American Journal of Biblical Theology
Vol. 7 Issue 9.
April 30 2006
The Pieta, Michaelangelo
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Have you ever given much thought about the basic priorities in your life and their ranking of importance? If you were to take a blank piece of paper and write on it the 20 or 30 most important things in life, you would probably list things like God, church, family, job, etc. If asked to place them in an order of priority, you would probably be able to do so with little difficulty. When we are unable to keep those important issues in life in their prioritized order, conflict and stress arises.
The conflict is created by a mix-up of authorities. When we give priority to things in our lives, it is very easy to give them authority over us, that is, we become their servants. For example, when one is enticed to purchase a new car, the purchase is usually done with the bank's money, placing the buyer in debt. Add to that automobile mortgage a house mortgage and credit card debt and the buyer is now under the authority of those loans. They buyer can no longer use that money for discretionary spending, and it most likely diminishes or eliminates stewardship. A job can be so engaging that the employee neglects spending precious time with his/her children. One may enjoy fishing to the point that family is neglected. A pastor can become so engaged in his ministry that his own family is neglected.
These are all examples of mixed-up authorities where one gives more authority a lesser influence than to one of greater importance, such as the family. Such cho-ices diminish the quality of our relationships with each other and with the LORD.
Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen: 2Thus saith the LORD that made thee, and formed thee from the womb, which will help thee; Fear not, O Jacob, my servant; and thou, Jesurun, whom I have chosen.
How easy is it for us to forget where we have come from? One of the basic beliefs of the Christian faith is the Lordship of Christ. Jesus is the Messiah, the creator, for without Him, nothing was made, and He dwelt among us. (John 1:1-16). God created us for relationship with Him. We were not randomly formed from some primordial soup that happened to be struck by a lightening bolt. God created all that is. Having created man, God states through Isaiah that this creation was for a purpose, so that those who put their trust in Him would have a relationship with Him. This is by God's choice, a basic character of His love and grace. Because of His nature, God has chosen to bless those who place their faith and trust in the One who created them, the LORD. Faith in God is faith in Christ. The two cannot be separated, for they are One God.
We get so busy with the structure of authorities we accept in our lives, that we often forget the significance of the One Authority who loves us and cares for us every moment of every day. We forget the one to whom we can be continually praying as we thank Him for every daily blessing, both seen and unseen. We forget to include Him in our daily decision making, reserving God for the "Big" decisions, and ignoring Him in those that characterize the routine of our lives.
For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring: 4And they shall spring up as among the grass, as willows by the water courses.
The atheist observes the rain and can provide a very convincing and accurate account of how this rain came from changes in the heating of the earth surface due to its rotation as moisture is moved around in a repeating cycle of evaporation and condensation. No God is necessary for this to happen, at least in the perspective of the atheist. The child of God agrees with the physics but also recognizes the One who set all this in motion and His purpose behind it. Isaiah's prophesy reminds us of God's promise to continually provide for the basic needs of those who trust Him. Using the metaphor of rain as it brings life to the grass to describe the life that He gives to those of faith who, like the grass, are empowered to spring up and blossom. Furthermore, a willow "by the water courses" is continually fed with a replenishing supply of water, providing the resource needed to grow unimpeded, springing up to full blossom and full maturity.
Ancient literature referred to flowing water as "living water" (e.g. John 4:10,11; 7:38). Just as water brings life to what would otherwise be dead grass, God's Holy Spirit brings life to what would otherwise be a dead spirit in the heart of man. Without the life giving water of the Spirit, one is separated from God, failing to experience that living water, satisfied instead with the dead water of the authorities of this world. However, when one receives the living water of the Spirit of God, they shall "spring up" like the tree by the river, maturing in their love of the LORD and bearing much fruit.
Is it possible to be rooted by the river, yet not partake of its nourishment? The tree flourishes because of its continual intake of life-giving water. However, a tree that is next to it, a tree that is diseased may not be able to draw the water through its roots, withers, and dies. We have a choice as to whether to accept the living water that God provides. God "pours" His Spirit upon those who He has chosen, those who trust in Him, yet what have we employed as "umbrellas" to deflect that which God has intended for us? And, what have we employed that distracts us from the realization that the Spirit is even there?
One shall say, I am the LORD’S; and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob; and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the LORD, and surname himself by the name of Israel.
When we fail to fully embrace the relationship that God has planned for us, we tend to identify ourselves with worldly authorities. In this verse we see three ways people identify themselves with a righteousness that cannot save. Though some do identify themselves with the LORD, most do not. And many of those who make a profession of faith in God have not fully placed themselves under His Lordship. Instead, they identify with other groups. (1) Those who identify with the name of Jacob are those who profess righteousness based upon their ancestry. They depend upon God's acceptance of the faith of Abraham for their own righteousness while they reject God in their hearts. (2) Others identify themselves by their good works, striving hard to live a life that is righteous and godly, yet with none of the power, none of the living water, none of the Spirit of God in their hearts to empower their effort. (3) Others simply place their trust in their identification with the church, often with churches that teach that salvation comes from membership at birth or by conversion, not by a profession of faith.
All three of these positions reject the nature of God and His purpose of the redemption of man from their sin. All three of these positions place their trust in things other than God: heritage, good works, and association. God is speaking through Isaiah to send a message of restoration, to cause us to look back to our roots, our real roots for the One who created us, for the One who can provide a real solution for our unrighteousness.
Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel, and his redeemer the LORD of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God.
Many of us have probably often seen printed evidence of the cliché "God is my Co-Pilot." It was a popular slogan for automobile bumper stickers in the 1980s and 1990s. Those who ascribe to the three previous errors would gladly and confidently embrace this thought. It sounds godly to include God in our daily activity, as He co-pilots our life. However, such a position trivializes God, and keeps us in the pilot's seat. God is God, not me. He is the One and Only God that exists. There are no others. For us to give such authority to any other spirit, creature, or creation is to dishonor and reject the One God who truly loves us, and who truly impacts our lives. It is the LORD who is the King of Israel, the authority over all who place their trust in Him. It is the LORD who is the redeemer, the One who has bought us back from the authority of this world.
This word, "redeemer" is significant to the understanding of this passage, particularly to those who read in the original language. A redeemer was one who paid the debt for another who could not pay it themselves. It would be a redeemer who would purchase the freedom of one who sold himself into slavery. It would be a redeemer who would buy back the land that was lost to debt, restoring it to the family. Only God can save us from the separation from Him that sin demands, simply because it is a debt that we cannot pay. No manner of ancestry can make us pure, perfect and righteous. No manner of good works can make us pure, perfect, and righteous. No manner of identity with a church group can make us pure, perfect and righteous. It is only by God's grace that righteousness can be found, when God chose to accept as righteous those who place their faith in Him. Though the sin-debt still had to be paid, God paid that debt Himself, hence He is the One Redeemer. We were redeemed by His descent from heaven in the life of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who paid the debt at Calvary. The debt is paid. God is the One and Only God who truly provides both for our needs and for our salvation. There simply is no other, and there simply is no other way of righteousness. God is the first and last. He is before all others who would come, and He will remain when all others have withered and died.
And who, as I, shall call, and shall declare it, and set it in order for me, since I appointed the ancient people? and the things that are coming, and shall come, let them show unto them. 8Fear ye not, neither be afraid: have not I told thee from that time, and have declared it? ye are even my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any.
Despite of our likely agreement of the truths of this prophesy, we often fail to live like we really rely on them. We appropriate for ourselves other authorities than God, ones that we can fabricate and control ourselves. We do this despite the continual testimony and evidence that there is only One God. God has shown Himself to us through His relationships with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses when, through each one, God reiterated His plan for salvation: the redemption of those who place their faith and trust in Him, and Him alone. All of the evidence we have seen through the history of man points to the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of man and man's inventions. Why are we so much more comfortable placing our trust in things of this world? Why do we so quickly submit ourselves to worldly influences rather than to God?
They that make a graven image are all of them vanity; and their delectable things shall not profit; and they are their own witnesses; they see not, nor know; that they may be ashamed. 10Who hath formed a god, or molten a graven image that is profitable for nothing? 11Behold, all his fellows shall be ashamed: and the workmen, they are of men: let them all be gathered together, let them stand up; yet they shall fear, and they shall be ashamed together.
All of the things that we create that we give honor and authority to have no power to bring us closer to the God who would save us. We tend to be an iconic people, easily impressed with created things. I was once blessed to see "up close and personal" the Pieta, Michelangelo's sculptural depiction of His impression of the image of Mary the Mother of Christ as she held the dead body of Jesus immediately following His crucifixion. It was certainly the most incredible creation of man that I have ever observed. As I studied the sculpture, I first was drawn to remember and appreciate what God did as He served as my redeemer and how He is worthy to be my LORD. However, upon closer inspection I started to see mid 15th-century culture rather than what I would expect from a first-century image. These were two attractive Italians. I started to note more 15th-century influence when a woman next to me caught my attention, drawing me away from the sculpture to the people, and I found the people to be as amazing as the sculpture. People were worshiping the sculpture.
A missionary once told me of his purchase of a large, ornate, hand-made image of an alligator that he proudly displayed in the living room of his African home. Neighbors were doubly impressed and would return to his house to see his alligator. Soon they brought friends. This continued until the missionary realized that these people were worshiping the alligator. The missionary immediately discarded the icon.
We may not worship sculptures or icons, but the worship I see of college sports teams by Christians is equally obvious. People who are too "reserved" to shout praises to the LORD lose themselves in shouting for the team of their choice. Manufacturers put chrome on motorcycles for a reason: people love to look at things that are bright and shiny. Likewise, you will see glitter embedded in the paint of that bass boat at your local sports store. The number of little gods that creep into our experience is almost endless. They all serve only one purpose: to distract us from our focus on the One God. None of these things has the power to redeem us. None of these provides us with the sun, rain, and resources of nature. None of these can fill that hole in our heart that is reserved for God's Spirit alone.
The smith with the tongs both worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with the strength of his arms: yea, he is hungry, and his strength faileth: he drinketh no water, and is faint.
The icons that we give such authority to are all made by man. Michelangelo was a superbly skilled and talented artisan, but he is still a man, full of man's flaws and sins. He is still weak and mortal as any man. What sense does it make to worship something that was simply fabricated by the hands of a weak and sinful man?
The carpenter stretcheth out his rule; he marketh it out with a line; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass, and maketh it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man; that it may remain in the house. 14He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the cypress and the oak, which he strengtheneth for himself among the trees of the forest: he planteth an ash, and the rain doth nourish it. 15Then shall it be for a man to burn: for he will take thereof, and warm himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. 16He burneth part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied: yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire: 17And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image: he falleth down unto it, and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it, and saith, Deliver me; for thou art my god. .
We see in this description of the carpenter the futility of his ways. We might, at first, think that this is a ridiculous response for a person to have to an item that he made himself. However, this is not so far fetched. Imagine a modern carpenter who spends a year to two years making an outstanding and beautiful piece of furniture that he will show in his own home. Upon completion he looks upon it with pride. He cannot help himself from taking a deep sigh each time he passes it. When friends visit, the first thing they are introduced to is his new piece of furniture. If one of the grandchildren should threaten to scratch it, that child is banished from the room. This piece of furniture has become a god.
The most popular television entertainment today surrounds programs where "normal" people are granted great rewards and gifts, whether it be Survivor, The Great Race, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, American Idol, or Deal or No Deal. They all play to the greed of the audience as the players vicariously play out a fantasy. We place ourselves into the experience of those on stage as we dream about winning that million dollars or receiving that home that is more appropriate for "the rich and famous." The ogling of these rewards is a form of worship. Again, our focus from what is real and valuable is replaced by a fantasy. When the television show is over, we have not been fed, we have not been clothed. We have wasted an hour or more staring at a box that displays images and sounds, and have accomplished nothing. Even the television, when it draws us away from worship, work, and ministry becomes a god.
This passage illustrates how even the intrinsic material, the wood, has no value. That which is not used in the fabrication process is waste, a waste that has no value to the carpenter. The furniture is made from the same wood, and is therefore intrinsically of no more value than the discarded wood. It is the carpenter who anoints the object with a blessing of its authority. It is we who assign god-status to worthless things.
In ancient pagan cultures this same anointing of created gods was a common and accepted religious practice, one that drew them away from their covenant with God. Ultimately, their penchant for chasing worldly gods led to their destruction. Chasing after worldly gods distracts us and defeats us. We find no strength in them. We find no redemption in them. From them we only find separation from God, and all that serves only to separate us from Him is sin.
They have not known nor understood: for he hath shut their eyes, that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand. 19And none considereth in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of it in the fire; yea, also I have baken bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh, and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree? 20He feedeth on ashes: a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?
It may be instructive to note that this penchant for giving authority to worldly gods is not an act of open rebellion against God Himself. These are simply acts of ignorance. The carpenter who has elevated his new piece of furniture to a position of centrality in the home has no idea of what he has done. If one were to tell him he was worshiping his furniture, his response would be utter denial. Salvation comes from faith in God, and in Him alone. If one does not know this, how can they help but look in other places? Without a knowledge of the gospel, people are left to search for God wherever they can find Him. All people search for God, for we are created in His image as spiritual beings, so all are without excuse who have failed to place their faith in Him (Rom. 1). This places the responsibility on the people of faith to focus their energies in two areas. First it is important to recognize the impact of gods on members of the family of faith. It is the same ignorance that inspires pagans to worship valueless things that causes Christians to fail to recognize the authority they are giving to those same things. Christians are just as apt to fail to recognize that the thing they hold in their "right hand" is a lie. (Note the right hand is a metaphor for the works that represent a person's identity.) Second, there is a responsibility assigned to every Christian to share God's love with those who are lost, looking for and seizing opportunities to share the gospel so that this ignorance can be dispelled. Unless the lost hear the gospel, how are they to learn it, and how can they learn it if those who know the truth are silent? (Romans 10:14-15).
Remember these, O Jacob and Israel; for thou art my servant: I have formed thee; thou art my servant: O Israel, thou shalt not be forgotten of me. 22I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee.
Let us never forget who our God truly is. It is He who formed us, and it is only He whom we serve. Even though we fall away and chase after the things of this world, God never forgets us. This is particularly true for those who have placed their trust in God, because their sin can no longer separate them from God. However, continued sin still diminishes or even overwhelms any daily relationship with God. Isaiah reminds us that God is the One who is faithful, and is still there. We are being called to turn from our chasing after the things of this world and return to Him, and to Him alone.
As you look at the priorities of your life, which of these have become little gods? Which of these are taking away from your expression of praise and worship of the LORD? Which of these are taking away from your ability to minister in His name? Which of these are diminishing your ability to honor God with your stewardship? Which of these are diminishing your ability to give your all to God?
The answers to these questions are instructive. Make a list, and check it twice. Then, pray about crossing out some of those gods as you act on your true belief that Jesus is LORD, for if He is not LORD of all, He is not LORD at all.