Sermon Manuscript — Isaiah 53:1

20 Feb

         This morning we are starting one of the golden prophecies of the Old Testament, our year verses for 2017, Isaiah 53. Over the next twelve weeks we are going to, Lord willing, look at this chapter word for word, verse for verse. We are going to turn it over like a diamond to the light, appreciating every facet, letting our hearts be lifted by the wisdom and goodness of God.

Many people have called this chapter the gospel according to Isaiah, and that is right. This chapter is a part of the second half of the book of Isaiah which is all about the coming Suffering Servant who would save a people through sacrifice. Isaiah 53 is the high point of the book of Isaiah, like Romans 8 is to the epistle or Luke 15 to the gospel of Luke. We are scaling to one of those biblical Mt. Everest peaks in these weeks. So let’s start the climb this morning with verse 1.

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

          Questions draw us in. Questions bring us to a point of participation in a way that statements do not. So Isaiah draws us in with questions. They are questions of longing. Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? The answer is linked to the last chapter, where Isaiah said that the Messiah, the promised Savior, would “sprinkle many nations,” draw many people to Himself. Now the question comes, who has believed, to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? These are questions of complaint. There is good news, but few have believed it. There is great power, but few have received it. And in this unveiling of the good news of the Savior there is both the necessity of human hearing and divine revealing.

This message of a coming Savior is not limited to Isaiah 53. It is all over the Old Testament. This is why Isaiah says here, “who has believed what he has heard from US.” As Hebrews 1:1 says, “Long ago at many times and in many ways God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.” And the message of the prophets was to point to this coming Savior, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. So the Jews had received all these messages from the prophets, along with the law of God which showed them through its rules and through the sacrifices the holiness of God, the need for a substitute and the shedding of blood for forgiveness, and the need for purity. God’s old covenant law was to the Jews, as Paul says in Galatians 3:24, “a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” Yet, we see here these words, “who has believed what he has heard from us?” Who indeed? You see, you can hear the greatest preaching in the world and not believe. You can have a beautiful leather Bible on your bookshelf at home and even read it regularly and not believe. You can have the best Christian friends and go to the most loving church and not believe. You can sing songs of praise and not believe. You can give money to Christian causes and not believe. The Jews had all the trappings of devotion to God but many of them did not believe what the prophets said. So it is in our day. There is much religious activity but little authentic faith. There are booming churches everywhere but the culture continues to turn away from God and His truth. A large majority in our nation still professes belief in God, but not many are really hearing His message. All you have to do is look at our lives to know this. How easily we trade God’s standards for our own notions of what is good. And how often we seek the good life in all the wrong places, through pleasure or success or power or chasing after dollar signs. Most of us present this morning have heard the message for years. Yet have we been listening? And has this listening led us to believe? As I look over the landscape of this great land I believe there has been much hearing but not much listening with the ears of faith. There have been multitudes of curious onlookers, like the multitudes that followed after Jesus in His days of earthly ministry, but there have not been many disciples. So the words of Isaiah still ring true for us . . . who has believed what he has heard from us?

The good news is there are still some in our land who are like Simeon in the gospel of Luke, a man who was waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a Savior. There are a few who believe what God has said about the Savior rather than constructing their own personal Jesus, who has nothing to do with the Jesus revealed in Scripture.

As the people in Jesus’ day expected a political deliverer to triumph mightily over Rome rather than a Suffering Servant who would triumph over sin and death through self-sacrifice, so we look to Jesus to make America what we want it to be. Or we look to Jesus to satisfy our longings, to give us a comfortable life. Or we look to Jesus to do miracles for us. We are fine using Him to be healthy wealthy and wise but we are not willing to bow the knee to Him. Who has believed what he has heard from us?

We don’t believe because we are proud. We think the cross is a foolish thing. A Savior is supposed to dominate and decimate His enemies, not be mocked and spat upon and nailed to a tree to die naked between two thieves. We don’t believe because in our pride we can’t accept the words of lowly fishermen who lived 2000 years ago. We accept the word of modern novelists and their conspiracies or the word of New Testament scholars whose spin on the truth of God we trust more than those who were eyewitnesses of His glory. But more than anything, in our pride we are unwilling to come to terms with this one thing: there is but one God and one Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and He alone is to be worshiped. In the end our problem is as old as the garden . . . we want to be a god ourselves. We are far too casual about the most momentous thing that has ever happened in space and time. We get worked up over a football game or the latest celebrity sighting but have no eyes to behold our God, our suffering Savior. We have a yearning for the things of God but we have not the will to seek them, even though Jesus urges us to this . . . seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. The Puritan Thomas Manton says, “It is a sign people do not prize a thing when they do not labor after it.” Who has believed our message?

Hard hearts lead to closed ears. So who has believed what he has heard from us? The answer is “not many.” And it has always been so. The way is narrow that leads to life and few find it. Now in the end, many through time will find it, for Revelation tells us that a great multitude from all the world will worship Jesus forever, but in each individual time period it seems that true believers are the exception rather than the rule. But this does not mean the story of Jesus is false. On the contrary, the truth or falsehood of something does not depend on how many people believe it. Copernicus was right about the sun being at the center of the solar system even though most of his contemporaries disagreed. So we are a part of this Copernican revolution called Christianity, a revolution that digs against conventional wisdom, standard operating procedure and the very fabric of our approach to life. This revolution that says saving comes by losing, living comes by dying and redemption comes through suffering.

So have you listened to the message? Have you heard the sermons and Sunday School lessons all these years and believed, or have you heard without a heart of faith? How can you know? You can know if you are moved by the truth of Jesus. You can know if you are changed by the truth of Jesus, if your life is different because you know Him. You can know if your love for Him and others is real and growing. The bottom line is simple: has Jesus made a difference in your life. If you could take all you have known of Jesus out of your life and be substantially the same person either way, you are almost certainly lost. But if the love of Christ compels you, if you can’t imagine life without Him (not your version of Him but who He is in Scripture) then you have real reasons to believe, yes, I have heard this gospel message, and I have believed. Oh, that this kind of self-examination would happen here and in every corner of every church in this nation, and in every bedroom of every house this morning where there is someone who today has been burned by the church or is done with so-called “organized religion” but still claims some kind of relationship with Jesus. Let us examine ourselves, in a world where so much filth is accepted, so much excess is applauded, so little sacrifice is demanded, could it be that there are far fewer Christians in America than we might think? Have we even fooled ourselves?

Who has believed what he has heard from us? We’ve looked at that question. Now let’s turn to the second question of this verse, a question similar do and different from the first question . . . “And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

The “arm of the Lord” here is parallel to “the message” in the first part of the verse. The arm of the Lord in Scripture refers to God’s display of power. Sometimes it’s the hand of God, sometimes the finger of God, sometimes the arm of God but whenever you have this kind of humanizing language for God about His arm, you are talking about the display of His strength. The greatest display of God’s strength and the focus of Isaiah 53, is the Suffering Servant Jesus and the message of the grace He brings through self-giving love. So the arm of the Lord in Isaiah 53:1 is the Lord Jesus and the gospel truth of salvation in Him. Jesus is the message and the might of God. And this of course is the way Paul describes it when he says in Romans, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

The gospel is the power of God. It works, as Hebrews 4:12 says, to the dividing of the heart. The gospel troubles sinners, even though the sinner on hearing the gospel, though troubled, is also angered. This is actually a good way to observe the faith of another person. Does gospel preaching make them angry or does it cause them to make excuses or raise objections, or do they just receive it as the truth of God and bow the knee to that truth? For the believer, the gospel is the glory of God in the face of Christ, our way of eternal and abundant life, the sign of God’s victory in the world. This is what the devil does not want you to know. This is where he will fight you tooth and nail. The gospel is the power of God. Doubts will rise up in your minds, lusts and appetites will compete for your hearts, but this gospel is the arm of the Lord, the only strength we have for life and eternity.

So pastors, Sunday School teachers, is the gospel the arm of the Lord, is it the power of God? Then be not ashamed of this truth, preach boldly, teach powerfully. Know that since it is the arm of God, it has power and will have success. Though many will reject the gospel, not all will. Believe that God has a people He will save through the faithful preaching of the Word. Be faithful to present the gospel not as a means to hear yourself talk or as a way to enrich yourself or make yourself feel good. Preach not out of selfish ambition or envy but make it your goal to just faithfully carry out the call of God on your life. And ask the Spirit to reveal the arm of the Lord to all those to whom you preach.

To all of you listening today, when you listen to preaching or teaching of the gospel, do you listen with reverence? Do you tremble at the Word of God? Do you receive the truth into your hearts? Do you trust in what God is saying through His Word? Do you listen to all preachers and teachers who are preaching the gospel with a view toward learning what you can from them, or do you make your judgment on the value of a thing based on the appearance or the speaking ability of the preacher. Woe to us if we let a pastor’s clothing or accent or grammar or style be a roadblock to hearing the gospel. No matter how poor the speaker may be, there is always something to learn because we are dealing with the Word of God.

To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? We see here this morning the necessity of revelation beyond revelation. You see the message is out there, it can be heard. And it must be heard and believed. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” But this message which must be heard and believed must also be revealed. So we have in Isaiah 53:1 another indicator of God’s sovereignty. In order to hear and believe this message of salvation in Christ, God by His Spirit must reveal the truth to the inner man. This is why Jesus says in John 6:44 that no one can come to Jesus unless God draws him. This is why the great golden chain of Romans 8 is there, “For those whom God foreknew He also predestined for adoption as sons . . . and those he predestined he also called and those he called he justified and those he justified he also glorified.” This is why Ephesians speaks of our having been predestined from the foundation of the world. Yes, God has a plan and He is carrying it out in this world. His plan is to claim a people from every corner of the globe to serve and glorify Him for all eternity through Jesus Christ. God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy and He will harden whom He will harden. So in this first verse of Isaiah 53 we have this great question. In light of all Isaiah had said about the coming of a great Savior, there are not many who hear and believe, not many to whom the arm of the Lord is revealed. Here we have the great scriptural intersect between man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty. God rules over all but we are not robots. We have real choices and these choices have consequence but it is all under the ultimate dominion of God. So we do not live as though everything depends on us but we also do not live as if nothing depends on us, because God’s sovereignty plays out in the world as it is, a world of real moral choices. It is absolutely true that it is essential to believe if we are to be saved. And it is also absolutely true that no one will believe unless God reveals the power of the gospel to us. And don’t you see this reality in life all the time? You see it in the kid who is just ignorant and empty to the things of God until one day, one seemingly random Sunday, God opens her eyes and she sees the beauty of Jesus and follows Him. On the flip side, you see in the person who has been in these pews for years but is cold to the gospel and totally unchanged in life. I do not believe in God’s sovereignty because of an exhaustive theological search, though I have studied what the Bible says about these things. I believe in God’s sovereignty not only through the revelation of Scripture but because I have lived it. I was totally ignorant of God, unconcerned with Him. But one day He opened my eyes and I have never been the same. But I also believe in human responsibility for the same reason. Most of you have heard my testimony but you have not heard Cindy’s. Her testimony is a perfect illustration of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Her parents were divorced and she lived with her mom in middle school but in high school she moved to Columbia to live with her dad (God’s sovereignty). She went to high school and met a girl named Laurie whose parents were students at Columbia Bible College (God’s sovereignty). Laurie was a devoted young follower of Jesus who invited Cindy to church (man’s responsibility). Cindy decided to go with Laurie (man’s responsibility) and saw in that church a kind of Christian life she’d never seen before. She gave her life to the Lord and began to walk with Him. Through the influence of a couple of other friends (responsibility) she ended up going to Columbia Bible College where she grew deeper in the Lord and met me (sovereignty!) and off we went daily making choices but always under the hand and under the reign of God, who has even taken our sins and our failures and turned them for His purposes.

          Have you heard the gospel message today? Have you believed it? Has the arm of the Lord been revealed to you? At the end of the day you may say, “Well, the arm of the Lord has to be revealed to me, so I’ll just wait for that to happen in God’s time.” The first part of that statement is absolutely right, the second part of that statement couldn’t be more false. We are urged continually in the Bible to seek the Lord while He may be found, to call on Him while He is near, to forsake wickedness and walk in righteousness. The call to seek God is not inconsistent with His sovereignty it is something that He in His sovereignty uses to call you to faith. So this morning, if you are uncertain of your standing with God, seek Him. Call on Him. If you know this morning that you know the Lord I just want to ask you whether the faith you have professed is something you still are holding onto?

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