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Friday, December 31, 2010

Isaiah 6: Descriptive or Prescriptive?

Just because the Bible mentions something, doesn’t mean that it is teaching it.” Scripture mentions that Judas hung himself, but none would say that Scripture is teaching us to do the same. This might explain in part the difference between a passage being descriptive, that is, describing an event or one being prescriptive, that is, prescribing a specific action. Good biblical interpretation must look at the context in which a passage was written to see what it meant to the ones to whom it was written.  Many heresies and poor biblical understanding stem from just such a lack of diligence in Bible study.  At the same time, if our understanding of the God’s Word only reaches to the level of understanding content and never reaches to the level of application, we will most likely end up as the guardians of wonderful biblical stories that have little connection with our everyday life.

We dare not forget Paul’s admonition to the Romans: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope." (Rom. 15:4) When the apostle wrote this, he  was concluding his amazing treatise to the believers in Rome explaining how they were to relate to one another. While it is true that much of what we read in Scripture is historical documentary of what has happened to God’s people in the past, Paul encourages those in Rome to look for the larger lessons or principles that might be applied to daily life. As we look as these passages to learn the lessons they might be teaching, we must remember that since Scripture does not contradict itself, what is taught in a particular passage must be consistent with what is taught in other passages of related material. With this in mind, let’s look again at Isaiah 6:       

    [1] In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. [2] Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. [3] And they were calling to one another:
       “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
       the whole earth is full of his glory.”
     [4] At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
     [5] “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
     [6] Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. [7] With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
     [8] Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
       And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
     [9] He said, “Go and tell this people:
       “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
       be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
    [10] Make the heart of this people calloused;
       make their ears dull
       and close their eyes.
    Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
       hear with their ears,
       understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”
     [11] Then I said, “For how long, Lord?”
       And he answered:
       “Until the cities lie ruined
       and without inhabitant,
    until the houses are left deserted
       and the fields ruined and ravaged,
    [12] until the LORD has sent everyone far away
       and the land is utterly forsaken.
    [13] And though a tenth remains in the land,
       it will again be laid waste.
    But as the terebinth and oak
       leave stumps when they are cut down,
       so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
Surely it is clear that this is God’s call on the prophet’s life, one in which he would never be the same.  In this light, Isaiah’s experience is understood as a descriptive in nature. However, many have used this as a model for worship as well, and in this sense it has been interpreted as being prescriptive, that is, more of a command than a simple description.  Recently, I have been challenged to think through this and though I can’t say that this is the final answer, I will say that this is how I understand the passage at this stage of understanding.

First and foremost, we must see how God used this experience in the life of the prophet to face the enormous task that lay before him, one that literally would shape his life from then on. We can describe it in terms that others have used: First, God takes the initiative to reveal Himself and then He reveals His nature and character, His majesty and holiness. After having seen a vision of the holiness of the Almighty, the prophet sees himself as sinful and living among a sinful people. This confession brings about God’s forgiveness, as symbolized by the burning coal from the altar. God then issues an open ended call: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”, to which Isaiah responds, “Here am I, send me.” God then gives the directives to his mission.

There is nothing in the passage that declares that every follower of God must have such a vision; it is descriptive. However, the question must also be asked, “What lessons might be learned from Isaiah’s experience?  What lessons might be learned that are consistent with the teachings of the rest of Scripture?” First, God does take the initiative. God took the initiative in the garden of Eden to seek out Adam and Eve. He took the initiative to call out Abraham. The bush was burning before Moses ever turned around to see it. God’s plan for salvation was formed before the creation of the world, – surely it is understood that God does take the initiative.

Another lesson is that God does reveal Himself: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” (Ps. 19:1) The myriad of miracles throughout Scripture reveal that God continually showed His nature and character. At the same time, we know that “our ways are not His ways,”(Is. 55:8) and that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) The acknowledgment of sin is part of confession, which is coming in agreement with God in how He views our sin.  We also know from God’s Word that “if we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) Refusal to confess sin breaks our fellowship with God. (Is. 59:1-2) God reveals Himself as we respond in obedience to Him: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:21)

Although the Isaiah passage is not prescriptive in that we all must have heavenly visions before for we can worship God and that every occasion of our worship must mirror step by step what happened in Isaiah’s life, there are some similarities that do occur in worship. Scripture is clear that we must approach the Father with “clean hands and a pure heart.” (Ps. 24:3-4) In Jesus’ parable, it is the repentant tax collector, not the Pharisee whom God hears. (Luke 18:13) In this sense, one can see the similarities to Isaiah’s experience and identify personal experiences with his.

At the same time there are many other experiences of worship described in Scripture that do not follow the prophet Isaiah’. Many of David’s songs of praise and worship are expressions of gratitude and exaltation. For example, in Psalm 100 we are commanded to “enter His courts with thanksgiving and his courts with praise,” that is, praising Him for who he is and thanking Him for what He has done. Mary’s declaration in Luke 2 became a song of praise for the Early Church. Paul and Silas were worshiping by singing praises to God before the earthquake. (Acts 16:25) All of these are wonderful expressions of worship that must also be taken into account.

So what, then? What difference does all this make in my life and worship and that of the church where I worship? I’m glad you asked. Here are a few things then, to keep in mind that I believe will aid in our worship and are lessons learned from Isaiah. First, we must remember that God has taken the initiative in Jesus Christ and we must realize that it is “in Him” and “through Him” that we come “to Him.” Secondly, we must come with “clean hands and pure hearts.” When David was moving the ark of God to Jerusalem, he failed to follow the instructions of using only Levites carrying it on poles. God struck Uzzah dead as he tried to steady the ark on the cart when the oxen stumbled. All the praise and celebration that David had organized could not make up for his lack of obedience. (1 Sam. 6) In the same way, we must come in obedience to God if we are to worship biblically. In addition, from outside of the Isaiah passage, we must come to worship in gratitude and praise as Psalm 100 commands. We must remember that just because a passage of Scripture is descriptive doesn’t necessarily mean that it has nothing to say to my life and practice.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What We Can Learn from Abraham and His Life of Worship

We can learn some very important lessons from Abraham and his practice of worship. Many times these worship times were in direct response to God speaking to him. Scripture records only eight occurrences when God speaks Abraham:

(1) Gen. 12:1 – the initial call to leave and go to a country God would show. Notice that God did not give him any other information, and he simply obeys.

(2) Gen. 12:7 – the first promise that God would give his descendants the land around Shechem.
Abraham’s response was to build an altar [worship] and then later he moves to Bethel and builds another altar and worships [Gen. 12:8].  After going to Egypt during a famine and asking Sarah lie about being his wife, Scripture says that “He returned to the place where he had pitched his tent at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai. This was the place where he had first built the altar, and there Abram worshiped the Lord.”[Gen. 13:3-4]. Having compromised his integrity with deception, he returns, not only to where he had been geographically, but spiritually as well, and does so by worshiping God.

(3) Gen. 13:14 – God speaks to Abraham when Abraham settles disputes between his servants and the servants of Lot, his nephew, allowing Lot to choose the best and most fertile land in the valley for his flocks, leaving Abraham the area toward Canaan. [Perhaps Abraham had learned that God would supply his needs, since he had returned from Egypt during the famine. Regardless, he had gotten to know God deeper, and expressed his trust that God would provide. ] God repeats and amplifies the meaning of the promise he had previously made, saying that he would make his descendants like the dust of the earth and to “walk throughout the land, for I will give it to you.” [Gen. 13:14-17] Abraham’s response again was to move to Hebron and there he builds another altar. [Gen. 13:18]

When Abraham rescues Lot, he is living in Sodom and is captured by some raiding parties, Melchizedek blesses Abraham saying, “Blessed be Abram by the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth. Worthy of praise is the Most High God, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Abraham’s response was offering a tenth of all he had recovered to the king of Salem.  Although this was not a specific instance of God speaking to Abraham, it was an act of worship. [Gen. 14:19-20]

(4) Gen. 15:1-18 – In this extended time with God, God tells him not to be afraid, for He would be his protector.  This is the first time that Abraham speaks back to God. His knowledge of God had grown to the point of wanting answers to his questions: “How can I have descendants, if I haven’t any children?”  God responds not in anger when Abraham asks, but in grace, showing Abraham the stars and declaring that his descendants would outnumber the heavenly bodies. Abraham’s response is faith. “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord considered his response of faith as proof of righteousness.” [Gen. 15:6]  

Once the issue of his descendants is settled, Abraham then asks God about the promise of possessing the land. God instructs him to offer a sacrifice and then God reveals what the future would hold for those descendants: they would be strangers in a foreign country, enslaved for 400 years, then God would bring them out to possess the land, but the sins of those dwelling in the land had not reached its breaking point. Then God declares the specifics of the territory that he would give him: “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River – the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.” [Gen. 15:18-21] The promise is revealed during an act of worship.

(5) Gen. 17:1-27 – Abraham’s faith seems to weaken when he listens to Sarah and has a child by her servant Hagar, after all, he is 86 and Sarah was 76 and they have been in the land for 10 years. But 13 years later, when Abraham was 99, God reveals more of who He is [“I am the sovereign God”] and specific conditional instructions: “Walk before me and be blameless. Then I will confirm my covenant between me and you, and I will give you a multitude of descendants.” [Gen. 17:1-2] Abraham’s response is to simply bow in worship. God repeats his promise of descendants and the possession of the land. God then reveals more of the conditions of His promise: all males must be circumcised. This would set them apart from all those around. The word for “holy,” in one sense, simply means “set apart,” and God was setting them apart for His purposes. Not only does God renew the promise, explaining the conditions, but he changes Abraham and Sarah’s names from Abram and Sarai. The name change expressed a change of  character and call of who they had been to who God wanted them to be. Abraham’s response was immediate obedience to God’s command. [Gen. 17:23]

(6) Gen. 18:1-33 – God’s revealing to Abraham of the destruction of cities of the plain is one of the most well known occurrences of his life. God appeared to Abraham and he bows in worship. [Gen. 18:1-2] In the first part of the chapter God confirms the birth of Isaac, even though he is 99 and Sarah is 90, saying, “Is anything impossible for the Lord?” [Gen. 18:14] God continues to reveal more of His nature and character by sharing what He was about to do to Sodom. One of the longest dialogues between God and man is recorded in the following verses as Abraham’s faith in God’s righteous judgement and grace is developed. From 50, to 40, to 30, to 20, and finally to 10, Abraham is pleading to spare the city on behalf of at least 10 righteous people. The next morning, Abraham goes to the place where he had stood before the Lord and watches the smoke from the destruction of the cities and in doing so expresses his trust that God would do what He had promised.

(7) Gen. 21:12 – In Genesis 20 Abraham falls back into the same pattern of deceit in his response to Abimelech that he had done in Egypt. In chapter 21, Sarah fears for Isaac’s inheritance and demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. God tells Abraham not to worry, that He would bless Ishmael as well. Later when a dispute between the shepherds of Abimelech over a water well, Abraham settles the issue and then worships. [Gen. 21:33]

(8) Gen. 22:1-19 – The best known part of Abraham’s life was when God asks him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham had grown much, but still needed to have his faith solidified.  This was significant in his willingness to offer his only son, since he had just sent Ishmael away.  Notice the progression: [1] God tells him to take Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice to place He would show him [similar to God first call to Abraham]. [2] Abraham leaves, early in the morning— immediate obedience. [3] After 3 days, Abraham leaves his servants and sees the place in the distance and declares in faith: “We will worship and then return.” [Gen.22:5] [The implication was that both would return. Abraham did not know how God was going to do it, but seemingly just leaves it in God’s hands.] [4] Isaac knows something is wrong and asks his father where the sacrificial animal was. Again Abraham responds in faith: “God will provide for himself the lamb.” [Gen. 22:8] [5] It is not until Isaac is tied and the knife is raise that God intervenes through an angel stopping the sacrifice and providing a ram. Abraham may have failed on occasions before, but in the hardest test, he succeeds and the angel declares, “now I know that you fear God because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.” [Gen. 22:12] In an ultimate act of worship, that of offering his only son, Abraham reveals his faith and trust is God.  Abraham names the place, “the Lord provides.” [6] Afterward, the angel repeats the promise of the blessing of Abraham’s descendants, their possession of the land and adds, “Because you have obeyed me, all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessing on one another using the name of your descendants.” [Gen. 22:18]

Worship is that obedient response to the revelation of God. Worship became a natural response to God’s dealing with Abraham and the ultimate expression of his faith in God.  Our worship should help us to get to know God better, to learn to respond in immediate obedience and trust God, even when the circumstances seem utterly hopeless. As we respond correctly, we will have a heritage to pass along to our descendants that will glorify God as well. So what are some things that we can learn from Abraham and his worship of God? The list is long and I’m sure you might think of more, but I’ll just focus on a few:

1. It may be possible to obey God and not worship, but it is impossible to worship and not be obedient.
2. Worship should motivate us to immediate obedience to what God commands.
3. Worship should help us deepen our relationship and knowledge of God and His character.
4. As we grow in our worship of God, we will be stretched to trust Him in deeper ways.
5. Our obedient response in worship will affect those around us and those we love, sometimes in ways that stretch faith.
6. God is in control and we can trust Him to work for what is for His glory and our ultimate good.
7. Our obedient response in worship leads to a life with no regrets and a heritage to leave to our children.