Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Jesus, The Promised One

[This entry follows a sermon called "The Gospel Concerning Jesus Christ our Lord".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

The Bible is a book about Jesus.  It is all meant either to point us to the person and work of Jesus Christ or to explain how we should live in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Yet, whether it leads us to Him or follows on from Him, the Bible is a book about Jesus.  In Romans 1, Paul says that the gospel of God was "promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord" (v. 2-4).  The gospel was a promise...a promise concerning His Son...a promise concerning Jesus Christ our Lord.  This promise came beforehand...meaning in the Old Testament Scriptures.  So, even from the pages of the "Old" Testament, we find that the Bible is a book about Jesus.

This isn't the only place where we find Paul speaking in this way.  Specifically, the words of 2 Timothy 3:14-15 come to mind.  Paul writes, "But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus."  Though some of the New Testament writings would have been complete by this time, the primary writings Paul speaks of here are the Old Testament Scriptures.  So, what Paul is saying is that Timothy should continue in the truths he learned from the Scriptures (the Old Testament, that is) because it is in those writings that wisdom for salvation in Christ Jesus is found.

Someone might immediately object, "What?  Salvation in Christ Jesus?  I thought the Old Testament was mainly a history of what happened before Jesus with some prophecies about Jesus sprinkled in."  Well, Paul would stop us there.  Of course, the Old Testament contains history...it contains an accurate history.  However, the purpose of the Old Testament isn't just to set the stage for Jesus, though it does do that.  Paul says that the purpose of the Old Testament is to give us wisdom for salvation through Christ Jesus.  It does this, for example, by showing us the glory of our holy God, the sinfulness of fallen man, and the need for an atonement that supersedes the animals of the sacrificial system.

Thinking about my recent studies in Isaiah, this idea that Jesus was promised beforehand is clearly demonstrated.  Let's just take a brief survey.  In Isaiah 1, sin has pervaded every part of the nation.  The leaders, the religious practices, and the personal lives of the people are all corrupted by sin.  God punishes this sin through the actions of other nations, such that sin leaves the people looking like a beaten, bloodied victim (1:5-6).  Yet, there is hope.  If the people will repent, forgiveness will be granted to them (1:18-19).  How can God freely give forgiveness like this?  Doesn't it bother you just a little that such rebellion can be forgiven?  It bothered the apostle Paul.  His explanation of God's forgiveness to Old Testament men and women was that He punished their sin in the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26).  So, in the first chapter of Isaiah, we see the presence of sin, the assurance of God's punishment, and the the extension of God's forgiveness.  These point us to Jesus, whose death justifies God in the forgiveness of these rebellious men and women.

The same promise can be seen in Isaiah 2-4, as man's sin is revealed in his pride in and dependence on power, wealth, and political leaders.  Because of this, "the house of Jacob" is rejected (2:6).  Yet, God promises that "the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up - and it shall be brought low" (2:12).  Yet again, the sin of man and the wrath of God are not the only things present.  God promises that for those who have "been recorded for life...the Lord shall have washed away [their] filth...and cleansed [their] bloodstains" (4:3-4).  How will God accomplish this?  He says in 4:2 that "the branch of the Lord...[who is]...beautiful and glorious" will accomplish this.  The 'branch' is a familiar Old Testament picture for the coming Messiah...Jesus Christ (Is. 11; Jer. 23).  Here it is again...sin, judgment, and redemption.  This time, the way of redemption is more specifically spoken of.

I hope you are beginning to see a pattern.  Now, these are fairly straightforward passages when it comes to the promise of Jesus.  There are times when things are not so simple.  However, whether positively pointing to redemption or negatively pointing to the certainty of destruction, the Scripture keeps pointing us to Jesus.  Whether it is the holiness of God which we will surely face or the sinfulness of our own hearts growing clearer in the mirror of Scripture, the Scripture points us to Jesus.  Sometimes it's the failure of a human king that reminds us of the coming King.  Other times, it is the failures of even great men which remind us that the best of men are men at best.  Whatever the angle, whatever the story, whatever the proverb, whatever the prophecy...the Bible is a book about Jesus.

William Cowper lived in the 18th century and authored many poems that became hymns.  We know his words better than we know him.  He wrote, "God moves in a mysterious way; His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea; And rides upon the storm."  He also wrote, "There is a fountain filled with blood; Drawn from Emmanuel's veins; And sinners plunged beneath that flood; Lose all their guilty stains."  One of the poems that Cowper wrote speaks to the biblical truth that the Old Testament promises Jesus.  I will leave you with the words of his poem, "Old Testament Gospel."

Israel in ancient days
Not only had a view
Of Sinai in a blaze,
But learn'd the Gospel too;
The types and figures were a glass,
In which they saw a Saviour's face.

The paschal sacrifice
And blood-besprinkled door,
Seen with enlighten'd eyes,
And once applied with power,
Would teach the need of other blood,
To reconcile an angry God.

The Lamb, the Dove, set forth
His perfect innocence,
Whose blood of matchless worth
Should be the soul's defence;
For he who can for sin atone,
Must have no failings of His own.

The scape-goat on his head
The people's trespass bore,
And to the desert led,
Was to be seen no more:
In him our surety seem'd to say,
"Behold, I bear your sins away."

Dipt in his fellow's blood,
The living bird went free;
The type, well understood,
Express'd the sinner's plea;
Described a guilty soul enlarged,
And by a Saviour's death discharged.

Jesus, I love to trace,
Throughout the sacred page,
The footsteps of Thy grace,
The same in every age!
Oh, grant that I may faithful be
To clearer light vouchsafed to me!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

God's Word in Isaiah's Mouth

[This entry follows a sermon titled "A King Stands at a Crossroads".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

Several months ago, our congregation studied through the doctrine of the Word of God on Wednesday nights.  I was helped in leading that study by some chapters in Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology...a book I highly recommend.  I am going to write about the authority of God's Word, and if you recognize some phrasing from today's entry, that's because it comes from Grudem's book.  However, I unashamedly use the phrasing because God has gifted Wayne Grudem with an ability to say important things in very simple, clear ways.  So, with that being said, let me get to the thought for this week.

In Isaiah 7:10-13, something very interesting happened.  Here's the text: Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, 'Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.' But Ahaz said, 'I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.' And he said, 'Hear then, O house of David!  Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?'"

Ahaz is facing a military threat, and Isaiah calls on Ahaz to trust in God's power to defeat the enemies.  God has promised that their wicked plans against Judah will not stand (v. 7b).  Yet, Ahaz will not believe, so God pursues Ahaz...God offers him a sign...God offers him assurance that his faith will result in the salvation of his and his nation.  And how does he do it?  This is the question that brings us to the issue of God's authority and His Word.  Look carefully at those verses again.  How does God offer the sign?  He speaks.

Notice that verse 10 says "that LORD spoke to Ahaz."  That seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it?  Ahaz responds, and then verse 13 begins, "And he said...'you weary my God'..."  Wait a second!  What just happened?  Something changed.  It's clear that God is speaking in verse 10, but then it looks like Isaiah is speaking in verse 13.  How do we explain this?  Were God and Isaiah backing Ahaz into a corner...ganging up on him?  Was this an intervention, and when God's words didn't produce the right effect, Ahaz needed to take over?  Absolutely not!

What's happening here is very important to our understanding of the authority of God's Word!  In both instances, God is speaking through the prophet's mouth.  When the prophet speaks on behalf of God, God is speaking by means of the prophet...the two are inseparable.  In verse 10, the LORD speaks to Ahaz, not in a mystical way but through the voice of Isaiah.  In verse 13, Isaiah speaks to Ahaz, not on his own authority but in the authority of the LORD.  If we don't understand this to be the circumstance in these verses, then we can get confused.  We might think that God's plea wasn't good enough or authoritative enough, so Isaiah added his authority.  That would be like saying the oceans don't have enough water to drown a man, so I will add a drop.  Yes...it's that crazy!

The point is this...the words of the prophet were God's words in the prophet's mouth, and so, the words do not derive their authority from the speaker but from the source.  We know this as parents, but only if you have more than one child.  Let's say your children are Billy and Susie.  As a parent, you may send Billy outside to tell Susie it's time to come in and do chores.  When you send that message out the door, even through the lips of a child, the authority in the command is your authority...it's parental authority.  Billy walks up to Susie and says, "Dad says it's time to come in and do our chores."  If Susie responds, "No!  I don't feel like doing that...it's not fair.  I'll come in when I'm ready," who is Susie disobeying?  Billy?  No...you.  The same is true when God speaks through His appointed mouthpieces.  His authority comes through their words and intersects with our lives.

What we have in the Scripture are a collection of men who are God's mouthpieces over a couple of millenia, writing down the words of God, that we might be taught, corrected, rebuked, trained, and given wisdom unto salvation through Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:15-16).  When God's written Word speaks, God speaks.  To disbelieve or disobey God's Word is to disbelieve or disobey God.  The Word of God to King Ahaz was that he must trust in the Lord...trust in the Lord's power to save...not trust in his own strategy or strength.  Yet, he did not have faith in God's Word...therefore, he did not have faith in God.  He disobeyed God's call to faith...therefore, he disobeyed God.

If we claim to be one of God's people, then that means we are committed to living in submission to His authority.  The best way to test that claim (i.e.- to be one of God's people) is to see what our relationship is to God's Word.  I leave you with these questions to consider.  Does the Bible carry authority in our lives?  When God's Word speaks, do we believe it and show that we believe it through our obedience?  Do we invest more authority in the counsel of friends than the counsel of God in His Word?  Do we lean on our intuition more than God's revelation?  Are we looking for a word from a mystical voice in our heads rather than looking to the words that have been written for our instruction?  Do we believe that God's Word carries God's authority?  Well, do we?  Our lives will answer that question far more clearly than our words ever will.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Isaiah's Ordination to a Difficult Ministry

[This entry follows a sermon titled "The Sinner Becomes God's Spokesman".  Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

I still remember that November afternoon in 1999, though I cannot now remember the exact date.  If I cheat and google "1999 Calendar" to make a guess, I would say it was November 7, but that is neither here nor there.  This special service started at 4 PM, exactly one hour after I had met with the deacons of First Baptist Church Concord.  Though the extent of questions during my oral examination left much to be desired, I was approved and ready to be ordained to gospel ministry.  My wife was with me, and two of my closest friends from seminary, along with their wives, drove from Louisville, KY, to Knoxville, TN, just for the occasion.

I was wearing the brand new, black pinstripe suit my grandmother had purchased for this occasion, and she, too, was sitting in the small congregation of about 30 gathered in what I fondly remember as "the old sanctuary."  The service began, and before long, Dr. Doug Sager stood at the front, opened his Bible, and preached my ordination sermon.  It is one I will never forget.  His text was Nehemiah 1, and being quite skilled in the art of alliteration, Dr. Sager spoke of spiritual leadership as demonstrated by Nehemiah.  His main points were (1) Nehemiah's passion, (2) Nehemiah's prayer, (3) Nehemiah's patience, (4) Nehemiah's preparation, and (5) God's providence.  Those points are written nowhere except in my mind, and when I look at Nehemiah 1, I can't help but think of them.  (When I teach through Nehemiah in the future, I'm sure it will take all my mental strength to keep away from using the same outline.)

Not long after the service concluded, I had the privilege of preaching in the evening service at the church I called 'home.'  I have no clue what text I preached.  I heard someone once recall that Charles Spurgeon told preachers to keep their sermons so they could weep over them.  I'm certain if I saw the notes from this sermon (and certainly if I heard the recording), I would weep over it.

Now, I do not recall this moment in my life just to walk down memory lane, though it is quite wonderful to do so.  I recall this ordination to gospel ministry because it is so different from the ordination service of Isaiah the prophet.  His, of course, was not preached by a man.  Just like the apostle Paul in Galatians 1, Isaiah did not receive his ministry from any man but from directly from God.  God preached his ordination sermon, and what a sermon it was!  It was certainly more memorable than my recollection of the outline from Nehemiah 1, but it was far less optimistic than my experience.

It seems that at the end of modern ordination services, there is great optimism that the one on whom hands are laid, and there is some merit to this.  The person being ordained is usually young, full of energy and ready to 'take on the world' from the pulpit.  Maybe this could be the next George Whitefield or Billy Graham or Charles Spurgeon.  Perhaps there will be another Great Awakening under the leadership of this new pastor.  Would to God that this were true!  Certainly, we should be praying for such a harvest of souls.  However, there is more to the story than the triumphalism that usually fills our minds and mouths at times like these.

This other reality lies in Isaiah's ordination sermon.  He is told to keep preaching and to keep telling people to listen (6:9).  However, nobody is going to listen to him...he is going to preach for years and years and see no fruit.  In fact, much of the fruit of Isaiah's preaching would not come for centuries later...we see it in our lives today.  The marvelous passages in chapters 52 and 53 about the suffering servant are greatly used by God in the preaching of Christ and Him crucified, but not in Isaiah's day.  In Isaiah's day, the vine of Israel would be spiritually barren...producing only wild grapes (5:1-7). 

An interesting story that relates to this was the early years of Charles Simeon's ministry at Trinity Church in Cambridge.  Though not exactly the same as what Isaiah faced, there was hardness of heart among the people, and it manifested itself in opposition to Simeon.  Though the bishop had assigned him to this church, the members didn't want him.  They wanted the assistant to become their pastor.  So, they refused to let Simeon preach on Sunday afternoons in what might be called a second service.  Instead, they invited the assistant, Mr. Hammond, to do it.  This refusal to allow Simeon to teach on Sunday afternoons went on for twelve years!  They were completely opposed to him.  He even tried to begin a Sunday evening service for the townspeople, but the church wardens locked the doors so they couldn't get in!

There is still more.  If you have ever seen old church pews, many had doors on the ends of each row, and the doors in Trinity church locked.  Church members locked the doors so that nobody could sit in the pews, and when Simeon put chairs in the aisles, members threw them in the church yard!  This happened for about ten years.  After this first decade or so, things began to calm down.  After a decade!  Many pastors would have packed their bags after about 6 months, but not Simeon.  He was convinced that he should stay steady in the ministry of the Word and prayer.  Charles Simeon ended up staying at Trinity Church for 54 years.  Who would have thought it?  He certainly didn't see that going in...all he saw was the opposition.**

Friends, the gospel we preach is foolishness to the world, so it should not surprise us if the world hates it.  It should not be surprising when the world opposes us for preaching such a gospel.  However, let us remember the ministries of the prophet Isaiah and Charles Simeon, and take heart.  From Isaiah, we are reminded that we merely plant and water, and God makes all things grow.  God's Word accomplished exactly what it was meant to accomplish in Isaiah's day (Is. 55:10-11).  Whether the result was revulsion or revival, Isaiah was to continue in the task of preaching sin, judgment, and salvation to his generation.  He never saw all the fruit of his preaching ministry during his day...the full harvest of that fruit is still yet to come.

From Charles Simeon, we are encouraged to keep on keeping on in the face of opposition.  There are times that, even over a period of decades, God will soften hearts through the consistent speaking of the gospel and through love for the brothers.  There was a time in which Simeon was given a legal decision that pew holders could not lock the pews and stay away, but he never used it.  Instead, he kept preaching the Word and loving the people.  After years of resistance, God softened the heart of that people.  We could see the same thing happen in difficult situations today, if we will not lose heart. 

We may never see the fruit of our labor in this life, like Isaiah.  It may take decades for a heart to soften, as with Charles Simeon's congregation.  Either way, we the apostle Paul's charge to Corinth as the Lord's charge to us: "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58).

**I got this information about Charles Simeon from puritansermons.com.