Isaiah 40

“Comfort…comfort my people.” These words signal a shift in the message of the book of Isaiah. Up to this point the prophet had brought a message of judgment against the ungodliness of Israel and her neighbor nations. But here in chapter 40 his tone changes to one of comfort, forgiveness, and hope — hope that looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah talked prophetically about the Messiah, Jesus Christ, more than any other prophet of the Old Testament. Jesus is God’s message of comfort to a hurting world and hope for lost sinners. (Note: Isaiah has 66 chapters, with 39 chapters of judgment against sin followed by 27 chapters of hope in the Messiah. Is it just a coincidence that the Bible has 66 books, with 39 in the Old Testament followed by 27 in the New Testament?)

In verses 3-5 Isaiah begins his message of comfort and restoration by picturing a highway of hope leading out of the wilderness of judgment. There is a road map for this highway, the eternal Word of God (v.8). Only in God’s Word will we find the way out of sin and into salvation.

As Isaiah rose to proclaim that message as a “herald of good news”, he pictured God as a loving shepherd, tenderly picking up His sheep and caring for their needs. We are safe in the arms of our gentle shepherd, for no one is as big and as powerful as He. Isaiah’s description of God’s immeasurable presence and His unmatched power inspires us to trust Him more. God holds all of creation in His hands (v.12-16). The combined population of the world, including all the great cities, all the powerful governments, and all the armies, are “less than nothing” compared to Him (v.17). God sits above the orbit of the earth (v.22). He has named and numbered every one of the trillions of stars He created, and He holds them each in place (v.26). His great power is never diminished, never runs low, is never depleted (v.28).

And that God cares about you! He knows when you get tired and feel like quitting, and if you “wait on Him” (completely trust Him), He will give you strength to walk, to run, and to soar to new heights (v.31)! Until the strength comes He will carry you (v.11), and you are safe in His strong arms.

Advertisements

Isaiah 6

The book of Isaiah begins the section of the Old Testament known as the “major prophets”. Isaiah is generally considered the greatest of the Bible’s prophets. He certainly was one of the longest-serving, prophesying for 60 years and under the reign of five kings. Isaiah’s style of writing weaves poetry and prose together in a way that is thought to be strikingly beautiful.

By far the most memorable recorded event of Isaiah’s life is found here in chapter 6. It tells the story of his dramatic call to prophetic ministry. While in the temple in Jerusalem, Isaiah had a close encounter with God that had a profound effect on him: he saw the Lord in all of His glory.

As the King of Glory, the King of the Ages, the King of Heaven, and the King of kings, the Lord was on a throne, the seat of authority and majesty. Isaiah saw him sitting — not pacing about, wondering what to do; not running from here to there, out of control; not lying down, asleep — but seated, at ease, secure. (Note: it happened in the year that King Uzziah died. Human kings die, but the King of kings lives forever!)

As Isaiah watched in amazement, he saw mighty, multi-winged angels (seraphim) flying around the temple, exclaiming “Holy, holy, holy”. It must have been terrifying and wonderful all at once! The volume of the angelic voices shook the temple to the foundations and “holy smoke” filled the room, a visible manifestation of the glory of God.

In the presence of perfect holiness, Isaiah knew that his hidden sins had been brought to light. He immediately began to confess and to repent, and God immediately responded with cleansing grace. What a picture of forgiveness! The angel took a red-hot coal from the temple’s altar of sacrifice. The altar contained fire, symbolic of God’s judgment. It was an altar of blood sacrifice, symbolic of the mercy of God. When it was applied to Isaiah, his sins were burned away and he stood forgiven. That reminds me that on the cross of Christ judgment met mercy, and when it is applied to my life I am forgiven!

The Lord, speaking for the first time in this scene, asks Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” God’s question reveals His heart: He wanted everyone to hear the message of His judgment (v.9-13), but also the message of the hope of His salvation (chapters 40-66). Isaiah’s answer, “Here am I; send me,” is inspiring. He knew that he was inadequate and powerless on his own, but after his encounter in the temple he was willing to be the Lord’s spokesman.

Take time to encounter God today as you meet with other believers for worship. As the praises go up, search your heart for whatever sin might be exposed in you; confess it and receive God’s forgiveness. Then consider what God is calling you to do, and obey Him immediately.

1 Thessalonians 5

Paul often used the image of a race to refer to the life of a disciple of Jesus. He encouraged believers to run the race of faith with purpose, to run with endurance, and to finish well (1 Corinthians 9:24, Philippians 2:16, 2 Timothy 4:7). In our race of faith, the encouragement of our fellow runners can mean the difference between finishing well and giving up. Sometimes we have to run while carrying heavy burdens; sometimes we have to push through the pain. It is then that encouragement means the most.

Paul was a great encourager, and he wanted the believers in Thessalonica to follow his example. He told them to encourage their leaders as they served (5:12-13), to encourage the lazy to get busy, and to encourage those who were hurting or weak to have faith (5:14). Twice in this letter Paul told them to encourage each other by pointing to the finish line, the glorious end of the race of faith when Jesus comes again (see 4:18, 5:11).

The second coming of Jesus is one of Paul’s major teachings in this letter, and he used the classic term in Scripture (both the Old and New Testaments) to refer to it: “the day of the Lord” (5:2). The “day” does not mean a 24-hour period, but the sequence of events surrounding Christ’s return. The first event, known as the rapture of the church, is described in 4:13-17. (Note: at the end of this blog I have a few things to say about the use of the term “rapture”. If this interests you, please read the “RAPTURE” section at the end…unless you are raptured before you get there!)

At an unexpected moment, like a home invasion in the middle of the night (5:2), Jesus will descend from heaven, shouting a command for all believers (both dead and living) to rise and meet Him. It will be a jubilant moment as an archangel (possibly Michael, the only archangel mentioned in the New Testament) shouts (or sings?) and God’s trumpet blasts to announce the arrival of His Son and the ascension of His people (4:16). Believers who are alive on earth at that moment will rise to meet Jesus “in the air” (4:17; perhaps the stratosphere or the mesosphere). Immediately before living believers ascend, deceased believers will rise, and we will enjoy the glorious presence of Jesus and the great reunion of saints without end.

What an encouragement when we are tired, tempted, and struggling! What a motivation to be faithful as we run our race! Surely the finish line is not far away! Be encouraged, my fellow believer: “He who called you is faithful; He will surely do it” (5:24)!

RAPTURE: Some people have an aversion to using the word “rapture”, arguing that it is not found in Scripture (neither are the words “Bible” or “Trinity”). But the concept of the rapture is definitely there. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 says that we will be “caught up” to meet the Lord. That translates the Greek word harpazo, meaning to be seized, carried off, or stolen away. It refers to the snatching away of all believers who make up the church of Jesus Christ. If you were a literate Christian in the 5th Century, you would probably have read the Latin Vulgate Bible, and the word in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 would have been rapto (meaning “to drag forcefully off”). The word stuck, and we spell it “rapture” in English today. This word has been in the vocabulary of the church for sixteen centuries, and I intend to keep using it.

1 Thessalonians 4

In this section of the letter to the Thessalonian believers, Paul transitions from the relational to the doctrinal. In the first three chapters he expressed his love for the church, commended them for what they were doing right, and encouraged them to keep up the good work. But in the fourth chapter he exerts his authority as an apostle, addressing matters of correction and instruction. (Note: I will comment on verses 1-12 today and save verses 13-18 for tomorrow’s blog.)

The everyday aim of the Christian life is to please God (v.1). Pleasing God means thinking and behaving in ways that bring Him glory, obey His commands, and fulfill His will. We can always do “more and more” of that (v.1).

From the moment you are saved until you “meet the Lord in the air” (v.17), the will of God is that you become more and more holy. Becoming holy (“sanctification”, v.3) is the ongoing work of God in your life to purify your heart and mind from sin and its influence, and to make you distinctively Christlike. Becoming progressively more holy is not something you can accomplish in your own strength. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, and you must surrender to His sanctifying ministry in your life.

This process of sanctification is about removing and replacing: removing sinful attitudes and actions and replacing them with godly ones. Apparently sexual sin was the greatest threat to the collective holiness of the Thessalonian church (v.3-8). Paul urged them to “abstain”, to “control their bodies”, and to not give in to “the passion of lust”. Thessalonian culture was extremely immoral. Some of the new believers there had been saved out of a lifetime of immorality, and they needed Paul’s “solemn warning” that God would punish any sexual sin that occurred within the church (v.6).

Remember that the process of sanctification is about removing and replacing. To remove the sin of immorality was only half of the process. To complete the process Paul urged his friends to replace the so-called love of sexual hook-ups, one-night stands, and extramarital affairs with the true love of brothers and sisters in Christ (v.9). He was talking about the love they had learned from God — unselfish, unconditional love that results in grace and mercy and sacrifice. It is the love of God that causes the church to be different from the world, yet compels us to engage “outsiders” with the gospel (v.12).

Are you surrendering to the ongoing work of God in your life to make you holy? Are you more holy today than you were six months ago? Is there anything you need to remove from your life? With what are you going to replace it?

1 Thessalonians 3

When Paul was forced out of Thessalonica and had to leave his new brothers and sisters in Christ there, he knew he was leaving them in danger. They were open to the persecution of the Jews, the confusion of false teachers, and the temptation of Satan to return to their old lives. Paul could “bear no longer” the thought of leaving the new believers vulnerable and alone in their spiritual infancy (v.1, 5), so he sent Timothy, his brightest associate, to look after them.

This letter was evidently prompted by Timothy’s return from Thessalonica after he had spent time teaching and encouraging them. The report he brought to Paul was very encouraging: the church was thriving! They still had a lot to learn (v.10), but their faith in God was strong and their love for one another was vibrant. Paul couldn’t have been more pleased; this is what he lived for: “for now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord” (v.8).

Moving forward, his prayer for the church was that their love would grow and overflow. Christlike love is the prime indicator of Christian maturity. An atmosphere of love is the greenhouse in which disciples grow. Love is what compels us to take the gospel to the lost. Love has a way of purifying our motives and our actions and promoting holiness (v.13). If there is a problem in the church, love is the answer. If you don’t know how to pray for your church, just pray that love will “increase and abound” (v.12).

In the final verse of this chapter, Paul mentions the second coming of Christ (see 1:10 and 2:19). In chapters 4 and 5 he will address this doctrine in detail, but what he has said so far is enough for us to go on: until Jesus comes, love. Keep loving your brothers and sisters in Christ and keep loving the lost. That about covers it.

1 Thessalonians 2

The first time Paul and Silas went to Thessalonica, their visit was cut short by violence (see Acts 17:1-9). But their brief ministry there “was not in vain” (v.1). Having come from Philippi where they were beaten and jailed for preaching Jesus, and knowing that the same thing was likely to happen in Thessalonica, they made the most of their time. Paul and Silas boldly presented the gospel, God saved “a great many” (Acts 17:4), and then the missionary duo was “torn away” and smuggled out of town to safety (v.17). Their visit did not last long, but the Lord had done a lasting work in the new believers of Thessalonica — their fledgling church was immediately missional, reaching out to pierce the darkness around them with the light of the gospel (see 1:8).

How did this church become so effective so quickly? I think it was due to four things. First, they eagerly accepted the Word of God. Paul and Silas only poured the truth into their lives for a short time, but their teaching found receptive hearts and the Word of God went to work to change them from the inside out (v.13). God’s Word can have that affect in your life as well, depending on how you receive it.

Second, soon after they were saved they began to experience persecution at the hands of angry Jews. This suffering caused them to rely completely on Jesus, and their faith was strengthened as it was formed under pressure. Paul noted the similarity between the persecution of the original church in Jerusalem and the new church in Thessalonica (v.14-16). Just as the original church thrived in spite of intimidation and suffering, the Thessalonian believers were doing more than fine by the grace of God. If someone is discouraging your faith or some problem is making your life miserable, this time of suffering could be a time of great growth for you. Remember that Jesus is enough and God will have the last word (v.16)!

Third, this church became effective so quickly because of the purity of the message and the integrity of the messengers that got them started. When Paul and Silas came to Thessalonica they were not out to make a name for themselves, but for Jesus (v.5-6). They were not peddling a product for personal gain, but introducing a Person — the Lord Jesus — for His glory (v.2-3)! They did not water-down the message to make it more pleasing to people; they preached the pure gospel, which required that they talk about sin and judgment and the cross (v.4). God blesses when we keep the message pure and simple. It is His gospel that saves, not our personalities or persuasive words.

Last, God used the sincere, Christlike love of Paul and Silas to set the tone for the church. Mark their words in verses 7-12: they were gentle, affectionate, and encouraging. They treated the newborn believers with the tenderness of a nursing mother (v.7). If we treat each other with that kind of love, our unity will be deep and strong — and our mission will be unstoppable.

1 Thessalonians 1

Thessalonica was the capital and principal city of the Roman province of Macedonia. With a population of about 200,000, it held great potential for the gospel. A church planted there could reach out to the entire region and even the world, for it was both a busy sea port and a major stop on the Via Egnatia, an important Roman highway.

When the Apostle Paul arrived in Thessalonica on his second missionary journey with his partner Silas, they had just come from Philippi where they had been beaten and jailed for preaching the gospel. As Paul preached in the local synagogue of Thessalonica, many people were saved and a church was formed. His plan was probably to stay for a while to train leaders and to strengthen the new church, but the house where they were staying was mobbed and they had to leave the city (see Acts 17:1-10). Some time later Paul, Timothy, and Silas (called Silvanus in v.1) sent this letter back to the church to encourage them and to correct some doctrinal misunderstandings.

In this introductory chapter Paul recalls how the church was started. Many of the original converts in Thessalonica had been idol worshipers before they heard about Jesus. Paul remembered how they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (v.9). At great risk and personal sacrifice, Paul and Silas had taken the gospel to them (see 2:2, 2:9), and now these Thessalonian believers were repeating the pattern: someone sacrificed to get the gospel to them, Jesus had transformed their lives, and now they were sacrificing to get the gospel to others.

According to Paul, they were sending missionaries north to the region of Macedonia and south to the region of Achaia. They were doing such an effective job that he considered them to be an example of how to reproduce missionary-minded, gospel-focused churches (v.8).

The final verse of this chapter hints at the doctrinal issue Paul would address later in the letter, the second coming of Jesus. He encouraged the church to keep spreading the gospel until Jesus comes (v.10). That is the mission of every church and every church member today, too. Until He comes, we are to go — go with the gospel, go in the power of the Holy Spirit, go to the ends of the earth, go make disciples, go plant churches.

Someone needs you to go to them today and tell them about Jesus. You can’t spell “gospel” without “go”. So let’s get going!