The End, and the Beginning. Isaiah 65-66 – RBT Notes, 31st May

imageThis book of Isaiah is simply astonishing. These sermons, poems, prophecies, songs, histories, prayers and longings are the fruit of decades of walking with God. They speak to the poor, to those outside the Kingdom, to Rulers, to the wise and the simple, and they are God’s Word to us today. We read them, learn them, hide them in our hearts, and live by the Word of God. It is sweeter than honey, and it alone brings life.

These last two chapters bring the main themes of Isaiah into sharp and challenging focus one more time:

 
1. God will find His enemies (65.1-16)

God knows when people are paying lip-service to Him, or not even that. His covenant people keep hearing the Word of God, and they keep dismissing it, for their own heart-loves and false religion (vv.2-5). He knows when they don’t care. Isaiah reminds us that God doesn’t stop caring, nor does He forget. He will repay (vv.6-7). And yet again, He will work out grace, to save a remnant of Israel who turn from their ways, and to reveal Himself to the world (vv.8-10, 1). Grace doesn’t annul judgement, though. Every one who has ever lived will find one or the other at the hands of Jesus Christ. On the last day we will either feast or starve (vv.11, 13), and we will do so forever.

 

2. God is making all things new (vv.17-25)

From the ruins of the world we know will come a new creation, with God’s people at the heart of it, and at the centre of God’s affections (vv.17-19). All of the key notes of God’s original creation, God’s Eden, will be there: long years of life, security and plenty, blessing on work, the Presence of God, and peace and harmony (vv.20-25). This is a fabulous picture. In Jesus, its fulfilment is coming true in our age, with his Body, the Church, enjoying so many of these blessings. In the age to come there will be the ultimate triumphant arrival of all of these blessings:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (‭Revelation‬ ‭21‬.3-5‬).‬‬‬‬

 

3. God is building a new community (66.1-16)

Who is in this new world? Who gets these blessings now, and the promise of far more to come? God is never impressed by us (v.1-2), but He fixes His love on those who respond to His Word from broken hearts (v.3). And only on such people: idolaters are dead, even as they worship, and one day will be paid back in full (vv.3-6).

Sometimes God works slowly, sometimes, very quickly. Here, God promises to give birth to a nation (v.7). Some have seen this promise fulfilled in the birth of the modern State of Israel. I’m unconvinced, as God throughout Isaiah announces that His great masterpiece is the creation of a new nation, ultimately one of Jew and Gentile. So look at the resurrection: on that morning God triumphed over sin, death and judgment, and brought life and hope – and a nation of followers – out of the grave with His Son. Here is the new nation, made up of all who trust in His Name. As Ephesians 2 says, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (‭Ephesians‬ ‭2‬.15-16). What a nation, and what a sudden and unexpected birth. In this nation, and here alone, is a world of joy, nourishment, comfort and peace (vv.10-16). ‬‬

 

4. God’s word of promise will never, ever go away (vv.17-24)

Hate God, and embrace the destiny He has prepared for you (v.17). Love Him, and He will gather you to Himself (vv.18-21). Isaiah’s prophecies end as they began, with God confronting His people with the terms of covenant failure, or covenant mercy. There is a new world coming, and there is the call of God to each one of us, which we can never pretend has not been made, or is unimportant. God is calling. He is calling you. What have you heard? Where are you heading? Have you seen the great work of the Servant, and put your full trust in Him? If you have you’ve seen the God whose glory Isaiah fell down before (ch.6); and, if you have, “your eyes will see the king in his beauty and view a land that stretches afar” (‭Isaiah‬ ‭33‬.17).

 

 

Come down from Heaven. Isaiah 63-64 – RBT Notes, 30th May

Blood-red and endowed with splendour, “striding forth in the greatness of his strength” (63.1). Jesus yet again appears in full view, and then He speaks to us of His work to save.

In these verses the images are deliberately unexpected, to get us thinking, and even wondering. The winepress runs with blood, and not the juice of grapes (v.3). Add to this the admission that the Servant works alone, and in anger (vv.3-6). Add again that His anger is directed at the nations He crushes. All of this gives the impression that the Servant is working to crush the nations, as He would stamp on grapes, and that their judgment is the salvation His people are longing for (v.3). In fact, this picture only becomes clear in the light of Jesus and His cross. He is crushing the sin of the nations, not the nations themselves. And what flows at the cross is the blood of His own sacrifice. And if you will, as a poet once said, the blood that He tasted is now for us who believe, the taste of wine.

Whether you read is as still the Servant singing, or Isaiah breaking out (I think it’s Isaiah), next comes a song celebrating God’s kindness to His people (vv.7-14). His compassion for them, distress for them, guiding and shepherding work (as well as the times He opposed them, v.10) are all recalled. Isaiah is in anguish, though, over the sin and failure of Israel (vv.15—18). They are a compromised mess, a people who deserve nothing from God, but who really need only one thing: God Himself.

Isaiah prays, and it’s a terrifying prayer: that God Himself would come from heaven. The God who so terrified Isaiah, back in ch. 6, is the God who he longs would visit the nation (v.1). Isaiah knows that his people are in a wretched condition, and that they would as soon burst into flames as dry twigs to a fire, should God come (vv.2, 5-6). Still, Isaiah pleads for God to intervene.

 

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We need to stop at this point, and be still before God. He is holy, we are not. We have low views of his majesty which are quite unworthy of Him. We pray shallow prayers, and our ‘God-talk’ falls from our lips with little thought. We would be safer playing with fire than treating God in this way, so blazing is God in His holiness. God will not be mocked, but He will be seen as the Lord God Almighty. Can we pray v.1? We must remember that God in Jesus ‘came down’ at the Incarnation, and so in one sense that prayer is already fulfilled. He is with us by His abiding Presence, the Holy Spirit. But yes, we can and we must pray that He would come in power to His people. We must pray that we would be overwhelmed by His holiness, and eager to respond with whole and pure hearts to His grace. We must pray that a complacent church, and a hell-bound world, would encounter the God of Heaven, as the God of salvation.

So pray, please pray.

His Favour, and our Faith. Isaiah 61-62 – RBT Notes, 29th May

The Servant sings again, and what a song He has!

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn…” (61.1-2).

missionThis is the sermon text of Jesus at Nazareth, as He declares His manifesto (Luke 4.14-30). Jesus didn’t apparently read further in the synagogue that day, because, in keeping with this song, He was the bringing the day of God’s favour in His earthly ministry, not vengeance. Vengeance, when it came in His ministry, came at the cross, a divine vengeance He Himself absorbed.  All the way to the cross, and now by His Spirit through His church, there comes freedom, light, and good news wherever Jesus is at work. If you can think of a more wonderful song to sing, then the world needs to hear it.

All the promises of God’s grace rush in (vv.3-9), and the Servant can’t help Himself from bursting into song once more: He is the One clothed with salvation, and convinced of God’s resolve and power to bring righteousness to the nations (vv.10-11). In ch. 62 there is yet more marriage imagery to express God’s love for His people. She will be called ‘My delight is in her’, and ‘Married’, and will be treasured as a Bridegroom treasures his Bride, the joy of her God (vv.4-5). Salvation is, afterall, nothing less than a people “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev. 21.2). And the joy of our salvation will one day be at the “wedding-supper of the Lamb” (Rev.19.9).

How much do we want to be part of this feast, and this marriage? How much do we want to see others joining us there? The vision God gives His people of His future love is one to get them longing and working to see it realised (vv.6-10). This is faith which is actually faith, as it strives to take hold of the promises of God, and to share them with others. If the people then were to shrug their shoulders at God’s Word, and mumble something like, “Oh that’s nice”, then do you think that that would be faith? Of course not! Faith longs for God’s seemingly impossible word to be fulfilled, faith watches for signs of God at work, faith prays, and faith gets to work. We are to do that in our day, with our gifts and energies, to see God bringing His Kingdom. That’s exactly what God’s great Servant did, as we’ll see in the next chapter, and that’s exactly our calling, too, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

Signs of Death, and the Way to Life. Isaiah 59-60 – RBT Notes, 28th May

How low does sin take you? How deep can its degradation go in your life? How lost and helpless are you, outside the miracle of God’s saving love in Christ?

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The Bible teaches the doctrine which has come to be titled the Doctrine of Total Depravity. This is a much-misunderstood doctrine, and a much-opposed one by people who have never really seen their own hearts. The doctrine does not teach that we are as wicked as we can be. It does teach, as the Bible clearly does, that we have a nature which has been corrupted by sin in every part of us. Sin, that controlling power of disobedience, has seeped into every pore of who we are, in our loves, hates, desires, thoughts, words and actions. If you think you can save yourself, you just haven’t begun to engage with your sin, and your powerlessness. If you even think that you can choose Christ for yourself, then you’ve no idea of how much sin has captured your mind, heart and will. To choose Christ, we first need the power of Christ, working to free us, so that we want Him, and can come to Him. And God can do just that work in any heart He chooses to work in. As Isaiah puts it, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear” (59.1).

Isaiah’s burden is to lay their plight before the Israelites. They are separated from God (v.2), their sin has turned His face from them (v.2), they are polluted (v.3), wicked, evil-speaking, eager to sin, plotting sin, and entirely without the peace of God (vv.3-8). You could call this gloomy, negative, or extreme; but if you know your heart, if the Spirit of God has shone His light into you, to bring self-understanding and conviction (John 16.8), you know that God’s Word is true, and that God’s Word convicts, before it converts.

Isaiah speaks about this conviction: his people are stumbling in darkness (vv.9-10), and know the misery of living in their sin (v.11). They know that they are sinners in the hands of a holy, and an angry, God (vv.12-15). Isaiah longs, though, that they would discover that God has taken their sins into His own hands, and fought to overcome the very plight which would kill them: “He saw that there was no one, He was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so His own arm achieved salvation for Him, and His own righteousness sustained Him” (v.16). These are stunning words. They teach us the heart of God, the plan of God, and the work of God. In Jesus God steps in to save. He comes with zeal, brings wrath and achieves salvation (vv.16-18). He is the Lord, and He is the Saviour. And He is altogether glorious, as people across the whole world are discovering (v.19).

It is against this background – the plight of our wretchedness and the promise of God’s glory – that the start of chapter 60 is so obviously wonderful:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60.1-3). The whole chapter throbs with promise, assurance, joy and triumph. In the forefront is Jerusalem and God’s ancient nation, being built up, gaining riches, fame, the attention of the nations, as God works for her (vv.4-22). The promise has its greater fulfilment in the church of Jesus Christ, a people being built up through God’s protecting love and power. And all of this blessing comes, of course, because of Jesus. Jesus, the Resurrection Man, defies despair, and ushers in a new world of grace and hope. Choose Him, and find life.

Grace for the World. Isaiah 56-58 – RBT Notes, 27th May

Jesus’ ministry on earth was all about defining who was in and who was out of the Kingdom. To borrow a phrase, He disturbed the comfortable, and comforted the disturbed. Israel in his day was full of those who were sure that they were the hope of the side, and were convinced of their own righteousness. Equally, the vast majority were sure that God had no interest in them, and that they had no hope in God. Jesus came to give that hope, as He taught about the grace of God. He also came to break up false hopes based upon self-righteousness. Jesus said that only the poor in spirit will receive the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5.3).

Isaiah says that only the poor in spirit will receive the Kingdom of Heaven. Our three chapters teach that, in what is a clear prefiguring of Jesus’ ministry. Let’s look at them, and we’ll be seeing the work and call of Jesus, right here.

Jesus calls the excluded. The scandal of the kingdom is that the ‘wrong’ people enter it. Didn’t Jesus say just this to the Pharisee: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (‭Matthew‬ ‭21‬.31). Isaiah is teaching us the same principle of grace here.

imageIn chapter 56 the excluded are called, both the foreigners born outside the covenant privileges of Israel (vv.3, 6-8), and the eunuchs in Israel (vv.4-5). Eunuchs were unclean in God’s sight, and excluded from full participation in Temple worship. A day is coming soon, Isaiah says, when those written off by the nation will constitute the very nation, the redeemed People of God. By contrast, the complacent watchmen of Israel are judged (vv.10-12). But God sees, and God has excluded them. Equally, those who deal in false religion will be found out. “I will expose your righteousness and your works, and they will not benefit you. When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away” (‭57‬.12-13‬). This incredible promise, both of grace to the penitent as well as thundering wrath to the impenitent, is summed up in vv.18-21:

“I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners, creating praise on their lips. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the Lord. “And I will heal them.” But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked” (‭‭57‬.18-21‬).

Why did Jesus’ ministry get people so angry? Because of what Isaiah predicted. Grace overflows the channels we think we can cut for it by our religion and our self-righteousness. Grace instead flows to those who know they are not righteous, and who have given up playing religious games with God. Jesus went to the foreigners, the pagans, the no-hopers, those whose lives were blighted by illness, disability, poverty, and other problems which put them outside the boundaries of their society. They found grace; or rather, grace found them. It still does.

 
If this is grace, then we need to take an honest look at our lives, to make sure that we are living them in God’s grace. Isaiah’s charges against hypocrisy are devastating, and totally relevant for the church today (58.1-5). The antidote – humble, active, God-honouring, people-serving integrity – are the only marks of true saving faith (vv.6-14). It was the Reformers who taught us that, whilst we are saved through faith alone, saving faith is never alone, but always expressed in lives lived to God’s glory. They didn’t dream that up, but got it straight from the Bible, be that from Jesus, from Paul, James or Isaiah. This is the life of the Kingdom, where lost people are found and brought near through the blood of Christ. We are brought together into one new community, a “House of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56.7). Are you in this community; and if so, how are you expressing this fabulous grace?

A Feast Spread. Isaiah 54-55 – RBT Notes, 26th May

Sing, expand, and take heart (54.1, 2-3, 4). God’s people can sing, and look to the future with confidence and purpose, because God is her husband (v.5). Yes, God says that He had abandoned her, but it was ‘for a brief moment’ (v.7); now, chastened for her sin, she has been brought back to know His embrace, His compassion and everlasting kindness (v.8).

Banqueting_Hall_-_Dinner_448_299_80No wonder that the New Testament tells us that the love of God in Christ is that of a groom for his bride. Jesus loves His bride to the extent that He laid down His life for her (Eph. 5.25). The bride is the church. He lays down His life so that she might have life, in discovering the pardoning and the transforming love of God. And this is the great love announced back in the Garden of Eden: God will send a rescuer to defeat sin and evil (Gen. 3.15). Christ rescues lost, rebellious people, bringing them God’s compassion and everlasting kindness. And it is all of His grace. Look at v. 10: “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  And then ask yourself, ‘do I earn that love, or ever make myself more desirable to God as a person loved Him?’ Hopefully you know that the answer is an emphatic no! to both of these questions. God’s love in Christ has no cause in us but our wretchedness and need. His love’s loyalty to us has no perseverance to us based on anything expect His covenant loyalty. Yet what delight He takes in loving us! And what delight we discover, as we taste this love, and live confidently in it, as the years go on.

It’s because this love is so wonderful that God calls loudly to us, so that we might encounter it. He calls, bidding the thirsty to drink, and the hungry poor to eat for free (55.1). He urges us not to squander what we have on what is so obviously not the food our starving souls need, and promises us that we will “delight in the richest of fare” (v.3). And all of this is possible – and spread before us – because of Jesus: the ‘you’ in v.3 is singular, referring clearly to the One in whom God offers His covenant love, the summoner of nations, and the One “endowed with splendour” (v.5), Jesus. At the cross He goes thirsty so that we might drink, He spreads His arms wide so that He might spread the feast before us. We turn at His command, and we find that He has turned to us already (vv.6-7).

All of this is so totally against what we might expect, and against what we deserve, that v.8 at last makes sense: ““For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.” Our response to being offended by others is to long for justice, and often, to try to achieve it. The Lord is gently showing us there that He, the offended One, must punish sin, because He is holy, but has worked out a way to show grace to sinners. He is so unlike us, therefore! And He is so determined to get through to sin-hardened people, that He sends the Word of the Gospel to them, to achieve this miraculous change of heart and salvation in them (vv.9-11). Receive this Word, and there’s peace, joy, and the promise of entering a new world in the love of Christ (v.12-13). Who would settle for anything less; and who could ever wish for anything more?