September 8, 2004
“The God Who Is”
Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas
Now turn with me, if you would, to the prophet Isaiah, and the very familiar words of chapter six. Isaiah, chapter six. If you’re visiting with us tonight, we come to the end, the final in a series that began, I suppose the beginning of June or July–June, maybe–it's been all summer long–a sort of world and life series. We've been looking at the various views of the world: Deism, Post-Modernity...analyzing how they impact us, our children, the media, and attempting along the way to pose a biblical response to those views.
Now in the last few weeks, we've been looking more at the biblical worldview, and tonight's theme as we bring this to a close is “The God Who Is.” In coming to the end of this series, there's only one thing left to do, and that is to proclaim the God Who Is.
And we spent time over the summer critiquing the worldview of Modernism and Post-Modernism; we've seen the truth to the adage–Hans Christian Andersen's adage–that The Emperor Has No Clothes. And the reality is that the modern worldview, no matter what it is, is empty. That there is no truth to it, and it's time to look to Scripture and see what it is that God has revealed about Himself, about this world in which you and I live; about what we are, how He has made us; how we have fallen from that image in which we were made; how through redemption, coming to know Christ as Lord and Savior, He restores us, reshapes that broken image.
We see something of the truth that's in this world. What you find is the truth of what Calvin wrote in the sixteenth century: that “man's mind is a perpetual factory of idols.” And all the worldviews, the ways of thinking, whether it be on the college campuses, whether it be in the media, whether it be editorials of the newspapers, whether it be the latest best-selling paperback or the soap-opera on TV...all of these worldviews are, at the end of the day, so much idolatry, the truth of that word that ‘God made man in His image; and then man returned the favor and made God after his image.’ And that's what we see in the world all around us.
And in order, then, to accomplish our goal for tonight, seeing a biblical worldview of God, who God is, what God is like, we need to turn to one of those passages in the Bible where God reveals Himself, discloses Himself in His great majesty. We could turn to a number of passages: we could turn to Exodus 3 and Exodus 6, or Exodus 19–God revealing His great name, revealing Himself at the time of the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. We could turn to that astonishing first chapter of Ezekiel–you do read Ezekiel? You don't want to meet Ezekiel in heaven and say, “Nice to meet you, but I never read your book!” —that first chapter of Ezekiel–astonishing revelation of the character, the being of God in His majesty. We could turn to one of those definitive passages in Revelation: Revelation 4, where God reveals Himself in all of His majesty, surrounded by the attendants of heavenly glory, and so on. But I'm going to turn to this passage, familiar passage, Isaiah, chapter six. Let's turn to this passage. Before we read it together, let's come before God in prayer. Let's pray.
Our God and Father, we bow in Your presence and thank You for Your word that holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We ask now as we turn to this Scripture...this is Your word; this is Your infallible, inerrant word; and yet without Your Spirit, without the illumination of Your Spirit, we cannot understand it. We come as servants, as students. We come as those who are hungry. We come as those who are beggars. Teach us, feed us, and enrich us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
In the year of King Uzziah's death I saw the Lord
sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the
temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered
his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one
called out 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 trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.
Then I said,
"Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts."
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, "Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven."
Thus far God's holy and inerrant word; may He add His blessing to the reading of it.
A few weeks ago–well, it wasn't that long ago, it just feels like a long time ago now, but it was just a couple of weeks ago I was in London. And I went to a concert in the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington. I sometimes wish I could just permanently live in that great building. And I went there because it was the final public concert of one of the world's greatest pianists, Alfred Brendel. I have been listening to Alfred Brendel since I was knee high to a grasshopper, and he's one of the top five, six, concert classical pianists in the world, and this was his final concert. And to draw a long story short, at the end of the concert, I was on my cell phone, I was outside and I was talking to my mother. It was pouring with rain. Sort of bucketing down with rain. I was still in the clothes that I'd flown over in; I had no umbrella, jacket, nothing. And the tube station was a good half a mile away. So I decided I would wait until the rain had stopped, and about ten, fifteen, twenty minutes later out from the door, just where I was standing, came Alfred Brendel. I still had the program in my hand, at the page of the piece that he had played: Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto. And I still had the program in my hand, and I had a pen in my pocket, and I handed it to him and I said, “Maestro, may I have your autograph?” and said some complimentary things about his performance and about what he had meant to me during my life. And he signed it, and talked away to me as if we’d known each other for years. It was one of those moments of glory. Like, you know, between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Alice in Wonderland–you know, there's glory for you. And there's glory for you. I was speaking to Alfred Brendel, have his autograph. I showed it, I gave it to Bill Wymond just for a few minutes, and pulled it back. Well, meeting Alfred Brendel is something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life. When you come to my house, in a few weeks time you’ll probably see that autograph framed on the wall somewhere.
But meeting God is another order of being. And that's precisely what happens here. Isaiah the prophet meets God, the God who is. He's in the temple. It's in the year that King Uzziah died. That means it took place in space and time, a day that you could pinpoint on a calendar. This isn't fantasy, this isn't an epic drama of some kind. This is history, this happened. It happened in the temple in Jerusalem. Isaiah, who was privy to the kings of Judah, had access to the kings of Judah. Perhaps he was contemplating what the future of Judah now looked like, with the Assyrian Empire parked on the very borders of Judah and threatening its very existence.
As he was contemplating what life would be like without the King of Judah, he meets the King of Kings, and he meets the King of Kings in His holiness. And there's a description of seraphim that are continually crying the so-called Trisagian: “Holy, holy, holy”–upon which hymns and liturgies of the church have been based to this very day. We sang that wonderful hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy, at the beginning of our prayer meeting this evening. It should have taken you all the way back to Isaiah 6.
Now what does that mean? The word holy in Hebrew has two meanings, two quite distinct meanings: one is to be separate, to be distant from, to be separated from; the other comes from a root that means to burn. But whatever the word itself might mean, the passage itself describes for us this vision of the holiness of God. And this vision of the holiness of God takes shape along a six-fold trajectory. Let's go down it, shall we?
I. The God who Is, the God whom
Isaiah saw and met, is incomprehensible.
Number one is that God, the God who Is, the God whom Isaiah saw and met, is incomprehensible. I start there. I start there because that's where the seraphim start. They have six wings. Extraordinary creatures, you’ll see them one day. And with two wings they cover their faces, and with two wings they cover their feet–and I think that means they cover their bodies along with it–and with two wings they fly, ready to do the Master's bidding. But do you notice their posture? They are out of the picture. God is everything. And they can't look upon God because of His very majesty; because of His very glory. God cannot be comprehended, not by us poor mortals, not by us creatures.
These seraphim are sinless creatures. They’re not doing this because they are sinners: they’re doing this because they are creatures. And what they’re doing is emphasizing the distinction between the Creator, the God who Is, in all of His majesty and glory, and themselves as creatures. And never the two shall meet. God will always be the Creator; we will always be creatures. They’re not demanding their “rights”; they’re not prying into things that don't concern them. These creatures are blotting themselves out of the picture so that God may be all in all.
There's a sense, you know, in which God cannot be categorized. How dare I speak on a subject called “The God Who Is”, as though in twenty-five minutes or so I can tell you all that you need to know in terms of an adequate world and life presentation of the doctrine of the Judeo-Christian God–in twenty-five minutes! It cannot be done. God is greater than you can ever imagine Him to be.
Now let me underline here that I'm not saying that God cannot be known at all. Of course not. But He cannot be known fully. He cannot be known to the extent of His majesty and immensity. And a biblical worldview, a biblical theism that has been our concern this summer, begins by asserting the majesty of God, the greatness of God. What God has revealed is only a little about Himself. And I think you and I need to say to ourselves all the time, “God is great”, as the psalmist does. God is great. He's a big God.II. The supremacy of God, the Lordship of God, the sovereignty of God
The second feature that this vision of God brings to the surface is the supremacy of God; the Lordship of God; the sovereignty of God. What Isaiah sees is a King. He sees someone sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. He has to stretch his neck to behold the majesty of this God who is sitting upon a throne. He is God Most High. He is the God who holds the world, the universe, in the very palms of His hands. There's a majesty and a sovereignty to the being of God. You know, that's how the vision of God in Revelation 4 begins: John sees a throne in heaven, and Someone sitting on it. God is sovereign. That's our theistic worldview, that things happen because God determines them to happen. Things happen because God determines them to happen before they happen; that things happen because God determines them to happen in the way that they happen. There is no such thing at the end of the day as chance or luck. “The lot is cast into the lap, but it is of the Lord” nevertheless. It is still of the Lord. Not a sparrow falls to the ground in some back street of Jerusalem and the hand of God isn't in it. That's the confession of Job, isn't it, in the midst of the tragedy of his personal circumstances, that the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
That's our biblical worldview of a God who is sovereign, who is omnipresent, who is present everywhere, who knows everything; who is all-powerful that His purposes in creation and redemption and restoration and judgment will all be fulfilled. There's no doubt about it. There's no uncertainty about it. A God who controls history, the affairs of men and women, the course of nations; your life and mine–a God who is sovereign.
III. And then, a God who is
A God who is transcendent, a God who is incomprehensible, a God who is the Lord, who is sovereign, all-powerful and yet a God who is imminent within His creation. The whole earth, these seraphim say, the whole earth is full of His glory. Now they’re not saying that the earth is God. They’re not pantheists, but they are saying that to the believer's eye there isn't a nook, a cranny, where God cannot be found. In a sunset–oh, last Wednesday evening–it was last Wednesday evening–driving up I-55, you looked left as you were going up I-55, what did you see? You saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen in years and years and years. And my wife had to shout at me because I was looking west instead of looking north onto I-55! And I kept saying and saying, “What a beautiful, beautiful sunset!” You couldn't paint that! You couldn't repeat that in any shape or form. It was the glory of God. It was the fingerprints of God. As Calvin said in his Institutes, “the world is the theater of God's glory. All around us, to the believer's eye–in a flower that blossoms; in the smile of someone you love; in the created order of this universe–the glory of God, something of the being of God, something of the majesty of God, something of the created-ness of this world.” That's our worldview: that this world, this earth, this universe, this cosmos is made by our God. When your eyes are opened, the glory of God is everywhere.
IV. And fourthly, purity.
Yes, this God is pure. He is, in the words of another prophet, His eyes are so pure that He cannot look upon sin. He can't even look upon sin. That's why Isaiah responds to this vision of God. He meets God in the temple, and what is his response? “Woe is me, for I am undone! I am a man of unclean lips...” He had the cleanest lips in Israel. He was a prophet. He was one of the greatest prophets the world has ever seen, but in the presence of the majesty and the glory and the purity, the burning of this God, he saw his impurity. He saw his depravity, a man undone. Isaiah wasn't suffering from some kind of neurosis, some kind of psychological disorder. He wasn't pathologically disposed to wringing his hands like Lady Macbeth and saying–you know, “all the perfumes of Arabia won't cleanse this little hand of mine!” He's responding as you and I have responded when we've sensed something of the presence of God, that somehow or another in ourselves, because of our sin, because of our rebellion, because of our guilt, we dare not come into His presence; because He's a God who is pure. And that's our Christian worldview of the God who Is: He's a God who is pure.
He's a God who is merciful.
Ah, we're doing such injustice to this passage trying to race through it. But you remember what happened here? One of the seraphim comes to Isaiah with tongs, and in the grasp of those tongs is a live, burning, hot coal from the altar, the altar of sacrifice, and touches his lips, because it's his lips that were unclean, he says. And at the point of the confession of his guilt, the atoning balm of sacrifice is applied as though in the very depiction of the majesty and greatness and incomprehensibility and purity of this God, He also discloses Himself as a God who is full of mercy and full of grace. No wonder this prophet will close the prophecy by saying “Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the mind of man what God has prepared for those that love Him.”
At the center of this biblical worldview of God, as Isaiah sees it here, is Jesus Christ. You know, when John in his gospel comes to comment on the sixth chapter of Isaiah's prophecy, in John 10, John says that “the one whom Isaiah saw, the God that Isaiah saw in all of His majesty and purity and grace, was none other than Jesus Christ Himself.” Because–and you need to think through this–there is no un-Christ-like-ness in God. What do I mean by that? You know when a child asks you, “What is God like?” The very best answer that you can give to that question is that God is like Jesus Christ. There are no aspects of God that are not like Jesus Christ. He is the exegesis of what God is like.
Do you remember when John writes his prologue to the gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And we beheld Him...” and what does John say? “We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Yes, mercy: the kind of mercy that sends Jesus to be our Savior; the kind of mercy that sends Jesus, His Son, to be our substitute and sin-bearer.
And sixthly, no biblical worldview of God would be
complete unless it formulates the notion that God communicates with us.
That's what happens here. God speaks to Isaiah. He speaks in Hebrew, He speaks in Aramaic, He speaks in Greek. God–yes, the infinite, eternal God–accommodates Himself, talks our language in words that you and I can understand and relate to and make sense of. True, there are bits of Scripture that are hard to be understood, Peter says, speaking of some of the bits of Paul. True. But large tracts of Scripture are given in words, verbs and nouns and adjectives and adverbs that you and I can understand. We underline them in our Bibles! They become our favorite verses. God speaks to us. And through the Scriptures, He continues to communicate with us. Our God is a God who talks. Our God isn't a silent God. “He is there, said Francis Schaeffer, and He is not silent.”
Well, what does all that mean? Well, at a very basic level it means this. We need to resist, you and I, all forms of God-shrinkage. You know, that's what's happening all around us in the church at large: God is being shrunk down to size. You've done it, I did it twenty-five, thirty years ago. You know, you buy those jeans and then you get into a bath and then you allow those jeans to shrink down so that they fit you good and tight. Now those days, thankfully, are long gone–though I fear they’ll come back again. Not for me, they won't! But that's what's happening in the church with the doctrine of God.
And this passage and passages like it in Scripture are saying that if that's what's happening, our God is too small. Isn't that what Luther said at the Reformation, to Erasmus? “Your God is too small.” And my friend, as we bring this series of worldviews and analyses of worldviews to a close, I wonder if that's the most fundamental message of all: that we have in the Scriptures a revelation of a God who Is; and a God who has shown Himself in the person of Jesus Christ; and a God who is sovereign and a God who is majestic; and a God who is transcendent and yet imminent in this world; and a God worthy to be worshipped; and a God worthy to be praised; and a God worthy to be prayed to and talked to and communed with; and a God that we need to lift up on high.
You know, maybe what we need to do is to do what Jodie did in his prayer, without any communication with me. You know those words of Martin Luther in that hymn that we sung:
“Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also.
The body they may kill; God's truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever!”
Well, let that be us. Let that be our confession. Let that be our prayer, and may God give us strength to be faithful in defending it.
Let's stand and pray together as we bring our time to a close.
Lord our God, we bless You for this extraordinary vision that Isaiah saw of Your majesty and greatness. We thank You that you accomplish all of Your designs. We thank You that you Are. We thank you especially that You have revealed and disclosed Yourself to us. Now help us, O Lord, in worship, in work, in recreation, so to extol the God that You are. Help us, we pray, and forgive us when we shrink You down to fit our size and our comfort zone. And help us, we pray, as we take Your word, to take it seriously and to lift You up on high, and to proclaim You as the only God there is: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We worship You. Forgive us our sins, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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