Marcus Nodder, senior pastor of St Peter’s Barge in West India Quay, London, explains from Isaiah 6
There’s a danger that, as we go on as Christians, we drift away from the cross.
We can operate as if we don’t need it anymore. Or, at least, not as much as we did at the beginning.
The prophet Isaiah was speaking to people who thought they were okay as they were and didn’t need God’s grace. But then in Isaiah 6.1-8 he recounts for their benefit how he came face to face with the reality of what God is like and what we are like. It makes shocking reading:
John Calvin says: ‘Man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself, unless he has first looked upon God’s face… For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy – this pride is innate in all of us – unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity’.
A big vision of God (v.1-4)
Uzziah had been king of Judah for over 50 years and his fame had spread far and wide, but ‘after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God’ (2 Chronicles 26.16). In judgment, God struck him down with leprosy and he spent the final years of his life living in isolation. In 740BC he died, a leper.
Isaiah writes: ‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne’ (Isaiah 6.1). The prophet was given a vision of the king. The true king. The king of kings. And what he saw shook his world to the foundations. He saw God in all his majesty and holiness – incomparable, without sin, pure, perfect, just, righteous.
Isaiah was looking at the one whose power is infinite and whose glory fills the earth. So powerful were the booming voices of the seraphim that it seemed as if the building were about to collapse. And smoke, signifying the presence of God, filled the place. Utterly terrifying.
People sometimes say: ‘I like to think of God as…’ and they fill in the blank with things like: ‘a force like electricity’, or: ‘someone who watches over us from a distance’. This is wishful thinking. It tells you nothing about the God who is actually there and leaves you with no need of the cross.
The artist Tracey Emin was commissioned to design a statue for a British city. It was a little bird on top of a four-metre pole. She explained that ‘most public sculptures are a symbol of power, which I find oppressive and dark’. She said she wanted something ‘which would appear and disappear, and not dominate’. Is that not exactly what we have done with God? A God of awesome power and majesty and holiness is rather threatening. It’s much more manageable to have a tiny God who doesn’t dominate. A mini pocket God; a pigmy God; a bird-on-a-pole God that appears when I want him to and disappears when I choose; a not-so-very-different-from-me God. But the God Isaiah saw is the God who is actually there. What was it like to meet God face to face?
A deep awareness of sin (v.5)
‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined!’ (Isaiah 6.5). This wasn’t just a ‘wow’, like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. It was the ‘woe’ of being terrified. Isaiah knew he was-n’t just small in the presence of absolute greatness, but a sinner in the presence of absolute holiness.
In particular, he felt the uncleanness of his lips, and those of his people. Why? Perhaps because on hearing the seraphim calling out he realised he was too sinful to join in. King Uzziah, having been struck down with leprosy, would have had to cry out ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ (Leviticus 13.45). Isaiah now realised he was no different – morally. What opened his eyes to that was seeing God as he really is.
In Charles Kingsley’s classic book The Water Babies, the central character is a boy called Tom, who is a chimney sweep. One day, in a huge mansion, he loses his way crawling inside the maze of flues and chimneys. Instead of coming out down the kitchen chimney, he crawls out onto the hearth of a spotlessly white bedroom, where a lovely little girl lies asleep between immaculately white sheets, a room where not a speck of dirt is to be seen. Tom, the little orphan chimney sweep, gazes around him, enchanted by his first sight of such beauty and cleanness, having never imagined that anything so spotless and lovely could exist.
But then he catches sight of a filthy little creature, sooty black from head to foot, standing on the rosy pink carpet with pools of black perspiration dripping from its body. It is so out of place in such surroundings that he shakes his fist and shouts furiously, ‘Get out of here at once!’. But the dirty figure shakes its fist in return.
And suddenly, for the first time in his life, poor Tom realises that he is looking in a mirror and seeing himself as he really is. It breaks his heart. Uttering a desolate and despairing cry, he rushes out of the house, sobbing as he goes: ‘I must be clean! I must be clean! Where can I find a stream of water and wash and be clean?’.
Seeing God in his holiness is like being dropped into that spotless white room. We suddenly see ourselves as we really are. We look in the mirror and see how out of place we are in the spotless presence of God. We feel ashamed, condemned, afraid. ‘Woe to me! I am ruined!’
In our worst moments we quite like our sin, but God’s holiness means he hates it. It arouses his righteous anger. He must judge it. And since we’re all sinners, that is a terrifying prospect. If we think of ourselves as basically good people, we will never see our need for the cross.
An experience of grace (v.6-8)
‘Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’’ (Isaiah 6.6).
Under the old covenant, God provided the sacrificial system to make atonement for the sins of the people. But these animal sacrifices were just a picture, foreshadowing the ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
The coal taken here from the altar symbolised that a sacrifice had been made. Isaiah had confessed he was a man of unclean lips, and now one of the seraphim takes a burning coal from the altar and touches his unclean lips with it. And in that one symbolic act he is cleansed from sin. The seraphim declares: ‘Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’. What wonderful words for Isaiah, or indeed any of us, to hear. ‘Your guilt is taken away’ – your actual guilt before a holy God as well as your feeling of guilt. ‘And your sin atoned for’ – atonement means that the debt of sin is covered, paid in full.
Isaiah didn’t say: ‘Yes I am unclean, but just wait. I’ll try harder. I can do better. Give me a chance and I’ll clean my act up’. Isaiah is cleansed in an instant – not by his own efforts, but purely by God’s grace. And just as he received God’s grace through this sacrifice, so we, as we accept Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us on the cross, hear the same words Isaiah heard: ‘Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’.
This is the only basis on which we can ever stand before God. As Christians we must beware when we start to say to ourselves: ‘I’m actually doing pretty well now. Been a Christian a few years. Making progress in godliness. Serving in ways I wasn’t before. Know quite a bit. And I’m doing more than that person over there’. We need to catch ourselves, repent of such pride and self-delusion, and see again what God is like and what we are like.
Because even if you’re Billy Graham and you’ve preached to millions, and tens of thousands have been saved through you, without God’s grace through the cross, you stand before God today as a lost sinner.