Few would dispute that we are living in difficult times for the church of Jesus Christ. We can almost feel the intensity of the evil and the antagonism towards the Christian faith. Outwardly there is not much to be optimistic about.
The Christian, however, is taught to look at the things which are not seen — the things that God has promised in his Word. Take, for example, what we are told in Isaiah 51 and especially verses 9-11.
The cry to awake
‘Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord’, comes the excited cry (v.9). To the human eye it seemed as if the Lord had gone to sleep. The godly remnant call on the Lord to act — with the urgency we ourselves might display if woken suddenly to the recollection of a forgotten duty.
The cry goes forth on the basis of the promises set forth in verses 1-8. What are they? First, there was the unpromising beginning of the seemingly barren couple, Abraham and Sarah. But through the blessing of God there was a great increase (vv. 1-3).
Second was the prospect that the Lord would work salvation for the whole earth (vv. 4-6). Third, we see the frailty of the opposition to the work of the Lord (vv. 7-8).
What does it mean to ‘put on strength’? The putting on of clothing pictures character, ability and commitment. The Lord is expected to act according to his character and commitment to his people.
‘Arm of the Lord’ is a motif of personal divine action. It is the Lord himself in his might who is called upon to come — in a new ‘exodus-like’ activity on behalf of his people.
Experience fuels faith
‘Art thou not he that cut Rahab and wounded the dragon?’ recalls the prophet (v.9). ‘Rahab’ is a code name for Egypt in the days of the Exodus. She resides on and is typified by the sea. She is the dragon of the deep, as we have it in Psalm 74:13-15.
The armies of the abyss well up, threatening to engulf the fleeing Israelites. There could have been the genocide of a nation. The Lord intervened. He slew the dragon of the deep. In his sovereign good pleasure, he turned the sea into an escape route for the children of Israel.
Similarly, Calvary was the final throw in Satan’s power-bid for world dominion. There we see a concentration of demonic powers. But in trying to defeat Christ, the ‘great dragon’ was himself slain. He is henceforth a defeated foe.
The fight is carried on as the church skirmishes with Satan. Every circumstance in church life offers an opportunity for the forces of the abyss to disrupt and destroy. Yet equally, in the hands of Christ, every circumstance can be transformed into victory — a way of escape for the pilgrims to Zion.
The triumph of the redeemed
‘Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion’ (v.11). The verse is almost identical with Isaiah 35:10. The people of God are a pilgrim people travelling through the wilderness. They are assured of a safe road and a joyful arrival. Why is this?
Firstly, it is because they are the Lord’s redeemed. He is the Kinsman-Redeemer who has taken his helpless relative’s need as his own. He willingly shouldered all and every one of their needs, paying the price to ransom them and claiming them for himself.
Secondly, it is because their destiny is assured. Israel was destined to dwell in Canaan. They arrived there. Travelling gave way to arriving.
So also, all the redeemed will assuredly come to Zion. They will ‘overtake gladness and joy’. These blessings in their fulness seemed always just ahead of them — but now they have ‘overtaken’ them — they have caught up with them and possess them.
‘Sorrow and sighing’ shall flee away. This is Eden restored.
What do these things tell us about our own situation? Firstly, there is no room for pessimism, let alone despair, among Christians.
Many successive works of the Lord are tending to one great end. The progress of the kingdom is assured. It may be through persecution, as in the early church; it may be by a Reformation as in the sixteenth century; it may be by revivals as we have had over the centuries; or it may be by quiet, sustained growth.
Jonathan Edwards’ classic A history of the work of redemption, reprinted by the Banner of Truth, had its origins in an exposition of Isaiah 51:8.
Secondly, blessing may come through persecution. ‘The church never grew up so fast as when under most persecution’, said Jeremiah Burroughs.
And again, ‘God’s people, although dear and precious in his eyes … usually have been an afflicted people in all generations … Adversity has slain its thousands but prosperity its tens of thousands’ (Hooker).
Materialism has deeply weakened the church in the West, but recently we have seen adversity as the means of advancing the church in Eastern Europe and in China.
Thirdly, it is the final outcome that matters. ‘Ours is a religion’, says G. Vos, ‘whose centre of gravity lies beyond the grave in the world to come’.
The interim period will not be easy, but we are called to a life of endurance and perseverance. ‘He that endures to the end shall be saved’ (Matthew 10:22).