Scripture: Isaiah 6
Text: Isaiah 6:6,7 and Lord’s Day 25
Sermon by Rev. James Reaves
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Kelowna, British Columbia, 2001
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 18, No. 2
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Few subjects have brought more division to the church of Jesus Christ than the sacraments, and yet they are one of Christ’s precious gifts to His church. What has gone wrong? The Roman Catholics claim the emblems of the Lord’s Supper become the body and blood of Christ. The Lutherans claim Christ’s physical presence with the elements. The Reformed claim Christ is spiritually present in the observances, while the Anabaptists reduce the celebration to a memorial meal.
Disagreement over baptism is every bit as diverse, there being no agreement as to who should be baptized, how they should be baptized, and when they should be baptized. The Salvation Army do not even observe the sacraments, claiming they are of an entirely spiritual nature.
So we have division. What has brought such a state of affairs to pass? No doubt ignorance and self-will have played a large part, and perhaps even indifference, but explaining the problem will do little to solve it. Ignoring the problem will do even less. What we should do is listen carefully to God’s Word to see if we can discover His truth concerning the subject. That would call for an indefinite number of sermons on the subject, and I am not sure we are ready for that.
What I propose to do is to select a sacrament from the Old Testament and then relate both baptism and the Lord’s Supper to it. The sacrament I have chosen is the one we will observe in Isaiah 6 verses 6 and 7. There are things in this sacrament that will help us understand the Biblical view of the subject, and it will also help us to understand Lord’s Day 25 in our Heidelberg Catechism.
Thus the outline goes like this. We will look at the sacraments:
I. Of Isaiah 6:6
II. Of baptism, and;
III. Of the Lord’s Supper
We begin with the sacrament of Isaiah 6:6. In this text a seraphim takes a live coal from off the altar of the temple, and flying to Isaiah, touches his mouth with it. Isaiah was able to watch this action with his eyes, feel it on his lips, and perhaps hear the sizzle and smell the smoke and even taste its effect in his mouth. It involved an external action with undeniable impact on his senses. But notice, the action does not go unexplained. The seraphim speaks and says to Isaiah, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.” God does not want the action incorrectly interpreted. Isaiah might have thought, “Oh no, I am going to get burned for my unclean speaking. I am condemned and finished.” But that wasn’t the message. The message was that your iniquity is taken away. You are pardoned, you are cleansed. Your offences in God’s sight are removed. You can go free, and you can even be of use to God.
So we see the need of keeping the ministry of word and sacrament together. In John Calvin’s day, the Roman Catholic Church had separated the ministry of word and sacrament. No explanation was given for the sacramental actions that were taken, and Calvin complained that they had become mere stage plays. Sacraments are not meant to stand all on their own. They must be coupled with a ministry of word, and we see this coupling in the sacrament of Isaiah 6:6. The seraphim took the action and the seraphim explained the action in words. There should be no mistaking of what the action means.
But then we face another question: Did the action of the sacrament actually do the cleansing and taking away of Isaiah’s sin? Did the fire in that coal actually burn away Isaiah’s guilt as it touched his mouth? I don’t think so. How can a physical fire take away spiritual guilt? If you could remove sin with fire, a preacher might be better off exchanging his Bible for a branding iron. That might initially appeal to the folks in a cowboy church, but once they got into action the appeal would disappear in a hurry.
Rather we understand that the action taken by the seraphim in touching Isaiah’s lips with the live coal is an outer sign of the spiritual work God was doing in Isaiah’s behalf. God alone forgives sin and takes it away. The fiery touch of the live coal serves to signify this cleansing.
But it signifies something more. The coal was taken from off the altar, and the altar speaks to us of propitiatory sacrifice being made, for “without shedding of blood there is no remission.” Without a propitiatory sacrifice there would have been no live coal. But all the blood of bulls and goats on Jewish altars slain could not cleanse a single sin or wash away a stain. Those Old Testament sacrifices only served to point ahead to the coming ultimate sacrifice, the death of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross. He was the One who bore the sin of many. He was the One who propitiated the anger of God against sin by offering up His life upon the cross, and it was His sacrifice that enabled God to take away Isaiah’s sin when he was touched by that live coal from off the altar. The sign of that live coal pointed ultimately to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
The sacraments always point us to Jesus. They accomplish nothing of themselves; they only serve to turn our attention to Him. The sacraments are signs of what is accomplished by Christ Jesus, our Saviour, signs of the cleansing that is in Him.
There is one other feature that we can observe in this sacrament in Isaiah 6. The sacraments also serve as seals, reassuring seals. God could have sent the Seraphim to Isaiah simply to announce to Isaiah “Your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.” And that, I suppose, could have been viewed as sufficient communication of his cleansing. But God was not satisfied with a merely verbal testimony. God chose also to seal His testimony with an outward sacramental sign, a sign that Isaiah saw, felt, smelled and tasted, and this sign added its own testimony to the words spoken by the Seraphim. It served to reassure Isaiah, as the sacraments serve to reassure us today.
So what have we learned here about sacraments? I submit to you that this is what we have learned. “The sacraments are holy, visible signs and seals, appointed by God for this end, that by the use thereof He may more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel; namely, that He of grace grants us the remission of sins and life eternal, for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.” And that is precisely answer 66 in the Heidelberg Catechism.
Now let us turn our attention to the sacrament of baptism. All agree that it is an application of water, although unhappily there is disagreement on how it is applied. I think the Bible supports the view that water is applied by sprinkling or perhaps by pouring. My Baptist friends insist that it is done by dipping the candidate into the water, but the difference isn’t all that critical. Either way you have a ceremonial washing. That is the action. If the candidate keeps his eyes open, he will see the water and will feel it too. It is an external action with undeniable impact on the senses and it should be clear from the Bible that the action does not go unexplained.
John the Baptist, when he was baptizing, first preached repentance, calling the people to make straight paths on which the Lord would come to them. Peter, on the day of Pentecost, called the people to “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins.” Jesus, in His great commission, told His disciples to “Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” The baptizing and the teaching go together. The action was never left unexplained. We still need to keep the ministry of the Word and the sacrament together. God does not want the action incorrectly interpreted. It portrays what Paul called in Titus 3:5 “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” It portrays the washing away of sin, and the candidate can now say, I have been washed. I have been cleansed, and I have been forgiven.
But we again face the question: does the action of baptism actually do the cleansing and taking away of sin? Does the water really wash one’s sins away? I don’t think so. How can physical water wash away spiritual guilt? If you could remove sin with water, a preacher might be better off exchanging his Bible for a fire hose. Rather we understand that the application of water is an outward sign of the spiritual work that God has done or promises to do for the one baptized. God alone forgives sin and takes it away. The wet touch of the water serves to signify this cleansing.
But it signifies something more. The water portrays the washing of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit was not sent from heaven until after Jesus had ascended there, after He had risen again from the dead, after He had suffered and died upon the cross, and died the propitiatory sacrifice. There is no washing away of sin without Jesus taking them upon Himself and bearing them away in His death upon the cross. Jesus is the one who washes sin away, and the water of the sacrament points ultimately to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
The sacraments always point us to Jesus. They accomplish nothing of themselves. They only serve to turn our attention to Him. The sacraments are signs of what is accomplished by Christ Jesus, our Savior, signs of the cleansing that is in Him.
There is also the other feature we can observe in the sacrament of baptism. The sacrament also serves as a seal, a reassuring seal. Jesus could simply have sent His disciples out to make disciples, teaching them to observe all things. But Jesus was not satisfied with merely verbal testimony. Jesus chose also to seal His testimony with an outward sacramental sign, a sign that could be both seen and felt, a sign that would assure His people that sin really is forgiven in Christ Jesus. And that is the reassurance we have in baptism today. I think the Heidelberg Catechism still has it right—“The sacraments are holy, visible signs and seals, appointed by God for this end, that by the use thereof He may more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel; namely, that He of grace grants us the remission of sins and life eternal, for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.”
We turn now to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The action here sees bread broken, distributed to the people, and eaten, followed by wine being poured out, distributed to the people and drunk. It amounts to a ceremonial meal. That is the action. He who participates sees the bread broken, the wine poured out, and the distribution. He feels the bread as he picks it up, and probably smells it too. And he tastes both the bread and the wine as he partakes. It is all external action with undeniable impact on the senses, and it should also be clear from the biblical accounts that the action does not go unexplained. Of the bread Jesus said, “Take eat, this is my body which is broken for you.” That He meant that the bread represents His body should be clear, for He had but one body and was speaking from it at that very moment. Of the cup He said, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” That He meant that the wine represents His blood should be clear, for His blood still flowed within the body from which He spoke. But what is of greater interest to us is that He speaks of His body as broken and of His blood shed, things which actually happened the following day on the cross, things which happened for the remission of sins. For there at the cross Jesus bore the sins of His people, endured the judgment they deserved, that His people might be forgiven and cleansed. Jesus’ death was the real propitiatory sacrifice that takes away sin.
Does eating the bread and drinking the cup remove sin? I don’t think so. How can bread and wine remove guilt? The bread and the wine are signs of Jesus’ body and blood, signs of His death on the cross, signs of the sacrifice that takes away sin. They speak loudly of forgiveness, the forgiveness freely offered to those who come to Jesus in faith.
But as we have seen, the sacraments are more than signs. They are also seals, reassuring seals. We hear the Lord’s words of mercy and pardon, but as we eat the bread and drink the wine we have this testimony our other senses can detect, that underlines and further emphasizes that what we heard with our ears is true. There is mercy and pardon freely offered in the Lord Jesus Christ! The sacraments both signify and assure us that it is so. They are “holy, visible signs and seals, appointed by God for this end, that by the use thereof He may more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel; namely, that He of grace grants us the remission of sins and life eternal, for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.”
The sacraments, as we have seen, are signs and seals of a spiritual reality. But the spiritual reality needs to be realized if the sacraments are to have anything to signify and seal. The reality of forgiveness, cleansing and new life is granted only to those who repent of sin and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, believing that His death truly does atone for their sin. If we are to enter into the blessing we must so repent and believe. We need such a Saviour! And we need such faith! May God grant such faith and life to each one of us. Amen.