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Deadly Self-Righteousness

John MacArthur explains why Isaiah 53 was, and is, so misunderstood.


After the captivity ended and multitudes returned from exile, the Jewish people never again fell into the kind of widespread, wanton idolatry that characterized the nation during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh. The Jews came back from captivity with a new devotion to the law. Perhaps the chief distinctive of postexilic Judaism was an unprecedented stress on strict legal obedience, with particular attention given to the law’s external and ceremonial features—dietary laws, dress, ritual washings, and visible symbols of piety like phylacteries and robe tassels (Matt. 23:5).

But a show of religious zeal is no solution to the sin problem that plagues the human race. Sinners cannot make themselves holy, even by the most exacting attempts at obedience to God’s law. Rules and regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch. . . . These . . . are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:21–23). Nevertheless, an increasingly ascetic form of Judaism emerged, and it was perpetuated by an appeal to tradition rather than authentic faith. By the time of Christ, sheer legalism was the dominant religion in Israel.

. . .

Yet because the Jewish nation was chosen by God as the line through whom the deliverer would come, many believed that by virtue of their Abrahamic descent, they already had a claim on God’s favor and blessing. After all, “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” were all theirs by birthright (Rom. 9:4). They took the goodness and mercy of God for granted—exactly like multitudes in Christendom today. The notion that they needed a Savior to expiate their guilt or deliver them from God’s condemnation was as thoroughly offensive to the average Jew of Jesus’s time as it is to today’s cultured secularists, moral relativists, and people who think they became Christians by birth or baptism. Those who followed the Pharisees’ doctrines happily acknowledged that Gentiles and other reprobates were sinners, but they thought of themselves as “righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). They were “clean in their own eyes but . . . not washed of their filth” (Prov. 30:12).

That is the deadly danger of works religion. That is the attitude Jesus was condemning when he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . . I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12–13).

And make no mistake: all false religions cultivate sinful self-confidence. That includes every brand of genteel “faith” and pseudo-Christianity that is stylish today. Self-righteous souls who don’t see themselves as hopeless sinners in need of a savior can never truly appreciate the message of Isaiah 53.

That, I am convinced, remains the major reason (even today) why so many—Jews and Gentiles alike—remain unmoved by the account of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

—John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 47–49.

The Crux of Isaiah

Now here’s another important thing to notice about the literary structure of Isaiah: the good-news portion of Isaiah (chapters 40–66) is an extended triptych. That part of Isaiah’s prophecy divides naturally into three sections of nine chapters each. Each subsection promises a different kind of salvation for God’s people. The first nine chapters (40–48) foretell Judah’s deliverance from the Babylonian captivity. The second nine chapters (49–57) focus on redemption from sin. The final section (chapters 58–66), looking forward to Christ’s millennial and eternal reign, speaks of full emancipation from the curse of Adam’s fall. . . . If we take the entire fifteen-verse pericope—Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12—verse 5 is literally the central verse of the whole passage: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” In other words, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the crux of the core verse in the middle chapter of the center panel in Isaiah’s triptych on deliverance. It is the heart and the focal point of everything the book of Isaiah has to say about the forgiveness of sin. That is fitting, because there is no more vital gospel truth. The literary symmetry is perfect and the focus is sharp. You can see it from every possible vantage point. Whether we look at Isaiah 53 in isolation, consider the nine-chapter section where forgiveness is the main topic, or expand our perspective to include the entire good-news section of Isaiah, the cross is always literally at the center. And there it remains, with a bright spotlight on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. —John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 40–42.

The Forbidden Chapter

Isaiah 53 is so replete with gospel truth that those who see the passage for the first time might well think they are reading the New Testament. Jewish people whose exposure to the Scripture is limited to texts that are read aloud in their synagogues each week will be completely unfamiliar with Isaiah 53. The entire passage is always omitted from the scheduled public readings. Every Sabbath in every synagogue worldwide, two portions of Scripture are prescribed to be read aloud—one from the Pentateuch (the Torah), and the other (the haftarah) a selection of texts drawn from the prophets. The same schedule of readings is followed in all synagogues, year after year. Over a year’s time, the rotation covers every verse of the Torah in canonical order. But the haftarah readings are more selective. One of the featured haftarah excerpts is Isaiah 51:12–52:12. The next reading in the cycle is Isaiah 54:1–10. Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is therefore never read publicly in the synagogues. As a result, Isaiah 53 is an unfamiliar passage for multitudes of devout Jewish people. In mid 2015, an Israeli-based messianic (Christian) community known as Medabrim released a video on the Internet titled “The ’Forbidden Chapter’ in the Tanakh” (Hebrew Bible), featuring a number of Israelis reading Isaiah 53 from the original Hebrew text. All of them were seeing it for the first time. The astonishment is obvious on the faces of those dear people. Their surprise quickly gives way to thoughtful reflection. As an interviewer asks them to put into their own words the implications of the passage, it is obvious that every one of them sees the clear connection between the prophecy and the New Testament record of Jesus. Christians would do well to reflect on Isaiah 53 more carefully as well. This prophecy is like a bottomless well of biblical truth. The more we look into it, the more we realize that no human preacher or commentator could ever fully plumb its astonishing depth. This passage first arrested my attention when I was a young man, and every time I return to it, I am amazed at the fresh richness of its truths. —John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 37–38.

The Thinking Is the Deepest Thing

What do you think about the Christ . . .? —Matthew 22:42 These days, it seems that all of “worship” is aimed at manipulating emotions to produce a response. The same is true of most evangelism. From my early childhood to my late teens, I asked Jesus into my heart and made sincere, but false, professions of faith more times than I can remember. Many of you can recall the same experience. We felt one thing or another, and did what we were told we needed to do; but the core of who we are—our minds—was essentially unaffected. This is all backwards. Christ makes demands upon every man in that inner realm of his thinking. He comes into my inner life and presents Himself. I look at Him and I think something of Him. I cannot tell you what I think, and you cannot read that inner thought, but if you will watch me through the next hour, day, week, month, year, you will know what I think of Him by what you see me do with Him. Mark this mystery of human personality as it is taken into account in this question of Jesus. The final glory of a human being is that of volition, that of choice. I can choose. I can elect. I can decide. Or, to put it back into the simplest word of all, I can will. This is the dignity of human life. What lies behind the will impelling it? The emotion. What lies behind the emotion? The intelligence. When I face a fact, whatever that fact may be, I face it first with my mind. I know it, and upon my conception of it in my mind, depends my attitude, my emotional attitude toward it. I like or dislike it; I love or hate it; I admire or reject it. That is emotion. Then I will, and what I will depends upon the attitude of emotion after the intelligence has looked and seen and understood. The emotion is moved by the thinking, the will is impulsed by the emotion. What do you think of Christ? If you have answered that question in your deepest heart I will tell you what happens. You will say either, “Because I think this of Him I love Him,” or “Because I think this of Him I hate Him.” Then the will will act in yielding to Him or refusing Him, in putting a crown upon His brow or sending Him to the cross out of the way. While the business of the messenger of the cross of Christ is that of appealing to your will, behind your will will be your emotional attitude toward Christ, and at the back of that, the deepest foundation of all, will be your thinking concerning Him. —G. Campbell Morgan, “A Profound Question”, The Westminster Pulpit (Baker, 2006), 1:274–275.

Lord’s Day 7, 2019

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” —Revelation 7:10 Hymn 35. (C. M.) Praise to God for creation and redemption. Let them neglect thy glory, Lord, Who never knew thy grace; But our loud songs shall still record The wonders of thy praise. We raise our shouts, O God, to thee, And send them to thy throne; All glory to th’ united Three, The undivided One. ’Twas he (and we’ll adore his name) That form’d us by a word; ’Tis he restores our ruin’d frame: Salvation to the Lord! Hosannah! let the earth and skies Repeat the joyful sound Rocks, hills, and vales, reflect the voice In one eternal round. —The Psalms & Hymns of Isaac Watts. Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Book II: Composed on Divine Subjects (Soli Deo Gloria, 1997). Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Please don’t miss worshiping with your local congregation if you can possibly help it. But if you’re in need of a good sermon, try these.

In Preparation for the Lord’s Day: A Good High Priest

A Good High Priest Is Come MILLENNIUM A good High Priest is come, supplying Aaron’s place, and taking up his room, dispensing life and grace; the law by Aaron’s priesthood came, but grace and truth by Jesus’ name. He once temptations knew of eve’y sort and kind, that He might succor show to ev’ry tempted mind; in ev’ry point the Lamb was tried like us, and then for us He died. He died, but lives again, and by the throne He stands, there shows how He was slain, op’ning His piercèd hands; our Priest abides and pleads the cause of us who have transgressed His laws. I other priests disclaim, and laws and off’rings too; none but the bleeding Lamb the mighty work can do; He shall have all the praise: for He has loved, and died, and lives for me. —Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). Right tune, different hymn. The current hymnal for this series is Hymns to the Living God, published by Religious Affections Ministries. This is such a good hymnal that I’m pretty sure I could happily post every hymn it contains, but I’ll be limiting selections to hymns I have never posted here before, especially those unfamiliar to me (of which there are many). For more information and to purchase this hymnal, visit Religious Affections Ministries.

A man was driving on Highway 2 through North Dakota late one evening. The road was deserted and he had not seen a soul for what seemed like hours. Suddenly his car started to cough and splutter and the engine slowly died, leaving him sitting by the road in total silence. He popped the hood and looked to see if there was anything that he could do to get it going again. Unfortunately, he had a limited knowledge of cars, so all he could do was look at the engine and feel helpless. As he peered by the gradually fading light of his flashlight, he cursed that he had not put in new batteries, like he had intended. Suddenly, through the inky shadows, came a deep voice, “It’s your fuel pump.” The man jumped up quickly, striking his head on the underside of the hood. “Who said that?” he demanded. There were two horses standing in the field alongside and the man was amazed when the nearest horse repeated, “It’s your fuel pump. Tap it with your flashlight, and try it again. If it starts, it should at least get you to the next town, where you can get it replaced.” Confused, the man tapped the fuel pump with his flashlight and got into his car. He turned the key, and sure enough, the engine roared into life. He went to close the hood, and turned to thank the horse; but they were gone. Thinking he must be delusional, he got in his car and drove away. When he reached the next town, he pulled into the first service station. “My fuel pump is going out,” he told the attendant. “Can I get it replaced here?” “Mechanic won’t be in ’til morning,” the attendant replied. “You can get a room at the Motel Six down the street. They left the light on for you. Say, how do you know it’s the fuel pump?” “Well, I . . . never mind, I just know. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Well, now you got me curious,” said the attendant. “You must know a lot about cars.” “No, not really,” said the man. “Well, alright . . . about five miles out of town, my engine quit . . .” and he told the whole story. “. . . and then, when I turned to thank him, he was gone! I must have imagined the whole thing—it was late, and I was awfully tired—but my car started, and here I am.” The service station attendant rubbed his chin and looked thoughtful. “A horse, you say, ’bout five miles out? Was it by any chance a white horse?” The man replied affirmatively. “Yes, it was! Am I crazy?” “No, you ain’t crazy. In fact, you’re lucky he was there, because the black horse don’t know nothin’ ’bout cars”.

Pauline & Johannine Theology (sort of)
The Fifth Gospel
A Bible in Miniature
Lord’s Day 6, 2019
In Preparation for the Lord’s Day: Praises
Weather Beaten

Shall Not We Drink?
He Followed Jesus
“I freely forgive him all.”
All Equally Fallen
Lord’s Day 4, 2019
In Preparation for the Lord’s Day: O the Deep, Deep Love
At least it’s not another dog story

Never Haphazard
His Workmanship
Hear Him
By the Gospel
Lord’s Day 5, 2019
In Preparation for the Lord’s Day: Here Is Love
This one should probably be throne out.


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