Prophetic Foreshortening: Advent According to Isaiah

Isaiah, Advent.jpg

Advent means coming or arrival. It’s the time Christians throughout the world focus on the arrival of the Messiah: his arrival as a baby, his arrival into our hearts by faith, and his future, glorious second arrival.

This Advent our church feasted on passages from the Old Testament book of Isaiah that speak of the Messiah. As I studied and preached through prophecies of Isaiah about the Messiah, I noticed more than ever before the interconnectedness of the various advents of the Messiah.  

What I mean is that in many passages where Isaiah speaks of the coming Messiah, he does not specify the timeline of when the Messiah will accomplish what is being described. Which thing the Messiah does during which advent is rarely differentiated. The three advents—the first advent of the Messiah as a baby to save his people; the second advent into the hearts of followers by faith; and the third, future advent in his physical and bodily return to judge the quick and the dead—are often presented as a single “mission-accomplished” message.

So, for example, one verse in Isaiah might describe something primarily true of the Incarnation, and then the next verse might speak of something true primarily in the Second Coming. This is like me telling my wife at breakfast on a Monday morning that I’m going to get to the office early to start on my sermon and then take a nap after I preach it. I left out the detail that the time between when I begin writing my sermon, and when I preach it and take my nap, is six days!

We see this in a passage like Isaiah 11. In verse 2 we read that “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon [the Messiah].” And in Luke 4:21, we read of Jesus saying that the Spirit of the Lord rested upon him “today,” that is, in his first advent. Just two verses later in Isaiah 11, however, Isaiah says the Messiah “shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (11:4). The destruction of the wicked did not happen in the first advent of the Messiah, but it will happen in his second. We read about this destruction in 2 Thessalonians 2, where Paul writes that “the Lord Jesus will kill [the evil one] with the breath of his mouth and bring [him] to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (v. 8). So, in v. 2, Isaiah is speaking of the Incarnation and in v. 4 the Second Coming. To say it another way, in one breath he’s talking about writing a sermon on a Monday morning and, in the next breath, he’s already resting on a Sunday afternoon.

In a sermon on Isaiah 11, pastor and author John Piper said, “So repeatedly in the prophetic books you read of an imminent attack or deliverance from an enemy, and the next moment you read about an event in the distant future, with no indication of how much time is in between.” Piper continues:

[According to 1 Peter 1:10–11] when the Spirit moved the prophets to write, he did not answer all their questions about how the pieces fit together. Which means as we read the prophets, not all our questions may be answered either.

Piper is saying that the chronology of the distinct works of the Messiah (as well as the chronology of other events) often appear braided together, which is one of the things that makes Isaiah so glorious to read and, at the same time, so difficult.

The Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona.

The Catalina Mountains in Tucson, Arizona.

When I studied the prophets in seminary, my professors had a fancy phrase to describe this. They called it “prophetic foreshortening.” Foreshorten doesn’t even sound like a real word, but it is. It means to portray something as closer than it is or as having less depth or distance than it really does. You might never remember the phrase prophetic foreshortening or it’s definition, but you might remember the image often used to explain it: mountain ranges.

There was a good example of foreshortening where I used to live. When you land at the Tucson airport, you’re in the south part of the city. If you look to the north from the airport, you’ll see the Catalina Mountains. And if you get on I-10 and begin driving north to Phoenix, after about 45 minutes, you’ll notice something. You’ll notice that what looked like one giant mountain, is actually a whole range of mountains, with the highest mountain in the back. From the south—and from 45 miles away—we might say that the Catalina Mountains look foreshortened, that is, they look like a single mountain with several peaks. From another perspective, however, you see them for what they are: many mountains.

What does this have to do with Isaiah and Christmas? From where Isaiah stood in history—south of the Messiah, so to speak—his prophecies about the coming Messiah often appear as one giant, “mission-accomplished” mountain, but in reality, they are several mountains.

When we celebrate Christmas, we typically have only the first advent in mind. But this Christmas Day, I write to encourage you that when you eat a Christmas feast looking back on the advent of “the babe, the son of Mary,” also feast in anticipation of the next advent. Feast in anticipation of the great wedding supper at the end of time when the bride of Christ, the church, will enjoy the fullness of the groom in a world recreated to be as it should be, indeed, as it will be forever (Revelation 19:6–9).

In other words, may the joy of your Christmas feast be a prophetically foreshortened feast, that is, a feast that braids together all the joy and all the hope we have in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Give a toast to the one who once came to earth as a child, dwells now in your heart by faith, and also promises, “Behold, I am coming quickly” (Revelation 22:7).

* Photo by Dan Kiefer on Unsplash