December 17 in Advent

(If this day is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, please refer to that day

in the list of devotions.)

Isaiah 45:1-25

Israel’s Sovereign God

“I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (vss. 5, 18).  This is the theme of this chapter.  And to back up this claim, God (the God of Israel, that is, the One whose name is the LORD, or Yahweh, or just plain, I Am – who is identified in the New Testament as the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – that God) presents his resume: He creates light and darkness, well-being and calamity, the heavens and the earth, all the peoples and their ways.  He speaks the truth and declares what is right.  There is nothing He cannot do; indeed, there is nothing that has happened that He has not done.  The Lord asks rhetorically: “Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles?’”  The Apostle Paul takes up this very verse and topic in Romans 9.

The sovereignty of God is a great mystery of the faith.  By “sovereignty,” we mean His dominion and control.  God rules over all.  He decrees what will take place ahead of time.  No, he doesn’t just know what will happen ahead of time; He wills what will happen ahead of time, which makes it certain to come to pass.  This is why there were prophets and prophecies: what point would there be in these if God did not decree what He willed to take place?  Because God is sovereign, the chapter begins with God’s calling and anointing of Cyrus, the Persian king (a pagan to be sure but God can use anyone He wishes) who would allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem.  Here, Isaiah prophesies the event almost 200 years before it happened.

This doctrine of God’s sovereignty is difficult.  Perhaps this is why Isaiah says, “You are a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”  No, God does not violate our freedom of will; He uses our wills to fulfill His will by wooing or turning us this way or that, according to our natures.  God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but Pharaoh was more than willing to be hardened; Judas must betray Jesus to fulfill the Scriptures, but he was willing to do just that.  Though some struggle with it, the purpose of this doctrine is to comfort believers.  We are not to pry too deeply into it, but accept it as given.  I, for one, cannot live in a world of chance, where we are merely billiard balls bouncing off of one another.  This teaching of Scripture lets me know that nothing happens without His will, and as Paul said centuries later: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).  And so God can say in v. 23, “To me every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall swear allegiance,” as recorded again in Phil. 2:10.

The Fourth Sunday in Advent

(Regardless if this day is after December 16, this Sunday takes precedence

over the date it falls on.)

Isaiah 7:10-14; Luke 1:26-56; Matthew 1:18-25

One of the Greatest Mysteries of Our Faith

Reading these two passages of Scripture, the teaching that jumps out at me is the miracle/mystery of the virgin birth.  This doctrine has been with the Church from the beginning, and prophesied by Isaiah more than six hundred years previous.  Yes, I know there are those who would call it a myth that grew up early in the Church’s history, but if this is a myth then why not the resurrection? If so, our faith is in faith – we are dead in our sins and have no hope (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).  Our faith must rest on the word of God, not on what our eyes can see and our minds comprehend.

What is the meaning of the virgin birth?  The virgin birth testifies to an even greater mystery – that the Son of God, who is of the same substance of the Father, who was with the Father in the beginning, who was, is, and ever shall be – who is, in short, God (John 1:1-18) – this One came down and joined himself with (assumed) the humanity made available from Mary’s womb.  In this most marvelous event, all that the prophets had prophesied was set in motion – the promised Messiah was coming, but not on clouds of glory (that is yet to come), but in the form of man, God in the flesh, fully human, fully divine, one person – one with us and one with God.

But why?  What is the purpose of this?  The answer is simple – our salvation.  And how does this act of God save us?  The principle underneath this doctrine is that man has sinned his way out of God’s favor.  Sin really is a big deal.  And it is a big deal because of another principle that underlies this plan of salvation, which is that God is a holy God.  God can no more sweep our sin under the rug than a wife could her husband’s infidelity.  Sin has consequences.  The problem was (and is) that we can’t fix it.  It’s not just that we commit sin, we are born sinners, that is, with a sinful nature.  We can never not sin – not in this life.  We fail God’s law, be it a command about a tree in a garden or the Ten Commandments, we shake our fist at God.  But God so loved us that He decided to do something about this problem Himself – and that was that His Son would assume our nature, live our life without sin (Hebrews 4:15), and then take our place as the sacrificial Lamb on the cross (which is what the Old Testament sacrifices foreshadowed all along), and then rise again in victory over sin and death.  This is the fulfillment of the first prophecy after the fall in Genesis 3:15 – that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head.  And the greater purpose of all of this, even greater than our salvation, is that it redounds to God’s glory, which is the purpose of everything God does.  And it begins with a virgin betrothed to a man; so earthy, so humble – God becomes man.

Friday in the Third Week of Advent

(If this day occurs after December 16, please refer to that date in the

list of devotions.)

Isaiah 34:1-35:10

A Contrast of Two Kingdoms

Isaiah 34 and 35 show a marked contrast between two kingdoms.  Isaiah 34 displays God’s judgment on the nations which shall come in the latter days.  No doubt, God judges nations even now; after all, where is the Roman Empire today, or the glory of ancient Greece, or Persia, or Babylon, or Assyria, or Egypt, and on and on?  Nations come and go; the word of the Lord abides forever (Isaiah 40:8).  Here in Isaiah 34 is a graphic depiction of our Lord’s coming judgment, which again is the theme of Advent – the coming of the Lord.  For some, it is a day of rejoicing; for others, a day of mourning as the wrath of God is finally poured out on sinful mankind.  “The Lord is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter … The Lord has a sword; it is sated with blood.”  The description of desolation that follows reminds one of the judgment of “Babylon” in Revelation 18:21-24: the sounds of the harp and flute, of craftsmen, of the mill, of bride and bridegroom, of merchants – in short, the sound of anything will no longer be heard, for the Lord has come and executed his just wrath upon the nations.

But it does not end there.  Isaiah 34:8 tells us that the execution of God’s wrath on the nations is his “day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion,” that is, God’s people.  Isaiah 35 then spells out that wonderful new kingdom of healing and restoration: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”  We saw this in our Lord’s ministry at his first coming, when he came in humility and worked signs and wonders.  But they did not believe in him.  But next time he comes shall be the inauguration of his visible reign, in which “the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water … no lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come upon it.”  In other words, in that Messianic kingdom for which we long, all shall be made right again; even nature itself, which was subjected to futility because of our sin (Romans 8:19-22), shall slough off its curse and readily comply with our Lord’s command for our well-being.  The passage speaks of the Redeemed coming to “Zion” with singing, and “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.”  But let us not overlook the highway that brings us to the city: “And it shall be called the Way of Holiness.”  It is holiness that gets us there – the holiness that covers us through the substitutionary death of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our growth in that holiness as we are sanctified by walking with Him (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Peter 3:18).  There is no other way.

Thursday in the Third Week of Advent

(If this day occurs after December 16, please refer to that date in the

list of devotions.)

Isaiah 33:1-24

The Blessings of Baptism, Even If by Fire

Isaiah 33 picks up were Isaiah 32 left off.  It begins with the destruction and desolation of Assyria.  (Assyria is not named but that is who we think verse one refers to.)  But Assyria simply stands for that which oppresses God’s people, and we should remember that we wrestle not “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). The cry of verse two is the cry of every believer’s heart: “O Lord be gracious to us; we wait for you.  Be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble.”  Thereupon is a description of the waste of the land because of the Assyrian onslaught that Israel and Judah experienced: “The land mourns and languishes; Lebanon is confounded and withers away.”

Is this not a description of our souls when we have been away from the Lord, when we have allowed the enemy to wreak havoc upon ourselves, when we have been careless with our hearts, falling before temptation such that sin no longer bothers us?  This is a sad state of affairs, but I fear it is the place where too many of us stand in relation to the Lord of glory.  Yet, if we will hear again the words our Lord first preached when he walked among us, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” we can experience again our Lord’s cleansing and forgiveness.  “`Now I will arise,’ says the Lord, ‘Now I will lift myself up; now I will be exalted.  You conceive chaff; and you give birth to stubble.’”  Is this not a fitting picture of ourselves apart from the Lord, powerless and falling before every temptation?

In this state, the Christian knows that God is not fooled, and He will not be mocked.  “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?”  We ask because we know that our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).  But it is this fire, as painful as it is, that burns away our dross, and cleanses us of our sins.  Thus, when John the Baptist described the One who was to come after him, he said that He would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).  Repentance is not easy work, neither is taking up the cross and following Him.  But we look to the city beyond the horizon and to the One who calls us: “Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty; they will see a land that stretches afar.”  No longer shall we fear that which troubles us today, and we will wonder at the defeat of our enemy.  “The Lord is our king; he will save us.”  And “the people who dwell there will be forgiven their iniquity.”

Wednesday in the Third Week of Advent

(If this day occurs after December 16, please refer to that date in the

list of devotions.)

Isaiah 32:1-20

The Promise of the Messianic Kingdom

These devotions are supposed to be about the season of Advent.  Unfortunately, when writing on these passages, I tend to get lost in the trees and forget the forest.  That’s why this passage is so important; it brings us back to what Advent is all about.  I offer my apologies if I chased a few rabbits here recently.

“Behold a king will reign in righteousness.”  This is what Advent is all about: the patient waiting for the coming king, the king before whom “every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess” (Philippians 2:10).  He came the first time in humility; he comes again in glorious triumph.  He comes to reign and to rule.  But what’s more, he promises a kingdom of righteousness, with beautiful metaphors such as “a hiding place from the wind,” “a shelter from the storm,” “streams of water in a dry place,” “shade of a great rock in a weary land.”  Moreover, eyes shall see and ears will hear; that is, no more of the willful blindness and deafness of man because of the hardness of his wicked heart.  In that kingdom, the righteous shall see and hear and rejoice in the reign of their Lord.  As a result of his reign, justice shall prevail and everyone shall have enough.  No longer shall the fool be honored, but the Lord’s princes shall reign with him in wisdom (Matthew 19:27-30; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3).

As for vs. 9-14, we see that the word of God can be marvelously egalitarian.  The women of Judah are given no quarter; that is, those who are complacent.  Amos 4:1 refers to the women of Israel in even more graphic fashion: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, … who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring that we may drink!’”  Advent is about preparing our hearts before his coming by repenting of sin, and sin lies deep in the heart of each of us, men and women alike.  Advent means holding up our hearts before the fire of God’s holy word and letting that fire burn up the weeds and briers that have grown there due to our carelessness and apathy.  Then shall the Holy Spirit be poured out upon us, and the wilderness of our hearts become a fruitful field, and the fruitful field a forest.  “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.”  And isn’t this what we want?  Well, it is this that God promises, the One who made us and knows the yearning of our hearts.  Christians are given a foretaste of this in the giving of the Spirit upon saving faith (our guarantee or down payment of 2 Corinthians 1:22).  But one day, all that is now faith shall become sight.

Tuesday in the Third Week of Advent

(If this day occurs after December 16, please refer to that date in the

list of devotions.)

Isaiah 31:1-9

Woe to Those Who Go Down to Egypt (Continued)

Or we should say, “Woe to those who trust in Egypt, who trust in chariots and horses.”  Really, the “woe” is upon anyone who trusts in anything but the Lord God Almighty, who does not look to the Holy One of Israel.

Like yesterday, the enemy is Assyria – that fierce nation just northeast of Judah that was racking up nations like billiard balls.  They were one of the first major world powers, and they were knocking at Judah’s door.  (As I said yesterday, you can find the historical account in chapters 36-37.)  So, tiny Judah was looking for help.  They were no match for Assyria.  They were a long way from the glory days of Kings David and Solomon.  Because of their faithlessness to the Lord over the last two or more centuries, they had been reduced to an insignificant kingdom that lay on a very significant highway between Syria and Egypt.  So, they looked to their former slave-masters for help against mighty Assyria.

And this is what offended the Lord so much!  They looked to everyone to save them – except the One who could save them.  “The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit.”  And so the Lord will see to it that Judah’s helper will stumble and fall, as Egypt did before the Assyrians.  The Lord Himself would fight for Judah, and He did, and Judah won an amazing victory without even leaving their city walls.  And so the Lord would teach them in whom to trust, that they might put away their idols and turn to Him.

And here are we.  Time and again we falter on this very thing called “trust.”  It is so understandable to cower before a mighty enemy, one we know we can’t beat.  And it is so easy to run to worldly powers to equal the giant we are up against.  I’m not saying that we can’t ask godly friends for wisdom, and certainly the Church of Jesus Christ is a strong bulwark against any storm.  But, ultimately, our trust must be in the Lord our God.  It is only He who can promise victory over our enemies – fear, worry, doubt, lust, our various passions and cravings of the flesh, addictions of every sort – these are the enemies that the Lord wants to defeat in us and through us.  These are our idols, and as Christians, we rightfully hate them.  We want them out of our lives because we know that they do not belong in a body inhabited by the Holy Spirit.  And it is exactly at this point that we place ourselves upon His altar, allowing Him to crucify our flesh (the sinful nature), trusting in His abundant mercy to heal and forgive.  Only he who wounds us can heal us.

Monday in the Third Week of Advent

(If this day occurs after December 16, please refer to that date

in the list of devotions.)

Isaiah 30:1-33

A Call to Hear and Heed the Word of God

The Lord calls us to be faithful to Him – alone.  Scripture tells us that our God is a jealous God who refuses to share His glory with anyone else (Exodus 20:5).  We are to trust Him for deliverance from the things of this world – and deliverance from the things of this world we desperately need.

Here, Isaiah’s message from the Lord concerns Judah’s reliance, not on the Lord, but Egypt.  The Assyrians were invading and, rather than trust in the Lord, the leaders of Judah chose to trust in Egypt.  The irony is that Egypt was the nation from which the Israelites escaped bondage some seven centuries previous.  Now they look to Egypt for help against a common enemy.  “Well, what of it,” you say. “Doesn’t that make sense within the geopolitics of that time?”  Well, God didn’t think so and spoke by Isaiah to warn the people of their error.  The historical account is in Isaiah 36-37 and you can read there how the Lord did deliver Judah and not the Egyptians.

Then comes the word of warning and blessing that we find so often in Isaiah (and all the prophets).  Isaiah describes the people in terrible terms in verses 8-14.  They are “unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord.”  They tell the prophets not to speak, for they only want to hear “smooth things”: “Let us hear no more of the Holy One of Israel.”  Their punishment comes because they “despise the word.”  It is this sin of despising the word that ultimately led to their destruction a century later.  And the greater irony is that many of them did flee to Egypt at that time in disobedience to God’s word through Jeremiah (42-43).

And here is our lesson: It is the word of God, which is the Holy Bible, which is God’s enduring word for us and to us.  It is in it that we hear the gracious words: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”  How often we are in such personal turmoil.  We look everywhere for answers, anywhere for help.  The Lord would have us look to Him and find our strength in Him.  Trusting in the Lord often means waiting on the Lord, “who waits to be gracious to you.”  What follows is a beautiful description that prophesies the Church age in which we live: “Though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it.’”  This would be the Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures today, through which God binds up the brokenness of His people.