It is one of the most staggering and gripping narratives in the Bible. The prophet Isaiah is allowed to see a vision of God’s holiness that leads him to pronounce judgement upon himself and then concludes with him going to tell other people about this unfathomably holy God and their substantial lack of holiness.
What is particularly instructive is the connection between his cleansing and his commissioning. When he realized what he had been cleansed from then he was more apt to embrace who he was cleansed for. Let’s be honest, one of the reasons why we sputter in evangelism is a truncated view of God’s holiness. Isaiah saw this and he was focused on his mission.
The need for cleansing comes from the awareness of sin. In other words, seeing a lack of holiness next to God’s ineffable holiness leads one to a gratitude for being cleansed.
Isaiah tells us that this vision came in the year of King Uzziah’s death. Why is this important? It is because this king got leprosy for failing to see the significance of God’s holiness (2 Chron. 26.16-21). At a time when a king’s death and God’s holiness is on the mind, this heavenly portal opens and Isaiah has his face melted off.
He sees the angels flying about with wings flapping and their mouths declaring that God is in fact holy (Is. 6.2-3). Alec Motyer notes that “their down-folded and up-stretched wings they look like huge flames surrounding the throne of the Holy One.” Adding to this scene is the house filling with smoke and the thresholds shaking. Isaiah, almost choking to death from the sight of holiness declares, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Is. 6.5).
Note this: Isaiah sees himself worthy of judgement because he is unclean. He is ruined.
But, thankfully this is not the end. An angel comes to him with the burning coal of the altar. He touches Isaiah’s mouth and declares that his guilt is gone and his sin is atoned for (Is. 6.6)! This is beautiful. The angel carries with him all of the rich theological themes encapsulated in a coal. God brings atonement, makes propitiation, secures forgiveness, removes guilt, accomplishes redemption, and takes away any alienation from sin. He is cleansed! He has seen God’s holiness and instead of being struck dead for his sin he is cleansed from it.
Right after this pronouncement of cleansing there is an announcement that Isaiah has a job to do. The freshly cleansed prophet declares his willingness to serve (Is. 6.8) and God then sends him to people (Is. 6.9).
We might also note that his commissioning amounted to the evangelistic equivalent of banging his head against a wall. He may have as much success preaching in the middle of a cemetery. The people, says God, do not understand and do not perceive (Is. 6.9). And he is to keep on preaching until God has accomplished his work. This is sobering stuff.
Here is where some help from Isaiah is useful with our own evangelism.
- While we are not prophets we are certainly people who have been given a commission by the King of kings (Mt. 28.19-21). And, this commission is to go until God has said it is over.
- There is a God-centeredness to his commissioning that we often lack in our thinking about evangelism. While we want to see people converted and not go to hell, there is a larger component to evangelism. We are jealous for God and desire him to be worshipped rightly! In other words, we have seen his holiness and know what he demands. The slightest sin is an insult to him. God is the one who is seeking true worshippers (Jn. 4.23-24). He is a jealous God and his people are to likewise be jealous for his fame (cf. Acts 17.16).
- Isaiah goes from on his face to on the street. He sees his own sinfulness and therefore is greatly burdened to do what his cleansing, thrice-holy God would have him to do. Let us not forget that we who are Christians have been purchased, bought by God and for God. We have work to do in glorifying him in our bodies (1 Cor. 6.20), this is more than just evangelism but it is definitely not less than this.
- Isaiah’s evangelism was fuelled by a sight of the glory of God. He hears the angels proclaiming the holiness and glory of God (Is. 6.3). He feels the shaking and experiences the smoke. The glory of God is stamped on his eyelids and forever tattooed upon his soul. We are instructed by the Apostle John about just what Isaiah saw. In John 12.41 we read, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” Referring back to chapter 6 and applying directly to Jesus Christ, the Apostle says that Isaiah saw the glory of Christ. If you are struggling with evangelism then before you go after techniques and “best practices” make sure you don’t overlook this simple but profound truth: The glory of Christ motivates faithful proclamation of the word of God. And where do we see the glory of Christ? We see his glory through the Bible.
So often we can overcomplicate things as Christians. Let’s not overlook the simple truth here in this passage, God is an infinitely holy God who desires and deserves worship from all. When we have been made to see our sin and be cleansed from it, we cannot do anything but be willing men and women for his service. If we ever lose sight of who God is and who we are, then we must run back to the word of God where we see the glory of Christ. In short: Faithful evangelism begins with clear sight. This will do it every time.