Publication: Pastoral Letter, December 2008
Dear Friend in Christ:
Recently a train the in the Los Angeles area missed a signal; people were killed. Tragedies occur when signs are missed. This Christmas we will celebrate history’s greatest and most illuminated sign, yet millions will miss it, and many will lose their lives. It happens every year at Christmas and Easter. This reality is both amazing and tragic. People see the sign and miss the truth.
Signs tell us many things, primarily about what is ahead. The Bible speaks a lot about signs. The rainbow is a sign that God will never again flood the entire earth. Moses’ staff became a serpent as a sign to Pharaoh that Moses spoke for God. Israel was instructed to take stones out of the Jordan River as they crossed and place them on the bank to remind future generations that God had miraculously brought them across.
People can also be a sign. Isaiah and his sons were signs to Israel of things to come, as was Ezekiel, years later. Miracles were often performed as signs to confirm God’s servants and their words.
Signs are not the substance, but point to it, as advertisements do. You can’t use the sign, but you can use the product to which it points. Signs are there to draw us to the truth…as in special days of remembrance. One can celebrate the day and fail to celebrate the truth. In that case, “celebrations” can be dangerous when people stumble over the sign.
Those who seek the truth will read the sign and respond. Others will simply enjoy seeing signs – especially pleasantly or excitingly produced ones.
The Bible tells us about many signs, but one stands unique in towering above all others. The sign is central, vital, and its shadow remains above us today. I want to try to simplify a very complex story that is directly related to this season. It is found in Isaiah chapter 7, but I encourage you to read Isaiah chapter 6 all the way through Isaiah 9:7.
Isaiah was called by God to deliver messages to the nations. The overall message was one of judgment followed by hope in the coming Messiah and His Kingdom. In Isaiah chapter six, we have the account of Isaiah’s experience with God and His call. The Lord forewarned Isaiah that his message would be difficult because Israel could see but not see, hear but not hear. The more Isaiah would say, the less they would hear(see Isaiah 6:9). What a difficult ministry, but Isaiah would be faithful.
Around 733 BC, Ahaz was king of Judah reigning in Jerusalem; both he and Judah were backslidden spiritually, though Ahaz was of the house of David. Ahaz had received the word that Rezin, King of Syria, and Pekah, King of Israel’s northern tribes were planning an attack on Jerusalem, to replace Ahaz with a king more sympathetic to their interest. Judah was in a state of panic.
Ahaz was planning to appeal to Assyria to help him fend off the attacks by Rezin and Pekah. He trusted a political solution versus a spiritual one. This would be a terrible mistake, given that Assyria would eventually destroy both Rezin and Pekah, then lay siege to Jerusalem. Isaiah foresaw this by the Holy Spirit and went to see Ahaz in order to dissuade Ahaz from trusting Assyria.
Isaiah offered to give Ahaz a sign_any sign Ahaz would desire, in order to confirm the advice which was in fact the word of God.“Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; ask it either in the depth or the height above.”
Ahaz rejected the offer, “I will not test the Lord.”He had already made up his mind. He would seek a political solution and reject the Lord’s word. In fact, he rejected the Lord, his God.
Now Isaiah was angry, “Hear, O house of David! It is a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel (God with us)” (see Isaiah 7).
Notice: The Sign is to the House of David to whom God had promised eternal reign(see 1 Chronicles 17:11-14). The original offer was to give an immediate sign to Ahaz that God would deliver him from Rezin and Pekah, but having rejected that, Isaiah gives a long term sign to the House of David that God would give a virgin-born child who would fulfill His promise to David. The child would be The Sign.
Isaiah elaborated on the child to be born in chapter nine. Those that had walked in darkness would see a “great light”(verse 2).A child would be born, a Son would be given; the government would rest on His shoulders. His name would be called Wonderful ,Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. There would be no end to the increase of His government and peace, upon the Throne of David and over His Kingdom, to order and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts would perform it.
Notice: The sign to the House of David (and indeed to all the world) would be this Child whom we know as Jesus, the Christ (Messiah).
I marvel at the prophetic accuracy of the word delivered more than 700 years before the Blessed Virgin Mary delivered her Christ Child. Isaiah saw the signs and The Sign, and lit them up for all the world to see. He understood something else: though many would see the sign, many would stumble over it(see Isaiah 8:14-15). Isaiah understood that he was himself a sign to Israel, as were his sons, and that God’s Word comes to pass (see verse 18). Their names are significant: Isaiah, Yahweh is salvation; Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, judgment is coming speedily; Sher-Jashub, a remnant shall return. Tradition says that for his faithful effort, he was sawn in two by those who stumbled(see Hebrews 11:32).
Nevertheless, though some rejected and even destroyed the signs, the zeal of the Lord of Armies has performed His word.
Then, 700 years after Isaiah’s prophesy, an angel appeared to a priest named Zacharias who was doing his priestly work in the temple. The angel said that he and his wife would have a son who would be filled with Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, and this son would prepare the way for the Messiah (see Isaiah 40 and Luke 1). Zacharias was overwhelmed. He and his wife Elizabeth were way too old for a child. But the angel gave him a sign_he would not be able to speak until the child was born. And so it was.
In Luke 2,the angel appeared to Mary and told her that even though she was a virgin, she would conceive the Messiah. She too was overwhelmed. But the angel told her to go visit her cousin Elizabeth who, in her old age, was in the sixth month of pregnancy. Another sign. Mary did so and as she and Elizabeth greeted, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb was filled with the Holy Spirit and Elizabeth prophesied. Another sign. Then Mary prophesied!
When Elizabeth’s child was born and the muted father, Zacharias, was asked for a name – he wrote, “Name him John” according to the instruction of the angel. Then Zacharias’ tongue was loosed and he prophesied! Another sign.
When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the temple, Simeon the priest and Anna the prophetess both prophesied. Simeon asked for the Lord to take him because he had seen God’s salvation. He further prophesied that this child would be a sign to be spoken against, and a sword would pierce Mary’s own soul, and the thoughts of many would be revealed.
Jesus, “The Sign,” did signs. That is, He performed physical miracles that confirmed who He is and what He said. The apostle John said, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31; see also Hebrews 2:1-4).
Jesus continued to do signs through His apostles (see Acts 2:43). Many believe; yet sadly some still stumble.
WHAT DO WE SEEK?
Jesus diagnosed the problem of religious leaders. They could understand the signs of the weather, but not see the signs of the times (see Matthew 16:1-4). The only sign He would give them was the sign that when they crucified Him, He would rise again.
The apostle Paul picks up this theme in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24: The Jews seek a sign, and the Greeks seek wisdom. But to the Jews, the Crucifixion was a stumbling block, and to Greeks it was foolishness. Both Jews and Gentiles stumble over Jesus. But those who are called will see Him as both the power and wisdom of God.
The Bible and history are full of signs_signs and signs missed. Some are saved, and some perish. What enables us to see the signs that point to salvation? Those who seek the truth can see the signs. Those who only seek signs stumble over truth. Perhaps the latter trust politics or have already made up their minds as Ahaz did. In any case, it behooves us to seek the truth that signs only represent.
Those who desire Truth and substance will be like Isaiah, who – when good King Uzziah died – sought the Lord . He saw the Lord high and lifted above the circumstance. He received a mission and a message that still echoes down through the centuries and calls us to see “The Sign” and seek Him.
Many people will stumble, unfortunately.They will become depressed, cynical,or angry, even though they sing the great Christmas carols and read about the Christ Child. They will run right past “The Sign”. We need not be among them. We can be re-sensitized by this season, and find hope in the Son upon whom the government rests.
No circumstance, politics, economy, or international affairs can shake the unshakeable Kingdom (see Hebrews 12). Our hope, indeed our faith, must rest there. If we listen, the Holy Spirit that proceeds from the unshakeable Throne will help us to read the many signs around us that point to Jesus Christ and His inerrant Word. Then we will begin to seriously seek Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If we see the signs, repent, and persevere, we will see a great move of God. Read but do not stumble.
May you and your loved ones have a very blessed Christmas and New Year!
During the month of December, we are asking for your support in a special way, as we face immediate urgent needs, and as we look to meet the opportunities of 2009.Also,I have just published my first book in six years, entitled, “Ants, Vines, and Churches.”It’s a timely look at the organic and reproducing nature of the Church. For more information, see the enclosed card.
Scripture Reference: Isaiah, 1 Chronicles, Hebrews, Luke, John, Acts, 1 Corinthians,