Be’s of the Bible, Part 6

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There are many “be’s” in the Bible. When the Lord uses a “be,” it’s important to pay attention to what He’s saying. As God uses “be” in the Bible, He’s never making a suggestion; He’s issuing a command. We’re looking at a number of the “Be’s in Scripture,” and so far, here are the ones we’ve covered:

• Be Holy (because God is holy), 1 Peter 1:15, 16
• Be Perfect (or be mature), 2 Corinthians 13:11
• Be Still (and let God work), Psalm 46:10
• Be Sober (and be alert, keeping your eyes open), 1 Peter 5:8
• Be Faithful (no matter what), Revelation 2:10

Our sixth “Be” is found in the Old Testament prophetic book of Isaiah –

Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the articles of the Lord’s house. (Isaiah 52:11 TNIV)

A verse like that demands some context because it’s impossible to know what’s going on behind it or what prompted it. So let’s consider some context, both historical and spiritually.

Context: Historical and spiritual

There is an old saying that goes like this:

God helps those who help themselves.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t Winston Churchill who coined that phrase, although he probably did say it. It was Benjamin Franklin and, as far as the phrase goes, it’s partly true and partly false. A lot of people over on the Reformed side of the church get incensed when they hear somebody say, “God helps those who help themselves.” As far as Reformers are concerned, God instigates everything in the lives of people; people don’t do anything to merit the movement of God’s hand. They’re not altogether wrong about that. In terms of salvation, man does absolutely nothing to earn it or get it. Sinful man doesn’t wake up and decide today is the day to get saved. Salvation isn’t a matter of sinful man seeking God. It’s God going to the endth degree to draw sinful man to himself. And even when a sinful person appears to respond to God’s drawing power, it’s really God working in that person’s heart and soul, enabling him to respond.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8, 9 TNIV)

So, we nod in the direction of the Reformers. They’re right when they that “God helps those who help themselves” is wrong when it comes to salvation. But after salvation, all bets are off. On that, the other side of the church is right. Once a person is saved, many – though admittedly not all – of God’s promises and blessings hinge on His people doing something to merit them. It’s hard to get by a verse like this –

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7, 8 TNIV)

Make no mistake about it: God is always ready to give to His people exactly what they need and what He has promised to them. But God wants His people to – at the very least – ask and stretch out their hands to receive. Christians who are so doubtful or apathetic receive nothing from the Lord directly and their Christian experience is disappointing and frustrating.

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6:12 TNIV)

The words and phrases “fight” and “take hold” are not passive phrases! And living the Christian life is not supposed to be a passive existence. This is something a great many Christians don’t understand; they live passively, expecting God to do everything for them. Now, sometimes God in His sovereignty answers prayers and meets needs before we ask. But as a general rule, Christians are meant to ask, seek, or do something to receive what God has promised.

It’s always been this way, by the way; it’s the pattern revealed to us from the early pages of the Old Testament. God made an amazing covenant with Abraham, but Abraham had to step out in faith and start walking. When God delivered His people out of Egypt, He required of them to “rise up, and go forth,” and to make a perilous journey across a trackless desert. When God wanted to deliver His people from Babylon, only those who were willing to work for it, left all they had, faced peril and uncertainty, make a long and dangerous journey, received their deliverance.

And that spiritual context brings us to the historical context behind Isaiah 52, the book and chapter in which our sixth “be” is found.

The nation of Israel began as a promise God made to Abraham. In the course of time, Abraham’s descendants, Jacob’s family, went down to Egypt – as a family, not as a nation – around 1876 BC. But, they didn’t stay just a family for long. Settling in the land of Goshen, Jacob’s family grew and grew and overflowed the borders of Goshen. They grew into a nation that posed a threat to their hosts, the Egyptians, and in response, the Egyptians enslaved them. In 1446 BC, the Lord gloriously freed Jacob’s descendants, now known as Hebrews. In 722 BC, the Assyrians took ten of the twelve tribes of Israel captive to Assyria (2 Kings 17:1 – 6) and in 586 BC, the remaining two tribes were taken captive by the Babylonians, successors to the Assyrians. For a variety of reasons but mostly because of the idolatry, God used the Assyrians and later the Babylonians to judge His people . God gave them the Promised Land, and He took it away from them. This judgment shouldn’t have come as a surprise to either the northern Kingdom of Israel or the southern Kingdom of Judah because for centuries the Lord had sent His messengers, the prophets, to warn them to “shape up” of they’d be forced to “ship out,” either to Assyria or Babylon.

Isaiah was just such a messenger. In chapter 52, Isaiah is addressing exiles living in Babylon.  Jerusalem had been devastated and most its inhabitants had been deported to Babylon. When Nebuchadnezzar steam-rolled into Judah, he would eventually take the majority of the inhabitants of the southern kingdom. Just how many? The prophet Jeremiah helps us out with that –

This is the number of the people Nebuchadnezzar carried into exile: in the seventh year, 3,023 Jews; in Nebuchadnezzar’s eighteenth year, 832 people from Jerusalem; in his twenty-third year, 745 Jews taken into exile by Nebuzaradan the commander of the imperial guard. There were 4,600 people in all. (Jeremiah 52:28 – 30 TNIV)

But not all were taken. Isaiah lived before these events took place, but He wrote to his fellows in Babylon prophetic words of encouragement, encouraging them to remain faithful to their faith even while surrounded by heathens and pagans and false gods of every sort. The temptation must have been intense, especially given the fact that many of these Jews were already discouraged and frustrating, thinking God had abandoned them.

God’s message

The call.

Awake, awake, Zion, clothe yourself with strength! Put on your garments of splendor, Jerusalem, the holy city. The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again. Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, Daughter Zion, now a captive. (Isaiah 52:1, 2 TNIV)

It was not a good time for these Jews living in exile. Conditions weren’t the greatest and the pall of hopelessness had settled over these exiles. What they needed to know was that all was not lost. They did have a future – Jerusalem had a future, even as it lay in ruins at the moment. Blessing would come the city and it would be glorious once again.

When will this happen? Well, it sort of happened when many of the Hebrews returned from exile under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. But it won’t fully come to pass until Jesus Christ returns, at which time He will restore not only Jerusalem, but the whole physical universe, which right now is “groaning” under the weight of man’s sin. When our Lord returns He will redeem our bodies and all creation will be redeemed and set right.

The condition.

For this is what the Lord says: “You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.” For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “At first my people went down to Egypt to live; lately, Assyria has oppressed them. “And now what do I have here?” declares the Lord. “For my people have been taken away for nothing, and those who rule them mock, “declares the Lord. “And all day long my name is constantly blasphemed.” (Isaiah 52:3 – 5 TNIV)

This is the Lord, not Isaiah, talking about Israel’s history. This really is quite a stunning soliloquy when you read the phrases and think about what God is saying. These were God’s people taken captive and kept in exile – God’s possession – and since He received nothing from those who took His people, He will give nothing in return. God will take from the enemy what belongs to Him: His people and Jerusalem.

Of course, God is talking about His people in exile; He’s trying to encourage them; to buck them up. Just because they are in exile didn’t mean He’d given up on them or given them away. They were still His holy possession. And that ownership of His people – the Jews – continues down to this very day. In a sense, they are still in exile. And they will be until the Lord returns.

The promise.

For this is what the Lord says: “You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed. ” Therefore my people will know my name; therefore in that day they will know that it is I who foretold it. Yes, it is I.” (Isaiah 52:3, 6 TNIV)

Again, God owes no nation anything. It is true that He used Assyria and Babylon as His instruments of judgment, but He is sovereign – He is over all nations whether they know it or not. The Babylonian exiles brought no glory to Him from those nations, therefore when His purpose was fulfilled, He would take them back, giving nothing in return. It’s His right to do that.

The messengers.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. (Isaiah 52:7, 8 TNIV)

Here is God’s estimation and characterization of true evangelists. God hadn’t forgotten His people and even in Babylon in exile, He still sent prophets to encourage them.

And that gets us to our sixth “be.”

Things would get better for these exiles. In the short term, they would be permitted to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild it. But the final fulfillment – the final restoration – of Jerusalem won’t happen until the Lord returns.

But God’s stern warning to these exiles echoes down through history because it is just as relevant to believers today as it was to those Jews back then. Think about it: They were surrounded by pagans; Babylonian society was prosperous and enticing; many of these Jews eventually settled in among the heathens, even intermarrying with them. To those exiles, and to God’s exiles today comes the word –

Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the articles of the Lord’s house. (Isaiah 52:11 TNIV)

It is the responsibility of all believers, but especially those in positions of leadership within the Body of Christ, to avoid all impurity – to not even touch things the Lord considers unclean. “Be pure” is an admonition that sounds almost old fashioned. The notion of “purity” has become passé or even maudlin. But God demands it of His people. God wants His people pure and the easiest way to be pure is to simply avoid impurity. Don’t go near things that are impure. You may want to, and the shiny objects of impurity may get your attention from time to time, but if you want to be obedient to the Lord and if you want to blessed by Him and have His promises come to pass in your life, you won’t go near impurity.

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