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Edited from a message delivered at the "Heart-Cry for Revival" Conference near Asheville, North Carolina, April 9-12, 2002.
If it is correct to say, as A. W. Tozer said, that the most important thing about us is our conception of God, then it is very important that our understanding of God be biblical. We live in a culture that is into God; into all kinds of spirituality. But the question is, what God are we into? Perhaps one of the most meaningless statements one can make, here in the United States is, "I believe in God," because that phrase becomes a canvas upon which people can paint whatever picture they like of God. The Bible speaks and warns about having false portraits of God.
Donald McCullough says in his book, The Trivialization of God, that it may well be that the worst sin of the church has been the trivialization of God. We prefer, he says, the illusion of a safer deity so we have pared God down to "manageable proportions."
What Id like to do is to remind you of some ways that we have pared God down to "manageable proportions." I could give you a dozen ways, but I mention these particular ones because I believe they have infected the Evangelical community.
False Conceptions of God
First of all, there is the God of my wealth and my health. Because I am writing a book on discernment, Ive spent some time listening to television preachers, and I am grieved in my spirit about much of what is being taught. Many preach as if God is our ATM; God is our servant to give us whatever we want.
Our false conceptions of God arise because we project on God the kind of being we would like Him to be. The Scripture says, You thought that I was like you. Thats where we get these ideas of God that are unworthy of Him. Thats why John Calvin says, "The human mind is like an idol factory, constantly manufacturing false ideas of God." Someone has said, "We have cows for milk; sheep for wool and God to fulfill our every craving."
Theres also the God of my emotional need. Of course God does meet our emotional needs. Just read the Psalms. But what we are told today is that all the language of the Bible has to be psychologized, and some evangelicals have asserted that sin is a lack of self-esteem, and God exists to affirm me, and to let me know how important I am. Even the cross of Jesus Christ itself can be misused. People say, "The reason why God paid so much is because we are so valuable, and so God gave His son because we are worth it." The cross does exalt us, but the cross does not exalt anyone whom it does not first humble. The cross is a tribute to our value, but it is not an inherent value. In the words of Martin Luther, "God does not love us because we are valuable; we are valuable because He loves us." God does not exist simply to meet our emotional needs.
There is also the God of my gender. Evangelical feminists are saying that women are oppressed by men, and the answer is to tamper with the language of Scripture and make sure that God is no longer a "He" but a "She" or perhaps even an "It" or whatever. Of course, to our shame, we admit that men have often abused women, but the answer is not to tamper with Scripture. God is presented as a "He" in the Bible even though we know that God is neither masculine nor feminine. He is presented as a "He" for a very specific reasonto preserve His identity and His authority in the world.
Let me mention another conceptionthe God of my civil religion. If you are from another country, I need to tell you that we have civil religion here in the United States. Civil religion is seen most clearly after September 11, where you have all those signs saying "God bless America." That is civil religion. What God is expected to bless America? In Nashville someone told me that two porn shops had on their marquee, "God bless America." What God are they talking about? Its the God whos on Americas side. Its the God whos interested in democracy. Its the God of capitalism. And above all, its the God who wants the stock market to go back up. Thats the God most people speak of when they say, "God bless America." Thats why right after September 11, God was back. But did you notice, Jesus wasnt back.
Then there is the God of my tolerance. Some people say that their God would never send anyone to hell.... We have made God into whatever we want Him to be. The God of the Bible will not be construed in that way. The God of the Bible is a holy God. The God of the Bible is a majestic God. The God of the Bible is not one whose attributes we can simply make up in accordance with our own wishes and desires. He is not a God like unto us.
God, through the prophet Ezekiel warned, "Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity" (14:3). We also stand guilty. We have idols in our minds and in our hearts, because we have created a God who is according to our likeness. But the God of the Bible is a God of greatness, a God who says, "I am that I am" (Ex. 3:14). He is who He is and not who we want Him to be.
What Would Happen if This God Were to Come?
We know that God exists throughout the whole universe and of course He is with us, but what if God were to come in His manifest presence?
Lets turn to Isaiah chapter 40, this marvelous chapter of Gods sovereignty and His greatness. Remember that Isaiah wrote this prophecy by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He predicted that the land of Judah was going to rebel against God and they were about to commit two evils. First, they were going to look to other nations to help them in their need, and second, they were going to imbibe the gods of these other nations. Thats exactly what Judah did. The nation did not reject the worship of Jehovah, but chose to include other gods along with the worship of Jehovah.
This was the ancient view of tolerance and politically correct thinking. And God was angry. He said that as a result of their disobedience, He would allow the Babylonians to come and take them captive. These pagans were going to encircle the city of Jerusalem, and Gods people would be carried off to Babylon for seventy long years of discipline. We call it the Babylonian captivity. But at the end of seventy years, Isaiah is now saying, youre going to come back into the land, and youre going to be blessed by God again. God is going to come back to His people.
The chapter begins, "Comfort, O comfort My people says your God." He continues, "Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the Lords hand Double for all her sins" (v.1,2).
That expression, "she has received of the Lords hand Double for all her sins" doesnt mean that God was unfair and punished them more than they deserved. No, its a Hebrew expression that simply means that the time of their discipline is over. Nor does it mean that they were somehow redeemed by their suffering. God is simply saying that their suffering of discipline is over. The time for blessing has come. The presence of God is going to be felt in Judah one more time.
Three Voices Heard
This chapter continues by identifying three different voices, "A voice is calling, Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God" (v.3). The first voice says, "Prepare the road; God is coming!" When you have company come, you prepare your home. You clean; you dust. Everything is going to be ready. If Jesus were invited into your home, just think of how thoroughly you would prepare for His arrival.
God is coming! The messenger continues, "Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low. Let the rough ground become a plain and the rugged terrain a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it" (v.4,5).
In ancient times when a monarch was planning to visit a city, the valleys were exalted; the mountains and the hills were cut down. Bridges were built to prepare for his arrival. And what the prophet is saying here is that there is a time when God is going to come to reveal His greatness. Lets be ready! And if we want to know what that involves, keep in mind that this prophecy was fulfilled centuries later when John the Baptist came preaching repentance.
In effect, John was saying to the religious people, it is time to be done with your shallowness. It is time to be done with your hypocrisy. It is time to be done with singing songs of worship with your heart far from God. So John the Baptist is reminding the people, "Lets prepare because God is coming. Lets prepare our hearts. Let us show the fruits of repentance." His message is needed today.
The second voice says, "Humble your hearts." We read, "A voice says, Call out! Then he answered, What shall I call out? All flesh is grass, and its glory like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever" (v. 6).
Dont miss the contrast between the glory of man and the glory of God. Of God we read, "The glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh will see it together." Of man we read, "All flesh is grass and its glory like the flower of the field." What a difference between human glory and divine glory!
All divine glory is intrinsic. Glory belongs to God like light belongs to the sun, like wetness belongs to water. Its part of who God is. Its all that God is, in all of His attributes, in all of His beauty, in all of His sovereignty, in all of His majesty, in all of His unknowability. The glory of God is simply God being God.
But in contrast we are just like the grass of the field. When God comes we finally discover who we are. We are only blades of grass and whatever glory we may have, is God-given. It is not intrinsic to who we are. Therefore we humble ourselves. We admit that we have nothing to contribute to the glory of God except to yield and to submit to His sovereignty and greatness. When the glory of God comes there is no room for human glory. Were like grass that withers and is gone.
Theres a third voice. This voice announces Gods arrival. "Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news; Lift up your voice mightily, O Jerusalem, bearer of good news; Lift it up, do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, Here is your God!" The imagery is of some herald, someone who has the responsibility of announcing good news to a city. So he gets to the highest point, perhaps a hill or a building. Better yet, this messenger goes up a high mountain. He tries to announce to as many people as possible, "God is coming!"
I hope that you and I live long enough to be able to announce to America, "Behold, your God!" I hope the time comes when the cities of America hear, "Behold, your God!" Wouldnt it be wonderful if the nightly news told of a revival of repentance and righteousness and truth and justice? What if from coast to coast we heard the gospel of Jesus, and people began to say, "Behold your God! God is back!"
When God comes, how does He come? "Behold the Lord God will come with might" (v.10). He comes with power. Imagine a God of power, putting marriages back together; a God of power advancing the church in areas where the church has never advanced; imagine a God who motivated His people to give and go that the gospel might be proclaimed throughout the world. Imagine the world forced to take note because the glory of God arrived!
Despite all the seminars and all the video tapes and all of the books and all of the sermons that have been preached, there is so little transformation of life today. Can you imagine that when God comes, miracles would happen and people would be born again and others would be asking, "What do I have to do to get right with God?" The only people who appreciate the cross are those who are convicted of their sins. When God comes, even the world knows it needs a savior.
We will also see the generosity of God. Its in the middle of verse 10: "And His reward is with Him." When God comes He is His own reward. The Puritans used to say, "He who has God and everything else (everything that this world can possibly offer) does not have more than he who has God only." If you have God, God is enough. He carries His own reward.
Then there is the compassion of God. "Like a shepherd He will tend His flock. In His arm He will gather the lambs, and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes" (v.11). How we need to see the tender hand of God in this cruel, hard world. When God comes, there is tenderness and compassion. Hostilities vanish; selfishness gives way to love, for God has come.
In the rest of the chapter, we see other attributes of God. For example in verse 12 we have the knowledge of God. "Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, and marked off the heavens by the span?" Who knows these distances and these weights but God? He knows the weight of the water in the world in pounds, ounces, in grams and kilograms. He knows the drops and the oceans.
God is also self-sufficient. "Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord or as His counselor has informed Him? With whom did He consult, and who gave Him understanding?" (v.13). Does God ever come to one of us and say, "What do you think?" He needs no scientific advice for He is the creator; He needs no moral advice for He is the standard of all morality; He needs no psychological advice, for He is perfectly balanced.
Gods providence is also expounded, "He sits above the vault of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers" (v.22). We can continue, "He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. Scarcely have they been planted; scarcely have they been sown; scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, but He merely blows on them and they wither" (v.23,24). What are nations? Nothing....That does not mean that they are unimportant to God, it means simply that in contrast to God, the nations of the world can be regarded as nothing.
You say, what would it look like if God were to come to us? Im reading from a book by Ray Ortland titled, When God Comes, and he writes, "When God rends the heavens and comes down on His people, a divine power achieves what human effort at its best fails to do. Gods people thirst for the ministry of the Word and receive it with tender meltings of soul. The grip of enslaving sin is broken. Reconciliation between believers is sought and granted. Spiritual things rather than material things capture the peoples hearts. A defensive, timid church is transformed into a confident army. Believers joyfully suffer loss for their Lord. They treasure usefulness to God over career and advancement. Communion with God is avidly enjoyed. Churches and church organizations reform their policies and procedures. People who had always been indifferent to the Gospel now inquire anxiously, and this type of spiritual movement draws in not just the isolated straggler here and there, but large numbers of people. A wave of divine grace washes over the church and spills out into the world."
That is what happens when God comes down. And that is how we should pray for our churches. We must pray until the manifest presence of God comes.
Three Important Lessons
Id like to leave you with three powerful, transforming lessons, that I trust we shall never forget.
The first lesson is that even Gods special people incur His discipline. The Jews were His chosen people. Judah was His chosen nation or tribe. Jerusalemhow much does God love Jerusalem? God says, "I love the gates of Zion." And yet, look at the gates of Zion today. Even Gods chosen people can incur His discipline because of sin. And we are not exempt.
Now if it is true, as Henry Blackaby has said, that our churches must repent corporately, it is also true that we can be judged and disciplined corporately. And what is the mark of the discipline of God? In the case of Judah it was when they were ruled by another power, namely, Babylon.
Just so God judges us by letting us be ruled by another power. We are ruled by sin, by addictions, by our own lusts and desires. Ive often said that an addiction is Gods discipline and judgment for toying with sin. Our churches have marriages that cannot be saved; we have addictions from which people are not delivered; we have people who are faithful in church attendance but who might not even have the life of God in them. We have churches where the division between the church and the world is no longer distinguishable, and therefore we as a church find it very difficult to impact culture. This, it seems to me, is a picture of a church that is under the discipline of God.
When the world looks at the Church they should be struck by two observations. First, they should notice that we love one another. Love is emphasized today, and often it is used as a basis for unity. There are those who say that we should lay aside all our differences, for love is more important than truth. I know that some of our differences have oftentimes been very ugly, but there are some distinctions that are very important. Some divisions are necessary. But I do need to say that when the world looks at the Church, basically do they see a lot of love or do they simply see mindless tolerance? What is it that they really see? Love is costly.
But the world should also see our holiness. When you look at the Church in the Book of Acts, you discover that people feared to join it. Why? There was that sense of the divine presence; there was that sense of divine holiness. The fear of God was upon His people.
Listen carefully: We need the love of God to attract people, and we need the holiness of God to convict them. The Church today might have one quality, love; but I think we would agree that it does not have the other, namely holiness. As a result we find ourselves paralyzed in the presence of great opportunity. Do we lack numbers? No. Do we lack money? No. Do we have technology? Do we have literature? Do we have books? Do we have television programs? Do we have videotapes? Yes! But what is our impact in the world? Thats the question.
There is a second lesson, however, and that is that this discipline is intended to lead to restoration, to holiness, and the return of the presence of God. After seventy years God said to Judah, that the time for restoration had come. The discipline was over; enough was enough. That, I believe is Gods intention for us too. We need to remember that God is anxious to have His people come back in repentance.
Should we give up hope? It is impossible to believe in the biblical God and not have hope. If we believe in the God of Isaiah 40, we should never despair. God can overcome even our blindness and our stubbornness. God is able to overcome any resistance that we offer, because God is God and He can do as He wills. There is nothing that God cant do and that always gives me hope.
At this conference we dont only look at ourselves and see our sinthats where we beginbut then we see the forgiveness and the restoration and the grace and the lovingkindness of God. Thats why God allows us to go through that period of disciplinethat in our hopelessness we might cry up to the God of all hope.
A final lesson, we must wait on the Lord. The chapter ends, "He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength" (v.31).
What does it mean to wait for the Lord? Waiting for the Lord has several premises connected with it. Because we are Gods creatures, we are totally and completely dependent upon Him moment by moment for our existence. It isnt just that God created us and then we exist by our own strength until eventually old age creeps up and takes us away. Rather, we must realize that God moment by moment sustains us. Why did you not die yesterday? Its because God chose to sustain you yesterday. What is true physically is true spiritually as well.
Has God ever showed you the complete total bankruptcy of your own life without Him? When He shows us that, we discover we can make no contribution to Him of our own goodness and righteousness. Whatever is good in us, is God-implanted, God-nourished. From beginning to end, it is of God.
I teach preaching at Trinity International University.... I point out to the students that before we were saved we were "dead in trespasses and sin" (Eph.2). I say to them, "You know we have the responsibility of preaching to the dead...every time we preach the Gospel were asking God to raise the dead. Were asking God to give sight to blind eyes. We are asking deaf ears to hear. Were asking for a miracle."
Then we read Ezekiel 37 where the prophet was asked to preach to dry bones. What a foolish assignment! Who would preach to dry bones? Yet, while Ezekiel was preaching the bones came together; flesh came on the bones. As he continued to preach, life was breathed into those dry bones, and they lived! His preaching was effective because God accompanied it with miraculous power.
After this exposition, we all get down on our knees and we dedicate ourselves to total, unrelenting, complete dependence upon God for the proclamation of the Gospel. Apart from His intervention and grace, we are helpless and there is nothing we can do. So we preachyes; we evangelizeyes. But it is in total, complete dependence. We wait on God for guidance; we wait on God for strength.
Isaiah ends the chapter with the promise that those who wait on the Lord will, "gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary" (v.31). Eagles love storms, because they can take advantage of the wind by just putting out their wings and the storm will carry them. When an eagle is up in the sky, he doesnt fear crossing rivers.
As we wait on the Lord, we also will be able to weather the storms of life; we also will cross rivers and see life from a much higher perspective. In the process our strength will be renewed.
Sometimes we will run and not be weary, for God will carry us and do one miracle after another. And then there are other times when the best we will be able to do is walk and not faint. And, that will be a miracle too.
When God comes there is a supernatural dimension to everything that we do. We will announce to a confused people, "Behold, your God!" We will say, "God is back!" Not just any God, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us have a holy desperation that we will yet see His glory in this fallen world.