A few weeks ago, the TV carried news of a discovery of world importance. It was the detection of gravitational waves. In 1947 a discovery of world importance took place. It was the discovery in Palestine of ancient manuscripts, older than any others known. They were in group of caves near the Dead Sea, at a place called Qumran. It is 49.9 kilometres from Jerusalem by modern road. The remains of at least eight hundred manuscripts have been found. Most in poor condition. One manuscript in good condition is a parchment scroll of the whole sixty-six chapters of the book of Isaiah.
Is that important? Yes. The oldest known copy of the Hebrew Old Testament was made in 1008 A.D. It is the Leningrad Codex. The Isaiah scroll from the Dead Sea has been carbon dated several times, and comes from 125 B.C. It is more than one thousand years older than the Leningrad Codex.
Some people say the Bible is not reliable. There are those who say that the Church has altered the original. Well here is a test. How different is the Dead Sea Isaiah scroll from our Book of Isaiah? There are some differences, mostly of spelling. In Isaiah ch.6, verse 3, we have “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”.The Dead Sea Isaiah has “Holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”. In more than a thousand years of copying by hand, there have been very few changes. The text is accurate and unchanged. The copying over more than a thousand years is at least 95 per cent accurate, and most differences are spelling only.
There are now identified among the scrolls, 19 copies of the Book of Isaiah, 25 copies of Deuteronomy and 30 copies of the Psalms. These are ancient words.
Jesus and His followers knew the Old Testament very well. The Old Testament was the Holy Scripture of the Jewish people then, as it is still today. The New Testament is full of quotations from it, and references to it. The Old Testament was the Bible of the first Christians. One of the passages with which the New Testament writers were familiar is the fifty third chapter of Isaiah. Thanks to the Dead Sea Isaiah scroll, we know that the Isaiah 53 that they knew is the same as the Isaiah 53 that we know.
The first word of verse six of chapter 53 is “all”. That is a very simple word, but it is one of which there has been and is a great deal of trouble and strife.
All of us have gone astray like a flock of sheep;
kulannu katstson ta”innu ‘ish ledareko paninnu
weyhwh hiphgi”a bo ‘eth “awon kulanu,
those are the ancient words in Hebrew, spelled out in English letters.
If you want to start trouble in mixed company, just say “We are all sinners”. The good Christians will agree, but the unbelievers will say “We are NOT miserable sinners!” But Isaiah says it very plainly; “All of us have gone astray”. We are all sinners. But sinners can be forgiven and saved. But surely not all of them? The Jews believed, and I think still believe, that “Salvation is of the Jews” John 4; 22, KJV. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that to the Samaritan woman. They believed that the children of Abraham, the descendants of Jacob, the Jews, that they alone could be saved. But here Isaiah could be hinting that not only Jews could be saved, but “all of us”. Then, After Saint Peter had made a start of giving the Christian message to Jews in Jerusalem, on Pentecost, the Apostles appointed Deacons. “They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch” ( Acts 6; 5-6 ). Philip, a deacon, did more than share out provisions, he preached, and in Samaria there were numbers who were converted and believed. Then He was ordered by the Holy Spirit to go down to Gaza. On the way he fell in with a man travelling in a wheeled carriage. The man was not a Jew, he was an Ethiopian, the Treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia. He was reading. Like everyone else in those days, he read aloud. People near could hear every word. It sounds like those people who have conversations on mobile phones in public places. The book he was reading was the prophet Isaiah.
Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”( Acts ch.8; vv.32-34 ).
Philip explained that the prophet was saying these things about Jesus. Philip went further and persuaded the Ethiopian that Jesus was the man of sorrows Who God had raised from the dead, and who should be followed and obeyed. The African man asked to be baptised, and Philip took him into a pool of water and there baptised him in the name of Jesus, and perhaps in the name of the father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Philip has crossed the boundary between the Jews and the Gentiles. The man was not a Jew. He is the first of all the gentile converts who since then have become the majority of the Christian Church in the whole world. This the first. It fulfils the ancient words;
All of us like a flock of sheep have gone astray. And all of us who repent and believe in Jesu, are saved through His sacrifice on the cross.
It is Saint Paul who took up and continued taking the Gospel of Jesus to the gentiles who were not Jews. In His Letter to the Romans, he makes the reason why crystal clear;
“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 and all are justified freely by his grace
through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement”
Romans ch.3; vv.23-25. NIV.
These are not the very words of Isaiah, but the thought comes from him. This is the continuation and climax, which spells out that salvation is for all who believe, Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female.
Before Jesus was crucified, the disciples would have found Isaiah 53 a puzzle. It talks about a person who is was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; but it does not name him. When Jesus was leading His disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem, He three times spoke about what He expected to happen there. He expected to be arrested, and abused, and to die, and then to be raised to life. Saint Luke ends the third of these predictions with the words; “But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said ( Luke 18;34 ). What the disciples did not understand was that Jesus expected His life to follow the pattern of Isaiah ch.53, that He was in fact the One pictured there.
After Jesus was raised from the dead, and came and spoke with His disciples and had breakfast with them, what burst on their understanding, ‘like the light of ten thousand suns’, was that Isaiah 53 was a word picture of Jesus, and had been in front of them, not understood, all the time that they were with Jesus. They had to accommodate their minds to some mind stretching things. Jesus had died, and they had buried His body in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. But here He was alive. That is not normal. Habits of mind have to be changed to fit in with it. The word picture of the Man of Sorrows in Isaiah was a true picture of a man who had not been born when it was written. It was written hundreds of years before.
Many of us have pictures of our family on our mantle pieces, and on our living room walls. They are all pictures of people who were born before today. None of our family portraits are of people not yet born. But Isaiah’s word picture of the Man of Sorrows was a picture of a person yet-to-be-born. How could that be?
People who do not believe in Jesus, or in God, or the Bible, can simply dismiss the whole business, and say “It’s not true. It’s a load of rubbish”. But Isaiah did write about the man who was like lamb led to the slaughter, and hundreds of years later Jesus was led to Golgotha and crucified. He is the lamb of God. How did Isaiah know? The answer the Church has made to that is that Isaiah was a prophet, and God as Holy Spirit entered into his mind and gave him the picture that he put in to words. The picture was true, though Isaiah may not have known that. God knew. God knows the future as well as the past. He knew what Jesus would do, and what would be done to Him. More than that, God planned what would be done, and what He would do. That is how it comes about that Saint Peter, preaching to the crowd in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, says; “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts ch.2; vv.23-24). And in his first letter, Saint Peter says of Jesus “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world” ( 1 Peter ch.1; v.20 ). Peter believed that God knew and planned the future. Now I am not sure that Sir Lloyd Geering or Dr. Richard Dawkins believes that. So what do you believe? Did God know what would happen to Jesus? Did He plan It? And if so why?
The answer to that question is already given in the Song of the Suffering Servant;-
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
weyhwh hiphgi”a bo ‘eth “awon kulanu
That is what God planned to do, and has done, about all the sins of all the world.
One of the many criticisms which atheists make of Christian belief, is that they say that a powerful and loving God would have put a stop to all the dreadful things that people do. If God is all powerful why didn’t He stop Hitler?
God has done what is needed to stop wicked people from going on doing dreadful things. He has given them reason to repent and believe. He has laid the whole weight of all the iniquity of all people on Jesus at the cross. That is why Jesus, at the last, cried out those words from Psalm 22;
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” ( Mark 15; 34 ). That intolerable weight of iniquity crushes Him. God bears that grief, that infinite grief. He bears it so that all those who are crushed by grief may weep with Him. And then He raises Jesus alive for ever more. That is God’s answer to the wickedness of the world.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
nigash wehu’ na”aneh welo’ yiphttah-piw
kasheh latttebach yowbal
ukerachel lipheneh gozezeyah
ne’elama welo’ yiphttach piw:
What therefore should we do? We should do all that we are able so that the love of God controls our lives. It is more important that a child learn to show compassion, than that they should become All Blacks. It is more important that we love our neighbours than that we have a new car. It is more important that we welcome the stranger than that we are invited to a posh dinner.
Adolf Hitler could have been stopped, if, when he was very young, his mother had nurtured a relationship of affection with him. He could have been stopped, if when he was growing up his father and mother, and grandparents and uncles and cousins, and priests and teachers and friends had modelled for him a way of life in which you made friends with strangers, and were kind to people who were different. They failed.
What matters most is that God loves us, warts and all. What He requires of us is to love Him first and most, to love our enemies, to love our neighbours, to love the stranger, and the outcast. Do we do that? Or do we all of us go our own way?