Isaiah 1:18

‘“Though your sins be as scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow.”’

The first question arising from this statement is what’s so good about being ‘white as snow’? Isaiah knew. At the start of his ministry he’d received a vision of almighty God on His throne: ‘I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up’(Isaiah 6:1). From elsewhere we know that God’s ‘clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool’(Daniel 7:9) symbolising sinless holy perfection. Similarly, in John’s vision of the risen Jesus, ‘His head and his hair were white as white wool, like snow’(Revelation 1:14). Anyone who’s spiritual eyes have been opened to even glimpse God’s heavenly, snowy-white, holy perfection, has seen something so magnificent, so entrancing and appealing, that for the rest of their lives nothing else matters but seeking after the same. As Jesus put it, ‘“the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls, who having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it”’(Matthew 13:45-46), and the apostle Paul, ‘I count all things… nothing but refuse, that I may gain Christ’(Philippians 3:8). Isaiah, having seen God’s pearly white holiness, at once knew its value.

But then, as always is the case, he became acutely aware of his own stains: ‘“Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips”’(Isaiah 6:5), and that disqualifies anyone from entry into God’s holy presence: ‘There will in no way enter into it anything profane, or one who causes an abomination or a lie’(Revelation 21:27). Isaiah and his contemporaries, in common with the rest of mankind, were stained ‘“as scarlet”’. They were ‘“a people loaded with iniquity”’(Isaiah 1:4), but they needed to be ‘“white as snow”’.

Scarlet is a fitting colour to represent our stains in several respects. Firstly it’s glaring, like our sins, especially when set against God’s snowy-white holy perfection. Secondly, the dye used to create scarlet in ancient times was ‘fast’, meaning it would not easily wash out – and we are deeply stained with ingrained sin that’s difficult to remove, as anyone who’s tried to live perfectly for one day will find out. Finally, scarlet matches the only cleaner that will remove such daily stains from us – the blood of Christ, ‘“the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”’(John 1:29). In John’s revelation we read of the citizens of heaven, ‘a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes… “These who are arrayed in white robes, who are they, and from where did they come?”… “These are those who came out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. Therefore they are before the throne of God”’(Revelation 7:9-15).

But God’s deep cleansing does not stop at removing our stains by Jesus’ work on the cross. It illuminates that whiteness by the work of God’s Holy Spirit shining in us, as David sang, ‘Purify me with hyssop [hyssop was used to sprinkle sacrificial blood in the Old Testament], and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow… Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all of my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit within me. Don’t throw me from your presence, and don’t take your holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation. Uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways. Sinners shall be converted to you… Lord, open my lips. My mouth shall declare your praise.’(Psalm 51:7-15). Thanks be to God that we can know the same cleansing and renewing. Our Lord loves to cleanse His loved ones from sin and ‘renew a right spirit’ within us. Our role is willingly to co-operate, ‘“Come now, and let us reason together,” says Yahweh: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient”’ and don’t ‘“refuse and rebel”’(Isaiah 1:19).

All of us must allow God’s snowy-white, holy perfection to capture our attention and fill us with awe, recognise our scarlet fast stains for what they are, and pray to God for deep cleansing by the blood of Jesus with empowering illumination by His Holy Spirit.

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