I recently started reading the Book of Isaiah (for thoughts on Bible reading plans, see our July 19 blog post). I found myself asking the question: was Isaiah’s ministry a success?
Isaiah prophesied “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1 – for more details about this period of time, see 2 Kings 15-20 and 2 Chronicles 26-32). All is not well in Israel at this time; in fact, the once united kingdom is now split in two: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. Up to this point, there have been wicked kings in both Israel and Judah; but to be honest, Israel’s kings have been worse. More often than not, they’ve been marked by injustice, corruption, idolatry, and violence. And while Isaiah’s dealings are mostly with the kings in Israel, he also prophesies concerning the later judgment of Judah.
God has given Isaiah a thankless job: announcing God’s judgment upon the people of Israel for their sin. Making this job even harder, God specifically tells Isaiah that the people will not listen to his words. They will be dull, deaf, and blind to Isaiah’s warnings.
And 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.”
And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and house without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:8-13)
Only later in the book do we see glimmers of hope that eventually, a “remnant” of God’s people will heed Isaiah’s warning, and turn back to God in repentance. Perhaps that’s also alluded to in the above phrase, “The holy seed is its stump.” Some will listen; but not many.
In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck him, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return.” (Isaiah 10:20-22A)
Now, back to Isaiah’s God-given mission: preaching to people who will ignore him. In light of these clear, God-established expectations, how do we evaluate Isaiah’s ministry? Was Isaiah’s ministry “successful”?
In this day and age of ministry, we often define “success” with large numbers, observable results, and a high “return on investment”. We ask questions like: “What’s your Sunday morning attendance now? How many baptisms have you had? Are you expanding your building yet? How big is your budget? Has your social media platform grown? Have you been invited to speak at any conferences recently?” By those standards, Isaiah’s ministry was a failure.
But by God’s standards, Isaiah’s ministry was a success. Why? Because Isaiah faithfully did what God told him to do.
God will use some people to accomplish all the things we listed above: increased church attendance, numerous baptisms, building expansions, and budget increases. God will give some people large social media platforms, and big conference stages to do so. Who knows – you may be one of them.
But that may not be me, and it may not be you. God may be calling you to a ministry like Isaiah’s: preaching, teaching, shepherding, and praying faithfully – with little to no obvious success.
At times, that will feel less like a ministry, and more like a burden. You too may ask, “How long, O Lord?” But keep obeying and listening to God. Your ministry success is not determined by your ability to force or manufacture impressive results; your ministry success is determined by your faithfulness to the mission God has given you. Perhaps God will use you in big, flashy ways; perhaps he won’t. But either way, God calls you to be faithful – like Isaiah.
And like Isaiah, you’ve been given a message to share: the Great Commission. Some will listen to your words; more than likely, most won’t. But keep preaching. Keep teaching. Keep shepherding. Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep serving. Don’t give up, even when people don’t listen. Your job isn’t to convert the world; your job is to be faithfully announce the Gospel. God will do the heavy lifting; you’re simply the messenger.