Jesus’ ministry on earth was all about defining who was in and who was out of the Kingdom. To borrow a phrase, He disturbed the comfortable, and comforted the disturbed. Israel in his day was full of those who were sure that they were the hope of the side, and were convinced of their own righteousness. Equally, the vast majority were sure that God had no interest in them, and that they had no hope in God. Jesus came to give that hope, as He taught about the grace of God. He also came to break up false hopes based upon self-righteousness. Jesus said that only the poor in spirit will receive the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5.3).
Isaiah says that only the poor in spirit will receive the Kingdom of Heaven. Our three chapters teach that, in what is a clear prefiguring of Jesus’ ministry. Let’s look at them, and we’ll be seeing the work and call of Jesus, right here.
Jesus calls the excluded. The scandal of the kingdom is that the ‘wrong’ people enter it. Didn’t Jesus say just this to the Pharisee: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21.31). Isaiah is teaching us the same principle of grace here.
In chapter 56 the excluded are called, both the foreigners born outside the covenant privileges of Israel (vv.3, 6-8), and the eunuchs in Israel (vv.4-5). Eunuchs were unclean in God’s sight, and excluded from full participation in Temple worship. A day is coming soon, Isaiah says, when those written off by the nation will constitute the very nation, the redeemed People of God. By contrast, the complacent watchmen of Israel are judged (vv.10-12). But God sees, and God has excluded them. Equally, those who deal in false religion will be found out. “I will expose your righteousness and your works, and they will not benefit you. When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away” (57.12-13). This incredible promise, both of grace to the penitent as well as thundering wrath to the impenitent, is summed up in vv.18-21:
“I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners, creating praise on their lips. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the Lord. “And I will heal them.” But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked” (57.18-21).
Why did Jesus’ ministry get people so angry? Because of what Isaiah predicted. Grace overflows the channels we think we can cut for it by our religion and our self-righteousness. Grace instead flows to those who know they are not righteous, and who have given up playing religious games with God. Jesus went to the foreigners, the pagans, the no-hopers, those whose lives were blighted by illness, disability, poverty, and other problems which put them outside the boundaries of their society. They found grace; or rather, grace found them. It still does.
If this is grace, then we need to take an honest look at our lives, to make sure that we are living them in God’s grace. Isaiah’s charges against hypocrisy are devastating, and totally relevant for the church today (58.1-5). The antidote – humble, active, God-honouring, people-serving integrity – are the only marks of true saving faith (vv.6-14). It was the Reformers who taught us that, whilst we are saved through faith alone, saving faith is never alone, but always expressed in lives lived to God’s glory. They didn’t dream that up, but got it straight from the Bible, be that from Jesus, from Paul, James or Isaiah. This is the life of the Kingdom, where lost people are found and brought near through the blood of Christ. We are brought together into one new community, a “House of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56.7). Are you in this community; and if so, how are you expressing this fabulous grace?