“Are you still a slave or are you now free?” Paul asks this question of the Galatian believers, and the Holy Spirit asks the same one of us today. Up until then, the most god-fearing person in the world was an observant Jew, serving God and eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. But he/she was nevertheless under the ‘slavery’ of the Law of Moses and of his/her sinful desires and motives. Then, at just the right time in history, God sent his Son to be born human, and born Jewish, so that he might rescue those enslaved in immaturity. So that godly Jew needed to receive his/her Messiah to remain in the will of God.
God adopted them – and us – as sons and heirs and sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts to validate that sonship. The problem came when the Galatians were persuaded to turn back to what Paul calls “those weak and miserable forces” – of Jewish legalism; forces that laid great burdens on men’s backs and which did nothing to help them lift them. (See Luke 11:46.)
This legalism included the slavish observing of special festivals and seasons, something that the vibrant newborn church had never before done. Today, we must beware of being caught up in any kind of pseudo-religious calendar that tells us what to do on any particular day. It seems to promote a sense of spiritual discipline, but it is worldly and of human origin. Some of the leaders of communities with such practices use them to promote themselves – to advertise how ‘holy’ they are; but Paul says that they are only attempting to alienate believers from the true gospel, the true church, and its leaders, and to make themselves the centre of attention. It’s an ego trip!
Zeal on its own is not enough – you must focus that zeal on the right purpose and submit to the right people. Paul was distraught that his spiritual children were being led astray into heresy, attracted by a charismatic group of newcomers who wanted to be served!
Paul ends the chapter with an extended metaphor about siblings, mountains, and cities. His message is that Jewish and Arabic religions begin and end with slavery, and that only Christ the Messiah can set them free, along with us. We are the Children of the Promise – persecuted by those other faiths but set free by Jesus eternally. God calls all those who are still enslaved to receive the Son and to embrace freedom. “There is no other Name under Heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no-one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
ISAIAH 40, 41, 42 and 43
And so we come to Isaiah – Part Two. Remember that this book, the most profound and amazing revelation by the very best writing prophet – this book is a Bible in miniature: 66 chapters in Isaiah compared with 66 books in the whole Bible. The first 39 chapters relate to the Judgment by God – analogous to the 39 books of the O.T., and the last 27 chapters relate to Comfort from God – similar to the 27 books of the N.T. So now we reach the New Testament equivalent; after 39 chapters of God’s judgment we at last reach the Comfort of God poured out on his people and focussed from his Messiah. Where there is ‘judgement talk’ from the Lord, it is now more often targeted at the godless nations around the world, rather than at his people.
If we want to divide up the final 27 chapters of this great book, then it might be in this way:
- The first nine (40-48): “The Sovereignty of the Lord”
- The second nine (49-57) “The Servant of the Lord”
- The third nine (58-66) “The Salvation of the Lord”
Each group of nine chapters ends with the ominous phrase: “There is no peace for the wicked”.
So we open the first set of nine with a bucketful of hope: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin had been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins”. Isaiah was looking forward prophetically to the return of Judah’s people from the Babylonian exile – and actually the final 27 chapters of the book are all focussed on this period and beyond. Remember that when he first wrote this whole prophetic book, the exile had not even begun!
Prophecy such as this often has multiple fulfilments and we can look at some of Isaiah’s words and interpret them as also referring to the creation of the church (God’s ‘New Nation’) under the Messiah, to the re-creation of the nation of Israel in AD 48, or to the final ingathering of both redeemed Jews and Gentiles into Christ before the end of the age. Having four possible fulfilments does make interpretation of biblical prophecy somewhat uncertain (just wait until we reach the Book of Revelation!) but it may well be part of God’s strategy of keeping believers eagerly looking forward to the near future, and therefore living lives of holiness and self-sacrifice.
So Judah has received ‘double for all her sins’! This probably means ‘a double’ – in other words, the punishment has exactly matched the crime and it is now completed, so the exile is over. We then move into 40:3-5 (do read it) which is usually interpreted as referring to John the Baptist (see Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23.) Whenever a Middle Eastern king was due to visit a region of his empire, he would send representatives ahead of him to prepare both the infrastructure and the local population to receive him properly. Isaiah 40:4 reads like a civil engineering project to create a fast motorway: fill in the valleys, cut away the mountains, straighten the paths and smooth out the bumps! The royal visitor was of such status that no expense or effort was to be spared to prepare a worthy reception for him.
John the Baptist did that civil engineering in the hearts of men and women; he prepared a highway of repentance so that the royal Messiah could have access, and so that the willing ‘hosts’ could truly see his glory (40:5). Luke 7:29-30 states bluntly that the people of Judah who accepted Jesus were those who had been through the waters of John’s repentance-baptism, whilst those who refused to have their hearts prepared in this way were the ones who later rejected Jesus. We need to learn this crucial spiritual lesson that repentance – acknowledging in our minds that God was right, and we were wrong, and so submitting to his Lordship – is a prerequisite for coming to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Without repentance, our faith is nothing more than intellectual ‘PlayStation’ or ‘Xbox’!
If you want convincing that our God is the greatest, and that he is more than capable of rescuing us, look up at the skies… “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: who created these?” (40:25-31). God has not forgotten us, he has not overlooked our needs by mistake. He keeps the entire universe working together in harmony – giving second-by-second commands to the sub-atomic particles and to the super-clusters of galaxies – so he is not going to forget or ignore the cries of his beloved children, is he?
In chapters 41-43, the Lord wants to emphasis His supremacy. “I am the first… and I am the last” (41:4). We have been chosen, rescued, and redeemed by the greatest being of all. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am you God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand”. And he is prepared to do miracles to prove it: “I will make rivers flow on barren heights… I will turn the desert into pools of water…I will put cedar in the desert…so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this…”. God will get the glory in the end.
He introduces his faithful servant in chapter 42. This is the first of four ‘Servant’ prophecies in Isaiah: 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and the greatest one in 52:13 – 53 (the whole chapter). They refer to Jesus, the Messiah. Isaiah 61 is also in the same genre. Through his faithful servant, God will start to fight for his true people, like a champion warrior coming to our rescue and turning the battle around in our favour. He continues in chapter 43 with the theme: “Do not fear”. It doesn’t mean that we will be exempt from experiencing unpleasant situations, but it does mean that He will be with us through them: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you”. “Do not be afraid, for I am with you…”.
Our God is God – and there is no other. He is our Saviour – and there is no-one else up to the task. What He decides, gets done! (Read 43:10-13). For us humans, it is easy to look back at the past with rose-tinted spectacles and to convince ourselves that it was so good. But God says: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland”. A knowledge of church history is essential to avoid repeating the stupidities of previous generations of Christians, but we must also recognise that the time we now live in is unique and we can only navigate our way through to our destiny by following the lead of the Holy Spirit. If God is indeed doing a brand-new thing in us, taking us on a journey that has never been travelled before, then there is no point in looking for a map! We simply have to follow the Guide.