Was it a class in metaphysics? No, although I'm sure that would be challenging as well. Was it a counselling class? No, but those are always a struggle for me.
It was Latter Prophets, and more specifically the book of Isaiah.
The professor did an interesting thing. He refused to give us a broad summary of the book of Isaiah and then slowly proof text his way through it. He also refused to find Jesus under every bush and in between every jot and tittle (although He can most certainly be found all over the place). Instead the professor took us through the book on Isaiah's terms, endeavouring to help us grasp how it was put together and what that says and, ultimately, to FEEL the book of Isaiah.
Now let me tell you what I felt.
I am to die.
You heard me. I am to die. We are all to die.
For the first three days of class we writhed in mental agony as doom and destruction was foretold for all people. Not just the Israelites but the nations as well. Certainly there were hints of hope all throughout these chapters, but you got the overwhelming sense that before you could have hope you'd have to die.
We all wanted to rush ahead and quote John 3:16 but the professor made us wait until the last part of the book before he'd give us that comfort. "Don't skip ahead of what Isaiah is saying here," he'd tell us. Tuesday morning in class I confessed to everyone that if I didn't know the gospel I would have had a rightfully sleepless Monday night.
Isaiah does not read like good news. It tells us we have rebelled, we are idolatrous, we are self-absorbed, we have sided with the oppressor rather than the poor, we have worshipped falsely in our hearts, we have sinned ... and for that we must die. Nevermind the environment you grew up in or whose fault you think it is. All have sinned. And that's not really the point so much as the fact that all have fallen short of the glory of God, and so how can we expect to enter that glory without being destroyed?
But as the class wore on and as we got to the later chapters of the book I realized that there is some good news in all this death. God would have us die so that we could be PURGED. The wages of sin is death, not because God arbitrarily holds a hand of punishment over us, but because He wants to purge his creation of all that is bad, all that is not glorious. We have fallen and must be purged. So there is a good reason for all this death.
Except it remains troubling because how can we die and yet have any hope? What good is purging if it leaves us twitching like a corpse on the floor?
When we finally got to Isaiah 53 it was like we were resurrected from the dead. Although there had been hints, finally the way of salvation was exposed to us. And it was offensive and bloody but it was beautiful. It is offensive to those who want to feel alright about themselves, but at least where I stand, fully convinced this is a good world gone bad and that I am no better, it was beautiful to me. It tells us of this mysterious "servant" and says:
"It was Yahweh's will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though Yahweh makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of Yahweh will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied."
There is plenty of amazing amazing imagery of restoration and healing in Isaiah. But every time you want to grab onto it you get a vision of purging destruction and you end up longing for what you seemingly can never have. And then the Servant steps in, and you realize that there is One who can take that destruction and yet live, and that this One wants to share that life with those who'll repent.
We skip over repentance way to quickly and easily in Christianity today. We also see Christ as a "get out of death free card" when really we are taught in Scripture that in order to live in Christ we must first die in him. "To live is Christ and to die is gain," Paul says. I guess I saw this before, but Isaiah made it gut wrenchingly clear. We skip to the joyful worship, almost trying to conjur it up from our own personal reserves every SUnday, when if we'd confess and repent each day we'd find the joy of restoration springing from within in a way that is not of this world.
For that reason, I highly recommend a slow and careful reading of this book. I can't wait to preach it one day. It truly is like a fifth gospel.
Like Isaiah we wait and long for the Zion, the new creation, the New Jerusalem. But what Isaiah looked forward to in the "Servant" we have in Christ and in his Spirit. A Paul said later in Romans 8:13,
"If you live according to the sinful nature you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live."