Yesterday we mentioned Isaiah's take on "goodness". Perhaps no other biblical author plumbs the depths of the problem like Isaiah. Let's look a bit deeper at his teaching.
He begins his book with a withering attack on the Israelites' "meaningless offerings", their "trampling of my courts." The "blood of goats and bulls" in which He finds "no pleasure." "The multitude of your sacrifices - what are they to me?!" asks the LORD. (Isaiah 1:10-17)
Oh. But LORD, I thought... didn't you want... I assumed you were into this whole...?
...No, not like this, says the LORD.
And so we see God's prophet dispensing woe after woe upon the world (chapter 2-5). The nations, but Israel too. Israel especially, in fact. The flagrantly wicked are exposed but then - chapter 6 - in the Holy of Holies, the One who is 'Holy, Holy, Holy' elicits the only proper response from Isaiah: "Woe is me, I am unclean." Isaiah was the best of the best - God's prophet, a model Israelite. But in the presence of the LORD Christ (cf John 12:41) - in the presence of superlative holiness - Isaiah is completely undone.
Human goodness is condemned - even the best of the best. And yet, from the altar, fiery forgiveness flies to Isaiah. Guilt is taken away, sin is atoned for (Isaiah 6:6-7). And from this redeemed prophet a message will sound forth.
What's the message? Be good and God will save you? Be religious and He'll save Israel? No, the message is one of utter doom and destruction (Isaiah 6:9-13). Cities, houses, fields will be ruined, the people will be sent away, the land will be forsaken. The whole tree is coming down. But beyond this destruction, the Seed will sprout - the Holy One (Isaiah 6:13).
In chapter 7 He's called Immanuel. In chapter 9 He's the Divine Son given to those walking in darkness. In chapter 11 He's the Spirit Anointed Shoot from the stump of Jesse. He will save the world. He will bring righteousness (v4-5). He will restore the cosmos (v6-11).
Christ is the only hope for the world. He's the only hope for God's people. No amount of goodness can save Israel - judgement will fall. Their only hope is the one Righteous Branch - He would begin something else, something beyond mere human goodness and religion.
Christ's righteousness is a spreading goodness - an outward-looking, overflowing generosity to the ends of the earth. He comes for the needy and poor of the earth (Isaiah 11:4); the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks (Isaiah 42:3); the weary and those in darkness (Isaiah 50:4,10); the sinful, suffering, straying sheep (Isaiah 53); the poor, the brokenhearted, the bound, the despairing. To those who have nothing, Christ will be their everything. But to those who consider themselves somebodies...
There is fierce condemnation for those who imagine themselves to have something to offer. We've seen Isaiah's assault on the "filthy rags" of our "righteousness" in chapter 64. Perhaps even more famous is His attack in the following chapter. The LORD sees these folk "standing by themselves" saying:
"Come not near to me; for I am holier than thou." (Isaiah 65:5, KJV)
Don't you just despise that attitude? Not as much as the LORD does. The verse continues...
These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day.
The "holiness" of these religionists keeps them "standing by themselves" and it helps them to rank themselves above their neighbours. Is this true holiness? We know it's not. Isaiah has shown us the Holy One of Israel flying to sinners to atone for their guilt (Isaiah 6:5) and constantly moving towards the suffering and straying. The LORD's holiness is a radiant goodness that enters the darkness to transform it. But the "holier than thou" keep themselves to themselves, attempting, through religion, to strengthen whatever bond they imagine exists between themselves and the divine.
These were the kinds of people who were fasting in chapter 58. Intent on strengthening the bond between themselves and God, they are indignant when God seems not to notice their spiritual displays:
‘Why have we fasted and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ (Isaiah 58:3)
Just like those "trampling God's courts" in chapter 1, these "do-gooders for God" are seeking to strengthen their vertical relationship with God. And they expect God to be impressed. He is mightily unimpressed:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? (Isaiah 58:5)
What an image: bowing one's head like a reed. Is that what a "good person" looks like? Religious folk the world over will tell you it is. They "stand by themselves" in order to "come before God" and affect humility by bearing the burden of being good. Jesus spoke of those who actually disfigured their faces so everyone would know they are fasting (Matthew 6:16). It's a pathetic charade. To them the LORD says:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:6-9)
The religious wanted to strengthen the bond between themselves and God. The LORD says, True godliness is releasing the bonds of others. The LORD's idea of goodness is the complete reverse of His people's! The LORD does not treat us as good (or potentially good) religious try-ers who need to strengthen our bond with Him. We are wicked sinners, who need to be released from our guilt and set free. Now what does godliness look like? It looks like what our God looks like. It looks like joining Him in His liberating mission to the world.
True goodness begins with knowing we're not. It begins with "Woe is me." But instantly Christ flies to that sinner, atones for their guilt, sets them on their feet and says "Pass it on." There is a radically horizontal aspect to true goodness. Nothing is now done to strengthen our bond with God. We receive our relationship with God in Christ. He is our covenant with God (Isaiah 42:6). The vertical is taken care of.
Does that mean there's no doing in the Christian life? By no means! Before God, I simply receive, but before the world there is everything to be done. To be sure, none of my actions can ever strengthen or loosen my connection with God - I am in Christ and as close to the Father as He is. But there's much that I can do to release my neighbours from their imprisoning chains. Having received from God, there is a fullness to share.
In this other-centred mission, "righteousness goes before us and the glory of the LORD is our rear guard." All holier-than-thou attitudes are swept away in the LORD's outgoing flood. No longer do we "stand by ourselves", no longer do we consider goodness to be a rank that elevates us. It's a gift that propels us onwards and downwards towards the needy.
Why be good? It is not an act (or even a habit) by which we're raised up to God. Instead it's a life, joined to Christ's life, in which we reach out to the world.