Dallas. Minnesota. Orlando. It’s getting to the point now if pastors are committed to at least addressing the urgent and timely issues based on the previous week’s headlines, we have to say something in every sermon! At least one thing is obvious nowadays. There is a yearning for a return to Eden, and a longing for heaven on earth. Why is this the case? I think because we hunger for the holy.
Holiness seems so otherworldly. The more the world seems uncertain and tumultuous, the easier it is to forget that God reigns over all the earth. If the inmates seem to be running the asylum, and you realize no one (even you) is really qualified to clean up the mess that the arrogant and corrupt make, then what hope is there? What is God’s plan to make the world holy again? How will God work out the nuts and bolts of his plan to save an unholy world that both longs for holiness and is repelled by it?
Isaiah 6 answers these questions, yet at first glance it may appear the answers are coming out of left field. But a careful look reveals God knows what he is doing in an unholy world. What does Isaiah teach us? Even morally upstanding people are undone in the presence of God’s holiness, but thankfully he purifies people and sends them on mission. Although his assignments don’t always feel pleasant or fruitful in the moment, God’s purposes are always good in the end. Are you eager to be sent?
The background of Isaiah 6:1-13 is important to properly understand this passage. So let’s review a bit. Judah’s King Uzziah reigned during a period of national prosperity. On the throne for 52 years, he died in 740 BC. A godly and beloved king, the Bible records this noteworthy sin: he flouted God’s holiness when “his heart was lifted up” and thereafter usurped the role of priest by burning incense in the temple (2 Chr 26:16-21). Thus God made him a leper to reflect his unclean heart. He lived out his days a man unclean and estranged from community and corporate worship. As Richard Nixon is forever associated with “Watergate,” Uzziah’s name must have been “unclean.” Good king Uzziah’s life story thus appears to be an unresolved problem, and his life reflects and symbolizes the unresolved plight of his people. They also are dead, unclean, and estranged from their God. Remember also that a change of kings is normally cause for various commotions in a nation. Fear of the future, national uncertainty, and political power grabs are all common. In biblical history Uzziah’s death signaled a turning point in the political landscape of the ancient Near East. The violent nation of Assyria would begin to rise as a world power, beginning the Age of Empires when many wicked nations would rule and oppress God’s people. In this crisis of national unholiness and international upheaval (sound familiar?) God appears to Isaiah in a vision.
The Trauma of the Holy
A vision of God’s holiness (vv. 1-4)
This is an amazing scene! Isaiah, perhaps while practicing the routines of regular worship, is caught up in a vision that transports him to God’s heavenly temple where he experiences the overwhelming holiness that surrounds Almighty God. He sees the Lord enthroned on high. God appears so gigantic that the train or hem of his royal robe fills the whole temple. Imagine how big that robe must be! But that is not all Isaiah sees. Circling above God in the air are six-winged seraphs—fiery angelic beings—that chant to each other “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of armies; the whole earth is full of his glory.” God is not just holy, which is impressive enough. And he is not holy-holy, which is the way to put the adjective in the superlative in the Hebrew language. No, God is thrice holy. No other place in the OT is any description, even of God’s character, raised to the power of three. This level of holiness is off the charts. God’s holiness spills over into the crazy world below and fills up the whole earth with his glory. This is 150-proof holiness. It’s too potent to look at or touch. The seraphs use two pairs of wings to cover their eyes and feet to shield themselves from God’s holiness. Even as supernatural sinless creatures they cannot look or touch. God’s holy voice and presence traumatize his surroundings too. The foundations of the temple doorposts quake as the room fills with smoke that both veils and announces God’s holy presence.
Undone by God’s holiness (v. 5)
Who could stand when faced with such a God? Surely the immoral and wicked would quickly fall. Most people grant this. But Isaiah is a saint compared to his neighbors. Pay careful attention to what this saint says when faced with the thrice-holy God of the universe. Isaiah calls down a curse upon himself, “Woe is me.” Perhaps for the first time in his life, he gets a realistic and accurate assessment of his own moral purity. Compared to others, he feels holy. But compared to God, he feels and knows he is unclean. Like proud Uzziah, he has leprosy of the heart! He is undone (lost, doomed, destroyed, ruined) because as an unholy person he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. He sees the eternal King and is caught having morally filthy lips. Not only that, but his people are just as bad. Both personally and corporately he stands condemned. He can tell from the looks of it he is finished.
Holiness is a topic that both intrigues and repels at the same time. The intriguing aspect of holiness tends to draw people in. The repellent aspect of holiness usually scares people away. Most people have experienced a glimmer of holiness. Perhaps visiting a graveyard, or a war memorial, or a monument to tragedy like 9/11. But God’s holiness transcends these. R.C. Sproul writes at the beginning of his classic book The Holiness of God about being strangely compelled, almost against his will, to take a late night walk in the snow to the campus chapel where he experienced a traumatic and peaceful experience of holiness. I remember attending a conference as a young man where we sang the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy one night. When it came time to sing the line, “Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,” I was deeply stirred with both an internal calling to pastoral ministry and a resolute rejection that I was totally inadequate to the task. Holiness attracts and repels.
Isaiah’s vision of God’s greatness and holiness encourages us to a lofty view of God. How does our conception of God and his holiness measure up to Isaiah’s? Is God for you more a personal assistant, or a divine therapist, or a Sunday morning hobby? How big, how holy is your God? Furthermore, Isaiah’s confession encourages you to confess your sins and your righteousness before God. Likely you recognize your need to apologize to God for the wrong things you say and do. A few of you may understand your need to repent of the right things you don’t do or say. I suspect even fewer Christians confess their sinful thoughts. But Isaiah pushes you further to confess your righteousness as unclean! The Bible doesn’t mean you apologize for your righteousness and then don’t bother since “what the point?” To confess your righteousness is to admit, even at your best, your thoughts, words, and actions are in some measure corrupt. The Bible says your righteousness is like filthy rags in God’s judgment. In other words, even your righteousness is unholy before the absolutely holy God. So until you begin to understand your moral goodness, as compared to God, is fundamentally unclean, you won’t be undone before him. Which means you’re in no position to see and feel your deep need for cleansing and forgiveness.
The Cleansing of the Unholy
Temple sacrifice for sin (v. 6)
Notice that God doesn’t just wave his hand or baldly declare Isaiah fit to stand before him. Isaiah’s unholiness as a sinner with unclean lips requires the work of temple sacrifice. One of the seraphs plucked a burning coal from the altar. Where did that coal come from? There was a bronze altar outside the temple doors, but remember that once a year on the Day of Atonement burning coals were taken into the Most Holy Place (the inner sanctuary where God’s throne resided) in order to ignite the incense, perhaps the same incense Uzziah illegally lit. It’s possible that in a beautiful act of poetic redemption, God completes the unresolved plight of Uzziah by touching the lips of another who finds himself unclean and undone in the temple, cleansing him with a fiery touch from the altar. Either way, the live altar coal encapsulates all the themes of atonement, propitiation, satisfaction, forgiveness, cleansing, and reconciliation. Isaiah receives all these spiritual benefits of grace through the effectual work of God.
Personal atonement of sin (v. 7)
Notice also God’s effectual work is personal for Isaiah. It has to be because Isaiah’s unclean, unholy condition is primarily a personal problem. No general atonement of impersonal pardon for sinners will do. His own unclean lips must be touched for atonement of his own sin. With lips cleansed, Isaiah finds assurance of personal forgiveness. The holy-holy-holy Lord takes away Isaiah’s guilt, and atones for his sin, sufficiently and instantly. He is now redeemed and qualified to proclaim the only hope for the world, the overruling grace of God. This same grace is available to all who confess their own uncleanness before God (Isa 1:18). The perfect atonement that purifies Isaiah for serving the King is a symbol of the perfect sacrifice of God himself in his son Jesus Christ (Jn 1:29). God comes to the unholy and unclean, he touches their lips with the purifying sacrifice of Christ’s blood shed on the cross, and covers over all their sins. Only by God’s sacrifice are guilt and shame removed, and sin atoned for. We are absolutely undone without it.
Before you may be commissioned for useful work in the Lord’s service, you also must be purified of your guilt and sin. No one is qualified to speak of the Lord’s atonement for sin and grace to empower until he has personally experienced this same purification from the Lord himself. This means confession, repentance, and submitting to God’s purification plan are prerequisites to service and worship. Letting God purify you may be painful, especially if you are struggling to keep control of your own life, but you must be personally purified to be a Christian. Anyone who considers himself a Christian who has no need of sorrow for sin, confession, and repentance is playing the fool. The Puritans use to call this “having commerce with God.” I call it “doing business with God.” If you’ve never sincerely declared yourself totally undone before God’s holiness, begged him to touch you personally with Christ’s cleansing blood, and trusted him to begin making you holy, then you need to do business with God ASAP. Find a private moment today to quiet your heart and take care of business with God. Then tell another Christian what God has done for you, because once you’ve been cleansed and declared holy, you’re ready for God’s mission.
The Mission of the Holy
Faithfully declare God’s Word (v. 8)
Next God commissions Isaiah as his prophet, his ambassador, his spokesman. God now enables and sends the one who had unclean lips like the leprous Uzziah (cf. Lev 13:45) to declare God’s message. God’s grace leads Isaiah from despair (“Woe is me!”) to confidence (“Here I am!”). What a contrast! The grace that triumphs over judgment is good news that empowers a man, formerly condemned but now forgiven, for eager service. He has entered God’s missionary society because God is a missional God. You may be thinking, “What an exciting and fulfilling calling?” Yes, but.
Even though most people will reject it (vv. 9-10)
Isaiah’s prophetic and evangelistic ministry would not exactly be considered successful in the way we normally measure success. God’s description of Isaiah’s assignment, including the intended and predicted result, is downright depressing at first glance. Here is the essence of Isaiah’s message: “Keep on hearing, but don’t understand; keep on hearing, but don’t perceive.” There is almost a biting sarcasm to it. God’s intent is to present the gospel to his stubborn people to increase their guilt and sin when they reject him. The same message that softens hearts will always harden those who don’t listen. Why is that? Because the Word of God never returns void. It always accomplishes its purpose—to soften or harden depending on whether a person has ears to hear, eyes to see, and a spirit to understand (Isa 55:10-11). Verses 9-10 are quoted and alluded to many times in the NT to explain that the gospel always has this effect (Mt 13:14-15; Jn 12:39-40; Acts 28:25-27; Rom 11:8; cf. WCF 5.6). The Lord Jesus said broad and well-trod is the path that leads to destruction, and narrow and less-taken is the way that leads to life (Mt 7:13-14).
One evening this summer after the Boardwalk Chapel program I spoke with a young lady who called herself an atheist and a Buddhist. The lively conversation began with her confidently asserting her beliefs as we asked her various questions and then just listened as she answered. After a while I observed she was dancing around her sense of personal sin, so I cut to the chase and asked her, “What do you do with your guilt?” This particular question is powerful because everyone knows deep down they are even guilty of betraying their own moral standards, not to mention God’s moral law. She turned pensive, sighed, and admitted the only thing she knows to do is suppress it. “Does that work for you?” I asked. “No,” she confessed. So I asked permission to share what the Bible says about our guilt and how God promises to take it away. And so my evangelism partner whipped out a tract and launched into a gospel presentation—which includes God’s promises to remedy what the Bible describes as your “cobra heart, excrement past, and poisonous life.” The young lady was somber for the rest of the conversation, listening quietly, clearly uncomfortable. Why? Because everyone, not just Christians, knows we are unholy, that we need our guilt purified and our sin atoned for. People are loathe to accept it, but they sense deep down they need forgiveness and atonement for their sin.
God will purify the world through judgment and grace (vv. 11-13)
Isaiah is eager for his second assignment. “How long, O Lord?” It’s not like, “How many brussel sprouts do I have to eat before I get dessert?” This is a dreadful message and prediction. Isaiah begs to know when it will end. God’s answer is not encouraging, but it is an expression of his holy character, and so it is good. Since Isaiah’s land and people are too far gone in their rejection of the Lord, God must execute the judgments of the covenant. In this case, a judgment of exile and desolation. God will send “humanity” far away from his presence in the God-forsaken Promised land. Yet in the end there will be redemption and salvation for Israel. Exile will not end in execution.
God promises he will preserve a believing remnant. After judgment there will be a burst of divine grace that will ultimately prevail. Why does Isaiah intentionally set both judgment and grace side by side? Because both truths buoy the faithful to endure hardship and trial. Faith and holiness are not a promise of immunity from living in dark times. But in the midst of darkness the “holy seed” people who hope in the true Holy Seed (Jesus Christ; cf. Gal 3:16) have gospel hope that enables them to persevere in God’s mission. Even when the results are not pleasant or fruitful because they hope in God’s covenant promises (2 Cor 3:12; Col 1:5 1 Thess 1:3; 5:8; 2 Thess 2:15-16). This is why Isaiah announces the dawning of that hope immediately following the Assyrian darkness that lies ahead for OT Israel. This is why the NT presents the imminent return of Christ immediately following the last days when uncleanness waxes and holiness wanes. This is why you should hope in the sovereign grace of our holy-holy-holy God during seasons of widespread cultural impurity and worldwide instability.
Are you shaken and afraid of rampant immorality that is tolerated, celebrated, and sometimes even approved by law? Are you filled with fear of the violence rocking our nation and the world? Look at Isaiah’s vision of Christ the Lord (Jn 12:41). He is so big, so holy, and so in-control of the whole world. The whole earth is full of his glory, despite most people’s stubborn refusal to see it. He will handle the world with judgment and grace. It’s the way he’s always done it, and he promises to finish the job. Pray for eyes to see, ears to hear, and a mind that perceives. When you begin to understand the Holy One whom Isaiah encountered in the heavenly temple, you will fear God more and the world less. The politics of fear will no longer traumatize you. Instead you’ll be undone by God’s holiness, but restored by Christ’s sacrificial grace. You’ll discover, again or perhaps for the first time, God’s call and commission on your life to be his holy ambassador, a messenger of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Humble, eager, and full of Christian hope.
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