True or False
Reading Isaiah 58:1-
Last Sunday evening our friend Paul Bassett forcefully reminded us of the need for every man and woman, boy and girl, to be born again. The reason for this is straightforward. Since the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden everyone who has been born into the world has been born in a state of rebellion against God -
The new birth is part of God's remedy for our predicament, a remedy which is complete and far ranging. God's provision is wonderfully gracious and has of necessity significant consequences for the person in whose life God so wonderfully intervenes. How could it be otherwise when the life of God enters the soul of man?
And because the matter is so important it should not surprise us to find that confusion sometimes surrounds the new birth and that erroneous idea grab hold of us if we're not alert. When a man or a woman is converted if their conversion is genuine it will always be accompanied by the fruit that is in keeping with repentance (cf.Lk.3:8) But the simple truth is that not everything men want to offer to God comes into that category.
This is, in essence, what this chapter of Isaiah is all about. God, addressing his people through the prophet, speaks firstly about their sin, their religious sin. It is not that they are refusing to be religious or to carry out their religious duties but that they are fundamentally wrong in their whole approach to them. This leads to an exposé of outward and merely formal religion. Their religious practice and behaviour had become so compartmentalised that it was not allowed to have any significant influence upon the rest of life. Such religion is unacceptable to God.
Isaiah does not want to scold his hearers he wants to win them and to this end he also, in addition to exposing the wrong-
Let's look more closely then at just what Isaiah had to say to his contemporaries.
Although the nation Isaiah was speaking to was the nation of God's chosen people they were not living as they ought to be living. They were guilty of sin and specifically they were guilty of religious sin. Not that they had abandoned and turned their backs on religion but that they had come to think that their religious practice was sufficient in itself to satisfy God, if they did certain religious things everything must be fine and God must be pleased with them.
Now there may well have been a time when our own nation probably thought exactly the same way but in many ways now there is now little pretence left as our fellow citizens have progressively turned away from the One True Living God. Having said that there does remain a significant minority that does continue to "be religious" or at least that does "religious things" and Isaiah's words are directly relevant to them. Isaiah's words too are also highly relevant for those of us who do take our relationship with God seriously – they warn us not to lose sight of that relationship and not to replace it by a mere outward form of godliness, a form which no longer knows anything of its power!
But where was the sin of the people to be found? Isn't Isaiah's description of them in the opening verses rather positive? After all on the face of it they seem to be exemplary don't they?
They seek God daily – they never miss their regular Quiet Time with God
They delight to know his ways – what an interest they have in theology and all things related to the church
They ask for God to act righteously
They enjoy drawing near to God, they like performing their religious rites and duties
They even seem to be enthusiastic in carrying out the rigorous discipline of fasting (indeed when the nation returned to the land of Judea after the Babylonian exile the number of officially authorized fast days increased!)
But the tragedy was, and is, that it is possible to do and say so many right things while failing dismally.
It is the problem of formalism, religious formalism, of focusing upon the outward and ignoring the inward reality that must be at the heart of all true religion.
It is the problem of compartmentalization too – of so isolating religion in one's life to completely prevent it exerting any influence upon the rest of life and behaviour
In the 21 st century both problems remain a danger for us.
It is possible for us to be very concerned to do everything correctly and to end up assuming that the mere doing of them is what matters. But what use is a Quiet Time that is regularly adhered to if God is neither sought nor known? What value is it if we read and study to fill our heads with knowledge about God and his ways if we then do don't anything with that understanding?
The folk in Isaiah's day gave themselves away through the attitudes they had come to adopt. They had becomes only hearers of the word but not doers of it. They ignored and set aside the moral implications of what his word required. In addition to that they had come to think of their religious procedures as means whereby they might squeeze blessings out of God. They fasted and became frustrated that God didn't respond to fulfill his side of the bargain (as they understood it). With the view of religion that they had adopted if they did their bit God should respond by doing his! And if they did the right things then surely God had to act and was to blame if he let them down!
You see they were using religion and were trying to manipulate God – false religion always tries to do this – and false religion becomes akin to magic; all we need to do is to repeat the formulae properly and to carry out the right gestures and hey presto, abracadabra, God's hand is forced. We must be vigilant that we don't slip into imitating them.
You see the natural man, the unspiritual man, is quite content to look on the form, to focus on getting the externals right, and the natural man in us is ready at hand to encourage us to go down this comfortable, less demanding route. But this is not where God puts the emphasis:
1Sam.16:7 "the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."
And this fits in with the way Jesus was to summarize the entire law that God had given. You remember what he said I'm sure. Jesus had been asked a question about which was the most important of all of God's laws and he replied like this:
Did you notice the combination? A heart-
James further explained this link in his letter:
A false religion is always trying in some way to manipulate God with an emphasis upon our performing certain rites correctly "Do, do, do" but the true faith looks at what God has "Done, done, done" and responds to this with glad rejoicing. True religion will not lead a man or a woman to selfish self-
This concern for the well-
It would appear that whatever else our religion might be if it has no effect on the way we live our lives it is not the religion of which God approves.
And not surprisingly when we turn to the NT we find that Jesus was exemplary in this regard. This is perhaps easiest for us to see in the way he insisted upon doing good on the Sabbath Day. The religious leaders by the time of the first century of the Christian era had developed detailed instructions concerning what they thought was legitimate what they didn't. They lost sight of the divine purpose of the Sabbath and instead of respecting that focused their thoughts upon keeping a long list of do's and don'ts (mostly don'ts!). But Jesus refused to conform to their wrong ideas and instead conducted himself in such a way as to fulfill simultaneously the great requirements of the law.
How important it is for us to set our hearts to be like him – to live not as men-
Bible religion is not summed up by describing a list of methods for securing blessings from an otherwise unwilling or reluctant God. Yet that is a view that is commonly held, I think, and it is easy to see why.
On the one hand such a view fits well with fallen human nature – we like to imagine that we are in control of everything and that we are capable of securing or at least contributing to our own spiritual salvation. So, we reason, if only I know what to do I can do it and all will be well – like putting the right coins in a dispensing machine and punching the right buttons.
But on the other hand such a view of religion is easy to lampoon and pour scorn upon for God can be made to appear petty and it is comforting for the rebel sinner to reject a petty God and a petty view of religion.
But this is not Bible religion. Bible religion is not about us taking the initiative with God but about us responding to the initiatives he's already taken. Nevertheless, God in his wonderful generosity having already granted to his people new birth and the blessings that go with that, wants to encourage us yet more. Consequently he has committed himself to rewarding his people further when they respond properly to him.
These further blessings are described in vv.8-
v .9 "If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness…"
v.10 "if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted…"
v.13 "If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day…"
The blessings that are associated with such conditions are expansive and surely desirable to the true believer – if they don't appeal to you then perhaps you need to stop and ask yourself about your own spiritual condition and health:
v.9 – answered prayer (do you remember the words of the Psalmist in Ps.66:18 "If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.") and the assurance of his own presence
v.10 – light and not darkness
v.11 – guidance, direction and satisfying strengthening provision
v.12 – restoration and reconstruction
v.14 – delight and fulfillment in God himself
All these were made the subject of encouraging promises in Isaiah's day – they have been secured by Jesus Christ and are made the possession of all those who are made his disciples and who remain in him and his teaching!
The stakes and rewards are high – let's make sure that we don't miss them by sliding away into the pale shadow that Satan offers under the guise of formal, heartless religion.