The Ligonier Ministries National Conference is drawing to a close. We have come to the final day and began with a message from Dr. Robert Godfrey who preached on “The Holiness of God and the Cross.” He began by saying that even as Christians we tend to have a trivial view of sin which turns sinners into naughty kids and God into an indulging grandfather. We like to sin, God likes to forgive, so what’s the problem?
But this is a complete misrepresentation of who we are and who God is. The essence of true religion is to know God and to know ourselves. If we don’t know God, we don’t know anything worth knowing.
We live at a time when so many churches have become trivial, in their songs, their sermons, their services. This is why Sproul found such resonance in writing a book about the holiness of God. And this is why Dr. Godfrey wanted to draw our attention to Isaiah 6 and then Isaiah 53.
He began by giving an overview of the reign of Uzziah. The Lord prospered Uzziah and gave him success. By the Lord he achieved great power. But in all of this he became proud. When the Israelites suffered they complained, but when they were prosperous they forgot God. Uzziah forgot that all he had and all he had accomplished was from the Lord. The Hebrew word for proud means “lifted up.” He determined in his heart that he was really something. He became corrupt and faithless.
But we are not left with a general picture of the problem of Uzziah’s pride. We are given a horrifying incident in the life of Uzziah. In his pride he seems to have surveyed the nations around him and discovered that all of the other kings were priest-kings who ruled not just as kings but who also served as priests. So all power, civil and religious was concentrated in their hands. He saw no reason that the Holy Place should be off-limits to him.
In his pride he marches into the sanctuary of God and offers incense on the altar of incense before the Lord. He will be priest-king. And there in that spot at that moment, God strikes him with leprosy. He is rushed out by the priests and taken to a palace, and he lived there separated for the rest of his life, cut off from the house of the Lord. And when he died he was known as the leper; this was his epitaph.
At the heart of his reign was this terrible sacrilege. When he died, all they could say was “he is a leper.”
Godfrey spent a few moments describing the temple and the sheer holiness of the temple. And then he asked this: Why was the temple filled with smoke? The Scripture frequently refers to smoke surrounding the Lord. It is a mark of the glory of God, the hiddenness of God, the unapproachability of God. But maybe there is an illusion here to the altar of incense in the sanctuary, to the smoke that rises from the altar. It symbolizes the essence of the temple which is a place of meeting where God meets with his people. The holy God comes and hears the purified prayers of his people. It is a picture of the connection of God and his people. It is a picture of the blessed fellowship between God and his people.
We begin to see how profound was the desecration of Uzziah, that he would come into this place and mar its holiness. Every detail of the altar tells us that God is holy and he is pure; we do not merely wander into God’s presence. The temple is the great children’s book, picture book, of the Old Testament, speaking about how pure God is and how serious he is about his purity and what cost there is for sinners to be able to enter his holy presence. Every detail is a reminder to us that we have no proper instincts about worship.
We see a picture of the holiness of God here and a picture of the sinfulness of man. Isaiah gets it when he cries “Woe is me.” He sees his own unworthiness. Lepers had to cry out that they were unclean and Isaiah is saying here that he is a leper; his lips are leprous. He cannot praise God, he cannot enter his presence, because he is a leper. This is at least part of what is in mind here. Thinking of Uzziah, Isaiah is overwhelmed by leprosy as a sign and symbol of the uncleanness of the people. Leprosy destroyed nerves, leaving you numb and increasingly disfigured. It is a horrifying disease leaving you increasingly shunned by mankind in your pain and disfigurement. This is how Isaiah analyzes his own condition before God. It is not just Uzziah who is a leper, but he is a leper and the Israelite people are lepers.
It is not mere chance that the leprosy broke out on Uzziah’s forehead. The High Priest was to wear a signet on his head that said “Holy is the Lord.” He was to come, at least symbolically clothed, in holiness. But Uzziah had come in corruption of heart; he was then visited with that evidence of his corruption.
Isaiah recognizes his inability to help himself just as a leper could do nothing to help himself.
And now we move to a picture of salvation. We read of God coming to help Isaiah. One of the seraphim flew to him with a coal from the altar, presumably the altar of incense. It is all returning to Uzziah and his sin. The place where he stood in his sin is the place where God begins to redeem Isaiah. He held it with tongs as if it was so hot and holy that even he could not touch it. He brings it to Isaiah and touches his lips and says “now your sin is atoned for, now your sins are forgiveness.” There is forgiveness and atonement only in the action of God. This is a beautiful picture of Isaiah standing with nothing to offer God except for his sin.
We normally think of atonement in relation to the altar of sacrifice, but at least here we see atonement at the place the sin was committed. But the healing has not yet come. Isaiah is commissioned to preach. God has an agent, a servant, to send. Isaiah prophecies in verse thirteen that the nation will be destroyed but the holy seed will still come—the seed in the stump of David. In Isaiah 53 he sees a vision of who this servant will be and what he will be like.
Godfrey then asked us to walk through Isaiah 53 with Uzziah in the back of our minds.
In chapter 52 and verse 13 we see a king who is worthy of being high and lifted up. And two verses later we see that he shall sprinkle many nations as a priest-king. One of the priest’s tasks was to sprinkle blood. Only the Messiah was to be the priest-king and by declaring himself to be both, Uzziah was declaring himself to be messiah.
Here we have a beautiful description of Jesus Christ as God’s only king and priest. In verse 14 and in 53:3 we see Jesus as the king-priest and Jesus as a leper. His appearance was so marred that he was beyond human semblance. This may not be exclusively fulfilled in leprosy but it at least suggests leprosy. He was acquainted with “grief” but this can also be translated as “sickness.” And so we hid our faces from him and despised him as we despise all lepers.
Are you beginning to see what it cost Jesus Christ to be the Savior? When we say he is king it sounds good, when we say he is priest it sounds honorable. And he is those things. But the depth of our salvation is to be found in the willingness of Jesus to become a leper for lepers, to become sin for sinners. “Surely he has borne our sickness.” Jesus was not literally a leper, of course, but just as Uzziah the good king was afflicted with leprosy to show the people the sinfulness of sin, so in some sense we have to think of Jesus as a leper to realize the depths of what it meant for him to take our sins upon himself. We can make this sound like an easy transaction. How hard can sin-bearing be for the eternal son of God? We may slip into such an attitude as the cross becomes too familiar. We may begin to lose a sense of the horror of the cross.
Isaiah 53 celebrates that Jesus became our substitute, that he took the sinner’s place. He entered in to the place Isaiah had gone as a leper. We read that Uzziah was cut off from the house of the Lord for the rest of his life; Jesus was cut off from the land of the living. He was cut off because he had become the sin-bearer.
We see in this passage a picture of what it cost Jesus to take our place; what it took for us to be healed. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice. By bearing God’s wrath on the cross, he has healed our leprosy. What was done for us means that we have a whole different relationship to God. Now we can call God “Father” because, for a time, Jesus lost his Father (speaking metaphorically). Do you begin to see the Savior’s love in this? Do you see the cost of the cross? Do you see what it takes for sin to be forgiven?
We may think “I like sinning and God likes forgiving.” But what a demeaning of the Savior! We tend to live like this, don’t we? As Christians we can sneak a little sin because it has all been paid for. But sin on sin on sin on sin laid there on the Savior on the cross and it was no light and trivial thing. When he died he was buried with the wicked. Perhaps there is an allusion here to Uzziah who was buried with lepers as a leper.
At the end of this chapter, verse 12, we return to Jesus as the priest-king. He is victorious, risen to reign forever as God’s glorious King.
“Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
He bore the sin of many, all of his people on the cross. It is a glorious thing and it is no trivial thing. And he makes intercession for transgressors. He not only died once-for-all on the cross, but he ever lives to intercede for you and me.
Are you a sinner? It is not a trick question. If you are here and breathing you are a sinner! And sometimes that sin becomes a huge weight on us Christians. We may know in our minds that Christ paid the penalty but sometimes our sin still oppresses us. But we have the glorious promise that he has not forgotten us, but he ever prays for us as his people. He continually intercedes for us. He is our priest-king who was a leper but now lives and reigns forever. And the cross, then, stands at the very heart and center of history. It was prepared for by God through all the centuries, through all these pictures, so when Jesus was lifted on the cross we would know what it means. And so Jesus, seeing the cross approach, said “There I will be glorified” because there he would fulfill history, he would fulfill the redemptive plan.
Christ was lifted up as a leper so that lepers might come to find life and to find hope.