April 21, 2008

The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Introduction

Today we look at the fourth of what are called the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, which are poems or songs that told the Israelites some details of the coming Messiah. The servant songs are poems or chants that Isaiah recited or chanted, probably in the temple court.


The first servant song we discussed is in Isaiah 42:1-9, in which the Father calls the future Messiah “My Servant.” This song prophesies that the Messiah would have a quiet and patient demeanor, would offer comfort to the weak and oppressed, would bring truth and justice, would be a light to the gentiles and open mankind’s eyes. The first song ends with Yahweh assuring that the Messiah’s advent is sure.

The second servant song is in Isaiah 49:1-13. In that song, the Lord prophesied that the Messiah would come in human form, would be an effective teacher and glorify the Father, that He would be sent to save Israel but Israel would reject Him, that He would save all mankind, that those who despised Him will one day worship Him (a prophecy of His second coming), and that He represents a covenant to all people.

In the third servant song, Isaiah 50:4-9, we read prophecies that the Messiah would be obedient in speaking and teaching, in listening to the Father, in His suffering, and in accomplishing His purpose.

Throughout the servant songs, we have run into a characteristic of the Messiah that the Israelites found hard to accept: that He would be a light to the gentiles. They expected a Messiah that would free them from foreign domination and reinforce their rigid legalistic practices. The people who heard Isaiah learned instead that their Messiah would come to save all people, and His message would not be one of political and national dominance, but one of restoration to the Father and righteous thinking and living.

The fourth servant song is found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. It describes the Messiah as the Suffering Servant and is perhaps one of the best known passages in the Old Testament:

13 Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently;
He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.
14 Just as many were astonished at you,
So His visage was marred more than any man,
And His form more than the sons of men;
15 So shall He sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths at Him;
For what had not been told them they shall see,
And what they had not heard they shall consider.
53:1 Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant,
And as a root out of dry ground.
He has no form or comeliness;
And when we see Him,
There is no beauty that we should desire Him.
3 He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
4 Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
6 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.
7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
8 He was taken from prison and from judgment,
And who will declare His generation?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.
9 And they[a] made His grave with the wicked—
But with the rich at His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was any deceit in His mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.
11 He shall see the labor of His soul,[b]and be satisfied.
By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many,
For He shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great,
And He shall divide the spoil with the strong,
Because He poured out His soul unto death,
And He was numbered with the transgressors,
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors.

The Suffering Servant

The exalted destiny of the Servant (52:13-15)

“Behold, My Servant shall . . .” (NIV: “See My Servant . . .”). This song opens with the Lord calling special attention: look at, fix your eyes on, or observe with care and understanding. This is a common way in the Bible to draw attention to what the Lord is about to tell us. We find the same emphasis in the New Testament, as in John 1:29, when John the Baptist saw Jesus approaching him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

“He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.” This is a prophecy of both His first and second advent. He is exalted now; after His resurrection and ascension, He is now at the right hand of the Father. At His second coming, He will be exalted in the sight of the entire world, which He will rule.

Nothing about His physical appearance in His first advent would cause people to exalt Him. In fact, His appearance would be marred (52:14, disfigured). This description could refer to both His physical stature and appearance, but more likely to His appearance at the crucifixion (in the last part of verse 14, the Lord points out “And His form more [marred] than the sons of men”). In other words, His disfigured appearance would be notable, event astonishing or surprising at the extent of His disfigurement. (“Just as many were astonished at You [the boldness and impact of His teachings?], So His visage was marred . . .”; that is, His marred appearance just as astonishing as His bold teaching.) This is a prophecy of His first advent: before He is exalted, He will suffer.

“So shall He sprinkle many nations” (15). This verse refers to salvation the Messiah would bring for all mankind. The “sprinkling” may be a remembrance of the sprinkling of blood on the door posts and lentil on the night in Egypt when the Lord spared the firstborn of the Israelites (Exodus 12). It is the blood of Christ, His death on the cross in payment for our sin, that enables all mankind to enter into communion with the Father. There is one other similar biblical tradition to which this sprinkling may refer. Leviticus 14 describes the ceremonial cleansing of a person healed of infectious disease, a ceremony in which the priest sprinkles water and blood on the healed person to pronounce him or her clean. In this sense, the sprinkling of the Messiah over many nations would be consistent with both His first advent, in which His atoning death make it possible for all who trust Him to be reconciled to the Father, and to His second advent, when He will rule over the nations and cleanse them from their sin.

At His second advent, governments (kings) will not resist; “kings shall shut their mouths” because they will understand and submit to His rule.

The Life of the Servant (53:1-3)

These verses are a brief summary of the Messiah’s life during His first advent. “Who has believed our report (message)? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The implication is that in spite of these and other prophecies, few would recognize the Messiah, although the prophecies clearly describe Him and his life and purpose.

Isaiah 53:2 tells us, “For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant” (literally, “tender shoot”). Take a look at Isaiah 11:1 (NIV): “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots, a branch will bear fruit.” The term refers to the growth that sprouts from the stump of a tree after it has been cut down or died. Most of us have seen the shoots that grow from the stump of a fallen tree. The tree, which was cut down, often still has life in it. So it was by the first century, when the ruling house of David had been cut off, dead for centuries. Yet, just as prophesied, the Messiah came, a descendant of David.

The passage gives us a good description of how things were when Jesus first came to earth. It was a dark time in history for the Israelites, a dark time spiritually, a dark time politically after centuries of foreign dominance and occupation, a time of poverty; the nation of Israel was all but dead. But then came the Messiah, in humble circumstances and with no particular personal charisma or especially pleasant or appealing physical stature: “For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, And as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him.” Jesus was born to a poor, working family and probably had an average appearance. There was nothing special in His circumstances or appearance that would tend to set Him apart as a leader or prophet. It was His message alone that was so compelling.

Even in adulthood, when He taught as the Son of God, He was despised and rejected: “He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” The Messiah was rejected by the religious leaders, who cursed Him, falsely accused Him, and in many ways expressed their hatred and disgust for Him. Although a few saw Him for Who He is, most “did not esteem Him.”

His suffering for our sin (53:4-9)

The Messiah is described in these verses as substitutionary atonement for our sin in one of the most intense passages in the Bible. Christ was our substitute in receiving the judgment due for our sin. Note how this is emphasized in this passage (“He has borne our griefs . . . He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities; . . .”). He paid the price for us, so that we would not have to and so that we could live in communion with the Father.

This doctrine of the atonement for our sin is repeated often in the New Testament:

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV).

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13, NIV).

“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18, NIV).

He suffered and died in without protest (7-9), and in verse 9 we read “And they made His grave with the wicked—But with the rich at His death,” a prophetic detail that literally occurred. Jesus died with the wicked (crucified between two criminals) and was buried in a rich man’s tomb (Matthew 27:57-60).

His ultimate victory (10-12)

The Messiah’s ministry on earth did not end with His death. Even in death He was victorious: He defeated death in His resurrection and now is at the right hand of the Father. (Romans 6:9 [NIV]: “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.”)

And He is coming again. “He shall see His seed” (literally, “gaze at,” emphasizing being present with). “He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied” (be filled, content, even “enriched” in our presence). “Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong”: He will return to rule, and we will rule with Him.

“And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors”: a concluding reminder of the substitutionary atonement that has made it all possible for us: both our present communion with the Father and the Messiah’s future return to rule with us.

Conclusion

The Lord’s words opening this song are “Behold, My Servant.” He has given us a good look at our Savior in this servant song. I read an story a long time ago that illustrates what God is trying to do for us in giving us these glimpses of the Messiah in the servant songs in Isaiah. I don’t know whether the story is literally true or not; perhaps it was invented by an imaginative preacher to illustrate the atonement. The story goes something like this: After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, a special train carried his body back to Illinois for burial. It stopped in many towns so people could get a glimpse of the casket of the great emancipator. In one town, a black woman picked up her young son and held him up to the window of the railroad car carrying Lincoln’s casket and said “Take a long look, son. He died for you.”

Likewise, we need to take a long look at the prophecies of the Messiah, at the gospels that record Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and at the epistles, in which God fills in a lot of the details. We need to take a long look, because He died for us.

April 19, 2008

The Obedient Servant: Isaiah 50:4-9

Isaiah 50:4-9 contains the third of what are called the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, which are poems or songs that told the Israelites some details of the coming Messiah. Isaiah originally sang or chanted these prophecies to his contemporaries, probably in the temple court.

The first of the Servant Songs we examined is found in Isaiah 42:1-9. In that passage, God the Father identifies the future Messiah as “My Servant,” who would have a quiet and patient demeanor, would bring comfort for the weak and oppressed, would bring truth and justice, and would be a light to the gentiles. That song also makes the point that He would open mankind’s eyes and that His advent is sure.

The second servant song is Isaiah 49:1-13, which tells us the Messiah will come in human form, He will be an effective teacher, He will glorify the Father, was sent to save Israel, he will be rejected, and He will save all mankind. It further tells us that those who despised Him will one day worship Him (a prophecy of His second advent) and that He represents a covenant to all people.

Today, we focus on the third of the four Servant Songs, which concentrates on the obedience of the Messiah to the will of the Father:

4 “The Lord GOD has given Me
The tongue of the learned,
That I should know how to speak
A word in season to him who is weary.
He awakens Me morning by morning,
He awakens My ear
To hear as the learned.

5 The Lord GOD has opened My ear;
And I was not rebellious,
Nor did I turn away.

6 I gave My back to those who struck Me,
And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard;
I did not hide My face from shame and spitting.

7 For the Lord GOD will help Me;
Therefore I will not be disgraced;
Therefore I have set My face like a flint,
And I know that I will not be ashamed.

8 He is near who justifies Me;
Who will contend with Me?
Let us stand together.
Who is My adversary?
Let him come near Me.

9 Surely the Lord GOD will help Me;
Who is he who will condemn Me?
Indeed they will all grow old like a garment;
The moth will eat them up.

The Obedient Servant

The Messiah would be obedient in speaking and teaching (4)

The Messiah would be the one to share the Father’s message with the world. Jesus’ interaction with the Jewish leaders in the temple, found in John 8:25-32, bears on this point: “Then they said to Him, ‘Who are You?’

And Jesus said to them, ‘Just what I have been saying to you from the beginning. I have many things to say and to judge concerning you, but He who sent Me is true; and I speak to the world those things which I heard from Him.’ They did not understand that He spoke to them of the Father.

Then Jesus said to them, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things. And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him.’ As He spoke these words, many believed in Him. Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’” (The NIV translation offers a clearer translation of verse 28: “Jesus said, ‘I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.’”)

The Messiah’s message was not always what the people wanted to hear. In John 6, Jesus tells His followers that those who trust in Him will need to show the same sacrifice and commitment as He would experience. Many of them responded, “This is a hard saying; who can understand (accept) it?” (John 6:60). “There are some of you who do not believe,” (6:64). Then John writes, “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more” (6:66).

His message ultimately would lead to His death. He knew this, but never held back on His teaching. Many times, in fact, we see Him confronting the scribes and Pharisees in the temple, with crowds around them listening.

He was blunt and honest with the people in urging them to trust in Him for their eternal life with the Father: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And He who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And He who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39).

To a people in awe of wealth, power, and strength, He said, “blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5).

To a culture steeped in the tradition that righteousness meant following the letter of the law, He taught: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).

Jesus was also encouraging with His words, as Isaiah 50:4 tells us, “That I should know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary.” In Matthew 11:28-30, we find an example: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

It’s not just His words of commitment that must impact us, but also His words and ministry to those who are weary and heavy laden; burdened, sad, hurting inside, discouraged. He is ministering to us right now.

The Messiah would be obedient in listening (4-5)

This was in sharp contrast to the people to whom Isaiah delivered his prophecy, whose idea of the Father’s power and care had to do with preserving the cultural status quo and enlarging the nation politically and militarily, rather than accepting the Father’s standards of justice and personal righteousness.

Isaiah prophesies about the Messiah in 50:5: “And I was not rebellious, nor did I turn away” The Messiah would “stay on message,” as our politicians today would say. Indeed, the Messiah in His first advent “stayed on message” and did not waiver from the teachings the Father sent Him to deliver.

Listening to the Father and not turning away is also a contrast to the people of Israel to whom Isaiah was prophesying. They had been given the patient teaching from God through His prophets, but had not listened, as pointed out in Isaiah 48:8: “Surely from long ago your ear was not opened.”

The Messiah would be obedient in suffering (6)

Jesus was sent not just to teach through His preaching and teaching, but also through suffering and dying for our sins. He was obedient.

Remember, this was prophesied about 750 years before this suffering actually happened to Jesus. Isaiah’s prophecy, in verse 6, quotes the Messiah: “I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting. We know from the gospels the truth of the predictions. He was flogged (Matthew 27:26), mocked, and spat upon (Matthew 27:30). The phrase in Isaiah 50:6, “plucked out the beard,” is an expression that means to shame someone (to shame a man so much so as to take away any vestige of manhood).

The Messiah would be obedient in accomplishing His purpose (7-9)

The Messiah says, in verse 7, “I have set my face like a flint.” Flint is a hard, dense rock and very hard to break, and the simile here is that the Messiah would not be swayed from His purpose. And in the gospels, we find this to be true of Jesus, who was not swayed from His purpose by hardship, opposition, or betrayal. Jesus did not have just a strong sense of purpose, but a perfect sense of purpose. The Messiah is quoted in verse 7, “I will not be ashamed,” and we find in the gospel accounts that though people sought to mock and shame Jesus, He persevered, because “He is near who justifies Me;” (Isaiah 50:8). Therefore, the Messiah can say, “Who is My adversary? Let him come near Me” (verse 8).

Conclusion

I don’t want for us to study the prophecies just to gain knowledge. We want to know them so that we can be more like our Savior and Lord, so we can understand Him and know and do His will. Jesus prayed for us in John 17:18, “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.”

So the question for us is, what do we know about His will for us from this third servant song?

First, we must be like Him in speaking and teaching: share the gospel message, encourage and admonish each other, use our communication to build the kingdom, not criticize, gossip, and judge others.

Second is for us to listen to what God has to tell us, through the Bible, through each other, through the inner voice every Christian can hear. We must not turn away from His voice, pray not just to request Him to act, but pray for a better understanding of His will for us.

Third is suffering, learning to deal with life’s circumstances in a righteous manner and to do God’s will regardless of the consequences to career, finances, and pride.

Finally, we need to commit to steadfastness in purpose: doing God’s will regardless of hardship, opposition, embarrassment, or even betrayal.

April 17, 2008

A Light to the Gentiles: Isaiah 49:1-13

Isaiah’s prophecies of the Messiah have in view both the Messiah’s first advent to suffer and die as that perfect atonement and the Messiah’s second coming and future kingdom on earth, which we know as His second advent.

Four “Servant Songs,” located in chapters 42 through 53, are prophetic in nature and give details about the character and purpose of the Messiah. Last week, we examined the first servant song in Isaiah 42, in which the Lord identified the Messiah as “My Servant,” with a quiet and patient demeanor, one who would bring truth, justice, and comfort to the weak and oppressed, who would be a light to the gentiles, and would open mankind’s eyes to the reality and grace of God. That first servant song ended with assurance that the Messiah was sure to come, because God had promised. The second Servant Song, Isaiah 49:1-13, concentrates on the Messiah as a light to the gentiles:

1 Listen, O coastlands, to Me, and take heed, you peoples from afar!
The Lord has called Me from the womb; from the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name.

2 And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of His hand He has hidden Me, and made Me a polished shaft; in His quiver He has hidden Me.

3 And He said to me, “You are My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.

4 Then I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain; yet surely my just reward is with the Lord, and my work with my God.”

5 And now the Lord says, Who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, To bring Jacob back to Him, So that Israel is gathered to Him (For I shall be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, And My God shall be My strength),

6 Indeed He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.”

7 Thus says the Lord, The Redeemer of Israel, their Holy One, to Him whom man despises, to Him whom the nation abhors, to the Servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise, Princes also shall worship, because of the Lord who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel; and He has chosen You.”

8 Thus says the Lord: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, and in the day of salvation I have helped You; I will preserve You and give You as a covenant to the people, to restore the earth, to cause them to inherit the desolate heritages;

9 That You may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ They shall feed along the roads, and their pastures shall be on all desolate heights.

10 They shall neither hunger nor thirst, neither heat nor sun shall strike them; for He who has mercy on them will lead them, even by the springs of water He will guide them.

11 I will make each of My mountains a road, and My highways shall be elevated.

12 Surely these shall come from afar; Look! Those from the north and the west, and these from the land of Sinim.”

13 Sing, O heavens! Be joyful, O earth! And break out in singing, O mountains! For the Lord has comforted His people, and will have mercy on His afflicted.

The Servant Will Be a Light to the Gentiles

The Messiah will come in human form (1)

“Listen, oh coastlands, to me, and take heed you peoples from afar!” These are words of prophecy from the Messiah, given to Isaiah. His introduction, with reference to “coastlands” and “you peoples from afar,” means the entire world and confirms again that the Messiah would be sent not just to Israel, but to the whole world.

“The Lord has called Me from the womb; from the inward parts of My mother.” The Messiah would be a human being, born as others are born of a woman (although virgin born, Isaiah 7:14). He will be an individual human being, as distinct from the nation of Israel or a spiritual or political movement that would come to dominate the world.

There is no evidence that this idea of an individual Messiah, both fully God and fully human, was a tradition of the Israelites. The Messiah that Isaiah revealed is not the one the Israelites necessarily sought, and certainly a Messiah that would rescue or redeem the gentiles as well as the Israelites was not anticipated, and, in fact, was not wanted.

Cultural ideas come into play, as they always do. In that culture and era, every nation worshipped its own gods and sought dominance of other nations. When a nation conquered another, the triumphant nation’s gods were seen as stronger. There was an idea among the Israelites, consistent with this cultural trend, that the Messiah would be a prophet, perhaps with supernatural powers, who would lead them to political and military dominance. It was not a well defined idea and tended to bend toward defeating whatever foreign powers happened to be threatening the nation of Israel. But the point is, the Messiah Isaiah repeatedly described was not the Messiah they were looking for. The emphasis of the Messiah as a human being did not jibe with the Israelites’ attitude that God’s influence in the world would grow militarily.

He will be an effective teacher (2)

“And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword.” The Messiah will speak effectively and thereby conquer with His teaching (indicated by the term “sharp sword,” and instrument of battle). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul refers to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). The author of Hebrews writes, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit . . . and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

The two statements in this verse, “He has hidden Me,” refer to the timing of the Messiah’s advent; before His appearing, He was hidden with God the Father, ready to be sent at the right moment.

He will glorify the Father (3)

This verse is the only place where the Messiah is referred to by the name Israel. It emphasizes both His human origin as a child from among the Israelites and divine origin as the chosen one of Israel. People will see the splendor of the Father through the Messiah, and Jesus’ entire ministry was aimed at glorifying the Father.

Sent to save Israel, he will be rejected (4-5)

“I have labored in vain.” In view here is the Messiah’s first advent, when the people of Israel rejected Him. It would have appeared, at the time of His death, that He had labored in vain. His own people, to whom He had come to save, had rejected Him and His message. Nevertheless, the Messiah did the work of the Father, His purpose being “to bring Jacob back to Him” (5). Ultimately, this purpose will be accomplished in His second advent.

He will save all mankind (6)

While the Messiah’s chief purpose was Savior for Israel, He also was given “as a light to the Gentiles” Israel’s mission had always been to bring the nations to a knowledge of the true God, which they never accomplished. The Messiah, however, in His first advent, became the light of salvation to the entire world. The song repeats the theme in verse 6 that ultimately the remnant of the people of Israel (the “preserved ones of Israel”) also will be restored to their God.

Those who despised Him will worship Him (7)

The Messiah was despised and suffered humiliating treatment in His first advent. This is a theme Isaiah repeats a number of times (50:6-9; 52:14, 15; 53:3). Yet in His second advent, kings and princes shall recognize Him as Messiah and worship Him. Isaiah addresses this again in 52:15: “Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; for what had not been told them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall consider.”

A covenant to all people (8-13)

Here is another repetition that the Messiah would be sent as Savior not just to Israel, but to all people.

“I will preserve You and give You as a covenant to the people, to restore the earth.” There may be interplay of ideas here, because the passage refers both to “the people, to restore the earth” and to the people of Israel “to inherit the desolate inheritance.” In a roundabout way, God’s message is one of inclusiveness for both His chosen people, who will be restored to their inheritance in the second advent, and the gentiles, who received the offer of salvation through faith at the first advent.

The term “salvation” in verse 8 is yeshuah, meaning “Jehovah saves.” It also is the proper name Joshua or Jesus. (Matthew 1:21: “and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins”).

Verse 9 repeats the theme we already have seen in the earlier chapters of Isaiah, that the Messiah frees the prisoners and those who are in darkness. These are metaphors for revealing spiritual truth and freedom from the bondage of spiritual darkness.

“They shall feed along the roads, and their pastures shall be on all desolate heights. They shall neither hunger nor thirst, neither heat nor sun shall strike them; for He who has mercy on them will lead them, even by the springs of water He will guide them” (9-10). In the kingdom to come, ruled by the Messiah, people will enjoy peace, comfort, safety, and all needs met. The allusion here is to a flock of sheep; well fed, protected, and free to graze peacefully anywhere.

“Surely these shall come from afar; Look! Those from the north and the west, and these from the land of Sinim” (13). “Sinim” is the ancient name for China and can be understood here as meaning the Far East.

This servant song is difficult to outline point by point in the order it is given because the text intermingles the promises of the Messiah to the people of Israel and to the gentiles. Mixing the promises the way they are intermingled in the song is a literary device used to emphasize the role of the Messiah as the Savior not just for Israel, but for all mankind.

In my own mind’s eye, I can imagine Isaiah in the temple court singing or chanting this servant song to his listeners. I am not sure how his audience would have reacted. There was probably a lot of puzzlement or bewildered shaking of heads. They expected a Messiah for themselves exclusively, to rescue them, the people of God, from the oppressive nations around them and to establish His rule, through the nation of Israel, over the entire world.

But I don’t think the Israelites ever bought into the idea of a Messiah who would offer salvation to all mankind. At Jesus’ first advent, that was still the attitude of the people of Israel. In their eyes, He failed because He did not eject the Roman occupiers. Instead, they rejected Him because He revealed their hypocrisy, and His teaching was critical of their own legalism and lack of devotion to their God.

Yet Isaiah’s prophecies, and the servant songs, are right on the mark. The remnant or preserved ones of Israel will turn to Him, and the Messiah will, indeed, rule the world from Jerusalem.

April 16, 2008

The Servant of the Lord: Isaiah 42:1-9


In the last several weeks, we have taken a look at the first part of Isaiah in some detail, as Isaiah warned the people of Judah of the consequences of their sin. He predicted the destruction of both the northern kingdom of Israel, which occurred several years into his prophetic ministry, and Judah, which occurred more than a century after Isaiah’s ministry ended.

Isaiah also prophesied the eventual restoration of God’s chosen people to their land and gave remarkable details about the Messiah who would come and provide the perfect atonement for sin.

Isaiah’s prophecies of the Messiah have in view both the Messiah’s first advent to suffer and die as that perfect atonement and the Messiah’s second coming and future kingdom on earth, which we know as His second advent. So far, our study has been pretty detailed about the social conditions and sin in Judah and the reasons for the judgment that would be delivered as we have looked at the text.

Today, we are going to take a different tack. For the rest of our study of Isaiah, we will back up from the details a bit and look more at the big picture. I want to begin with a look at what are known as the “Servant Songs.” There are four of these in Isaiah chapters 42 through 53. They are prophetic in nature and give details about the character and purpose of the Messiah. We find the first in Isaiah 42:1-9, which describes the future Messiah as the Servant of the Lord:

“Behold! My Servant whom I uphold,My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, Nor cause His voice to be heard in the street.

“A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth. He will not fail nor be discouraged, Till He has established justice in the earth; And the coastlands shall wait for His law.”

“Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it, Who gives breath to the people on it, And spirit to those who walk on it: ‘I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness, And will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the Gentiles, To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the prison, Those who sit in darkness from the prison house. I am the Lord, that is My name; And My glory I will not give to another, Nor My praise to carved images. Behold, the former things have come to pass, And new things I declare; Before they spring forth I tell you of them.’”

This prophecy given through Isaiah provides us with some details about the future Messiah:

He is “My Servant” (1)

“My Servant” is a designation given for several of Israel’s faithful spiritual leaders over the preceding centuries: Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Caleb, Job, and Zerubbabel. The designation would be used a century and a half later even to refer to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia, whom God used to invade Judah as His instrument of judgment in 586 B.C.

The Messiah also is called “My Elect One,” being chosen to serve the Father. Further, the Lord says of Him, “I have put My Spirit upon Him.” We find the visible representation of this at Jesus’ baptism: “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16).

Isaiah says “He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles,” which is a look forward to the Messiah’s second coming, when He will establish and rule over a kingdom in which justice prevails throughout the world. It is difficult to describe just how revolutionary this prophecy was to the Israelites who heard the prophecy from Isaiah that the Messiah would come not just for them, but also for the gentiles, whom they regarded not just as pagan, but unclean. Even though it is prophesied that the Messiah will rule from Jerusalem, the millennial kingdom is not for Israel alone. All the world will experience the righteousness and justice of the Messiah King.

A quiet and patient demeanor (2)

Isaiah writes: “He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street,” a reference to Jesus’ quiet and patient demeanor that largely characterized His ministry during His first advent. Even when confronting, and being confronted by, the scribes and Pharisees, He did not lose His cool, though He spoke hard, confrontational truths.

He will comfort for the weak and oppressed (3)

Isaiah describes the Messiah as one characterized by justice and compassion for weak and oppressed people: “A bruised reed He will not break” is a reference to the Messiah’s compassion even for the people which the culture may regard as the least among them. The reed grows by the water and is hollow, easily bent (“bruised”) when leaning under the pressure of the wind or pushed aside by an animal coming to drink. Shepherds used reeds to make a small whistle-like musical instrument. But once the reed was creased, it was useless. If it was still in the ground, it died. If the shepherd’s reed instrument was bent and creased, it cracked and splintered and was no longer of any use.

This reference is to people living under the pressures of poverty and oppression. He would not come to reinforce the oppression they suffered in the culture, but to give them comfort, to give them hope and faith. The message was an important one to Isaiah’s contemporaries, who were about to suffer judgment and destruction from God not only because they had turned away from Him to worship idols, but also because of the unjust culture they had created. The few were wealthy and politically powerful, including the priests. The many were poor, and the system of justice was ripe with bribery and influence against them. The Messiah, Isaiah prophesied, would not come to reinforce the culture, but to overturn it.

This one line of the verse could be a whole sermon. The Messiah’s purpose is to give hope, to deliver the promise of joy and eternal life, the hope that Paul writes so much about; the hope and certainty of living in His presence eternally regardless of current circumstances of suffering and pain.

There is another rather obscure phrase in verse 3: “And a smoking flax He will not quench” A “smoking flax” is a smoldering wick in an oil lamp. The fire is still alive, but dying. Once more, the metaphor is about the weak and suffering. They are beaten down by social structures, unemployment, severe poverty and suffering. The Messiah would not come to add to their suffering, but to revive them with the message of salvation and a bright future in His presence. Indeed, “He will bring forth justice and truth,” rather than coming to add to oppression and suffering.

This look into the future was fulfilled beginning with His first advent. It continues in the Spirit of tenderness and compassion found in every authentic Christian. As Christians, we see the less fortunate, and the Spirit in us urges us to reach out to help. The Spirit in us also instills a God-given sense of justice. No one hates oppression and injustice like the true Christian does, not just because of the unfairness, but also because it is contrary to the character of the one true God.

He will bring truth and justice (4)

“He will not fail nor be discouraged, till He has established justice in the earth.” The Messiah will not fail in bringing truth and justice to mankind. This prophecy was fulfilled in part in the Messiah’s first advent by the hope and character in the hearts of those who have trusted Him as Lord and Savior and who have been changed by the indwelling Holy Spirit. To be fulfilled universally at His second advent, when He will establish His government of righteousness and justice throughout the world.

“And the coastlands shall wait for His law.” This is Isaiah’s way of saying that the truth and justice the Messiah shall bring will be throughout the world.

The Messiah will be a light to the gentiles (5-6)

In verse 5, the word of God given through Isaiah reinforces that the prophesy is reliable: “Thus says the Lord God.” The promise is from the Creator, who made the heavens, the earth, all life on earth out of nothing.

“Who gives breath to the people on it and the spirit to those who walk on it.” God created humans not only as living, breathing beings, but also He created in us our spirit, or self-awareness. Unlike other biological life, human beings alone are self-aware; we know our past, we are capable of knowing God and His holiness, and we can know for sure the certainty of His promises for the future.

After reminding us of these certainties in verse 5, in verse 6 the word of the Lord given to Isaiah reminds His people of His promises to them: “I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness.” On the one hand, God the Father is perfectly righteous and holy. On the other hand, the Messiah also will be perfectly righteous and holy. “And (I) will hold Your hand,” refering to the common purpose of the Father and the Messiah. The picture is of support, walking together as one. Throughout the Bible, we often find references to the perfect unity of purpose of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“I will keep you and give You as a covenant to the people,” a promise of salvation and future eternity with Him. In His first advent, Jesus announced the “new covenant.” In instituting the practice of the bread and cup, Jesus refers to this new covenant, saying, “this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 27:27). “My blood of the new covenant” alludes to a middle eastern cultural practice that had existed for millennia. Upon making a treaty or contract, a sacrifice was made and the blood of the sacrifice was meant do seal the promise; “which is shed for many for the remission of sins” refers to the purpose of His death, as the atonement for our sins. “As a light to the gentiles” is one of the many occasions in Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah’s purpose of not saving just the Israelites, but all mankind.

He will open mankind’s eyes (7)

“To open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” The Messiah as light is a frequent metaphor in the Bible: the “light of the world.” In his gospel’s first chapter, John establishes Jesus not only as Creator and Truth, but describes Him as “the light of men” and “the true Light.” In addition, Jesus uses the metaphor of light to refer to Himeself: “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). Numerous times, God’s people are referred to as “in the light” and admonished to “walk in the light.”

Verse 7 paints a picture consistently found in scripture. Mankind is blind, in spiritual darkness, imprisoned by slavery to its sinful, self-centered nature and desires. The Messiah came to open our spiritually blind eyes, to release us from our spiritual prison. Without Him, we see only what is, in truth, spiritual darkness.

His advent is sure (8-9)

As He does numerous times in Isaiah and the writings of other prophets, God reminds His people that this prophecy is dependable. He establishes this truth with two arguments.

First, He reminds us “I am Yahweh,” who is the one and only, all-powerful, self-existing God. The name Yahweh was loaded with spiritual truth for the Israelites. The name to them signified the One who created the heavens and the earth; the Creator of life; the One who cared for their needs, rescued them time and time again; the One who is truth and righteousness; the one and only God, who sets the standards for worship, sinlessness, and judgment. Then He reminds them, “My glory I will not give to another, nor my praise to carved images.” Once more, He is telling us that He is infinitely greater than the false gods and idols that had so tempted the Israelites and turned them away for centuries as they struggled with the cultural pressures of the pagan nations around them. For Isaiah’s contemporaries, it was a stinging reminder. Most of Isaiah’s ministry up to this point consisted of warning the Israelites of the impending judgment because they had turned away from the true God and toward the idols of the pagans.

The other argument the Lord uses here to establish the truth of the Messianic prophecy is in verse 9: “Former things have come to pass, and new things I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”

In other words, they can take comfort in all of the prophetic messages of Isaiah and all of the other prophets that preceded him: God had demonstrated a perfect track record. All He had promised had come to pass.

April 15, 2008

Turning the Sinner from Error: James 5:19-20


The book of James is full of instruction about practical matters of how to live as a Christian:

Trials lead to patience and endurance

Trust God; He does not vary or turn

Anger does not produce righteousness

Genuine faith produces works

Love others as you love yourself

Don’t show partiality (race, wealth)

Heavenly, not worldly, treasure

Prayer can be very effective

Be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger

Be doers of the Word

Works should be done in meekness of wisdom

The tongue can produce good or evil

Loving the world is enmity toward God

Don’t speak negatively about each other

Do you want wisdom? Ask God and it will be given to you

Be involved in each other’s lives

It’s that final point—be involved in each other’s lives—that James dwells on throughout the book and elaborates on briefly in the final two verses: “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

James is addressing a situation that has existed in the church almost from its inception: people associated with the church who are not true believers. Throughout the book James has made the point that if one truly has faith, he or she will show it in the way he or she lives. Genuine faith, he says, produces works; that is, a definite way of living that shows by our behavior what’s inside us spiritually. Our way of life, in other words, is the evidence of our faith. Conversely, someone whose way of life reflects the world’s values and not Christian works is not truly a person of faith, regardless of his or her claims to the contrary.

As a former businessman before becoming a pastor, I once worked with someone who I think may be a good example of dissonance between the faith he claimed and the life he led. He made it a point to tell everyone he was a Christian. He was a member of a church but had not attended any church in years. We occasionally had discussions about spiritual matters, and during one of those discussions one time he once told me he thought Christianity is something mainly for Americans. That discussion took place early in 2002, when two young missionaries who had just made it out of Afghanistan were in the news. He offered his opinion that they should not have been there in the first place, because we should not be so presumptuous as to interfere with people in other cultures. One of the reasons, he said, is because they were not Americans. Being born American, he added, is a sign of God’s blessing. Not surprisingly, there were other aspects of his life that were not in sync with his professed faith, including a reputation among associates for occasional unethical business practices. But casual acquaintances tended to see him as a person of faith.

Another of my former business associates also comes to mind, a person whose life was consumed with acquiring money. He often reminded anyone who would listen that he was a Christian. I once invited him to our church and described how the people in our small church interact during the sermon, asking questions, discussing various aspects of the lesson, and expressing their thoughts. He declined the invitation, saying he preferred a large church because he could be more or less anonymous and no one would interfere with his life.

Most Christians can think of people in their lives whose lifestyles and behaviors are out of character compared to the faith they profess, people who profess to be Christians but are not, according to James’ standard of faith producing works. In some cases, it’s obvious. In others, it may be less apparent.

We also know that James is referring to these people in the early church by his use of the word “sinner” in v. 20. In the New Testament, that word is used only to refer to someone who is not saved, the person who is still the servant of a sinful nature, whose lifestyle demonstrates his or her self-centeredness.

So James ends his book with some instructions: what to do about professing believers who stray from the truth. His answer is the same as elsewhere in the book: get involved, address the problems, bring them to the true faith.

Professing Christians who are not true believers will wander from the truth (19)

This is a recurring theme in the New Testament. In 2 Timothy, for example, Paul draws a line between the teacher who understands and teaches the truth and false teachers who are not really part of the message of truth: “And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.’”

Notice that Paul cites the same standard as James about how to recognize a true Christian: “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” In other words, real faith produces works of righteousness, not evil.

In 1 Timothy 1:18-20, he draws a similar line: “This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”

Note the contrast between the Christian (“having faith and good conscience”) and the one who only professes Christianity (“having rejected” [the faith] who “concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck”). Paul, an apostle, says he delivered them to Satan, a fate not possible for the true Christian.

The psalmist in Psalm 119:117-118 draws a similar contrast: “Hold me up, and I shall be safe, And I shall observe Your statutes continually. You reject all those who stray from Your statutes, For their deceit is falsehood.”

The authentic believer strives to observe all that God wants, while the one who does not truly believe does not. God holds up the one and rejects the other. Paul prophesied that unbelief would be a problem in the latter days of the church age. In 1 Timothy 4:1-2, he writes: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, . . .” He is talking about professing believers who are not really true believers at all, who will be prone to following “doctrines of demons.” Paul’s concern was that these people may lead others to follow them and their teachings. Christians can know them by the fact they do not teach the truth and their lives are hypocritical; that is, as James might say, their false faith does not produce works of righteousness.

Paul also gives the standard we should use with each other. He says it pretty bluntly in Titus 1:15-16: “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.”

Again, we come face to face with the fact that true faith produces works of righteousness, versus false faith, which is defiled: “They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him.”

Christians are called on to teach the truth to everyone (19-20)

Verse 19 is action-oriented. Throughout this book, James has told us repeatedly to get involved with each other; as Christians to admonish, encourage, and correct each other. Frankly, that’s kind of uncomfortable in our culture. Now, in verse 19, he reminds us of a primary job God has given us: to tell the good news of the Savior to the unsaved.

In this case, the unsaved are people we know, not someone on a far-off mission field. Not only that, but they are already familiar with the Christian message but are prone to wander from it without having yielded to Christ as Lord. One of the facts we in our church have learned over and over in the last few years of Bible studies is that we can know a Christian not by his or her talk, but by his or her walk of faith. Through Paul, the Holy Spirit reveals that every human being is a bondservant, either to sin or to Christ as Lord. He writes in Romans 6:18: “Having been set free from sin, you became slaves [bondservants] of righteousness.” That is an apt description. Bondservants obey their masters, do their master’s will, and, in fact, devote their lives to serving the master.

Verse 20 tells us our witness is vitally important. This is true whether we are witnessing to a stranger, a neighbor, or to one who professes to be a Christian but whose life causes us to doubt. Perhaps that is the most difficult witnessing situation. Just as we have been told to go into all the world and preach the gospel, James here is reminding us not to ignore the unsaved who may even be churchgoers, people we know who are familiar with the gospel but not living according to it or may not even profess belief, people whom God wants just as desperately to forgive and save as he wants for people in a far-off mission field.

Conclusion

I was once one of those people. Back in the late 1970s, we attended church, and I was an usher, member of the board, and a Sunday school teacher. I liked to discuss religion with an acquaintance, who was part of another church. I didn’t know much about the Bible, except that it contained things like loving others and being moral. One evening we were talking about the rapture, and he finally said, “Why are you so interested? Jesus isn’t coming back for you, because you’re not saved.” That led in a few months to my salvation.

Maybe that's too blunt an approach for most people we may know, but he definitely did what James is telling us to do. I knew a little about the truth but was not saved. He helped lead me, a churchgoing sinner who professed to have faith, from error, and God saved me.


April 13, 2008

God Cares About Our Needs: James 5:13-18

In the winter of 1936, Mary Stevenson, who was 14 years old, sat in the freezing weather on her front porch, locked out of her house, in Chester, Pennsylvania.

She loved to write poetry, and while she waited for her parents to come home, she used a piece of scrap paper and short stubby pencil to write a few poetic thoughts. We have become very familiar with what she wrote. It’s come to be called “Footprints in the Sand”:

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints; other times there were one set of footprints. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints. So I said to the Lord, “You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there have only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?” The Lord replied, “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand, is when I carried you.”

In our passage today, James is telling us the very same thing: God cares about us and makes provision for our every need.

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (James 5:13-18).

In this passage, James shows us four ways in which God cares for us.

God cares about our emotional needs (13)

“Is anyone among you suffering?” The term means “enduring afflictions” or “suffering through troubles,” which could mean physical pain or any kind of hardship or distress. James is referring to the emotional suffering and pain that comes from difficulties. Today, we might say “Is anyone among you really stressed out?”

The correct response to suffering or being stressed out, James writes, is to pray. It’s not to be understood as a one-time prayer, which we would translate as “say a prayer,” but better understood as something like “keep on praying,” or even “constantly pray.” So James says the correct response to suffering is to keep on praying about it. This may mean praying for deliverance or for the patience and strength to endure the hardship or stress. In other words, pray and don’t be stressed out!

James is not alone in giving us this solution. Here is what Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6-7: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

Notice that Paul doesn’t tell us just to pray to be delivered, but not to be anxious, which means not to be stressed out about a situation. So a big part of the solution to both the problem and the stress is prayer.

Next James asks, “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.” He is telling us that when things are going well and we don’t have a care in the world, remember to praise God.

It’s a good reminder. When we are suffering, we know to go to God in prayer. But if you are like I am, you can easily forget to praise God when everything is positive. I tend to complain to Him about the problems, but forget to praise Him when things are going well. The writer of Hebrews says, in Hebrews 13:15, that praising God is our sacrifice to Him: “. . . let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.”

James’ viewpoint is that we do this by “singing psalms.” In the New Testament, the term “sing psalms” is used to mean to celebrate the praises of God in song, whether it is literally one of the psalms or a hymn. Paul refers to “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16).

God cares about our physical needs (14-15)

Verse 14 would be translated literally: “Someone among you is sick. Let him call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him, having anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord.”

Christians are not immune from illness, obviously. Anointing was often used by the early church, along with prayer, for healing. James’ instruction here illustrates the active involvement of elders in the lives of Christians.

In the Bible, oil is both a medicine and a symbol of the Spirit of God. Not surprisingly, olive oil did have a medical use in the early New Testament era. In Luke 10, we read the account of the Good Samaritan, who used wine (as an antiseptic) and oil (as a salve) to treat the wounds of the man who had been injured. The oil was most likely olive oil, which contains an anti-inflammatory chemical related to chemicals in the ibuprofens we take today for pain. Olive oil on wounds eased pain slightly and promoted healing. I have read that olive oil is estimated to have about 10 percent of ibuprofen’s pain relieving properties when ingested or absorbed through the skin.

While this is an interesting fact, remember that anointing with oil also symbolized the Spirit of God from the earliest days of the Israelites, and it is this purpose to which James primarily refers. Anointing with oil was common in Israel’s history in commissioning priests and prophets. A typical example is found in 1 Samuel 16:13, where we find Samuel anointing the young shepherd, David, with oil: “and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward.”

Nowhere do we find anything that is spiritually magic about the oil itself. The anointing with oil is a symbol or a sign of the power of prayer and the setting apart of the sick person for God’s special attention. But it’s interesting that James’ instruction is sound both spiritually and physically, and after anointing the sick person with oil, the elders are to pray for his or her healing.

Then James tells us “the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (verse 14). He is emphasizing the praying of the elders on behalf of the sick person, who has called for them to anoint and pray. The promise is that “the Lord will raise him up (cure him). And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” The emphasis is on God’s grace, with the promised answer to the elders’ prayer and forgiveness of sins.

God cares about our spiritual needs (16)

While God is deeply concerned about our physical needs, He is even more concerned about our spiritual needs; our bodies are temporary, but our spirits are eternal. James writes, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

Confessing to each other is not something with which we are comfortable. Nevertheless, the biblical instruction is to confess to one another and pray for one another “that you may be healed.” Here, James has switched his thoughts from physical healing to spiritual healing.

Confessing—that is, talking to each other about what tempts us and where we have failed—accomplishes several things. First, we find out that we are not alone; I am not the only one who struggles with unrighteousness. In addition, it holds us accountable. Sometimes, it’s the fact we may be found out that keeps us from committing a sin. Confession also invites deeper, one-on-one relationships and love for each other, and it can be practical for us in overcoming temptations, when someone can tell you “I know how you feel; I have felt the same way; and here is what I found.” Drug addiction treatment centers give us a very good example of this principle. The most effective addiction counselors are themselves former addicts.

Even more important, verse 16 tells to pray for each another. That means we bear each other’s hurts, pains, and faults and take them to God in prayer. Paul writes in Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” What is the “law of Christ”? We find it in John 13:34, where Jesus says: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

So, bearing each other’s burdens as if they were our own, as well as praying for one another, are not just nice things to do. They are expected of us.

Finally, James reminds us that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” The term “fervent” means to work hard for or exert power, and “avails” means able to overcome. James’ emphasis is “avails much”; that is, able to accomplish more than we may have thought possible. “Righteous” doesn’t mean perfect. It refers to the person whose sins have been confessed and forgiven. It is primarily from this verse that the tradition in the church is to begin prayer with confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness.

Concluding Thoughts

When the Holy Spirit inspired James to write this letter, He didn’t just want to leave us hanging with a set of rules to follow. He assures us that being involved with each other and praying for each other works.

In verses 17 and 18, He gives us an example of prayer that “avails much”: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours”—that is, he was not given special powers. But God acted powerfully and visibly when Elijah prayed.

The account of the incident to which James refers is found in 1 Kings 17 and 18. Elijah was given the task of confronting the false religion of Ba’al and of declaring that the Yahweh is the only God in existence. In 1 Kings 17, we read that Elijah declared the word of the Lord that there would be a drought in which there would be neither dew nor rain unless the Lord sent it. Then, 3-1/2 years later, with drought and famine throughout Israel, Elijah confronted the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel. After the demonstration of the power of God in the miraculous burning of the sacrifice, Elijah prayed long and fervently for rain. In 1 Kings 18:45 we read about the result of his prayer, which he prayed after 3-1/2 years of no rain and not even dew: “the sky became black with clouds and wind, and there was a heavy rain.”

The Holy Spirit wants us to know that it does not take a special anointing for prayer to be effective. One demonstration is the account of Elijah. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous person is strong and powerful and accomplishes much.

April 9, 2008

Be Patient and Stand Firm: James 5:7-12

Remember the circumstances for these early Christians to whom James wrote this letter. The church was first established on the day of Pentecost, about 33 A.D., when Peter preached to the crowd in Jerusalem, and about 3,000 people were saved (Acts 2). Persecution erupted almost immediately. Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Jewish authorities. They were told not to even speak the name of Jesus or to teach about Him, to which they answered, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-20).

A number of apostles were arrested and jailed, only to be freed by an angel of the Lord. The people of Jerusalem saw many miracles performed, which were testimonies to the power of God the Father and Jesus the Son, and more and more people believed and were saved. A church leader named Stephen was especially effective in telling the people about their Savior, was called before the Jewish authorities and accused of blasphemy. Concluding his address to the Jewish council (Acts 7), he accused them of persecution: “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it" ”Acts 7:52-53). The council took Stephen out and stoned him to death, and in the aftermath hundreds or thousands of Christians were dragged from their homes and stoned or imprisoned.

So over a decade or so, the Christians scattered out from Jerusalem and Judea, where the persecution was so intense, and moved to other parts of the known world: Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, modern-day Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Persecution spread, but was not nearly so intense as in Judea. In about 44 A.D., Herod Agrippa, the ruler of Palestine appointed by the Roman government, instituted an official government persecution of Christians (Acts 12). It was most intense in Palestine, but also spread to other regions of the Roman Empire.

These were the circumstances when James, a key leader in the Jerusalem church (Paul called him a “pillar” of the church, Galatians 2:9), wrote this letter to the Christians scattered throughout the world, addressing the letter to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1). From what we know, this is the first book of the New Testament to be written, around 45 A.D. The epistle is short and to the point. Its theme is that true faith must manifest itself in works of faith.

Writing to Christians under a lot of persecution from the world around them, James deals with how to respond to trials and advises them to live lives worthy of the Lord regardless of how hard that might be. In that context, he gives a lot of guidelines: be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, because a quick temper and striking back in anger are not righteous (1:19-20); to live righteously, to be humble and not prideful, and not to judge each other. And in our passage last week, he assured them of judgment for those who oppress them and cautioned them not to become oppressors themselves.

So the church was under a great deal of pressure. How would you have coped with this pressure?

The natural tendency might be to become hard and bitter, to strike out and get vengeance when possible, to perhaps become secretive and do nothing that might bring attention.

In James 4:14, he reminds his readers that this life on earth is like a vapor in light of our eternal life. And here in 5:7-12, he again reminds us that our life here on earth is not all there is. Our Savior is coming again, and in light of that, we should face our present troubles with patience.

So in our passage today, James shows us that God has a better idea about how to respond when we are under pressure and treated unjustly. He suggests four specific attitudes, two of which we should adopt and two we should avoid:

“Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful. But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment” (James 5:7-12)

Attitudes we should adopt

1. Be patient (7)

The word “therefore” in verse 7 (“then” in some English translations) points back to the previous six verses. There, James lectured the wealthy who perverted justice and treated the Christians unfairly. Now he addresses those who had been mistreated.

How should we respond to the injustice? Our just God will deal with injustice. His coming is certain, so “be patient.” This term is also translated as “longsuffering” and means just what we know it to mean in English—to be “long-tempered” instead of short-tempered.

Patience is the mark of God-like love, the kind of unconditional love we are capable of because the Holy Spirit has put it in us. It is the love Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 13:4-5: “Love is patient (same word, “suffers long” or is “longsuffering”) and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil.”

So we are to show this kind of love, the same kind of love God has for mankind, even to those who treat us badly because of our faith. Remember in Romans 14:12, Paul took it a step further: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”

In verse 7 James also gives the reason we must face troubles patiently: Jesus is coming back. Here in just those few words “until the coming of the Lord,” James sums up a lot of theological truth: no suffering here on earth can compare in importance to our future with Christ. This is one of about 300 verses in the New Testament about Jesus’ return. The reality of an eternal future offers comfort and hope to any Christian facing stress and strain. Christ’s return will end oppression and make all suffering a thing of the past.

Like every good preacher, James gives us an example of the principle from everyday life. He writes, “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain.” In Palestine, with its rocky soil, farmers planted seeds in time for the early rains in the early spring. The plants are ready for harvest after the rains of early fall have softened the soil and the plants have thrived and matured. Once he has plowed the ground and planted the seed, he waits patiently until the fall harvest. The wait can be difficult because he cannot control the weather, but he just has to be patient.

While his readers were scattered and in the midst of persecution, James reminded them that the coming of the Lord is certain; it’s worth the wait, so be patient.

So why was the early church going through this difficult period? Why is it that even today Christians go through difficult times of criticism and in many cases persecution because of their faith? James gives us the accurate perspective: because this is not all there is. Jesus is coming back, but first there are more people to be saved. I have often thought about this because of a single verse, 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

So that’s it. God continues to be longsuffering with mankind. He wants more people to trust in Jesus for their salvation. Harvest time (when Jesus returns) isn’t here yet. Meanwhile, Christians continue to mature and learn more about patience and righteous living.

2. Stand firm (8)

The literal translation of v. 8 is “stabilize your hearts” or “prop up your hearts.” The NIV rendering of v. 8 really captures the thought best: stand firm.

So patience isn’t all that’s needed. We need to stand firm; that is, there is a practical sense of knowing there is a bigger picture: Jesus is going to return. Standing firm means we must live in light of that promise. What truly exists for the Christian is not the here and now, but the eternal life we already possess.

God wants us to be strengthened and firm in our faith because of His presence. Christians are to live with the full faith and knowledge that we can, as David writes in Psalm 55:22, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved.” Peter says it more simply in 1 Peter 5:6-7: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.”

Actions we should avoid

1. Don’t grumble (9)

Often, tempers can flare in times of stress and hardship. We tend to want to be impatient, argumentative, and critical. Verse 9 literally tells us, “Don’t groan or sigh against each other”; that is, don’t blame each other for the troubles or difficulties we face. James reinforces this point with a strong warning: “Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!”

How can a believer be condemned since we are forgiven? The statement means that we may be found to be at fault before God. To grumble against means we are judging. James may remember Jesus’ statement, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). To "grumble against one another" is to judge, and so to become liable to be judged.

2. Don’t swear (12)

“But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.” James’ concern was not with swearing in courts of law, or with profanity.

He wanted his readers to be ethical in ordinary conversations and private talk. Dishonesty can creep into Christian speech when we are impatient, when our faith and our hearts are not firm, and when we grumble against each other. We want to find whom to blame for troubles, to play the “if only” game—“if only you had done A, then B wouldn’t have happened.” So we can grumble and blame with what we might call a casual disregard of truth or perhaps interpreting facts with self-centeredness.

James wants his readers to know that no matter the difficulties of life, the Christian must be truthful at all times. Today, we might have written verse 12 this way: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”

We may wonder what swearing has to do with the problem of facing trouble in life. In the midst of a difficult trial it is easy to say things we don’t mean. We make bargains with God—“God I know I acted wrong, but if you get me out of this I swear I’ll be righteous,” or something similar. Or when people try to get out of a difficult situation, sometimes they’ll say something like, “I swear to God I didn’t do it” or “I swear on all that is sacred.” James is telling us there should be no need to try to appear super-spiritual or super-honest in tough situations. We should be known for honesty and integrity—when we say “yes” it means yes, and when we say “no” it means no. In other words, we shouldn’t have to swear we’re telling the truth this time, as if we may have a different standard of truth the other times, when we don’t swear.

In verses 10 and 11, he gives us examples of people of God who demonstrated patience. One example is the prophets—who endured persecution and rejection. The prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and the others—were given the assignment to speak on God’s behalf. They spoke against injustice, idolatry, and other sins, and admonished people to obey God. When Israel was invaded and destroyed, they did not hold back in saying that God allowed it because of the people’s sin, all the while prophesying the future coming of the Messiah. The prophets were ostracized and persecuted, but they endured with patience.

The other example James cites is Job. Job was also blessed because he stood firm. His sufferings were tragic and intense, and through no fault of his own. But he patiently endured, saying, “Though God slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15).