Over the last several weeks we have looked at the sending of, the power of, and the manifesting work of the Holy Spirit. I want to continue that focus today, starting with a passage from Isaiah. In Isaiah chapter 40 we have some of the most familiar Old Testament passages used in churches each week. You can even see paintings and posters in certain stores that highlight one or two of the verses in this chapter. Take some time to read the entire chapter this week. The Spirit of God through the prophet Isaiah left many powerful and also poetic messages for us in this one chapter.
The main point I want to bring out today is from early in the chapter. Verses 3 through 8 share prophetic insight with us about John the Baptist and the message he would later bring as he prepared the way for the ministry of his cousin, Jesus, that would come to pass almost 800 years after this passage is written. We will focus mainly upon the following passage from this section:
Isaiah 40:6-8 (KJV):
6) The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: 7) The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it; surely the people is grass. 8) The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the Word of our God shall stand forever.”
Peter shared this same passage in 1 Peter 1:23-25 (KJV):
23) Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever. 24) For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away; 25) But the Word of the Lord endureth forever. And this is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto you.
The passage in Isaiah tells us not only what John the Baptist is going to do but also tells us what John was to preach. Looking at this we can learn much about the role of the Holy Spirit today in every person’s life.
The great preacher from the last half of the 1800’s, Charles Spurgeon, spoke at length on this passage. Spurgeon reminds us that many a pastor has preached from this at a funeral for someone that has passed due to old age. He believed that while that may be appropriate, it was missing the mark for what God was truly trying to convey. He states that if you look at the context and the message that John the Baptist preached then you can clearly see what we are to take away from this passage.
John was definitely not your conventional priest or prophet. He was from the priestly line of Levi on both his father and mother’s side. His father served as a priest in the temple. John was a miracle baby, much like Isaac, being born to the previously barren and now old Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. Elizabeth was a cousin to Mary, the mother of Jesus. John did not follow in the line of other priests in how he ministered to God’s people. While others taught in synagogues and shared the Torah on the Sabbath or served in the temple doing all the many priestly things outlined in the Law of Moses, John was instead called to go out and “prepare the way of the Lord”. He, like many other OT prophets, even though a Levite, was called to serve as a prophet instead of becoming a priest. He preached in the wilderness and by the streams and rivers. He wore clothes made from animal skins and ate wild honey and locust as some of his common meals. People came from all around to hear him preach, partly because of where he preached and how he looked but also because it had been so long since there had been a “word from the Lord”.
Last year in our lessons preparing us for Christmas we talked about how there was a quiet time, with no word from God through a prophet for 400 years. Cory again told us of this period in Part 3 of his Shalom series in July. The people were hungry for a word from their God. This quiet period had occurred during subjugation to many including the Greeks under Alexander the Great and then the Romans. This long-awaited word promised in Isaiah finally came through this wild man preaching in the wilderness and baptizing many that were confessing and repenting of their sins after being convicted by the message John was sharing. Here are some of the things he proclaimed in his messages:
Matthew 3:7–10 (NIV): 7) You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8) Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9) And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our Father.” I tell you that out of one of these stones God can raise up children to Abraham. 10) The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Matthew 3:11-12 (NIV): 11) I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worth to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12) His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire”.
John 1:23 (NIV): I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, Make straight the way for the Lord.
He was preaching much of this to the curious religious leaders that came out to hear this unusual and popular preacher. These curious religious leaders were the same ones that everyone had for centuries now relied upon as their source of hearing from God. John’s message was not a pleasant, ear tickling one. His business was serious and he minced no words in declaring what God had put him here to proclaim. God had been silent for 400 years but He was now speaking through His Holy Spirit anointed prophet. John was pleading for God’s people to repent and also telling them he was not here to just preach a flowery message. He was here to bring the axe to the very root of the trees, not just to prune them and try to make them look pretty or just take out some dead limbs. He was here to tear down, not to build up.
Isaiah 40:3 tells us that this prophet will come as one crying in the wilderness. It is his voice that will prepare and make straight a highway for the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. God had been silent for 400 years. The first voice of God to end this silence is not one to softly tickle our ear’s. This fresh voice asked “What shall I cry out”. God told him to proclaim withering and fading and falling away. Isaiah 40:6-8 tells us that God sends the Spirit of the Lord to blow over us and wither our flesh. He blows over us to cause anything within us we consider nice and pretty as a flower, to die and fall away. He sends the Spirit to do exactly what Jesus told us the Spirit would do in John 16:8-11; to convict of sin and righteousness and judgment. The Holy Spirit of God must come into our hearts and blow upon everything we consider good about us and convict us that there is nothing good in us apart from God. The Spirit must come and destroy any “goodliness” (verse 6). Goodliness can be described as our own high opinion of what we have done that makes us special or worthy of reward. This goodliness must die. Peter used the words “glory of man” instead of goodliness. This even better spells out that the Spirit is coming to deal with any of our own deeds that we glory in. Some preachers today say almost all people are “good” which makes their audience feel good about themselves and what they have done on their own. It is not, however what the Bible says. The Spirit was sent to tear down that goodliness or self-glory inner perception. The Bible says there is no one good, not even one (Psalm 14:3, Romans 3:12).
Last week we talked about the Spirit manifesting in us. Everyone wants to talk about that part and seek that part of what the Spirit does. We must recognize that before He can empower you, He has to cause your old self to wither, to fade, to fall away, to literally die. Dying to your own desires includes any selfish type desires for others to see you “manifesting” your Holy Spirit given gifts after becoming a Christian as well. That selfish desire must have passed away and been dealt with before any true powerful manifesting can occur. Then, while giving God the glory for any good that you do, (recognizing it is all about Him and not you), you are ready to go out and powerfully yet humbly manifest the Holy Spirit with Him doing those common good things through you that we discussed last week.
John the Baptist did not come to plant. He came to cut down. He was to lay down every mountain and lay low every lofty imagination. He was warning of One whose “fan was in His hand”, that fan meant to force the mighty wind of God, His Holy Spirit, across the land, and burn up anything not of God. What was John’s earthly reward for preaching what God told him to preach? He was killed by having his head removed from his shoulders around the age of 31 or 32. Yet Jesus declared in Matthew 11:11 – “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. Jesus is telling us in the first half of the verse that from a human perspective, he was the valedictorian of all prophets. He was the most dynamic, articulate, confrontational, and powerful spokesman God had ever called. As the last prophet, he would not only announce that the Messiah was coming but that He had arrived. In John the Baptist, the greatest man and the greatest human mission came together by God’s sovereign and providential plan. But in the last part of the verse Jesus gives us some insight we need to recognize, especially as we looked at the miracle of being born-again. Although John was a spiritual giant among men, John’s unique greatness was in his role in human history, not in his spiritual inheritance. Spiritually, John would be equal to every other Christian that was to come, for every born-again child of God would have the same Spirit in them which John had been filled with from birth. From birth Greg? Yes! John was filled with the Spirit even while in his mother’s womb, that time when John leapt at hearing the voice of the newly pregnant Mary as told to us in Luke 1:41. John’s spirit heard God call his name while he was still in his mother’s womb.
For 400 years, God’s people had been left to their own and what did they do? They thoroughly polluted the law of Moses turning it into one of the most ridiculous legal systems you could imagine. They had expanded it over the centuries into a system comprised of 613 separate laws. There were 248 “thou shalt laws” and 365 “thou shalt not laws”, one basically for each day of the week. No one could keep it but oh how they tried. Strict Pharisees believed that the Messiah would come only when God’s people were the most “perfect” they could be, which meant adhering to all of these laws. That is why they spent so much time calling out others for their “wrongdoing”. They had turned everything about worshiping God into a person’s own “goodliness” (Isaiah 40:6), and a person’s own “glory” (1 Peter 1:24). This was what man did with their 400 years. So, what was the first thing that the prophet who would break the long silence, John the Baptist, first have to do. He would have to tear down. He had to, as said earlier, take an axe to the roots of the tree. He had to proclaim withering and fading and falling away of our flesh. Everything was going to be about Christ and everything today is still about Christ. It is not about what you have done. The Spirit points to Christ; then, now and forever.
The Spirit first comes to wither our “goodliness” and “self-glory”. God does not build upon a sandy foundation. He does not build upon wood, hay and stubble. He pulls down the old first. All the old must pass away before the Spirit can come and lay a new foundation. Only as a new creation can that occur. Just as there will be a new heaven and a new earth after the first heaven and earth pass away, our old selves must pass away so that our new selves can be raised up in this present world, reborn as a child of God. Nicodemus came to understand this after God failed to congratulate him on his law keeping and instead just flat out told him he had to be reborn first if he wanted to see the kingdom of God. So must we. If you want to know about the Spirit of God, recognize the withering and fading work He comes to do. Let Him do that and then let Him guide you daily in the most wonderful walk each day you can imagine.