One indispensable motive for our mission to the nations is hope — the confidence that we are engaged in a cause that will triumph in the end. No life laid down in the cause of world evangelization is laid down in vain. No dollar given is in vain. No sermon preached is in vain. No prayer offered is in vain. No candle of gospel light is ever lit in vain.
I love Paul’s words. I cling to them! “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Our energy and sacrifice and focus are sustained by hope — the confidence that God’s kingdom will triumph in this world.
“No life laid down in the cause of world evangelization is laid down in vain.”
Isaiah 25:1–8 is a picture of that hope. What Old Testament prophets do again and again is give us a picture of the final day of victory — from one angle and then from another angle. Each time the aim is that we take heart, give God the glory, and press on in hope-filled allegiance to Christ and hope-filled missions.
So, my aim is to encourage you with a vision of stunning hope: our almighty God is on your side, he loves your mission, and he has promised an astonishing triumph in the end.
Seeing with Isaiah
First, let’s look at what Isaiah sees. What he sees stretches from eternity past to eternity future. It is a huge vision.
Look at Isaiah 25:1: “O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.” God had made plans long ago in perfect faithfulness. And now he is bringing his plans to pass in working wonders.
God is a planning God. He gives forethought to what he does. He is wise. And because he is all-knowing, he is never playing catch-up ball. He takes all his knowledge into account in making all his plans. He is never caught off guard. If he wins in the last three seconds of the battle, he planned it that way. God never “gets lucky.” Isaiah stresses this in chapter 46: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:9–10).
So in verse 1, Isaiah sees a vision of God’s plan stretching from eternity past. And now to eternity future. Look at Isaiah 25:6–8. Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, once said that he could never read these verses, especially verse 8, without tears. They are one of the most remarkable prophecies in all the Old Testament.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples [note: all peoples!] a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.
“God is so powerful and so gracious that in the end he will turn cities of ruthless nations to fear him.”
So, Isaiah sees the day coming when all the nations — representatives from all the people groups (Revelation 5:9) — will no longer be at odds with Yahweh, the God of Israel, and his Messiah, whom we know to be Jesus. They will no longer worship Bel or Nebo or Molech or Allah or Buddha or utopian social programs or capitalistic growth possibilities or ancestors or animistic spirits. Instead, they will come in faith to the banquet on God’s mountain. And they will have the veil of sorrow removed, and death shall be swallowed up, and the reproach of God’s people will be removed, and tears shall be gone forever.
Triumph Is Sure
That’s the setting for understanding the vision of verse 3, which is the word that I have in mind mainly for your encouragement and hope: “Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you” (Isaiah 25:3). In other words, God is stronger than the strong peoples, and he is so powerful and so gracious that in the end he will turn cities of ruthless nations to fear him.
This is not the cowering fear of enemies. This is the reverential fear of converts. We know this because the subdued peoples of verse 3 are included in the all peoples of verse 6: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” So, the vision of verse 3 is that strong peoples and the cities of these ruthless nations will turn and fear the Lord — their hostility to the gospel will be overcome, and they will believe.
The picture Isaiah gives us is one of all nations turned to God in worship, a great banquet for all the peoples, the removal of all suffering and grief and reproach from the nations who have become his people, and the final putting away of death forever. This triumph is sure because God is doing it. As verse 1 says, he planned it long ago, and he is working wonders to bring it to pass. Therefore, we can be certain of it.
Not one life spent in the cause of world evangelization is spent in vain. Not one prayer or one dollar or one sermon or one letter of encouragement mailed or one little light shining in some dark place — nothing in the cause of advancing the kingdom is in vain. The triumph is sure.
Paul’s Mission Strategy
Now let’s look at one New Testament picture of how the cities of ruthless nations would be subdued and come to fear Yahweh.
Paul’s mission strategy was to go from city to city and plant a church. From the city, the surrounding area was then evangelized. For example, in Acts 19:10 Luke says that because of Paul’s two-year investment in Ephesus, “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” That was the strategy: bringing the blessing of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the power of God unto salvation, from city to city.
Paul got a vision from Macedonia in northern Greece: “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Paul’s response to this was to take his team from Turkey to Macedonia and focus on the first major city, Philippi.
When Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. (Acts 16:10–12)
“Our job is to torch the glaciers over ten thousand cities. God is with us in this. And he will not fail.”
Philippi was pagan and diverse — no one will ever plant a church in a city more alien to Christianity than Philippi was. There was the imperial cult that deified the Caesar. There were the Greek gods with their temples and altars and Latin names: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Mars. Artemis had her cult under the name Bendis. And there were sanctuaries to the gods of Egypt, especially Isis and Serapis, as well as the Phrygian Cybele known as the great mother goddess. It was, to use the words of Isaiah, a city of ruthless nations that Paul wanted to see revere God.
So, Paul preached by the river, and God saved one woman, Lydia (Acts 16:13–15). He preached in the streets, and God saved a slave girl who had been possessed by a spirit of fortune-telling (Acts 16:16–18). He was arrested with Silas and put in prison, and they sang down a miracle and preached the gospel to the jailer, and God saved him and his family (Acts 16:19–34). And there was the church: a business woman who sold purple goods, a former slave girl, and a low-level government employee.
What became of this strategy of blessing the city of Philippi with a new gospel-driven church? When Paul wrote to the Philippians years later from prison in Rome, they were clearly unparalleled in his affections. “You Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only” (Philippians 4:15).
This growing church was the exact opposite of ruthless and cruel and harsh and selfish. They had become so transformed that they were models to the church in Corinth. We see this in 2 Corinthians 8:1–2. “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”
Archaeologists have uncovered two large basilicas in Philippi from the fifth or sixth century. Thousands from this city of ruthless nations had come to fear the true God.
Torch the Glaciers
So, take heart. The vision to be a gospel blessing to all the peoples of the world is a biblical vision. And even more wonderful, it is a vision that cannot fail — if any one of us walks away from it, someone else will pick it up. God will see to that. Christ has redeemed a people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. “Strong peoples will glorify [him]; cities of ruthless nations will fear [the Lord]” (Isaiah 25:3).
If you look out across America and the world, and the moral and spiritual climate appears bleak, you are right. There is a great glacier spreading, and the love of many grows cold, and there are heightened hostilities to the gospel. But our job is to torch the glaciers over ten thousand cities. God is with us in this. And he will not fail. So let’s plant the flag of Isaiah 25:3 in ten thousand places around this world. Strong peoples will glorify him, and cities of ruthless nations will fear the Lord.