Sunday, 26 February 2017
If we were to conduct a poll on what are the biggest hindrances to authentic Christianity in our society, I wonder what people would say. Perhaps they would mention love of pleasure. Of course, all pleasure is not wrong unless it is one’s goal in life. Many people live for the weekend because that is the time when they imagine they will become happy, and they look forward to escaping from the drudgery of life, as they see it. And there are what Peter calls the pleasures of sin, which no Christian should get involved in.
What else would be regarded as hindrances? Some might say that changes in our society caused by people of other faiths coming to live in our country is dangerous because they can influence people and turn them away from Christianity. Of course, such a response forgets that true Christians will not become followers of religions that don’t exalt Jesus. In fact, the arrival of such people is really an opportunity for evangelism, so we cannot say that their presence is dangerous at the moment.
Another potential hindrance is the dramatic growth in secularism, which is influencing all kinds of changes in our society. Within the last few years, Christianity has almost disappeared from public life and it is generally assumed that a sane person would never believe in the Bible. Of course, real Christianity lost its influence decades ago. Now evangelical Christians and churches are on the fringe, excluded from expressing their faith, except to one another. No doubt, the rise of secularism makes it harder to be a Christian. Still, it is the response of Christians that will indicate whether or not secularism is a hindrance. If it succeeds in getting us to be silent, then it is a hindrance.
What did Jesus say in this sermon would be a hindrance to authentic discipleship? In the verses we are going to consider, he mentions a focus on accumulating possessions as being a hindrance. Our version mentions money as the problem, but since people in the first century did not live with much money, the word means more than cash. Rather, Jesus refer to things. At first glance, we may wonder why he decided to speak about this issue at that time. I suppose the answer is obvious. We live in a world where it is impossible to escape from things. It looks as if materialism in a first century form was regarded by him as dangerous for his disciples, and no doubt its twenty-first century form is also dangerous.
In the sermon on the mount Jesus deals with many issues connected to discipleship. We have noticed the characteristics of true disciples (the Beatitudes), the effects they have in the world (salt and light), the focus on heart change within them, and the method of practising spiritual disciplines (secretly in the presence of God). We would not be too surprised at Jesus mentioning them. The next two topics – things and worry – might surprise us. Yet they have something in common and that is that people like to hold on to both.
It is important to observe that Jesus does not say that it is wrong to have possessions, but he does say that it is possible to have wrong ideas about them. After all, there are many rich believers in the Bible whose lives are commended. Abraham, Job, Joseph of Arimathea and Philemon are such examples. So it is not the actual possession of things that are the problem.
To illustrate this, we can think of two rich people that Jesus met. One was the rich young ruler, a man with some desires to follow Jesus. Yet when he heard that Jesus demanded authority over the rich man’s possessions and what he should do with them, the rich man preferred to keep his wealth for himself. The other individual was Zacchaeus, a man who certainly loved money before his conversion. But he met Jesus and became a disciple, and the first thing he did was to start giving money to the poor and repaying what he stolen. Jesus was delighted and called him a son of Abraham, the rich man.
Or we can think of other contrasting examples, this time in the Book of Acts. One is Barnabas, a rich man from Cyprus, who sold a field in order to help those in need. It is not surprising that other Christians called him the son of consolation because he helped many. In contrast to him, there was Ananias and Sapphira, who pretended to give money to the Lord’s cause, but who actually kept it, and were judged severely for doing so.
The point I am making is obvious. Some used their possessions wisely and became a blessing to people they helped. Some kept it for themselves and lost out. And that is what Jesus says here when he says that his disciples should not lay up treasures for themselves on earth.
Obviously, for some people, the accumulation of possessions becomes the priority of their lives. Sadly, they are never satisfied with what they have. Even more sad is the fact that they are going to lose them all. We know that is the case. How much does Carnegie have now? Moreover, even when they have earthly riches, they worry about what is going to happen to them and to their possessions. Having a lot does not always mean having a lot of comfort or a lot of pleasure. It can mean a lot of stress.
Jesus does not want his disciples to have no spiritual treasure when they die. Yet they will only have such treasure if they engage in certain activities throughout their lives. He takes the example of people who strive for earthly riches and says to his disciples that they should show as much interest in accumulating heavenly treasure.
Storing heavenly riches
How do they do so? A simple but correct answer would be to say that they engage in the various features that Jesus has already mentioned in this sermon. By doing them, his disciples will store up treasures in heaven. So we can think about that briefly.
The first example is almsgiving. Who were the people helping when they gave alms? Usually it was their fellow Jews. They were helping those that they knew were depending on God to meet their needs. I think Jesus expects his people who have assets to help those of his people who do not have any. This is the thrust of his parable about the sheep and the goats. In that parable, Jesus speaks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and so on. He even says that when they did so, they were doing it to him, a reminder of the union that believers have with Jesus.
This does not mean that they should not give to other needy people. Jesus on one occasion told a parable about inviting guests to a feast. He said not to invite those who can invite you back but to invite those who cannot. Then he said that if his disciples did this they would be recompensed at the resurrection of the just (Luke 14:12-14).
The second example was prayer. We saw last time that one feature of the Lord’s Prayer is to pray about the progress of God’s kingdom. As far as praying about people is concerned, there are two options. We can pray for those we know and we can pray for those we don’t know. Imagine standing there at the Day of Judgement and discovering that your prayers brought about the conversions of people in other parts of the world. Perhaps on a certain day, you found yourselves wanting to pray for people in a certain place, and then you forgot about it. But on the great day you discover that on that previous day many people were converted, and that Jesus brought them to conversion through a preacher or whatever method, and that he did not do so until he had led you and others to pray about it. I suspect that Jesus does not lead us to do such a specific thing unless we are in the habit of praying earnestly for the progress of his kingdom everywhere. Such types of prayer are an incredible way of storing up heavenly treasure.
Of course, they are not only types of prayer connected to progress in the kingdom. Another way of growth is personal spiritual development. We pray about such matters in ourselves, but we also pray about things that we see in other people. I would suggest that is one reason why God reveals such details to you. Have you ever wondered why other people don’t see an issue in someone that is obvious to you? God is giving you an opportunity to store up heavenly riches by praying for that individual and his or her defect. Of course, you should not mention it to them by saying something like, ‘I am praying about your bad temper.’ Such a way of speaking is probably a statement of pride. But just take the matter to the heavenly banker and wait to see how much treasure has been laid up.
If we stay with the items mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer, we will see that one of them concerned the willingness of Christ’s disciples to forgive one another. Forgiving in this way is an expression of brotherly love and it is the case that deeds of brotherly love will be rewarded. Jesus said that if a disciple gives a cup of cold water to another disciple he will be rewarded (Mark 9:41). There are many other ways of showing brotherly love, and they will all produce treasure in heaven.
The third discipline that Jesus mentioned was setting aside time from legitimate things (fasting) in order to enjoy the presence of God. When someone does that properly, Jesus told him or her not to hide the joy. Imagine the effect that a happy man has on his contacts. Many of them are looking for happiness in earthly treasures, and he is showing them that greater joy is found in knowing God. And the more he does that, the more treasures he has in heaven.
Love of possessions indicates selfishness
The opposite of storing heavenly treasures is not so much the amassing of earthly treasures but the collecting of earthly treasure by someone for himself. In other words, he is selfish and his self-centredness expresses itself in ongoing covetousness. Such a person only lives for himself. In doing so, he has made himself a slave – of money. Because he already has a master, he cannot serve God.
Love of possessions indicates spiritual darkness
Jesus uses an illustration to highlight the problem. He says that the eye is the lamp of the body by which he means that what we look out affects our body. If our eye looks at evil things (earthly treasures), it will make us spiritually dark. But if our eye looks at good things (heavenly treasures), it will give us spiritual light. I suppose he is indicating that those with the wrong attitude lose spiritual vision.
Love of possessions is un-Christlike
After all, when it comes down to it, who had, or has, the most possessions? The answer to that person is Jesus because he is the heir of all things. He can look at everything each of us has and say about them, ‘They actually belong to me.’ But what does he do with all that he has? He uses it for the benefit of others. That is what is meant by grace.
Love of possessions means we are not stewards
A basic question that each believer has and each of us has is, ‘Why do I have what I have?’ That question is not confined to possessions, of course. The answer is that Jesus has made us stewards of what we have and we have to use it for his glory.
It is obvious from the preceding verses in the psalm that the author had gone through a period of great difficulty in which he had been disappointed and perplexed about what had taken place. Verse 17 indicates that relief only came when he spent time at the temple. He went there to get his perspective on life changed. This is a reminder that it is possible to assess life from inadequate viewpoints. In times of trouble, we need to select the best viewpoint, and that is to see where God is and what he is doing. The psalmist did this eventually and in the verses we will consider we read about what he saw.
This psalm is a reminder that the Bible does not conceal the wrong ideas and suspicions that believers can have at times. Asaph was not an ordinary believer (if there is such a person), but a prominent one, with important public roles in the worship of God as a priest and psalmist.
The psalm is an example of how to wrestle through situations that cause us to doubt the providence of God and his care over his people. Denying the existence of God was not an issue for Asaph. But he had problems with what he saw taking place around him. ‘What was God doing?’ was the question. No doubt, that is a problem still for people, and if we find ourselves there we can use this psalm as a means of grace to express our thoughts and to find help.
Several commentaries mention that Charles Wesley, on his deathbed, was thinking about the closing verses of the psalm, especially the verse that describes the psalmist’s fainting and frailty. Wesley even at that stage could write poetry and composed this verse:
In age and feebleness extreme,
Who shall a helpless worm redeem?
Jesus, my only hope thou art,
Strength of my failing flesh and heart;
O, could I catch one smile from thee,
And drop into eternity.
His biography says he became unconscious shortly after dictating the verse.
I want to focus on the closing verses of the psalm and point to some of the thoughts that Asaph had.
The faithfulness of God
The first detail that the psalmist mentions is the faithfulness of God. Asaph realises that the Lord is with him wherever he goes, and is with him throughout each moment. The Lord’s presence did not depend on the strength of the psalmist’s faith because previous verses show that at time he was wavering. We make a mistake about this often, imagining that the Lord only supports us when our faith is strong. Instead we need to remind ourselves that he remains faithful even to someone whose faith for a time is shaky and weak.
In what way did the psalmist realise that the Lord was with him? He mentions that the Lord was his personal guide. The nearness of the relationship us expressed in the image of the Lord holding the psalmist’s hand. At the same time, the picture indicates that the Lord was speaking to his servant, probably by reminding him of instructions found in the Old Testament books that were available. The holding and the guiding would last all the way through life until the psalmist reached heaven. And when he reached there, he knew that he would be welcomed into glory.
That was an incredible perspective for this previously-troubled man to experience. The question that comes to us is not only if we can have it, but if we can have a better one. Right away, our answer should be yes, that we can have a clearer perspective, and the reason that we can is because of Jesus. He promised his disciples that he would be with them in a special way by the Holy Spirit, he informed them that nothing could remove them from the grip that he and the Father had on them, he assured them that the Holy Spirit would reveal to them the information required for living for God in this world, and he promised them that he himself would welcome them into his Father’s house, the place of glory. This is the perspective that we can have, that we should have, as we gather together in the presence of God and look at where we are in life.
The preciousness of God
The psalmist then says to God that he is his highest possession. He considers the inhabitants of heaven – there are the angels and the souls of God’s people – and says that God means more to him than they do. No doubt, he was aware of the fact that God sends angels to help his people in scores of ways, and maybe he could deduce occasions when that must have happened with him. Still, the Lord meant more to him than all the angels.
Asaph would also be aware of some of the believers who had gone to heaven: the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Moses and Aaron; Joshua and the various judges whom God had used; David his fellow psalmist; and many others, including close friends and family members. He had a strong love for them, but he loved the Lord more.
Then the psalmist considered the situation on earth. He was gathered with others in the sanctuary of God, but he loved God more than them. His description extends to more than to people. He includes all the beautiful and precious things of earth and says that his desire for God is stronger than his desire for anything else.
Why does he feel this way? We can mention two reasons. One is connected to the fact that he was God’s creature and that he had been made to know God as his highest delight. The other reason is linked to him being an Israelite, which meant that he regarded himself as one who belonged to the redeemed community, rescued by God from slavery in Egypt.
We can see why we should be able to say that we desire Jesus more than anyone or anything else. It is true that we should do so because we are his creatures and we were made to know him. And it is also the case that we should find him very desirable because he is the Redeemer who liberated us from our sins by his death on the cross. It is inconceivable that a Christian would prefer anything in heaven and in earth higher than the Saviour.
The power of God
The psalmist had gone through a very difficult experience that had affected him physically and emotionally. Various kinds of fears had been endured. He admits that he had not been able to endure the strain; he had realised that he was not a spiritual superman, untouched by the pressures of life. Yet he had discovered that someone did not change in all the changing circumstances of life and that was God. Asaph realised that God was with him in the present and would be so forever.
The apostle Paul reveals that he had fears within. There were moments when he too felt the weakness of his body and of his heart. Yet he knew what the real situation was when he also said that he could do all things through the one who strengthened him, his Saviour and Lord (Phil. 4:13). He exhorted the Ephesians to be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.
Moreover, Asaph discovered that a difficult present experience did not mean an uncertain future. There could be many things that he would lose if the wicked became powerful. Yet he had God as his portion for ever. We could say that the Lord was his chosen and his certain portion. Similarly, believers today can have the same outlook as Asaph had, with regard to Jesus. He is their chosen and certain portion whatever happens in the meantime.
The judgement of God
His time in the sanctuary had convinced Asaph that the period of prominence for the wicked will not last long. Eventually, God would deal with them in judgement. They live far away from God, but not so far that his punishments will not reach them eventually. Even in this life, they will discover that God will deal with them. Perhaps Asaph had seen such things in Israel.
We too have to remember that Jesus is the ultimate Judge. One day he will be revealed as such when everyone will stand before him at the Great White Throne. That will be an awful occasion for those who will receive condemnation from him, condemnation that will last for ever.
The conclusion of Asaph
Asaph has been on a roller-coaster experience in which his faith has been tested. Yet although it was such a difficult time, he realised that it had actually helped him because he had discovered that faith in God will become stronger through such experiences. He had discovered that it was good for him to draw near to God. We have already mentioned some of the things that he had discovered.
The conclusion we can summarise in two words – trust and tell about. Asaph expresses his trust in the words ‘my refuge’. He had discovered where he should go if he had another period of crisis about his faith in God. Moreover, he now had something to tell to other people, which was that the Lord would help them in times of distress. And he knew too that temporary prosperity and satisfaction could not meet the needs of the human heart.
Philadelphia means ‘the city of brotherly love’. Whether that was true of the city is unlikely. Yet it was true of the church there because Jesus finds no fault within it. It is the second of the seven churches to have this level of commendation, along with the church in Smyrna. This means that the city of brotherly love had a community of brotherly love within it.
Jesus, the divine ruler
In describing himself, Jesus says that he is both God and man, which is how we should think of him when focusing on what he has done since his incarnation. His deity is seen in his description of himself as the one who is holy and true. Yet they would also be accurate descriptions of his human nature. As the one who is holy and true, he cannot tell a lie, which would be of great comfort to the small church in Philadelphia as he makes promises to them about their future.
The significance of him having the key of David is connected to what is described in Isaiah 22:20ff where the prophet reveals that the Lord is going to remove Shebna from his place of power because of his unfaithfulness and Eliakim in that position of power. The key symbolised the power that Eliakim would have. They revealed that the king had given him authority to act. Jesus means by this description that as the Messiah he has been given full authority by God the Father.
The person who had the key in the palace in Jerusalem could go into any room he wished. He also allowed or prevented other people from having access to those places. In other words, nothing could happen without his decision or permission. In a far higher sense, nothing happens without the permission of Jesus. He has access to everything in heaven, including the details of God’s eternal plan. Therefore, he can make definite promises to the church in Philadelphia.
It is obvious that Jesus wanted to communicate this information to his people. He wanted them to get the benefits that come from knowing that this is his role. It would mean that whatever happened to them should be connected by them to the key that Jesus possesses as God’s Messiah. The same is true for us.
Encouragement from Jesus
Jesus points out to the church in Philadelphia that he has given to them an open door. What does he mean by that? He is referring to his use of the key in the previous verse that symbolised his authority. Does he mean by his door that they have access to heaven or entrance into his kingdom or does he mean that they have access into the community around them?
They may have been barred from areas of life in the city. The Jews may have stopped them from attending the synagogue and the city authorities may have prevented them from having opportunities for work. Whatever doors were closed by their human opponents, they could not close the door that Jesus kept open.
The implication is that they were meant to go through the door and use whatever the access was that was available to them. They could go into the presence of Jesus in prayer and they could enter the community with the gospel. It looks as if Jesus is describing an entrance that no power on earth could ever close, which would indicate that the open door is entrance into the presence of God at any time.
This would have been a great encouragement from Jesus to a church that was regarded as insignificant in the community. They were small in number probably and had little influence in the city. Yet they had remained true to him, even when they were opposed by others.
The opposition to them seems to have been led by the Jews, which was a common experience for the New Testament church. Because Jesus has the key of authority he is able to deal with that situation. He informs the church there that on the Day of Judgement they will be recognised as belonging to him, with that recognition including their opponents bowing down before them. In the Old Testament, it was predicted that Gentiles would bow to God’s people, and no doubt the Jewish opponents of the church had assumed that the church would be among the Gentiles. Jesus reveals that those Jews would be among the Gentiles who would acknowledge the place that Christians will have through their connection to Jesus. So he gives them encouragement from their future blessings as well.
On that great future day, the opponents of the church will recognise that Jesus loved his people. The recognition will include different ways in which he loved them. His love for them was eternal, it led him to become a man and go to the cross to pay the penalty for their sins, and it caused him to look after them in numerous ways since they became his disciples. On that day, those who despised believers will discover and see the greatness of Christ’s love for his people.
Jesus, who has the key of authority (as he mentioned in verse 6), then informs the church in Philadelphia that he would protect them during a looming worldwide crisis. He does not say what the crisis would be. Perhaps there would be political turmoil, with its dangerous consequences. Whatever it was, Jesus promised his people in that city that they would be safe. Here we have a reminder that sometimes Jesus prevents trouble for his church whereas he allows it elsewhere, as he did with the church in Smyrna.
Instead of being concerned about worldwide events, they are told by Jesus to remember his second coming. What is the proper response to the fact that Jesus is coming again? It is not to speculate about it. Instead it is to serve him faithfully Day by day knowing that he always has the key of authority..
Who is the one trying to seize their crown? It cannot be Jesus because he wants to give it to them. It is not likely to be another believer. Instead, it is the enemy, those encouraged by the devil. The point is that a good church can become a useless one if it loses hold of its priorities. Jesus did not want that to happen to the church in Philadelphia.
The reward for the overcomer
Several times in this promise to the overcomer, Jesus refers to ‘my God’. He is speaking of the Father, but is describing the relationship he has with his Father – Jesus is the mediator, the Father’s servant. We can see his activities in this connection described in Isaiah 53, where the prophet mentions both the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. As the servant of the Father, he has the role of outworking the divine plan and some of its details are mentioned in the promises here.
Jesus says that he will do two things for those who overcome. One is that he will make them pillars in God’s temple and the other is that he will write three names on each of his people. Probably, the idea behind a pillar is stability and the idea behind the writing of names is security. In both cases, the outcome is eternal.
The temple of God is another way of describing the new heavens and new earth. Calling it a temple reminds us that one of the main activities of the eternal state, as well as being one of the main expressions of eternal life, is worship, with the leader of the endless praise being Jesus himself. Each of his people will continue as a devout and enthusiastic worshipper for ever.
It is possible that there is a connection between the pillar and the writing, with the names being written on the pillar so that others can read them. This was a common use of pillars in ancient times. Writing a name on something indicated ownership and here the three names are Father, new Jerusalem and Lord (Jesus was given this title in a new way at his ascension, as Paul says in Philippians 2:6-11). So the names say that each true believer will be a son of the Father, a resident of the eternal city, and a subject of the sovereign Saviour, and all of them for ever.
Sunday, 19 February 2017
Having described some aspects of the righteousness that is superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees Jesus now moves on to deal with the practice of three features of righteous living among the Jews – almsgiving, prayer and fasting. They were ones with which the Jews would have been familiar because they would have observed the Pharisees doing them.
Of course, it is important to stress that Jesus here is referring to personal, voluntary expressions of those practices. There were occasions when public expressions were mandated and on those occasions it would be obvious that people were engaging in them.
The Saviour points out a basic principle connected to personal acts of discipleship. If we engage in them in order to get a reputation among men, we will succeed in doing so. On the other hand, if we engage in them to receive blessings from God, we will succeed in doing so. The problem is that we cannot have both.
But Jesus does more that point out that principle. He also says that his disciples should be afraid of doing them like the Pharisees. His warning begins with the word, beware, and that word is only used when there is danger around. To have the attitude of the Pharisees means we are in trouble.
The presence of the Father
Jesus focuses on either a love of secrecy or a love of publicity. The Pharisees revealed to their audiences when they gave to the needy, when they prayed and when they fasted. The audience admired them for their devotion, which was what they wanted. Instead, Jesus’ disciples engage in their religious duties in the presence of the Father.
What is the presence of the Father? Jesus is not referring to God’s omnipresence, nor is he referring to God’s family presence such as occurs when his people do something together. Instead he is describing what takes place between an individual and his God. Some people have a literal place where they like to pray, and obviously that is helpful. Yet this secret place can be anywhere. What marks it is that the Father is there and is pleased with what he sees.
Giving is an overflow of fellowship
It is possible to give to God’s cause in a mechanical way. The picture is of a disciple who spends time with God and then comes across someone in need and gives him something. I suspect that Jesus is indicating that when a disciple gives in this manner his giving will reflect the God who he has been with. Therefore, he will give graciously and persistently.
Fasting is an opportunity for joy
When Jesus tells his disciple that he should anoint his head and wash his face he does not mean that his disciple engages in a form of pretence. Instead he is instructing his disciple that his outward look should reveal his heart. People who see him should see his joy, but they should not discover that he is doing without legitimate things in order to enjoy the presence of God.
Prayer is speaking with God
Jesus mentions two wrong ways to pray. These are the prayers of the Pharisees and the prayers of the pagans. Usually, a person would say that there is nothing similar between those options, but Jesus points out that neither method is true prayer. So what is prayer?
Prayer is special, so special that the petitioner makes sure that there is a suitable private place in which it can take place. The choice of place is not made by God, but the disciple must find this place of privacy.
Prayer is expressed simply. Sometimes, people only pray when they are in a desperate situation. When that happens, they may use lots of words, but if you listen to them it is obvious that they don’t know anything about the God to whom they are praying. In contrast, the disciple of Jesus knows that prayer is not about giving God information and therefore prays straightforwardly.
Prayer contains five aspects
Then Jesus provides his disciples with a prayer that has five concerns and these are the details that Jesus wants his disciples to mention in their personal prayers. The concerns are praise of God, progress of his kingdom, provision of daily needs, pardon for our sins and protection from the devil.
The first feature in prayer should be praise of God, and here Jesus mentions three areas of praise. One is God’s name – Father. How did he become our Father? He did so by adopting us into his family after we had trusted in Jesus. Another is his location – heaven. Heaven is the Father’s house, home. There in the secret place with the Father we are reminded of his real abode. And there is his character – holiness. This implies that the petitioner has spent some time thinking about what God is like – he is perfect and the disciple delights in that the Father will always be so. And the Father who sees in secret is pleased.
Second, in true prayer, there should be a longing for progress in the spread of the Father’s kingdom. Obviously, this only happens through the gospel being embraced. Therefore, a person who prays is passionate for conversions. He desires that sinners will become obedient saints. When he mentions this feature in prayer, he may wish to speak about items he has read which indicate that the gospel is being blessed. Or he may speak about places where the gospel is in decline. He will probably do both. In doing so, he pleads with God to work in this way. And the Father who sees in secret is pleased.
Third, the disciple prays that God would meet his needs for the day. This petition suggests that the prayer should be made in the morning, although it is the case that we can pray more than once. One of the psalmists prayed seven times a day. Again, this petition implies some form of preparation regarding what is liable to happen that day, and then the items are mentioned to God.
Fourth, a true disciple asks for pardon and is marked by a forgiving spirit. Those two details go together because Jesus points out in verses 14 and 15 that the Father only forgives those who have forgiven those who have offended them. Of course, when someone offends us, our response should be to remind ourselves that we have offended God far more often. It is obvious that one cannot go into the secret place with an unforgiving attitude.
Fifth, a disciple when he prays remembers that he is in the middle of a spiritual battle. Every day, he is going to face some form of interaction from the enemy of his soul. There are two options facing him – go through it and the conflict gets harder or be delivered from it. Jesus depicts the Father here as a Shepherd or as a Guide. Sometimes those individuals took their sheep or their followers over rough terrain, maybe close to dangerous spots. The difference between that kind of situation and the situation Christ’s people face is that they are in dangerous territory all the way. There is nothing that they face that cannot be turned into a temptation by the devil, and sometimes he will, but we don’t know when he will. So they ask God to protect them all the time.
How the disciples of Jesus treat these three disciplines will reveal what their priority is. Jesus says that the priority of each of the disciplines is to meet with God in each of them. They are not activities that we must do before we meet God. Rather we meet him as we do them.
The petitions in our prayers reveal our longings. Jesus mentions at least five longings that should mark our prayers – praise, progress, provision, pardon and protection. The Father’s answers are the rewards that he gives in his grace.
This incident is one of the best known in the Bible. It was not the occasion of Isaiah’s call to serve the Lord as a prophet because there already have been five chapters of prophecies before this incident. Maybe the best way to look at it is that it was initiated by the Lord in order to prepare Isaiah for the change of circumstances that he would face.
It was a period of crisis in the land of Judah because their longstanding king had died. Uzziah had reigned for fifty-two years and, in the main, he had been a good king, although he had experienced divine judgement for a rash action involving the worship of God. As we know, occasions of change can often cause uncertainty and fear, whether those occasions are national, denominational or personal. When they happen to us, we need to receive from God words of assurance, comfort and guidance, a reminder that he is still there.
On this occasion, Isaiah was shown in a very graphic manner that the Lord is the eternal king. Unlike what happened to Uzziah, the reign of God does not come to an end. He reigns for ever and ever. The picture that is given of the Lord is of One who is not only eternal but who also is exalted above everyone and everything. Not only does he outlast all others, he is sovereign above all the great of the earth. When he is present, there is no room for anyone else – even the train of his robe fills all the space that there is. The message to Isaiah was that his God was a very big God, and that same message comes to us as it does to all his people.
We are introduced to a special order of angelic beings who have the role of attendants of the divine throne. Obviously, they have a very privileged position, and we can see from their words that they realised it. As they speak to one another, they do not talk about one another, even although in a sense they are important. But when the Lord is clearly present, who would dare talk about themselves? Although so highly honoured, they express great humility, shown in the manner by which they cover their faces and their feet.
They have two things to say about the Lord – his distinctiveness and his domain. Holiness refers to separation, but it is separation above the creaturely. Only the Lord is totally perfect, only he could have a threefold attribution of holiness said about him. Their words are praise, but they are also proclamation – they say words that are coherent.
What do they mean when they say that the whole earth is full of his glory. They cannot mean that he is worshipped everywhere because that was not the case. But they knew that he was King everywhere, that there was not an inch over which he did not rule in divine power.
As Isaiah looked at the sight of the King and listened to what the seraphim were saying, he realised something about himself. He realised that he was a sinner and that the people of Judah were sinners. Of course, he said this even although he was a devout man and that his people were God’s people engaged in his worship at that moment in the temple. This is a reminder that the worship of God is astonishing – the sinless heavenly beings and the sinful human beings have something to say in his presence.
No doubt, Isaiah understood before that he was a sinner, but on this occasion he had a fresh experience of what it means to be one. It is a sight of the greatness of the Lord that brings this about in the outlook of believers. Simon Peter had a similar experience when he asked the Lord to depart from him after providing a miraculous catch of fish. Yet at the same time he was drawn to the feet of Jesus. Something similar happened here to Isaiah.
In the symbolism of the vision, one of the seraphim ceased his interaction with the others and went and took a live coal from the altar and touched Isaiah’s lips with it. Fire was a picture of purification, and here Isaiah is shown that the Lord had the remedy for the need of his servant. The altar is the place where the atoning sacrifice had been made, so we can see that purification is connected to and follows on from the atonement. In the vision, the application was immediate although totally undeserved, and its benefit was immediate as well.
There may be a reference to the Trinity in the question asked by the Lord since he uses a plural pronoun. A volunteer is wanted, and the choice is between the seraphim and the prophet, between the sinlessly holy and the purified sinner. Isaiah realises that he must volunteer, because he realises that he has been healed in order to serve.
The task to which he was called to by God was hard. He was going to speak the truth to people who could not see the truth, even although he would make it plain. While we know about Isaiah for his Messianic prophecies, his listeners heard him declare messages of rebuke. He was called by God to be faithful and not move an inch from his commission.
The Christ to see
In John 12:41, the apostle says that the One whom Isaiah saw was Jesus. We do not know how much Isaiah understood at that moment. Yet we know a lot about Jesus. Here we are reminded of his eternal dignity. The one who became the suffering servant in the book of Isaiah is described here as the King of kings. We can see that certain responses are required in his presence. The sight of him should compel honesty in our response. What are we to do?
The confession to make
What wrong words did Isaiah confess? There were three places that he usually spoke – his home, as a counsellor (he was a prince) in the palace and as a prophet. It is unlikely that he would have told a deliberate lie. Did he speak the truth for wrong motives? Or did he say that something was God’s will when God had not said that it was? Even if he had done his best, it would not be perfect. Whatever he may have said, he recognised in the presence of God that he had to confess his wrong words. What would have happened if he had not? He would not have experienced the cleansing process.
The challenge to obey
What was the challenge for Isaiah? For him, it was to the will of God, even although it would not be easy. Every day, for the foreseeable future, he knew that he would speak the truth of God to a people who would not listen. His task was to do what God wanted him to do, not what he wanted to do himself. And that is what we are called to do as well.-->