The missionary heart of God

Isaiah 66:18-24

4 July 2004

Woodley Baptist Church

Evening service


Why did I choose to preach this evening on this particular passage, tucked away at the end of one of the Old Testament's more challenging and monumental books? I must admit that as I've been preparing this week I've asked myself the question a few times: I certainly could have chosen something more straightforward.

However, what I really wanted to do was to talk about God's heart for mission.

You may know that over the course of this year I've had the chance to study the Bible and theology a little more deeply. As I've done so I've found that, of all the things going on as a result, what's developed most strongly in me is a desire to tell other people about God. Our God is a missionary God: it's hard to learn more of Him without wanting to share it with others. So, when thinking about what had struck me most about God recently, and what I'd like to share with you, it had to be about the mission-heart of God.

Nowhere in the Old Testament do we see God's heart for mission more clearly revealed than in these verses.

It will help us if we understand a little of the context of this passage in the book of Isaiah. In the second half of his book Isaiah has been dealing with the return of the Jews from exile. In 586 BC, as Isaiah had prophesied previously, the Babylonians had captured Jerusalem and taken many of what remained of the Israelites into exile in Babylon, hundreds of miles away in modern day Iraq.

But now Isaiah has shifted his focus to look beyond the exile and start talking about what will happen when the Jews eventually return from exile to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, which started happening nearly fifty years later. Far from being the great restoration that the Jews are hoping for Isaiah warns them that it will be extremely tough. Instead of a glorious rebuilding of God's nation under God's king they will straggle back in small numbers, and struggle to rebuild the city. And they will still be dogged by evil and unfaithfulness, the very things that sent them into captivity in the first place.

So God, through Isaiah in these very last chapters of the book, repeatedly lifts the eyes of his readers to a greater restoration: a time when evil and rebellion is finally dealt with; a time when God's perfect king comes to rule his people; a time when God's people are truly gathered together as one again; a time when the heavenly, perfect city of Jerusalem is established as God's home.

This has been the theme of the last few chapters of Isaiah, and in these closing verses of the book that we're looking at this evening Isaiah leaves us with the extraordinary truth that these promises are not just for the Jews, but he is going to gather his people from all the nations of the world. Not just the straggling remnant of faithful Jews will worship him in the restored, heavenly Jerusalem, but faithful people from amongst the Gentiles of every nation race and tongue.

So God reveals to us his missionary heart, and nowhere in the Old Testament do we see it more clearly expressed than in these verses from Isaiah chapter 66.

I want to divide this passage under three headings: verse 18, "God's mission announced"; verses 19-20, "God's mission in action"; and verses 21-24, "God's mission accomplished".

There's a lot in this passage, so it would be a great help if you could have it open in your Bibles as I speak.

God's mission announced (v18)

Verse 18 is where we are told God's intentions. His mission is announced. And what an extraordinary mission it is: he will gather people from all nations and tongues to come and see his glory.

This is a much wider perspective than we often find in the Old Testament, which is usually concerned with God's dealings with his chosen people, Israel, and talks of the other nations primarily in terms of judgement. But it is wrong to think that this is a brand new thought that has emerged here. Even from the beginning, right back in Genesis chapter 15 when God talks to Abraham about establishing his own people, He announces His intention that all peoples on earth will be blessed through youref. God has always had a missionary heart.

But what prompts God to make this wonderful announcement here in Isaiah is the prevalence of evil in the world. The phrase because of their actions and imaginationsref refers to the those who have set themselves up against against God. We see those who have rebelled against Him verse 3 of chapter 66 they have chosen their own ways, and their souls delight in their abominationsref. We see those who refuse to listen to or obey Him in verse 4 when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened. They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases meref.

God's response to evil in the world is always judgement and grace working together.

On the one hand we see God's judgement at work in verses 15 and 16, See, the Lord is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For with fire and with his sword the Lord will execute judgment upon all men, and many will be those slain by the Lordref.

But on the other hand we see his grace at work in verse 18: not all will perish in his judgement, but he will gather a people from all nations and tongues, and they will see his glory.

God's justice demands that the world is judged; God's love demands that He saves those who come to Him; God's missionary heart longs to gather as many as will come.

God's mission in action (v19-20)

So, my first heading was "God's mission announced", and we saw what an extraordinary mission it is. Even more extraordinary is the method by which He puts His mission into action. That brings us to my second heading, "God's mission in action".

God puts His mission into action in two ways which we see in verse 19: first he sets and then he sends.

First he sets a sign among the nations. This can only refer to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, something that Isaiah has anticipated in various ways in many places in his book. But now we see that this sign of God's restoration is not just for the Jews only but for the nations as well.

As if that weren't extraordinary enough, we are then told that God sends his faithful few survivors of the exile—the ones who had returned to him—to the nations to do His work for him. He entrusts his missionary work to his missionary people. Having gathered them he now sends them out again.

From verses 19 and 20 we see that the way in which God puts His mission into action is to give his people four things: a mission, a message, the means and a motive.

He gives them a mission

First of all God gives his faithful remnant of people a mission.

Perhaps these survivors of the exile might have thought it would be rather nice to put their feet up for a while. After all they'd only just come back from being scattered among the nations. Surely this was it, safe at last, time for a bit of a rest and relaxation and to enjoy life at home with God for a bit. But no, God gives them work to do: They are to go out as His ambassadors to the very ends of the earth. And because the faithful believers share God's heart for mission they will go.

The list of peoples in verse 19 represents the very edges of the known world to the people of Isaiah's time: they are sent to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece. But they are not to stop even there, they are to go to the very ends of the earth: to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory.ref The mission God gives his faithful people is unlimited. No nation or race or colour of people is outside the scope of God's saving grace.

With hindsight we can see the fulfilment of this in the beginning of the book of Acts, can't we? In Acts 1 verse 8 the resurrected Jesus says to his faithful remnant of about 120 believers you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earthref. The placenames are different but the mission is the same, and the book of Acts tells the story of how it all came about.

If we are Christians we are God's people. Do we really believe God has given us a mission to this world? Matthew 28:19 could hardly be clearer could it: go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded youref.

Yet we are so often reluctant, aren't we? After all we've just been saved out of the world; why would we want to go back to it? Church meetings are so much safer than mixing it with the world. Christian friends are so much easier to get along with than non-Christian friends. My Bible is so much happier on the shelf at home than open on my desk at work!

But if we truly grasp the missionary heart of God, we can do nothing but go, can we? And we have one enormous advantage over the original missionaries. If I want to reach the nations for Christ I don't have to go far, do I? They had to make huge month long journeys on foot or by sea: all I have to do is talk to my neighbour over the garden fence; chat with my colleagues over lunch in the canteen; discuss Jesus instead of football in the pub with my mates. You see, we're already at the ends of the earth in Bible terms, aren't we? Isaiah's distant islands are just outside the door of the church: what excuse do we have?

He gives them a message

So, God gives his people a mission. He also gives them a message.

We see what it is at the end of verse 19 They will proclaim my glory among the nationsref. God's missionaries are to go to the nations, who have not yet heard of Him or experienced Him, and they are to tell them about His glory. Whatever religious understanding the nations might already have of their own, their religion is worthless unless it is founded on knowledge of the glory of Yahweh himself. It simply can't accomplish the purpose of God which is to save them from their sin.

Our message is also about God's glory. We are to be witnesses to the sign that God has set among the nations: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Hebrews says, Jesus is the radiance of God's gloryref.

I guess for most people July is a pretty quiet month on the sporting front. Euro 2004 is over tonight. Wimbledon finished earlier today. Only the Olympics to look forward to, unless you are a cricket fan, and the less said about that the better. But I am unusual because for me July brings the sporting highlight of the year. I am passionate about the Tour de France. I regularly bore my colleagues, my family—anyone who will listen to me really—rigid talking about Lance Armstrong, the five times winner, going for his sixth this year. Don't get me started!

Remembering the missionary heart of God reminds me that so many of those words could be better spent talking about Jesus. After all, what can Lance Armstrong do for my colleagues? If we truly grasp the missionary heart of God I believe we will be much more eager to talk about Jesus than anything else in our lives. God has given us a glorious message!

He gives them the means

So God gives his people a mission and a message. In verse 20 we see that he gives them the means to accomplish his work. He says "bring these people in by any means possible!" As we saw, they live in distant lands. So do what whatever it takes to bring them to Jerusalem! God has given them horses, chariots, wagons, mules and camels. They are to use them for God's glory to bring people to him.

As New Testament Christians we know that not only are we already in those distant lands, but the Jerusalem we are to bring people to is not the physical earthly Jerusalem. It is the the Jerusalem that is aboveref as Galatians puts it.

So our means of bringing the people in probably no longer involve chariots, wagons, mules and camels.

Nonetheless, the point still stands: do what it takes to bring people to God by whatever means He has given you!

What means has God given you to bring people in? Has He put you in an office surrounded by non-Christians? Fantastic, bring them in! Has He put you at the school gate chatting with the other parents day in, day out? Wonderful, use those contacts! Has He given you musical or artistic or dramatic gifts; the ability to communicate? Use those gifts! Has he blessed you with a home where you could host an Alpha course, or money to buy tickets to take people to see the Passion of the Christ? Use these things!

I know one fellow who has a video player. He invites non-Christian friends round to see films like the Matrix and then leads a discussion on them in the light of the gospel. His friends may think he's barmy, but they keep coming back.

I know another fellow whom God has blessed with a kitchen table. Every now and again instead of going for a drink down the pub he invites his mates over for Beer and Bible. They sit around the table, they have a pint of beer and he tells them about the Bible.

What means has God given you for proclaiming his glory to the nations? Whatever it is, however humble it seems let's be prepared to do what it takes to bring people in by whatever means he has given us.

He gives them a motive

Lastly, to add to the mission, the message and the means God gives his people a motive: the people they bring are an offering to God.

This image is striking, isn't it? Normally we talk about the motive for mission being to save the lost, and that is certainly motive enough as we shall see in a moment. But here their motive is simply their desire to bring an offering to God.

In this case the offering resembles the the firstfruits offering of Deuteronomy 26ref which is an offering of thankfulness to God rather than a sacrifice for sin. It is the firstfruits of the harvest, the sign of faith in and thankfulness for a great harvest to come.

I believe that if we truly grasp the missionary heart of God as a church it will change even the way we worship God.

This image that God gives us through Isaiah can help us broaden our understanding of what it means to worship God. So often we rightly long to bring something to God, don't we? To give him something back for what He's done for us. But what can we offer him? Rightly we sometimes sing "Jesus, what can I give, what can I bring, to so faithful a friend, to so loving a king?"

Well, Isaiah encourages us that it is appropriate to consider those whom we bring to the Lord as our offerings to him. Yes, we offer our own bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to Godref in the words of Romans 12:1, but we also offer to Him the souls of those we bring. What better way to honour God for his goodness to us than to bring to Him an offering of our friends, our families, our colleagues?

If you think I'm being a bit Old Testament about this then remember what Paul wrote in Romans 15:16 where he describes himself as a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spiritref.

As we shall see in a moment, we are all priests in God's temple; let us like Paul bring those we can as an offering to the Lord.

God's mission accomplished (v21-24)

So, we've seen God's mission announced: His plan to gather his people from all the nations. And we've seen God's mission in action: He uses His people to bring them all in. Now in verses 21-24 we see the reality of God's mission accomplished.

These verses are effectively a mirror image of verse 18, but with each promise fulfilled and worked out. So first we find that all we see God's glory, then we see what it's like when God's people are gathered, and finally we see the results of God's judgement.

First of all there will be complete equality between the Jews and the Gentiles brought in. No longer will only the Levites be priests of God, but everybody will have that kind of access to God. Through Isaiah God says I will select some of them also to be priests and Levitesref. But the staggering, amazing truth is greater even than this. Because of Jesus all God's people can have equal access to him. That is, as Christians we are all priests and Levites. As Peter says to the church, you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful lightref. As promised, we will all be able to see the glory of God.

The second reality of God's mission accomplished is a new place to live for his people. This is what He is gathering them to.

Isaiah has already introduced his readers to the new heavens and the new earth in Chapter 65. It's such a glorious vision that it's well worth turning back to look at. Isaiah 65 starting at verse 17.

"Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.ref

And it continues, wonderfully. Isn't that a fantastic message to have? In this pain-filled, hate-filled world don't you just long to tell people that there's a better world to come?

Back in Isaiah 66 verse 23 we see that this new creation will be a place where everyone can come before God, no longer just the Israelites: all nations will have equal access to God. And the worship will be continual and uninterrupted: From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before meref. Month after month, week after week our worship of God will be uninterrupted by sin and rebellion as it is day after day in this world.

However, if all that is what God is gathering people to, Isaiah chooses to end his book, as he chose to open it, on the much more sombre note of what God is saving people from.

Verse 24, And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankindref. Outside the new Jerusalem is a cemetery.

We must never forget that God's judgement on this world is inevitable. This world has turned its back on God. Anyone who has not come to Christ as their Lord is a rebel against God: God will not let that rebellion stand; His holiness will not tolerate the sinfulness of mankind.

It is with sombre reflection on God's holiness that his people will go out to visit the graveyard. Perhaps even with regret for those they were unable to gather. Who will you and I be thinking about as we stand by this cemetery and look out over its vastness?


So, I hope that we've learnt something about God's missionary heart this evening. We've looked at His mission announced, His mission in action—and our part in that—and His mission accomplished.

God is fundamentally mission-hearted. I'd like to suggest that if He is truly at work in us and in our church then we will be becoming mission-hearted as well.

I'd like to close by suggesting about one final area where capturing God's heart for mission will transform us, which is in our prayer lives. If our hearts are transformed so our prayers will be as well.

Someone said to me recently that we spend more time praying to keep saints out of heaven than we do to keep sinners out of hell. It's a bit facetious, but do you see what he means? We often pray in church for those who are sick or dying, hoping for whatever reason to delay their entry into glory with God, but how often are we pleading with God for the souls of our friends? If we really shared God's missionary heart I think we would do a lot more of that, don't you?