Survival Isn't Always Important

Bethlehem’s executive pastor, Sam Crabtree, gave this insightful exposition and application of Isaiah 7:1-9 at today’s Bethlehem staff lunch. Read and be blessed.

Don't Believe, Don't Last

The seventh chapter of Isaiah reports on a wartime context in which the King of Assyria was beginning to make a westward move toward Israel. So King Rezin (of Aram) and King Pekah (of Israel) formed a coalition to save their kingdoms from Assyria’s encroachments. To put this is in the sophisticated nomenclature of the theological academy: the big fish is gonna eat the little fish. So the little fish get together and say, “maybe if we join forces, an alliance against the big fish could save our necks,” except that fish don’t have necks. Pekah and Rezin come to terms and say to each other, “Let’s get Ahaz to help us.” In the words of the old hymn, Ahaz says, “I’m chicken, Colonel Custer; you’re on your own.”

So Pekah and Rezin reply, “Okay, Chicken Little. We’ll just take you off your throne, install our own man, and then do what we please.”

At that point in the developing events, the word of the Lord comes to Isaiah, saying that he should take his son Shear-jashub (meaning, “a remnant shall return;” Isaiah has another son, Maher-shalal-hasbaz, who is thought to have stuttered) and go to Ahaz with encouragement, saying, “Chill, Ahaz. You can trust God. Don’t tremble at these two smoldering cigar butts a-comin’ to terrorize you in order to get you to do their will. God will handle of them. Trust him.”

And then comes the punch line: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” If you do not believe, you will not last.

Isaiah’s message continues: “As a matter of fact, Ahaz, a child will be born, Immanuel, and by the time that child knows right from wrong those two kings will be long gone.” Translation: don’t dread wicked kings in order to survive.

But alas. Ahaz thinks he has to survive at all costs, and so he goes off to the big bad King of Assyria and makes a deal, pays incredible tribute, brings Assyrian things into Judah, and so begins a string of dark days. But Ahaz survived, didn’t he?

If we make survival the chief goal, we very often can survive, but what do we become in the process? To survive we pay the price of bondage. But if we can settle the issue of survival, we are truly free. Survival wasn’t the issue for Jesus. Jesus was willing to die, hence no one could make him do anything that would compromise his integrity or mission.

On occasion I have said to the staff and elders that I don’t care whether Bethlehem goes out of existence, if in order to survive we become the wrong Bethlehem. If we can first settle the issue of what God wants us to be, who we are, what we are, what we believe and stand for (because we must), survival becomes secondary. If we survive, we survive. If we perish, we perish. If we grow, we grow. If we diminish, we diminish. To settle the issue of survival is freedom!

When I taught in the public schools I would annually at Easter put up various bulletin boards featuring quotes about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. One day a fellow teacher asked how I could do that in a public school. I said, “You take one pin and put it up here in this corner, and you take another pin and put it up there in the other corner…” But they weren’t asking about that kind of how. “I do not compel the students to read it or discuss it or pledge allegiance to it, nor are they tested on it. I have had no complaints from students, parents, or administration. But if I did, if I were to lose my job over this, I can’t think of a better reason to lose my job.” To settle the issue of survival is freedom!

The battle is the Lord’s. But if we choose to make the battle ours, and choose to make survival the goal of the battle, then we start to figure the angles, make subtle accommodations, compromise here and there, demote moral conviction, and do anything to win, to survive. What we need is a fundamental shift in the center of gravity in our lives from focusing on survival of ourselves to glorifying God, even in death.

At the outset of his public ministry, Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit for forty days and nights, to be tempted. That’s a long time without nourishment. He begins his ministry about to starve to death. (At the beginning of your ministry, people will not beat a path to your bones.) Survival in jeopardy. And what does he say? “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” He could say no to Satan because he had settled the fundamental issue of survival. The issue was not bread, but obedience.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could remain faithful in the face of fiery flames because they had settled the issue of survival.

Daniel could persist in prayer because he had settled the issue of lions’ dens.

David could charge Goliath with a bag of small stones because he had settled the issue of what was worth dying for.

The martyrs in Revelation testified in the face of death threats and overcame Satan.

Revelation 12:11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.

In contrast, Caiaphas had to survive (If we do not destroy Jesus we will lose our place.), and so he concocted a bogus legal proceeding.

Pilate had to survive (“You’re not Caesar’s friend.” Oh, so that’s the issue.), and so he washed his hands of it and said “Crucify him.”

Beware the impulse to survive. You may become something you didn’t intend. Ironically, if you don’t believe, you won’t last. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.