(Delivered Sunday, August 17, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
During the time my family and I were away recently, I felt repeatedly drawn to a passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. I found a great deal of encouragement from it; and I'd like to share it with you this morning.
The larger context of this passage is the very bad news that God had given to the people of Judah through the prophet Isaiah. He had let them know that, because of their sinfulness and arrogant refusal to repent, they would be handed over to the king of the Babylonians; and that they would be taken captive into exile to the land of Babylon for a time. But God also let them know that His love for them, and commitment to them, would not end; and that a remnant of them would eventually be brought out of captivity and restored to their land. Obviously, for those who lived in rebellion against God, these were words of judgment and doom. But for those who truly sought Him, these words of judgment and doom contained the promise of future deliverance and ultimate blessing.
The passage I wish to share with you is Isaiah 51:7-8. But let me begin by reading the whole passage of verses 1-8. Three times in this passage, God calls His righteous people to pay attention and says, "Listen to Me ..." In the midst of the dark promise of judgment, God calls His people to listen to a word of encouragement He has for them. Our focus of attention will be on the third call to "Listen to Me ..." God says;
"Listen to Me, you who follow after righteousness, you who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you where hewn, and to the hole of the pit from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you; for I called him alone, and blessed him and increased him.
And then comes the third call to "listen", which will be the main focus of our attention this morning. God says;
"Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, you people in whose heart is My law: Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation from generation to generation" (vv. 7-8).
* * * * * * * * * *
I had been reading from the prophet Isaiah in my personal time in the Scriptures during my vacation. And when I came across this passage - particularly verses 7-8 - these words seemed to jump out to me. I found myself drawn to them for comfort again and again. I believe there are a couple of good reasons why this was so.
For one thing, when I left for vacation, the big item in the news was that the American Anglican Church officially confirmed the appointment of the first openly homosexual Bishop in the history of the Episcopal communion. Those of us who love God and reverence His word were astounded that such an unthinkable thing could have been done! Many in the Anglican church have recognized that Canon Gene Robinson of New Hampshire is not the first Bishop in the Episcopal church to be a homosexual. Rather, they affirm that he is the first Bishop to be appointed who was known to be openly so.
I have a love for the Anglican Church. It is a part of my heritage as an evangelical. Our own church has its roots in the Episcopal church - it's founding name being German Episcopal Methodist Church. But I left for my vacation greatly disturbed by how far the Episcopal church has drifted from God's word. This Bishop's appointment is a sin against God with a dreadfully high hand. I caught myself saying, "What's this world coming to -?" And I'm sure it was one reason why this passage caught my eye; because it promises that, no matter how bad things may get in this world, God's righteousness is still "forever", and His salvation is still "from generation to generation".
* * * * * * * * * *
But another reason why I think I was drawn to this passage was because I had just been reminded of the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of someone very important to the history of our own church - someone, in fact, that God had risen up from within the church of England during another very dark time.
The Christian faith seemed like a dead religion in England in this particular man's day. The fervency and zeal for the gospel that had characterized the previous generation had become almost all but completely forgotten. One commentator - a man who eventually became the Bishop of Durham - described the religious condition of the times in terms that sound very much like our own: "It has come, I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons that Christianity is not so much as a subject of enquiry; but that it is, now at length, discovered to be fictitious; and accordingly they treat it as if in the present age this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained but to set it up as a principle subject of mirth and ridicule."1
But it was for such a time that, in the providence of God, on June 17, 1703, John Wesley was born. He was the son of the rector of a perish church - but a rector who had lost the fervency of evangelical faith of his Puritan father. John himself was ordained in the ministry of the Church of England, and served as a preacher and tutoring Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford. He was diligent in his pursuit of personal holiness and religious discipline; but it was all external religiosity to him. He was as dead to true faith in Christ as was his own times.
He even crossed the sea to serve as a missionary to the Indians in the then-frontier land of Savannah, Georgia. He said that he went to Savannah, hoping to learn the true sense of the gospel by preaching it to others. But his missionary effort was a terrible disaster; and he came home to England discouraged and disillusioned - exclaiming that he went to Georgia to save the Indians, but wondering who now would save him.
Then came May 24, 1738, and the most important event in his life. He wandered despondently into a small gathering of Christians at Aldersgate Street in London; and there, he heard the gospel through someone reading - of all things - the preface to Martin Luther's commentary on Romans. He felt his heart "strangely warmed" that night; and for the first time, he trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. From then on, John Wesley was a transformed man - and a mighty instrument in the hand of God.
God raised John Wesley to become what someone called one of the few people in history who were "world controllers" - that is, a man who radically impacted not only the faith and character of his own time, but also the faith and character of coming generations. God used John's preaching of the gospel - along with his brother Charles and their friend George Whitefield - to transform the spiritual character of the English world.
What lasting impact did they have? Many historians believe that it was the preaching of these early Methodists leaders that protected England from suffering the evils that characterized the bloody French Revolution; and that united the British Colonies in such a way as to lead them eventually to become the United States of America. Many believe it was Wesley's fervent preaching of the gospel in the 18th century that paved the way for the world-wide missionary movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. And today - three hundred years after his birth - faithful, Gospel-preaching, Bible-believing churches around the world can trace their roots directly to the Methodist heritage of a man from the Church of England named John Wesley. Our own church is one of them.
There is no other way to explain the story of John Wesley than as an act of God's grace to bring spiritual revival to a dismal and spiritually dark time. What an encouragement his story ought to be to us today! His story reminds us that no day and age is so spiritually dark, and no condition so hopeless, that light of God's gospel message can be completely extinguished by it - or prevented from suddenly bursting forth and transforming it. Wesley's life reminds us that it's at the darkest times that God can suddenly step into the scene, cause His light to shine the brightest in the most unexpected of places - and through the most unlikely means - and literally change the world for generations to come. Wesley's birth, those three-hundredth years ago, encourages us that the same God is still on the throne in our day; and that even our own times are not as hopeless as they may seem to be - not so dark or so far beyond hope that God cannot raise up another "Wesley" for our times, and change the spiritual condition of multiple generations to come.
* * * * * * * * * *
And so, I'm quite sure that Wesley's story - against the backdrop of the seemingly discouraging news of the day - was the reason I was so drawn to this morning's passage. I needed it's message of encouragement and hope; and I believe all of us do as well. Many things may prevail in this world today that could easily lead us to feel that the kingdom of darkness is prevailing against the kingdom of God's Son; and that the message of the gospel has been compromised into almost complete obscurity and irrelevance. But in this passage, God Himself says to us: "Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, you people in whose heart is My law: Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation from generation to generation."
Notice with me then, first of all ...
1. TO WHOM GOD OFFERS THIS MESSAGE OF ENCOURAGEMENT (v. 7a).
God speaks encouragement in this passage to those who would most need to hear it in dark times - to those, He says, "who know righteousness" and to the "people in whose heart is My law."
First, the people God speaks these words to are those "who know righteousness". This isn't merely speaking of those who "know" what righteousness means in their minds, and who have a mere intellectual apprehension of the requirements of God's law. That is certainly included in the idea; but He is speaking of much more than just that alone. He is referring here to those who "know" His righteousness in a personal, intimate way; and who are growing in that knowledge by learning more and more about it through personal experience. This is speaking of those who "know" righteousness because they knew they were once "unrighteous"; and who have themselves been made righteous, and are making steady progress in spiritual maturity - who, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, are "those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Heb. 5:14).
In other words, this is speaking of those who are made righteous through faith in God's grace; because there is no other way to know "righteousness" except by God, in grace, making us righteous in His sight. Even in the Old Testament, the Bible declares, "But the just shall live by his faith" (Hab. 2:4). And the New Testament clearly says, "But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe ..." (Rom. 3:21-22).
And second, the people God speaks these words to are described as those "in whose heart is My law". Again, this isn't speaking of those who merely keep God's law in an outward, external way. He certainly means that; but He means much more than that. He speaks here of those whose very hearts have been transformed by God's grace from that of law-breakers to that of law-keepers. They aren't people who were placing their trust in the mere fact that they had God's law in written form - as so many of the Jewish people of Isaiah's day were doing. They were more than mere "possessors" of God's law; but rather were people who were "possessed" BY God's law.
These phrases - "you who know righteousness", and "you people in whose heart is My law" - describe people who were saved by the blood of Christ. People in the Old Testament times were saved through the same means as people in the New Testament times - they are saved by looking in faith (through the sacrifices and ceremonial laws given through Moses) to the ultimate sacrifice given for sins through the death of Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament era, believing people looked ahead (although with imperfect knowledge) to a sacrifice that was yet to be made; and in the New Testament era, believing people today look back (with a more complete knowledge) to a sacrifice that was made once for all time. But in all ages, those who truly "know" righteousness, and the people "in whose heart" is God's law, are people who are saved by God's grace, and made righteous through faith in the Savior of all - Jesus Christ.
This means that what God says to those saints of old in this passage is something that He is also saying to us today. In a dark time - in a time when it seems as if the forces of evil are prevailing - God says to His people, "Listen to Me ...!"
* * * * * * * * * *
Now, let me suggest a couple of lessons from this. First of all, we should be encouraged that, in a very dark time such as ours, God knows with absolute certainty who His people are. He knows who truly "knows" righteousness; and He knows who truly has His law "in their hearts".
I have always found encouragement in the story of the prophet Elijah. Elijah lived in very dark days too. The bulk of his people were given over to the worship of the false god Baal; and poor Elijah was worn out by it all. At one point, he was so discouraged and exhausted that he ran as far away from it all as he could get. In utter brokenness and despair, he cried out to God and said, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your alters, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life" (1 Kings 19:14).
Have you ever felt like that? - as if you were the only one who cared; as if you were the only one who was upset by all the unrighteousness around you; as if you were all alone in your concern for the righteousness of God? God had mercy on His broken-hearted and worn-out servant Elijah. He responded to him by sending him a helper; and also by giving him further instructions. And then God gave him this encouraging bit of information, "Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him" (v. 18).
Elijah wasn't alone after all. He didn't know that at first; but God knew it all along. God knows exactly how many faithful people He had reserved unto Himself. He knows the heart condition of every one of His precious saints - even though they live in the midst of a very dark world. He knows the condition of your heart and mine too.
And another encouraging lesson is that God speaks to those He knows. Three times, in the greater context of this passage, God says to His people "Listen to Me ..." The first time (v. 1) and the third (v. 7), He uses a Hebrew word that means "Harken unto Me!" The second time (v. 4), He uses a different word - one that has the meaning of "Attend to Me" or "Incline unto Me". But in all three cases, God is calling out for the attention of those that He knows belong to Him; because in a dark time of discouragement and seeming despair, He has something very important to say to them.
And that leads to an important question for us, doesn't it? We who live in a dark time - a time in which it seems as if the cause of the gospel is losing ground in our culture; and in which it seems as if the kingdom of darkness is winning the day - is our attention on the darkness of the times, or is it on the thing that God is trying to tell us in those dark times? God is speaking to us in His word. He has already spoken about the days in which we're living. But are we, His people, listening to Him? Does He have our undivided attention?
May God help us to give attention to what He has to say to us at such times; and to obey His command, "Listen to Me ...!"
* * * * * * * * * *
This leads us, naturally, to ...
2. WHAT THE MESSAGE OF ENCOURAGEMENT IS THAT GOD OFFERS (v. 7b).
In a dark time in which it seems as if God's message is ignored, and as if His call for righteousness and His law has been relegated into the cultural trash-heap, God says, "Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults."
One aspect of the morally dark age in which we live is that it is an age characterized by "tolerance". "Tolerance", in it's original sense, is of course a good thing. But the fact is that the word "tolerance" has undergone a dramatic change in meaning in our culture. Just a few short decades ago - even though you believed that certain practices were sin, and that people who practiced those things were doing wrong; and even if you believed that you should disassociate yourself from such immoral people and their immoral practices - "tolerance" meant that you allowed others as much freedom as you possibly and legitimately could to do what they wanted to do, and that you even respected their freedom to be "wrong" if they so chose. It certainly didn't mean that you agreed with what they did, or celebrated them doing it. It simply meant that you lived with the fact that they did it, and respected their right to do so.
But today, "tolerance" has come to mean that you must not even consider anything that anyone does to be "wrong". "Tolerance" has come to mean that you must "celebrate" people's freedom to do what they want; and that you must recognize whatever other people want to do as being no more "right" or "wrong" than what you may want to do. "Tolerance" today means that the only "sin" you can commit is to call what someone else does "sinful".
As a Christian, I've tried to understand what dynamic is behind the modern idea of "tolerance"; and I've come to the conclusion that it's basically nothing more than what the Bible calls "the fear of man". The Bible speaks much about the fear of man; and it warns that, for the believer, it is a spiritually crippling thing to become subject to. Proverbs 25:26, for example, says "A righteous man who falters before the wicked is like a murky spring and a polluted well." It says in Proverbs 29:25, "The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD shall be safe."
When it comes time for the man or woman of God to faithfully speak forth God's word to an ungodly age, it's particularly important for him or her to be free from the fear of man. Few people have been called to speak to a more ungodly and rebellious generation than the prophet Jeremiah. You can only imagine the sneers and threats that young, timid Jeremiah received when He warned the Jewish people of his day of God's impending judgment for sin. But when God first called him into the prophetic ministry, God told him, "ODo not be afraid of their faces, for I am with you to to deliver you ..." (Jer. 1:8). Similarly, at the beginning of his prophetic ministry, God told the prophet Ezekiel, "And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you dwell among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words or dismayed by their looks, though they are a rebellious house" (Ezk. 2:6).
The Lord Jesus - who feared no man - taught His disciples that they had no reason to fear man either. Even if they were under the threat of death by the hand of man, they still had no reason to fear man. None who are precious to God need ever to fear man under any circumstances. Jesus told them, "And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you who to fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!" (Luke 12:4-5). And then, to show how truly precious to His Father they truly were, He added, "Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins? And not one of them is forgotten before God. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore: you are of more value than many sparrows" (vv. 6-7).
As King David wrote in Psalm 27; "The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked came against me to eat up my flesh, my enemies and foes, they stumbled and fell. Though an army may encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war may rise against me, in this I will be confident (Psalm 27:1-3). And as Psalm 118:6 says, "The LORD is on my side; I will will not fear. What can man do to me?" And as perhaps the bravest missionary in all history - the apostle Paul - once said, "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31). What man is mightier than God? Why then should we ever fear man?
In our passage, God urges His people who live in a dark time - those who know His righteousness, and in whose hearts is His law - "Do not fear the reproach of men". Men will reproach the preaching of the gospel. The gospel is foolishness to them. The wisdom of God is insulting to people who are wise in their own eyes. The rigid commands of the Bible are Oout-of-step' in an age of tolerance. People will say that such things should not to be preached in a secular society. They'll say that it hurts people's self-esteem to say that sin must be repented of. They'll say that it is intolerant and insensitive of the beliefs of others to preach that Jesus is the only way to salvation.. They'll be angry and say, "Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name?" (Acts 5:28). But we are not to fear the reproach of men. We're to proclaim the truth. We must obey God rather than men.
Neither are we to fear their ridicule. God says, "... Nor be afraid of their insults". And men will certainly insult you if you tell them what God has said. They'll call you a "fundamentalist extremist wacko". They'll call you a "Jesus-freak". They'll put you in the same category as a religious terrorist. They'll accuse you of being ignorant, fear-driven, intolerant and narrow-minded (as if they were none of these things themselves!). But as Jesus has said, "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12). We are not to be afraid of the insults of unsaved people - but are to love them enough to tell them the truth from God, no matter what the cost.
* * * * * * * * * *
Now all of this has been to give encouragement to those who live in a spiritually dark time - a time in which it seems as if the powers of darkness are in the lead, and as if the cause of God's righteousness has been compromised to the point of obscurity and irrelevance. God speaks this word of encouragement to those who know His righteousness and have His law in their hearts. He encourages them not to fear the reproaches and insults of those who oppose His gospel or His cause of righteousness.
And now comes the most encouraging aspect of this passage. It's the thing that kept drawing me to it over and over the past week or so. Notice, finally ...
3. WHAT PROMISE GOD ATTACHES TO THIS WORD OF ENCOURAGEMENT (v. 8).
Before the encouraging part of this promise comes a sober warning. It, really, is a vital part of the promise itself. Of those who reproach His word or insult those who proclaim it, God says, "For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool". And God means for this to communicate the temporal nature of those who oppose Him. They are like garments that may be beautiful and impressive for the moment; but soon they will be completely eaten away and gone. And no wonder; because in the verses prior to this one, God says that "the heavens will vanish away like smoke, the earth will grow old like a garment, and those who dwell on it will die in like manner" (v. 6).
But God then goes on to promise this: "But My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation from generation to generation." God is assuring us in this that - no matter how dark the world may seem, no matter how prevalent sin may be, no matter how much the powers of darkness celebrate and seem to have the upper-hand - the gospel of His grace will still prevail! He will still bring about His righteousness on this earth - and it will last forever. And He will still see to it that the message of His saving grace through Jesus Christ is proclaimed to each generation! He can raise up another "Wesley" at any time!
Think of this: Jesus has promised - not merely suggested, but promised! - that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations" before He returns (Matthew 24:14). He has promised - not merely suggested, but promised! - that "the gates of Hades shall not prevail" against His church nor against the profession on which it is built (Matthew 16:18). He has promised - not merely suggested, but promised! - that "till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one title will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (Matthew 5:18). He has promised - not merely suggested, but promised! - that "heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away" (Matthew 24:35).
And think also of this: This same Jesus has given us a commission. He has said, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20). And the promise from God in our passage this morning assures us that we can do as Jesus commands in the absolute confidence that His gospel will never fail. Even in a dark generation; God is able to see to it that His gospel message prevails! And He will!
* * * * * * * * * *
Now this doesn't mean, of course, that we can kick back and watch it all happen passively. God certainly could have seen to it that His righteousness and His salvation be established in our generation without our involvement. He is mighty enough to open up the heavens and preach the gospel to this world Himself so that every living being hears it; and He is sovereign enough to cause everyone who hears it to believe it and be saved by it - if He had so chosen. But in the mystery of His purpose, He has called us to the work. He has appointed that we - who know His righteousness through Christ, and have His law in our hearts through His Holy Spirit indwelling us - take a stand in a dark age, and that we boldly proclaim His truth to our generation. He has appointed that we do so in the face ungodly opposition - suffering reproach and insults for the cause of Christ. We are not to presume upon His promise, and make it a cause for our own disobedience and inactivity. We are to get on with the work He has commissioned us to do.
But here is the thing that we must remember above all else: We have in this passage God's own promise that ours is a work that cannot fail! We can do as He has called us to do - fully assured that the success of God's program of salvation through the gospel is guaranteed to succeed! His righteousness will "be" forever; and His salvation will "be" from generation to generation. We have His promise that it will be so!
Dear brothers and sisters; in this dark time, God says to us, "Listen to Me ...!"; and then He gives us this great promise. May He give us the grace to hear it, believe it, rejoice in it, and work in the full confidence of it.
1Joseph Butler's preface to his Analogy of the Christian Religion; cited in John Pollock, George Whitefield and The Great Awakening (London: Hooder and Stoughton, 1972), p. 29.
Missed a message? Check the Archives!
Copyright © 2003 Bethany Bible Church, All Rights ReservedPrintable Version
Bethany Bible Church, 18245 NW Germantown Road, Portland, OR 97231 / 503.645.1436