“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. … Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.”
What comes into your mind when you think about God? An old man with a long beard? A symbol of truth, justice, and goodness? A religious icon meant to give the downtrodden hope? An energy that flows into all human beings? A figment of our imagination? The creator of heaven and earth? I can think of few things more important in starting my ministry here than centering ourselves on what the Bible says about who God is. Tozer continues,
For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God.” – A.W. Tozer
The book of Isaiah spends considerable space devoted to extolling who God is and what He has done. Let’s turn to chapter 40 and read verses 9-31.
The book of Isaiah spends the first 39 chapters warning Israel of the judgment that was coming to them if they did not repent, worship God alone, and follow His commandments. The Lord had warned them, hundreds of years prior to this, that if the nation persisted in rebelling against Him, He was going to exile them from the land He promised to give them. Tragically, no one listens to Isaiah’s warnings. At the end of the 39th chapter lay this dire warning to king Hezekiah, “Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord,” (39:6). The rest of the book of Isaiah is prophetically written as a balm and promise to a future decimated Israel, hopelessly trapped in exile in Babylon. And the opening chapter spends considerable length detailing one thing: the grandeur of God.
Behold Your God!
Listen to this shocking verse once more, “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” (40:9). Maybe you caught the name given to the city of Jerusalem here, “herald of good news.” This is the same word we translate as “gospel” (good news) in the New Testament. Both inside and outside the Bible, this word is used most often to describe the announcement of a military victory by a king. For example, after King Saul is killed in battle, “The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. So they cut off his head and stripped off his armor and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people,” (1 Sam 31:8-9). If you were a Philistine, the death of the king of Israel was good news indeed. You hear this military conquest language later in the book of Isaiah, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns,” (Isa 52:7). That is, God reigns and no one else does. God has conquered all who oppose Him and all rebel powers that would seek to usurp His rule.
This is why the next verse in Isaiah 40 describes God like a conqueror returning from battle, “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him,” (40:10). And then the rest of the chapter proceeds to describe in painstaking detail just who this God is and how magnificent His works are. Friends, this is the background that the writers of the New Testament had in mind when talking about the gospel: the greatness of God and His victory over any challenge to His kingly rule. Listen to Mark’s description of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel,” (Mark 1:14-15). Notice, “repent and believe” is not the gospel; rather, we repent and believe in the gospel. Repentance and faith is not itself the gospel but the means by which we enter into the gospel. So what is the gospel? According to Mark, it is this: what has been long waited for has now arrived—the kingdom of God; the victory of God over every rebel power that would challenge His kingly rule. This is what Isaiah is looking forward to, and this is what the New Testament writers are explaining as what has happened with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But do you notice just how God-centered all of this is? Mark says Jesus was preaching the “gospel of God” talking about the “kingdom of God.” Isaiah can summarize the gospel by simply saying, “Behold your God!…Your God reigns!” But I wonder if that is how most of us would understand the gospel? If someone were to ask you to explain what the gospel is, would it match up with Mark and Isaiah’s description? In your understanding of the gospel, who is the main point, God or you? One of the most popular evangelistic techniques in America begins with this, “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” What is the gospel? Is it that you can have your sins forgiven so you go to heaven and don’t go to hell when you die? Are all those things included in the gospel? Of course they are. But the reason we have our sins forgiven is so that we can be reconciled with God, and the reason we don’t want to go to hell is because it is a separation from God, and the reason that heaven will be so good is because God is there!
John Piper writes in his book God Is the Gospel, “Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God.”
If I’m honest, the reason that I have a hard time seeing God as the end and goal of the gospel, and am much more prone to make it all about myself, is because of how small a view I have of God. If the gospel is “Behold your God!”, is there really much there to behold? For many of us, the wonder and grandeur of god has shriveled and dried like the flowers and leaves in winter.
Greg Gilbert in his book What Is the Gospel? writes this satirical piece to expose how many of us practically view God:
Let me introduce you to god. (Note the lowercase g.) You might want to lower your voice a little before we go in. He might be sleeping now. He’s old, you know, and doesn’t much understand or like this “newfangled” modern world. His golden days—the ones he talks about when you really get him going—were a long time ago, before most of us were even born. That was back when people cared what he thought about things, and considered him pretty important to their lives. Of course all that’s changed now, though, and god—poor fellow—just never adjusted very well. Life’s moved on and passed him by…Anyway, a lot of people still like him, it seems—or at least he manages to keep his poll numbers pretty high. And you’d be surprised how many people even drop by to visit and ask for things every once in a while. But of course that’s alright with him. He’s here to help. Thank goodness, all the crankiness you read about sometimes in his old books—you know, having the earth swallow people up, raining fire down on cities, that sort of thing—all that seems to have faded in his old age. Now he’s just a goodnatured, low-maintenance friend who’s really easy to talk to…Okay, we can go in now. And don’t worry, we don’t have to stay long. Really. He’s grateful for any time he can get.
It may embarrass us to consider how much of what was written above reflects how we feel about God. So let us turn to see the picture of God laid before us by Isaiah
The Grandeur of God
The Immensity of God
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?” (Isa 40:12).
The largest objects on planet Earth, the depths of the ocean and the heights of the mountains, are things that can fit into the palm of God’s hand. Every awesome sight of grandness and vastness you’ve ever seen in life—the Grand Canyon, the starry sky at night, towering redwoods—all of them are miniscule appetizers of the immense glory of God to be revealed one day.
The Wisdom of God
“Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?” (Isa 40:13-14).
Think of how many experts we rely on in life. And think of how often those experts give conflicting advice. What kind of diet should you follow, who should you marry, how should you prepare for retirement, what’s the best kind of sleep plan for your baby, etc. Life is remarkably complicated and we so rarely know everything we need to know to make the best choice. But God is not like that. He has never needed to consult a PhD to make sure he is making the right choice. God did not and does not learn; He has total, perfect knowledge, knowledge how to create this world, sustain this world, and govern this world.
The Wealth of God
“Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.” (40:15-17).
How wealthy would you have to be if all the amassed wealth of all the nations were heaped before you, and it only seemed like a drop in the bucket compared to what you have? No billionaire, prince, tycoon, or CEO can even compare. God lacks nothing and needs nothing from anyone.
The Power of God
“It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing.” (40:22-26).
How confident do you feel about the strength of our nation right now? We are living in remarkably tumultuous times, politically speaking. The unseen benefit of living in these times is that it is easier to not be seduced into thinking that our nation, government, or political party is supreme or permanent. There is something remarkably freeing to remember that God alone is the supreme ruler and his rule and reign is never frustrated or challenged. President Trump, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel—all of them are subject to God’s sovereign will. The strongest empires in the world have all fallen, and Isaiah tells us that this is because God has done it. And notice, he topples kings and regimes simply by blowing on them, like they are nothing more than a house of cards. But God’s kingdom remains from age to age.
The Grace of God
What does this God think of you? This God who is immense, all wise, totally self-sufficient, and all powerful? Here is what Israel thought, “Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? (40:27). Israel thought that God had abandoned them when they were exiled in Egypt, or that God was somehow unable to find them to give them help. Here is how Isaiah responds
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (40:28-31).
God has not abandoned Israel, He has not lost them—He is the everlasting God whose understanding is unsearchable. But more importantly, this shows us that God is fundamentally a God of grace. Israel had largely abandoned God, but God would not abandon them. Rather, God takes all of his immense power and shares it with weak and weary people. Those who wait on the Lord, those who are faint and weak, are suddenly imbued with God’s power and can ironically do things that others cannot. Strength is found actually through weakness. It is in our weakness that the power of God manifests itself.
Do you see how simple it is though to receive this power? Just be weak. Be weary. Who can’t do that? Who can’t admit that they are in need of help. Grace flows downhill; it is always found in the low places. The only places grace doesn’t go is in the cold mountain peaks of self-righteousness. The only people who cannot experience this kind of renewing power offered by God are those who don’t think they need any help, who think they have got their life figured out all on their own, thank you very much. But for those who have come to realize the weight of their sin and helplessness, there is grace waiting for you.
Ray Ortlund Jr. writes, “If you thought you could earn, demand, and fight your way through life on the basis of your own entitlements and cleverness, but now you find within yourself not light but darkness and denial, not freedom but impasse; if you have shocked yourself with the evil you’re capable of and have given up on yourself in despair, the God of love waits for you with open arms today.”
Think on Jesus
The power of God does not exclude the grace of God. Look back at verses 10-11, “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” Might and tenderness mingled together. Strength and gentleness, both to the extreme and without the expense of one another. Such a strange mixture of characteristics. If only there was a way that these abstract concepts of God, this shepherd king, could put on flesh and we see what they looked like…
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11
Jesus is God in the flesh, the image of the invisible God. So as we hear about Isaiah 40 detailing who God is, we should remember that Jesus is this same God.
If Israel was waiting for God to deliver them out of exile and establish His rule and reign, what are we waiting for? Something very similar. Our hope is that one day Jesus will return and consummate what was inaugurated with His death and resurrection. The kingdom of God arrived with the first coming of Jesus, but it has not yet fully come. And when it comes we will be brought to a special land, the new heavens and new earth, prepared for us where we will commune with God. This is what Israel’s hope was, and it is our hope as well. So, as we wait that day, what does Isaiah encourage us with? A renewing power from God.
The mom who is overwhelmed with squirrely and disobedient children; the employee who feels totally wrung dry by a mindless job; the man who feels so frustrated with his sin he feels like he can’t take it anymore—wait. Keep pursuing faithful obedience. In the muck, in the grind, in the exhaustion, God has promised strength. Here is how Paul puts it, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,” (2 Cor 4:16-17). Don’t lose heart, don’t give up. Someday God will return and fix everything that is broken, mend every wound, and comfort every sorrow. Fix your eyes on that day, and wait for the power God has promised, the inner renewal that refreshes our soul and makes another day of obedience possible.