involves salvation through the Messiah it refers to the New Covenant. Isaiah has already revealed that in the New Exodus, God’s Spirit will also come upon His people (32:15-20; 44:3), which is a key New Covenant promise (Ezekiel 36:27).

In other words, Isaiah 56-59 is designed to teach the audience what they must do to accept the invitation to participate in the New Exodus (Isaiah 55), and thus experience the blessings of the New Covenant made possible through the atoning death and resurrection of the Messiah (Isaiah 53). The focus on bearing the fruit of repentance shows how central repentance is to salvation.

To preview what is in store for those who repent, Isaiah 60 describes, in the language of the New Exodus, a Jerusalem that is glorious, so much so that “nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your radiance” (verse 3). This is the New Jerusalem, which will be a part of the New Heavens and the New Earth (65:17-25; cf. Revelation 21:1-22:5), “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13), and the people will all be righteous (60:21). It is where “the former things [even the best memories of life in the previous universe] shall not be remembered or come to mind” (65:17), for they shall all be occupied with gladness and rejoicing (65:18-19). It is where every human longing is fulfilled and every human fear is no more (65:20-25). It is Heaven.

Creation Mandate Reapplied

Isaiah 60 previews what is ultimately in store for those who repent. This is the “not yet” aspect of the Kingdom of God. Except for saying that God’s word will remain on the lips of His people and thus shape the community of believers from generation to generation (59:21), Isaiah essentially skips over what is immediately in store for believers in this world. To consider this “already” aspect of the Kingdom of God, we now return to the Creation Mandate, God’s purpose for humanity.

This purpose—to build a global civilization that is in fellowship with God and consistent with His will—was derailed, though not defeated, because of the Fall. We have seen that in the post-Fall world the mandate is reapplied partially through the Noahic Covenant and nationally through the Mosaic Covenant. In our exposition of the Psalms we saw that Christ has reclaimed the pre-Fall Creation Mandate for humanity (Hebrews 2:5-10; cf. Psalms 8:4-6). We will now see that in the post-Christ world it is reapplied globally, as originally intended, through the New Covenant.

In view of the Creation Mandate it is particularly significant that salvation under the New Covenant is couched in terms of another Exodus. This means the goal of the New Exodus is the same as that of the Mosaic Exodus, and the nature of salvation under the New Covenant is similar to that under the Mosaic Covenant, which is not merely spiritual, but also social, economic and political.

We have already seen that salvation under the New Covenant involves God’s circumcision of the heart as well as the empowering presence of the Spirit to enable believers to fulfill the requirement of the Mosaic Law (Romans 8:4). And the purpose of the Mosaic Law was to enable Israel to achieve the goal of building a national civilization that would be in fellowship with God and consistent with His will.

The goal of the New Exodus is the same except that the civilization now extends to all nations. This is reflected in the New Exodus mission of the Messiah to bring justice-salvation to all nations (a global civilization consistent with God’s will), and in God’s Spirit indwelling New Covenant believers of all nations (a global civilization in fellowship with God).

When Jesus the Messiah ascended to Heaven, His mission was delegated to His disciples (Acts 13:47; cf. Isaiah 42:1, 6; 49:6). He actually charged them to fulfill His mission in what is known as the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:18-20; cf. Isaiah 66:18-21). When we consider what happens when the Great Commission is fulfilled, we will see that it is actually the post-Christ version of the Creation Mandate.

For the Great Commission is about the apostles, Christ’s immediate disciples, making disciples of all nations, who will then make even more disciples, to form a growing global community of believers (the Church), who are the temple of the Holy Spirit (and are thus in fellowship with God). And these disciples are taught to live out in every area of their lives everything Christ has commanded, which can be summed up as loving God with all their heart and loving their neighbor as themselves (Matthew 22:37-40).

They are thus to seek first the Kingdom of God in and through their lives (Matthew 6:33) by seeking God’s will done on earth as it is in Heaven (Matthew 6:10). And seeking God’s will done on earth certainly involves upholding justice in and through their lives (and thus contribute to building a civilization that is consistent with God’s will).

In line with Christ’s mission to be light to the nations and to bring justice-salvation to all peoples, Christ’s disciples, who became known as Christians (Acts 11:26), are called to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16). They are being light by doing God’s will in their lives, and are being salt by doing God’s will through their lives, that is their lives influence others to do God’s will.

We have repeatedly emphasized that just like salvation under the Mosaic Covenant, salvation under the New Covenant is not just spiritual (forgiveness of sin), but also social, economic and political. In other words, those who repent and participate in the New Exodus will experience spiritual as well as social, economic and political salvation, even in the present world.

We just saw that repentance will bear fruit in social, economic and political terms. Hence within the community of believers, who are repentant and thus love their neighbor as themselves, we expect no political oppression (see Luke 22:24-26 and Colossians 4:1); no economic deprivation (see Acts 4:32-37 and 2 Corinthians 9:6-15); and no social discrimination (see James 2:2-4 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-26).

In other words, when a person repents and believes in Christ he becomes part of a community within which he will experience social, economic and political, in addition to spiritual, salvation. If we do not see this happening, it is partly because too many within the group concerned have not actually repented (cf. Matthew 13:24-30), and partly because most of those who have repented are still immature in their faith (cf. Hebrews 5:11-14).

To see better how the Great Commission is actually about building a global civilization that is in fellowship with God and consistent with His will, we now return to where we left off in our exposition on Covenant and Nationhood in terms of the seven influential spheres of civilization.

We have seen that this is God’s will for a nation (figure 3):

And we saw that insofar as the constitution of a nation embodies the Golden Rule, upholding the constitution amounts to submission to God and His will to uphold justice. Hence when a nation adopts such a constitution with the intention to uphold it, God’s reign or kingdom and thus justice for the nation, has taken root.

And since constitutionalism developed out of the covenant tradition of the Old Testament, which spread beyond ancient Israel in tandem with the growth of Christianity as a consequence of the Great Commission, it can be said that Christ’s mission to bring justice to the nations has borne fruit in the form of the constitutions that the nations have adopted.

Christianity has now spread to the point where there are now Christians in virtually every nation, and perhaps even in every sphere of most nations (figure 6):

Together with those in other nations, Christians in a nation form a global civilization that is in fellowship with God as well as consistent with God’s will. For as disciples of Christ, unlike others in the nation, they submit not just to the constitution of their nation (figure 6), but ultimately to the higher constitution—the Ten Commandments itself (figure 7):

They are to love God with all their heart, which thus motivates them to love their neighbor as themselves, that is, uphold the Golden Rule by doing justice and loving mercy. This is being light of the world (figure 8):

And since they are to seek first the Kingdom of God in every area of their lives, whatever spheres they are in, they seek to do God’s will for each of the respective spheres not just in, but also through, their lives. Thus as salt of the earth they also seek to influence others in the respective spheres to do God’s will (figure 9):

By being light they expose the darkness of injustice and thus quicken the conscience of others to recognize what is unjust. By being salt they seek to move their conscience to turn away from what is unjust. In the process they may lead some to also return to God and become disciples of Christ.

In this way, the yellow circle in each of the spheres grows and thus a global civilization that is in fellowship with God and consistent with His will continues to be built. Hence through the Great Commission Christians are gradually transforming their respective nations, and thus the world, by being salt and light in their respective spheres as well as in their nation as a whole. They are thus directly contributing to nation-building.

It is crucial to recognize that transforming a nation is only a by-product of fulfilling the Great Commission, and is not in any way an attempt at “Christianizing” the nation, a devastating error that the premodern Church fell into after the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in AD 312.

In other words, even when the head of Government and most of his cabinet members are Christians, the model for the nation is still Figure 6 above; Figure 7 is meant for Christians only. It does not matter to the Church whether the world would be completely transformed by her being salt and light. She only needs to be faithful to the Great Commission, recognizing that there is still the coming of the “not yet” aspect of the Kingdom of God—the New Heavens and the New Earth. So there shall be a complete transformation of the world, which involves the complete transformation of the universe, when the Messiah returns to consummate His New Exodus mission.