Bible overview 7: God calls the people back - 17th March - John Cooper / Duncan Bell

Reading: Isaiah 1:1 – 2:5

Below is a transcript of John's sermon.

Click here to listen to a recording of Duncan's sermon.

A young boy and an elederly man (obviously the child’s grandfather) were going around a supermarket. The boy was being a real horror. He would grab the shopping trolley and push it at people and he would purposefully knock items off the shelves. The elderly chap could be heard saying things like “Calm down Thomas. It is alright”. When he got to the checkout the boy got onto the conveyor belt and rode along it. Grandfather said “Don’t worry Thomas we will soon be out of here”. Another customer said to him “You showed a lot of patience dealing with Thomas your grandson”. “Thomas is not my grandson.” the elderly chap replied. “He is called Cornelius. I am Thomas!”.

How do you think God reacts to our continuing rebellion? He obviously shows great patience but it must upset Him. In the Old Testament there is a continuing cycle of the people sinning, God punishes them, they turn back to Him and then God relents only for the cycle to start again. That was true for the Old Testament nation of Israel but I think you will agree with me that it is true in our own experience.

Those of you who came to my slide show about Israel will have heard me say that archaeologists found two different cultures with obviously different pottery. They knew one culture would be Canaanite and the other Jewish but which was which? They decided that the one with pig bones was the Canaanite one as no sign of eating pork was found in the other. But, and here is my point, both cultures showed the worship of the same Canaanite gods. It is just not possible to say that the Israelites only worshipped the one true God. That was a situation God could not tolerate.

Several years ago somebody said to me that she could see no point in studying the Old Testament because its God was vindictive whereas the God of the New Testament is full of love. She obviously felt that somehow God had changed. But God cannot change. Yes He does punish in the Old Testament but you can also find love there and you can find Him punishing sin in the New Testament. But God is not vindictive. He tells people when they are doing wrong and this is where the prophets come in. Their role was to bring the word of God to His people in much the same way as preachers do today. The difference is that we have it written down in the Bible. We just explain and apply it. Their message was a call to repentance and holy living. Primarily it was for the contemporaries of the prophets. But they had, so to speak, three pairs of eyes: one pair on God’s message; one on the moral climate of the time and the final pair on the future; either blessings or wrath to come. This is in contrast to the many false prophets who had a message of shallow optimism. Indeed there were many court prophets and it was tempting for them to say just what the king wanted to hear. But peace can only come if there is holiness and the punishment for sin is satisfied.

God had instituted a system of animal sacrifices by which a Jew’s sin could be absolved by killing a goat or sheep. However this practice was much abused because the people were merely ‘going through the motions’. They continued to sin. God addressed this through Isaiah in our reading: He says “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (1:11) instead the people must “Stop doing wrong [and] learn to do right” (1:16f). Actually these animal sacrifices of the Old Testament prefigure the bodily sacrifice of the promised Messiah.

However the people on the whole do not listen. The nation is defeated by the Babylonians and the leading citizens are transported to the empire of their enemy. But God is merciful and their faith is rejuvenated in Babylon.  The Jews are allowed to return to their homeland of Israel. But they remain under the subjugation of foreign masters and, except for a brief interlude, that remains the situation up until 1948. 

God’s promises to Israel still stand. The Jews are still the promised people under the reign of an everlasting David-like king, the Messiah. The prophets tell of a future beyond judgment and a new relationship with God when even sin itself is done away with. More than any other book in the Old Testament  Isaiah focuses on the salvation that will come through the Messiah. The prophet tells us that His ultimate reign will bring justice, peace and righteousness (9:7, 32:1; 11:6-9) and Israel will be a light to all nations (42:6). It is through the Messiah that God’s righteousness will be fully revealed to the world.

The prophets give us great detail about this forthcoming Messiah: He would be born of a virgin in Bethlehem, a descendant of King David (Is.7:14; Mi.5:2; Jer.23:5). A messenger will preceed Him (Is.40:3; Mal..3:1). He will enter Jerusalem on a colt (Zec.9:9) and be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver (Zec.11:12). His hands and feet will be pierced and men will gamble for His clothes (Ps.22:16; 22:18). None of His bones will be broken (Ex.12:46; Ps.34:20). He will be executed with thieves and buried in a rich man’s tomb (Is.53:12; 53:9). Of course these very accurately predict Jesus’ life and death on earth. Jesus is so obviously this much promised Messiah and it is through Him that we find salvation. To quote Isaiah: “Surely He took up our infirmaties and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him striken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6). Here the prophet is very clearly saying that the Messiah, Jesus, will suffer  punishment for our sin to bring us into a new relationship with God. This prophecy is even more remarkable because it was written at least five hundred years before Christ’s birth!

Isaiah was not the last prophet. Before Jesus started His ministry His relative John the Baptist was calling people to repent of their sins. He knew that One was coming who was far greater than any prophet. Only the Messiah could remove the effect of sin tainting a person’s very being and producing a barrier between him and God. Sin could, and can, only be removed by God Himself and by a human simultaneously acting in the place of all men by taking their punishment.

Thus we see in the Old Testament prophets an accurate prediction of how God will deal ultimately with the barrier between Man and Himself. Isaiah knew the extent of our sin and that the Temple system of animal sacrifices could never really deal with the situation. God Himself needed to come to earth to remove sin. And that is the big event human history (and our sermon series) is leading up to.