The Life-Giving Love of God

September 4, 2022 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Independent

Scripture: Isaiah 42:18– 43:8

18 Hear, you deaf,

and look, you blind, that you may see!

19 Who is blind but my servant,

or deaf as my messenger whom I send?

Who is blind as my dedicated one,

or blind as the servant of the LORD?

20 He sees many things, but does not observe them;

his ears are open, but he does not hear.

21 The LORD was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake,

to magnify his law and make it glorious.

22 But this is a people plundered and looted;

they are all of them trapped in holes

and hidden in prisons;

they have become plunder with none to rescue,

spoil with none to say, “Restore!”

23 Who among you will give ear to this,

will attend and listen for the time to come?

24 Who gave up Jacob to the looter,

and Israel to the plunderers?

Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned,

in whose ways they would not walk,

and whose law they would not obey?

25 So he poured on him the heat of his anger

and the might of battle;

it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand;

it burned him up, but he did not take it to heart.

1 But now thus says the LORD,

he who created you, O Jacob,

he who formed you, O Israel:

 “Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine.

2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

and the flame shall not consume you.

3 For I am the LORD your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

I give Egypt as your ransom,

Cush and Seba in exchange for you.

4 Because you are precious in my eyes,

and honored, and I love you,

I give men in return for you,

peoples in exchange for your life.

5 Fear not, for I am with you;

I will bring your offspring from the east,

and from the west I will gather you.

6 I will say to the north, Give up,

and to the south, Do not withhold;

bring my sons from afar

and my daughters from the end of the earth,

7 everyone who is called by my name,

whom I created for my glory,

whom I formed and made.”

8 Bring out the people who are blind, yet have eyes,

who are deaf, yet have ears!

I want to begin this morning with two observations. First, when we read the Bible, we need to understand that we are reading a love story, the story of God who made the world, a world of wonder and beauty, a world teeming with life and opportunity, a world that exists to display the love of God.

And that leads me to my second observation. Christians, of all people, since we take the Bible seriously, ought to know that love is to be the dominant reality of our existence and is to be pursued with unceasing zeal. The late theologian J. I. Packer wrote that the Christian life is essentially a “love affair.”[1] Is that how you would describe your life as a Christian, a constant connection to a God of love that not only satisfies your mind but also stimulates your affections? Is that how the world would describe us as evangelical Christians, a people so in love with the God who is love that love is in fact the best way to describe us who claim to believe in him? There is much that needs to be improved here, I’m sure you will agree.

I’ve chosen as our theme for the next year “the life-giving love of God.” Unless we come to understand the love of God we will not be able to draw from its life-giving power.

Let’s begin with this passage from the book of Isaiah. Here, in Isaiah 43:4, is the only time in the Bible we hear the three most powerful words in the universe coming from the mouth of God: “I love you.” He is speaking to his chosen people, the people of Israel. To understand the life-giving love of God we must consider Israel’s sacred calling, tragic failure, and only Savior.

Israel’s Sacred Calling

First, consider Israel’s sacred calling. Scattered between Isaiah 42–53 are four “Servant Songs” that Christians recognize as prophecies about Jesus, the coming Messiah of Israel. The New Testament clearly interprets these as references to Jesus. When Philip encountered the Ethiopian Eunuch on his way home, for example, the man was reading from the fourth Servant Song and asked Philip who the prophet was writing about. “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35).

But not all of Isaiah’s references to the “servant” can so easily be understood as a prophecy of Jesus. According to Isaiah 41:8, the servant is plainly said to be the nation of Israel, the offspring of Abraham, the descendants of Jacob. God chose this people to be his servant for a specific vocation, for a sacred call, as it is stated in Isaiah 42:1, where God says of this servant, “I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” God chose Israel for the sacred calling of ensuring that justice was done among all the nations of the world. They were to be God’s judicial servants, ensuring that his world was run righteously.

Now, consider what Israel’s sacred calling tells us about Israel’s God.

God’s Glory

First, God’s call of his servant Israel serves as a testimony to his own glory. In other words, Israel was called to do something which would demonstrate to the world that the Israel’s God, Yahweh, was incomparably glorious.

All the nations of the world had their national deities who made a claim to how the world was to be run. Like today’s politicians who are supposed to explain their vision for how things out to be, the ancient nations—whether Philistia or Assyria, Babylon or Persia, by their own way of living, by their own national laws, made a claim for how things ought to be everywhere.

Israel was to do the same. In Deuteronomy 4, Moses urged the nation to obey God’s laws not only so that they would live but also so that the nations around them would take notice. Moses said that if Israel would “keep” and “do” God’s law, then the nations around them, “when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (Deut 4:6). They would know that following Israel’s God was the best way for people to live in the world.

The claim of Israel’s God, of course, was that he was not just Israel’s God but that he was also the only true God. And yet, by being Israel’s God, he was also bringing benefit to the whole world. God chose Israel to be his special people so that, as Israel remained devoted to him, to his way of how the world should be, everyone would be drawn toward him to join in this way of being in the world.

This is how we are to read Israel’s call here in Isaiah 42:6-7, and its relation to God’s exclusivity in verse 8. God had called Israel “in righteousness,” to be “a covenant for the people, a light for the nations.” Yahweh was Israel’s God, but he is also the only true God, and he chose Israel so that, as verse 7 says, the blind would see, and the prisoner would be set free, so that the whole world would come to recognize that Israel’s God was the only God and that his glory was incomparable (v. 8).

God’s Love

But the glory of God cannot be understood apart from the love of God, and it turns out, Israel’s calling was also meant to demonstrate God’s love. Here in Deuteronomy 4:7, Moses declares that in Israel’s covenant relationship with God, one of the results would be the recognition that no other nation had a god “so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call on him.” Israel’s call to be God’s people was intended to demonstrate that Israel’s God was near, very near, intimately near. Now this differs from the standard deistic view of God that has dominated much of the modern imagination. Say “God” to your neighbor and the default view is of an all-powerful being who is up there in heaven, a very long way away.

At the same time, the way we see the nearness of God is not by lowering him to creaturely status. God is not your personal assistant who sips coffee with you on the couch every morning. God dwells “in the high and holy place” while also saying he dwells with the “contrite and lowly” (Isa 57:15). The right way for us to see the nearness of God is in Israel’s sacred calling.

Isaiah 43:1 reminds us of the inherent distance between God and his people: He is the Creator; we are his creatures. There is a massive, infinite distinction between God and all human beings, as the deist rightly notes. But then the verse goes on. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” And then, verse 4, “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.” The infinite God has made a move we would never have expected, by entering into a covenant with Israel. Yet in doing so, he has also made it as clear as possible that he is a God of infinite love.

In other words, the God of the Bible—the God of Israel, who also happens to be the only true God—is not just there to be amazed; he is also there to be enjoyed in a mutual exchange of love. When God says to his people, “I love you,” he yearns to hear us sincerely respond in kind. And if God acts to demonstrate his love for his people, then he years to have them act in love for him as well.

Israel’s Tragic Failure

If this was the reason God chose Israel, if this was his aim in setting his love upon them, then what would be the consequences if Israel went astray? We don’t have to wonder. This is not hypothetical. For this is exactly what happened. To understand the life-giving love of God, we also need to consider Israel’s tragic failure.

Israel’s History

Anyone who is acquainted with the Old Testament knows that it is largely the story of Israel, at least from the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 until the late 5th century BC. And it is largely a tragic story. From the time of the Patriarchs, on to the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the Promised Land, and then throughout the period of the judges and the subsequent history of Israel’s kings, the nation never quite seems to reach the goal for which God had said he chose them. Why is that?

We could rightly say it is because of two cardinal sins: idolatry and ungodliness. These two sins go together. When Israel succumbed to idolatry, described vividly in the Old Testament as Israel having adulterous affairs with other so-called gods, it is no surprise that they also succumbed to the deviant behaviors and lifestyles of those gods. In Israel’s history we see that worship and practice, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, cannot be separated. Who you worship is who you obey. When Israel turned away from her God she necessarily turned to the dehumanizing and unjust ways of the wicked nations around her. And, given God’s purpose for choosing Israel in the first place, this cannot help but bring trouble to everyone.

Israel’s Exile

The trouble begins, of course, with Israel itself. What kind of God would Yahweh be if he ignored Israel’s infidelity? Certainly not a God of love. So, he did not ignore Israel’s unfaithfulness. What happened to Israel was the unthinkable: the nation fell to the army of the pagan king, Nebuchadnezzar, and in 587 BC Jerusalem was destroyed along with the great temple Solomon had built. Remember, this is a fact of history, not a made-up story, though its interpretation theologically may not be accepted by everyone. One thing is for certain, however. The destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th century certainly could not mean that Israel’s God had come through for them, not when their city and his temple lay in ruins. This could only mean that Israel’s God either didn’t exist (probably like the other gods didn’t) or that he had given upon on his people or that he was powerless to save them.

It's not hard to understand that Israel in exile experienced a significant crisis of faith. The nation as a whole began to deconstruct their faith, to use a modern expression.

It’s easy to blame God or to outright deny him when things don’t go well for us, but how could anyone reading Israel’s history put the blame on God? How would anyone blame a person from contemplating divorce or even carrying it through if it were to be discovered that his or her spouse was involved in multiple, ongoing affairs? Yes, God had entered a covenant with Israel, but this was for Israel not just a great privilege but also an awesome responsibility.[2] Here in Isaiah 42:18-20, the prophet calls out Israel, describing them as blind and deaf. They might complain that God is nowhere to be seen and unheard of, but in reality, the problem is with them. They “see” but don’t “observe.” Their ears are open, but they don’t hear” (v. 20).

The Sovereign God

So, what about God? Verse 21 says that he was “pleased for his righteousness’ sake, to magnify his law and make it glorious.” This is what we saw in Deuteronomy 4. God’s purpose for giving Israel the law was “to make Israel a model community . . . to the world.”[3] Now that Israel has failed, what would God do?

In verse 18, we find God at court with Israel, making his complaint against his people who have turned against him. But who is able to judge between Israel and her God? If indeed Israel’s God is the one true God, there is no one else to adjudicate.

So, there is a consequence for Israel for their unfaithfulness to their God. Verse 22 speaks of it in terms of exile to Babylon. “This is a people plundered and looted.” But when we ask, who is responsible for bringing that consequence about? The answer is logical though hard to swallow. Look at it, in verse 24. “Who gave up Jacob to the looter, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey?”

Who is responsible now, the prophet puts before his audience, for Israel’s exile? It is clearly Israel’s fault, but it is just as clearly the God of Israel’s decree. This troubles many people. As one commentator writes, “Strict monotheism is a difficult doctrine to uphold, specifically because it seems to attribute evil deeds to a good God.”[4] Every other religion resorts to some kind of dualism here. When good things happen, God gets the credit. When bad things happen, well, blame it on some other deity or on the devil.

But Isaiah takes us to the breaking point, the place you may have found yourself before, or even now. It is here, in Isaiah 42:24-25, where plenty of people would deconstruct and abandon their faith. But this is also the place where some will deconstruct and uphold their faith, though “on a far more profound level than was earlier possible.”[5] That is what I hope is true for you and me.

Israel’s Only Savior

My hope for us, Crosstown, in the year ahead is that we will go, like Israel of old, to this uncomfortable place between Isaiah 42 and 43. I want us to know the love of God like we’ve never known it before, but the only way to do that is to confront head on our failures and our sins. We cannot ignore them and hope to know the life-giving love of God. We also cannot excuse them and magnify the love of God. But hope is found if we stay with the story and consider, as the ESV entitles chapter 43, “Israel’s only Savior.”

God Is Faithful

Isaiah 43:2 is one of those inspiring verses you might find on a coffee cup at Mardel: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” It is an amazing promise, but remember that the overwhelming flood and the burning flame are symbols of God’s own judgment and wrath (Isa 42:25).

Israel’s story is not that God would spare his people from judgment but that this judgment would not be the end of the story of love. God had made a promise to Israel; to Israel God would see his promise through. The promise was, in that sense, unconditional. Israel’s failure would not, could not, mean the end of God’s love. God is faithful.

But because the promise was a promise of love, and because love is nothing if not a mutual exchange, God’s promise was in that sense conditional. The promise could not be fulfilled with Israel still living unfaithfully toward her God. So, God had set up a situation in which he was bound to keep a promise not only on his end, to never stop loving his people, but also to see to it that his people loved him as well. Again, all for the benefit of the world. Now how would God do that?

A New Way Promised

The answer would remain a mystery for centuries. But in chapter 43, verses 16-19, we are told:

Thus says the LORD,

who makes a way in the sea,

a path in the mighty waters,

who brings forth chariot and horse,

army and warrior;

they lie down, they cannot rise,

they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

 “Remember not the former things,

nor consider the things of old.

Behold, I am doing a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert.

God promised to do something new, but this new thing would be like one of the great acts of God in Israel’s past. What great event in Israel’s past do verses 16-17 sound like? A way in the sea? Bringing chariots and horses, army and warrior to lie down, never to rise again? This is the language of the exodus. God says he will do something new, but it will be something reminiscent of the old story Israel that made Israel who they were. And when God does this new thing, something as real and as life-altering as the exodus from Egypt, it will so supersede that event that God says, in verse 18, Israel wouldn’t even talk about the exodus anymore. The prophet Jeremiah predicted the same thing (Jer 16:14-15; 23:7-8).

The New Has Come

As Christians, we understand that we stand now in the revelation of this mystery. When Luke describes in his Gospel the mysterious transfiguration of Jesus, he reports that Moses and Elijah conversed with Jesus about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). And the word translated departure is the Greek word exodus, indicating that what Jesus was about to accomplish was not just the equivalent of what God had done for Israel when he brought them out of Egypt, but the new thing God had promised that would be a far greater achievement.[6]

Part of what made the achievement of Jesus so much greater than the exodus from Egypt was that this would be the moment in which God would “blot out” Israel’s transgressions and remember their sins no more (Isa 43:25). This would be the moment in which God would return his people from exile, establish his kingdom on earth, and pour out his Spirit upon all his people, causing them to walk in his ways.

Living in New Life

This is the great love story, the story of God. And there is an urgent need for Christians today to get back to this story and let it do its work on us.

So in the coming year, our plan is to be largely in this story with the help of two Old Testament books which, in different ways, emphasize to us the life-giving love of God. Our plan in the coming year is to study together the book of Ezekiel, which we will begin next week, and the Song of Solomon.

Understanding the life-giving love of God is an urgent need for Christians today because, forgetting the story, we’ve succumbed to the temptation of thinking that the world can be won by us siding with one of the many political powers of men. Or, conversely, we conclude the world can never be won and so we retreat from it and its many problems with a merely privatized faith that the world is perfectly happy to tolerate.

We have a better story, brothers and sisters, a story of love that really does offer—indeed guarantees—a hope that will transform the world forever.

_____

[1] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 212.

[2] Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40–66, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed. James L. Mays (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 54.

[3] John Goldingay, Isaiah, New International Biblical Commentary, vol 13, ed. Robert L. Hubbard and Robert K. Johnston, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), 245.

[4] Hanson, Isaiah 40–66, 55.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Darrell L. Bock, Luke, vol. 1: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 3A, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994),

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