Isaiah (Part 69): Community Continued (Ch 58)
In this section of Entering Sabbath Rest, we began reading about preserving justice. That justice was the balance of covenant obligation, which presents God as the Caregiver and us as those trusting in his care. That is our covenant relationship. Isaiah then goes back to recount Israel’s failure prior to the captivity and rescue. And he points out that not paying attention to this covenant relationship was the real destruction of the covenant. That was true both in the immediate prophecy significance—the activity of Israel, the nation—and the ultimate prophecy significance—the activity of humanity in its Garden fall. Isaiah goes on to explain, then, that God provides the rescue. We saw that in God’s servant Cyrus, and we saw it in God’s servant Jesus. That was in chapter 57.
When we reach chapter 58, we should understand that this is, therefore, after God’s rescue. For the Jews, it is after they are back in their land—the second temple period. In ultimate context, it is us today—this age that followed Christ’s rescue through his death and resurrection. So we must wonder what God means in telling Isaiah in verse 1 to “cry out loudly, don’t hold back! Raise your voice like a trumpet. Tell My people their transgression.” What is this sin that these rescued people commit? It seems to be a sin that must be pointed out—that is not necessarily easy to see. And we find out in the next couple of verses that that is exactly correct. The people appear to be piously seeking God, and yet for some reason God is not satisfied in their relationship.
Verse 2 mentions that these rescued people seek him, they delight to know his ways, they ask him for righteous judgments, and they delight in the nearness of God. No wonder they express their befuddlement in the first part of verse 3 as they ask God why he has not interacted with them in their fasting.
God responds explaining that they think only of themselves. Verse 5 sounds pious enough—they deny self, bow their heads, and show repentance. Well, isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? God says no, that’s not enough. That shows a heart only set on self. You can’t have relationship with God without having relationship with his people. God goes on in verses 6 and 7 to explain that the denying of self is not simply for monastic reasons. Denial of self is so that you can provide for others who need it—verse 7: sharing bread with the hungry, providing help to the poor and homeless, clothing the naked. Sound familiar? If we flip over to Matthew 25, we find Jesus saying the same thing. Verses 37 through 40 tell us, “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or without clothes and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and visit You?’ And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’”
James says, “Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” So, it is not just about ourselves and our devotion to God (although, of course, that element is there); it is also about giving of ourselves for those in need. These people (the Jews; us) seemed sincere and devoted, but it was a picture of trying to worship God while shoving away the people around them as if the poor and needy were an interference to their devotion. It was sort of the same as the Pharisee in Luke 18:10-12, going up to pray in the temple, thanking God he wasn’t like those other people.
Here is the problem: We, in our age, seem to miss the sense of the community nature of our covenant relationship. Wait…really? How is it that we miss community? Most of us go to church. That’s community isn’t it? We gathered together at Bible study to discuss God’s Word together. Isn’t that community? Well, no, not entirely. The word covenant can’t be understood without qualifiers. It is like the word faith. You don’t merely have faith. You have to have faith IN something. And you don’t merely have a covenant. You have a covenant about something. The covenant has terms. Remember, the relationship defined in God’s covenant is one in which he is Caregiver and we are the ones who need his care. We need his care, and so he provides that care. Therefore, when God says our covenant is a community, as I have relationship with you, and one of us has a need, the one who has the ability ought to help the one who has the need. Look at Matthew 18:21-33. Now this parable is impressive for a couple of reasons. First, we notice the size of the debts. The servant owed 10,000 talents. A talent is 6,000 denarii. A denarius was a typical day’s wage for a laborer. So, one talent was like 20 years of work. This guy owed 10,000 talents—200,000 years worth of work—an impossible debt. The master forgives the debt. This same person goes to someone who owes him money—this time 100 denarii—16-17 weeks worth of work. That debtor does the same thing—asks for patience. But he won’t hear of it, and shows no mercy, no help, no care. The point is summed up in the words of the master in verse 33: “Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” This is exactly what was happening back in Isaiah. In Isaiah 57, God had just rescued the people. And in chapter 58, the people said, “Thank you, God!” and then turned to their fellow rescued people and helped no one in need. But God says, “Shouldn’t you follow my example in how I’ve arranged relationship in our covenant community and help those in need?”
In the book The Signature of Jesus, Brennan Manning includes an open letter to American Christians. Brennan complains that we have disregarded Jesus’ words about the marks of discipleship being love shown to each other (John 13:34-35) in exchange for profession of propositional truth. He doesn’t argue that propositional truth has no value. He finds issue with the primacy of focus on expressing propositional truth over active personal relationship with Christ in love. He suggests that a righting of our wrong outlook is to follow Paul’s example of dying to self and living for Christ.
Paul said that he no longer lives, but Christ lives in him. This is important—that upon which everything hinges. If we merely redouble our efforts to live more pious lives, we’ll fail because our focus is still centered on ourselves. It is still about what we can do. What must happen is a mindset transformation to remove ourselves from the center and have Christ occupy that center. Then, it is not about my efforts and what I should do, but it becomes natural as to what Christ would do.
It is interesting that Jesus says in John 13:34-35. “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is an amazing statement. If we simply have love for each other, people will know we are Christians? This statement is weightier that we may imagine at first. Jesus isn’t saying, “Be nice to each other, and then people will know you are Christians.” There are plenty of kind non-Christians out there. So what did he mean? He said first, “Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another.” How did Jesus love us? John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends.” The love Jesus is talking about is breath-taking in its measure of selflessness. If we love as Jesus loved, then it would be as shocking as the cross. It is not that everyone is going to see our love for each other and say, “How nice. How sweet. Wow, they must be nice Christians.” The supreme expression of love in this world was the cross—and it was seen as a scandal, a shame, foolishness, a stumbling block. People aren’t necessarily going to see us as wonderful people when we give our all to each other. They may just think, “What an idiot!” That is the kind of reaction that breathtaking, abnormal, unconstrained love poured out may often effect.
But we are to reflect our Lord. We are to give ourselves to others. We walk downtown on a cold day. Someone in rags reaches out his hand, begging for money. You reach in your pocket and find a couple dollars that you hand to him. He thanks you, and you continue on your way, feeling good about your self-sacrifice. Behind you, the man extends his hand to the next person, who happens to be an atheist, who happens to hand the guy a couple of dollars before walking on.
What am I saying? Am I trying to establish a new standard about what I think you ought to do in showing love? No, there is no handbook of what way, when, where, how much we ought to express love. But I think we should think deeply about it. I think we ought to meditate on us no longer living but Christ living in us. And I think we ought to stop thinking about what we ought to do, meditate on God’s Word until we do have the mind of Christ, and then simply just do as the Spirit leads. He does live within us, right? We trust him to direct us without having to analyze each situation.
Okay, I am starting to ramble here a little because the point is made, but I don’t have a rulebook to hand you. But the challenge is not in a rulebook. Even in Isaiah 58, God’s only standard was to care. Clasping to our hearts the transformation of the gospel and the community nature of our covenant relationship will, I think, literally break open our soul’s eyes to the wonders of truth, goodness, and beauty as never before. First Corinthians 10:244 says, “No one should seek his own good, but the good of the other person.” Meditate on that, and let the Spirit of God bring it to the measure in your life that he will.