St Michael’s, 10th November 2013
I want you to imagine that one day archaeologists working in the City of London unearth a long-forgotten time capsule buried deep underground. With the eyes of the world upon them, they open it. Inside they find an ancient text predicting what will happen to the capital in the last days. Soon the details of this text are splashed on news-screens around the world, and for days, even weeks afterwards it becomes the hot topic of conversation across the country. How might you react?
Well, I guess there would be some people who would be eager to look at the predictions and try to see how they are being fulfilled today. Others would simply dismiss it as an ancient text that has nothing really to say to us today. And still others perhaps would look at the writing and strive to find out when it was written down and why.
Now today we are coming to the first of many prophecies contained in the book of Isaiah. It is a prophecy about the last days. It concerns a capital city, Jerusalem. It tells us what is going to happen. There will be a movement of nations going up to Jerusalem and a new era of peace. And the very real question is: how does this text speak to us?
Prophecy is one of those topics that both excites and confuses Christians. Some rush to see how it might be being fulfilled in today’s world, and look eagerly to events that are happening in Israel and the Middle-East. Some dismiss Isaiah’s words as simply an ancient text from long ago. And between the two extremes there are others who perhaps are simply puzzled as to what prophecy means and how it might be relevant to us today.
If that’s the case for you, then I hope that in the next few minutes I can begin to unlock Isaiah’s words for you, and remove some of the confusion that people so often feel when they read a prophecy. Because I believe the way to understand any passage like this is to ask three simple questions, which treat the word of God as it really is meant to be understood – as words written down for a particular people at a particular time, but which still have meaning for us, and may yet have further, future meaning for people yet to come
So all I want to do is simply run through these questions, which are as follows:
What did it mean to for the people who first heard it?
How does it relate to us?
How does this point to the future?
Let’s, then, without any further ado, turn to Isaiah, chapter 2. Now you may wonder when you read this just what Isaiah’s hearers made of this particular prophecy. After all, as we saw last week, the first chapter of Isaiah is primarily all about judgement. It is, if you like, God’s report on the state of the nation in eighth century Judah and Jerusalem and it doesn’t make for pretty reading. The Lord assesses the state of the people’s heart and He finds that despite all the religion that’s going on, they are basically refusing to obey His commands. Through Isaiah He tells them to act, to stop doing wrong and learn to do right (v.16). And, yes, He puts before them the alternatives of sins forgiven and new life (vv.18-19) or death and destruction (v.20), but there is a general feeling that the prophet’s words will be ignored and disaster cannot be averted.
How then, does all this emphasis on judgement square with the great promise in chapter 2 about the last days? Well, what’s important to understand is why the Lord decides to act in judgement. It isn’t that He is a cruel and vindictive God who delights in punishing His people. Nor is He an impatient God who demands instant compliance or else – Isaiah’s message forms only a small part of God warning His people over many centuries. No, God is coming is judgement because He wants His people to become what they were always meant to be, a people who live under God’s rule in a right relationship with God and each other.
That’s why even in the midst of these words of judgement in chapter 1 we find this great promise: Zion will be redeemed with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness (v.27). Now justice and righteousness are two key themes we will come back to again and again in Isaiah because these are the qualities God expects above all else in His people. It’s just so important to understand the Lord’s overall purpose is to establish a community where these qualities are seen. But it follows that you are not interested in co-operating with God’s purposes, if your heart is set on other goals, you will be excluded from that community.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is that for those who are willing to heed the prophet’s words, for those who are genuinely penitent, there is a glorious future coming, a new Jerusalem where God dwells among His people, and His ways are known. That’s what Isaiah is describing here in chapter 2. Now of course Isaiah’s hearers did not see this vision come to pass. In the years that followed they experienced defeat, invasion and in the end exile, far away from the Promised Land. But what this passage gave them was hope, that despite all these disasters, even despite all their sin and rebellion, God had not given up on them. At some point in the future the last days would come, and all would be well – at least for those who heeded Isaiah’s message.
So how does Isaiah’s vision relate to us?
To answer that question, we need to decide what exactly Isaiah means by the last days. After all, it’s one of those controversial expressions that often causes a lot of debate among believers. When will the last days come and how will we recognise them? Well, you could read a book on the subject or go online as see how others have answered the question. But in such cases I find it’s always far better to go directly to other parts of Scripture and see what the Bible itself says about the subject.
And when we do this, we find an important clue in a line from the sermon Peter preached at Pentecost: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. (Acts 2:17). Peter here is using exactly the same expression as we find here in Isaiah, even though he is quoting directly from another prophet called Joel. So we learn whatever else the last days might be, they refer to a period of time that started when God poured out His Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In other words, we are living in the last days, right here, right now.
How then do we make sense of the rest of verse 2? In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. If you go to Jerusalem, the temple mount is the same height as it has always been. It is not a place where all nations visit, although there are plenty of people from around the world milling around, taking photos, perhaps, or praying. So what do we make of all this talk about mountains and the Lord’s temple? Well, I believe, there is one and very important point we have to bear in mind when we read Old Testament prophecy. In most cases the promises about a physical city and an earthly mountain have been fulfilled in a spiritual kingdom and the enthronement of Jesus Christ as risen, ascended Lord and Saviour.
To explain what I mean let me quote, for example, from the writer to the Hebrews. In chapter 12:22-23 he says: But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. Do you see how he equates Mount Zion with the church, and people whose names are written in heaven? So when we look at this passage in Isaiah we begin to see the prophet isn’t actually looking forward to some new reality in the land of Israel. Rather, he is giving us a vision of the church, and what we as God’s people should be like.
When we understand this, then Isaiah’s prophecy suddenly becomes extremely relevant to us. This isn’t just some obscure Old Testament passage addressed to people many hundreds of years ago. Nor is it designed to make us speculate on the future of Israel and what will happen to the temple. Rather, it’s the Lord’s message to us, describing the sort of people we should be as the church, and the sort of qualities others see in us.
So, going through verses 2 and 3 in more detail, we begin to see, for example, that as the people of God we are called to be visible. In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills. Because of course the thing about a tall mountain is that you can’t miss it. It dominates the skyline. And even when you’re not looking directly at it, you are always aware it is in the background. In the same kind of way we should be looking to make such an impact on our communities, on the people we meet day by day, that even though they might not be looking at the church directly, they are aware there is something different and special about the people who claim to belong to it.
Which leads on to the second point, that as the people of God we are called to be attractive. Isaiah’s vision is of all nations freely and willingly streaming up to the Lord’s temple. But of course the nations will only come if they like what they see. After all, very few people came and joined in the worship in Isaiah’s day. All they saw then was lots of empty religion which actually made no difference to the way folk lived outside the temple. But now Isaiah is looking forward to a time when God lives in and among His people by His Spirit, and there are others looking on who are just eager to join.
And why are they quite so eager to join? Verse 3 gives us the answer:
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Because, thirdly, what should mark out the people of God is that they are gospel-centred. Isaiah sees the people of God as being a community of good news, where the plans and purposes of a loving, gracious God can be known. Not just in a theoretical or intellectual sense, but in a way that makes a direct, practical impact on our daily lives. That’s why in Isaiah’s vision there are people even from the most far-off lands encouraging one another to go up to the mountain of the Lord. Because if you knew there was a place where you could meet the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth and learn to walk in His paths you’d want to go, wouldn’t you?
And what’s so thrilling and beautiful about Isaiah’s vision is just to stop and see just how his words have come to pass, probably in ways beyond the prophet’s wildest dreams. You may have noticed that over the past few months I have started a short feature in our notice sheet where we go through the nations of the world in alphabetical order. What I’ve found so stunning is just how far the gospel has reached into so many nations. From one event in Jerusalem two thousand years ago the word of the Lord has gone out into almost every corner of the world. And even though we may only be a small number gathered here this afternoon, we are part of a worldwide community of many millions worshipping and praising God around the globe, all fulfilling this vision here in Isaiah chapter 2.
And yet… and yet… there is also a real sense of course in which Isaiah’s prophecy has not yet come to pass. However much we long for the day when, according to verse 4: They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that time has not yet come. Despite the economic downturn, global arms sales in 2010 amounted to a staggering $411 billion1. The production of weapons remains a boom industry and there is no sign that any of the money allocated for arms will be redistributed soon to make ploughshares or spears, or indeed provide clean water and food for the many millions that so desperately need it.
We still live in a world that is dominated by violence and greed. That is why we come again to another Remembrance Sunday as we think of those who have fallen in war. That is why we also commemorate today the International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church as we think of our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering because of their faith.
So on to that third question I asked at the beginning about prophecy: how does this vision point to the future? I hope by now the answer is clear. There is a time coming when God will come in all His splendour to set up a new heaven and a new earth. Isaiah does not tell us precisely when that will be, and we should not use his prophecy to indulge in idle speculation. All we do know, as I mentioned earlier, is that we already live in the last days. That means one day, like a thief in the night, the Lord will suddenly appear to correct all wrongdoing, to do away with all the evil and sin that spoils His creation, to put an end to all unbelief and greed and selfishness. As Isaiah says in verse 4, He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. But of course that judgement will not only be for other nations, or for other people. It will also be for us.
The obvious question then is: will you, will I be ready? As I’ve been going through this passage it seems to me that as the people of God we live in a state of tension between what we already are and what we are called to be. In chapter 2 Isaiah gives us a wonderful portrait of what the church should be – a visible, attractive, gospel-centred community where many come to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. But if we’re really honest, we’re rather more like the people of eighth century BC Judah and Jerusalem in chapter 1 than we care to admit. We all have gaps between what we say we believe, and the way we actually behave.
This leads to the whole point of Isaiah’s prophecy and the reason why we are studying it today. It is not given to us as a kind of mental exercise so we can work out what Isaiah was saying about the future. Nor is it given to us as an ancient text that only really speaks to historians and theologians. It is given to encourage us to live in light of the Lord’s coming, and to close the gap between our faith and our daily living.
That’s why after all that Isaiah packs into these four little verses, there is a very simple and very direct invitation: Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Words not only addressed to his first hearers, but also to us. Are you, am I walking in the light of the Lord? Because at the end of the day that is the question that will be put to us when the Lord chooses to appear. Not simply whether we have received the light of Christ into our lives, but whether that light shines in and through us day by day, both individually, and as the people of God. That is Isaiah’s challenge to us. How will you, how will I respond?