Archive for : June, 2021

Isaiah: Light to the Nations

The book of the prophet Isaiah explodes with powerful messages of both judgment and Messianic hope. Wrath and grace fill nearly every page. In Isaiah, there is both a terrifying expectation of punishment and a magnificent vision of hope. God will bring justice upon Judah and on the wicked nations surrounding them because of their evil, but he will also restore his covenant people and provide refuge and peace for the nations. This dual message is set up well by the first two chapters of Isaiah.

In Isaiah 1, the prophet sets the problem before the people in vivid fashion:

“Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged. Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel?

The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil. Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence foreigners devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And the daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.”

God’s own people are desperately corrupt and sick, and injustice runs rampant. The source of their wickedness is that they have abandoned the glorious God of Israel for the sake of idolatry and evil. Therefore, they will be broken down and destroyed.

Of course, God does not abandon his people. He has a plan to make things right once again. Isaiah 2:1-5 provides us a beautiful picture of God’s future plans: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

Not only will Jerusalem and the people of God be restored once more after exile, they will be a source of blessing for all nations. Out of Zion, the holy city of God, will come truth and light that leads all people to the guidance and wisdom of the Holy God of Israel. This will establish a reign of peace, where Israel will no longer be at war with its neighbors; people of every tribe and nation will seek to walk in the Lord’s light.

How can all of this be accomplished? How does this happen when God’s own covenant people are so unfaithful, unjust, and unloving? As we read through the book of Isaiah, we find mountains of treasures if we seek to discover God’s truth in this prophetic book. Although it was God’s design for Israel to be his servant that would bring light to the nations, their sin has rendered them unfit for the task. Israel was supposed to bring the world to the Lord, but they themselves are in desperate need of redemption and restoration. That’s why they need a new kind of servant and king, who can redeem them from their sins and who can faithfully display God’s glory and love to the whole world. A servant who is distinct from Israel but who also takes on Israel’s mission is needed. We see this in Isaiah 49:5-6:

“And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

This servant will be God’s instrument to bring Israel back to God but also to extend light and salvation to the ends of the earth. Throughout Isaiah, we read of this coming king and servant from the line of David who will usher in this new peace and righteousness (9:6-7). He will be born of a virgin (7:14) and he will be a righteous branch coming forth from the cut down stump of Jesse in order to bear the fruit of righteousness and justice and knowledge of the Lord in the world (11:1-9). But not only will this Messianic, Davidic king be a ruler of triumph and judgment and righteousness, he will be the one to deal with the sins of the people so that they can rejoin him on his mission to bring light to all. In order to do that, the servant must suffer:

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”(Isaiah 53:4-6)

The suffering servant takes on the wrath, iniquity, and punishment deserved by all people unto himself. He opens the way for many to be accounted righteous through his atoning sacrifice and death (53:11-12). He will give himself over to death but not be conquered by it; he will live again and see his offspring (53:10).

It is hard to find a more powerful description of what Jesus has done for all of us. He was the lamb led to the slaughter to take away the iniquities of the world. That is how he establishes his kingdom and becomes the conquering Messianic king. That is how he restores Israel and shines light for the nations. It is through his death that God’s mission to save the world is revived and renewed. And he does all of this for his own glory, that he might be known and praised among all (Isaiah 48:11).

As Isaiah 59:2 puts it, our sin has separated us from God and broken our relationship with him. As that chapter shows us, the startling effects of sin create horrid injustice and darkness that cause us to stumble like the blind (Isaiah 59:9-10). But God didn’t leave us in that state of darkness:

“The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.” (59:15b-17).

The Lord knew we needed on intercessor, someone to take our sins and bring our plight to God. He knew we needed a righteous and suffering servant to take our sins and fight our battles. So the Lord entered into the darkness to bring light. He won the war we could not win. He put on the armor of righteousness and went to fight on our behalf. His own arm brought salvation down to us in Jesus. He delivered the way of justice to us. And just a few verses later we read that he did all that to bring us out of darkness so that we could be a people of light, so that we can take on the mission of the suffering servant to bless all the nations:

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord. “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.” Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”

There is still great darkness on the earth, but the suffering servant Jesus is the Redeemer from Zion who has saved a special covenant people and given them his Spirit and his words to empower them for righteousness. That people is called to arise and shine the Lord’s light to the nations. We as the Church are that people today. The suffering servant has brought us out of darkness for his glorious mission of light. All glory be to the God through Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

Jeremiah: Successful Ministry

Surely, it is special to be called by God for a specific purpose and work. Jeremiah is one such person who is set by apart by God to be a prophetic messenger. Before he was even born, the Lord saw and appointed this mission for Jeremiah:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

What an honor this would be, to be chosen out of many to be a prophet to God’s people in the world. To be picked and called by the creator of the universe himself would be glorious, wouldn’t it? Yet, young Jeremiah’s message and ministry is no easy task. God does not send him out with a popular message. In fact, the Lord commissions him to proclaim truths that are deeply disturbing and upsetting to the people. Throughout his life, Jeremiah’s mission is to warn of imminent judgment coming from Babylon. Judah, God’s own people, have become woefully wicked and evil; justice is coming soon in the form of conquering Nebuchadnezzar. Unless the rulers and people repent and turn to God, utter desolation and destruction will surely ensue.

Even as Jeremiah brings these warnings of condemnation and judgment, he must combat a whole hosts of false prophets, priests, and leaders who are peddling a message that is the exact opposite of the Lord’s truth. Consider Jeremiah 6:13-14:

“For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

Throughout the book, Jeremiah encounters many who are teaching a message of peace and prosperity. Essentially, everything is fine, no judgment is coming, and everyone is free to keep doing whatever they want. False prophets like Hananiah and Shemaiah lead the people to “trust in lies” and provide them with a false sense of security. Unsurprisingly, it is this message that nearly all of the people listen to.

Kings, leaders, and the people almost constantly reject Jeremiah and his prophesies of doom and future hope. Not only that, but he is intensely persecuted throughout his decades-long ministry. He is imprisoned, mocked, ridiculed, thrown into a muddy cistern, kidnapped, maligned, beaten, and mistreated. One of his only friends in all of this is the scribe Baruch; Jeremiah hardly wins any other converts that we know of in the book. Perhaps what is even more frustrating for Jeremiah is that his prophesies do in fact come true. No one listens to his pleas and warnings and surely enough, mighty Babylon swoops in with thunderous judgment and disaster, wiping out many of the people, desecrating the temple, capturing exiles, and causing immense suffering. Taking a close look at the life of Jeremiah makes being set apart by God seem a lot less glamorous and honorable than it might appear at first. Measured by human wisdom and calculated by most metrics, Jeremiah’s ministry was an utter failure; he lived a miserable and unfruitful life. His message was rejected, converts and friends were essentially nonexistent, and life was painful.

Would it have been better for Jeremiah to have refused the Lord’s appointment? It seems that Jeremiah often felt like it probably would have been. In Jeremiah 20, he cries out to the Lord and offers raw and honest reflection on his life and ministry:

“O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed, I have become a laughingstock all the day everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” (20:7-8)

“Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!” (20:14)

“Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (20:18)

For Jeremiah, it would have been better to not have been born at all. In this moment at least, God’s word and God’s mission had only brought upon him pain and derision. Within the same chapter, however, he also reveals what continues to drive him to press on in his prophetic work:

“If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (20:9)

He cannot help but teach what has been given to him. He cannot unsee what he has seen. It’s a fire within his bones. He must proclaim the difficult truths of the Lord even if no one is listening. He must continue on because he cannot deny what is right and true.

Certainly, however, the book of Jeremiah is not all gloom and despair. Even as exile in Babylon is on the horizon, God has a plan to preserve his people and restore them and give them a new king from the line of David who will reign in righteousness and holiness. Jeremiah preaches sobering warnings but also profoundly hopeful descriptions of the future of a new king and a new people and a new covenant. Consider these beautiful words from the Lord:

“For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the Lord, because they have called you an outcast: ‘It is Zion, for whom no one cares!’.” (Jeremiah 30:17)

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

As we see in so many other places in Scripture, God refuses to give up on his people. He punishes, but he also binds up and heals. He is devoted and committed in his steadfast love to his covenant people, and he is determined to make them new and to write his law on their hearts.

One promise of hope comes in one of the most well-known passages in the book and in the Bible, Jeremiah 29:11:

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

In the context of the preceding verses, the Lord has promised to send his people into exile for seventy years in Babylon, but he will not forget them. He has a plan to bring good for his people. Truly, this is a wonderful reminder of God’s enduring compassion toward Judah. However, considering what we know about the life of Jeremiah, it is somewhat ironic that this verse is often used by many in our day to say that God has a specific purpose for each person to provide them with a happy and successful future. What Jeremiah demonstrates to us, though, is that being faithful to God doesn’t always result in physical wellbeing and success for each individual. Some future and hope Jeremiah had!

By all normal standards, Jeremiah died unsuccessful, lonely, and worthless. His ministry didn’t attract thousands of people or change any minds. He saw the destruction of the holy city and of God’s people. Prosperity and welfare were not the defining terms of Jeremiah’s life and work. He never experienced those things in this life, but God never promised those to him. God never promises us earthly success, comfort, ease, wealth, prosperity, or even a future in this life. God doesn’t have a perfect spouse prepared for everyone, and he doesn’t have a fun and meaningful career lined up for those who trust in him. In fact, suffering is promised to the people of God today: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). What God did promise was a future hope for his people through the Messiah and

through the new covenant. While that may have seemed like cold comfort at times to the exiles in Babylon, that’s actually a much better and more enduring eternal promise. God’s plans to bless and give us a future in Jesus may never be evident to the outside world in this life, but it is a sure hope to hold on to for eternity. And even as Jeremiah died thinking his words made scarcely any impact, for thousands of years his words have been read and treasured as a way of giving people hope in the Messiah. God used his suffering and his faithfulness to the truth in ways beyond what Jeremiah could have ever dreamed.

Embracing the difficult truths of following Jesus or proclaiming the harsh realities of judgment may very well cause us pain and persecution in this life. We may find no earthly success, but faithfulness will have its eternal reward by the grace of Jesus Christ. God’s plan for Paul was that he would suffer for the name of Christ. God’s plan for Stephen was a brutal death. God’s plan for his own son was bloody Calvary. Yet, all of those suffered knowing that they were pursuing a plan that was much better than the success, safety, and security that the world offered. God provides a future, a hope, and welfare through his magnificent plan of redemption that he worked Jesus. The Lord has set apart each of us for a purpose and a ministry that can impact eternity for the name of Christ. Let us embrace that mission knowing that God will give the increase and he will gain the glory even in our apparent failures and suffering.