“THRONE OF JUDGMENT, ALTAR OF GRACE”
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“In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. 2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5 Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.”
It is the aim of the enemy of our souls and therefore the way of this passing world, to blur the lines. To fade black and darken white until all is gray and diluted and washed out. To render truth a matter of irrelevance and to diminish personal identity until the individual is measured as insignificant. To harden men’s minds and hearts with so much jaded information and deception of the senses that we can no longer reach heights of joy nor depths of grief.
This is the demonic ambition that ultimately manifests in governments putting the whims of the state over the rights of the people. In the difference between the sexes being decried as evil until you have men acting more like women and women more like men so that no one’s sensitivities will be offended by any show of manly strength or feminine grace.
Now in tracing this trend back to Satan I am not simply echoing Flip Wilson’s “The devil made me do it” line.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor 4:3,4) “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
When black and white are abolished and expression of absolute truth is forbidden, then my ideas of right and wrong, although diametrically opposed to yours, are just as valid and acceptable as yours, and if you disagree then you are bigoted and intolerant and unsocial and therefore unwelcome.
Therefore, and this is the proof of who is behind it all, if you tell me I am unacceptable to God because of sin and that there is only one way to remedy the situation, I can counter with my own belief that a loving God would never punish someone eternally, and if I am conscientious in my work and generous with my wealth and letting others be what they will, no loving God would reject me when the time comes, and since my outlook is so much less judgmental than yours, and so much more positive and optimistic than yours, I must be right or at least more right than you, and therefore this gospel message of yours is to be treated with derision if not ignored altogether.
There was nothing fuzzy or unclear to Isaiah in the vision that came to him in the year of King Uzziah’s death.
“… I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple.”
I think possibly the most difficult task for today’s preacher, maybe more in America than anywhere, is to find the words that will break through the haughtiness and self-pride and spirit of self-sufficiency that has been bred into all of us, just by virtue of being born and raised in the greatest country the earth has ever known.
Who are our heroes? They are the ones who get the job done. They survive insurmountable odds. They come up against the bad guy fearlessly, face to face, and take him down.
What has the trend been in the action movies over the past several decades? The good guy undergoes physical torture and punishment that no real human being could possibly withstand, and then with one final burst of willpower and cunning and strength he deals the final blow that wins the day. Then he pretty much gets up, brushes off the dust, kisses the pretty girl and strides off into sunset with nary a limp.
We’d all like to think, wouldn’t we, that if pushed to our limits we’d take a bold stand, muddle through, survive the odds, dream the impossible dream, reach the unreachable star.
But quite frankly, we can’t do much at all. In real life it doesn’t take a great deal to knock us off balance and then keep us down. A little bacteria, a little virus, a house fire, one angry and violent person, the betrayal of a loved one, the clutches of an unfair employer, the list is longer than your arm of things that can instantly or slowly and painfully put you in a prison of physical disability, emotional despair, mental anguish, that can keep you hopelessly bound with no help in sight.
And this all sounds very dark and dreary. But something we need to understand clearly before God can be any help to us at all, is that without Christ we can do nothing, are nothing. We need to break out of the gray fog the enemy has successfully surrounded us with and stop telling ourselves that everything is not as bad as it seems and we are really not such bad sorts after all, that we’re only human and humans make mistakes but if we chin up and walk through the storm with our head up high and not be afraid of the night everything will come out good.
Because at some point in every life, unless we choose to ignore the truth and just go through life happy to be blind and finally enter into eternity in our sin and without God, at some point we have to come to realize what a solemn thing it is for a sinner to find himself standing before the throne of God, enveloped and pierced through by the glory of Christ, and be exposed for exactly what he is in contrast to that glory.
This is what Isaiah was seeing and experiencing, as John confirmed in his gospel, chapter 12 verse 41.
“These things Isaiah said, because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him.”
Christ is the perfect standard by which every one must be measured. It does not matter what I think of myself or deceive myself into thinking. It does not matter what others may think about me. What matters is how I am revealed in the presence of Christ.
MacKintosh spoke of the ‘moral glory of Christ’, and he explained it this way:
“I mean the light which shone forth from Him in all His ways when He was down here in this dark world. It was this light that detected man, that disclosed what he was, that brought to light all that was in him. It was impossible for any one to escape the action of that light. It was a perfect blaze of divine purity, in view of which the seraphim could only cry out, ‘Holy, holy, holy!’”
When Jesus Christ was here that glory was veiled in flesh. So we needn’t wonder, when Isaiah suddenly found himself in the presence of that unveiled, enthroned glory that he cried out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined!”
Because of something that was said to him or done to him? No! “For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
It was because he stood in the presence of the glory of Christ and that glory exposed to himself what he really was.
Now that is not to say he was worse than anyone else. I don’t think there is any passage of scripture that contrasts Isaiah’s sins with the sins of those around him or that came before or after him. He was a man of Adam’s race whom God chose to make fit for service, give him his message and send him forth.
But as Moses was afraid to look at God (Ex 3:6), so this prophet, seeing himself for who he was, despaired.
Notice that he didn’t say, “Woe is me, I’m not as good as I should be!” He didn’t cry out, “Woe is me, I need to turn over a new leaf and get a new start. I’ll get clean and sober and come back!”
He said, “I am ruined!” The King James says, “I am undone”.
The throne represents judgment and on it he saw the One who deals out justice. He was high and exalted and the train of His authority was inescapable. It filled the temple. He heard the cry of the seraphim, “Holy, holy, holy” and the only response his unpurged lips could muster was “Ruined, ruined, ruined!”
And you and I need to understand as Christians, and anyone who is not a Christian certainly needs to come to this understanding, that there are no degrees of unworthiness in the presence of that throne of judgment. There is no place for consoling ourselves with our religious exercises or fulfillment of religious duties. There is no quarter given for our troubled upbringing or human frailties. And there is certainly no place for boasting in our accomplishments or our charities or our good intentions.
Ruined is what we are and there is nothing redeemable about us.
When Lynn and I were driving in Plano, Texas on May 29, 1991 a woman ran a red light and broadsided our car. We were spun around, tipped over on our side and slid down the road until a curb stopped us.
When the insurance man examined our vehicle he did not say, ‘Well, it needs some body work, and a new axle and a couple of windows replaced and it’ll be good as new’. He declared the car ‘totaled’. That meant it could not be fixed. It was damaged beyond repair and was fit for nothing but the junk yard. We needed a whole new car.
That’s you and me in the presence of the throne of judgment and we can do nothing to change that ever, to any degree. Ruined.
If you hold on to any hope of helping yourself in any way to be worthy to stand there with your head held high and claim one deed, one attitude, one moment of goodness as your portion in your justification, then you haven’t understood anything at all.
There is black and white. There is no gray there. He is lofty and exalted. He is holy. His train fills the temple. You are ruined, and the glory that shines out from Him exposes your utter ruin to yourself and to all who look on. It shines to the very depths of your being and lays you bare to the very core, and nothing is found there but ruin. You are undone in the presence of the throne.
“Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs. And he touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven’.”
Notice first, please, that until now there has been no mention of the altar. Because you see, where the throne is a place of judgment the altar is a place of grace. It is where the sacrifice is made and the blood is poured out that cleanses of sin. So many people try to come first to the altar and partake of its grace, never having been brought to the conviction of their impurity that would cause them to cry out “Woe is me, for I am ruined”.
Isaiah was brought first to the throne, and then the product of the altar was brought to him.
Now we don’t want to make too much of the details here because I don’t believe we were meant to try and draw too much typology from the actions of the seraphim and his use of tongs to transport the coal and so forth.
But we should not neglect to see the bigger picture at least; the part that deals with sound doctrine.
I do think it is interesting that the seraphim uses tongs. Are we to derive some deeper meaning from this, like the fact that the blood is poured out on the altar and the fire is a type of God’s judgment of sin and therefore these are things that the angels cannot touch?
Maybe. We are given indications elsewhere that the angels marvel at the mystery of redemption ( I Peter 1:12).
Perhaps the Holy Spirit wanted us to understand that the coal was hot, and get the message that God’s wrath against sin purges the repentant sinner clean. It is a consuming fire for the unrepentant, but a cleansing fire for the repentant.
Isaiah had lamented, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips”. He wasn’t confessing a swearing habit, or that he had sneaked into his pantry and eaten non-kosher foods.
Jesus was to declare later that a man’s mouth speaks from that which is in his heart (Luke 6:45). Isaiah wasn’t concerned with his physical lips or even his manner of speech. The light of the glory of an enthroned Christ had shown him his heart and he was grieved at what he saw there, and knew to be true of the people from whom he came.
In response to his confession and his sorrow for sin, the One who judges from His throne dispatches grace from the altar to purge the repentant and make him clean through and through.
The other thing I think we’re meant to see is that Isaiah was not sent to the altar, the product of the altar was brought to him.
We have no sacrifice to make in regards to our redemption. There is no reason for us to go there, because we had no part in what transpired there, except that our bloodguiltiness required the sacrifice that was made.
Now that the sacrifice has been made, it is God who brings it to us; applies it to us; declares us forgiven.
God Himself has provided the remedy for all the ruin which the light of His throne has revealed.
Refocus your thoughts for a moment and contrast the actions of Isaiah with the actions of God.
The vision came to Isaiah. In verse one he didn’t say “I sought the Lord sitting on a throne”, he said “I saw the Lord”. The vision came to him.
When he sees the Lord he is made aware of his utter ruin so he grieves and confesses his sin. Now let’s be careful not to let ourselves think that he earned some merit by his confession.
There is no nobility in declaring you sneaked into the candy when there’s chocolate all around your mouth.
Isaiah’s declaration was an acknowledgment of what he had just learned of himself.
So, to this point we haven’t seen Isaiah do anything at all, really. He has been given a vision that has left him undone, and he cries out in confession and repentance.
Now look at God’s actions. First, He came to Isaiah; or perhaps it would be better to say that He supernaturally brought Isaiah to His throne room. If you know the story of Esther, you know that if one is to find himself in the throne room of the King it is best if he was invited to be there.
Then, when Isaiah reacts in the only proper way the convicted sinner can react, with repentance and contrition, God acts again. He sends the seraphim to fetch from the altar that which will justify His declaring the prophet forgiven and cleansed of all iniquity.
Up to now the MAN has done NOTHING! Can you see that? Are you with me?
Whether it be some self-proclaimed messenger of God, or your own faulty conscience, or a devil from hell, never let anyone tell you that you have any role to play in your redemption, except to be the guilty sinner who is ruined beyond repair and must be born again.
God purchased it for you, provided it to you, and now preserves you to the end.
I want you to see how complete His salvation is.
“And he touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven’.” (vs 7)
That word ‘forgiven’ can also be ‘atoned for’ which means to reconcile.
In Romans 5:11 Paul writes that we “…rejoice in our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation”
The angel did not say to Isaiah that he was pretty much cleaned up but should come back for several more treatments until the stain was all gone.
The angel did not say to Isaiah that he was forgiven but he’d better mind his P’s and Q’s from here on out.
The language here is very definite and final. ‘your iniquity IS taken away, your sin IS forgiven’.
The throne and the altar are intimately connected in the process of your salvation. The throne convicts, the altar provides the cure. God convicts perfectly, and He purges perfectly.
As completely as the light from the throne exposed Isaiah, causing him to declare himself ‘ruined’, so completely does the atonement purge clean of all iniquity and sin. And remember, the actions were all God’s. The judging and the forgiving.
Something else I want you to know from this passage is the desire of God to save you and the urgency His love spurs Him to.
It says the seraphim ‘flew’ to Isaiah. Isaiah is in utter despair. He is undone. He is at the end of himself and grieving in his heart like never before.
Seeing his pain and desperation God sends down from His lofty throne the seraphim, one of those who were created to minister to those who would inherit salvation (Heb 1:14); and he flies to Isaiah’s aid.
Such is the manner of the love of God to sinners! No sooner does divine truth convict the heart and bring the pain of guilt and ruin, than the seraph flies with lightning speed to the altar for the balm of grace with which to sooth the penitent’s pain and carry the guilt away forever.
Sinner, the very moment you realize your guilt before God and confess it through repentant lips, the grace He has provided through the shed blood of His Passover Lamb will be applied to your sin with lightning speed and yours will be forgiveness and cleansing. Who would not trust such a God?
Now I need to ask you today; have you ever had the light of the glory of Christ search your deepest heart and reveal to you your complete helplessness and ruin in the presence of a holy God?
Have you ever really come to a place of recognizing and owning your utter ruin?
Have you had God’s grace flown to you from the altar of the sacrifice of His own sinless Son, to purge you of sin and give you His forgiveness forever?
You don’t need a vision, like the one Isaiah had. You don’t need to see that throne or that altar or that angel. Because Christ has come and made the atonement for us, and He has given us His word to assure us. I Peter 3:18 says “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God…”
Acts 13:39 says, “…through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses”.
In other words we are freed from having to try to be right in our own strength, and we are also freed from bondage to death and sin, which the law was unable to save us from.
If anyone says “I have sinned”, God’s response is not, “well then, I will send him to Hell”. No, His response is, “I will deliver him”. Jesus paid it all for you, and the moment you confess sin His blood does for you what the coal from the altar did for Isaiah.
Unbeliever, do not hesitate to come to Him in contrition and repentance today and He will save you.
Believer, trust the One who saved you to continue to cleanse you from all unrighteousness, because the sacrifice that was made on that altar is sufficient to continue to sanctify you until the day you are glorified forever.
Two more things I want to say from this passage.
There will be a day when those who have never let Him shine His light of truth into their lives and expose their ruin will stand before that throne of judgment and will finally be exposed anyway. The difference is that then there will be no altar present.
What a dreadful thing to consider; standing before that throne in which light the prophet was brought to his knees in despair, declaring himself ruined, with no coal forthcoming to take away the pain and the sin and the guilt.
This is the time of the throne and the altar working together to save all who will believe. But when this time is over, when what God calls ‘Today’ is over, there will only be judgment and final separation from God and eternal punishment.
Please, if you have never gone, accept His invitation to the throne room today and let His glorious light show you your true condition before Him, so like lightning He can apply the blood of His Christ to your life and purge you forever of your sin and guilt.
WHO WILL GO?
One last thing.
Christians, look at the result we see in Isaiah, of God’s actions toward him and His provision for him.
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’
Notice the reference to the Godhead here? Who will go for US?
Now Isaiah is ready to answer.
“Here am I. Send me!”
This is the proper order of things. It puts works in their proper place. First there must be repentance, then there is redemption, and then good works proceed from the reborn heart.
It never happens in any other order. In all the saints of the scriptures you will find this same formula. They see their ruin, God brings the remedy, and devotedness to Him is the result.
Christian, you have been to the throne and had the light of the glorious gospel shined into your heart. In desperation you have confessed your unworthiness to God and like lightning He has applied the shed blood of the sacrificed Lamb to your life. He has made you a new creation in Him, and like Isaiah your iniquities are purged and taken away forever.
He asks of each of His own, “Whom shall I send and who will go for Us?” You could have no part in your salvation. You were not a partner in that. You were helpless and ruined and undone, so He did it all. Now He asks ‘who will go?’
What is your answer?