(If you prefer to watch/listen rather than read, you can watch below. The message begins at 22:06 and lasts for almost 28 minutes.)
We are in a series on the gospel titled Finally, Some Good News. Such series frequently begin in the New Testament, as if Jesus and the Evangelists had invented the word “gospel.” They didn’t. They discovered it in the Old Testament, and what they found there shaped their proclamation.
When Jesus burst onto the scene with the good news – the gospel – that the kingdom of God was at hand, his fellow-Jews knew what he was talking about. They had learned about it in synagogue when Isaiah was read, particularly chapter 52. When they heard Jesus urging them to believe the gospel (the good news), it was Isaiah’s gospel that was in mind.
Isaiah 52 begins with God shouting, “Awake, awake!” An observant reader will know that God is echoing words addressed to him a few verses earlier, when someone told him to wake up: “Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of the LORD” (Isaiah 51:9). (In the vernacular: “Wake up, God! Roll up your sleeves and get to work.”) But in chapter 52, God answers: “I’m not asleep. You’re the ones who need to wake up. I’ve got good news for you.”
That good news came at a time when a mountain of bad news had piled up around the Jewish people. They had just come through a long and ruinous war. Death was everywhere. The land had been pulverized; the capitol city devastated. Israel’s temple – the sanctuary of their God – had been razed, which indicated to ancient people that the god of that temple had been defeated. The population had been systematically and forcibly deported to a foreign country.
Now fast-forward hundreds of years to Jesus’s announcement of the arrival of Isaiah’s good news (Mark 1:14-15). The Jewish people were once again standing in the shadow of a mountain of bad news. The government had been deposed, the army disbanded, and foreign soldiers patrolled the streets. Taxes were impoverishing people. The foreigners were even meddling in their worship, appointing, and removing high priests at will, corrupting their most sacred institution.
Today, we stand in the shadow of our own mountain of bad news. A pandemic is killing us. Politics is polarizing us. Churches around the country are closed and many will never reopen. Domestic violence is surging. Opioid addiction is devastating. Unemployment is high, the stock market is volatile, and the potential for election violence is looming.
But on this mountain of bad news, a voice is announcing good news – the same news Isaiah and Jesus proclaimed. I think it’s time we had some good news. Listen to this:
Isaiah 52:7-10: How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.”
That is a mountain of good news, which we’ll explore in just a moment.
Have you ever noticed that when someone tells a good news/bad news joke, the bad news always outweighs the good? A husband tells his wife: “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The wife says, “Better give me the good news first.” He says, “Okay. The dogs are clean.” She says, “What’s the bad news?” He answers: “The washing machine broke.”
But when God tells a good news/bad news story, the good news always outweighs the bad. The good news lasts. When the morning comes (and it will come), the bad news will vanish like mist on a sunny morning. But the good news will remain, as solid as granite.
What is the good news? Isaiah presents it in three parts: God reigns; God returns; God redeems. But Isaiah delivers this good news in story form, not propositional statements. If we read this as if Isaiah were simply stating facts, not telling a story, we’ll miss some of the riches of it.
Take the first line of verse 7: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news…” (or “preach the gospel,” as the Greek translation has it). Now we need to set the stage. Remember the bad news: Israel has been defeated in war, her cities decimated, the temple of her God destroyed.
Her people, after an extended time of famine, have been dragged away, without sufficient clothing or food. They are hungry, cold, diseased. Many die on the way. Those who survive find themselves surrounded by foreigners who despise them. They are treated as slaves.
That is the backdrop to chapter 52. But Isaiah does not follow the exiles to Babylon. He takes us to Jerusalem and its handful of survivors. The city is in ruins, its walls broken down, its remaining residents just waiting for the next tragedy to occur. Suddenly, the watchers on the wall discern something in the distance. It grows larger, which means it is coming closer – running it seems. It is a person.
And it is a person, even though verse 7 in the NIV says, “the feet of those.” A more literal translation would go: “How beautiful on the mountains [that is, coming over the mountains that surround Jerusalem] are the feet of the one who brings good news.” Isaiah is telling a story, not stating a propositional truth. We’re not tracking with him when we take this to be a general principle about sharing the gospel.
One person, not many people, betokens good news. Many people would signify a retreat but there is only one, which indicates a messenger. As he nears, all the watchers on the wall are focused on him. He is winded from running, almost breathless, but he is obviously trying to tell them something.
Finally, he is close enough for those on the walls to hear. He barks out in staccato fashion: “There’s peace. It’s good! We’re saved!” He stops, catches his breath, and then announces to the city the good news: “Your God reigns!”
This is the gospel according to Isaiah: “God reigns.” But what does that mean? The messenger has just told us. It means peace. It means good. It means we’re saved.
The reign of God brings peace. Do we even know what peace is? There is violence outside in the streets and unrest inside in our hearts. But God’s reign means an end to violence. Ruptures will be healed; rifts will be sealed. “No longer,” in the words of Isaiah 60:18, “will violence be heard in your land.”
In Jewish thinking, peace (“shalom:”) was more than the absence of violence. It was the presence of wellness and harmony, inside and out, with God and others. This note sounds again and again in the New Testament, as in Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The people of Jesus are the people of peace.
After announcing peace, Isaiah’s messenger declares: “It’s good.” The reign of God means good for us and for all creation. There was a time, prior to the curse, when everything was good. In Genesis 1, we hear the refrain: “It was good.” It repeats six times and then, on the seventh time, as if in crescendo, “…it was very good.”
When God reigns, the vision of Genesis 1 will be restored. All creation – not just humans – will benefit. Flora, fauna, and ecosystems will flourish. “…the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). When God’s reign is fully realized, we will look at creation with him and together we will say, “It is good. It is very good.”
The reign of God also means salvation. This certainly includes rescue from a negative judgment and the punishment it entails, but it means more than that. Salvation is deliverance from sin (both in us and around us), from evil, and even from death. The name Jesus actually means, “Yahweh Saves!” That’s what he does: he saves from addictions, frees from oppression, releases from bondage. That is good news.
But that, as they say in the commercials, is not all. For the God who reigns is also the God who returns. After the messenger with the beautiful feet shares his news, the watchmen on the wall begin shouting for joy. Look at verse 8. “Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.”
But why does God need to return? Where has he gone? This will make no sense unless we understand the fear that haunted Jewish thinking during this period. Many Jews thought they were not the only ones who went into exile in 587 B.C. So did the lord. The Jewish exile was catastrophic, but God’s departure was the ultimate disaster.
That is the vision of Ezekiel, the prophet/priest of the exile. Chapter ten contains his famous vision of the wheel in the sky – or wheels, since there are four of them, all interconnected and piloted (is that the right word) by strange beings referred to as cherubim. In that vision, the unthinkable happens. The sky wheel(s) departs from the temple and the lord goes with it. God has left the building. Now, even if the exiles were somehow to return, what was there to come back to? God was gone.
When the Jews did begin coming back 70 years later, the idea persisted that God had left. One of the reasons we find the Pharisees so angry and critical in the Gospels is that they believed God would only fully return to Israel when everyone started keeping the Mosaic law. The rabble, as they called them, were extending the curse by ignoring God’s law! (John 7:49) They were keeping God away.
The Pharisees were watchmen, waiting for God to fully return and to reign. Unfortunately, when the messenger with the beautiful feet did arrive (John the Baptist), they were too busy scrutinizing and criticizing other people to take note of what he said. And when the day came and God returned in the person of the Messiah Jesus, they failed to recognize him.
They failed in their role as watchmen, but they were right in their desire for God’s presence. To live in the presence of God was the reality of Eden and the promise of the New Covenant. That promise will be fulfilled, as Revelations 21:3 makes clear: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
This “return of God” was in people’s minds when they heard Jesus announcing the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand. Biblically speaking, the return of God has happened (in part) on two occasions and is yet to happen once more. First, God came back (though not fully) with the exiles in 538 BC. The city was rebuilt. People slowly returned. The temple was restored.
But God came in an even more significant way when Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week. On that day he told people they weren’t recognizing the time of God’s coming to them (Luke 19:44). God is set to return once more, fully this time, to live with and among his people, when Jesus comes again.
God reigns. God returns. But there’s still more. The God who reigns and returns also redeems. These is verse 9: “Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.” At this point, even the ruins of Jerusalem sing. God comforts his people by redeeming them.
It is hard for us to grasp what the Bible means when it speaks of redeeming someone. We talk about redeeming value: “The one redeeming value of this horrible film is that it shows a faithful marriage relationship.” We understand “redeeming value” but not “redeeming people.” For first century Christians, it would have been the other way around. They would not have understood “redeeming value,” but they knew all about redeeming people.
Let’s say a pandemic sweeps across the first century Mediterranean, the economy fizzles, and hundreds of thousands of people have no work. I am one of those people. I borrow money to buy food. I sell my house and become homeless. When I don’t know what else to do, I offer myself on the slave block. At least, as a slave, I will get a daily meal.
When you, my brother or sister, return from Asia, you learn of my plight. You hurry to the slave auction and, at great cost to yourself, you buy me and then release me from slavery to be a free man. You share your home, your food, and your work with me. You free me from danger and loss. You have redeemed me.
That is what God has done for us. He has bought us at a great price and set us free. He has given us a home with him, food to eat, work to do.
How does God redeem? Look at verse 10: “The LORD will lay bare his holy arm [that is, he will roll up his sleeves] in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.”
A study of the arm of the Lord in Isaiah is worthwhile. In chapter 40, his strong arm tenderly carries his people the way a shepherd carries an injured lamb. In chapter 51, the arm of the Lord is identified with God himself, the God who freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. In chapter 53, the arm of the Lord is the servant of the Lord, the who is rejected and dies an atoning death, but is vindicated and exalted by God.
In other words, Jesus Christ is God’s strong arm. God rolled up his sleeves in Jesus. He paid the redemption price through him.
I’m glad God does not redeem the way the NFL drafts. He is not pinching pennies so he can afford the biggest and the best. He’s already paid enough for everyone. Unlike the draft, redemption has no 487th pick in the 17th round. Not one of the redeemed is known as “Mr. Irrelevant.” Everyone goes in the first round – everyone who is willing to be freed.
This is good news for us. This is gospel. Our sins and failures landed us on the slave block but God has redeemed us! Even if we have been sold into addiction, bound by greed, and shackled by shame, he will set us free and bring us into his redeemed family.
But how do we get in on it? Jesus launched the revolution of redemption with the good news announcement that the kingdom of God was at hand. It was available. But how could people get in on the reign of God? Where could they go to join up? They could go to Jesus. He was and is (as Christopher Wright put it) “God reigning.”
And he was and is God returning. When Jesus came to Jerusalem and entered the temple, the vision of God’s return was partially realized. When he comes again, God’s return will be complete. Then “the dwelling of God [will be] with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
And Jesus was and is God redeeming. God rolled up his sleeves in Bethlehem. He stretched out his strong arm on the cross of Calvary, where God redeemed us, as Peter put it, from our empty way of life “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18).
When bad news is piled mountain high around us, remember the good news that Jesus Christ is God reigning. On the mountain of hopelessness, shout for joy that Jesus Christ is God returning. And trapped on the mountain of addiction, with nowhere to turn, know that Jesus Christ is God redeeming.
I’ll close with lyrics from a Big Daddy Weave song, which we sang last Sunday night around the bonfire. It’s called I Am Redeemed.
Seems like all I could see was the struggle. Haunted by ghosts that lived in my past. Bound up in shackles of all my failures. Wondering how long is this gonna last. Then You look at this prisoner and say to me “son … Stop fighting a fight that’s already been won.” I am redeemed, You set me free. So I’ll shake off these heavy chains, Wipe away every stain, now I’m not who I used to be – I am redeemed…
God did not redeem us to leave us in our chains. Shake them off – he will help. Though the scars remain, he will wipe away the stains. He has a life for us to live, work for us to do, and good news for us to share. We’ve been redeemed!
 I gratefully acknowledge dependence on Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People, especially pp. 182ff