Beware of Religiosity
In chapters 56-66 of Isaiah, we receive prophetic instruction from God on how those who respond to God’s grace will live. Isaiah proclaims that those saved by Christ’s atoning work will receive a changed heart and will live a life of godliness.
So far, we’ve seen the subjects of worship, good works, false teachers, false followers, and humility. In this chapter, the focus is on acts of religion.
The principle in chapter 58 is to beware of religiosity. Religiosity is when the act of religion, such as fasting, becomes very important. The person doing the act loves the act of religion more important than having a loving relationship with God or others.
For the Jew in the Old Covenant, acts of religion include such things as tithing, prayers, fasting, sacrifices, and observing the Sabbath. These acts are binding to the Covenant. To not fulfill the act is considered a sin. But, the way they do the act can also be a sin. That is what we will see as we go through the passage.
The main idea of this passage is:
MAIN IDEA: Examine your religious acts to ensure they are humbly in keeping with God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
Isaiah chooses two religious acts, fasting and Sabbath keeping. He could have chosen any of the many religious acts in the Mosaic Covenant. As we shall see, God protests to how the Israelites go about performing their religion. It is not in keeping with the character of God, and the original intent for the act.
After reviewing the passage, we will talk about how we may apply this principle to the New Covenant in Christ to make sure that our religious acts are in keeping with God’s glory.
The chapter begins with God speaking to Isaiah and telling Him to broadcast His displeasure with the Israelite people.
“Cry loudly, do not hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet, and declare to My people their transgression and to the house of Jacob their sins.” (Isaiah 58:1)
God wants Isaiah to shout to the Israelites, and let them know their sins. We can picture Isaiah obeying God. He yells loudly on the steps of the temple. People gather around, and either heed his warning or think he is a lunatic.
What is clear from this verse is that this is something God wants His people to know.
Religion of the Flesh
For the rest of the chapter, God is going to compare the people’s way of doing religion to His way of doing religion. To help simplify the two ways, we will use New Testament phrases. We will call the people’s way of doing acts of religion, the religion of the flesh. And, we will call God’s way of religion, the religion of the Spirit.
Religion of the flesh has the appearance of religion, but God is not in it.
The first point we see in the first few verses is that the religion of the flesh has the appearance of religion, but God is not involved.
“Yet they seek Me day by day and delight to know My ways, as a nation that has done righteousness and has not forsaken the ordinance of their God. They ask Me for just decisions, they delight in the nearness of God. ‘Why have we fasted, and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’ (Isaiah 58:2-3)
The beginning sounds good. They are people who want to do what is right. They do all the ordinances (they fulfill the rituals).
The key is the last two questions. They are doing all these wonderful acts of religion, they fast, but it seems to them that God does not see them fast. They have gone without eating, and God doesn’t notice.
They are right. God is not noticing. They are approaching God with the attitude of a business and not a relationship. God, we are fasting, so You owe us a favor. We scratch Your back, now scratch ours.
They are right that God is not involved. God doesn’t notice. God is not obligated to notice acts of religion that are done for the sake of a business transaction. They do not understand why they ought to fast. Their religious act is sinful in the eyes of God.
Religion of the flesh doesn’t seek God’s desires, but only selfish desires
Instead of fasting in a way that reflects being children of God, they fast in the ways of their flesh.
Behold, on the day of your fast, you find your desire and drive hard all your workers. Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. (Isaiah 58:3-4)
God sees their ways. Yes, they fast, but during their fast, they fulfill the lusts of their flesh. They find their desires and do them. Also, on the day of their fast, they are a terrible boss. They lack kindness. They have contention and strife. They hit with their fists. That kind of fast is not going to get God to notice. Their prayers will not be heard in heaven.
Religion of the Spirit
Chooses God’s ways and does what is acceptable to Him
Religion of the Spirit chooses God’s ways and does what is acceptable to God.
God explains the problem with their fasting. He does it by asking rhetorical questions.
Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord? (Isaiah 58:5)
The answers are, yes. The Israelites might respond with, “Yes, God. The fast you choose is a fast that brings about humility, not pride. What you call an acceptable fast is not what we are doing. We do not repent in our fast. Instead, we seek after pleasure, and we are wicked in the way we treat others.”
Breaks the yoke of sin and loves thy neighbor
God continues by explaining the proper attitude and the outcomes that fasting intends to produce. Again, God uses rhetorical questions to make His point.
Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
God doesn’t call us to fast for the sake of a religious act. Fasting is not putting money in a spiritual bank that we can draw upon like a savings account. Fasting is completely different in God’s eyes.
Four times God speaks about being set free. The fasting is to “loosen bonds, undo bands, set the oppressed free, and break yokes.” Fasting does not break bonds in other people. Nobody cares if we have hunger pains during our fast.
Fasting is to fight the enemy within. We are in bondage, but not from an outside enemy. The greatest bondage we face is our selfish desires. We wake up every day, looking to see how we can make ourselves happy. We are in bondage to self.
Fasting has a purpose, and the purpose is to put to death selfishness. Selfish pride makes us wicked and contentious. Fasting God’s changes the heart. Fasting lets the flesh know the Spirit is in charge, and not the self. The hunger pain serves as a reminder that God’s ways of holiness are the better way. It is a way to die to self. Fasting can serve as a powerful tool for breaking the chains of selfishness when we fast with the right goals.
It does no good to fast and continue being selfish. The best way to overcome selfishness is to be selfless toward others. Along with not eating, give to others. Give the bread to someone who has no bread. Give shelter to the homeless. Give clothing to those in need. Be the opposite of selfish. Say to self, “Body of flesh, you are not the only one alive in this world!”
Brings about the blessings of God
When we fast with the right attitude, and with God’s purpose in mind, God is involved. It is a fast God finds acceptable. God gives assurance to us when we practice a religion of the Spirit. Listen to God’s promises:
Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ (Isaiah 58:8-9)
When we practice religion with God’s intention and purpose, we won’t say, “Why have we fasted, and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves? And You do not notice?’ (Isaiah 58:2-3). Instead, we will cry to the Lord, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
Removes wickedness, helps the afflicted, brings light
If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday. (Isaiah 58:9-10)
Religion of the Spirit will remove wickedness from our heart, and it will help the afflicted. Religion of the Spirit brings light to dark places.
The Lord continues by promising that if we put off our sin, and we help those in need, then our religion is a bright light in the darkness.
Religion of the Spirit brings guidance, satisfaction, strength, refreshment, and restoration.
The next few verses are beautiful. They declare that we find all that we need for life when we worship God with a religion of the Spirit, and not of the flesh.
And the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; you will raise up the age-old foundations; and you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell. (Isaiah 58:11-12)
Word pictures are beautiful and are meant to invoke feeling and emotion. We may stand on the scorched ground, but we will be satisfied. Our bones are strong. We are like a watered garden, which looks beautiful and lush. We are like a spring, water bubbling up, cool, refreshing, and never-ending. And everything is rebuilt. Foundations repaired, ruins rebuilt, and the streets are fixed.
Remember, these promises are not because God wants us to fast so that He will give us a blessing. Religion is not a quid pro quo system. No, God desires that we crucify the flesh and its selfish desires, and we seek to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Repents from selfish interest and pleasures, and brings life
The attention is turned from fasting to keeping the Sabbath. By including keeping the Sabbath, it helps us to see that it is not just fasting, but any religious acts.
If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob, your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 58:13-14)
Again, we see that the problem they had in their religion is that they sought to please their flesh. God tells them to turn from doing their pleasure, their agenda, their selfish interests, and to delight in accomplishing God’s purpose and plan.
In doing so, they will ride on the heights of the earth, which sounds like a mountain top experience. God will bless them with the heritage of Jacob, which is to receive all the blessings and promises of God.
Religion that glorifies God
Jesus teaches the same principle to His followers. Jesus tells a parable in Luke (18:9-14) that contrasts the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee prays to look good in front of people. The tax collector prays to God for mercy. God hears the tax collector’s prayer of humility, but not the Pharisees.
Another example is from the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus calls out the Pharisees because they tithe seeds, counting them out, but they neglect the weightier commands of the law: justice, and mercy, and faithfulness. Jesus says it is these things they should have done without neglecting to fulfill the command of tithing (Matthew 23:23).
Both examples prove that the religious act, prayer, and tithing, mean nothing when done with the wrong heart attitude.
Application for the New Covenant
But what about us? The New Covenant does not have laws commanding that we tithe, fast, or keep the Sabbath. In the New Covenant, we don’t have sacrifices, fasts, or Sabbath observance. The only command binding us in the New Covenant is the commandment of love.
For example, Paul writes to the church in Corinth to settle a dispute about eating meat that is sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 10:24-33). Some people did not eat meat that was sacrificed to idols because they believed it is offensive to God. The animal is used in a religious ceremony to shed blood to a false god. It seems the meat is tainted in some way.
Paul tells the Corinthians, eat what is sold in the market without asking questions. He quotes Scripture and says, “the earth is the Lord's, and all it contains.” In other words, God made the animal, and it is okay to eat. But, if someone else you are with has a problem with eating the meat, and their conscience is bothered, don’t eat the meat. Not because of your conscience, but for the sake of the other person. Paul says we are to seek the good of our neighbor. The religious act in that situation has nothing to do with food. The religious act is preferring others.
There is a great deal of liberty in Christianity. However, our liberty stops becoming liberty when it interferes in the faith of a weak believer. True religion does not satisfy the flesh, but it seeks the good and well-being of others. Our liberty ought not to be offensive. We are to seek to win people to Christ, not celebrate our liberty.
Paul sums up the principle of Christian liberty with this statement,
Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
The main idea of this message is that we need to examine our religious acts to ensure they are humbly in keeping with God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
Does my religion reflect God’s glory? Am I like Moses, hiding in the cleft of the rock, hearing God proclaim His glory as He walks by, and responding with worship and adoration? Does the appearance of the glory of God bring about a change in my life that makes me want to be like Him?
Does the appearance of God’s glory in my life, His grace and forgiveness, change my heart so that I become a person who desires others to see God’s mercy and forgiveness? Does my religion help people know that God abounds in truth and lovingkindness? Does my religion demonstrate forgiveness to others as God forgives me? Does my religion reveal mercy and grace as proof of God’s Spirit living in me?
Others don’t care if we fast, read our Bible daily, or go to church three times a week what they care about, as James says if they are hungry that they are fed.
The problem is not the religious acts (fasting, praying, Bible reading), but the expectations we have for the outcome of our religion. Are we performing our religious acts so we may grow closer to God? Are we trying not to sin, so we are pious, and look good to others, or because we want to draw near to God, and please Him with our lives?
Sometimes, we do religious acts like we are adding to an accounting ledger. We try to gain a balance of “doing good” so that God will owe us. We can easily have a quid pro quo approach. We build up our account of doing religious acts, and we expect God to owe us a blessing.
We might say things like, “God, I’ve been tithing for a year, why won’t you give me that job that I’ve been praying for?” Or, “God, I’ve been reading my Bible, and have faithfully served in the church, why do you allow ‘such and such’ to happen to me? It’s not fair!”
All these things are not a matter of salvation, but a matter of Christian maturity. We can be saved and be immature Christians. Participating in the Christian religion without the right understanding or approach is immature. Listen to what Paul says about ministry without love.
When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11).
It is often easier to observe the rules and traditions of Christianity religion than it is to have a relationship with the Lord that demonstrates godly character. We must continually examine our priorities and motives. We need always to ask ourselves, am I serving God to be admired by other people, or am I serving God because I am grateful for the salvation He provides?
There are many New Testament scriptures revealing what is pure religion in the eyes of God. For example, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)
Visiting those among us who are helpless and afflicted and in distress is not an exciting way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Being loving when someone is unlovable is far more difficult than sitting down in the morning with coffee and the Bible. Helping the homeless person who hasn’t showered is far more difficult than having fellowship with other Christians.
Attending church faithfully every Sunday is easy. Sharing the gospel with unbelievers, and inviting them to church, that is not easy.
Real religion that pleases God is not easy. It requires that we die to our self. It requires humility. It requires sacrifice.
Cruising along is not enough. Accumulating knowledge is not enough. We can do better. We are called to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God.
Believe God when He says that dying to self brings abundant life. Trust God when He says, it is better to give than to receive. Believe the words of Scripture that we can count everything as rubbish because we gain Christ.
Let’s grow in maturity. Let’s excel at true Christianity for the glory of God and our eternal joy.