We are looking at people in the Bible who were confronted with God. This is a precious series for many reasons. Let me mention two. One is, the world badly needs to know what God is like. I would dare to say that the greatest need in the world is that the world would know what God is like because almost everything will flow from that. When the Apostle Paul stood up in Acts 17 to preach to complete pagans, he began his sermon with two words, ‘The God’ … and then he went on to speak about Him.
We happen to be in a world that is turning a deaf ear to God, and we need to be very clever and wise in the way that we communicate. But there is no greater need in the world than to see what God is like.
The next reason why we need this series is that the Church is so easily drifting from Scripture, partly because of the busyness, we don’t have the inclination to study and dig deeper into what God is like, and so we tend to be superficial. And there is, of course, a new God emerging in the western world which is a kind of a butler-God – a God who demands almost nothing and is there just to produce ‘on time’ for us. And this God is, of course, an invention and it will be a disillusioning God to everybody who puts their faith in this God. It’s an idol. And what we badly need is to go back and see what people saw of the real God and that will have a strangely liberating effect on us.
We are looking at the famous vision of Isaiah in Isaiah Chapter 6. You don’t come to this vision or this commission until Chapter 6, and I think the probable reason is that the Book bursts in with a message which is – WARNING: THIS IS THE ONLY SOLUTION – and it covers five chapters of urgency. And then, if you stop and ask the question, ‘Who is saying this? Who has the right to talk like this?’ we come to Isaiah Chapter 6 and the answer is that it’s Isaiah saying this and this is the reason: because of this incredible vision that he was given.
I want to look with you at Chapter 6 Verses 1-13, and we are going to do it under four headings. If you are a note-taker, the four points go like this;
In Verses 1-3, Isaiah is given a vision of God. I suspect this is a window into Heaven, and I suspect this because we are told in Verse 1, the Lord is very high and in Verse 2, that He is surrounded by Heavenly beings called ‘seraphs’. Seraphs are not mentioned anywhere else in the Scriptures but here and though we say Isaiah received a vision of God, and although he says, in Verse 1, ‘I saw the Lord’, please notice that God is not described at all in Isaiah 6. We see the throne that He is on, we know the robe (so to speak) of His glory, and we see the seraphs announcing it, but we are not given any portrait of God.
There are many reasons why we are not given a portrait of God, and we are not going to be given a portrait of God, and one of them is, of course (in John Chapter 4) that God is Spirit and therefore, He is not visible.
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Second, we are told in Exodus 33 that it is a deadly thing to see God, ‘Man shall not see Me and live’ says God in Exodus 33 Verse 20. So you can read the whole of the Old Testament, and there will be lots of people who say, ‘I saw the Lord’ or something like it, and what they are seeing is, of course, some kind of vision or clothing of God. You come to John Chapter 1 and John says in his gospel, nobody has seen God. You can read the whole of the Old Testament – from Genesis through to Malachi – and of course, there will be many visions, and there will be many experiences, but nobody is literally seeing God. It’s not until He comes down into the Person of Jesus and takes on flesh and walks amongst people, that they see Him face-to-face.
Bible scholar Alec Motyer says ‘God condescends to clothe Himself in a form or a vision, for our warning or our comfort.’ That is the story of the Old Testament, and Isaiah is given something of the clothing of God’s Holiness, a vision of God’s Holiness. And what that means is, that as he looks up into Heaven, he sees God’s great perfection, utter perfection. It’s something which we can only attempt to describe but if we were, as it were, to have a roof lifted off our building and we were given a window into Heaven and we could see God’s utter perfection and that He is empty of all sin and corruption and that He is absolutely full of holiness and righteousness, the effect is to make the sinful, normal person ashamed and afraid. And that’s what happens to Isaiah.
Even the seraphs, we read in Verse 2, are overwhelmed because, with their wings, they cover their faces (no doubt because they are unworthy to look on Him) and they also cover their feet (I suspect this means they are conscious of being unworthy to serve Him).
Now if the sinless seraphs are overwhelmed, Isaiah is of course completely frightened by the experienced, and he says, in Verse 5, ‘I am ruined’, or he might have said, ‘I am doomed’.
This friends raises a very interesting matter on the subject of visions of God, because my experience over 30 years as a Christian, is that people who say that they have had a vision of God (and I don’t doubt that God is able to announce Himself or display Himself or comfort or warn, as He pleases) but my experience is that people who write about their visions of God or describe their visions of God almost always have a vision which comforts or secures them without upsetting or rattling their cage. And here, in Isaiah Chapter 6, he is given a vision which totally unsettles him.
If God shows Himself to Isaiah like this, it is no doubt the very first thing that a person needs to know if they are to have a right relationship with God, and that is that they don’t have a right relationship with God. And so He gives Isaiah a true vision. Isaiah is never the same. He never again has a poor view of God, or a small picture of God, even though his contemporaries have an impoverished view of God, even though the people of God have an inferior view of their God, Isaiah is never the same.
I will tell you something very strange, the Israelites of Isaiah’s day have forgotten the God of creation.
They have forgotten the God of the Red Sea, they have forgotten the God of Mt Sinai, they have forgotten the God who fights and wins battles.
It’s a bizarre thing that they would come to such a poor, small view of God until of course, you remember what your own heart is like, and you know that we are capable of doing precisely the same thing. We can speak about and sing about and hear about an absolutely huge and righteous God and then if you are like me, you can walk straight out of this building and drop the whole subject instantly and get on with your own agenda. That is what we are capable of.
These Israelites have invented a God who they think they can control by ritual. And so back in Chapter 1, in Verse 13:14, God says to the Israelites: stop your offerings. Stop your meetings. I hate your meetings. I hate your assemblies. And that is how bad things have got. They are actually running the ritual and absolutely repulsing God. We need to be very careful that we don’t secretly, in our brains, invent a God whom we domesticate by our religion and yet think is not capable of doing anything about our sinfulness.
Isaiah is utterly changed by his vision, and he starts to see a God who demands his repentance and also has a wonderful solution to the sin. So that is the vision.
The second thing this morning is the confession, and you will see the confession comes in Verse 5. Remember the thing that really frightens Isaiah is not that God is huge, but that God is sinless and holy and he calls out, in Verse 5, ‘Woe… I am ruined!’, what we would call out would be ‘No! I am finished… it’s all over.’ And he’s conscious of this for two reasons: one, that God is so different from him and the other is that he has seen God in some way, in some vision, and that, according to Scripture, is a fatal experience. And so he feels not only his filth, but he also feels that he is doomed.
What is even more amazing, and I think essential is that Isaiah, in seeing God, instantly identifies with his people. He doesn’t run out with this experience and say to people, ‘listen: I have seen God, and I am better than you, and I have had greater experience than you, and I am now telling you that you are in trouble.’
He sees what God is like and he cannot see any solution for himself, and he cannot see any solution for his people. This is an extraordinarily important thing because I think the whole issue of Isaiah 6 is not to say to you from this pulpit just that God is holy, and therefore, what are you going to do about it? But to tell you that Isaiah 6 is proclaiming God is holy, we are not; He has made a way in which we might be joined and reconciled, but He has also found a way in which He might use us in the world.
Now, most of you will say here this morning, ‘The first issue is a non-issue for me. I am already reconciled to God. I understand the Gospel, I have put my faith in Jesus, I am a Christian.’
But isn’t the second question a big issue for you? Don’t you find yourself saying regularly, ‘How can God possibly use me? He is so good, I am so bad. How can He possibly use me?’ And the message of Isaiah 6 is that God uses forgiven sinners.
How can I preach to you today? Is it because I am better than you? Is there anybody here who honestly thinks that the preacher is better than the pew-sitter? Impossible, I hope.
How is it that you are able to go out and talk to a non-Christian friend or member of your family? We are all sinful people. And the only answer that comes, in this wonderful passage of Isaiah 6, is that God not only knows how to forgive, but He then uses the forgiven.
That’s why Chapter 6 Verse 5 is so important because Isaiah does a remarkable thing, in the face of his recognition of his sinfulness and that is, he admits it. He does what we find it so difficult to get our non-Christian friends to do, and that is to despair. The whole world is interested in being affirmed and being positive and thinking the best. And this overwhelming message comes from the Word of God to the world, which is that you must come to the point of despair and admit sin. And as soon as Isaiah admits his sin, he puts himself in an entirely different category from the rest of God’s people.
- Think of five people who are in a burning building. One lady calls to the fireman, ‘Catch me’ and jumps out the window
- Think of five people who are caught in the rip of a surf. One man calls for the lifesaver
- Think of five people who have been infected with a deadly disease. One asks for the antidote
What is the difference between the one and the others?
It’s not that they have different needs. They all have the same need. The difference is that the one admits. And as soon as the one admits, the one gets a solution. And as soon as the one gets the solution, the one is able to be part of passing on the solution. And that is what Isaiah does. He admits to God, in an overwhelming sense, I am in trouble. I can’t do anything unless You help me.’
Many of us are trying, every now and again, to pass on the Gospel using the old A B C. Imagine somebody out of the blue says to you, ‘What do Christians believe?’ And you go through the A B C.
A – ‘Well, we are people who admit that we have fallen short’
B – ‘We believe that Jesus died to bridge the gulf’
C – ‘We have come to Him. We have committed ourselves to Him. Admit, believe, come.’
But the admission is so difficult to get people to believe, to do. There’s a great hostility today to this admitting need or admitting sin, and I suspect that the devil invents, on an hourly basis, if possible, new ways of stopping people from just acknowledging their need, their sin. I wonder whether he doesn’t have 1,000 dark advertising companies, working to produce new ways of stopping people from simply admitting or confessing their sin.
For example, you have people who say, ‘Let’s invent a new God who is just loving and kind and doesn’t talk about all this sin stuff. So much more pleasant.’
Other examples are;
- let’s have a philosophy that people are basically good
- let’s be positive. Let’s introduce just talk which affirms
- let’s allow people to choose their own spirituality, one that’s meaningful to them
- Only fire and brimstone churches will talk about sin, so avoid those sort of churches
- Let’s distinguish that I am basically good, but every now and again, I just muck up a few times
- Why don’t we concentrate on loving deeds rather than such negative words
People come up with a whole range of ways in which they might not get to the ‘A’ of Christianity, which is to admit their sin and their need.
I hope you will remember this little word ‘admit’. Maybe you will be standing in a queue to the opera or the movies, and you will have your little ticket in your hand, and it says something like ‘Admit one’, and you will just remember this little word ‘admit’. And of course, you are going to be admitted. Why is a Christian admitted into God’s fellowship or family? Because they have admitted their sin. And when we admit, it is the first step to Him admitting us.
The third thing is the cleansing. The confession or the admission which Isaiah utters is humanly crucial. It has to be done. But then comes the cleansing and the forgiving, and this is divinely crucial. Isaiah has called for God’s help, and God swiftly gives it in Verse 6 and 7. You see that one of the seraphim flew, with a live coal in his hand which he had taken with tongs from the altar and touched his mouth and said,’This has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’
Now the altar was where Old Testament sins were paid for. A sacrifice was placed on the altar to pay for the sin. And now God takes a symbol of the altar and rushes it to Isaiah as if to say, ‘You have confessed your need. I have provided a solution, and I am bringing them together.’ The coal from the altar is the symbol of God’s provision of a solution.
What is interesting is that although the altar was burning continually in the temple, and Isaiah’s people, the people of Isaiah’s day, were running services on and on and on and on, coming to this altar. It was doing them no good whatsoever because they had never matched confession with cleansing. It would almost be as if somebody were to come to Church and take communion on a weekly basis, for years and decades, and never benefit from the communion because all the time the communion is calling out, ‘There is a solution to sin’, but the person has never dropped down on their knees and said, I need a solution to sin’ and so the two wires have never come together. And that communion, which is offering and promising so much, has never actually found in the person who is eating the bread and drinking the wine, a genuinely needy person.
In the wonderful simplicity of these verses, Isaiah recognises his need, confesses it, and God provides.
Now he is going to preach to his contemporaries, and he is not just going to be conscious of sin, he is also going to be aware of forgiveness. He is not going to go out and say, ‘I am a perfect man.’ He is going to go out and say, ‘I am a rescued man.’ And that’s the great privilege of the preacher to his congregation, or the Christian witnessing to his or her friends or family. We go out as a forgiven person. We are not superior. We have recognised that God is infinitely above us in holiness and that it is only His provision that has made it possible to have any relationship, and that is the news we want to pass on.
So we don’t just want people to admit their need, we also want people to believe the answer. We don’t just want people to confess sin; we want people to take hold of Jesus. Now there is no altar left. I hope everybody here in this building knows this. There are no altars left in the world as far as God is concerned. There is no coal to be grabbed, to take to people. Do not rush out to anyone with a lump of coal. It won’t do them any good.
What we have, of course, is another kind of altar. And that is the altar of the cross, Calvary, where Jesus was offered as the last sacrifice for our sin. And there is no altar with coal anymore. There is now an altar called the cross, with a word. And the word, the message which goes out from the cross, goes like this: it’s finished. Salvation is accomplished. You can be forgiven. Salvation must be received. He has achieved it. You must accept it.
And that is our message to the world: He has achieved it. You receive it.
I was reading, some time ago, of a preacher who was discussing the whole subject of believing with a Masai tribesman. And, as this preacher described ‘belief’ to the Masai tribesman, the tribesman was shaking his head and said to him,
‘Your word for “belief” is much too weak.’ He said, ‘The word you are using for “belief” is the word that we would use of a hunter who just pulls a trigger and knocks down an animal. He is distant. It is separated. There is no involvement. Our word for “belief” is the word for when the lion sees the prey, runs, grabs it, embraces it and eats it.’
It’s a fascinating contrast, isn’t it? The person in the world, or the pew, perhaps, whose view of “belief” is: I pull the trigger. I see something. Yes, it’s over there. But the real word for “belief”, the Biblical word for “belief” should be the word for the lion who takes hold of the gospel, takes hold of Christ, receives Him, welcomes Him.
The last thing in our few verses this morning is the commission, Verses 8-13. I say again, who will God use to be a blessing to His world?
You might say, ‘Not me. It couldn’t be me.’ And, on your own, you are right. It couldn’t be me, either. On my own, it couldn’t be me. God is not going to use the person who avoids Him. God is not going to use the person who tries to impress Him. God is not going to use the person who disqualifies himself or herself and says, I won’t be used.’
But God will use the person, like Isaiah, who admits their need and believes the news. And Isaiah, you see, in Verse 8 has gone from despair to enthusiasm. ‘Whom shall I send?’ says the Lord. And Isaiah said,’Here am I. Send me!’
Now he has a message which he will take out to the world, and it is more than just talk. It’s very, very meaningful. It’s a message which he needed and everybody needs, and so he offers himself as a messenger. He finds, in Verses 9 and following, that he has a job to do, which is the toughest job in the world, and that is that he has to preach a message which is going to judge or punish or harden the listeners. That’s his job, as a prophet, to preach a message which is going to harden.
We read in John 12 that there were people in Jesus’ day who would not believe and then God punished them, making them so they could not believe. They would not… and then they could not. It’s a very interesting sequence. And that, sadly, is the situation in Isaiah’s day. They would not… and so they can not. And Isaiah has this terrible job of taking the Word of God, which is going to harden the people until God has done His job of disciplining or punishing.
Just like sunshine, the Word of God goes out, and it melts butter, and it hardens clay. And the sermon that is preached, from a pulpit like this, has a softening or a hardening effect. And it does what God purposes, and that is why we need to pray on a regular basis that we, as listeners, would be softened and not hardened by the Word.
No wonder Isaiah says, ‘How long do I have to do this for?’ Verse 11, how long, oh Lord? God says to Isaiah, ‘I want you to preach until the judgement has taken place, til the cities are ruined, till the houses are deserted, the fields are ravaged, until the Lord (Verse 12) has sent everyone far away.’
Now that isn’t the end of the message, because, in Verse 13, there is the shoot or the stump or the seed. God never, you see, wipes out His people. He may cut back the dead wood, but He causes a stump or a seed which is going to spring up and be the source of new life. And we discover, of course, well down the track, that this seed, this stump is really Jesus and everybody who, as it were, comes to faith in Him.
If we were to capture this vision of Isaiah 6 and put it into a simple summary, what would we say? We would say this;
If a person could see God in Heaven, it is almost sure that that would not just be a soft, easy experience, but it would be an unsettling and scary experience, not because God is frightening, ugly but because God is awesome, holy. And the steps that Isaiah is taken through, in Chapter 6, seeing what God is like, crying for help, receiving the mercy, telling other people is precisely the sequence that Isaiah’s people need to go through. They need to see what God is like again. They need to cry for mercy, they need to receive His cleansing, and they then need to be His instrument in His world. And that is, of course, how a person becomes a Christian – see their need, ask for help, receive Christ, become His follower and servant.
This chapter gives us great encouragement, that God is in the gracious business of bringing people back to Himself through forgiven sinners. And God is able and willing to use people like you and me in His service, once we have followed the sequence of Isaiah 6.
Let’s pray together. Heavenly Father, we thank You for what You revealed to Isaiah and have shown to us in the Scriptures, and we pray that You would help us to respond rightly to You, as you enabled Isaiah too. And we pray that You would help us to respond to You, not only in seeing You in Your greatness, and seeing our own need, and gladly receiving the Lord Jesus, but also as people who go from here, with a message which is of immense and eternal value for a needy world. So we thank You for Your great grace to us, and we do pray that You would help us to live as those who have received it and as those who are ready to pass it on. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen