This is a bitter-sweet ending to our Isaiah study. Actually, Isaiah’s ending, like the ending of the Canon, is also bitter-sweet. It is bitter for all engaged in hypocritical worship (Isaiah 66:3). It is sweet for all true worshippers described in Isaiah 66:2. The rest of the chapter describes what will happen to people in either category. In Isaiah 66:4, 15-16, 22-24 we see visions of complete destruction and complete deliverance. Isaiah ends (Isaiah 66:24) where it began (Isaiah 1:2): the subject of rebels and rebellion. And all this drives us to make sure that we are the worshipers who will inhabit God’s new heavens and new earth. Our Lord Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to become a child of God. Christ’s sacrifice is seen in His perfect life where He is the contrast to those described in Isaiah 66:4 and also in His substitutionary death for sinners (cf. Isaiah 66:15-16 and Christ suffering under the fiery wrath of God for our sakes). All along, Isaiah has been urging us, like Peter, to be all the more diligent to make our calling and election sure in light of His return. This response will help us slow the tide of the Church becoming more and more like society and less and less like the Savior.
Isaiah 65:17-25 contains a wonderful picture of the new world God will create for His people to inhabit. Your theology will probably lock you into either a millennium or eternal state understanding of the description. But do not let those systematic categories detract from Isaiah’s purpose. Long before Peter urges Christians to holy living in light of God’s return, Isaiah does the same. The description moves back and forth between the new creation and marred creation. God knows that His children will read this description and desperately want to inhabit His new world. Isaiah 65:23 describes the type of person who will live there. Cf. Genesis 17:7 and Isaiah 53:10. This person was described repeatedly as God’s “servants” in Isaiah 65:13-14. Isaiah is ending as he began: urging all professing Believers to give proof of their faith through obedience to the Word of God (the opposite of rebellion). The Gospel is prefigured in Isaiah 65:20. On the cross our Savior was the accursed sinner, dying the death we should have died. His death and resurrection life opens the door into God’s new world for all who genuinely believe.
As you near the end of Isaiah’s Gospel, you discover a lengthy prayer (cf. Isaiah 63:15-19 and Isaiah 64:1-12 and Isaiah 65:1-16). This section functions much like the earlier section of Isaiah that read like a Psalm. So, Isaiah intends that God’s people pray this prayer. I find it best to focus on the requests, the special relationship we have with God, the problem that gives rise to the requests, and the solution to the problem (cf Isaiah 64:4-5). The last section continues to carry Isaiah’s intention forward: creating a righteous people ready for Christ’s return. One unique feature of Isaiah 65:1-16 is that it contains God’s answer to a very specific question (cf. the question in Isaiah 64:12 and God’s answer in Isaiah 65:6). A saved remnant is hinted at in Isaiah 65:8. The repetition in Isaiah 65:13-14 is a strong call for every congregant to be sure they can be accurately identified by God as his “servants.” Of course, the only way any of us can be identified as the servants of God is because God’s Servant, our Lord Jesus Christ, took all our uncleanness upon Himself (cf. Isaiah 64:5-7) when He died on the cross for us sinners, when He literally “spread out” His hands for a rebellious people (cf. Isaiah 65:2).
Isaiah 63:7-14 reads like a Psalm of David and it functions like one, too. Isaiah’s memories are designed to shape our own memories. We are to remember God’s “steadfast love” (Isaiah 63:7-9); we’re to remember our terrible tendency to spurn God’s steadfast love (Isaiah 63:10). Finally, thankfully, God Himself (according to the ESV and KJV reading) remembers the time when He rescued His people. All that remembering is designed to lead God’s people to put an end to their rebellion and their grieving “His Holy Spirit.” Or, to use the language of Isaiah 63:14, the Psalm of Isaiah is designed to make sure all of us are being led by God. According to Romans 8:14, being led by the Spirit of God confirms that we belong to God. Paul can instruct his readers in Ephesians 4:30 to stop grieving the Holy Spirit because faith in Christ gives the desire and capacity to do so. Isaiah 63:9 previews the Gospel. Christ truly “was afflicted” on the cross and those who receive Him respond to His love by yielding to His Spirit.
One of the ways in which Isaiah 62:11-12 and Isaiah 63:1-6 function for the Church is by urging us to evaluate whether the future name of God’s people (“The Holy People”) is appropriate for us in part now. All along the study of Isaiah, Christians have been challenged to make sure a profession of faith is matched with corresponding holiness and righteousness. In Isaiah 63:1-6 the scene shifts from total deliverance to total destruction. It’s a warning for any of us Christians. Despite our profession of faith, we do not want to be caught on “the day of vengeance” (cf. Isaiah 63:4) on God’s bad side. So, this section provides the best news ever (Isaiah 62:11-12), the worst news ever (Isaiah 63:1-6), and leaves us readers with the decision to embrace the best news and so avoid the worst news. This means embracing the Savior pictured in this section. In Isaiah 63:3 the prophetic vision of our Redeemer shows Him stained with the blood of God’s enemies, including those who were in church. There was a time in history, of course, where our Redeemer was stained with His own blood as He gave His life for us. Faith in Christ is the starting point for a holy life and assures us that on His Day we, too, can be called “The Holy People” (cf. also 2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 12:14 to see the necessity of holiness-in-process).
Once again, Isaiah teaches us through a prophetic description of what our Spirit-led Savior was sent to do and what His salvation does to us who believe. In Isaiah 61:1-3 we learn what the Holy Spirit in Jesus enabled Him to accomplish. Then, beginning in Isaiah 61:3-9 we learn what that same Spirit does in us. Isaiah 61:10-11 closes with a song that every, genuine Christian can sing. This chapter functions for the church by causing us to evaluate whether what is said about Jesus’ ministry has actually happened to us (or, better, is still happening to us who believe). Has Isaiah 61:1-3 happened to us? Is it still going on in some measure? Is it true that everyone of us who believes can truly “be called the priests of the Lord…the ministers of our God”? (cf. Isaiah 61:6) Can we say, “he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…”? (cf. Isaiah 61:10). Isaiah’s prophecy functions by urging us to evaluate whether these things are somewhat true of us. If they are not, then our presence in worship or our profession of faith in Christ may be futile. Our Lord, of course, selects this section to read as recorded in Luke 4:16-22. Thankfully, Jesus stopped reading where He did! His sacrifice on the cross for our sins made it possible for us to experience His salvation. Certainly something to rejoice in!
The bulk of Isaiah 59 describes the terrible state of God’s people (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2). Then, in Isaiah 59:16 God steps in to do what human beings could not do. Theology is being conveyed through prophetic description (what God promises to do for His people). So we have to ask ourselves: “Is this description true to some extent now in our lives?” However, before we get to our response, we should note Isaiah 59:17. Long before Paul instructs Christians to put on the whole armor of God (cf. Ephesians 6:11, 13), Isaiah tells us that our God put on the armor. The clothing tells what God was going to do–bring righteousness and salvation to His people. While God is ready to do battle against his enemies (cf. Isaiah 59:17-18), He is also ready to deliver those who repent (cf. Isaiah 59:20). Isaiah 59:21 explains what is true of every repentant Christian. It’s time to ask ourselves in church whether we’ll be on the receiving end of “repayment to his enemies” or “a Redeemer…to those…who turn from transgression.” Isaiah continues his assault on all who profess faith in Christ, but do not show evidence of a living faith at work. We have the desire and capacity for righteous living because, on the cross, our Savior experienced God’s wrath aimed at his adversaries (cf. Isaiah 59:18).
What drives the theology of Isaiah 58 is the commandment in Isaiah 58:1. Sermons that expose the sins of worshipers are not popular or fun to preach. God’s people are active in worship, but also just as active in sin. Cf. Isaiah 58:1-2. This chapter gives us an opportunity to evaluate our worship practices. Isaiah’s description of God’s people creates yet another negative example (“go and do otherwise”). We can’t afford to worship the way they do and live like the devil (cf. Isaiah 58:4). Isaiah 58:6-7, 9-10, 13 show the kind of “fast” the Lord chooses for His people. All the “if you’s” are followed by “then you’s” to show the kind of healing God’s true worshipers experience when God’s condition is met (e.g., Isaiah 58:8-911-12, 14). In this section sin is exposed, exchanged for true righteous acts, and results in salvation. We’re living in a time when morality in the church matches the morality in the world. And this is taking place while we worship. Apparently, many church-goers are engaged in deficient worship. In order for someone to become righteous, they must first look to the one to whom Isaiah pointed. On the cross our Savior did indeed bow His head in the greatest act of humility (cf. Isaiah 58:5; John 19:30).
Despite what some say about exemplar preaching, it’s impossible to avoid it entirely in a preaching portion like Isaiah 57:14-21. Surely, Isaiah addresses the Church by showing us a good example to follow (the “go and do likewise” of Isaiah 57:15). Just as certainly, Isaiah also addresses us by showing us a bad example to avoid (the “go and do otherwise” of Isaiah 57:20-21). Where exemplar preaching breaks down in my opinion is when the exemplars are held up by themselves and God’s people only hear the preacher say at the end of the sermon: “Now, go and do likewise or go and do otherwise.” Better to begin the end of the sermon by point out that our Lord was presented in Isaiah 53:5, 10 as being “crushed” (same Hebrew term translated “contrite” in Isaiah 57:15). When a person receives Christ as their Sovereign Savior, He transforms them into one “who is of a contrite and lowly spirit.” He turns the wicked into the righteous. The exemplar works after the Gospel has done its work. Isaiah continues to urge the Church to leave worldliness behind and ready itself for the return of the Servant/King who will completely destroy all who rebel against Him and completely deliver all who trust Him. The catch: all who trust Him must look like Him. In this case, they must share God’s perspective on their sin and need of redemption.
Isaiah 56:9-12 presents a stern warning for church leaders. Theology is presented through the extremely negative example of Israel’s spiritual leaders. Unlike the feast of Isaiah 55:1, the feast of Isaiah 56:9 is one we want to avoid at all cost! We do not want to to be the main course at that feast. One way to avoid that is to follow our Lord’s example and instruction in places such as 1 Peter 5:1-4. Our Lord lived out the opposite of Israel’s shepherds and faith in Him gives us the desire and capacity to shepherd like Him. God help us to do so!