Son of David, King of Justice

I preached yet again last night, and this is my manuscript. Due to the context, I ended up significantly compressing this sermon. What you’re reading here is much longer than what I actually preached.

I thought that, before I begin tonight, I should tell you all a little bit about myself, but not too much, because I’m just a nerdy theology student and my goal tonight is to speak about the God of Jesus Christ. But it doesn’t hurt to know a little about a messenger before you hear his message. As they said, my name is Caleb Smith. I’m 21, married to a very lovely wife over there, have one crazy kid outside the womb and one kid still inside. I go to the Baptist College of Florida like a lot of the other people at Grace Fellowship, and I’m working on a degree in Ministry Studies. I hope, by God’s will, to be able to do mission work for some time after graduation, and then maybe to pastor somewhere and even perhaps pursue further education. But who knows what will actually happen? God rarely works in expected ways.

Anyway, Grace has been a kind enough place to let me do some preaching, and I actually just preached there last night. I only learned I would be preaching here about two weeks ago, so I was originally going to simply preach the same sermon with some modifications. But in truth it didn’t seem like the right one. I felt God leading me elsewhere. What I eventually came to was Isaiah 11:1-10. It seems to speak relevantly to the concerns which had been building up in my heart in relation to preaching here tonight, so I dug in and found the gold of God’s promise. So, without any further ado, I’ll get into the text.

Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot—yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root.
And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
He will delight in obeying the Lord. He will not judge by appearance nor make a decision based on hearsay.
He will give justice to the poor and make fair decisions for the exploited. The earth will shake at the force of his word, and one breath from his mouth will destroy the wicked.
He will wear righteousness like a belt and truth like an undergarment.
In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all.
The cow will graze near the bear. The cub and the calf will lie down together. The lion will eat hay like a cow.
The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra. Yes, a little child will put its hand in a nest of deadly snakes without harm.
Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with people who know the Lord.
In that day the heir to David’s throne will be a banner of salvation to all the world. The nations will rally to him, and the land where he lives will be a glorious place.

This is an amazing passage in my opinion, but to understand it we need to go back a bit into its context in Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who was called by God to prophesy to Israel around the time that they would go into Exile, the ultimate punishment God had promised Israel in the Torah, the law given to Moses. His first job was to call Israel out for their sins and tell them to repent, to stop sinning and turn back to God, in order to avoid being judged and exiled.

But what was Israel doing wrong? Why did they deserve to be judged like this? The very first chapter of Isaiah gives God’s case against them. You guys don’t have to turn there if you don’t want to, but I’m not going to read it all, I’m just going to mention some highlights. Isaiah 1 shows us that Israel had gotten messed up. According to verse 17, the orphans, the widows, all of the people who were able to do the least for themselves were being oppressed and taken advantage of. This would be hard enough in our day, but in theirs especially widows and orphans had an awful time of it. In verse 21 God says that what used to be a faithful people had become full of murderers. Violence and killings were everywhere. We know what that’s like today, though it does seem like it was even worse there.

And this corruption filled Israel everywhere. Verse 23 adds that their political leaders, their judges, and their priests were all corrupt. They were more interested in money and power than justice. They took bribes to hurt the innocent and protect the guilty. They got rich for themselves at the expense of everyone else. The leaders hoarded gold, and they stacked up on military power even, according to Isa. 2:7, but the average people and the poor didn’t benefit from it at all. They got nothing, and the leaders got everything.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, 2:8 adds that the people were all idolaters. They all worshipped other gods instead of pledging their allegiance to the true God alone, who had taken them out of Egypt and made them into a nation. They worshipped these gods because all of the false gods represented things like fertility, or power, or wealth, and they craved these things more than they wanted to be faithful to their Redeemer.

So, because of all of this evil, God was getting ready to judge Israel. Right before our text, in Isaiah 10, God says that this will be done through Assyria. Throughout the Old Testament we see God judging through human nations, kind of like they are wild dogs He keeps on a leash until they are needed. Israel needed to be roughed up at this point for their disobedience, so God let the Assyrians conquer them.

But the other problem is that Assyria was just as evil, if not worse, than Israel. In Isaiah 10:16-17, God says:

Therefore, the Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, will send a plague among Assyria’s proud troops, and a flaming fire will consume its glory. The Lord, the Light of Israel, will be a fire; the Holy One will be a flame. He will devour the thorns and briers with fire, burning up the enemy in a single night.

Assyria had to be judged, too. And once they are judged, God will be ready to restore Israel. He made a promise to Abraham to bless His descendants, and that means He will be faithful and restore Israel. He made a promise to David to put his sons on the throne, and that means Israel will have a throne. That is where our text, Isaiah 11, comes in. God revealed to Isaiah that one da, a “Branch” will come from the old root and stump of David’s family. A new king is coming.

God also promised to fill this king with His Spirit. God’s Spirit, throughout Israel’s history, was given to prophets and kings and leaders to accomplish important tasks for God’s plan. And unlike any of these people before, God says that this His Spirit will “rest on” this king. The Spirit will stay on Him, not just temporarily like everyone before. This Spirit, God’s Spirit, is the Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of God. This means the king will be totally wise, he will understand what he needs to understand, he will learn from God how to rule rightly, he will be strong enough to work everything out, he will know what is going on, and he will always submit to God.

All of these great traits, all of this strength and brilliance, will be how God brings justice back to the land. He won’t “judge by appearance nor make a decision based on hearsay.” Now, I don’t know how the justice system actually looked like in ancient Israel, but today that would mean he would be fair, he wouldn’t give in to polarized partisanship, and he wouldn’t let dumb posts on Facebook, trending tweets, bribery, or biased news sources distort his judgment. He will be totally fair and just and right.
Verse 4 tells us that this king will use these qualities to fix the rigged and broken systems. He will give justice to the poor, and he will make fair decisions in his court cases. Under this king’s rule, the innocent won’t be unfairly convicted, and the guilty won’t get away with their crimes. He will take the corrupt and unjust people down from their positions with his power. As the verse says, “one breath from his mouth will destroy the wicked.”

And he’ll do more than that. He’ll make Israel safe again. Israel had been living in a really dangerous situation. There were murderers within and armies without. But this prophecy talks about a totally different kind of world. Under this new king, Israel will be safe again, so ridiculously safe that even carnivorous animals will be friendly. Verses 7 and 8 say that wolves and lambs and leopards and goats will be friends. Little kids will be able to run around with them, and babies will be able to play in snakeholes. These aren’t supposed to be saying, necessarily, that the king will literally domesticate every dangerous animal. The point is to paint a picture of perfect peace, just as verse 9 says, “Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” Through his promised king, God will bring safety and security to Israel, ending the murders and the constant threat of foreign enemies.

In fact, the threat of foreign enemies brings us to the rest of verses 9-10, in which we find out that this king will change the whole world, not just Israel. It says that the world will be filled with people who know the Lord as much as water fills the seas. The king will be a “banner of salvation to all the world.” Apparently everyone from every nation will be blessed through the king who blesses Israel. Israel will be on top of the world, the king will be on top of Israel, God will be above this king, and everyone else will benefit from it. Israel, and through Israel the world, will be safe, just, and even great again.

So, with everything we’ve seen about the coming king, we’re forced to ask: who is this king and did he ever come? How did God fulfill this promise? Well, for Christians the answer is no surprise. We jump to Matthew 1:1 and find out straightaway that this king is Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah. In fact, the word Christ, which actually means Messiah, literally means “anointed,” and it refers to the anointing with oil that a king would receive. Jesus is the anointed King, anointed by the Spirit of God mentioned before at His baptism, where the Gospels say that the Spirit descended like a dove and remained on Him, just like the verse in Isaiah said.

Jesus fulfills even more of this passage. By the Spirit He was Himself filled with wisdom, and power, and knowledge, and the fear of God. He was always righteous and just. He obeyed God all the way through, even to the point of death. His whole life proved that He was filled with the same Spirit and character that Isaiah prophesied.

He also fulfilled the promises for justice for the poor and oppressed. In Israel, He healed and forgave the least of these, the poor and the marginalized and exploited. He let them back into the Temple by cleansing them from being unclean both inside and out. He gave to those in need, and He helped people who were down on their luck or otherwise messed up, whether it was their fault or not, and got them back on their feet. Actually, it might be better to say He didn’t just get them back on their feet, but He gave them new feet altogether that they could use to live new, redeemed lives. He did this all while challenging and condemning the people in charge of rigged and broken systems and institutions, like the crooked King Herod, the elite Jewish establishment, and even the Roman Emporer in a few ways. He turned the world on its head, putting the last first and the first last, because they already had things in a crooked balance.

In fact, Jesus made this theme major to His ministry. He applied another, closely related prophecy in Isaiah to Himself in Luke 4:18-19. It says:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

But there is a legitimate question in how Jesus fulfilled some of this. After all, Israel doesn’t look like this prophecy says today. They’re not safe, and there’s still injustice, even terrorism. So what did Jesus do?

The key lies in the last bit, that the King will affect all the nations of the world. See, as we see in Ephesians 2:11-15, Israel was recreated around Jesus. Israel in its new, born again form is no longer a nation limited to a certain people or area, with Jews and Gentiles united across the world. Gentiles were once outside the covenant, but now in Christ one new people has been made. He does not rule merely a nation, but all nations. This fulfills Isaiah 11:10’s promise that the King would be a banner for the whole world.

So for this new kind of Israel, Jesus was resurrected from the dead and exalted as the Lord not just of one strip of land in the Middle East, or for one race out of all races, but of the whole world. Philippians 2:9-11 says:

God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This means that Jesus’ kingdom is universal now, so we don’t look to the state of one nation or people to see this prophecy fulfilled. But either way, now it seems worse. The whole world certainly isn’t just and safe, is it? We have poverty. We have injustice. Bad guys still win and good guys still lose. Corrupt systems still exist. The reason for this is that Jesus has temporarily left the earth, putting that mission on pause. He ascended into heaven to give us time. What do we need time for? 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that the reason for this delay is so that people have time to repent. Jesus wants to allow time for millions, maybe billions, of people to hear of His rule and submit to Him. It is not until He returns that He will finish the mission. At that time, as Revelation 21:5 says, He will make everything new.

And this is no empty promise. Jesus’ gave us the Holy Spirit as a guarantee, and in fact His own human nature is a guarantee that He will come back to us. And when He does, He will take down all the wicked and unjust people, systems, governments, institutions, and powers. He will stop rigging and institute real, actual justice forever. The corrupt and wicked people who take advantage of others and make the world unjust and rigged will be overthrown, and those who march in behind Christ under His Lordship will inherit the world promised in Isaiah 11, where there is nothing but peace, justice, and unlimited life.

This is wonderful hope, the real hope of the world. Our hope is in the return of Jesus Christ, and there is no other hope for the world at all. And we need this hope, because our world is as broken as Israel was in its day. I know you’ve all seen the news lately. We have shootings and murders, people being killed left and right. We face threats from the outside, too, from foreign enemies. People just don’t feel safe anymore, regardless of their job, race, gender, or religion.

The same goes with the injustice problem. Our systems and institutions are messed up. They all seem rigged for rich and powerful elites instead of everyone else. Justice looks like a joke. Too many criminals get away with their crimes, or get off easy, while innocent people lose out. Everything is out of whack. Just like Israel, our leaders have loads of money and power but somehow none of this helps most people.

So we need this hope from Jesus. He is coming back to undo all of this. He will save us from the mess the world is in and recreate it in line with His own will, in the pattern of His own victorious resurrection. In fact, He has already overthrown all of these powers and problems. He defeated the death which haunts us on our newsfeeds and TVs. Because of His resurrection there will be another resurrection which overturns death around the world. He defeated the corrupt and rigged systems and powers, because those kinds of people condemned Him to death but He rose from the dead in defiance of their unjust ruling. They’ve been thrown down and mean nothing. The powers we see today are already disarmed and are guaranteed to be overthrown when Jesus returns to claim His Lordship. We wait for this day. We have hope that Jesus will return to make all things new, to make the world safe and great and just again for people of all stripes and classes. This is the only hope to live again.

But all of this isn’t to say that there is nothing for us in the present. Jesus hasn’t simply left us to nothing in the meantime while we wait for His final victory. Instead, Jesus has called forth His Church to live as a people of the age to come who still live in this present age. We who believe in Jesus and have been baptized into His Church, we are called to bring the future He has created into the present. We must model His justice and protection in our own communities.

This means we must be a haven for people who have been treated wrongly. If someone has been a victim of a rigged system or an unjust decision, we may or may not be able to fix it, but we can welcome them into a world where all people are treated rightly with the justice of Christ. The world may not be fair, but we should do all we can to make our churches places where there is true fairness.

We also must provide a haven for those who feel unsafe. In our churches, people should be free from every threat of violence or abuse, whether physical, mental, or emotional. We must instead show the kind of protecting, self-giving love that Jesus showed in laying down His life for us.

And we must be charitable. If Jesus promised justice for the poor, then we are called to do everything we can to compensate for the imbalance in an unjust society and share what we have with those who need more. Not only this, but we must help people to learn to earn an honest living for themselves, so that they don’t have to rely on the chance kindness of strangers to make it by anymore. After all, a just system isn’t just one where everyone gets enough, but where everyone gets enough and fulfills their own responsibilities.

But more than this, the Church is also given the task of proclamation. We are required to speak God’s truth and God’s judgments to the world and all of its broken systems, just like John the Baptist preached against King Herod’s wickedness. The world in all of its injustice and violence is under the judgment of God, and it is our job to tell them and to beg them to change their ways. Jesus is the true Lord, who rules over everything. He will come back to judge every nation and leader.

This means the Church ought to call the world to account for its injustice and tell them about the right way to run things. We have to tell them about how to do justice, how to promote peace, and how to best treat all of the people in the world. We may not change much, though by God’s grace we pray that we do, but we will do all that God calls us to and all that He helps us to so that the world can experience even now a taste of the great world that Jesus is going to bring about when He returns as our Lord and King.

Right now, then, it comes down to this. God has sent us a king to make the world brand new again, and His name is Jesus. He will come back, but for now we must love each other, do justice, have mercy, and walk humbly with our God, who rules the world in and as Jesus Christ. He will set all things right, and we are here now to make what we can right in honor, hope, faith, and anticipation of that day.

Son of David, King of Justice

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

God isn’t always easy to trust. I don’t just mean in the daily lives of living out of faith. I mean even based on what we know of Him, it can be tough to trust Him to be good. Prime example:

This is what the LORD of Hosts says: ‘I witnessed what the Amalekites did to the Israelites when they opposed them along the way as they were coming out of Egypt. Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

1 Samuel 15:2-3

Think about that for a moment. Here God, our God revealed in Jesus Christ, says to kill all of the Amalekites without mercy. Even the children and infants. This is not, either, the only time in the Bible that God gives such commands to Israel. There are many tough texts in the Bible, especially in the early Old Testament.. What do we make of that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me,” and John said, “God is love?” Can these things possibly even mesh at all?

According to a growing number of people, the answer is an obvious “no.” Popular thinkers and writers like Peter Enns and Rachel Held Evans are willing to relegate these instructions to the projections of the Israelites onto their God. The character of Yahweh in the Old Testament, as many will now tell you, is a picture of God distorted by the cultural sins and prejudices of ancient Israel.

On one hand, this sounds good. It would be nice to say, as Enns does, that “God lets His children tell the story,” and leave all the uncomfortable bits in the trash bin of Israel’s sin. But is this really viable? Is this a truly Christian way of reading Scripture? I don’t think so. We have to be willing, as far as I can tell, to let God tell His story through His method, namely the Bible, gore and all.

How can we understand these difficult texts, then? How do we reconcile in our minds the God who died for all the Amalekite children and the God who had them executed? Some people don’t try and just live in denial of the tension. Some people divide God’s will into two, with God’s house divided against itself as He pursues both His love for people and His love for His glory. But a truly Christian way of handling these difficult parts of the Bible requires Christ, namely seeing all of Scripture through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said that all Scriptures point to Him, and that He fulfills their meaning and purpose.

How does this relate to these hard verses? According to people like Enns, the love of the Cross undermines them. If Jesus is love to such an extent, then Yahweh the Warrior must not be pure revelation but human corruption. Yet this seems dangerous to me, mainly because I believe Jesus and the Apostles treated the entire Old Testament revelation of God as an infallible authority and assumed that portrait in their theology. This even includes His holy wars.

If that “solution” doesn’t work, what does? How do we reconcile these two different views of God? Well, I still point us to the Cross, but in a different way. Instead of undermining the Old Testament violence, I believe the Cross gives us reason to trust God in spite of such things. Yes, God seems to have ordered the wholesale extermination of the Amalekite people, but we should let the Cross teach us that God’s love is even at work here, not that it didn’t happen by God’s plan. Whatever judgment He was willing to inflict on the Amalekite people and children, He willingly suffered Himself for their salvation. If God can perform the ultimate act of love within the horror of His own Son’s unjust crucifixion, surely He can love in anything else.

Ultimately, this all calls for faith. Do you trust that God is good? I do, honestly. I don’t always understand Him, but I trust that He is good. Moreover, I trust that He is good in the revelation He gave us. I trust that He gave us a reliable picture of Himself, even in the tough texts in the Bible, and that this somehow flows with His all-consuming love. How can this be? I don’t have a clue, but like Mary I trust His promise and wait patiently to see what He will do. And even in that I do struggle with this. This is one of the questions that can keep me up at nights, forcing me to surf the web for smart believers with fresh insights. But even then, I wait patiently for God to answer, even if that will not happen before Jesus returns. I can trust Him in the wait, because Jesus proved His love. My prayer is that you can, too.

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

Sovereignty and Responsibility: A Quick Thought on God’s Justice

One of the most perplexing questions in regards to a strong view of God’s sovereignty (that is, either a hard determinist or compatbilist view of free will) is how man can be held morally responsible for actions that he is predetermined to commit. If you choose (A) because God foreordained that you would choose (A), how can you be held responsible?

Quite often, as Reformed people we go straight to Romans 9 to answer this. We basically tell the questioner, even if that person is ourself, to shut up:

You will say to me, therefore, “Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?” But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”

Romans 9:19-20

The problem is that most people aren’t going to take this well. Even though this is a completely legitimate point, inspired by God Himself, it seems to just shove people’s emotional difficulty out of the way when used as many use it. Continue reading “Sovereignty and Responsibility: A Quick Thought on God’s Justice”

Sovereignty and Responsibility: A Quick Thought on God’s Justice