Spiritually the nation of Israel was at a low ebb. As so often, many had turned from the Lord to serve false gods and the sovereign Lord has given them a taste of judgment on sin through the king of Assyria. The people, however, seem all the more hardened and their condition hopeless (8:22). Is there a word from the Lord? Through Isaiah God gives a promise of the coming Messiah. Consider Isaiah 9:6-7 Four Names: One Saviour.
1. The gift of the Messiah
Note v6 ‘unto us a child is born’ – an event of great significance to the whole nation. One child is set in contrast to the mighty empire of Assyria. What use can he be? But he will bring deliverance to the people of God. His ways are not our ways (55:8). Deliverance comes through a real historical event. The Messiah is flesh and blood, one sharing our nature (Hebrews 2:17). He is no ordinary child, his virgin conception being described in 7:14. By God’s grace ‘unto us a son is given’ (See also John 3:16). Though a child, he is not weak – ‘the government shall be upon his shoulders’ (see also Matthew 28:18). He fulfils the promise to David of an eternal king on his throne (2 Samuel 7).
2. The titles of the Messiah
(i). Wonderful Counsellor. The Messiah himself is a Wonder, with a nature beyond human understanding. The Messiah will provide a marvellous salvation. He needs no human counsellors to advise him and his plans will not fail.
(ii). The Mighty God. The mystery of the incarnation – God himself comes as Deliverer. ‘Immanuel’ (7:14) – ‘God with us’ in a unique way. As a warrior he bears sin on the cross and defeats his enemies (Colossians 2:15). He overcomes sin and death.
(iii). The Everlasting Father. Christ is a Father to his people, guarding and providing for them. He never forsakes them and is the good shepherd of Psalm 23.
(iv). The Prince of Peace. His atoning work in his death and resurrection provides true peace. He removes all that disturbs his people’s peace by dealing with sin – ‘being justified by faith, we have peace with God’ (Romans 5:1). We may then be at peace with ourselves and with others. ‘Peace’ is life in harmony with God.
3. The reign of the Messiah
What is the kingdom of the Prince of Peace like? According to v7 ‘of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end’. It is a growing kingdom, with multitudes brought willingly to submit to the King. It is a spiritual kingdom comprising redeemed sinners. Christ’s atonement results in ‘a great multitude that no-one could count’ (revelation 7:9). On the ‘throne of David’ he reigns over the people of God, all who are true spiritual Jews (Romans 2:29). His reign is characterised by ‘justice and righteousness’. The guarantee that this will all take place is the ‘zeal of the Lord’ – zeal for the honour of his name. There is no possibility of failure.
As evangelical and Reformed Christians we are accustomed to stress that salvation is by grace alone. We give much attention to texts like Ephesians 2:8 and doctrines such as justification by faith as taught by Paul and rediscovered by the Reformers. That is right and proper – only this gospel points the way to salvation in Christ. We rightly deny a role to good works in receiving salvation. We can, however, become anxious about any mention of good works in the Christian life or talk of ministry to people’s physical/material needs. In fact what we need is a biblical balance. Consider Ephesians 2:10 Why good works?
1. Works excluded
Paul is emphatic in v9 ‘not by works, so that no-one can boast’. He is driving home the lesson of v8 regarding the only way of salvation. The consistent testimony of Scripture is that it is impossible for salvation to be secured by human effort – ‘by observing the law no-one will be justified’ (Galatians 2:16). No amount of effort can cancel past sin or preserve from future sin. Even the attempt to justify ourselves by good works is itself a sin requiring repentance (Isaiah 64:6). Nor is it possible to combine grace and good works – ‘if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace’ (Romans 11:6). Grace and works cannot mix, so no amount of church going, social engagement, etc, can contribute anything to a sinner’s salvation.
2. Divine handiwork
Paul goes on to make a striking statement about believers – ‘For we are God’s workmanship’. At conversion the Lord begins a work in us that transforms us. The word Paul uses can have the suggestion of a ‘work of art’, indicating that God makes something beautiful of us. He specifies further that we are ‘created in Christ Jesus’ – this is the miracle at the centre of salvation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Nothing less is sufficient to explain what takes place. We are ‘born again’ (John 3:3). We are united to Christ in his death and resurrection. He changes us at the very depths of our being. We ‘are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory’ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Christ is the pattern to which God’s grace and power are conforming us.
3. Works required
Acts 10:38 says of Jesus that ‘he went around doing good’. Those united to him by faith are to reproduce his likeness, hence v10 says we are ‘created in Christ to do good works’. He is both the enabler of Christian good works by the power and grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the example of such a life (leaving aside works that were part of his unique redemptive ministry). Out of who we now are in Christ – ‘children of God’ (1 John 3:1) – we are to live lives appropriate to our new identity. Our new character will produce new works. Thus when we bear the fruit of love (Galatians 5:22) we will show love to others. Note ‘which God prepared in advance’ – sovereign preparation, granting opportunities for good works and grace to do them. That is a great encouragement to serve. Literally v10 reads ‘that we should walk in them’ – a continuous lifestyle of imitating the Saviour’s goodness.
The end of the road was very near for the men beside Jesus on the cross. Two condemned criminals – perhaps robbers, but most probably terrorists – were dying agonizing deaths alongside the carpenter from Nazareth. There was no way back for them. When the Romans put a man on a cross, as they often did, he knew that death was the next, inevitable step. We know from the Gospels that Jesus had chosen to be there in order to fulfil his mission, but what about the other two? They seemed to be men with no hope, nothing but death ahead of them, yet for one of them life would be transformed right at its end. We are considering Luke 23:40-43 Never too late.
1. Confessing his sin
To begin with neither man had any sense of sin – both ‘heaped insults on Jesus’ (Matthew 27:44). But at some point a change comes over one of them. The only explanation is the miraculous working of God. His conscience is awakened – ‘we are getting what our deeds deserve’ (v41). It is the first step to salvation. The truth we all have to face is ‘all have sinned’ (Romans 3:23). At the centre of our lives sin and self reign and God is rejected from his rightful place. The first step towards God is confessing our sin in heartfelt repentance. ‘Don’t you fear God?’ (v40). We need to see our sin in relation to a holy God (Psalm 51:4).
2. Recognising Jesus
Had this man done no more than admit his sin, he would have died in despair, but as God works in his heart, he goes further and recognises who Jesus really is. Note v41 ‘this man has done nothing wrong’ – he is aware of Jesus’ innocence (see Hebrews 4:15). He also perceives in this bleeding, dying man a king (‘your kingdom’). His mind, opened by grace, sees a king on the cross. The name ‘Jesus’ means ‘Saviour’ (Matthew 1:21). If our lives are to be transformed and our sins forgiven, we need to recognise Jesus as Son of God and King.
3. Seeking mercy
The man makes the amazing request, ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom’. He is able to look beyond Jesus’ present suffering to see the King. The essential step was to throw himself entirely on Christ for mercy. Sin can never be forgiven unless there is a wholehearted turning to Christ and commitment to him (Acts 16:31). We must forsake efforts to live without God or to earn his favour. Both are futile. Faith is an active response to what God has done in Christ to save sinners like us.
4. Receiving salvation
Whatever he may have expected, he received far more: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ (v43) – the gift of present salvation and the immediate prospect of glory. The burden of sin and guilt is lifted and he enters fellowship with God. When we trust in Christ, we have salvation now (John 6:47) and the certainty of glory at death and of future resurrection. One man was saved – a warning and an encouragement for every sinner.
For each of us there are big issues to be faced in life. It may be career choices or lack of employment, marriage (or not), family conflicts, and so forth. These may make great demands of us and at times seem overwhelming. One issue is bigger than all of these because it has to do with the meaning of life itself – it deals with the question ‘How can I be right with God?’ In John 3 we meet a man who had definite ideas on the subject, but when he met Jesus his ideas were stood on their head. Consider John 3:1-16 Are you born again?
1. A puzzled man
Nicodemus was an important man in the community – ‘a member of the Jewish ruling council’. He was a Pharisee, one of the religious experts, devoted to the study of the Scriptures and an instructor of others (v10). The Pharisees were thought of as the most holy of men, who knew all the laws God had given and had added many of their own. They believed that by keeping the law they were living lives that satisfied God. These are the people described in Luke 18:9 as ‘certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous’. Pharisees were convinced that their good works were sufficient for salvation. There are many today thinking like this. Though admitting they are not perfect, they hope that effort and good works will outweigh their failings and satisfy God. Note that Nicodemus is puzzled by Jesus and his miracles. He must satisfy his curiosity, despite the risks.
2. A new start
Jesus has an amazing response: ‘no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (or ‘from above’)’ (v3). He goes right to the heart of the spiritual need of Nicodemus – his law-keeping and good works cannot gain him entry to ‘the kingdom of God’, membership of the people of God. What he really needs is a fundamental change in his whole life, so radical that it can be described as a new birth. The Bible makes clear to us our natural spiritual condition – ‘dead in your transgressions and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1). Our efforts at good works do not begin to make up for our sins and even the effort to earn salvation is sinful (Isaiah 64:6). This is a change that only God can effect – a birth by the Holy Spirit who works like cleansing water (v5). We need to recognise our need and pray for God’s working.
3. A great gift
The passage stresses what God has done to save sinners. We must be made alive, but how is sin to be dealt with? A holy God cannot ignore it. The answer is in v16 ‘gave his one and only Son’. It is the work of Jesus that deals with our sin. At the cross he willingly took the sin and guilt of his people, bearing their punishment. As Isaiah 53:5 tells us, ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities’ (see also 2 Corinthians 5:21). That was the reason for the coming of the Son of God into the world. The gift of Jesus and the salvation he gives have to be received by us. It is not enough merely to know about it. The promise is to ‘whoever believes in him’ – repenting and trusting our whole life to him. Such commitment is the first sign that the new birth has taken place. We receive from him ‘eternal life’, life in fellowship with God, a present possession (John 5:24), living for evermore.