Take your Bible, if you would, and turn to Isaiah chapter 1. If you’re using the Bible in the rack in front of you, it’s on page 566. Let me remind you that I used this Scripture as our call to worship. Let me read it one more time. Isaiah 1, verse 18:
“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Father, would You please have mercy on us? By Your Holy Spirit, would You speak to our hearts, free us from the distractions, the competing interests, the rival loves that long to capture our hearts? By the time we’re done reading and reflecting on Your Word, would You cause us to find Jesus more precious to us, cause His holiness to be both a means of terror and beauty, both at the same time, so that we’re freed and, like Isaiah, emboldened to walk with You and serve You in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Make Yourself known to us, for Jesus’ sake, in whose name we pray. Amen.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of preaching on Isaiah 30 and we centered on verse 18, which the best Old Testament scholars tell us is the hinge on which the entire prophecy swings. It’s not just the backbeat, the undercurrent, the ground-beat of all of Isaiah’s prophecy. In fact, we could make a case for saying it’s the centerpiece for all of Scripture. You could summarize all of Scripture in verse 18 of Isaiah 30. “For the Lord longs to be gracious to us. He exalts himself to show us mercy. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all those who wait for Him, who long for Him.” What I’d like to do this evening is to pull the lens way back and show you how this works throughout the whole of Isaiah’s prophecy, sixty-six chapters, in what looks like twenty-two, twenty-three minutes left. Might go a few minutes over, but just a few!
The prophecy of Isaiah unpacks this invitation which we just read and shows us three vivid pictures of our Redeemer. They serve as the core of everything Isaiah presents to God’s people and through them to us and who we need to know Jesus to be and how we’re called to respond to Him. He’s presented to us, first of all, as a holy King. Secondly, as a suffering Servant. And third, as a victorious Conqueror. And when we see Jesus in all three lights, we get a picture of the Gospel and the invitation we just read becomes penetrating and compelling to each one of us. So let’s look at those three portraits of our Redeemer and King.
The Holy King
First of all, the holy King. That’s the emphasis in the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah’s prophecy. If you look at how he describes God, the dominant title that Isaiah uses for God is “the Holy One of Israel.” Twenty-nine times he refers to Him as “the Holy One of Israel.” And to understand why he uses that title over and over and why it’s his centerpiece, you have to go to Isaiah 6 because this really was the pivotal experience of Isaiah’s life. You remember that there’s a timestamp to that chapter. It’s the year that King Uzziah died. We’re told by rabbinic tradition that this was one of his cousins, that Isaiah himself was of royal blood, educated in the capital city. And this was shattering because the king is dead. And in that moment in history that can be pinpointed, Isaiah has an experience like no other. He says he’s taken into the very throne room of God and he begins to describe with vivid detail what he sees. And centering around, swirling around what he sees are these angelic beings that he calls seraphs – six-winged angelic beings. With two of their wings they cover their faces, with two they cover their feet, and with two they are flying. And as they’re orbiting around the throne, they’re crying out one word over and over again. And notice, it’s not, “Power, power, power!” which would be true and relevant to that place. They don’t call that out. They could call out, “Love, love, love!” or “Faithfulness, faithfulness, faithfulness!” or “Beauty!” or any number that could capture a portion of God’s character or His attributes or who He is.
What is Holiness?
But instead of any of those words, which would fit, the angelic beings use one word three times over and over again; and it changed Isaiah's life – "Holy, holy, holy!" Pause for a moment. What comes to your mind when you think of "holy" or "holiness." I've wrestled with that word most of my life because my brain doesn't have right categories for it. On one level, the obvious answer is the moral purity that is God Himself; the standard of excellence. He is holy. He is pure. There's nothing wrong; nothing is there that shouldn't be there. Nothing is missing that should be there – He is holy! But that's not the only reason the angelic beings use that word, "holy." When we use the word "holy" we also, the Bible also, means completely separate: a category all its own. None of our experience fits when we try to describe who He is. Yes, we can talk about "God is love," but it's a holy love which puts Him in a completely different category of any love we’ve ever known. Yes, He’s a good God, but it’s a holy goodness. Yes, He’s a faithful God, but it’s a holy faithfulness. It’s a category completely outside of our experience. The word “holy” means we are being taken to the very borders of human vocabulary and comprehension and then we’re pushed outside even farther. Meaning, it doesn’t fit in our brains when we start talking about human words to describe this God. It goes beyond.
I’m going to use a very, very inadequate illustration, but you’ll get why in a moment. If you go in my kitchen there are a variety of different dishes. There are the everyday dishes, which, if Emily and I are eating by ourselves we’ll pull those out. Those are the ones she probably got at Target or K-Mart or Wal-Mart; I don’t know where, but they’re the kind if you drop them on the floor or chip them it’s no big deal. You can buy another box for next to nothing. They’re the ones we use just about every day. But if someone comes over that is important, like if you came to our house, we wouldn’t pull those dishes out. We’d pull the special dishes out. Right? These are the ones that we don’t use just every day. They’re for special occasions; they’re for company. But that doesn’t get to holiness until you get to the other spot in the cabinet. There’s just one dish there. It’s rarely, if ever, used. You know the one I’m talking about, right? It’s the one you pull out on those special occasions. It never goes in the dishwasher; it never goes in the microwave. It says, “You are Special.” The last time it was used was for my daughter Abigail’s grad school graduation when we all celebrated her hard work and accomplishment. Her food was brought out on the “You are Special” plate. It’s completely separate. It’s distinct from the ordinary, the familiar. It’s a category all its own.
Now I get it; that’s a really dim illustration of this separateness, this other category-ness that the word “holy” talks about. But you get a hint of what the angelic beings were meaning when they said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” It takes us to the borders of language, the borders of our experience. And in that word “holiness” you have two realities that are there together. On one side, you have terror, absolute terror; on the other side, you have beauty, unimaginable beauty. And you have both. And you see it in Isaiah's experience when he's watching this unfold before him. The first words out of his mouth are, "Woe is me! I am undone! I am ruined! I am dismantled! I am undone! For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips!"
Terror and Beauty
You know what he was talking about, right? Isaiah's most special attribute, what made him stand out, what set him apart, was that he was the prophet. He made his living with his lips. That was the best he had to offer. He wasn't a man who built furniture and said, "Look at the furniture I built." He wasn't a great cook and said, "Look at the meal I prepared." He was a prophet. This was the best he had. And in the presence of the holiness of God, he says, "I am undone, dismantled. I've got nothing. The best I have is unclean lips. Nothing to offer. Terror. Woe is me, I am undone, dismantled!"
At the same time, there's beauty. He goes on to say, "My eyes, these eyes, they've seen the Lord!" Unimaginable beauty; stunning beauty. This is what we have in this holiness that Isaiah comes back to over and over again, "the Holy One of Israel". And he's not alone. All throughout Scripture you find this repeated over and over again – terror and beauty. Moses, when he's singing of God's victory in Exodus chapter 15, sings, "Who is like you, O Lord? Majestic in holiness, awesome, awful in glory! You're working wonders!" Terror and beauty. Psalm 27:4, David says, "One thing I ask of the Lord; this is what I seek. That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life." The place of sacrifice where something had to die in order to get access. "That I may dwell in that place all the days of my life to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and see him in his temple." Terror and beauty. 2 Chronicles 20 verse 1, Jehoshaphat is leading his people into battle against an enemy that he could not defeat. They were going to crush him and his people. Terror! And he says to his people, "Let's go forward singing and praising the beauty of God's holiness."
Summary – to understand holiness you have two words, “Woe” and “Wow.” W-o-e is what Isaiah said. “Woe is me. I am undone. I am a sinner. I deserve to be crushed, banished, but wow. Look at the beauty. Unspeakable beauty. And I’m invited in, not because I’m a good person but because someone else has taken my place.”
The Suffering Servant
This is what we get to in the second part of the image – the suffering Servant – Jesus presented to us as the suffering Servant in Isaiah chapters 40 through 55. Alec Motyer, my favorite living theologian, Old Testament theologian, says, “Here, Isaiah shows us the lengths to which the Holy One of Israel will go to deal with sin, to reclaim the sinner, and to create a righteous people for Himself.” Isaiah 42 where it begins, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.” Isaiah chapter 53, where it speaks of the work of the suffering Servant to redeem God’s people to bring them back. And understand that the Jewish faith, Jewish tradition, does not know what to do with Isaiah 53; it doesn’t fit. As a matter of fact, the best they can do with this chapter is say, “This must refer to Israel as God’s suffering Servant,” but Israel has never sacrificed and suffered for the benefit of another. And so they hold up their hands and say, “We’re just not sure.” We know, however, that this is referring to the Lord Jesus. Isaiah 53 verse 4, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with his stripes we are healed. All we, like sheep, have gone astray. We have turned, every one, to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth. Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” Verse 10, “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him. He has put him to grief.” If you read that in the King James Version it’s even more staggering. The King James Version says, “Yet it pleased God to crush his Son.” Let that sink in for a moment.
I remember in the early days of our church planting work in Romania with a bunch of people that God had, Romanian people God had gathered into our living room, and Emily and I were struggling to learn this language and study God’s Word with these people and I read this verse, this passage in an old interlinear that had the Cornilescu version, the King James Version of the Romanian Bible in their language, next to the King James Version, and I read this in the Romanian. And I remember these dear people who were, one by one, coming to faith in Christ, a couple of them with tears coming down their faces saying, “Nu se poate! Cum se poate?” Meaning, “There’s no way! How could God the Father take pleasure in crushing His Son?” Answer – it’s the only way to bring terror and beauty together. It’s the only way to take people like us, who deserve to be crushed under the weight of God’s wrath, and to put a substitute in our place so that God could be pleased to bring us back. The suffering Servant who did this willingly for you and for me.
Finally, the victorious Conqueror, the third image – chapters 56 through 66. Here He’s presented as the Hero of the story, the triumphant Warrior. Isaiah 61 verse 1, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God. To comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who grieve in Zion, to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning; a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteous, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor.”
You do realize of course that the first sermon that we have recorded of Jesus preaching He read this passage. When He rolled up the scroll and set it down and sat down to preach He said, “Today, this passage is fulfilled in your hearing. I’m it. I’m the fulfillment of what you’ve been waiting for, for seven hundred years. And here it is before your eyes.” That’s the victory – the righteousness of God. Because of Jesus, we’ll be perfectly restored to all His people, to all creation, to the whole universe. The new heavens and the new earth will be ours.
Isaiah 65 verse 17, “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create. For I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people. The sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.” In the sixth book of The Lord of the Rings, Sam says to Gandalf with despair in his voice, “Is everything sad going to come untrue? Is it possible?” C.S. Lewis, in his book The Great Divorce, answers with these words, “Some mortals say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for this,’ not realizing that heaven once attained will work backwards and turn even that agony into glory.” This is the promise that the victorious Conqueror will make good on. Even the worst suffering that you and I have known or are experiencing right now, our experience of the new heavens and the new earth will work backwards and turn this suffering, this agony into glory. I don’t know how that works but I’m trusting God to make good on that promise. Aren’t you?
Isaiah ends by describing for us the eternal joy of absolute holiness and righteousness that our victorious Conqueror will bring to His people. Isaiah 66, the last chapter, verse 12 – "For this is what the Lord says, ‘I will extend peace to her,'" that is, new Jerusalem, "'like a river and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream. You will nurse and be carried on her arm and be dandled on her knees.'" I love that image! It's Father's Day; I'm a grandfather. The idea of dandling my kids and my grandkids on my knees, and God will do that with me in the new heavens and the new earth. "Carried on her arm, dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you. You will be comforted over Jerusalem. When you see this, your heart will rejoice and you will flourish like grass; the hand of the Lord will be made known to His servants but His fury will be shown to His foes. See, we know how this ends. Because of the work of the Suffering Servant and the completion of the victorious Conqueror, the victorious Conqueror completing, finalizing that work begun at the cross, finalized at the cross, one day you and I will be ushered into our final home.
But that’s not the only part of the story. It also goes on to say in Isaiah 66:24, “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who have rebelled against me. The worms that eat them will not die. The fire that burns them will not be quenched and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” Here’s the point. Jonathan Edwards and a variety of other theologians, reformed theologians before him and since him, all believed that hell would be visible before the eyes of the presence of God’s people in the new heavens and the new earth based on passages like the end of Isaiah 66. I don’t know how that works, but Jonathan Edwards said this, “If we ever stopped smelling the smoke of hell, we’d forget the price that was paid to bring us there. Because of that, the smoke of the torment of those in hell will rise before God’s throne forever.” That’s what he taught. Terror and beauty. We’ll never forget the terror from which we were rescued and we’ll never be able to take our eyes off the beauty of the One who brings us home. That’s the image.
One last picture. Ten years ago, 2007, a major project was completed on the western rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s called the Skywalk. You can go there today. It took about $30 million to build. It weighs 1.6 million pounds. It is a walkway that extends 70 feet off the edge of the canyon. And when you’re standing out there – might I add, on glass – you’re looking down between your feet 4,000 feet below to the bottom of the canyon beneath you. And when you see people out there, they’re wearing special slippers over their shoes so whatever debris or gravel they have doesn’t scratch up the glass, and you see photographs of people – the look of terror is unmistakable! It costs about $80 to go walk the walk. It’s 70 feet out but it takes about 150 feet to make the horseshoe loop. Some people pay the money and can’t go out there. It’s just absolutely terrifying. But they don’t realize that it was way over-engineered. This walkway is made up of more steel than in some massive skyscrapers. It’s cantilevered into the rock beneath. It is engineered to – I’ll tell you the facts; you won’t believe it – but it’s engineered to hold 71 fully loaded Boeing 747s. You can stack 71 fully loaded Boeing 747s on top of each other and set it there. It is constructed to withstand an earthquake that registers 8.0 on the Richter scale anywhere within 200 miles of that walkway. It will withstand 100mph sustained winds; gusts of up to 200mph. It’s that stable.
And yet, because of it being primarily glass that you see, it’s terrifying. But if you can deal with the terror, the beauty is unimaginable because there you are, suspended over 4,000 feet and the color, the grandeur, of the Grand Canyon. Dim picture of this holiness into which we have been and will be enveloped. This is ours through the finished work of Christ. It’s not just His holiness, but in union with Him it becomes our holiness. We are partakers in the divine nature. It’s what glory is pointing to.
Is This Your Experience?
So what do you do with this? I’ll leave you with a question. “Is this your experience?” Is the terror and the beauty of God’s holiness your daily atmosphere? Is this where you live? Or do you only live in the terror, not able to look into the face of God because the guilt and the shame that marks out so much of your life and mine is there, and it’s the dominant reality in your life? Or have you downplayed the reality of sin and you look only at the beauty and the wonder and you say, “Isn’t it great to be forgiven?” forgetting the terror of what it took to bring you back to God? Both are absolutely necessary. Does that make sense? This is important to wrestle with because the prophet doesn’t speak of this God only as “the Holy One of Israel.” He says He is your Holy One. He is your Holy One. Isaiah 43:15, God says, “I am the Lord, your Redeemer; your Holy One, your King.” The question is, “Is He both?” He’s God of terror and beauty. Because of the cross you are brought near, even in the face of both. Isaiah 33:17, “Your eyes will see this King in His beauty.”
Let me sharpen this a little bit. John Piper once said that “The total depravity of our sin is not just badness but it’s blindness to God’s beauty and deadness to His deepest joy.” And I suddenly defined where my sin really resides. It’s not just my badness; there’s so much of that. But it’s my blindness to His beauty; my deadness to His joy. What that means is, I’m looking in a thousand other directions, in a thousand other directions for beauty and joy and I’m believing, “If I could just get this, beauty will be mine, joy will be deep.” And God says, “But I’m the real beauty. I’m the real joy.” And my deepest sin is that I find other beauties and other joys far more precious to me than I find Him. Why? Because His terror, His beauty has become secondary.
Think about this. If the greatest commandment, if Jesus answered the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” and He answered, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” then the greatest sin is to love anything or anyone more than we love Him. What does that mean? It means I am the chief of sinners; you’re the chief of sinners. We’re all desperately guilty and need to be brought back. We need someone who will reorient our loves. I’ll finish with this. You’ve heard me say – I’ve quoted this once; I think Rosaria Butterfield quoted this as well. One of the older writers said this, “Love God? No, I don’t love Him. I don’t even want to love Him. But I want to want to love Him. I’m asking Him to forgive me for loving so many other things and I’m asking Him to change my loves.” Let me put it into this context. Do I find terror and beauty before God? No, not really. I find terror before people. I find terror at the loss of my comfort, of my reputation. I find terror in the loss of relationship. I find beauty in things that the world offers. Do I find terror and beauty in the holiness of God? No, but oh how I want to. Oh, how I want to.
That brings us back to where we began. “Come now, let us reason together. Let your sin be like scarlet; I will make it white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they shall be like wool.” “Let’s settle this,” God says. “Come on back.” Let’s pray.
Our Father, we thank You that we can stand before the terror of judgment that we rightly deserve because Jesus, our holy King, became the Suffering Servant. We long for the day we see Him coming as the victorious Conqueror and His victory fully becomes ours. The not-yet of His redemption becomes our present and final and complete experience. We long for that day. Would You please, as we go forth from this place, cause us to find terror and beauty in the presence of our King? So live in that tension that every other fear is set aside and we can say with the prophet Isaiah, “Here am I. Send me.” Make us ever to be changed, freed, emboldened, because of the holiness of the Holy One of Israel, our Holy One, our Redeemer. We pray in His name, amen.
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