The message God had for his people then is equally relevant to us today. Back in the late nineteenth century, the founder of the Salvation Army, General William Booth, predicted that six things would mark the twentieth century and dominate the life of the Church and particularly the lives of its young people as the coming new century developed. He foresaw that there would be:
1. Religion without the Holy Spirit
2. Forgiveness without repentance
3. Conversion without new birth
4. Christianity without Christ
5. Politics without God
6. Heaven without Hell
When we meet God and die to self, all our ambitions, our precious plans, our self-will and our previous priorities fall under the axe of God’s death-sentence. It is only when we are truly "dead" that we are really useful to God!
Moving from fear to committed faith
1. A seraph with a live coal
John Wesley: "Get on fire for God and men and women will come to watch you burn!"
The fire of God cleanses us and energises our spirits and is a holy mystery both to us and to the watching world. God, therefore, uses holy fire to sear the lips of His prophet and He fills Isaiah’s being with a blazing flame that will eventually sustain a sixty-year long ministry, one that still speaks to us today nearly three millennia later. Only God’s power can accomplish such a thing.
2. A live altar with burning fire
The angel took up an actual burning coal from the altar in the temple. The act was therefore not metaphorical or imagined. We have to picture a very real altar somewhere in the courts of the temple. The altar in the outer courts was recognised as the place of sacrifice for every person, right in the very heart of Jerusalem (Hebrews 9:22b). We dare not minimize or dismiss the true horrors of the cross of Christ centuries later. The word "blood" demands we take it seriously. If no blood is available no forgiveness is possible. We cannot dismiss the mystery of this too quickly since the Scriptures insist it is there (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 1:7; 2:13).
This sacrifice alone could atone for Isaiah’s sin (v 7). The word "atoned" is the Hebrew word kipper, which means "to ransom or to deliver by means of a substitute". Throughout the Bible the message is restated that it is ultimately God Himself who will pay that "ransom price".
The altar in the temple, and later the cross at Calvary, deal primarily with God’s wrath against sin. Unbelievers live daily under that wrath (John 3:36), a factor that should make perfect sense to us, as it does to anyone who has clearly seen the real problem.
C.S. Lewis: "When we merely say we are bad, the ‘wrath’ of God seems a barbarous doctrine; as soon as we perceive our badness, it appears inevitable, a mere corollary from God’s goodness."
The cross is the only bridge possible across that gulf between sinful man and a holy God, made by our sin. We only fully know His love after conversion (Romans 5:5). The cross vividly placards the loving heart of God who understands our sin, suffering and fears, and yet willingly suffered them for us (Romans 5:8).
Haslam: “Christ became a sinner for us by "imputation", reckoned "as guilty as hell" in our place, by God. He literally stood in the dock, then at the whipping post, and finally at the gallows for us. Christ "took the rap" for debts He did not owe and for people who could not pay. He was literally "nailed" for them (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the "divine exchange" that alone made it possible for the unjust to be justified. Our acquittal hung on His condemnation. ”
John Stott: "What was transferred to Christ was not moral qualities but legal consequences … In consequence Christ had no sin but our sin, and we have no righteousness but His righteousness."
Richard Bewes: "The difference between Christianity and all other religions is a four letter word. In other religions it is all ‘Do, do, do!’, but in Christianity it is all Done, done, done!’".
As someone once said, "The kingdom of Satan is proof against everything, except fire." Fire is the one thing that can disarm Satan and throw back his power – holy fire, God’s fire, fire that emanates from the cross of Christ itself.
3. A live word with personal impact
The angel spoke to Isaiah saying, "See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has been taken away and your sin atoned for." In other words Isaiah was now clean. He was now right with God.
This was fact, not fiction. The words the seraph spoke are what has sometimes been termed a "performative utterance". There are certain statements that can be made that are essential, integral in fact, to the act we are performing at the time.
An example would be when a minister says to a couple standing at the front of the church with him, "I now pronounce you husband and wife." This statement is not merely a description of the couple, though there is truth in that, the very words perform the event of marrying them and dramatically changing their status and identity.
Similarly, the angel’s words imparted the searing, cleansing power of God to Isaiah and, at that moment, what God declared over him was so. When God says to a man, "You are clean" then he is clean. Just like that.
Every aspect of Isaiah’s encounter speaks of the cross. The cross is God’s last word to man and it is also His endless word. Once the blessing of healing has been spoken over your life from the cross, you are finished, because your life has ended and begun again.
Oswald Chambers: "It was at the cross that the prince of this world, Satan, was finally judged; there sin is killed and pride is done to death; there lust is frozen and self-interest is slaughtered – not one can get through. The cross is the point where God and sinful man merge with a crash, and the way of life is opened; but the crash is on the heart of God. The cross is the presentation of God having done his ‘bit’; that which man could never do…"
Jesus, who says to us, "If you would be my disciples then you must give up altogether everything that you are and everything that you have and surrender it to me" (Mark 8:34-36).
A John 12:24 generation
The image Jesus creates for us here is a powerful one. Unless it falls into the ground and dies it remains alone and unused. What a terrible thing wasted potential is – to live the whole of your life, and ultimately to leave it, with nothing to show for the fact that you were here.
It was at the point when Isaiah, realising the depths of his own sinfulness and the horror of the sins of his nation, died to himself and surrende
red to God that he was cleansed and commissioned for service. This was the call of God on Isaiah’s life. The call of God occurs where our deep hunger and the world’s deep need meet, but first and foremost it is important to realise that all of this occurs at the place of death.
In his commission Isaiah received God’s heart for the world. It orientated him properly both to God and to the hard-hearted and deeply deluded people he would set out to reach. Isaiah was revolutionised. He moved from a condition of fear to one of faith. Crucially, his focus moved from "in here" to "out there