Answering the Call to Ministry
One of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make was the decision to leave my job as a Customer Service Manager for a large pharmaceutical company and go into full-time ministry (40+ years ago). There were so many questions that had no clear-cut answers; so many doubts about my ability; so much anxiety over how things would work out. When I finally arrived at Oklahoma Christian University for training, I found that most other people going into ministry felt pretty much the same way. And, it wasn't only those going into preaching but other men and women considering going into the mission field as well as brothers thinking about becoming deacons or serving as elders.
Somehow when the call to ministry comes (whatever it may be in the church), there comes with it a lot of difficult questions. For this reason, I'd like to review Isaiah the prophet's call into ministry. Hopefully, we can find direction and encouragement for the men and women that are being called into the various ministries that the church needs in every generation.
Background of Isaiah
Most of what we know about Isaiah himself comes from chapters 6-8; 36-39 of his book. He was the son of Amoz (not to be confused with Amos the prophet). There is, however, no information on Amoz. Isaiah lived and ministered in Jerusalem for 53 years from before 739 BC (the year King Uzziah died) to after 686 BC (the year King Hezekiah died). Isaiah wrote biographies of both kings which are referenced in II Chronicles (II Chronicles 26:22; 32:32). He was married and had at least two children who had symbolic names used in his prophetic work.
- Shear - Jashub = "A remanent shall return" - A name given to convey hope that Judah would survive an attack by its enemies and one day return to rebuild their city.
- Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz = The spoil speeds/the prey hastens"
This name referred to the coming destiny upon Judah's enemies, Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Based on the familiarity Isaiah had with the inner workings of the temple and his proximity to the royal court, it is believed that he may have been a priest. He was well educated as can be seen in his writing style. His position and education suggests that he was wealthy and part of the upper class of Judean society of that time.
Isaiah was one of the few prophets who had disciples (Isaiah 8:16). His relationship with them may have been similar to that which Samuel and Elisha had with the "sons of the prophets" or that Jeremiah had with Baruch. They may have assisted in his ministry or helped perpetuate it as scribes.
We don't know for certain where or how he died but as non-inspired work called "The Ascension of Isaiah," says that he was executed by King Manasseh by being sawn in two. He may be the one referred to by the Hebrew writer in Hebrews 11:37 who describes heroes of the faith: "They were stoned, they were sawn in two, others were killed with the sword." That particular reference may be to the way Isaiah died.
Of course, to understand any prophet requires a view of the times that he lived in and the conditions under which he operated. There were three elements that influenced the substance of Isaiah's ministry and preaching:
1. Prosperity - King Uzziah's reign (780-740 BC) was one of great prosperity. In the midst of this wealth, Isaiah denounced the manner that this wealth was acquired, usually by the oppression of the poor. In addition to this, the wealthy were more easily exposed to and influenced by the idolatrous practices of their neighbors.
2. Strategic Location of Judah - Judah was situated geographically midway between the two superpowers of the day who constantly wanted to overrun its territory in order to stage wars against each other and neighboring countries. Isaiah continually warned the Judean kings not to form partnerships with either one of these, but rather to trust in God for their safety. Much of his prophesies had to do with warnings against such alliances and the eventual judgment of these and other nations by God.
3. Conduct of the Kings - Isaiah's training and position made him a natural choice to be God's prophet or "minister" to the kings. Much of his work was dictated by the faith and conduct of the kings he ministered to:
- Uzziah was at the end of his reign and died the year Isaiah was called. Uzziah was an able ruler and the Kingdom enjoyed prosperity under him. He mostly obeyed the Lord until later in his reign he sinned by improperly entering into the temple to burn incense and was struck with leprosy for his sin. Isaiah spoke out during this time condemning the oppression of the poor by the rich. (Isaiah 1:23)
- Jotham, Uzziah's son, succeeded him. He was also a good man who feared God, but during his reign, the idolatry that existed during his father's time was tolerated and grew worse in his day. Isaiah condemned these practices and warned of the punishment to come because of their unfaithfulness. (Isaiah 1:29-31)
- Ahaz succeeded Jotham and was an evil king who, against Isaiah's counsel, made alliances with foreign powers in order to defend the kingdom. Much of Isaiah's work during this period involved him warning the king against such things but also prophesying about the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and foreign nations as well. Despite these dire warnings, Isaiah continued to mix into his prophecies the future hope of a Messiah and the eventual restoration of the southern kingdom.
- The last king to receive ministry from Isaiah was Hezekiah. He was a reformer and tried to right many of the evils of his father, Ahaz. However, he continued the practice of forming alliances with regional powers for military reasons. It is during this period that Isaiah speaks of Judah's exile in Babylon, its eventual restoration and some of the most explicit prophecies concerning the Messiah's coming contained in the Old Testament. His final prophecies, referring to a time beyond Hezekiah's life speak of Babylon's downfall and the final triumph of God's will and purpose in the world. Isaiah was a man fully engaged in the events of his time as a servant of God called to a special ministry.
So now that we've had a brief overview of his life and times, let's focus on the subject of our lesson, his call to ministry and in what way his calling might resemble our own at this time in history.
Isaiah's Call to Ministry – Isaiah 6:1-11
Vs. 1a — In the year of King Uzziah's death
It is interesting to note that Isaiah mentions King Uzziah's death because it not only fixes the historic date of his vision (739 BC) but also his state of mind. Uzziah prospered as long as he followed the Lord but he eventually disobeyed God and had a tragic finish, dying as a leper in isolation. Isaiah had reason to be discouraged and disillusioned in all of this and thus was called at a time of national crisis. The king was dead, a new unproven ruler was on the throne, enemies were growing stronger and the nation was drifting into idolatry. Where was God in all of this?
Vs. 1b-4 — I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. 2Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called out to another and said,"Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory." 4And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.
The answer to Isaiah's question, of course, was that God was on His throne and was allowing Isaiah a glimpse or a vision of the heavenly realm. Earthly rulers, weak with sins might die or be deposed but God was always on His throne. Almost everyone in the Bible who had a vision of heaven saw a throne. For example:
- Michaiah saw God's throne – I Kings 22:19
- Job saw God's throne – Job 26:9
- David saw God's throne – Psalms 9:4
- Daniel saw it – Daniel 7:9
- John the Apostle mentions it more than 35 times in the book of Revelation
Isaiah may have been discouraged because a great leader was no longer on the throne, but God shows Isaiah that there is no reason to worry because He is on His throne. Some other features of the vision show the power and sovereignty of God's position:
1. The train of His robe filled the temple. Kings wore robes with long trains to demonstrate their power and position. For example:
- They needed attendants to carry and arrange their robe and train when they moved around — this demonstrated how important this person was.
- This is where the idea of a long train on a wedding dress comes from — the bride is portrayed as a "queen" for that day.
- In Isaiah's vision God's train is so long that it fills the entire temple — the most sacred of all places!
2. Angels (Seraphim) were attending Him. Kings have ministers or military commanders attending them, people of high stature. God has angels (beings even more powerful than any human being) attending Him. The term "Seraphim" means burning ones. Ezekiel describes them in this way:
Their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches going back and forth among the creatures. The fire was bright, and out of the fire went lightening.
- Ezekiel 1:13
In addition to this, Isaiah adds that they had 6 wings. John the Apostle also says the same about six wings in Revelation 8.
- Two wings cover their face (an act of humility demonstrating that they, like us, are too low to look upon the face of God).
- Two wings to cover their feet, another gesture of humility signifying that even though they are powerful beings, they are still "created" beings and hide their most humble area.
- Two wings to fly which expresses their willingness and ability to serve God.
3. The angels proclaim God's holiness. Note that the angels are not addressing the Lord directly, but are proclaiming His glory to one another.
- They say "holy" three times because there are three Persons in One God and their praise accurately reveals the nature of God.
- The angels could see God's holy influence and power extending throughout the world, even if Isaiah in his discouragement could not.
4. The temple was shaken and filled with smoke.
- Isaiah could feel (the trembling) and see the power (smoke) of God's presence among the angels.
- This was no dream! This was 3D vision!
- As a Jew, Isaiah knew that God's presence had before been manifested by a Pillar of Cloud (Exodus 13:21-22) or smoke (Exodus 19:18) at Mt. Sinai; or the cloud of God's glory that filled the temple (I Kings 8:10-12).
At a moment of possible doubt or discouragement, God reveals Himself to Isaiah in His heavenly glory to confirm that He is and remains the sovereign King of Heaven — no matter what is happening here on earth.
5Then I said,
"Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts."
Despite his intelligence, privilege and personal integrity and spirituality, Isaiah sees himself for what he really is, a sinful man among a sinful people. Compared to other men, he may have seemed righteous by earthly standards, but compared to the angels he was weak and small, not even able to praise God the way they did. And before God's brilliance, his own sins and failings were extremely evident and damning. He was before God without a mediator, without any covering or sacrifice and so he rightly understood that he was doomed. Think about it:
If the priests could only go into the holy of holies once per year and only after having sacrificed for themselves and the people so they would not be killed, there was no chance for him entering into the very presence of God without any preparation. Isaiah's vision of God served to bring into sharper focus his own sinful nature and sense of lostness for himself and his people.
6Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7He touched my mouth with it and said, "Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven."
The altar was the place where man's sins were dealt with in the temple.
- Animal sacrifices were made and burned as a "type" or preview of Christ's sacrifice to come for the sins of all men.
- The altar Isaiah sees in the heavenly place is where Christ's sacrifice continually exists before God cleansing the sins of all.
- The angel takes a burning coal (the power of purification) and touches his lips (the source of his sins and the instrument of his ministry.
- Isaiah is told the meaning and result of this action by the angel:
- His guilt is removed
- His sins are forgiven
- He is fit for ministry
What caused Isaiah to fear (guilt because of sin) before God has been removed.
The Call to Ministry
Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" Then I said, "Here am I. Send me!"
- Isaiah 6:8
God revealed Himself to Isaiah for a reason and that was to prepare him for ministry. Notice that the word says, "Then I heard the Lord asking…"
- Until his cleansing, Isaiah heard the angels proclaiming God's holiness and his own heart's condemnation.
- But now he is privy to the voice of the Godhead as the Lord speaks to the council of angels and says, "Who will be His messenger to the people?"
This time Isaiah answers without fear and without shame, "Here I am. Send me." The assurance of forgiveness and the clarity of a guilt-free conscious are evident in Isaiah's desire to do God's will. So Isaiah's experience reveals three basic principles involved in God's call to ministry — any ministry at any time.
Call to Ministry Principles
Principle #1 – Veneration Before Activation
Isaiah was familiar with the temple (a worshipful attitude) before he was asked to do anything. The angels had six wings, four of these were used in acts of humility, only two were used for service. Jesus gave Mary's humble act of quiet learning the blessing over Martha's business in serving. First, we must humble ourselves and be devoted to worship and seeking the Lord's presence before we can be used in His service. We forget that our first and foremost responsibility is to adore God; the 1st commandment is to love God; the main activity of heaven is reverence of God.
And so, I repeat Principle #1 – Veneration before Activation. We will never hear God's calling if we don't first learn to be still and know He is God.
Principle #2 – Realization Before Visualization
You cannot serve God effectively if you don't have a true sense of yourself first. Look at the great servants of God in the Bible, their doubt and hesitation was often an acknowledgment of their true condition before God:
- Abraham saw his and Sarah's advanced age.
- Moses hesitated because of his perceived lack of "leadership skills."
- Daniel continually expressed his guilt and failings before God.
- Peter knew he was an unworthy sinner.
- Paul called himself the greatest of sinners.
- Isaiah immediately confessed his impurity and his impending doom because of it.
All of these men had three things in common:
- They saw clearly and acknowledged their unworthiness and sinfulness. And not as false humility, but a true vision of who and what they really were like.
- They all had a special vision or relationship with God.
- They were all used in a mighty way in God's service.
Realization before visualization means that the more you see yourself as you really are, the more you will be able to see God as He really is (and see Him as He reveals Himself through His word). And the greater your vision of Him, the more you are able to understand and receive a call to ministry from Him. How can you accurately serve or tell others about God that you can't see if you don't even know who you are, a person you can see?
Principle #3 – Consecration Before Confirmation
There are usually three steps involved in a call to ministry: Calling/Consecration/Confirmation
1. The first step is the "calling" itself. God, in some way, calls us to some task, some area of ministry. For a few, in the Bible, the call came through a vision, dream, or some other supernatural phenomenon (Moses and the burning bush or Paul had a vision).
For most, however, it's an urging to serve in a particular way; or the recognition that we have a special ability; for others, it's a burden or need to do something to serve the Lord in some way. I usually tell people that if the idea, or feeling, that this is what you ought to be doing (in ministry) never leaves you, then that's a good sign of a calling.
2. The second step is consecration. Consecration refers to the preparation one goes through in order to carry out their ministry/calling. For example, several years separated Saul's call to ministry on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 and his actual departure with Barnabas on his first missionary journey in Acts 13. In the intervening years, he spent time in Tarsus; time in the desert; time traveling to Jerusalem; time teaching in Antioch. He was being consecrated, prepared, separated for his original calling which was to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.
Today the period of consecration can involve personal spiritual growth; formal ministry training as well as internship and mentoring. Some people think that as long as they feel "called" to serve, this qualifies them for ministry. Moses is a good example of what can happen when we skip this step. He felt God's call to lead his people and went out on his own to rally them only to end up killing an Egyptian and running for his life. He spent the next 40 years in the desert preparing for his ministry as God consecrated him for true leadership.
In Isaiah's case, what was needed was to prepare him to speak as a prophet of God. The purification of his lips was the consecration to ministry. In a sense, the altar also represented the gift of the Holy Spirit made possible by Christ's sacrifice now given to Isaiah empowering him to speak.
3. Isaiah is now ready for the third step in this process which is the confirmation to ministry. In Acts 13:3, we note that Paul and Barnabas were confirmed (some say ordained/commended) into their ministry by prayer and the laying on of hands of the prophets and teachers who were at Antioch. This followed the example of the Apostles who prayed and laid hands on the seven men who were confirmed/appointed as deacons to their ministry. Isaiah is ordained or appointed to his prophetic ministry by God Himself who "confirms" his role by sending him to the people with a specific message.
So let's close our study by going back to our title, Here Am I, Send Me. Each new year, churches invariably begin new programs, even consider selecting new elders or deacons, or perhaps add ministry staff. It's also a time when we recruit volunteers to help with Bible School or the Youth Group and so on and so forth. In all of this rush to get everyone involved, let's not overlook the basics concerning the call to minister in every area great and small. Let's summarize.
- It is God who calls us through His Word, His Spirit, and His Church. In every instance, we are encouraging people to serve by and for the Lord. And, in every instance, when you feel the call, the urge to volunteer, to respond, this is God who calls you and it is to Him that you are responding — even if there is no majestic vision of heaven.
- Consecration is not the same as confirmation. Some think that a degree in Bible from a college or preaching school is what makes you a minister. Or if you have a special skill in service or leadership you automatically qualify for ministry. No one in the church is self-appointed to ministry. God always uses the church to confirm someone to ministry. I.e. Saul had a vision, heard the Lord, met with the Apostles, but did not begin his "ministry" until the church laid hands on him and sent him to preach (Acts 13:1-3). In order to do things in a decent and orderly way, everyone who serves needs to be trained (consecrated) as well as confirmed by the leadership to their appointed tasks.
I pray that this lesson will stir your spirit so that you will reconsider your service to the Lord's church and your heart will be moved to say, "Here Am I Lord, Send (YOUR NAME HERE) ________."