Glory and Grace

Sermon by David Strain on Sep 30, 2018

Isaiah 6

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In 2 Corinthians 3, verse 18, Paul says that, “we all with unveiled faces beholding the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Okay, so you see what he’s saying? Beholding the glory of God and being transformed into His likeness go together. To the degree that you behold His glory, to that same degree you are changed into His likeness. To the degree that you behold, to that same degree are you changed. If you take your Bibles in hand and turn to the sixth chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah, Isaiah chapter 6, page 571, you will find one of those places rich and vivid where we see something of the glory and the greatness of our God. And when I think about the need of my heart to triumph over sin and self, when I think about the low spiritual ebb that seems to characterize so much of the church in our time, I find myself going back to the exhortation of 2 Corinthians 3:18 to that calls us to turn and “behold the glory of the Lord” and so I often go to Isaiah chapter 6. In fact, I’ve probably preached on Isaiah chapter 6 more than any other passage in the Scriptures over the years. Every time I come back to Isaiah 6 I see new details and new facets and new things to learn about our God and about His grace.

Actually, in just a few verses later in 2 Corinthians chapter 4, Paul adds that "God has caused the light of the knowledge of the glory of God to shine upon us in the face of Jesus Christ." And so what I want to do - I've come at this passage in so many different ways over the years - tonight what I want to do is to meditate with you on the ways that it shows us the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Isaiah chapter 6 is a chapter about Jesus. There are three large movements, three scenes if you like, in the chapter, and each of them we learn something about Christ. We see something of the glory of God shining upon us in the face of Jesus Christ. He is on display so that looking at Him we might become more like Him. Before we read the passage together, let me invite you please to bow your heads with me as we pray.

O Lord, at the dawn of history You spoke and said, “Let there be light,” and You caused the light to shine in the darkness. Paul reminds us that it is the same God who caused the light to shine in the darkness who has caused the light of the knowledge of the glory of God to shine on us in the face of Christ. We pray as we read Your Word and hear Your voice now, that same light would dawn in our hearts and blaze with new radiance before the eyes of our faith that gazing into Your glory anew we might turn from sin and self to the Savior and learn what it is to live for Your honor and praise. For we ask this all in Jesus’ name, amen.

Isaiah chapter 6, beginning at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

            ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’
 

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’ And he said, ‘Go, and say to this people:

            ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’

 

Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?' And he said: ‘Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remains in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.' The holy seed is its stump.'"

Amen, and we give thanks to God that He has spoken in His holy Word.

The revelation of God to us in the Old Testament scriptures, you might say is like a silhouette. The way He shows Himself in the Old Testament, it’s like seeing a silhouette. We see the features, the contours as it were, but we don’t see all the details. When you come to the New Testament, it’s as though someone has turned the light on and more of the detail is revealed. Wasn’t it Saint Augustine who said that “The New is in the Old concealed and the New is in the Old revealed”? “The light of the knowledge of the glory of God shines on us in the face of Christ.” Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, is made known climatically in Jesus. “No one has ever seen God, but the only begotten God, Jesus, the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him, He has made Him known to us.”

Now here in the sixth chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah we get to see, don’t we, a great deal of the glory of God wonderfully displayed for us. His sovereignty is here - the Lord on the throne. His holiness is here as the angels sing and praise Him. His mercy is here as He cleanses the prophet of his sin. The glory of God. In John’s gospel chapter 12 at verse 40, speaking about Jesus’ earthly ministry, the apostle John quotes from this chapter, from Isaiah chapter 6, and then he says, “Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory,” Jesus’ glory, “and spoke of Him.” This is a chapter about Jesus. So the glory of the God revealed here in His sovereignty, in His holiness, in His mercy, is the glory of the God-Man. It’s the glory of the One who took flesh and dwelled among us. It’s the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah saw His glory and spoke of Him. And so this chapter, in a real sense, has much to teach us about Jesus.

And we’re going to move through each of the three scenes of Isaiah chapter 6 and think about what they have to teach us about Christ. In verses 1 through 5, scene one, we get to see something of Christ on the throne. Christ on the throne. In verses 6 and 7, Christ on the altar. The sacrifice that takes away sin. And then in 8 through 13 you might say is Christ in the pulpit. Christ, the message of the prophet; Christ to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. Okay? So Christ on the throne, Christ on the altar, and Christ in the pulpit. Christ, our message for the world.

Christ on the Throne

Christ on the throne first of all. Look at verses 1 through 5, would you please? The prophet tells us in verse 1 that all of this takes place “In the year that King Uzziah died.” You can read about King Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26. He was a good king, for the most part. Judah prospered under his reign, but we are told in 2 Chronicles 26 that when he grew strong, he became proud and he arrogated to himself the role that belongs properly only to the priesthood. And he burned incense in the temple and the priests rebuke him and he won’t listen. And suddenly he falls under the judgment of God and leprosy breaks out on his forehead rendering him unclean and he is expelled from the temple and expelled from the congregation of the people of God and he has to live the remainder of his years in a separate house in quarantine, in effect. He is unclean. What a graphic picture of judgment, of the pollution and power of sin.

You may know that in the Old Testament, as goes the king, generally speaking, so goes the people. And so as the king was walking with God, the people prospered. And now as the king falls under the judgment of God, there is decline in the life of the community. And now finally the king is dead so judgment has reached its high water mark. And what will that mean for the fortunes of the people of God? You can imagine the mood in Judah. Their enemies around them beyond the borders are flexing their muscles and threatening them. The king is dead. Will this spell still greater judgment to come? It’s a pretty gloomy context for the vision that the prophet has here. And he is where we might expect a man of God to be on such an occasion. He’s in the temple. Perhaps he is praying and interceding on behalf of his people and God’s people. And while he’s there he has this extraordinary vision. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is full of Your glory!’” Here is Israel’s God, revealed to Isaiah as the true and exalted King. So the earthly king is dead and everyone is wringing their hands in anxiety and fear and it is against the gloomy backdrop that the prophet sees the true Sovereign, still on the throne, not abdicating His throne, still reigning even over the trials that seem inevitable for God’s people.

He is Revealed

He is revealed, isn't He, in His transcendence, not just in His sovereignty, in His rule, but in His transcendence. He is "high and lifted up" the prophet says. He is vast. The train of His robe fills the temple. He's revealed here in His holiness. The sinless, angelic beings, even they must veil their faces. They cannot gaze on the brightness of the purity of the One seated on the throne. They cover their feet in modesty and humility as they sing of the holiness of God three times over. "Holy, holy, holy" - superlatively holy. The word "holy" as you probably know means "separate, distinct, other." God belongs in a category of one. And they say His glory shines in all that He has made. The whole earth is full of His glory. "Everywhere we look," they're saying, "we see His fingerprints." We see His wisdom and power on display. "The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim His handiwork." His invisible attributes, namely His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world in the things that are made, as Paul puts it in Romans chapter 1. It is a stunning vision actually in the experience of the prophet that's literally true. Isn't it? It is a stunning vision of God that puts the prophet in the dust.

The Incarnate Son

And this one sitting on the throne whose glory confronts and overwhelms Isaiah, according to John 12, is the pre-incarnate Christ. Isaiah saw Jesus' glory, John says, and spoke of Him. Here is God the Son, the second person of the blessed Trinity, whose office it is to reveal God to us. And I think thinking of Christ in light of what we learn here of the glory of God is an important corrective. The eternal Son, we know, became a man taking human nature into union with His divine nature in the incarnation. That's vital; it's precious truth. But we can sometimes articulate it in ways that minimize His divine glory as if when the Son became man, when God the Son became man, He was somehow compressed and contracted, squeezed inside a man-suit; you know, contained inside the human nature of Jesus Christ. We sometimes give the impression that when God the Son became man in the womb of the virgin it was a kind of amputation that took place; some of His divine attributes were cut off and He was deprived in some way of the glory and dignity that properly belongs to the Triune God. We sometimes even sing with Wesley, “He left His Father’s throne above, so free so infinite His grace.” And we know what Wesley means. He really came. He was really here. God really came down to us in the man, Christ Jesus. That’s true. But He did so without ever leaving the throne. He did so without ever ceasing to fill the universe and uphold it by the word of His power. The divine nature was united to human nature in the person of Christ. Really and truly, irrevocably permanently, but deity was not, as Wesley sings in another hymn “contracted to a span.” In no way were any of the attributes of God set aside by the divine Son when He brought into union with Himself His human nature. Now that’s the real wonder and glory of the coming of Christ. Think about it, nursing at Mary’s breast is the divine Son who fills the universe. The wretch hanging on a cross is still the Lord, reigning from the throne.

A Greater Glory

We can actually say more than that. Having become man, crucified, dead, and buried, having risen on the third day and having ascended to the right hand of the Majesty on high, we know that the Son enjoys a glory beyond what Isaiah saw here in the opening verses of the sixth chapter. On the throne of heaven, on the throne that is occupied, has never been vacated by the divine Son, now sits the glorified humanity of Jesus Christ. It is as God-Man that Jesus has now been seated, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 1:21, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come. And He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church.” Or Philippians 1:9, “God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

I wonder if your view, my view, of Jesus needs enlarging? When Peter caught a glimpse, just a glimpse of Christ's true glory in Luke chapter 5, he fell down before Him and said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." When John, in Revelation 1:17 saw the glory of Christ displayed before him, he said, "I fell at His feet as though dead." And when Isaiah saw Him in His pre-incarnate glory here in chapter 6, he said in verse 5, "Woe is me! For I am lost! I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" I wonder if we've tamed Jesus in our thinking and reduced Him to a manageable scale so that we can appeal to Him to get us off the hook, you know, when we need Him, to assuage our guilt when we're ashamed, to calm our fears when trials come. But there's more. When Isaiah was brought into the presence of the exalted Lord on the throne, or when Peter was confronted with something of the eerie, mysterious glory of the God-Man, when John, when the veil was taken, was pulled back and John saw the majesty of the divine Son, they didn't have any warm-fuzzies. Did they? They weren't swaying gently in ecstasy. They were overwhelmed at the majesty and the glory and the splendor of the One before whom they found themselves.

If we pray for the presence of Christ among us, I hope we pray for the presence of Christ among us by His Word and Spirit, we do need to check that we have our expectations right for what the answer to that prayer will look like. If Christ were to display His glory anew by His Word and Spirit to us, what would that look like? I think it would look like Isaiah chapter 6 verse 5. “Woe to me! I am ruined. I’m undone. I’m silenced. I’m unclean. I’m unclean.” It will look like a sudden fresh awareness with horror of my remaining corruption. It will look like deep, heartfelt repentance and confession of sin. Isaiah sees something of the glory of the infinite, eternal and unchangeable Son reigning on His throne and it lays him in the dust. I wonder if you have room in your thinking for a Christ like that?

Christ on the Altar

But that's not all that Isaiah saw of Christ that day, is it? He saw something of Christ on the throne but he also saw something, wonderfully, of Christ on the altar. As he begins to pour out His confession of sin and uncleanness, one of the angelic beings ministering to God in song, one of the seraphim, flies to him with a live coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. You can imagine the scene. Can't you? The doorposts are shaking like an earthquake; the place is filled with smoke. It's billowing, dense, impenetrable. And so Isaiah's sight is obscured by clouds that fill the room. And there's suddenly an orange glow, indistinct, obscured by the haze, growing brighter as it speeds toward him until at last, he can make out what it is. Here's one of these "burning ones." That's what their name means, Seraphim; themselves blazing with unfallen majesty, darting towards him and there's a burning coal, a live coal, ablaze in his hand.

Holiness

Hot, fiery, emblematic actually of the holiness of God; the holiness that consumes sin. That’s what happens on the altar. When you put your sin offering on the altar, the coals consume the sin offering, just like the holiness of God will obliterate sin in His presence. And so as the prophet sees this coal coming towards him, you can see him bracing for impact, can’t you? He’s convinced this is it; this is curtains for Isaiah. “Woe to me! I am ruined! And surely now this is the judgment of God. The holy, transcendent, sovereign Lord who has confronted me and shown me my sin in the light of His purity, here now surely He’s about to destroy me and obliterate me! There will just be a greasy smudge where there used to be a prophet!” That’s what he thinks. And so he’s braced for impact as this coal is pressed to his lips and it is not destruction that he receives. Is it?

“Behold,” the seraph says, “this has touched your lips,” which is the place of his particular besetting sin - “I am a man of unclean lips.” “This has touched your lips and your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.” He’s not consumed; he’s pardoned. He’s cleansed. How come? What’s happened? It is that a sin offering has been placed on the altar on his behalf. Actually one of the commentators, E.J. Young, suggests that the clouds of smoke filling the temple are themselves actually a result of someone having placed a sin offering on the altar right at the beginning of this whole experience. Before even a word of confession had formed on the prophet’s lips, a provision had been made to make atonement, you see.

Atoning Sacrifice

Now that is a beautiful picture of the Christian Gospel, isn’t it? Christ is our atoning sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is Romans 5:6-8, isn’t it? “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die. But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were still sinners, before we really ever knew the depth of our need, while we were helpless and unable to do anything about our damnable condition, the Lamb was slain, the blood was shed, the offering was made. Christ died for us.

Now we need, I think, to hold both parts of this vision of Christ together tightly. Don’t we? If we have a Christ who is only sacrifice but not sovereign, a Christ who is crucified but not crowned as King, we will likely use Jesus to deal with our guilt to be sure, but we will not live for Jesus in consecration and holy awe. But on the other hand, if we have a Christ who is only King, high and lifted up, the train of whose robe fills the temple, but not the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we will likely live a life dominated by guilt and fear, always trying to please Christ but never really knowing the warmth of His embrace or the joy of His smile.

Christ the King

We need to see what John saw in Revelation chapter 5. You remember Revelation chapter 5? One of the elders tells him about the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David who has conquered. It’s a description of Messiah, the King. So John turns to Luke for this great sovereign King, this conquering Hero. And what does he see? “In the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing as though it had been slain. In the midst of the throne, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the conquering King, a Lamb, He’s a Lamb, standing as though it had been slain.” Christ the King rules, but He rules with nail-pierced hands. He is sovereign, gloriously sovereign, but He is a King “touched with the feeling of our infirmities.” He’s a King to go to, to run to; a King to trust in, a King to rest on.

When we sin, when I sin, my shame lies to me. I’m sure it lies to you from time to time. It says, “You shouldn’t pray. You shouldn’t turn to God. You should not confess. How can you? Look what you did. Look who you are. Oh, Christ is holy, but you? Well, what a mess you are. Better for you to hide in the shadows. Better for you to run and hide.” We need to remember in those moments that the One who sits as sovereign on the throne confronting us, exposing our sin, calling us to repentance, we need to remember that He bears the marks of His love for us. The nail marks on His hands and feet, “the wounds, rich wounds yet visible above in beauty glorified.” You remember the hymn - “Five bleeding wounds He bears, received on Calvary. They pour incessant prayers; they strongly plead for me, ‘Forgive him, O forgive!’ they cry, ‘Forgive him, O forgive!’ they cry, nor let that ransomed sinner die!” Here’s a King you can go to. Here’s a King you can go to, not run from but turn to, who already knows what your sin deserves better than you, better than I. After all, He’s paid for it in full at the cross! And so He’s not in the least surprised by our sin and He has made all the provision we need to wash us clean. And so dear guilty, ashamed brother or sister, stop hiding your sin, stop avoiding your guilt, stop ignoring it. You can come and confess. The one to whom you turn loves you, and the nail marks in His hands and feet prove it. Don’t they? He’s paid for your sin and He can make you clean.

Christ in the Pulpit

Christ on the throne. Christ on the altar. Finally and quickly, Christ in the pulpit; as it were, Christ to be proclaimed. We really don't have time to do more than just quickly, briefly sketch this, but look at verses 8 through 13. The prophet's been confronted and now he's been cleansed, so finally, he is commissioned. Do you see that? Verse 8, "And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?'" Just as an aside, that's the first time he hears God's voice in the chapter. It's not until after his cleansing that he has communion with God. And now he hears His voice and he says, "Here am I. Send me." So the Lord sends the prophet to preach.

It’s a very difficult message. Isn’t it? A message we are told many people will not understand or believe or welcome. Many will refuse to turn back to God at the prophet’s word and so understandably the prophet asks, “How long, O Lord? Really? This is going to be my preaching career? I’m going to go and preach and they’re all going to reject my message! How long?” And the answer is not encouraging. “Until cities lie waste and without inhabitant and houses without people and the land is a desolate waste.” It’s a grim picture. But there will be a remnant, we’re told, right at the end of the chapter - “a holy seed will remain.” That phrase rings bells of hope in the middle of the darkness. It picks up on vocabulary you will have heard in Genesis 3:15 speaking about the seed of the woman or in Genesis 17, the seed of Abraham, through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed; or 2 Samuel 7:14, the seed of David who will sit on David’s throne and reign forever.

There will come, from the remnant of the people of God, a holy seed who will crush the serpent’s head, who will bring blessing to the nations, who will reign on the throne of His father David, and of His government there will be no end. Isaiah’s message was not just to be a message of judgment, but a message of hope. He is to proclaim the savior. And if you read through the remainder of his book, you will see chapter by chapter by chapter, vivid, rich, clear portrayals of Christ in His person and His work. He is to proclaim the Savior he himself has come to know right here in this chapter whose glory he saw. Isaiah saw His glory and spoke of Him. And he spoke of Him for the rest of his ministry.

Now look, none of us are prophets, none of us are commissioned directly by the risen Christ as was Isaiah, but Isaiah was confronted with the glory of Christ on the throne, he was cleansed by the mercy of Christ on the altar as it were, and commissioned into the service of Christ to preach Him to the world. And so are we. So are you. If Christ has made you clean, He has called you to serve, He has called you to proclaim, He has called you to go and say, “Come and meet a man who showed me everything I ever did.” He’s called you to bring others with you to be confronted by the Christ who is King, but a King who brings cleansing and pardon by His blood. You have good news for the world and you are being called by Christ, from His royal throne, to proclaim Him to the ends of the earth.

Christ the King; Christ on the throne. Christ the Savior; Christ on the altar who shed His blood to make us clean. And Christ to be proclaimed. How can you keep Him to yourself who has done so much for your soul? Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, we do confess to You that we make You small and manageable so that we can use You when we need You, and then live as we please the rest of the time. But here now before Your throne, we cry to You with the prophet Isaiah. Please, would You forgive us and cleanse us because we are unclean? And apart from grace, there's only woe, only judgment for us. How grateful we are that You are both Sovereign and Savior. And so we pray, Lord Jesus, would You wash us and cleanse us and make us new. And then in the wonder of Your grace, grant to us the fresh discovery of joy in the Gospel so that we can scarcely contain ourselves but have to go and tell about the good news of Jesus Christ, the holy seed in whom there is redemption. For we ask this all in Your name, amen.
 

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