Messiah Blog: Day 18

Note: This is part of a series which began on December 10. To start from the beginning of the series, or to access the Table of Contents, click here.

The third and final part of Handel’s Messiah is much shorter than the previous two. Its theme is Christ’s triumph over death, and its nine texts are meant to be sung as a hymn of thanksgiving for the work that Christ has accomplished. As mentioned in the last entry, this is exactly the response that should be the result of reflecting on His death and resurrection!

As in the first two Parts, Jennens’ libretto seeks to answer Old Testament prophecy with New Testament fulfillment. Unlike before, though, here he resorts to only one Old Testament text before proceeding on to the celebration of Christ’s victory!

#43: Air (Soprano)
Job 19:25-26 — I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh I shall see God.
1 Corinthians 15:20 — For now Christ is risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

In this next recording, be sure to listen and notice the way Handel uses the music to highlight the contrast between the first Adam and the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), Jesus Christ. As Paul writes about Adam’s sin leading to death for all men, the musical setting is very somber, and in a minor key. Note the vast difference when Paul’s words shift to Christ’s resurrection, and the new life it offers!

#44: Chorus
1 Corinthians 15:21-22 — Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

First, comments from the Daniel Block essay:

Part III is short, consisting only of nine texts (#43-51). It opens with the most familiar verse from the book of Job. In fact, so entrenched is the interpretation of this verse in the evangelical consciousness that it is difficult for modern readers to recognize the obscurities in the text itself, let alone consider a different interpretation. The truth is that Job 19:25-26 is capable of several different renderings. Literally the Hebrew translates something like:

I know that my vindicator lives,
And in the end he will rise upon the dust.
And after my skin is destroyed,
Yet from my flesh I shall see God.

Whatever else the passage declares, Job hereby expresses confidence that ultimately a gō’ēl (a close relative who functions as one’s avenger), will redeem him, but whether or not this involves resurrection is not clear. While I maintain that Old Testament saints had a clearer vision of the afterlife than we give them credit for, the truth is there are few explicit references to this notion. So if Jennens wanted to begin Part III with an Old Testament prophecy on this subject his options were limited. The striking feature of this choice is that it highlights the personal implications of the cosmic triumph of the Messiah. But Job 19:25-26 is used to announce a new general theme: the victory of the Messiah over death itself.

From the addition of 1 Corinthians 15:20 to the opening soprano aria (#43) we are reminded how important the Joban text has been in Christian perceptions of death and afterlife. In fact, the next six texts (#44-49) are inspired by Paul’s presentation of the doctrine of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. In this first verse Jennens clearly identifies the Redeemer of the Joban text with the Messiah (Paul uses the Greek word Xristos), and by extension notes that the resurrection of Christ guarantees the resurrection of the believer. Just as the first fruits of the harvest that the Israelites presented to the Yahweh served as a paradigm, a deposit, a down payment, a guarantee of a full harvest belonging to God, so the resurrection of Christ represents the beginning of a new race of the resurrected, the new “Order of the Empty Tomb.” The basis for this new hope is expressed in #44. As in Adam all die, so in the Messiah shall all be made alive.

As we saw earlier, Jesus is described by Paul as the “Last Adam”. In Romans 5:14, Paul also tells us that Adam was “a type of the one who was to come” — that is, Jesus Christ. Though not specifically called such in Scripture, there are many other “types”, or forerunners, of Christ in the Old Testament. Some of these types were symbolic objects, such as the bronze serpent and the mercy seat. Some had to do with the sacrificial system, such as the Passover lamb and the first fruits (which are included in today’s Messiah text). The most important archetypes of Christ, though, were the men through and to whom God worked out His covenant relationship with the height of His creation: Man.

Our God is a covenant-keeping God. Throughout the Old Testament, God established a series of covenants with our spiritual forefathers. Each covenant built upon (rather than replacing) the previous covenant, and each included obligations for man toward God (along with curses for failure to meet these obligations), and promises from God to man. Unlike sinful man, God always keeps His promises! Scripture tells us in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that all the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus. Whereas man utterly failed to meet his obligations in each of these covenants, the Son of Man fulfilled them perfectly. Likewise, each of God’s promises to man finds fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ.

Here I’ll give a brief overview of each of these covenants, and their fulfillment in Christ.

Before the Fall, there existed a covenant between God and man, which is known as the “Covenant of Works”. Genesis does not identify this as a covenant, but Adam’s relationship with God had all the characteristics of a covenant. Furthermore, the prophet Hosea tells us that such a covenant existed, and that Adam broke it. Adam’s sole responsibility in the Garden was to obey God’s word, and God would supply his every need. Adam did the one thing God had commanded him not to do, and thus condemned all men to death. Jesus Christ, being fully man, obeyed God’s word perfectly (Hebrews 4:15). Now, God supplies man’s every need in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19).

After Adam sinned, God created another covenant with Adam (the “Adamic Covenant”). Under this covenant, man was still responsible to obey God’s word, but could not have the same personal relationship with a Holy God. God pronounced curses upon man because of sin, but promised a Redeemer who would crush the deceiver of men (Genesis 3:15). Again, Christ fulfilled man’s obligation under this covenant through his sinless life, and He is the woman’s offspring who is our great Redeemer, Satan’s defeater.

Once man had so thoroughly broken his obligation to God that every inclination of his heart was only evil all the time (Genesis 6:5), God was grieved in His heart, and resolved (justly) to blot man from the Earth. Yet in order that His earlier covenants be kept, God chose to show grace to Noah, and through one man to save the human race.  He established a covenant with Noah (the “Noahic Covenant”) that required man to multiply and subdue the earth, and also gave the first principles for human government (Genesis 9:5-6). He promised to never again destroy the earth with a flood, and to continue to bring the seasons of summer and winter, springtime and harvest. Whereas the salvation through Noah — a sinner — left men still lost in their sin, and only delayed death, the salvation offered through Jesus is eternal life. Where human government fails to judge and punish perfectly, the government on Christ’s shoulders will be perfect, for He is a righteous judge.

After man was scattered into many nations because of Babel, God formed a covenant with Abraham (the “Abrahamic Covenant”) to make a nation for Himself. This nation would come through Abraham’s miraculously-born son, Isaac. Abraham’s descendants were commanded to be blameless in keeping their covenant with God (Genesis 17:1,9), while God promised to bring them into a promised land (Genesis 12:7), and to bless all nations through them (Genesis 12:3). While the first part of this promise was fulfilled when God brought the nation of Israel into Palestine, the Abrahamic Covenant is ultimately fulfilled through Jesus Christ. He comes from Abraham’s line, but is a blessing to all the peoples of the Earth, to whom are offered the chance to count Abraham as a spiritual father through faith in Christ (Galatians 3:7-9). The promise of salvation is not to the Jewish people (Abraham’s physical descendants) but to believers (Abraham’s spiritual descendants) of all nations (Romans 9:6-8; Colossians 3:11).

Several hundred years later, after God had delivered His people from slavery in Egypt, he established a covenant with Israel through Moses (the “Mosaic Covenant”). He promised that if they obeyed Him, they would become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). The Law which God then gave to Moses was a blessing, as it further revealed His will for His people. No one was able to fulfill the Law, though, so it became a curse (Galatians 3:10), and the blessings offered by God were not accessible to man. When Jesus came, He fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17) redeeming us from the curse of the law so that we might receive God’s blessings through faith in Christ (Galatians 3:13-14). Because of Him, we who were not a people have become God’s people, chosen through mercy to become “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9-10), inheritors of a promise because of our adoption as sons of the Father through Jesus Christ, which is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:3-14)!

God’s final Old Testament covenant with His people was the “Davidic Covenant” — a promise made to David that the Messiah would come from the House of David, and that a descendant of David would sit on the throne forever (2 Samuel 7:16). This promise was contingent on David’s heirs walking with God and keeping His commandments (1 Kings 2:4, 8:25). Again, the only One who was able to do this perfectly was Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of David’s line through His adoptive father, Joseph. It is He who will reign on David’s throne in a kingdom that will never end (Luke 1:32-33)!

Each of these Old Testament covenants was made between a Holy God and sinful man. None could have been completed unless God Himself intervened. Yet the Old Testament contained the promise of a New Covenant (including the forgiveness of sins for all time), which would be different from the rest, because it would not be broken (Jeremiah 31:31-34). This would require that the covenant of God with man be made between two parties that were equally capable of fulfilling their portion of the deal. Thus it was necessary for God to send His son Jesus, who would be both fully God and fully man, facing temptations as men do and yet keeping covenants as God does.

Not only did Jesus completely fulfill man’s obligations for all of the Old Testament covenants, but He also made a way for the promised New Covenant to be possible. It is Jesus’ blood that offers us eternal redemption and forgiveness of sins under this new covenant (Hebrews 9:12,22), which we remember when we participate in the Lord’s Supper. He is a better Adam, a better Noah, a better Abraham, a better Moses, and a better David. He is the perfect man, and the source of salvation (Hebrews 5:9).

The New Covenant does not eliminate our obligation to obey God’s moral laws, but shows us a more excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:31), which is the fulfillment of the law through love (Romans 13:10; 1 Corinthians 13). The covenant mediated by Jesus is better than the old covenant, because it is based on better promises (Hebrews 8:6). These promises include constant and eternal communion with God (1 Corinthians 3:16), the assurance of salvation (Romans 8:16; 1 John 3:19-24), and the guarantee of our reward (2 Corinthians 5:5), all of which come by way of the Helper, God’s Holy Spirit (John 14:16,26; 15:26). Thank God for bestowing such grace on such undeserving sinners!

As we near the end of our journey through Messiah, I hope the picture of God’s plan of salvation being worked out through the entire Bible is becoming as clear to us today as it was to Jennens and Handel more than 200 years ago!

On to Day 19

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