Aren't All Religions the Same

| Isaiah 44:6-11; John 14:5-7

Week of December 29, 2019

The Point:  A vast difference exists between faith in Jesus and all other beliefs.

The Only True God:  Isaiah 44:6-11.

[6] Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. [7] Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. [8] Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” [9] All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. [10] Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? [11] Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.   [ESV]

The uniqueness of Yahweh [6-8]. In the first two lines the names and titles of the covenant God are set out in chiastic fashion, emphasizing the majesty and control of the one who speaks. Hosts is used in the sense of all that exists. It fits in with the affirmation of the universal sovereignty of Israel’s God. This was a truth that had to be reiterated in the polytheistic world of Isaiah’s day, and would become of particular importance for the exilic community when they came under pressure to assimilate to the idolatrous culture of Babylon. The nature of Yahweh is such that He was before anything else existed, and He will continue to be even if all else passes away: more than that, He continues as the exclusive source of life throughout whatever time span intervenes. Consequently there is no other being who may rightfully be denominated ‘god’, one possessing all the attributes and potential of deity. He is incomparable, standing outside all the processes of creation and controlling them. With a rhetorical question (Who is like me?), Yahweh issues a challenge to the gods of the heathen to establish their credentials. The test is their capacity to speak and act. Proclaim looks for more than just some evidence of their presence; it implies the proclamation of a prophetic message. Set it before me requires the presentation of an argued case, here one that elucidates the flow of events in earth’s history, particularly with regard to what happened to the nation of which a god was the patron. An ancient people looks back in history, perhaps to the beginnings of humanity, but more probably to the establishment of Israel as a people. Yahweh can prove that, ever since He constituted them as His people, He had meaningfully directed their affairs, informing them what He would do, and then bringing it to pass. Could the same be established for any other god? Was it the case that any other deity could make definitive pronouncements regarding what was going to happen from now on? It would be in their own interest to establish their credibility in this way, if they could. As no response is forthcoming to the challenge, Israel has no reason for being terrified, incapable of coherent action as they shake with fright, or for being afraid. These plural commands addressed to every individual in the nation are followed by a singular you, referring to Yahweh’s proclamation to the nation as a whole, as He set before them His unique nature and His covenant purposes for them. You then reverts to being plural, as Yahweh designates them His witnesses, who can testify to the revelation He has given them, and thus to the reality of His being and authority. In this way it is clear that there is no other god beside Him. Rock as an epithet for God occurs thirty-three times in the Old Testament, particularly in Deuteronomy 32 and the Psalms, though there is evidence that use of the term predates the Exodus. Yahweh is presented as providing unchanging and totally reliable support for His people. Among surrounding nations there is no god to be found who can be counted on to help his worshippers, no matter what situation they are in. Yahweh is unique. Reflection. God’s description of Himself in 44:6 provides the basis for ‘first and last’ [Rev. 1:17; 2:8; 21:6; 22:13] and for its expansion as ‘I am the alpha and the omega’ [Rev. 1:8,17; 21:6; 22:13] in reference to Jesus Christ as the incarnate Yahweh. As the Rock, Yahweh is the only one who provides utterly dependable and invariable support. In a religious climate where there are many viewpoints advocated both inside and outside the church, we must take care not to be led away by diverse and strange teachings, but rather to hold fast to the word of life and consolidate our faith on Jesus Christ, ‘the same yesterday and today and forever’ [Heb. 13:8].

The absurdity of idolatry [9-20]. Continuing a theme already found in 40:18-20 and 41:6-7, this section exposes the folly of idolatry in a highly satirical fashion. It is not a point-by-point philosophical critique of idolatry; rather, by providing a detailed description of what is involved in making an idol (at the same time as getting on with household chores such as kindling a fire or cooking a meal, 44:15), there is an implicit challenge to recognize how contrary to any sound process of thought it is to accord any status to an artifice constructed in this way. Such idols are a nullity, and those who worship them are to be ridiculed. This approach equates the images with the gods which they represent, and it is often contended that this is an unfair presentation of idolatry since pagan religions did grasp the difference between the symbol and the divine reality behind it. However, Isaiah and the people of his day were surrounded by pagan nations and knew full well how others thought and acted. To most worshippers the idols were treated as if they really were gods, and even heathen writers admitted as much. Often, modern criticism of Isaiah’s presentation arises from a reluctance to accept his implied assertion of the exclusiveness of Yahweh, which is the essence of his message. Here he provides what is an apt illustration which reinforces the theme of Yahweh’s incomparability by exposing the deficiencies of those who might be thought to challenge Him. The craftsmen who fashion idols [9] are, one and all, characterized as nothing, the word that describes the original, unshaped chaos – that is, matter without life. So much for the depth of meaning and power in their artistry! While pagan beliefs considered that their gods had brought order to the primeval chaos, Isaiah asserts that they are just part of it, because those who made them do not possess a true and coherent understanding of the cosmos. Although they delight in the objects they produce, the idols are not valuable treasures, but things which do not profit to those who are infatuated with them. The second part of verse 9 takes up the theme of witnesses in reference to the workmen. Their conduct bears testimony to their lack of comprehension by showing that they subscribe to a view of reality which denies that there is any purpose in history or any significance in humanity. Those who make and worship idols are spiritually imperceptive, a condemnation which had applied to Israel also [6:9-10]. Such blindness will inevitably lead to shame and perplexity when the outcome falsifies their beliefs and they have to give an account to the one true God. In verse 10 Isaiah asks a sarcastic question about who would engage in such hard and costly work when it is profitable for nothing. Fashions repeats from the previous verse the verb which describes the activity of craftsmen and which is also used for Yahweh’s forming Israel [44:2]. Here, however, it is a man forming a god. The rhetorical question expects the answer, ‘No one’, but Isaiah goes on to describe those who engage in such profitless activity. The prophet calls attention in verse 11 to the fate of those who are producing idols. His companions are those who assist the idol-maker or join him in his worship. The repeated all emphasizes how many of them there are. Surely such a large number cannot all be wrong! Nevertheless Isaiah repeats his prediction for them: they shall be put to shame together because, no matter how skillfully the idols have been made, they are produced by mere humans who cannot rise above themselves. To trust in man-made gods is to court disaster. And such consternation will come when the idolaters are called on to give an account of their conduct. Assemble and stand forth are probably drawn from the language of court proceedings, and envisage the craftsmen as mounting a joint defense – but to no avail. Together (unitedly in a common reaction, or one that occurs simultaneously) they will shake and be terrified in the presence of the divine Judge. They will be confounded as they eventually perceive the absurdity of their conduct. Reflection. This is a passage whose ironic intent is obvious, but the situation is one which the idol-worshipper is oblivious to. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God [1 Cor. 4:4; cf. 2 Thess. 2:10-12]. Paganism, with its limited ideas of deity, sees no incongruity in fashioning representations of their gods from material objects. So their gods are locked into the materialism of this world and are inherently unable to reshape the situation of which they are part. They cannot provide their devotees with spiritual nourishment, with the result that they become like animals grazing on burnt-out pasture rather than on fresh grass. Ridicule is used to counteract this allure which the worship of the surrounding culture holds for the people of God, and perhaps also, by appealing to the remnants of rationality within the idolaters, to shock the latter out of their blind infatuation and bring them to see the one true God who is above the universe He has created and remains in control of it.”  [Mackay, pp. 138-144]

The Way, the Truth, the Life:  John 14:5-7.

[5] Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” [6] Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. [7] If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”   [ESV]

“I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.  There are many offensive things about Christianity, at least for some people, but the chief offense of Christianity is its founder and His extraordinary claims. It is true that the claims of Jesus of Nazareth often are not spoken of or taken at face value; when that happens it is possible to present Jesus as the lovely, indulgent rabbi who was everyone’s friend. But sooner or later His claims about Himself become known, and the offense emerges. In John 14:6, we have what is probably the most exclusive (and offensive) of all Christ’s sayings. Indeed, it is probably the most exclusive statement ever made by anyone. This is not to say that Jesus’ other sayings, if properly understood, are not also exclusive; for in all His teaching He spoke with a sense of supreme authority and not as the other teachers before Him [Matt. 7:29]. Still, this saying is one of a number of exclusive claims given special prominence in John’s Gospel, and even within this unique body of material it is exceptional. The sayings I am referring to are the “I am” statements of the Gospel, five of which have already been studied [John 6:35; 8:12; 9:5; 10:11,14; 11:25]. Each of these is a categorical and exclusive saying, as is the one yet to come – I am the true vine [15:1,5]. But none is as comprehensive and therefore also as objectionable as the one to which we come now. In this verse Jesus says categorically, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. Then He adds, lest anyone should misunderstand Him, No one comes to the Father except through me. At the same time, we must acknowledge that if these words are true, as Christians believe they are, then, although they are indeed exclusive, they ought not to be offensive, for they are actually what we most need as human beings. They should be received with joy and thanksgiving. Before sin entered the world, Adam and Eve, the first people, enjoyed a threefold privilege in their relation to God. First, they were in communion with God. Second, they knew God and the truth that flowed from Him. Third, they possessed spiritual life. However, when they disobeyed God and fell into sin, they lost this privilege. Instead of enjoying communion with God, they experienced alienation from Him. Instead of knowing the truth, they fell into falsehood and error. Instead of possessing life, they began to know death. For God had promised, in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die [Gen. 2:17]. This is our human condition. We are alienated from God, ignorant of the truth, and condemned to spiritual and eventually physical death. The glory of Christ’s claim is in its being a divine answer to our problem on each of these three levels. Instead of alienation, there is the way to God. Instead of ignorance and error, there is the truth. Instead of death, there is the life. So this text is actually the gospel, the good news of God. And it is all in Jesus; for the point of the verse – indeed, we can hardly miss it – is that Jesus is the answer on each of these three levels. This point is also reinforced by the context. As He spoke these words, Jesus was about to be crucified, and His disciples were aware, at least in part, that His soul was troubled about it. They realized that the approximately three-year relationship between them and Him was coming to an end. In their confusion the disciples began to ask questions, four of which occur in the immediate context of Jesus’ claim to be the way, the truth, and the life [13:36; 14:5,8,22]. These four questions from four different men all arise out of the same situation and betray the same interests. Moreover, in each case Jesus directs the thoughts of the disciples toward Himself. In each case, Jesus is the answer to the problems involved. Is it alienation from God? He is the way. Is it a need for illumination? He is the truth. Is it death? He is the life. The Way: Reconciliation. Each of these is important, of course; so each must be taken in its turn. The first to be considered is the way. A way supposes two points, for it is the path from one point to another. In this case it is the way from man’s total ruin in sin to the Father. What do we mean by man’s total ruin in sin, from which we need to be led by Christ to the Father? First, we mean the guilt of sin, which has caused a separation between God and humans. How shall sin be removed? The only way is that which God has already revealed in Jesus. God has sent His own Son, made a man, to enter into a covenant union with His people so that He becomes one with them and eligible to bear their sin upon Himself. He undertakes to be their substitute, dying in their place, bearing in His own body God’s just wrath against sin, and then by His death removing the guilt and punishment of that sin forever. Besides this, Jesus is also the way from the power of sin to the Father. Once our sins are forgiven, we wish to live a life pleasing to the Father. How is this done? It is done through Jesus and the knowledge of our position in Him. Doubts and fears drive the Christian farther into sin, for they obscure God. Faith in God leads to holiness; for this causes us to stand against sin and go on knowing that the way is forever open for us into God’s presence. The Truth: Illumination. The second of Christ’s claims is to be the truth, especially the truth about the Father, which includes all other truth. What do we see in Jesus about God the Father? What do we learn about reality? First, that God is personal. He is a person. He is not an impersonal force in the universe, a force that has merely set the world in motion or governs it impartially through the abstract laws of matter and motion. God is one who, with the full traits of personality, desires to communicate with persons and wants them to know Him. Through Jesus, we know that He wants that. In Him we also see that God is holy. We cannot learn that God is holy from looking in any other direction. In the world we see both good and evil, order and disorder, and often the two are mingled. In the heavens we see impartiality at best, if not rather cold indifference or hostility. If we were to judge from what we see in the world or in the heavens, we could only conclude that God is amoral or that He does not care about evil. But Jesus is holy. He is without sin. He has declared that God is like Himself in His holiness. Jesus also reveals that God is a God of mercy. He is a God of love. So we are told, and indeed we see it demonstrated, that God is not deaf to the cries of mankind. Even while requiring justice, God came to people, willing to die for them, in their place, and thus provide peace, joy, goodness, self-control, and all other blessings of the Christian life. A personal, holy, loving God – that is what Jesus has to tell you about Him. The Life: Regeneration. The third part of Christ’s claim is to be the life – for all who believe on Him, the emancipator from death. The natural man is spiritually lifeless. He walks according to the course of this world; he has not love for the things of God. Christ can make such persons alive. Indeed, He promises to give life to all who will come to Him. This makes for great encouragement in the living of the Christian life, for if the life Christ gives is God’s life, then that life is eternal life. And the Christian can no more perish than can God the Father. The Only Way Home. Jesus said that He is the only way to God. There is no other way. There is no salvation apart from Jesus. To seek another way is not only an insult to Christ, it is an insult to the love of God who planned the way of salvation out of His great love for the sinner. What the Lord Jesus Christ did was in fulfillment of the desires of His Father. It was God’s will that Jesus Christ, His Son, should die in your place. So it is an insult to God to ignore it.” [Boice, pp. 1075-1086].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. List the uniqueness of God from verses 6-8. What does Isaiah write in verses 9-11 concerning the foolishness of idolatry? What “idols” do people worship and devote their lives to today? Apply 1 Corinthians 4:4 to this passage in Isaiah. Why do people worship their “idols”?
  2. What did Jesus mean by way, truth, life? Why does Boice call 14:6 “the most exclusive (and offensive) of all Christ’s sayings”? How does this one statement of Jesus destroy all the pluralistic claims of our world?
  3. Why does Boice write that the exclusive claims of 14:6 “are actually what we most need as human beings. They should be received with joy and thanksgiving”?
  4. Why is a person’s rejection of this verse the greatest insult to God? How can you use this verse in your witness to unbelievers?

References:

Isaiah, vol. 2, John Mackay, Evangelical Press.

The Prophecy of Isaiah, J. Alec Motyer, Inter Varsity.

John, vol. 4, James Boice, Baker.

John, vol. 2, Richard Phillips, REC, P&R Publishing.