“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; …When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? …I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:11-15)
These verses describe the natural human reaction to an awareness of our true position before God. When your conscience is awakened, you have some sense that you are not what you should be. You realize, perhaps for the first time, that there really is sin in your life. You feel the weight of your own iniquity, you see the wounds that you inflicted on yourself because of your own sinful choices. You say to yourself, “I can’t continue like this. I have to get right with God. How can I do it?”
The default answer of the human heart is, “I need to worship; I need to serve; I need to pray,” and that is precisely what these people did:
“When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?” (Isaiah 1:12)
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? … Bring no more vain offerings.”
(Isaiah 1:11, 13)
“When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.” (Isaiah 1:15)
The striking thing here is that these things seem to be done “according to the book.”
That place, of course, was Jerusalem, and the temple was in Jerusalem. People began to say, “Why should we go all the way to Jerusalem? Why don’t we set up our own temple here?” This was especially offensive to God.
The default response of the human heart to an awareness of our own sin is to offer something to God: “I must do something to make this right. So I will worship. I will serve. And I will pray.”
Why is religion pervasive in every culture of the world? It’s universal. What impulse in the human spirit gives rise to Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism? What makes people who have stopped going to church slip into the back of a service and say, “I really ought to be back.”
It is the sense that we are not right with God and that we need to do something about it. And the first instinct of the human heart is to attempt to accomplish this by worshiping, serving, and praying.
Now here’s the problem: It is quite clear from these verses that God is not impressed with our worship, service, and prayer. He doesn’t like it, and he is not moved by it. Listen to what God says: The offerings are in vain (1:13), he is not pleased with their sacrifices (1:11), and he will not listen to these prayers (1:15). So all this worship, serving, and praying from these people who are laden with iniquity is quite ineffective.
Worse still, it is actually offensive to God. God calls their offerings an abomination (1:13), and we learn that God hates their appointed feasts (1:14), and he is weary of their festivals. They have become a burden to him (1:14). Far from making things better, all this worship, serving, and praying is actually adding to their offenses before God. It’s alienating God even more, and making their position worse.
Did God not command these sacrifices? Doesn’t God want people to worship, serve, and pray? Yes he does. So, what’s the problem? “Your hands are full of blood” (1:15, a reference to their sins). “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly” (1:13). Worship, serving, and praying can never atone for your sin.
Our root problem is that by nature we love ourselves more than we love God, and we love our selves more than we love others. That manifests itself in impatience, pride, a critical spirit, greed, lust, ingratitude, and continual discontent.
Worship, serving, and praying can never atone for sin. If it did, we could save ourselves by worshipping, serving, and praying, and that is what most of the world believes. But it is not what you find here. What we find here is the utter futility of our best efforts to deal with the core problem of our own sins.
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16-17).
God is saying, “If you really want to worship, serve and pray, here is what must happen first:
Wash, cease, and learn.”
God’s pattern of working in the Old Testament is the same as his pattern in the New Testament: First, God redeemed a people for himself – that’s the Exodus. Then, God’s redeemed people committed themselves to lives of obedience – that’s what happened at Mount Sinai: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Finally, God gave recourse to his mercy, through the sacrifices, for times when his people failed in their obedience.
In the time of Isaiah, you had people using the sacrifices without any commitment to obedience. They had what Alec Motyer calls, “Religious commitment without ethical resolve.” You find this often in the religious world, “I come to the temple so that God will smile on me, and then I can live as I see fit.”
But God says, you must “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean” (1:16). “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3-4).
If you want to worship God you have to have clean hands. The problem with the people whom Isaiah is speaking about is that their hands were full of blood. When they came into the presence of God and spread out their hands before him in prayer, they were displaying the problem of their own sin.
This is the same thing Jesus says to the woman in Samaria. She asked, “Where is the correct place to worship?” Jesus said, “Forget about all that. The Father is looking for worshippers who worship in Spirit and in truth. And, by the way, here are a few sins hidden in your life.”
God says, you must “cease to do evil” (1:16). Quit your sins of choice. God says, you must “learn to do good” (1:17). And God gives us specific examples: “Seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (1:17).
Why does Isaiah choose these examples? Because these things were not being done, and because they involve serving people who are not in a position to give back in return. The soul of selfishness is that you are only committed when you get what you want.
Some commit to marriage like that: “I’ll do my part, as long as I get what I want.” Some commit to church like that: “Is the church doing what I want? If it is, then you can count on my support.” Some commit to God like that: “Is God doing what I want? If he is not giving me what I ask for, then why should I be committed to him?” That is the soul of selfishness.
God says, “There has to be a complete change from the inside out. Wash yourselves and make yourselves clean. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. And here’s what that means: You do what is right, even when nothing is coming back in your direction.”
Wash! Cease! Learn! The call of God on each of our lives is that we would walk and live according to all his commandments. Let me put it to you in the words of Jesus:
How would it be for you if the word of God ended there? How would it be if the last line was, “make yourselves clean; cease from evil; learn to do good.” Is there anyone here who would ever dare to stand in the presence of God and say, “I’ve done that”?
How can you wash your body when there is blood on your hands? All that happens is that the blood on your hands gets smeared all over. How are you going to live as Jesus lived when you are laden with iniquity?
Here’s the predicament that we have as sinners: What we do… can’t do it. What will do it… we can’t do! What we do (worship, serve, pray) can’t make us right with God, and what will do it (cease from all evil, fulfill all of the commandments of God) we cannot do.
“’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD: ‘though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool’” (Isaiah 1:18).
What is God saying to the sinner? “Come near and let’s talk. You’re in an impossible position and you know it. All this worship, serving, and praying, isn’t working. You need to fulfill my law, but you haven’t been able to. So here is my offer: Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” God’s offers the gift of complete cleansing! And God says this to people who are laden with iniquity, people whose hands are full of blood, people whose sins are like scarlet.
What God commands in verse 16 and 17, he provides through his promise in verse 18. What God has done in Christ makes repentance possible. You can be washed. You can cease from doing evil. You can learn to do good. How? He will make you clean. He will give you a new heart. He will give you his Spirit and teach you through his Word.
You may be saying this morning,
God says to you today: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”
Everyone in the ancient world knew that to make a piece of material scarlet, you had to soak it in the dye for an extended period of time. There may be a sin that you have been soaking in for a long time, and just like the dye in the cloth, that sin has permeated the fabric of your life. It’s in your heart. It’s in your head. Do you see that God says to you, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow”? This is something only God can do.
“I’m a Christian. I’ve sinned willfully, knowingly. I’ve sinned against my own Savior and I’ve sinned against the light. God says to you, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” The only answer to sins against the blood of Christ is the blood of Christ.
What can wash away my sin? It’s not worship, it’s not service, and it’s not prayer. What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Here we have some amazing words of our Lord Jesus Christ spoken by the Holy Spirit: “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’” (Heb. 10:8).
So here we have God the Son, and he’s in the presence of the Father. He is above, where he was with the Father from the beginning, looking down on the world. The Son sees all these sacrifices, and he says to the Father, “That’s not what you want. There’s no joy in that for you. This is not what you’re asking for.”
Then he adds, “Behold, I have come to do your will” (Heb. 10:9). The first sentence was spoken above; this second word is spoken from below: “I have come.” Here is Christ on earth. He came from heaven. He has taken human flesh. He has been born of the virgin, Mary. He stands with the people.
Christ looks up and says to the Father, “I have come to do your will. I have come to live the life that fulfills all that you ever asked of a human being. Watch now and get pleasure from seeing all that you ever willed being done in me.”
“And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). The word ‘sanctified’ means ‘made clean.’ “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean” (Isaiah 1:16). What God commanded through Isaiah the prophet, he provided through his Son, Jesus Christ.
In Isaiah we read about sacrifices that could never satisfy God, because they were offered by unclean hands. But the Son of God has clean hands and a pure heart, and he has lived the life that we have not lived.
Jesus Christ ascended the hill of the Lord and he offered himself as a perfect sacrifice acceptable to God, for the complete cleansing of all sin, and when he made the offering he said, “It is finished.” Which is why there aren’t any more sacrifices to be offered.
On the third day, the smile of God on the sacrifice was revealed, as Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Today, our risen Savior looks out on a world filled with people who are bruised, bleeding, and laden with iniquity, and he says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heaven laden and I will give you rest.”
How will you respond to all that God offers you in Jesus Christ? “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). If you are willing to receive what I offer, and if you are ready to pursue what I command, there is a Savior who can cleanse you. If you will receive me as your gracious Savior, as your sovereign Lord, then you, the beaten, the bruised, those laden with iniquity, shall eat the good of the land.
© Colin S. Smith
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