E W Rogers, Oxford
In writing upon such a solemn theme as eternal punish-ment, one needs ever to bear in mind the necessity of adhering as closely as possible to the very words of Scripture. The actual two words are found in Matthew 25. 46, R.v., though we are sometimes told that they do not mean what they seem to denote. But though space is not available to give detailed proof, it is beyond effective contradiction that the English word 'eternal' correctly conveys the thought of the Greek original. You can test this by examining all its usages in the Scriptures, and note how any limited sense of the word is totally inappropriate when applied to God, life, and so on. Do not allow anyone to deceive you by beclouding your mind with such phrases as 'unto the age' or 'unto the age of the ages'. Be satisfied with the word 'eternal' and rest assured that scholars who have no unworthy axe to grind support this sense.
As to the word 'punishment' the actual word employed here denotes a process; man never ceases to be, even though physical death ensues.
The world abounds with errors, but if you will carefully consider the record of the rich man and Lazarus as given in Luke 16, words uttered by the Lord Jesus, you will sec how that He refutes many false ideas. He denies annihilation, for neither the rich man nor the beggar was annihilated. He denies sleep of the soul, for each was conscious and aware of his state immediately after death. He denies universalism, for one was saved and one was lost; not all will be saved. He denies a second chance, for the eternal issues of each were settled in life and the great gulf fixed precluded their being altered after death. He denies spiritism, for no-one who has gone into death can come back and speak to the living on earth, not even Lazarus could go to the rich man's brethren. He denies non-eternity of punishment, for there is no indication whatever that the state of each ceases at any time. He denies purgatory, for the punitive condition after death is not remedial. Do not then be misled by deceivers, but allow the words of the Lord Jesus to be your sheet anchor.
It is remarkable that the most solemn passages of Scripture touching this matter were uttered by the Lord Jesus. Turn to Mark 9 and observe 'Where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched'. This was no rhetorical statement, it was the affirmation of solemn facts. The worm does not die - per-sonality never ceases to be; 'the fire is not quenched' - the instrument of punishment never becomes inoperative.
We must not imagine God to be vindictive and to delight in torture. He is just and having offered a way of escape, what can He do if that way be rejected? His judgment will be both according to truth and according to a person's works. For some it will be more tolerable than for others, Matt. 11. 22, 24. Some will be beaten with few stripes and some with many. Every factor will be taken into account, such as the times when one lived, the opportunities afforded, environment, parent-hood, and all else, and the righteous Judge will apportion the punishment accordingly.
It has been thought by some that a few years' sin do not merit a whole eternity of punishment, but in the nature of the case it cannot be otherwise. Even in life, often a few moments of sin reap a life-time harvest of disease, for as a man sows so must he also reap. Unlike the beast, man is an eternally existent creature, He must be somewhere for the whole eternity of his being. Added to which sin is an offence against the infinitely holy God. Its gravity cannot be computed. The supreme dignity of the One against whom man has sinned makes his wrong-doing infinite in gravity, 3. 16; 6. 19, and in a community of those regenerated temples built together as a habitation of God. Peter speaks of this habitation as a 'spiritual house' and of each believer as a 'living stone' in that house, 1 Pet. 2. 5. It is thus a living Temple, wherein God now dwells and which should ever resound with His praise; 'ye are God's building', 1 Cor. 3. 9; 2 Cor. 6. 16.
Another reason is that the Church might be a kingdom of priests, 'a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation', 1 Pet. 2. 9; Titus 2.14. James, in his address before the council at Jerusalem, stresses this point when, alluding to the conversion of Cornelius and his company, he tells how God 'at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name', Acts 15. 14. The Church is a 'people for a posses-sion', a 'people for his name', gained by a definite act of purchase (at what infinite cost!), 'purchased with the blood of his own', Acts 20. 28, J.N.D., and is truly a community unique and holy in character.
Peter goes on further to indicate that God has a definite and unique vocation for this 'peculiar possession'. It is first 'to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ', 1 Pet. 2. 5 (cf. also Rom. 12. 1; Heb. 13. 15). This priesthood is not for mere display, but is to function in the sanctuary of the Most Holy. Just as the priests of old had somewhat to offer, so this new holy priesthood is to bring its offering. Even though the earthly ritual and sacrifice of the tabernacle have been fulfilled in the finished work of Christ and He is now the Great High Priest at God's right hand, the Church as a company of believer-priests has a glorious ministry to exercise down here, even of worship within the holiest. This is the Church's highest function today - to worship with acceptance before God. 'Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me.' Hence the writer to the Hebrews says, 'Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, . . . , Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith', Heb. 10. 19-22.
The Church and the Spirit World
Besides these Godward reasons, if we may so call them, there is a wonderful purpose in the Church as it is viewed in relation to the 'principalities and powers in heavenly places' at the present time, to whom it unfolds in some glorious fashion the mystery of the 'manifold (or as it may be rendered "much variegated, many sided, multi-coloured") wisdom of God', Eph. 3. 10. And even in the ages to come the Church is to stand as the eternal monument to 'the exceeding riches of his grace', Eph. 2. 7, the grace which is to be the theme of praise of countless hosts throughout eternity.
The Church and the Saints
Finally, as far as believers are concerned, the Church was formed for the three-fold purpose of testimony, fellowship and service. As to testimony once again Peter reminds us of God's purpose that 'ye should show forth (or, publish abroad) the praises (literally, virtues or excellencies) of him who hath called you', 1 Pet. 2. 9. The Church is to tell out the manifold excellencies of her exalted Head - not only what He has done in bringing salvation to us, but what He is in His unique Person and character. This is the Church's unique privilege, a privilege angels covet, to magnify the Lord Christ before the eyes of the world, to speak well of her Beloved, Song of Sol. 5. 9-16.
This fellowship is to exhibit the unity of all believers, John 17. 21, 22, and is for the mutual building up and comfort of one another, 1 Cor. 12. 26, 27. This idea of fellowship needs to be greatly emphasized in certain quarters. With some it is a common boast, 'I belong to no church'. If this is to be interpreted as belonging to no denomination or sect, well and good. But if, as is often the case, it means a 'free lance' unattached to any company of Christians, it is a two-fold evil; on the one hand it is selfishness and on the other a denial of the unity of the Church. Individual witness and testimony are right and necessary in their place, but there is also a very definite corporate testimony the Church is called upon to present.
We may not always be able to see eye to eye with every believer in any given assembly, but herein lies an opportunity for grace and love to abound. Self-discipline, forbearance, and the coveting earnestly of the best gifts, are all developed in our contact with one another in assembly fellowship. Leadership and the power to help weaker saints to a better knowledge of Isaiah, enlarges the catalogue of offences. The throne and the priesthood alike had no time for God. Thus we can see the reason for the constant use by the prophet of the title 'The Holy One of Israel'.
To such a nation the prophet came with his warning of coming judgment and, to the minority who had spiritual intelligence to hear, the message of a coming Deliverer. We know little of his private life except that he was married with at least two sons and that he lived in Jerusalem. He fades into the background, attention being directed to the claims of God. (Contrast Jeremiah, whose life so vividly portrays something of the sorrows of rejection that our Lord endured.) Similarly, we are to be witnesses of Him, not drawing attention to ourselves.
The reign of Uzziah had, in the main, been good for the land and the people had prospered in material tilings. Jerusalem became used to a life of luxury but this brought in its train corruption and decline. God was patient with them throughout the reign of his successor Jotham but when he was succeeded by Ahaz the coming of judgment was announced. This king was little more than a heathen, who placed no reliance on God at all. Faced with invasion by the joint forces of Israel and Syria, 2 Chron. 28, the hearts of the leaders were moved as the trees in the wind, Isa. 7. 2, yet they desired to turn to Assyria for help and to make a defensive alliance with its king. Isaiah's comments are found in chapter 8.
Thirty years later (the northern kingdom of Israel having been taken away into captivity in the meantime), Jerusalem awaited with fear the attacks of the Assyrian army, the king now being the godly Hezekiah. The suggestion was now made that an alliance should be made with Egypt, and ambassadors were received to this end, but the prophet answers them in chapter 18. Yet he does not speak for all in Jerusalem and subsequently an embassy is sent from Judah to Egypt, seeking their help against Sennacherib. (The message that the prophet was given for this occasion is found in chapter 30.) Refusing to accept the divine message that 'in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength', 30. 15, they lived to see the prophet's words fulfilled when Egypt failed to come to their aid and they find their beloved land laid waste by the Assyrian forces. Thus God's message did not change over the years, and it is still the same today. For God's people to turn to the world for help in any circumstance is a slight against God, and is doomed to failure, since it robs Him of glory.
Testimony to the Coming Deliverer
Although the prophet appears to have known much of ridicule and opposition, his faithfulness was richly rewarded by God. He was given the joyful task of gradually unfolding the message of a coming Deliverer, even Immanuel. While this was intended to comfort the hearts of the faithful who were no doubt grieved at the trend of events, it must have been a great source of joy and comfort to the prophet himself. Our ministry should similarly be a source of rejoicing to ourselves as well as to the edification of others.
What message did God give to His servant to meet the varied needs of his hearers over a period of some forty to fifty years? The opening chapters clearly portray the sinful state of the nation - always the starting point for God's faithful messengers (see Rom. 1-3. 20). The coming birth of a child, Immanuel, is first found in chapter 7, whilst in the ninth chapter we learn that this One is divine. Two chapters further on we are told that He will be the fulfilment of the Davidic promises, the perfect Ruler.
This is developed throughout the book - leading on to the One who would be the perfect Servant of Jehovah, to the Redeemer who would suffer for sins not His own, and also telling of the worldwide blessing that would come through Him. What balm this must have been to the prophet's soul as he told of coming millennial glories, of peace and prosperity and of God being given His rightful place. With what assurance he spoke - we are to speak as the 'oracles of God', 1 Pet. 4. II.
So it has always been - the child of God who continues faithfully to be a channel for the messages he receives from his Lord, will be given a progressively deeper revelation of the glories of his Saviour and of the wonders He has wrought by His redemption, John 7. 38
Whence came the strength to serve so faithfully? Without doubt this is found in the details of his call to service in chapter 6. Filled with the vision of the glory of the Lord he realizes his own unholiness and is then in a condition where God can take him up and use him to His glory. So it was with Abraham, with Paul, and with John on the isle of Patmos, and so it must be with all who desire to follow their example as faithful servants. (A re-reading of the article 'Isaiah's Four Looks' by A. E. Long in the November/December, 1961, issue would be beneficial at this juncture.)
Having been brought face to face with the holiness of God he continually brings this before his hearers by using the divine title we have noticed above, 'The Holy One of Israel'. This should be the hallmark of God's messengers today.
He was to continue telling his message from God until the need for it had passed - that is, until the judgment had fallen. Similarly, our task is to proclaim the Gospel until the day of grace has passed - God will use His Word to accomplish His own purposes, 55. 9-11.
But faithfulness did not lead him into easy paths. At the divine command he was prepared to make himself an object of shame in an attempt to make the people realize their state in the sight of God, 20. 2-3. What an example this is of the teaching given to us in Philippians 2-3.
His sons also were a testimony to the truth of the message he proclaimed, the first, Shear-Jashub, meaning 'the remnant shall return' and the second, 'Maher-shalal-hashbaz' meaning 'hasting the spoil'. It is still desirable of those who would take a public position in God's service that their families bear witness to the spiritual tenor of their own lives, 1 Tim. 3.
Here was a man like ourselves who had heard the call, 'Go, tell' and had obeyed. So even when the city was besieged by the hosts of Sennacherib he remained superbly confident. The confidence of believers in their Father in all the crises of this life should be a testimony to the world.
We must not think that the prophet spoke only to the crowds - when necessary he would speak in power to the individual. We have recorded not only his interview with Ahaz in chapter 7 but also his denunciation of Shebna in chapter 22, In each instance his message was of one whom God would raise up to fulfil His purposes. In one sense it is comparatively easy to speak to the large audiences - let us each seek help from above that we may be as faithful as Isaiah in bringing before individuals the glories of God's Man.
It is not surprising that the record of the power of God working over many years through a man who was prepared to recognize his own sinfulness has been the subject of sustained Satanic attack. Some say that the prophecy was not wholly written by Isaiah - that the latter chapters were written by others. It gives great confidence in tie Word when we remember that this was all foreseen by the divine Author for on turning to the New Testament we find the prophet is quoted on numerous occasions and by name twenty-one times. Moreover, not only does the actual name of the prophet occur, but the apostle John, by divine inspiration, unites both the former and the latter chapters of Isaiah under one and the same author. See John 12. 37-41, where verse 38 is quoted from chapter 53 and verse 40 from chapter 6.
He lived until the reign of the evil king Manasseh, tradition stating that he was sawn asunder. Had he failed in his mission? No - he had spoken the words given him by God to whomsoever he was directed and he had remained faithful in a day of declension. Similar responsibilities rest upon every believer -are we as faithful as Isaiah in discharging them?