Honouring Isaiah

Throughout the month of December, our Christmas theme is about Honour, which happens to be one of our values. Honour means giving respect and high esteem. And throughout December, six times in fact, we will be honouring six people who were a part of the first Christmas story.

Today, we are looking at a person who lived 700 years before the first Christmas and yet was an important person in announcing the birth of the Messiah.

Today we are honouring the Prophet Isaiah with whom God used over a period of forty years around 740 to 700 B.C.

Isaiah’s ministry paralleled the rule of four kings (Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah). Isaiah is often thought of as the greatest of the writing prophets. His name means “The Lord saves.” Other prophets of his time include Amos, Hosea and Micah. Isaiah was married and had at least two sons (7:3 and 8:3). According to an unsubstantiated Jewish tradition (The Ascension of Isaiah), Isaiah was sawed in half during the reign of Manasseh. When Isaiah hid in a tree the wicked king Manasseh had it—and Isaiah—sawed in half. Some suggest that this is who Hebrews 11:37 is referring to.

In the Old Testament, there are what we call the major and minor prophets. The Major Prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The Minor Prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The Major Prophets are described as “major” because their books are longer, and the content has broad, even global implications.

And what Isaiah prophesied and wrote indeed had global implications. What Isaiah prophesied was for the people of his day, but he also had many prophecies about the coming Messiah, His birth, ministry and suffering that would have global implications.

It’s quite extraordinary that God used such a means to announce the birth of His Son some 700 years earlier? And yet he had chosen his servant Isaiah to prophesied with accuracy what was to happen.

A reason why God chose to make this announcement so many hundreds of years before the event was to perhaps give people back then some hope. Verse 1 of our reading gives us a brief picture of Isaiah’s world back then. In verse 1 Isaiah says, “there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali…” (Isaiah 9:1 NIV).

Notice Isaiah says, “the land of Zebulun and Naphtali”? Years before this prophecy (shortly after the death of King Solomon), ten of the tribes of Israel rebelled against their king and split off to form the new nation that was called Israel in the north, while the remaining two tribes in the south became known as the land of Judah.

The Tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali where part of the Ten Tribes that rebelled in the North. When Assyria came west in 733 to punish the northern kingdom of Israel for its participation in anti-Assyrian activities, the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were among those hardest hit and thus entered a very dark period. Isaiah’s prophecy could well have brought hope to people who were living during those dark times with whom were very afraid about their future.

God remembered them and through His prophet foretold something about their future. Its found in chapter 9 which in many Bibles has the title “To Us A Child Is Born”.

Let’s go back to verse one that sets the scene for two well known passages on the birth of the Messiah. These two town in verse 1, Zebulun and Naphtali were two of those 10 tribes in the new northern nation of Israel… but they were relatively insignificant tribes. They were rarely mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament and were never spoken of as having any important role in anything. That is until God mentioned them here in Isaiah 9. Remember – these are the ONLY tribes in the northern Israel that God included in connection with the coming Messiah.

And I think there is a reason why. We know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem which is south of Jerusalem in the land of Judah. But when Herod learned about the prophecy of a King being born in Bethlehem, he wasn’t happy. He saw this new King as a threat to his own throne and he sought to kill Him. Being warned in a dream Joseph and Mary fled with their child to Egypt, where they remained until King Herod died. When that threat to Jesus was no longer, the family returned to their home… but not their home in Bethlehem. They returned to their home they had left years before which was in Nazareth, and Nazareth was in the region of Galilee.

Guess which tribes once inhabited the land of Galilee? Zebulun and Naphtali.

Matthew tells us that early in His ministry, Jesus left His home town “lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali-- to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: "Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles-- the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:13-16 NIV).

Galilee was the area once inhabited by Zebulun and Naphtali. When Jesus began His ministry, He resided at Capernaum in Galilee

· It was in Galilee that Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding (John 2);

· It was in Galilee that He selected the majority of his 12 disciples;

· And it was in Galilee that He spent most of His time preaching and teaching and performing various healings and miracles

Jesus literally brought the light of His ministry to the people who lived in the land that had once been Zebulun and Naphtali. Isaiah foretold this in verse 1 when he said about Christ, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan” (Isaiah 9:1 NIV). What will God do? He will honour Galilee. And verse 2 says how this will happen: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2 NIV).

In the day of Jesus Galilee (land of Zebulun & Naphtali) was considered a very dark land. It was a remote region where only the poor and uneducated lived. It wasn’t an enlightened area.

When Peter and John spoke before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4, they amazed these leaders because they were obviously Galileans - they were unschooled, ordinary men, and yet they spoke with courage and power.

Galilea’s reputation was such that when Philip told Nathanael that he’d found the Messiah, Nathanael said: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46 NIV).

But Jesus lived in this obscure part of Israel on purpose. He lived there so that He could drive home the point that His life was meant to shine a very powerful and hope-filled light into a very dark world. During His ministry Jesus said, “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46 NIV). And again: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12 NIV).

When God shined His life on my life it revealed things that weren’t pleasing to God. Up to then, I didn’t really understand. You see, darkness conceals while light reveals. Darkness conceals all sorts of things – we can’t see these things because they are in the dark. But light reveals. When light shines on these things it reveals. And when the light of Jesus shined on my life it revealed that I was a sinner who had fallen short of God’s standard. It revealed that I needed a Saviour to be saved from God’s wrath. And unfortunately for many of our loved ones and friends and colleagues, darkness is concealing all sorts of things and its only when the light of Jesus shines on that that it reveals these things.

Isaiah goes deeper about this light that was to come into the world. There are two familiar passages that are told by Isaiah that are related to the birth of Christ. The first is in our reading: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6 NIV).

About 150 years after Isaiah prophesied this, the Jews returned to Judea from their long time of captivity in Babylon. About that time, Jewish religious leaders began to write commentaries on various Bible books that they called “Targums”. One of these Targums dealt with the prophecies out of Isaiah. And that Targum (written more than 500 years before Christ was born) commented on Isaiah 9:6, saying: “And there was called His name from of old, Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, He who lives forever, the Messiah, in whose days peace shall increase upon us” (Targum of Isaiah).

So, for over 500 years, the Jewish people knew this section of Isaiah spoke of the coming Christ. They also knew of the significance of these descriptions given to the Christ Child. Most of us would understand the significance of being the “Prince of Peace” meaning that it was Jesus who bought peace between us and God. The term father in “Everlasting Father” was often understood by the Hebrews as ruler and so Christ would be the everlasting ruler. When Isaiah described this Christ Child as “Might God” he saw Him as nothing less than as he declared – that he Christ Child would be none other than God Himself. But when Isaiah describes the Christ Child as “Wonderful Counselor” there may be some slight misunderstandings.

The English description “wonderful” has come to mean something a bit different these days. We use it to describe that something is special and lovely. But in the original language of Hebrew, it means “separate, to distinguish, or to make great”. It is applied usually to anything that is great like a miracle for a miracle cause wonder and awe. And so the Messiah was wonderful in all things. It was the wonderful love by which God sent Jesus; the manner of his birth was wonderful; his humility, his self-denial, his sorrows were wonderful; his mighty works were wonderful; his dying agonies were wonderful; and his resurrection, his ascension, were all things that ought to cause admiration and wonder.

And closely connected with Wonderful is Counselor. Again, our English translations haven’t quite expressed what it really means in Hebrew. Counselor is an honorable rank; one who is appropriate to stand near princes and kings as their adviser. It is expressive of great wisdom, and of qualifications to guide and direct the human race.

And so, what amazing titles and descriptions that Isaiah describes the Christ Child – “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6 NIV).

Isaiah prophesied something even more detailed about the birth of Jesus. It’s found two chapters earlier. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 NIV). What an incredible detailed prophesy which 700 years later was fulfilled. Both Matthew and Luke talk about this miraculous virgin birth that wahat was conceived in Mary was from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20-23).

Professor Donald Guthrie has written: “Never before has a woman conceived through the intervention of the Spirit, and never since has it happened” (Donald Guthrie, The Teachings of the New Testament, p81).

The virgin birth is such a significant teaching. You can imagine that many reject the literal claim of a virgin birth because it goes against the normal law of human birth. But with God “nothing is impossible” and therefore God through His Spirit performed a miracle. Isaiah predicted this miracle, it was attested early and clearly in Matthew and Luke’s accounts, and it was accepted early and fully in early church creeds of beliefs (Irenaus and Tertullian, Ignatius and Justin Martyr). The virgin birth shows us that there was no human father. Jesus was the Child of God. We must not look upon this in a crude way. There is no thought of sexual relations between God and Mary, an idea, which can be found in some cults like the Mormons. Rather, God worked in a hidden, secret way, which is beyond our ability to understand or explain.

Matthew went on to explain this: “All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord's message through His prophet: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means "God with us") (Matthew 1:22-23 NIV).

The Virgin birth explains Christ’s deity - which is He was both God and human. God came to be with us. In the fullness of time He came. When His people were experiencing a dry long wilderness, He came.

God didn’t just anoint a person to be another king. He sent His only Son Jesus. And in doing so He came taking the form of a human. From New Testament writings, Jesus was both God and man. We call this the “Deity of Christ” - something that is a mystery. Paul says of Jesus: “Though He was God, He did not think of equality with God as something to cling to” (Philippians 2:6 NLT). So Paul says that Jesus was God. But then he adds: “Instead, He gave up His divine privileges; He took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being” (Philippians 2:7 NLT).

God came down in the person of His Son. He came to rescue us. That’s why in most footnotes in your bibles there is a brief explanation that “Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means the Lord Saves”. No wonder Isaiah describes Jesus Christ as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6 NIV).

We honour Isaiah – a man with whom God has chosen and called to tell messages of hardships but also of hope. It is always easy to speak with others what God tells us to do. It can not only be rejected but sometimes you to could be rejected. Isaiah faced this. And yet he kept on going and through his challenging messages were messages of hope. And God used Isaiah to speak of the coming of God’s son into the world in a most unusual yet most appropriate way. It was the only way for the Savior to come.

I read this on Facebook yesterday:

T’was the night before Christmas,

God glanced over the earth.

He looked to and fro,

All over its girth.

They missed it again He said with a sigh,

A heavy heart and tear in his eye.

I gave them my son,

So they could be set free.

My greatest gift,

To them from me.

They traded me in,

For a man in red.

A little tree,

And horse drawn sled.

How do I save them,

And make them see.

My love is complete,

My grace is free.

How do I help them,

When all they know

Is a talking snowman,

And a box with a bow.

Maybe next year,

they will stop and see.

The biggest gift of Christmas

Is the little Child from Me.

This Christmas, like Isaiah who honoured the Christ Child, may we to honour the Christ Child for who He is and what He has done by making room every day for him.

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