“Awake” Isaiah 52-53 – RBT Notes, 25th May

“He has redeemed Jerusalem” (52.9). Isaiah’s brilliant vision for the people of God just got more brilliant. So emphatic is he that God will rescue this people, and restore their ruined city, that the word is given: “He has redeemed Jerusalem.”  He will throw out the godless, and throw off the chains from His people (vv.2-3): “you shall be redeemed” (v.3).  Now is the time for messengers, and for joy, because God will save His people, and He will show the world His salvation (v.10).

Dark SunThe message isn’t met with joy, though, but with horror, and revulsion. The message itself is horrific, but it’s a message of effective power, salvation and victory (vv.13-15). Where do we see this blend of horror, and honour? It’s in Jesus, and it’s at the cross.

You know well the vision of chapter 53. He was ordinary-looking, but rejected (vv.2-3), punished by God and man, but was actually bearing our punishment from a Holy God (vv.4-5).  We, the sneering and the ‘wise’, are just the foolish, frightened sheep (v.6). And if we have eyes to see, we see Him bearing the sin of us all.

Death took Him away, and death buried Him (vv.7-9). A tragic death, but we all die. Who’s to remember His death, and why should we? Isaiah answers: because His death was different. His death was a sin-offering (v.10). His death bore, dealt with and conquered sin and its right punishment. His death brings life. After the Servant’s death comes life again. Life comes for Him, and for those who trust in Him, His ‘offspring’ (v.10). He will be exalted for His suffering. And we, the guilty, foolish, hateful and lost, are made righteous, made wise, loved and brought home, all through His sufferings in our place. Christ is Lord, He has stooped to save, and is now exalted to conquer. God cannot give us a more brilliant vision of love and life. Be sure that the vision is your reality.

 

 

Light in a Dark Place. Isaiah 50-51 – RBT Notes, 24th May

God’s word is solid, and therefore certain. Throughout this Book of Isaiah He states His intention to work, in judgement, or salvation. Now the Servant of the Lord moves to the central focus in Isaiah’s prophecies, and something else is also centre-stage: sin. Of course, God has been exposing and promising judgment, as well as grace, in the face of His people’s sin. The difference now is that God is offering a very specific remedy for their sin. He is also giving them and us a glimpse of just how great a cost that will be for His Servant.

‘Don’t think I’ve left you’, is the tone of 50.1-3. Sure, there’s been judgment, plenty of it, but not final divorce in this covenant relationship of God and Israel. The Servant speaks for the third time (vv.4-9). The price He must pay to demonstrate God’s covenant commitment is high. He has tormenters, mockers, attackers and accusers. He is willing to absorb the cost, though. And Isaiah is unwilling that any should underestimate just how serious the challenge is for all who witness the Servant’s obedience, and its significance for them. It’s the difference between light and darkness, salvation and judgement, peace and torment (vv.10-11).  We must choose, and we must choose well.

God’s new plan of salvation through His Servant is just that, new, but it is also ancient: “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn;  to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was only one man, and I blessed him and made him many” (51.1-2). God’s Covenant will have new shoots, stretching out into the world to save sinners, but its roots are ancient, reaching all the way back to Abraham. The extravagant display of God’s power and grace which He worked long ago reminds us that He is certainly able to work again (vv. 9-11). This is always the perspective we need to keep as Christians. We live in dark and discouraging times. The world hates us, more now than for a long time since. Our message is ridiculed, and the church is weak. We can take heart, though, that the God who brings life out of barrenness can give life again, to a struggling church just as He can to lost people. Trust Him for His grace.

In the remaining verses (vv.12-23) God promises comfort to distressed, freedom to the imprisoned, and judgment for the impenitent. There is no escaping, either the inevitable punishment of our sin, or the equally reliable grace our hearts desperately need, if we cry out to Him.

 

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The Wait of Glory. Isaiah 47-49 – RBT Notes, 23rd May

“Your end is nigh.” This is the word of God to Babylon. She will bully, and she will have her day over God’s people; but bullies usually get caught out, and Babylon will (47.1-15). She seems to have it all, with wealth, power, high culture, supreme self-confidence, religion and politics on her side. She hasn’t reckoned with who is on the other side, though. God will strip her, shame her (v.4), silence her (v.5), and defeat her (v.11). A great Empire will soon be just another page in a history book.

God now turns to His people. No, they’re no better, no wiser, no more upright than their enemies, and therefore no more deserving at all of God’s mercies. God knows that they are hypocrites, that they’re stubborn, and that they’re idolaters (48.1-6). No glory there, then. God will work for them, but ultimately He is working for His renown (v.9).

We should pause here, and reflect on this. God who works for Himself; is that a vain God, a selfish God? We can’t say, ‘well, that’s just how God was in the Old Testament’. No, plenty of New Testament verses would trip us up if we tried to say that, including a handful of assertions in Ephesians 1. Hear these statements, straight from Eph. 1.3-14, as Paul speaks of God’s purposes in Christ: “in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace… the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure…according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…for the praise of his glory…to the praise of his glory.” This is your God, if you’re in Christ. He is glorious, precisely because He is doing all things for His Glory.

If God were working for a lesser glory as His ultimate aim – your happiness, even your salvation, even world peace – then God is not working for perfection. And, we have to ask, is God therefore the perfect God? This is not a philosophical question, it’s a question about the reality we inhabit. The answer is, according to Isaiah, the Apostle Paul, Jesus, and every other voice in the Bible, yes, God is perfect, because He does all things for the eventual display of His perfect power, holiness, wisdom and love. And that means, for His Glory. This perspective alone can explain why judgment for Babylon is so perfect, and why salvation for Israel is so wonderful (vv.12-22). There is simply nothing better that God can do that to serve His glory. When we begin to grasp this in Christ, this perspective shapes all that we want, and do, and we begin to live for that same captivating beauty of His glory.

Now we’re called to fix our eyes on that place of most unlikely glory, which is the Servant of the Lord, in chapter 49. In this second Servant Song Isaiah sings forth the song of one set apart from before birth by God (49.1), and prepared in obscurity for the ultimate display of God’s glory (vv.2-3). It’s clearly, beautifully and convincingly the song of the Son of God we are listening to here, as He is the Son we later see stepping into Galilee.

One shock is that this Son and Servant battles with discouragements. All of His hunger to obey His father and to win lost sinners, and He is bowed low with the opposition and the apparent lack of progress in his work (v.4). Feel familiar to you? Take heart! And the Father calls His Son to take heart, too: faith must win through: “But I said, “I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God”” (‭v.4). The Servant must believe that His Lord will give the reward of His labours, and so must we.‬‬ His reward will be the homage of the nations, the very nations He brings the light of God’s truth and grace to (vv.6-7).

There is therefore no reason ever for us to despair. God’s love always reaches to the depths of our darkness (v.9) and our sorrows (v.13). His compassion is more faithful than that of a mother (vv.15-16). And one day God’s enemies, their rulers, and indeed, the whole world, will see the might of Israel’s Saviour God (vv.19-26).

 

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Sweet Sovereignty. Isaiah 45-46 – RBT Notes, 22nd May

Chapter 45 teaches the glorious truth that God uses anyone He chooses to do whatever He chooses. He doesn’t ask their permission, He doesn’t (normally) announce what He is doing, and He certainly doesn’t need to reward them. But God, because He is God, uses anyone for anything.

Like Cyrus. Cyrus was the Persian King who God raised up to judge the Babylonians, and then used to allow God’s people to return home. Whatever power, wealth and success God gave Cyrus, He did so for His own purposes: “I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honour, though you do not acknowledge me” (‭Isaiah‬ ‭45‬.3-4).

It is this effortless but completely purposeful sovereignty that God exults in, and sets out before His people in dazzling display in the rest of the chapter. I think that this is one of the most compelling and beautiful chapters showing the Lordship of God in the entire Bible. The heavens, all events, the future, His enemies, His people, and the entire world – all are under His rule, and in His purposes (vv.7-21). The logic for us of God’s Lordship is that we bow the knee (vv.22-25). Failure to do so is refusal to live in reality. In God in Christ are righteousness, strength and boundless joy (vv.24-5). Hallelujah!

 

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Before such a Lord the idols must bow down (46.1-2). Before such a Lord His people must be ashamed of their idols, and bow down (vv.3-7). Before such a Lord a rebellious world must bow down (vv.8-13). All of creation will bow one day and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2.10-11). We are those who do it at the proper time – which is now. And we do it with great, great joy.

 

 

Not man-made gods, but God made man. Isaiah 43-44 – RBT Notes, 21st May

I – you, my – your. This is chapter 43. God, God God, God: protecting, promising, delivering, leading, helping, encouraging, saving. And then, you, you, you, you: being protected, promised to, delivered, led, helped, encouraged, saved. Flames, floods, enemies, threats, and sins – God will deliver us from them all.

The background to all of the images of deliverance is the return from Babylonian Exile. God will see His people safely home to their City (vv.1-7). He can do this, because He is the Living God, full of power (vv.8-13). And He will do this, because He is the Covenant God (vv.14-28). As He took His people out of Egypt (vv.16-17), so He will deliver their descendants. His grace is always new; yes, He has chastised them by exile, but He will bless them by giving them a brand new start (vv.18-19). Is this fair? Not at all! But God doesn’t deal in what is fair with His people, He deals in grace.

Do we want Him in His grace? Do we long to know this God? God offers Himself to us in the Gospel, and urges us to come to Him (vv.22-28). God doesn’t want to give us His stuff; He is giving us His Son.

Isaiah’s song against idols is designed to make us laugh (44.8-20). Idols are stupid! Think about the craftsman who has to debate how much of the wood he will chop for the fire, and how much he will use to give his life value as he makes an idol out of it:

“Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!”” (‭‭44‬.‭16-17‬)‬‬‬

It’s bonkers! But idolatry is, whether ancient or modern. Creating value never works. Receiving value from God in Christ always does, and only does. He is the Image of the Invisible God (Colossians 1.15). The best news is that people don’t need to make a god, because God was made man to give our lives meaning as our sins are forgiven at the Cross and the Spirit indwells us.

The chapter finishes with God’s promise to rebuild Jerusalem (vv.20-28). The God who makes the heavens will turn His attention once more to building up His people in the chosen City. What an echo of heaven this is for Christians. The God of heaven is building a heaven for our dwelling. If you belong to Jesus Christ, then this is your God, and this is your destiny: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (‭1 Thessalonians‬ ‭1‬.9-10).

 

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serving gods, or the Servant God? Isaiah 41-42 – RBT Notes, 20th May

Bin your Idols

In this second half of his book we see Isaiah pastoring his people, and one feature of their struggle is the temptation to believe in idols. By idols, we really are talking about the knee-high tin gods of the ancient world. They were picked up, put down, bowed down to, and held in fearful veneration. We can laugh, but we might hear an echo of ancient laughter aimed back at us when we think about what holds power over us. How we look, what we earn, how we travel, where we live, what we achieve – ‘behold your gods, O Israel’. They might be metal, or plastic, or even metaphysical, but their power over us is appalling, as is our worship of them. We need Isaiah’s ministry.

Lessons, then, for the idol-tempted:

 
1. We need to deal with God, because He won’t stop His dealings with us

“Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord —with the first of them and with the last—I am he” (‭Isaiah‬ ‭41‬.4). God comes to meet His world, and is met by people clutching their idols, and making sure they don’t topple over (v.7). Pathetic, but you can’t argue that it’s true.

 

2. We need to trust in God, because He is totally trustworthyimage

Vv.8-20 are full of promises: fear not, I am with you, I will strengthen you, I will uphold you, I will help you. God is saying, take me at my Word. The word they ignored, which judged them, is the word they must now listen to, which promises protection and strength. So is it to be God or idols, God or ourselves, God or the world? Who can we trust? Our hearts know.

 

3. We need to mock our idols

Shiny, expensive, impressive-looking idols are idols, afterall. They can’t tell us the future (vv.22-23), so why rely on them? They are worthless (v.24). We have a God who knows the future, who has ordained it, who inhabits it and who will meet us in it. If we want a life of ‘wind and confusion’ (v.29), then let’s bow down to our idols. Better to laugh at them, and bin them. God alone has the good news for us to build our lives on (v.27).

 

The Real God stoops to serve

God’s future, and God’s Good News, is a man. Chapter 42 is the first of a collection of songs we know as the Servant Songs. Detail by detail, they build a picture for us of God’s Man, and the Good News which He alone is qualified to bring. The One God delights in, the One who possesses the Spirit, is the One who brings justice to the nations, not by ranting or roaring, but by serving, ultimately by dying. He has grace for the broken and weak, and hope for the world. He is unnamed, but of course, we know that His name is Jesus. Jesus is, as we learn at His baptism, the One the Father delights in, who is baptised with the Spirit, and who is set aside as the Servant of God’s will for us to listen to, and hope in, and to bring light and freedom to the world (vv.1-7, cf Matt. 3.13-17, 17.5). He is the Great Servant. We are the served.

When God declares His word to us, the rest is worship, as vv.10-25 remind us. He is a Warrior, Victor, Liberator, Saviour, Judge, Hope of the world. Accept no substitutes, and no idols.