Nominalism and the Elder
An Outward Piety:
Nominalism and the Work of the Elder – 1
The elders shall shortly begin their annual home visits. Just what are they looking for? What message shall they leave with the addresses they visit?
It’s perhaps beneficial at this time of year for elders and congregation members alike to think along on some of the challenges facing the elders who visit – and hence some of the challenges facing the families who are visited. Central to the visit, I’m convinced, must be one’s understanding of who God actually is.
In a brief series of three articles, I invite the reader to come along on a visit to Jerusalem in the days of the prophet Isaiah. The first article describes and analyzes what the diligent office bearer could observe, the second records God’s reaction, and the third ….
All is Well
The elders of Israel could surely not complain about Israel’s enthusiasm for the Lord’s service. According to Isaiah 1:11, the people brought to God a “multitude of … sacrifices,” so much so that the Lord had “more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals.” “New moons, Sabbaths and convocations”: the people never missed, they were always there (1:13). Readily and frequently they “spread out [their] hands in prayer” (1:14). The office bearers observing the attendance and participation of the people of God in their public worship services in Jerusalem could only be pleased with what they saw.
Come to think of it, those Old Testament burnt offerings were actually a profession of faith. The burnt offering symbolized that the child of God offered himself to the Lord as a living sacrifice. At the same time, the burnt offering pictured the gospel of Jesus Christ – for the worshiper would lay his hand on the head of the goat, confess over it his sins, then slit the throat of the animal so that the animal would die in place of the sinner. Here was the gospel of Jesus Christ, sinner’s Substitute before God. That the people brought their offerings so faithfully surely spoke well of their faith in Jesus Christ! The elders of Israel could only be satisfied with the faith of the people….
All is Not Well
Yet the Lord God was not pleased with His people. In fact, the Holy One of Israel expressed His revulsion. Isaiah 1:11-15: “The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.” “I cannot bear your evil assemblies.” “I will hide My eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.” Ouch!
Why was the Lord so thoroughly displeased? Try to distil the cause from the words the Holy Spirit made Isaiah speak:
- 2:6-8: “…your people, the house of Jacob, … are full of superstitions from the East; they practice divination like the Philistines and clasp hands with pagans. Their land is full of silver and gold; there is no end to their treasures. Their land is full of horses; there is no end to their chariots. Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.” Eastern religion, witchcraft, idolatry; consumerism manifested in horses, cars, boats – it was all there amongst the very same people who were so faithful in their temple attendance and proclamation of the gospel.
- 3:16: “The women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, tripping along with mincing steps, with ornaments jingling on their ankles.” Amazing: the same ladies who frequented the temple made a point of carrying themselves in a way that drew attention to their bodies.
- 3:18-24: Isaiah must mention “their finery: the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces, the earrings and bracelets and veils, the headdresses and ankle chains and sashes, the perfume bottles and charms, the signet rings and nose rings, the fine robes and the capes and cloaks, the purses and mirrors, and the linen garments and tiaras and shawls.” Here’s an emphasis on the “outward adornment” (1 Peter 3:4), on style and being trendy; notice how complete the list is. You’d wonder: did the folk of Jerusalem know their Bibles as well as they knew what was cool? More, did they nurture their ‘inner self’ as much as they doted on their outward selves?
- 5:8-25: the Holy Spirit faults the people for adding house to house and field to field (vs 8), “rising early in the morning to run after their drinks” (vs 11), who “have harps and lyres at their banquets, tambourines and flutes and wine” (vs 12), who “call evil good and good evil” and that’s to say they tolerate and approve of corruption (vs 20), who “are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks” (vs 22). Hmmm. Here is consumerism at its worst, the pursuit of the life of luxury, with the best of houses and the latest in stereo and CDs, and the best from the wine cellar too. It’s a picture of living lightly, with the emphasis very much on the here and now, and the buzz this life can offer.
It explains why the Lord was so thoroughly displeased….
The picture the Spirit draws of Israel is intriguing. This is God’s people by covenant, and the people know it. Very faithfully they assemble together Sabbath by Sabbath, and outwardly they do all the right things in the temple – even exceeding the requirements of the law. But at the same time their conduct is so very worldly, so very much focused on the pleasures of today – the body, the houses, the horses & chariots (we’d say the cars and boats), clothes and fashion and drinks and parties. This is nominalism – where one calls oneself a child of God, an Israelite, a Christian, does the things a child of God ought to do (especially in relation to the Sunday) and even professes the faith. But in daily life he follows the conduct of the world; other than his behavior in relation to the house of God, one would not pick him out as a Christian. He’s ‘Christian’ in name only; though he puts himself out as being a Christian, and a faithful one too, he has in reality embraced the conduct and attitudes and mindset of the world that disregards the Lord God. In brief, he has one foot in the church and the other in the world. That’s nominalism, and the Holy Spirit wants us today to know that God’s people in Isaiah’s day were beset with this vice.
And a vice it is. That’s why the Lord says He has “more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals,” and He has “no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (1:11); in fact, that’s why God’s soul hates their feasts and God refuses to listen to their many prayers (1:14f). Repeatedly the Lord uttered His ‘woe’ on those pious people who were so worldly (chap 5).
Where, one wonders, did Israel’s nominalism come from? Given the people’s faithful attendance at the worship services of the day, how could they couple their church attendance with such this-worldly attitudes and conduct as consumerism, emphasis on the body, partying, and the like? The Lord answers the question for us.
- 1:3,4: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.” The people, says the Lord, do not rightly know God. His identity as “the Holy One of Israel” does not resonate in their hearts, and that’s why they’ve spurned Him.
- 3:8b: “their words and deeds are against the LORD, defying His glorious presence.” Their conduct does not take into account who God actually is.
- 5:13, 24: “My people will go into exile for lack of understanding…. They have rejected the law of the LORD Almighty.”
In a word, the people of Israel, despite their faithful assembling together on the Sabbath, do not know their God, and so they do not take Him seriously in their daily living. It’s this lack of awareness of God’s identity that lets them come to the temple with countless prayers and at the same time have no guilty conscience about their worldly conduct. Their thoughts are not filled with who God is, and so they fill their thoughts instead with parties and becoming champions of drink and accumulating wealth and comfort. So, when they are told that the Lord will certainly come with His judgment, they see no need to take Isaiah’s warning seriously. “Let it approach,” they taunt, “let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come, so we may know it” (5:19). They’re sure: their God is quite content with them…
King Uzziah may function as illustration of what Israel actually thought about the Lord God. As a king, Uzziah was eminently successful, to the point that he accumulated an enormous army and “his fame spread far and wide” (2 Chron 26:15). Without a great deal of imagination one can picture in one’s mind the ladies Isaiah speaks of in chap 3 as tripping around Uzziah’s courtyard.
There came the day when Uzziah got together with the priests of the temple. He took it upon himself – though he was neither priest nor Levite – to enter “the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense” (vs 16). God’s law on the point was clear and the priests did not hesitate to tell him so; “it is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD. That is for the priests….” Rage exploded in the king at this admonition – and immediately “leprosy broke out on his forehead” (vs 20). God was not to be mocked.
It begs the question: why did this king think he could enter the temple of the Lord and offer incense, though he well knew this was a task reserved for the priests? Here, ultimately, is self-styled worship of the Lord God. Uzziah was no heathen, was instead dedicated to the service of the Lord. But his thoughts of God were so shriveled that he considered his own understanding of what constituted good service to God to be acceptable to God. It’s the same perception of God that existed among the people: God is not so particular about how He is served. So it’s quite OK to serve the Lord in the outward trappings of religiosity, and embrace patterns of the world at the same time.
One wonders: what might the Lord God Himself think about it all? Was He pleased with outward piety? God’s answer is the vision of Isaiah 6. RC Sproul has written a very helpful meditative commentary on this chapter in his book, The Holiness of God. I’d encourage the reader to obtain a copy and read it with care. For my part, I hope to come back to God’s response next time.
An Outward Piety:
Nominalism and the Work of the Elder – 2
The office bearers of Israel encountered in their wards an outward piety, a service to God that did not take God’s identity all that seriously.
One wonders how the office bearers of the time responded. Certainly, they could spell out to the people that nominalism was not pleasing to the Lord, and let’s assume they did so. But the very nature of nominalism is that one doesn’t get zealous for the Lord’s service; nominalism thrives on the notion that God is not so particular about how one serves Him. So admonitions from prophets and priests and elders can be acknowledged – and safely ignored.
That’s why in turn God’s response is so intriguing – and instructive. For into the midst of this nominalism the Lord God sent the prophet Isaiah (amongst others) with the mandate to draw for Israel a picture of who the Lord God was. In the course of the Old Testament the phrase “the Holy One of Israel” occurs a total of 32 times – and 26 of these are in the prophecies of Isaiah. It’s even how Isaiah begins his prophecy: “Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him” (1:4). God’s identity as God comes up repeatedly as the prophet lists Israel’s sins (1:24f; see also 2:11, 17, 19, 21; 3:13f; 5:16). In fact, this theme of God’s identity as the Holy One of Israel comes powerful into its own in that overwhelming presentation of God’s majesty in chapter 6. See there the Lord’s antidote to Israel’s nominalism.
Scarcely had the king who illustrated Israel’s nominalism been buried when Isaiah “saw the Lord”. The Lord: that’s the sovereign one, the Master of the entire world – King of kings, Lord of lords! Emphasis is placed on His majesty and royalty, for the God Isaiah saw was “seated on a throne”. This Lord is not out fighting in order to establish or exert or defend His lordship; He’s seated on a throne and therefore presented as king of kings, sovereign Ruler over the whole world, unchallenged and triumphant.
The Sovereign One he saw upon the throne, says Isaiah further, was “high and exalted” (see Ezekiel 1:26). Isaiah is not looking at this throne at eye level, but sees it far above him. And the longer you look up, of course, the smaller you feel, and the wobblier you become on your legs…. Such a throne is overwhelming…, because the God on that throne is so exalted. As Calvin put it: Isaiah saw “the inconceivable majesty of God”.
We’d love for the prophet to tell us more detail of what this glorious God looked like. But see: Isaiah gives us no further detail about God Himself! Why not? Why do we read no description of what the Lord-on-the-throne looks like? It is as God to Moses, “no one may see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). For God is simply too awesome for human eyes to behold and survive! Isaiah cannot focus his eyes on God and pick up His details, no more than we can focus our naked eye on the sun to discern its fire spots. So glorious is this God that Isaiah must avert His eyes from Him, and be content to focus on God’s surroundings instead.
Yet those surroundings are so revealing. The surroundings you choose, the company you keep, reveals something about you and indicates who you really are.
What strikes Isaiah first is “the train of His robe.” It “filled the temple,” extended to its every corner. So exalted is this God that even His clothes make an overwhelming impression – to say nothing of His person!
Above this exalted God were seraphs. These angelic beings are not mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, but the term itself means ‘burning ones’ (see Ezekiel 1:13). Fire is mentioned repeatedly in Scripture to indicate the presence of God (cf Gen 15:17; Ex 3:2; 14:24; 19:18). Those in the presence of such a God cannot help but reflect what He like; He’s a consuming fire.
At the same time, the identity of these seraphs is clear; they are angels, beings God created in the beginning to inhabit heaven with Him. These particular angels have six wings each. With two they cover their faces, and that’s to say (suggest the commentators) that they as creatures cannot look upon God and survive. If that’s indeed the case, they point up with this action how gloriously awesome the Lord God is! With another two wings they cover their feet, an action (suggest the commentators) that gives expression to their awareness that they are but creatures and therefore unworthy to stand in the presence of such a God. To survive in His presence they need to hide something of their creatureliness, lest they perish…. With the third set of wings they fly, and that’s to say they give instant obedience to carry out any command such a God may give.
While these angels-of-fire cover their faces and their feet and while they fly to obey, they at the same time keep on calling out to each other about the God in whose presence they live. “Holy, holy, holy”, they keep on saying, continuously, endlessly. The term ‘holy’ appears 3 times, and that’s the Hebrew way of expressing the superlative, most holy. There is something about the God in whose presence these angels-of-fire are that overwhelmed them, that demanded all their attention so that one thing alone was on their minds: what a God this is! So they kept calling out to each other about the majesty and greatness of this God – and all the while kept their faces and their feet covered.
Why do they keep saying that God is ‘holy’? Why do they not remind each other that He is mighty, wise, good, or just? The term ‘holy’ catches the notion of His being different, Wholly Other, unique; there is none like Him in all creation. “‘To whom will you compare Me? Or who is My equal?’, says the Holy One” to Isaiah some chapters later (40:25; cf Hos 11:9). That’s an echo of the song Moses and the Israelites sang after their deliverance from Egypt: “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you – majestic in holiness, awesome in glory…?” (Ex 15:11). Again, their song reflects the command God gave to Israel at Mt Sinai to “consecrate” themselves because God Himself would come to them on the mountain (Ex 19:10) – and the word ‘consecrate’ translates the same the same Hebrew verb: to be holy. That the angels, then, repeatedly use of the word ‘holy’ serves to point up the Godness of Him who sits on the throne. In His Godness He’s so overwhelming, so incomparable, so awe-inspiring that you cannot help but be taken by that Godness.
Yet at the same time the unending song of the angels carries such glorious gospel for Isaiah. For heaven’s angelic choir sings not simply of the unique Godness of the Lord on the throne; that choir sings at the same time of the relation this God-of-glory has established with people on earth. Notice that the angels refer to this thrice-holy God with His covenant name, LORD printed in upper case letters. This is the Almighty who from His throne on high imposed a bond of love upon undeserving creatures, promised to be their God, their Father in Jesus Christ. This God is not too lofty and exalted to bother with people (let alone sinful people!), but His very name speaks of His bond with this people. No wonder “the whole earth is full of His glory!” Who has ever heard of so exalted a Being gathering undeserving creatures under His wings to protect and to nurture them, to empty Himself to save them?! Yet that gospel was the glorious message of the sacrifices burning endlessly in the temple!
As they sang the doorposts and the thresholds of the temple shook. Where sinners entered the presence of God to hear of His greatness, where creatures passed to see the gospel of reconciliation with this God enacted in the sacrifices – there the points of entry rattled and trembled. And lest anyone still miss the awesome identity of the Inhabitant of this temple, the smoke filling the temple should drive the message home – for smoke speaks of fire, that recurring symbol of the presence of God as pointed up at the burning bush and on Mt Sinai.
Isaiah’s reaction was instant. Since the days of his youth, Isaiah had rubbed shoulders with Israelites – covenant people – who did the God-fearing-thing-on-the-outside (especially on the Sabbath) but didn’t have time and passion and vision to have their thoughts and their words and their conducted driven by the greatness of the God who adopted them for Himself. We don’t know whether Isaiah had a period in his life when this same ho-hum-ness about the LORD’s service characterized his approach to life. But when this sinner-from-Israel saw and heard the reality about God –countless angels so overwhelmed by the identity of God that their every thought and every word and every deed were determined by their conviction that the God in whose presence they lived was infinitely God; doorposts and thresholds of wood and stone so taken by the identity of their Inhabitant that they rattled and shook – when Isaiah the sinner-from-Israel saw and heard this he was himself overwhelmed by the magnificence of this God. This God who was so imposing in His presence, so crushingly there! “Woe to me!”, this hapless sinner cried. “I am ruined!” It’s curtains for me; this is the end – why? – “for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Sproul has put it well, “For the first time in his life, Isaiah really understood who God was. At the same instant, for the first time, Isaiah really understood who Isaiah was.”
Are having ‘unclean lips’ truly a problem? Is living among a people of unclean lips a problem? Sinners don’t experience it as a problem. To sing the Lord’s song one day and the Baal’s song another, to read Scripture in the morning and with the same lips cut the neighbor to shreds in the afternoon – it was acceptable behavior to the Israelite of Isaiah’s day, and nobody fell dead on account of letting praise and cursing flow from the same mouth (James 3:9ff). But when Isaiah saw who God was, when the inexpressible greatness of Israel’s God hit Isaiah between the eyes, he suddenly realized the impossibility of unclean lips. He knew: God’s glorious identity demanded the eternal death of every sinner in all creation! “Woe to me!”
This ought, we need to know, to be the end of the vision. Now should be fulfilled the prophecy of 2:10f: “Go into the rocks, hide in the ground from dread of the LORD and the splendor of His majesty! The eyes of the arrogant man will be humbled and the pride of men brought low; the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.” Isaiah ought now to perish, to be crushed under the weight of God’s infinite majesty.
How delightful, then, the words of vs 6f! One of those seraphs who endlessly sang around the throne of God –“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty” – who all the while covered his face and his feet and instantly did whatever command the Almighty gave, flew to Isaiah “with a live coal in his hand.” He’d retrieved the glowing coal from the altar of the temple, the altar upon which sacrifices for sin were burnt, and the gospel of redemption through the blood of Another was proclaimed. Upon command of his God, the angel touched Isaiah’s unclean mouth with that burning coal…. The lips are so sensitive, have so many nerve endings; one can scarcely imagine the pain that will have jerked Isaiah’s face away from the hot coal in the angel’s hand. While the burning pain demanded his focus, and the acrid smell of burnt flesh rose to his nose, Isaiah got to hear a word from the angel that riveted his attention: “your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Atonement for sin against such a God can never be cheap, as the burning on the lips made clear. But the servant of this God-of-glory left no room for doubt: your sins, Isaiah, are really gone!
What delightful testimony concerning the greatness, the uniqueness, the holiness of this God! Here is forgiveness without cost to the sinner! A representative of a people smitten by skin-deep service of a God of overwhelming glory receives forgiveness of sins freely, by grace, through a declaration from holy God: that’s the gospel in all its splendor! And that gospel, even more than the exalted elevation of the throne and the unending song of the angels and the continuous rattling of the doorposts points up how different, how unique, how holy, how awesome, how other this God actually is! Wonderful is His Name!
A Willing Office Bearer
Isaiah, of course, is not the only one who needs grace from this God. The song of the angels is interjected by “the voice of the Lord” on the throne: “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah’s response is immediate. Up goes his hand; “here am I,” he volunteers. “Send me!”
Intriguing. Why does Isaiah not ask a couple of questions first? The obvious question is: Lord, where to? Another is: Lord, to do what? But Isaiah doesn’t ask. He doesn’t consider whether has the necessary gifts for the task, doesn’t ask what’s to become of his family and his daily work, doesn’t ask whether the assignment will take long or be difficult, doesn’t negotiate pay or holidays. He’s simply eager to serve: “send me!”
Why? Why!? I’ll have to give the reader time to reflect on what the answer might be. I hope to be back next time….
An Outward Piety:
Nominalism and the Work of the Elder – 3
The voice of the Lord from on the throne asked the penetrating question: “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah’s response is immediate. Up goes his hand; “here am I,” he volunteered. “Send me!”
Intriguing. Why did Isaiah not ask a couple of questions first? The obvious question would be: Lord, where to? Another would be: Lord, to do what? Why didn’t Isaiah ask? Why didn’t he consider whether he had the necessary gifts for the task, or what’s to become of his family and his daily work, or whether the assignment would take long or be difficult? Why didn’t he negotiate pay or holidays, or other benefits? Why the eager: “send me”?
We’ve had a couple of weeks to think on the answer. And on the answer we might have given….
Dear reader, Isaiah has seen God! Though accustomed to a culture of nominalism, this sinner was shown who God is, and coming face to face with the identity of the God of the whole earth turned on his zeal for God to such an extent that things like pay and mandate and benefits and sacrifices disappeared totally from his perspective. Angels continuously call out God’s otherness, God’s holiness, they instantly obey any command this God gives (and all the while keep their faces covered before this God in humble acknowledgement of their creatureliness). Shall the creature Isaiah, the sinner Isaiah, do less? Shall the man of unclean lips volunteer in half-hearted manner, complete with demands and expectations; would such an impertinent creature not be instantly destroyed by the overwhelming holiness of this exalted God on the throne? Anyone taken by the identity of holy God cannot help but be eager to serve; Lord, here I am, what can I do?
This God of great holiness made His dwelling place on earth in the temple of Jerusalem. He Himself, then, dwelt among a people of unclean lips – those covenant people who called upon the name of the Lord but not with their hearts. Given God’s identity, this people must come to know well this God-who-dwells-among-them!
This, then, becomes Isaiah’s assignment. The “Holy One of Israel” instructs Isaiah to “go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving’” (vs 9). The prophet must relate the unending songs he’s heard the seraphs sing in the presence of God Most High, how “holy, holy, holy” this majestic God is. He must also paint for the people a picture of God’s grandeur, must make them see what he has seen – the Lord, so high and exalted upon His throne, and the evidence of majesty that surrounds Him. The mandate is clear: Isaiah in the past had already reminded this people-guilty-of-nominalism that their God was the Holy One of Israel (see 2:11, 17, 19, 21), but as they’d rejected his instruction in the past he must underline now in more detail, in more color, in more depth who the God of Israel actually is. But the task would be frustrating. As God’s people-by-covenant had in the past rejected the prophets’ warnings (cf 5:19), so they would continue to reject the identity of God. They’d hear Isaiah’s words about the angels’ songs but never understand, they’d see the picture Isaiah would portray but never perceive its punch, for their hearts were hard and would become more calloused still…. They’d keep on bringing sacrifices to the temple (1:11ff), but would never be taken by the holiness of the God to whom they sacrifice; despite the prophet’s labors they would not humble themselves on account of their sins, they’d keep on serving God in a manner pleasing to the self – and never join the angels in their endless song of admiration.
Truth be said, we’d find such an assignment too difficult, too frustrating, and a waste of time and energy; we’d be greatly tempted to request release from such a commission. But Isaiah utters no complaint, seeks no release. He’s seen God’s majesty, he’s understood a little bit of how much God He is, and so he’s understood too that there is no place to back away from service to Him. His only question is this: “For how long, O Lord?” And no, that’s not a reference to how long his assignment shall last (as if he’s looking for an out); his question is a reference to how long Israel’s callousness will last. God’s answer is this: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken” (vs 11f). Israel’s hardness of heart will last till they bring upon themselves the curse holy God had promised in His covenant with Israel – exile (see Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). Yet even then God would preserve a remnant, a seed – and this seed would be impressed by the holiness of God; this seed would be holy.
In response to the commission Isaiah received, he made a point of passing on his vision to the people of the land. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit he also wrote it down in his prophecies for the benefit of the people of Israel. These observations generate a number of questions, largely rhetorical.
- Back in the books of Moses, the Lord had specified who were to function as leaders in Israel. There were priests and Levites who were to teach the people the law and in so doing proclaim the gospel (cf Lev 10:10f; Dt 30:10). There were elders who were to ensure that the people lived according to their identity as children of God (Ex 18:21ff; Deuteronomy 21:2f; 18ff; 22:13ff; 25:7ff). The Lord even gave room for a king amongst His people (Deuteronomy 17:18ff). In the days of Isaiah there were men in Israel commissioned by the Lord God to these specific offices. In their culture of nominalism, how ought they to respond to Isaiah’s vision? Given what they learned from Isaiah about the Godness of the Lord God, how ought they concretely to fulfill their mandate as office bearers in Israel?
- The people of Israel heard the preaching of the prophet Isaiah concerning the identity of God and its implicit criticism on their lifestyle. How, concretely, ought their lives to have changed as a result of having God’s greatness impressed upon them?
- Isaiah labored in Israel for many years. As God foretold in the vision Isaiah saw, the prophet witnessed much hardness of heart among the people (6:9f). Was there space for Isaiah to get discouraged at the shallowness of the people’s service to God? Was the people’s long-term reaction justifiable incentive for Isaiah to lose his drive in the Lord’s service? For that matter, would it be permissible for Isaiah to harp less on God’s identity, and simply be satisfied with the people’s mediocre service to this God?
I shall not pause to answer these questions. Every reader who has gained some sense of the Lord’s Godness knows the answers.
The Holy Seed
Seven centuries after Isaiah saw the vision of God as recorded in chap 6, a Seed arose in Israel that was duly taken by the holiness of God. The context of Jesus’ labor was again one of nominalism, with much outward show of religiosity but little power and drive in the Lord’s service. Our Lord Jesus Christ could have been content with the status quo, or could perhaps have spurred the people to pull up their socks an inch or two, and left it at that. It would certainly have been the easier way for Him, and unquestionably the more ‘politically correct’.
As it is, this Office Bearer did not let the sloppiness of the people detract Him from God’s service. Day after day He obeyed the commands of His holy Sender, spoke the words God gave Him to speak, performed the signs God gave Him to perform. He knew His God, knew Him perfectly in all His holiness, knew –for He dwelt in glory with the Father from all eternity – that the angels ceaselessly sang their “Holy, holy, holy” in the presence of this God – and so on earth the Son of God took God’s holiness seriously too. There was with Him no sloppiness in the Lord’s service, nothing of mediocrity, no relaxing of God’s demands on the people, no emptying of God’s promises to make them more palatable for sinners. Even when the people rejected His message He did not turn to the right or to the left, and did not get discouraged either; He carried on, resolutely, to fulfill the mandate He’d received from that God of infinite majesty – that God in heaven who bound Himself to sinners on earth. Christ Jesus –perfect Office Bearer – laid down His life for the sheep entrusted to His care, went to the cross to ransom sinners.
As a result this God of infinite holiness in whose presence angels hide their faces took the Man Jesus from this earth into His glorious presence! This same Jesus now enthroned in heaven beside the God of Isaiah 6 once prayed: “Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am, and to see My glory, the glory You have given Me because You loved Me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24). In the certainty that the God of glory would hear Jesus’ petition, the apostle Peter encourages elders to stay on task in shepherding God’s flock: “When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will not fade away” (1 Peter 5:4).
The Office Bearer Today
Our culture today has very small thoughts of God, to the point that many Canadians would maintain that God simply doesn’t exist. To be more specific: there are many Christians on our continent whose thoughts of God are much, much smaller than that portrayed in Isaiah 6. Luther once said to Erasmus: your thoughts of God are too small. Jacob Arminius, faithful disciple of Erasmus as he was, equally had thoughts of God that were too small – and the Lord God in His providence granted the churches a confession that set straight Arminius’ diminutive understanding of God. Today’s North American evangelicalism largely embraces the same perception of God as Arminius portrayed; God is the perfect gentleman who would never force himself upon you, He’s your buddy, is a grandfather in the sky who wishes you well but lets you find your own way…. It is no wonder that North American Christianity strikes the rest of the world as powerless.
In this culture the holy God of heaven calls particular men to be office bearers over the people of God. We, modern people, are permitted to listen in on Isaiah’s instruction to the people of Israel. More, we’re allowed to see with John what He saw 800 years after Isaiah’s vision, how the same song Isaiah heard continues to resound in the presence of holy God. John saw living creatures in heaven, each with six wings, and “day and night they never stop saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty’” (Rev 4:8f) – the same song still resounds in heaven after the triumph of Jesus Christ! There’s this difference: John sees “24 elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and worship Him who lives forever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say, ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…’” (4:10f). Say what one will about the identity of the 24 elders, it’s clear that they are office bearers! They’re so taken by the greatness of God that they respond in eager worship. Brothers, if the office bearers of heaven respond that way, how ought the office bearers on earth to respond?
The point is this: we shall not overcome nominalism in the churches today unless the congregations see their office bearers possessed by the glorious identity of their God. If they see us content with fulfilling our office to outward satisfaction, they will not catch from us who God really is – no matter how we describe God – and they will not learn from us to volunteer for eager service to the Lord. If they see us being content (as the elders of Israel were) with outward obedience to God but little passion for His service, if they see us as satisfied that the congregation comes to church, attends Bible study, and meets the church budget, but is not on fire for the Lord, we can expect no spiritual growth in the churches. The Holy Spirit has put Isaiah 1-6 in our Bibles so that we understand God’s response to the nominalism of Isaiah’s day: preach the glorious identity of a Most Holy God! Office bearers’ walk and talk, in daily life, in home visits and in the preaching, must be a living demonstration to the congregation of what drives the angels around the throne of God in heaven.
I’d like to leave you with a couple of questions to think about. Consider the following:
- Why could men as Augustine and Calvin speak in such glowing and reverent terms of God? Why is there nothing in their writings of God being their ‘friend’ or buddy? Why did they give up comforts and reputation in the service of this God?
- Why could Luther get so excited about the doctrine of justification, and be willing to die for it – and DeBres too?
- Why could the fathers write prayers as they did in the Book of Praise (see pages 641ff)? Why is there nothing in those prayers that sounds like, ‘We just wanna thank you, Lord ….’, but instead a sense of personal wretchedness and complete devotion to the Lord: “O eternal and merciful God and Father, we humble ourselves before Your great majesty….”
I put to you that each of these brothers tasted something of God’s holiness, His Godness, His incomparable Otherness. That’s the treasure of the church.