God’s True Covenant People Are Not Pretenders

If Isaiah were alive today, he would call prosperity gospel preachers and most televangelists and megachurch pastors blind, ignorant, useless, greedy and insatiable dogs, just as he called the false shepherds of Israel “silent dogs” who are blind, without knowledge, and who have never enough (Isaiah 56:11-12).

Text: Isaiah 56:1-12 • Readings: Exodus 31:12-17; Psalm 92:1-5; Mark 11:15-19; Hebrews 4:8-10

January 8, 2012 Download PDF sermon
When our Lord’s Day worship is distinct from the culture of entertainment, the world sees us as truly different redeemed people worshipping a holy God who is truly different from their gods.

Every time Manny Pacquiao fights—and it’s always on a Sunday—the whole Philippines grinds to a halt—no traffic congestion (yes, even on Sundays) and practically deserted streets and malls (usually packed on Sundays). Sadly, church attendance also decreases dramatically.

In view of this, someone who was concerned about this phenomenon posted in an evangelical forum, saying, Manny “will probably win but ultimately Satan will win as many Christians will not be in church this morning worshipping our Savior but rather absent because of a highly profile fight via pay per view. What kind of testimony does this send to the world…” Then another commenter replied, “Can we only worship our creator on Sunday morning? If we can and should worship at other times, do we have to worship on our traditional Sunday morning?”

These comments are a sad commentary to the state of evangelicalism, not only in the Philippines, but all over the world. They reek of the individualistic, anti-ecclesiastical, anti-doctrinal and anti-historical culture of our day. Tell anyone about observing the Lord‘s Day, and what is the response? “Can’t we worship God anytime, anywhere? Aren’t we saved by faith in Christ, and not by the church?” How noble! How edifying! What can be wrong about these statements? What’s wrong with these statements is Biblical illiteracy and outright disobedience to God’s Word masquerading as deep spirituality. Even more evident of this bankruptcy is the inability of many Christians to defend Sunday worship against Seventh Day Adventists.

In Isaiah Chapter 56, the prophet uses devotion to the Sabbath and doing righteousness as the criteria to distinguish between God’s true covenant people and “pretenders.” John Calvin speaks of the presence of both true believers and “pretenders” or “hypocrites” in the visible church: “In this church are mingled many hypocrites who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance. There are very many ambitious, greedy, envious persons, evil speakers, and some of quite unclean life” (Institutes IV:1:7). These are God’s people only outwardly, or have the false assurance that they are Christians.

In verses 1-8, the true people of God are marked by two things. First, the prophet says they keep the Sabbath and do not dishonor this sacred day. This means they obey the Biblical command to worship God in spirit and truth in the assembly of the saints every Lord‘s Day. Second, during the rest of the week, their lives are about keeping justice and doing righteousness, and keeping their hands from doing any evil (verses 1 and 2).

But in verses 9-12, the prophet condemns pretenders or hypocrites because they are not God’s true covenant people. Because they are ignorant of God’s Word, they are blind. Since they are blind, they sleep even in the midst of danger to their souls. They outwardly belong to the church, but inwardly, they are only motivated by personal gain and live for worldly pleasures.

Today, we will explore this clear distinction between God’s true covenant people and pretenders in two ways: first, how they worship; and second, how they live.

The True Worship and Live in Truth
Verse 1 of Chapter 56 seems to be a summary of everything up to Chapter 55. The injunction to “keep justice, and do righteousness” is seen all throughout the warnings and condemnation in Chapters 1-39. And when the Lord says, “soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed,” he summarizes all the promises of Chapters 40-55.

The true people of God keep the provisions of the covenant, which means keeping justice and doing righteousness and not evil deeds. They are redeemed in order that they may be able to keep the covenant laws. Honoring the Sabbath rest and worship represented the first great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul and mind.” To be just and righteous are two virtues that sum up the second great commandment, their covenant relationship with their neighbor, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two are always tied together: one cannot please God without keeping both commands.

Why is Sabbath-keeping required? Because it is a common thread that runs through creation, fall, redemption and consummation. Just as God rested on the seventh day from his creation work, he will give his people the same rest from their labors, not only physically, but spiritually. This is because he knew that mankind will be under slavery to sin and Satan until he gives them rest. As Hebrews 4:1 says, “the promise of entering his rest still stands” for sinners.

The seventh-day creation Sabbath also pointed forward to the history of God’s Old Testament people. At Mount Sinai, God commanded them to make the Sabbath holy because he “rested on the seventh day” (Exod 20:11). Just before entering the Promised Land, he repeated the same command, this time because they ”were a slave in the land of Egypt” whom God has redeemed (Deut 5:15). After they entered the Promised Land, God brought down the walls of Jericho after Israel marched around the city seven times on the seventh day. Finally, Israel was given rest from their 70 years of captivity in Babylon during which time the Promised Land “had enjoyed its Sabbaths” (2 Chron. 36:21) while it laid desolate and untilled.

When Jesus came, he fulfilled all the Law (Matt 5:17), including the Sabbath. Being the Lord of the Sabbath, how did he keep it? Going shopping at the mall? Sunning on the beach on vacation? Watching Tim Tebow throw unbelievable touchdowns and calling “Tebowing” as witnessing for Jesus? Or going to work for double pay? No, he observed the Sabbath by preaching the Word of God in the synagogues and helping needy neighbors.

But the greatest fulfillment of the Sabbath rest that Jesus accomplished was that of creating the perfect, eternal rest for God’s people by his life, death and resurrection. By his resurrection on the first day of the week, he changed the Sabbath Day from the seventh day to the first day of the week. How do we know that he changed it? Did he give us a command? Obviously, just as there is no explicit text saying, “There is one God in Three Persons,” there is also no obvious text saying, “Remember the first day of the week, to keep it holy.”

But just as we know the doctrine of the Trinity is Biblical by examining the whole of Scriptures, we know from many texts that the special day of assembly for the worship of God is the first day of the week. Consider, first of all, Christ arose from the grave on the first day, marking his rest from his earthly labors, thereby giving God’s people rest from sin and death. On that same day, and the following first day of the week, he assembled his disciples together, setting a pattern of meeting God’s people on the first day. He poured out his Spirit on his disciples on the day of Pentecost, the first day of the week, as the covenant people were assembled together for worship in one place (Acts 2:1).

The apostolic evidence also points to this momentous change. Paul assembled the congregation for breaking of bread and preaching on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). He directed the churches in Corinth and Galatia to collect offerings to help the needy church in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-2). Finally, before the apostle John was shown the revelation of Christ, he said, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord‘s day” (Rev 1:10). Obviously, he now calls the day of Christ’s resurrection, the first day of the week, not just any “Lord‘s day,” but as “the Lord‘s day.”

In fulfilling the Sabbath rest of God in creation, fall, and redemption of mankind, Christ offers his Sabbath rest for those who would believe in him. So he invites all his people, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest… for your souls” (Matt 11:28-29). This is what Hebrews 4:9-10 teaches, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” His people can only enter God’s rest from their heavy burden of sin, not from working their way to heaven, but by trusting in Christ and his finished work on the cross.

With this redemptive work, Christ has already begun the new creation—“if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17)—but we still await the “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; Rev 21:1) where we will finally enter God’s eternal rest. In the six days of creation, all the days finished with a refrain, “And there was evening and there was morning.” In contrast, the seventh day has no evening-to-morning refrain, signifying that the seventh day will continue till the end of days. Until that day, God’s covenant people are to continue weekly Sabbath worship as redeemed pilgrims, but still traveling in this barren land on their way to the new heavens, just as the Israelites sojourned in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

Most Christians think of Sunday as merely a day of physical rest and public worship of God. This is well and good. But the Christian Sabbath is much more than those things: when we keep the Lord‘s Day, we are witnessing to the church and to the world in several ways. First, abstaining from working for a living on this day is evidence of our trust and dependence on our Providence. Second, in keeping the Lord‘s Day, we preach the gospel to them because we are telling them to also trust that Christ’s finished work, not their own good works, is everything they need to enter God’s everlasting rest. Third, by keeping the Lord‘s Day of rest and worship, we show the world our hope in the everlasting rest that we will receive from Christ in the coming day of resurrection. Fourth, when our Lord‘s Day worship is distinct from our culture of entertainment, the world sees us as truly different redeemed people worshipping a holy God truly different from their gods.

And who are included in God’s covenant nation?

Outcasts are Also Covenant People
Instead of worshiping their detestable pagan idols, such as the Black Nazarene, in their high places, all the peoples of the earth will go to the Lord‘s house of prayer and offer true sacrifices that are acceptable to the true and living God Already in the Old Testament, we read about God’s salvation plan for the world. His promises to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets included the salvation of the nations, as seen for example in Psalm 66:1, 4: “Shout for joy to God, all the earth… All the earth worships you.” In verses 3-8 of our text, Isaiah includes foreigners and eunuchs—the “outcasts of Israel”—as those who would observe the Sabbath and please God with their deeds and sacrifices.

Israelites were strictly commanded to separate and distinguish themselves from foreigners or Gentiles because they worship pagan idols. Eunuchs were usually men who have been deprived of having children to serve in the royal courts. These were truly outside the household of God and the nation of Israel, without hope and without God. But many of these “outcasts” will “join themselves to the Lordas his faithful servants in God’s house who will keep the Sabbath and God’s covenant laws(verse 6). The eunuch who was an Ethiopian court official and who was saved by Philip’s preaching of the gospel of Christ from Isaiah 53:7-8 is a fulfillment of this prophecy (Acts 8:27-39).

These outcasts will receive the same blessings that the Lord gives to all of God’s covenant people. Eunuchs will be blessed far more than the posterity of their names if they had children, because God will give them a name that will last forever. Their names will be etched in God’s house and registered in the Book of Life for eternity. They will be “a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God” (Rev 3:12). They will be given “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

Foreigners who love, worship and serve the Lord will be brought to God’s holy mountain to worship there with all of God’s covenant people. This is why Isaiah 2:2 says of the holy mountain, “all the nations shall flow to it.” God will bring all the nations—represented by Egypt and Assyria—there to worship him, “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria… and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians” (Isa 19:23). Instead of worshipping their detestable pagan idols in their high places, all the peoples of the earth will go to the Lord‘s house of prayer and offer true sacrifices that are acceptable to the true and living God (verse 7). In this manner, God will fulfill his promise to Abraham that all the families of the earth will be blessed through his Seed.

"The Baptism of the Eunuch" by Rembrandt, 1626 (click to enlarge)

"The Baptism of the Eunuch" by Rembrandt, 1626 (click to enlarge)

Who is this Seed but none other than Christ, who in his zeal for his Father’s house, drove away traders from the Temple, God’s “house of prayer for all the nations,” because they had made it “a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Out of all the nations, Jesus the Good Shepherd came to gather all the sheep given to him by his Father, not only of the flock of Israel, but also of his “other sheep,” the Gentiles. “So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). Through his death on the cross, Christ “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” between those who are “far off” (Gentiles), and those who are “near” (Jews) (Eph 2:14-17).

Because of the finished work of Christ, the Lord now gathers all his people—Jews and Gentiles, foreigners and eunuchs, far and near—to become the only True Israel of God worshiping in the only True Temple of Christ. Together, they will offer true worship pleasing to the true God. They will keep God’s covenant laws by worshipping God on the Lord‘s Day, and by living just and righteous lives.

God’s covenant community is made up of true believers and “pretenders,” hypocrites who are not truly joined to the Lord. What is their condemnation and what judgment awaits them?

Pretenders Worship and Live in Idolatry
Eunuchs and foreigners—the outcasts of Israel—will be given everlasting names and be brought to God’s holy mountain to worship the true God. In contrast, those who are in the covenant family, but in reality are only outward members, are already condemned and warned of coming judgment.

Specifically, God singles out “watchmen” and “shepherds,” the leaders of Israel. They are described in demeaning terms, such as “blind” and “without knowledge.” God placed them on the walls of the city to listen to the trumpet warning of danger, but they loved sleeping (Jer 6:17). Isaiah says that these watchmen are duty-bound to always keep watch over the city, On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent… to take no rest (Isa 62:6-7). They were never to stop praying to the Lord for the sake of the salvation of God’s people, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent… until … her salvation [goes forth] as a burning torch” (Isa 62:1).

But these watchmen are condemned as useless “silent dogs.” What good is a security guard sleeping on the job when robbers come? What is a guard dog for if they do not bark even when an intruder enters the house? In the ancient world, to call someone a dog was a term of derision, specifically how Jews regarded Gentiles who were considered ceremonially unclean. In a messianic psalm, David calls his enemies dogs, “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me (Psa 22:16). With biting irony, Paul himself turns the tables on Jewish converts who wanted to circumcise Gentile believers “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil 3:2). John as well calls those who are outside the gates of the heavenly city (which means they are in hell) as dogs, “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev 22:15).

Further, Isaiah says, “The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough… each to his own gain” (verse 11). Instead of taking care of the sheep, the prophets and watchmen of Israel only look out for themselves and their own gain. They fill their stomachs with strong wine every day, caring about nothing else than their own pleasure (verse 12). They are like politicians of today who serve not the people, but themselves, for their own great profit. The prophet Ezekiel, one of the few prophets who were not “dogs,” condemned these leaders:

Surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts… but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep… Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. (Ezek 34:8-10).

Thus, because they are useless watchmen and only feed themselves and not the sheep, God will be feed them to the beasts, figuratively, nations that will conquer God’s people (verse 9). Jeremiah says of the invasion of the Judah by Babylon, “I have given the beloved of my soul into the hands of her enemies… Go, assemble all the wild beasts; bring them to devour” (Jer 12:7, 9).

Oh, how these watchmen of Israel embody many of today’s pastors and church leaders! They are blind and without knowledge of the Scriptures, teaching the wisdom of men, not the wisdom of God in the Scriptures. They are hypocrites and pretenders who preach all kinds of false gospels and twist Scriptures in order to gain material wealth, power and acclamation.

Because of this, they are blind to spiritual danger, and even if they knew it, they ignore it. So they announce, “Peace! Peace!” when wolves are already inside the church devouring the sheep. Because these pretenders are themselves blind to and ignorant of God’s Word, the people in their churches are also blind and ignorant—the blind leading the blind.

We see these pretenders on their theatrical television events. We see their huge mansions and fast, shiny and expensive jets, yachts and cars. We see their huge church buildings and other expensive business investments, and all their high-tech gadgets. And we’re amazed at their new wardrobe week after week. But always, we hear them manipulating their blind and ignorant sheep to give more, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse… and put me to the test… if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing” (Mal 3:10). If Isaiah were alive today, he would call them blind, ignorant, useless, greedy and insatiable dogs.

Where is justice? Where is righteousness? Where is the hallowing of the Lord‘s Day? Today’s pastors and leaders of the church are pretenders no different from Israel’s dogs: they milk the sheep and entertain the goats, and desecrate the worship of God on the Lord‘s Day, all for their own profit. But this condemnation is not only against the leaders of the church; all those in the church who pretend to be covenant members are also condemned by God.

So God tells us that in the end, all of these pretenders and hypocrites will be like dogs outside heaven who will be devoured by the beasts of the field, since they have been useless dogs.

Conclusion

Dear friends, as you attend worship services every Lord‘s Day, be reminded that it is a remembrance of the resurrection of Christ and the everlasting Sabbath that is yours now, and will be perfected in your own resurrection. What are you to do as you await this coming day of resurrection? You are to keep justice and do righteousness in relation to you neighbor, and honor the Lord‘s Day in worship and service to God.

Remember too that when you come on the Lord‘s Day to worship God, you are a part of all the peoples of the earth whom God has brought to his holy mountain. You too, like the foreigners and eunuchs in Israel, used to be “outcasts” of Israel, without hope and far from God in this world. But now, because of Christ’s finished work of sacrifice on the cross, you have been brought near to God’s throne of grace, mercy and peace, where Christ will give you rest.

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