Friday, 8 May 2009

Preaching that is painful

I spoke recently on Isaiah 53:1 ('Who has believed our report? and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?'). The verse gives interesting insights into Isaiah's understanding of his calling as a prophet and therefore provides help for preachers who preach God's Word today.

Sometimes we imagine that preachers with a special calling will have significant success. Isaiah had a very impressive calling by God to function as a prophet and its details are recorded in Isaiah 6. Yet God informed Isaiah that he would not see wide acceptance of his ministry (Isa. 6:9-13); instead only a few would listen to what he had to say, and the remainder would become increasingly blind in a spiritual sense. Isaiah had been called to serve God during a time when the Lord was about to bring judgement on Judah because of their sins, a judgement that was fulfilled in the Babylonian captivity.
This verse indicates that Isaiah had three comforts in addition to knowing that he was obeying the will of God. First, he proclaimed a great message about the future Deliverer who would come as the Substitute of his people and suffer divine judgement in their place before restoring the prosperity of Zion. Both the suffering and the prosperity are described in this Servant Song found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

Second, Isaiah was aware, along with other prophets, that he was in fact serving a future generation of believers who would appreciate his message; Peter states specifically that God revealed this aspect to the prophets (1 Pet. 1:10-12), surely an encouragement that their work would not be in vain.

Third, Isaiah appreciated the company of his colleagues in his calling (note the plural pronoun ‘our’); in the schools of the prophets there were those who shared his outlook. To that company can be added all other proclaimers of the good news; indeed Paul cites this verse in Romans 10:16 when he explains various features of true preaching.

Although Isaiah had received a divine commission that stressed God’s judgement, the prophet was not a stoic, unaffected by the rejection of his message by his listeners. He felt in his heart the disappointment of such few converts, he longed for his listeners to receive God’s mercy, and he regretted how little success he saw. Of course, he was faithful and he will receive God’s commendation for serving in this way. Yet we can ask an important question: ‘Who is there who can understand the prophet’s pain?’ One obvious answer is that his fellow prophets would. Yet we can move beyond them to later times.

This combination of awareness of divine judgement and powerful concern for those facing it is also seen in the heart concern displayed by the apostle Paul for his own people, the Jews: ‘I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit – that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh’ (Rom. 9:1-3). It would have been easy for Paul to have responded by saying his opponents deserved to receive divine judgement or that their fate was all part of God’s plan. Both answers are true, but neither of them is appropriate. It is not a godly attitude to be indifferent concerning the state of the lost.

Even more wonderful is the fact that Jesus, the one who commissioned Isaiah in Isaiah 6, would also experience this strange spiritual dilemma. Recall his response concerning Jerusalem, a city which he knew would yet receive divine judgement: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”’ (Luke 13:34-35). The facts that they had rejected God’s servants and experience divine judgement did not prevent the Saviour from desiring that his contemporaries would receive spiritual blessing.

Like Isaiah, we who preach can have similar spiritual comforts and experiences.

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