On Election Day, Which City’s Gates Will You be Defending?

by John Ellis

I haven’t checked its veracity, so I won’t link to it, but this morning I read a tweet claiming that a professing Christian confessed to the author of the tweet that, “he would shoot me if I were trying to ‘take away his way of life’.” While I don’t know if that actually happened or not, it sounds beyond plausible. If that unnamed friend didn’t say that, the sentiment has been uttered many times over by scores of professing Christians. I’ve had similar comments made to me. And, of course, I’ve read statements mirroring the subtext in a myriad of articles, blog posts, and social media posts composed by professing Christians proudly justifying their voting intentions and motives as well as taking the next step of underlining the defense of their preferred way of life with the sentiment “pry from my cold, dead hands”. This morning, I also read Isaiah 26, and the contrast between the prophecy and the sentiment behind the tweet’s threat and worldview is stark.  

While the chapter in its entirety, the book it’s placed within, and the Book in which that book resides are instructive regarding the great gulf between the priorities and goals of many white evangelical voters in 2020 and King Jesus’ priorities and plans, the first two verses will suffice to see the contradiction.

“In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: ‘We have a strong city:/ he sets up salvation/ as walls and bulwarks./ Open the gates,/ that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in (Isaiah 26:1-2).’”

Mimicking “good” evangelical sermons, there are three things (at the least) that I believe need expounding: 1. When/what is “that day”? 2. Where is the “strong city”? 3. Who are the citizens of “the righteous nation that keeps faith”?” And, of course, those three “sermon points” ask for application(s) for God’s people in the here and now, specifically, for the purpose of this article, application(s) concerning election day.

Immediately preceding chapter 26, the prophet Isaiah reveals the Spirit’s promise that, “He will swallow up death forever (25:8).” As Barry G. Webb points out in his commentary, “The formula In that day runs like a refrain through these chapters [in Isaiah], and it is full of the certainty born of faith [emphasis kept].”[1] Recounting the many sufferings and persecutions suffered by God’s people throughout the preceding chapters, Isaiah calls his readers to keep the return of their King in constant view as a means of encouragement and a way to build their faith. Contrasting all the forsaken cities and continuous disruptions of peace littering the previous words recorded in Isaiah, Alec Motyer looks at Isaiah 26 and says, “Here at last the people of the Lord are secure within the bulwark of salvation, enjoying a faith-based peace.”[2]  

Immediately preceding chapter 26, the prophet Isaiah reveals the Spirit’s promise that, “He will swallow up death forever (25:8).” Moving into 25:9, Isaiah’s call to “be glad and rejoice in his salvation” pulls our eyes and hearts to the King of kings, the only one from whom salvation flows.

So, set among the beautiful poem explaining how God will redeem His people from all lawlessness, suffering, and deprivation, it’s clear that Isaiah is writing about the eschaton – that final Day when King Jesus returns. On that Day, according to Matthew 25:31-46, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ … Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ … And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Turning our eyes to the eschaton makes it crystal clear where the “strong city” is.

One of my favorite narrative devices the Bible employs is parallelism. Utilized throughout the Book, this is clearly modeled in how the Bible begins where it ends, but in a way that fully fleshes out God’s super-objective. Starting in a Garden, the Bible ends in a City built around a Garden. By way of a negative parallel, the city of the Beast, Babylon, is famous for its hanging gardens. Serpent-Satan offers us the mirror, distorted version of God’s inheritance.

The “strong city” is the New Jerusalem. As made clear in The Revelation to John, the strong city will be revealed to all on that final day. “And [one of the seven angels] carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God (Rev. 21:10).” Continuing into the next chapter, “And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place (Rev. 22:6).”

Referencing Matthew 25 again, quoted above, when King Jesus returns, those who are his through faith will receive their inheritance. Those who are not his will be denied entry into the “strong city” and condemned to eternal punishment for their rebellion against their Creator. And therein lies the answer to who makes up the “righteous nation that keeps faith.” In short, the children of the Most High God.

The Bible makes clear that there are only two kingdoms and two types of people – those who are in the final Adam and those who remain in their sins in the first Adam and who remain allied with Serpent-Satan in an ill-conceived and doomed assault on God’s throne. Those who repent of their sins and place their faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are given salvation and adopted into the family of God. And the writer of Hebrews leaves no doubt that the Old Testament saints, including God’s people included in the original readers of Isaiah, were saved by faith, too. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation (Hebrews 11:1-2).” For those who find it strange to think of the Old Testament saints being saved by faith, it’s important to keep in mind, “that in the list of Hebrews 11 attention is given not only to the faith of the Old Testament examples but also and particularly to the salvation-historical events themselves. The examples are set in historical sequence so as to provide an outline of the redemptive purpose of God, advancing through the age of promise until at last in Jesus, faith’s ‘pioneer and perfecter’, the age of fulfilment is inaugurated.”[3] While Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, et al. “did not receive what was promised (11:39)” during their life on this earth, through faith they believed that God would redeem them from their sins and provide them their inheritance as His children and usher them into the “strong city.” The Old Testament saints knew that the promised land in Canaan pointed to the greater reality of “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God (11:10).”

The Bible records instances where the Old Testament saints took their eyes of the hope of the “strong city” and revealed that they were not immune to the false hope of the here-and-now. However, by God’s grace, their lives, while dotted with sinful rebellion, were characterized by repentance and faith. Can the same be said about us?

This Tuesday, November 3, the polls will open and millions of American will vote. Counted among those millions of Americans will be those who claim the same hope as Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah. Yet, as sadly evidenced by the sentiment embedded in the tweet I referenced in this article’s introduction, many professing Christians reveal that their true hope is in an earthly city, whose designers and builders are fallen men and women.

Before returning to heaven, and after reiterating the promises of Isaiah 26 that are wrapped up in his return, King Jesus left his followers with some marching orders. Famously known as the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20 commands, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Historically, white evangelicalism focuses on the go, make, and baptize part while removing much of the subtextual meat of “make disciples”. Doing so, they drastically underemphasize (if not downright ignore) “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

According to King Jesus, though, not only is it important to repent and believe, but citizenship in his Kingdom includes ethics – how we are to live – or, as Jesus put it “observe all that I have commanded you.” Thankfully, King Jesus didn’t leave us guessing as to what his commands are.

While not an exhaustive ethic, an interesting thing about the Matthew 25 passage is the ethical dividing line Jesus draws between those whom he will welcome into the strong city and those whom he will condemn to eternal punishment. Those who act mercifully, charitably, and with a spirit of self-sacrifice that lays aside whatever rights you may believe you possess are the ones to whom Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” By way of contrast, those who act selfishly, clinging to their property and rights are the ones to whom Jesus will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire.”

Those words of Jesus build on his ethical theme that is welded to the Bible’s through-line-of-action. A theme manifest in passages like “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5),” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9),” and “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:23-25).” Robert Stein lets us know that denying ourselves, “is much more radical than simply a denial of certain things. This mandates a rejection of a life based on self-interest and self-fulfillment.”[4] In his commentary on Luke, Darrell Bock adds, “The path of following Jesus, in light of where he is going, is hard.”[5] How many of us really believe that, though, or are willing to accept the ethical implications?

The apostle Paul was a model for steering into the ethics expected of those who follow King Jesus. In the service of Jesus and others, Paul continually surrendered his rights – his “way of life” – as he sought to make disciples. After defending his rights and claims in the first eleven verses of 1 Corinthians, Paul comes to a conclusion that sounds startling to our 21st century American ears. “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 9:12).” Contrast that with the bluster that “[I] will shoot you” if you try to “take away my way of life.” That is the exact antithesis of King Jesus’ ethics, revealing that the speaker has little regard for the “strong city” and is content with an earthly city and all the rights and the way of life that city offers. Sadly, and to repeat, that anonymous speaker is far from alone in his sentiment.

On Tuesday, when you vote, or any day, for that matter, are you making decisions based on self-interest or are you seeking to honor King Jesus even if it may cost you in the here and now? Is your “way of life” more important than integrity, honesty, and compassion? With your vote and other choices, are you presenting to the world that your comfort is more important to you than they are? When it’s time for you to knock on the door of the strong city, will you do so knowing that your life reflected, by God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit, the ethics of King Jesus?

Our salvation is not in any earthly government, economic system, nor even in documents guaranteeing our “rights”. The comfort we are to be looking for is not earthly comfort protected by politicians who have promised to be our bully in the fight against the other side. Our salvation is found through repentance of sins and faith in Jesus. The only comfort we are promised and the only comfort we should expect is the comfort found within the walls of the heavenly city. That reality calls (and frees) followers of King Jesus to vote in a manner that reflects his Kingdom and that prioritizes his ethics without compromise.   

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Barry G. Webb, The Message of Isaiah The Bible Speaks Today: The Old Testament Series ed. J.A. Motyer (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 110.

[2] J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), 212.

[3] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 395.

[4] Robert H. Stein, Luke, Vol. 24 TNACNIV ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1992), 279.

[5] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50 BECNT ed. Moises Silva (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994),852.

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