The Earth Remade and Christian Mission

Sunday I took a departure from the Gospel of John and prepared a devotional for both Sunday AM and Sunday PM that looks at Isaiah 66.  This isn’t a sermon, so its not as lengthy as one might expect my notes to be on this kind of passage, but I hope its an encouragement to you.  If you’re a Christian you can take comfort in a passage like this where your place in the larger scope in God’s redemptive tapestry is evident.  From front to back, the Bible proclaims the centrality of God’s glory and our mission to bring Him glory and worship.  Here is just one more passage that points to these truths.

A New Heavens and a New Earth

Isaiah 66:17-24

Our text comes from the final verses of the book of Isaiah.  This is not meant to be a sermon, but rather a short lesson to stir up your minds to worship God as you leave this place.  The goal of this lesson is to show that from first to last, from Pentateuch to Prophets to Gospels and General Epistles, God’s purposes and plans have not changed.  They are being fulfilled even now in the church, and will be consummated upon Christ’s second coming.  

The context for our passage is that in the final chapters of Isaiah’s writing (particularly 65-66, though the entire section from 40 onward is markedly different than 1-39) we are learning about what will occur during the interim of the Anointed One’s two advents, as well as some things which will occur upon His final return and kingdom consummation…The notion of “kingdom” and “mission” looms heavy here, but the overarching thrust of the passage is that the end and goal of all things is the glory of God.

As we walk through the passage, I want you to notice FIVE points of importance to our discussion this evening:

  1. The centrality of worship and the glory of God
  2. The mission of God’s people
  3. The scope of God’s kingdom and our mission
  4. The justice of God
  5. The renewal of all creation, and revelation of God’s glory

Alec Motyer sums up the passage this way, “…this final section spans the first and second comings of the Lord Jesus Christ: his purpose for the world (18), his means of carrying it out (19-21), the sign set among the nations, the remnant sent to evangelize them (19) and the gathering of his people to ‘Jerusalem’ (20) with Gentiles in full membership (21). Jerusalem is not the literal city but the city of Galatians 4:25-26; Hebrews 12:22; Revelations 21. Exactly so but for Isaiah, not privileged as we with hindsight, it was a vision of staggering proportions.”

First of all, this is a passage that tells us of the purposes of God for His people and all of creation.  Central to those purposes is that God’s glory is His primary concern.  His glory and fame and our worship of Him make up the main theme not only of this passage, but also of all redemptive history.  God desires worship from every tribe tongue and nation (vs. 18-20).  Furthermore, the central end (teleos) of all history is that God will receive glory. In fact, we were created for this end, as was all of creation.  Therefore it makes sense that the mission of His people, and the end goal of all things is, “they shall come and shall see my glory” (vs. 18) and that “all flesh shall come to worship before me” (vs. 23).  This is not an isolated bullet point, but the truth that permeates this entire passage.

The second thing we notice here is the mission of God’s people.  In verse 19 we read that God will “send survivors to the nations” who will “declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations, as an offering to the Lord…” As Peter Gentry says, “This text in Isaiah comes close to the Great Commission in Matthew 28.”  Motyer says this “is the clearest Old Testament statement of the theme of missionary outreach.”  Hundreds of years before the Great Commission, God had already expressed to Isaiah a plan to send us out to the nations as His Ambassadors (2 Corinthians) who would bring back converts to the Lord – literally turning people toward the Lord in repentance in order to bring Him glory.

He does this by setting “a sign among them.”  This sign is likely either meant to be the cross of Christ (Motyer, Gentry), the gospel of Christ, or the Spirit of Christ (Calvin), which indwells all believers. This work, this mission of bringing people back to the Lord will be our “grain offering” to the Lord (vs. 20).  What is likely in mind is the grain offering or the offering of “first fruits” (Motyer), which is appropriate because as James says, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18 ESV – see also Rom. 8:23).

In fact Paul says in Romans 12, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).  So we see why we were created, and now we see the purpose of our mission as well – to spread the good news of the Gospel to people all over the world in order to bring glory to God.  This is our spiritual act of worship, to obey the Lord in the spreading of His glorious message.

The third thing we see is that the scope of the mission is worldwide.  Remember the context of when God is speaking to Isaiah – this is 700+ years prior to the birth of Christ. Going to reach the nations with the message of God’s kingdom wasn’t exactly on the minds of the Jews right now.  If I had to guess, I’d say they were most concerned about fending off the Assyrians from invasion.

This isn’t because the Jews were unaware of the scope of God’s redemptive plan, but rather they simply had forgotten it, or refused to believe it. As Motyer says, “they (the Jews) knew that the promise that was first their unique privilege was destined to be the privilege of all the earth.”Here are two places in the Pentetech where God’s plans for the nations were mentioned:

  • First in Numbers 14:21 God is speaking through Moses and talking about judgement the Jews will receive for disobedience, and almost as a “throw away” line He mentions that one day the entire earth will be “filled with (His) glory!”  That “glory” comes first in the person of Christ, second in the spreading of His gospel, and finally in the consummation of His kingdom.
  • Secondly, God had promised Abraham in Genesis 22:17-18 that He would bless the nations through His seed. “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”  There is a clear tie-in with vs. 20 “your brothers from all the nations” and vs. 22 “your offspring.”  This is a clear reference to the spiritual seed of Abraham – that’s you and me!

Now as we continue to see the worldwide scope of this glory-spreading that we do, we read in verse 19 of a list of cities.  The list is indicative of the worldwide nature of the mission, and the fact that nothing will block the message from achieving its end.  As Alec Motyer says, “The place-names are intended to be impressionistic rather than literal, creating a sense of world outreach.” All the nations will receive this message (vs. 19) and it will cross all bounds of communication, technology, travel method, or means (vs. 20).  As Motyer says, “No distance or difficulty will stand in the way of bringing the brother’s home; every transport will be put under contribution.”

So this plan is expansive in scope, and its blessing will initially be carried to the nations by us, the church, His chosen people who are spreading the message of the gospel of peace.  As John Calvin rightly says of this passage, “The time when he (Abraham) became ‘the father of many nations’ was when God adopted the Gentiles, and joined them to himself by a covenant, that they might follow the faith of Abraham. And thus we see the reason why the Prophet (Isaiah) gives the name of ‘brethren’ of the Jews to us, who formerly were aliens from the Church of God.”

This is clearly articulated by John in his gospel when explaining the prediction of Caiaphas regarding Jesus, “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51-52).

But Isaiah takes it a step further!  Not only will the Gentiles be adopted into the family of God as “brothers”, but in vs. 21 we read that God will take some of them for priests and Levites!  How sacrilegious would this have been to Isaiah’s audience!  And this group of Levites and priests are those saved by the blood of the lamb.  Listen to what Peter says

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).

That is your mission to “proclaim the excellencies” of God. Truly “Now Israel as a royal priesthood includes Gentiles; the context puts an emphasis on honor, privilege, absorbing the riches of the nations, and nearness to Yahweh” (Gentry).

The fourth thing we note here is justice and righteousness of God.  God’s reign is like God’s plan for blessing – they both extend to more than simply Jews.  God is the sovereign ruler of all nations and people, and at the consummation of our Lord’s kingdom He will judge every nation and every person ever born on this planet.  He has the right to judge every man and every woman because He is the Creator, but more than that, He judges in perfect righteousness because of His omniscience. 

This is what is assumed by verse 18 when He states, “I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues.”  This verse follows a statement in verse 17, which describes what Jesus would later call “the tares” in the church – the pretenders. Jesus promised that all things that are hidden would eventually be brought into the light (Luke 8:17), and that includes those who “sanctify and purify themselves” (vs. 17) and spend their days in the church, while their hearts are far from God. Here He declares, they “shall come to an end together.”

John Oswalt rightly says, “Those who are depending on mechanical rituals and physical membership in the elect people are not the servants of God about whom Isaiah spoke so eloquently in chapters 41-46. They are nothing more than the rebels who were described with equal eloquence in chapter 1. It is those who gladly keep God’s covenant, whether they be Jews or Gentiles, who are God’s true servants.”

We do not do the judging – we do the worship (vs. 18, vs. 23).  God is the One who does the judging. God is able to judge all men (vs. 24) because He can rightly and righteously judge based on His omniscience.  Calvin says, “The Lord here testifies that he sees and observes their works, and that one day he will actually manifest that none can be concealed from his eyes.” Not only is He omniscient, but because He is perfectly holy, he will rightly judge according to his own character.  The warning is that “there is a cemetery beside the city (of Jerusalem)” (Moyter).  The hope of the gospel message (vs. 19-20) resides alongside the absolute reality of eternal punishment for those who reject this message (vs. 24).

Finally, God will finish the work He began.  Upon this great consummation He will reveal to us His glory (vs. 18) – a glory mediated now through the person of Jesus and His gospel of peace (John 1:14) will one day be manifested for all to see.

We read here that upon His return He will renew the heavens and the earth (vs. 22) – a completely new creation which He began inside you and will consummate physically throughout the entire earth when He comes back.

How do we know He will do this?  Well, as Peter Gentry says, “His name and his offspring are preserved because now God has joined Jews and non-Jews into one family. The new world involves two things: a new place and a new people. Verse 22 shows that both of these are certain because they are in God’s mind; he can actually see them before him.”  His promises are sealed by the trueness of His own character – He sees it, He knows it, therefore it’s a done deal.

Oswalt brilliantly sums up:

God has re-created his world, and sin can never stain it again. The tragedies of the old world, which called into question the very faithfulness of God, are gone. God had promised to Abraham a name and seed, children, but the sin of Israel and the rapacity of the world rulers made it seem as if even God could not keep his promises. Nonetheless, God is greater that human sin and human pride and is able to keep his promises. The old heavens and earth had been called to witness the justice of God in punishing his people (1:2); they had also been called to burst into song over the redemption of those people made possible by the work of the Servant (44:23; 49:13). Now the eternity of the new heavens and earth stands as a testimony to the eternity of God’s promises.

So Jesus is the light to which men are drawn or repulsed in blindness (John 3:19-21), and His gospel message is a glorious message that either blinds or softens.  As Matt Chandler says, “The gospel is such power that it necessitates reaction…The heart of the hearer of the gospel must move, either toward Christ or away from him” (The Explicit Gospel).

Paul tells us, “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).  This is the message that is going out to all the nations. But this message, this glory, which is going out to all the nations right now, will be most fully revealed upon the consummation of the kingdom when Christ returns, for as John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

In conclusion, we ought to be encouraged and awed by God’s plan for us and by the scope of His plan for human history, for it far outstrips our own perspective.  Yet the role we as Christians play is enormously important. We are chosen people, priests to God, and are sent on a mission to proclaim the “excellencies” of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light – a light that will one day cover all creation (Num. 14) and transform us into the likeness of His beloved Son (2 Cor. 3:18).  Until that time, we have a “missionary obligation” as a church: “to create a magnetic community” (Motyer) that reflects that glory of Christ and turns people toward the glory of God, and shares a saving message of the hope of the gospel (Motyer), without which those who reject it will perish in eternal fire and torment (vs. 24).

This passage makes clear the linear nature of history to which all things are driving; the urgency of our mission could not be more apparent.

 

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