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Sermon preached on Isaiah 55:3-5 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/11/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“You Shall Call a Nation You Do Not Know”
As we sit here today, we represent a fulfillment of this passage. This passage extends the good news of the gospel to Gentiles. To the nations that had in times past not been included among God’s people. To the peoples who in the past had lived in darkness without God and without hope. This passage announces a glorious Gentile inclusion into the house of Israel. The Apostle Paul later describes this as a mystery that was revealed to him. And yet, we know that the mystery of how the Gentiles would be brought to God was not a complete mystery before the time of Paul and the New Testament. Right here and in other Old Testament passages we see it beginning to be described. And so though much of the Old Testament focuses on God’s interaction with the ethnic people of Israel, this passage very directly concerns everyone else. This has always been part of God’s plan. Verse 5 even says that. This would happen because of the LORD God. But notice it even calls God there the Holy One of Israel. Israel! The Holy One of Israel would bring these other nations as well to him, and under his rule. That is what we get to consider today.
By the way, we see here that this is referring to the Gentiles in verses 4 and 5. Verse 4 references the people. The NKJV translates that as singular, but the word is actually plural in the Hebrew and that’s how most translations render it. Peoples, not just people. That’s significant because it shows that the reference to the people there is not likely a reference to the people of Israel, but to the peoples of world. This is made more clear in the next verse. Verse 5 uses a synonym to describe the nations. This is clearly the nations at large in distinction from the Israelites. Nations not formally known to God, in the way Israel was known to God. So, I point that out by way of introduction here just to see very clearly that the Gentiles are in view here.
So, let’s begin first with the work of God described in verse 4. Verse 4 starts out, “I have given him.” God has given someone to the peoples; to the Gentiles it seems. Who has he given? Interestingly, some have though this is referring to King David. They see that verse 3 ends with a reference of the sure mercies of David, and so they think that God is reflecting back on the previous giving of David. Such people would tend then to think this is not referring to the Gentiles in verse 4. But rather that this is referring simply to the past work of King David among Israel. Well, that sounds nice, and is understandable, but doesn’t seem to be the best interpretation of what’s being described here.
Rather, it seems that the best interpretation is to understand verse 4 as referring to the promised Messiah. In other words, when you look back at verse 3, see that the sure mercies of David is actually describing the Messiah there. Then in context, that’s who God is talking about giving in verse 4. That makes sense, because it seems even more clear that God is talking about the Messiah in verse 5. It makes sense that he’s carrying on one train of thought from verses 3-5. Verse 3 is promising the Messiah to come. Verses 4 and 5 then talk about the Messiah’s work, particularly as he relates to the Gentiles. Of course, this interpretation gets validation by Acts 13:34. There Paul quotes verse 3 and tells us explicitly that Jesus is the promised sure mercies of David.
And so God describes here his gift of the Messiah. He’s the one promised to come from David long ago. Verse 4 then describes for what purpose this Messiah will be given. He’ll be given as a witness. And he’ll be given as a leader and a commander. These two roles are essentially roles we’ve come to expect from the Messiah. They are him fulfilling the office of a prophet and of a king. The role of a witness gets at his prophetic office. The role of a leader and a commander get at his kingly office. When we think about his role as a witness, we can think about how in general he’s a witness to the things of God. But, when you think about his role as a witness to the Gentiles, you can especially appreciate this. He will bring witness to the nations of these things which otherwise they didn’t know about. The Messiah would bring witness to these sure mercies of David. That these sure mercies of David had a bearing on them as well. On the Gentiles. That’s a pretty amazing thought. That the benefits of all God’s good promises to Israel, had meaning for them too. Realize how great this is. Israel had all this special revelation from God in their history. The Gentiles did not. But the Messiah would change that. Revelation would be coming to the Gentiles, through the Messiah! He would be a witness to them.
And for the Messiah to be the leader and commander of the Gentiles is also very amazing. Surely the Jews expected the Messiah to be their leader and commander. But also a leader and a commander for other peoples? For the nations? Well, that should not be too much of a surprise actually, because the promise of the Messiah’s kingdom is that it would be over all. The Messiah’s kingdom and dominion would dominate every tongue, tribe, and nation, forever. And so verse 4 is talking about how the Messiah would be given for this benefit. This is saying that the Lord’s Anointed, and his kingdom, is not something just for ethnic Israel to take part in. It’s something for all the peoples of the world. He will be their leader and commander as well.
So that’s a little bit about the role of the Messiah that God would send, per verse 4. Let’s turn now to verse 5 and consider that for a bit. I want us now to think about this idea of knowing and being known. In other words, verse 5 expresses this idea of knowing in two different directions with regards to the Messiah and the Gentiles. On the one hand, the Messiah will reach out to those he does not know. On the other hand, nations that do not him, will come to him in response. Do you see how verse 5 talks about this, with the language of knowing? Of knowing someone and being known by someone?
Now it is important to note that this knowing language is relational, not informational. In other words, it’s not that the Messiah didn’t have information of these nations. It’s not like he didn’t know whether they existed or not. That’s not the way the phrase of knowing is used here. This is about not having a relationship between the Messiah and these nations. Amos 3:2, for example brings out this idea with regard to God and Israel. There God says this to Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” Now should we expect that there in Amos 3:2 that God is saying that he didn’t know, in terms of information, all the families on the earth? Of course not. We rightly acknowledge God’s omniscience, which means that God knows all things, in terms of truth and information. And so in Amos 3:2, God’s talking about how he entered into a special, intimate, relationship with Israel. This same word of knowing in Hebrew can be used to describe the way a husband knows his wife, in the most physically intimate way. And so for verse 5 to talk about knowing here, it’s about having a real personal relationship.
We talked a little about this concept recently when we studied the book Knowing God in our midweek Bible study. We said there is a difference between knowing about someone, and actually knowing someone. I can say I know about the President, not that I actually know the President. Well, that’s the same with God. We can know about God, but we want more than that. We want to not only know about God, we want to know God. And to be known to him. We want a real relationship with our creator.
Well, in relational terms, the Jews had known God. And they in some sense knew their promised Messiah. It was the promised one of David. David had been their king. He was one of their own. Year after year and decade after decade, the Jews were eagerly waiting for the Davidic line to be restored with the coming of the Messiah. They knew each other in that sense. That’s why in John 1, when it talks about Jesus coming, it says that he came to his own. Yet strikingly in John 1, it then says that his own did not receive him. Those who he knew and were supposed to know him, evidently did not.
It’s in that context that verse 5 takes on such great meaning. Those Gentile nations that previously did not know God or his Messiah, they would have a status change. That’s what verse 5 is ultimately getting at when it talks about knowing and being known. It’s talking about how through the Messiah he would affect a change in status among the Gentiles. Formerly, they would be unknown to each other. But as the Messiah comes, he would change all that! That’s what is so amazing to this passage. We as Gentiles did not know the one true God. We did not know his Messiah. Now we do. Now we have a real, personal, relationship with God through the Messiah. Now we know him, and he knows us – relationally speaking. Praise God!
Well, it’s verse 5 that talks about how that happens. Being Hebrew poetry here, I think it says it so wonderfully. “You shall call a nation you do not know, and nations who do not know you shall run to you.” In Hebrew poetry, you expect to find parallelism. Sometimes the parallelism is just a synonym – another way to say the same thing. Other times it can build on each other. That’s what happens here. The first half talks about the Messiah calling a people. The second half, the parallel part, talks about the nations then running to him in response. What a wonderful picture. So first, think about the call. The Messiah calls the nations. What call is this? We know it very clearly now. It’s the gospel call. It’s call to come to Christ in faith and repentance. To hear the gospel and receive salvation through him. To come into his glorious kingdom by his blood that was shed for us. This call is essentially what we saw back in the first two verses of this chapter. A call to come to God and be satisfied. To find nourishment in him. To taste and see that the Lord is good. Well, when we studied that last week we saw had that was fulfilled in Christ. That we come to Christ who is the bread of life and who gives us the living water. That we come to Christ and find that he brings us to God. That by coming to know Christ, we come to know God. That’s how this status change takes place that we talked about here. We know God through Christ. We know Christ because he has called us to come to him.
This then is that repeated language of calling we find in the New Testament. That the Christian is one who has been called by God into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Called to be saints. Called in the Lord. Called unto the peace which we know in Jesus. Called to eternal life through Christ’s sacrifice. Verse 5 here describes that call of God comes through Jesus Christ. A call not just for Jews. A call for Gentiles as well, per this verse. A call not just for back then. But a call for us each today.
But the other half of this is the running part. There is a right response to Christ’s call. It’s to come running. Run to him when he calls. Verse 5 puts it as a prophecy. When the Christ does his work, he will not only call the nations, but the nations will run to him. There’s a prediction of a wonderful response. Certainly that has happened and is happening. You can’t help but think about Romans 9-11 where it talks about how so many Jews have rejected Christ’s call, while so many Gentiles have heeded it. That’s happened. It’s a fulfillment in part of verse 5 here. When Christ comes a calling, our response is to run to him. Not to run away from him. No, to run unto him. To receive by faith that which he freely offers. To run to him for eternal life, and for forgiveness of sins.
So, it might be asked, thinking of the most original context here – why might a Gentile want to run to an Israelite King? This long awaited Israelite Messiah – why might a Gentile run to him? Why the excitement to run to him? I mean, you would think that maybe they’d not like that idea. Two possibilities seem feasible to me of why such a response might be elicited from a Gentile to embrace a Jewish Messiah? First, out of fear. Fear of judgment and destruction. Think of Psalm 2. That’s a psalm about the Messiah interacting with the nations. There it asks why do the nations plot in vain against the LORD and his Anointed? It describes there the foolishness of that rebellion. It asserts that it will be futile. That those who rebel against this Messiah will find themselves dashed to pieces like broken pottery. And so some Gentiles could hear the threatened judgment that will come in Christ, and run to him to flee from it. To embrace the Messiah. For, the Scriptures tell us that every knee will one day bow before Jesus. Better to answer his call of friendship ahead of time, that to be caught in open rebellion against him on the day of his wrath.
A second possible reason why a Gentile might want to run to a Jewish Messiah is out joy and delight in the Messiah’s vision, and promises, and glory. Think about in our politics. Some leaders promise grand things and offer for you to come along with them. They aren’t always good at fulfilling those promises. Well, Jesus in his call to Gentiles offers some amazing things. We have all the promises of the covenant of grace extended to us if we run to him. His vision for us is a kingdom that is everlasting, that has the problem of evil ultimately done away with, and is full of perfect peace and righteousness. In his vision, it’s a place where there is no main pain, sorrow, sickness, suffering, hunger, or trouble. This is the vision of his kingdom that he holds out to Gentiles. It is exceedingly glorious. So, many Gentiles could understandably “buy in” to his vision.
So which is the reason? Why would Gentiles back then run to a Jewish Messiah? Why would they do so today? Well, for both reasons. Fear of judgment is one motivation. Delight and joy in the promises of Christ are another. They are complementary reasons. Though certainly the second trumps the first. But again, this is not like we were outsiders hoping to get access into this amazing thing on our own. We were outsiders to all this, but the point of verse 5 is that Jesus has made us insiders. That he didn’t wait for us to figure this out and come to him begging to be a part of his kingdom. No, he has come calling to us! Ours is then to run to him in response.
But just think then how amazing that is. Think of the most important, famous person that you do not know. Someone you would always dream to meet, but know will never happen. Someone influential. Thing big. Then imagine that you get a phone call, and it’s them! And they say to you, “You know, we don’t know each other, but I would like to change that. Are you free this weekend to go out to dinner and then come over to my place to get to know each other? Because I want to get to really know you.” Wouldn’t that be amazing? Would you jump at that opportunity? Wouldn’t you run to it when it came? Well, how much more is the call of Christ in your life? Christ has called to us, us who were not his own. He’s called to us to become his own. How amazing is that! And who wouldn’t then run to him in return!
And so then, we have the chief application of this passage for today. It’s a call to run to Jesus. To heed his call. For the unbeliever today, this is the most basic call of Christianity. Hear how great this call is to you today. Run to him by responding in faith. Drop whatever you are doing, so to speak, and flee to him now. Don’t wait any longer. Come! Respond to the gospel call!
But for us who have already responded to this call, I hope your relationship with Christ can benefit from thinking about this picture of running. We don’t walk to Christ. We run to him! Surely this has in view joy, and passion, and zeal. This is something we can do really good at expressing when we first become a Christian. For most of us, it probably did look a lot like running. Such zeal we can have. And yet, surely God would not have us to lose that zeal. Surely God would want to remind us that the response is still to be running to him. Fight the good fight. Finish the race. Keep the face. Press on until the day of Christ. Be re-energized again today as you think about this running to Christ.
And this means we should listen to him. If he is to be our witness and our leader and our commander, then do not resist him in these areas. Listen to his witness. Heed his leadership and commands. That’s what it means to run to him. Yes, chiefly we run to him in faith and repentance. We are set right with him when we do. But his plan for our life is to have him as our witness, and our leader, and our commander. And this is a good thing. We run to him in order that he would exercise these functions in our life. If we try to ignore these roles of his in our life, it’s like we are trying to run away from him, not to him.
Well, my final application for today is this. If we step back and think about these verses, we realize that the Messiah had a big mission for the Gentiles here. And yet if you compare that to Jesus’ earthly ministry, we realize that he only just barely began to fulfill this passage at that time. He did have times where he ministered to some Gentiles. Certainly he did. You can think of the Samaritan woman, or the Syrophoenician woman, or the centurion, as examples. But for the most part, he focused his ministry on the Jews. His primary efforts were spent calling the lost sheep of Israel.
It wasn’t until after his death and resurrection that he really began to put verses 4 and 5 here into full swing. At his ascension he gave the Great Commission that sent his disciples out to the nations. Then later in a special dream, he directed the Apostle Peter to reach out to the Gentile Cornelius, making clear his call to the Gentiles. And then Jesus gave a special apostolic calling to Paul to specifically go to the Gentiles with the call of the gospel. This is how Jesus began to fulfill verses 4 and 5.
My application then here is this. It’s through the church that Jesus has primarily fulfilled verses 4 and 5. That’s primarily how he did it initially in the book of Acts. And that’s how he continues to do it today. What I’m saying is that the Messiah has chosen to primarily fulfill verses 4 and 5 through the witness and leadership of the church. That doesn’t mean he’s not the one ultimately doing it. No, he is the King and Head of the church. What it means though is that he uses us. It means he primarily is fulfilling verses 4 and 5 today through using you and me in the process.
We, the church, are to be a witness to the nations today. We are to call people to coming running to Jesus Christ. To enter into a real relationship with Jesus. To know God and to be known by him! We are to provide leadership in this area in various capacities. Isn’t this an amazing calling God has given us? Jesus is the king and head of his church. He calls us to call people on his behalf.
I don’t know about you, but when I’ve been used in this way, it is exciting. When you call someone to Jesus and you see them spiritually come running to him, it is exciting. It’s refreshing. It’s encouraging. That being said, I have to admit, I’ve not seen enough of this. I have not seen nearly enough conversions in my life. I long to see more. I long to be a part of more. I long to see more and more people responding to the call. Let’s become committed today to be praying for this more. And let’s become committed again today to be used as his instruments in this way. To look for people to call to Christ. And then to do it. Lord, excite us as we see the nations running to you! Use us, Oh Lord! Amen.
Copyright (c) 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.