“You Are My Witnesses”

 

Isaiah 43:8-44:5 (text); Acts 1:1-8
Rev. Nollie Malabuyo • October 16, 2011

"The Jews in Babylonian captivity", by Antonio Puccinelli, 1851

"The Jews in Babylonian captivity", by Antonio Puccinelli, 1851

Less than ten years ago, when Christians said that Mormonism is a cult, there was no protest or raised eyebrows or unbelief from other believers. But just recently, some popular evangelicals, including American presidential candidate Rick Perry, 700 Club’s Pat Robertson, and Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw, have affirmed that Mormons are also Christians.

Let us be clear: Mormonism is not Christianity. In fact, from its beginnings in 1829, Joseph Smith claimed he founded the only true religion, saying that all 1,800 years of historic Christianity before him was false, as all cults do. In a similar vein, Felix Manalo claimed that there was no true Christianity for 1,900 years—until 1914—when he founded the Iglesia ni Cristo cult.

Statements by Mormon leaders past and present bear witness to this claim. Brigham Young, Mormon president from 1847-77, stated, “Should you ask why we differ from other Christians, as they are called, it is simply because they are not Christians as the New Testament defines Christianity.” 1 Joseph Fielding Smith, president from 1970-72, said, “Joseph Smith declared that in the year 1820 the Lord revealed to him that all the ‘Christian’ churches were in error, teaching for commandments the doctrines of men.” 2

What are some of Mormonism’s unbiblical teachings? First, it rejects the Christian doctrine of the Trinity—one God in Three Persons of the same substance. Just as their god used to be a man in another planet, every Mormon man is in the process of becoming a god. Second, Mormonism’s highest and all-sufficient authority is not the Holy Bible, but the Book of Mormon. This is clearly seen in the subtitle of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.

Third, Mormonism’s doctrine of sin and salvation is radically different from Christianity. They believe that Adam was the first sinner, but that his sin did not affect the rest of mankind: all of us are born without a sinful nature, but we only sin because we have an inclination to sin. Jesus is the Savior, but he is not eternal God, but was a mere man born naturally from the physical union of Mary and Joseph. The death of Christ is not sufficient for the forgiveness of sin, so that salvation is not by faith alone, but also by good works. And the goal of this salvation is to become another god.

But in this pluralistic culture, to claim that Christ is the only Way to heaven, the only Truth revealed to man, and the only Life for eternity, invites ridicule and charges of intolerance, prejudice and bigotry.

Our text is part of the second portion of Isaiah’s prophecy: Chapters 1-39 are proclamations of judgment against Israel, her neighbors and the whole world for their ungodliness and wickedness. Gods’ judgment against the Jews is destruction and exile by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Just over a century after Isaiah’s prophecy of doom, Jerusalem and its holy temple were destroyed and the people exiled to Babylon for 70 years. Their situation seemed hopeless.

But beginning with Chapter 40, God reveals to Isaiah his promise of comfort and restoration to the Promised Land. How would his people be assured that the Lord will fulfill this promise?

The Almighty Lord God answers with his claim of uniqueness and exclusivity: there is no other like him. As to this uniqueness, he alone has power and sovereignty over all creation and human beings. No other being or creature is able to redeem mankind from sin and judgment. And he is the only One who is able to fulfill what he has promised.

And because his people are the ones who have experienced God’s might and redemption, God calls them in the divine court of justice, and says, “You are my witnesses.” The nations call on their idols as their own witnesses, but they are all false and speechless witnesses.

To the Lord’s Uniqueness
In verses 8-13, Isaiah pictures a courtroom scene where Israel and the nations are gathered together in a great trial scene. Who are the defendants? The idols of the nations. Who is the judge and prosecutor? God himself. What are the charges? The idols falsely claim divinity, and they call the nations as their witnesses to prove them right. But none of them can “declare this” and show “former things.” These are probably not only previous prophecies that have been fulfilled by God, but also future events that only God can foresee.

Just as he declared in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” Yahweh alone is God. This is why the Decalogue begins with, “You shall have no other gods before me … for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.

His deity is exclusive. All his attributes as to his divinity are his alone. He alone can choose his people. He alone is from everlasting to everlasting, because no God “was formed” before him, and none will ever be formed after him. The Bible begins with, “In the beginning, God…” and John’s Gospel as well, “In the beginning was the Word…” No Mormon man, or any other man or creature, will ever be God. Because he is eternal, self-existent and self-sufficient, he never needs anything from anyone other than himself. Since he alone is Yahweh, he alone is Savior; he never needs any help from any other god to save his chosen people.

Now he calls upon his people to his divine courtroom, “You are my witnesses,” because Israel is his servant-witness to “former things.” God has fulfilled his promises to his people of old. He gave Abraham innumerable descendants, and through Moses, redeemed them from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Promised Land. He established King David’s eternal house. Because the Hebrews experienced God’s uniqueness and salvation firsthand, God calls them to be his eyewitnesses.

God calls you today to his divine courtroom, “You are my witnesses.” What can you testify about God’s uniqueness, except what God has revealed to you in creation and in the Scriptures. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psa 19:1). When we look at the world around us, we know that there is a Creator. When we read the Scriptures, we learn that this Creator made the universe out of nothing, and man out of dust, and he is also the only Savior of fallen man. Even those who have never read God’s Word know that they are accountable to God who created them; therefore they have no excuse for their ungodliness and unrighteousness.

As a consequence of his otherness and uniqueness, he says, “there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?” Who is able to take anything out of his hand against his will if he is holding it? No other being is more powerful than him, and he is sovereign over all his creation.

To the Lord’s Power
Throughout its history, Israel was witness to the Lord’s powerful hand. But it is not only in the past that they had firsthand experience of his power. God brings images of their past to their present situation, how he would use his power as Sovereign Creator of the universe and King over the nations to redeem them from their exile in Babylon.

How will he do this? Isaiah tells us in verses 14-21. He will send another nation to conquer the Babylonians, who will themselves be conquered by the Persians and become fugitives. God will send them fleeing to their ships in defeat, a prophecy that was fulfilled when the Babylonians fled by sailing the Euphrates River to the Persian Gulf. 3 God has done this in the past, when he rescued Israel from Egypt. It is not the Pharaoh who was in command of their “chariot and horse, army and warrior.” It was God who sent them to their destruction in the Red Sea.

But Israel must not dwell on their past victories, even if they were the Lord’s victories. Instead, they should trust that God will again bring them back to the Promised Land through a second “exodus.” In fact, Isaiah paints a present picture—he “makes,” he “brings”—of the past exodus to point out that God’s promises are so certain that he considers them already done. Isaiah repeats his exodus theme of God building “a way in the wilderness” where there is none (Isa 40:3-4). Where it is parched and dry, “rivers in the desert” will spring forth to bring refreshment not only to the wild desert animals, but to God’s thirsty pilgrim people (cf Isa 41:18). These works are just as miraculous as in the old exodus, but God “is doing a new thing” to save his people once more.

He is doing all of these things not because they deserve to be saved, but because God “chose” them to be his own. Just as God commanded Pharaoh, “Let my people go that they may worship me!” (Exod 9:1), so now God again tells his people that he “formed” them for one purpose: “that they might declare my praise” in worship.

Israel was witness to God’s power in redeeming them from their enemies.

To the Lord’s Redemption
But instead of giving the Lord the praise and worship due him and that which he commands, Israel rebelled against him. “You did not call upon me … you have been weary of me,” God charges Israel. The people became weary of God’s requirements for worshipping him, because their hearts were far from him. When they brought their burnt offerings and sacrifices as God commanded them, the people thought that they were pleasing God. Rather, their worship was a heavy burden to God because of their sins and iniquities. This is what Samuel told King Saul centuries before Isaiah, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22).

The sacrifices were only symbolic of repentance, but their hearts were not contrite. So God considered their sacrifices as of no value, “You have not brought me your … sacrifices.” Why? Because they continued in their wayward lives, and God tells them, “You have not honored me with your sacrifices.” Their sacrifices were actually disrespectful towards him because they were acts of a hypocritical people. This is why in verse 8, God calls them blind and deaf people, as Isaiah calls them elsewhere (Isa 6:10).

But why would God call upon the blind and deaf as his witnesses? If they were blind and deaf, how could they have seen and heard all that he has done for them? Because in redeeming them, he would actually give them sight and hearing. This he does by “blotting out their transgressions and remembering their sins no more.” And he grants forgiveness not because of anything he sees in them or what they have done, but “for my own sake.” Even those whom Israel considers as its forefathers sinned, including the scheming Jacob and their priests and prophets (Jer 5:31). This is why their temple, homes and fields were destroyed, and the people exiled to a foreign land.

Where then is the hope and comfort that the Lord has promised?

To the Lord’s Promise
Chapter 44 begins with the word “But,” and therefore, the chapter break is unfortunate. Isaiah tells the people that the destruction and exile of their chosen nation will be ended, that they should not fear. He calls them by their familiar names—Israel, Jacob, Jeshurun (cf. Deut 33:5)—and promises them something that he had never before done. Not only will he rescue them through another exodus; he will also bless their land with this new thing: “I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring.” Their land, figuratively, has been a thirsty and dry desert, but God will pour water on it to bless it with “grass like willows by flowing streams,” just as he had previously prophesied, “For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert (Isa 35:6). This he repeats for emphasis from verse 20, “for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people.”

Will God then give up on his requirement of holiness and just be gracious and merciful to his people? Will their sins be forgiven without repentance? No, God is gracious and merciful, but he is also holy and just. He is Righteousness and Justice personified, and he does not change. Before they are forgiven of their sins, will his people first repent? But how will a callous, rebellious, and hardhearted people repent?

Here is where the rivers in the desert come in: the Spirit of God is the water in the wilderness who will be poured out on his people. Ezekiel prophesies that this outpouring of the Spirit will radically change his people from rebellion to obedience:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ezek 36:26-27).

By the pouring of his Spirit, not only will God change their hearts. Jacob the “deceiver” will now become Jeshurun, the “upright one”! What a picture of every believer: at the same time, sinner and saint! The ungodly will be justified, then sanctified.

This drastic change will not only be in their status before God. Previously, the nation bore God’s reproach and it was shameful to be part of the name of Jacob and Israel. Now, the people will not be ashamed to declare their allegiance to and identity with the Lord and the nation Israel. “I am the Lord’s. I belong to the Lord and to Israel. Even if enemies ridicule, hate and persecute me, I am not ashamed to bear the name of the Lord and of Israel.”

This, then, is their witness: they have firsthand experience of God’s uniqueness, power, redemption, and promise.

Conclusion
God told Israel, “You are my witnesses.” Thus, Christ the new Israel, is called by John as “the faithful witness.” He revealed his Father to the nations, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Because he came down from his Father’s heavenly throne-room, Christ, “bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony” (John 3:32). Those who did not receive his testimony crucified him. This is why the Greek word for witness is martys, and testimony is martyria, from which we have the word “martyr.” The faithful witness of Christ resulted in his “martyrdom.”

Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus told his disciples, those who received his testimony with joy, “You will be my witnesses” into all the nations. How will these timid and fearful disciples become witnesses for Christ? On the day of Pentecost, God poured his Holy Spirit upon them, giving them “power from on high,” and in one sermon, 3,000 people repented of their sin and believed in Christ as their Savior and Lord. From those disciples on into two thousand years of church history, many of those witnesses have become martyrs because of their testimony for Christ. They are now part of the “cloud of witnesses” surrounding us (Heb 12:1).

The apostles and early disciples were “witnesses” to Christ’s life, death and resurrection (Acts 1:22). You too are God’s witnesses. But what testimony do you present as God’s witnesses? As witnesses, do you testify about your transformation from a life of sin to a life of good works, just as those who tell their life stories during “testimony time” at church? Is your testimony about “living the gospel,” or “being the gospel”?

No, as God’s witnesses, you present not your works, but Christ and his redemptive work. You are all witnesses of Christ, because you “see him who for a little while was made a little lower than the angels” (Heb 2:9). Unlike Mormons and other cults, we know from the Bible that he is God who came down from heaven as a man to bear the curse of God upon sinners. We know he is the only Savior, the only Way, Truth and Life, and no one can come to God except through him. There is no other name under heaven by which anyone will be saved, except in Christ.

You are witnesses to his saving power in the past, present, and in the days to come. His Spirit created a new heart in you, empowering you to live holy lives, to flee from temptation, and to overcome sufferings and trials. Through the power of the Spirit, those who believe in Christ will bring blessings to others, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). This he will do until your last day in this present age, because no one is able to snatch you out of his Father’s hand (John 10:29).

Finally, you are witnesses to all the promises he has fulfilled in the past. Because of this, you are confident that he is fulfilling his promises today, and he will always be faithful to his Word.

Are you called to testify even if you become martyrs like our forefathers before us? Maybe, maybe not. But as you are called to be witnesses for God, Christ and the Holy Spirit, remember that Christ suffered “martyrdom” for your redemption from sin and God’s wrath. And as you gather around the “table in the wilderness” to partake of the Lord’s Supper, your hungry and thirsty souls are actually nourished by Christ’s body and blood broken and shed on the cross.

 


Notes:

  1. Journal of Discourses 10:230, July 8, 1863.
  2. Doctrines of Salvation 3:282.
  3. John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 628.
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