Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Hypocrisy is caring more what other people think than what God thinks, all the while expecting God to be okay with that. Hypocrisy is making up your own rules for religious practice and expecting God to reward them. Hypocrisy is wanting to be near God but bring your sins with you. Let's not be hypocrites.
Looking Good at Church
One of everybody's favorite Sunday morning jokes is the whole "what we're like in the car on the way to church" vs. "what we're like when we walk in the church doors". Part of being human is the struggle between what we are and what we think we're supposed to be. (And there's a separate struggle between acknowledging that we're not there and giving up trying.) We all have stories about Sunday morning struggle. What's your funniest?
As many of us have experienced personally, the transition to "online church" has created a whole bunch of new twists on that old challenge. One of the big churches to push "online church" is lifechurch.tv. All the way back in 2009, they created this short satire video about all of the things that can happen in online church. (Again -- from 2009!!)
So, let's start with a question: what are the unwritten rules about coming to church? If you've been going to church for a long time, I'd also like you to think about how those rules have changed over the years. Yes, this has the potential to get controversial, but that's going to be exactly Isaiah's point when we get into the passage, so let's go for it. Here are some obvious ones to get us started. But in addition to the rule, I also want you to think about why the rule exists, and what the rule has come to mean.
Unwritten rule: dress nice. While fashions and dress codes have changed significantly over the years, the general rule of "dress nice" hasn't. Why do we say that? Ostensibly, it's so people put some sort of effort into their Sunday mornings. But what's happened as a result? It makes people worry more about what other people think of their appearance.
Unwritten rule: watch your mouth. No cursing in the church house. Don't say anything disrespectful. Don't interrupt the sermon. Why? Well, it's polite. But it can go a number of ways. There's the parent who shushes their kid because they're mostly worried about what the people around them think of their parenting skills. There's the parent who doesn't want to be a distraction. And there's the parent who doesn't care. One of those is healthy.
Unwritten rule: don't take someone else's seat. My grandpa would ask people to move if they sat in his pew. We are creatures of habit! Mixing things up due to COVID created some elasticity for a while, but I was amazed how quickly people settled in on new seats. Why do we do it? We're creatures of habit who like to know our place.
What else can you come up with?
Now let's add the twist of "online church". What has staying home and watching on tv done to our unwritten rules? Well, you might not care what you look like! Is that good or bad? You also don't have to watch your mouth (or pay attention at all). Is that good or bad? And, you get to pick your own seat, your own routine, goodness, even your own time! Is that good or bad?
Whatever that difference is, it cuts straight to the heart of our passage in Isaiah:
Whatever you're willing to change between "in-person church" and "online church" reveals what you're doing to impress other people. But where does God's opinion enter into your decision-making? Do you also care what God thinks?
Every unwritten rule must be traced back to what God thinks, or else it is a part of the problem of what we now call superficial Christianity. Dressing nice only makes a difference if you're doing it to prepare your heart for worship. "Nice" will mean one thing to you, and something very different to someone who is poor or who doesn't get taken shopping. Watching your mouth doesn't make any difference at all if you only watch it in the church building. If you can't say it here, what makes you think you should say it anywhere? And I'm not even going to get into our pew habits.
Big Picture Aside: Our Online Identity
That takes me into a really important aside, something the lifechurch.tv video hinted at (remember the lady who shut the yellers up with tape?). People, including Christians, seem to think they can behave differently online than in person. Why is that? Well, there's a seeming layer of protection between you and the person you're jabbing. There are also ways to hide your identity and speak anonymously.
What's the problem with that approach to online behavior?
What's NOT the problem with that approach to online behavior?
If you scroll down to the bottom of my post on Proverbs 29 ("Accepting Discipline"), you'll find this paragraph:
More than 40% of Americans experienced some form of online harassment last year. More than 80% of adult internet users observed some kind of harassment online -- 2/3 of that was on social media platforms, and 1/4 was in a comment section. More than 90% of internet users believe that the internet enables destructive criticism.
Based on statistical probability alone, that would suggest that professing Christians have been a part of online harassment or destructive criticism.
Here's how I put it in my article about "Social Media Guidelines":
You're still a Christian when you're online.
(If you haven't read this guideline, I strongly encourage you to!: https://www.fbcthomson.org/post/christian-guidelines-for-social-media
We need to keep educating ourselves and one another on this subject if we're ever going to see a change in our online world.)
Now, back to the lesson. If you're thinking seriously about this topic, let's end with this question:
Being honest with yourself, in what areas (like your clothes, your language, your habits) do you care more about what other people think than what God thinks?
I think this puts our brains on the right path to appreciate our passage this week.
Where We Are in Isaiah
We are down to the last two lessons of the quarter, so this is just about it for the book of Isaiah. Let's recap where we've been:
Part 1: Israel should be motivated by God's grace (40-55)
A. God graciously delivers His people (40)
B. God graciously chose Israel (41-48)
1. Salvation is through God alone, not idols (41-44)
2. God's plan for Israel's salvation is inscrutable (45-46)
3. God will still punish the idolaters (47)
4. Israel should trust and believe God's plan (48)
C. A servant will be Israel's model and salvation (49-55)
1. God will send a servant to deliver Israel (49-52)
2. The servant's suffering will lead to Israel's deliverance (53-55)
Part 2: Israel should thus live according to God's righteousness (56-66)
A. Israel has consistently failed and rebelled (56-59)
B. God will make Israel a light to the nations (60-62)
C. Israel has historically failed to be righteous (63-65)
D. God will make the Gentiles righteous (66)
We're covering a lot of ground in these last two lesson, but the overall point of this final section of Isaiah is clear: Israel has failed, but that won't stop God.
Part 1: True State (Isaiah 58:1-5)
“Cry out loudly, don’t hold back! Raise your voice like a ram’s horn. Tell my people their transgression and the house of Jacob their sins. 2 They seek me day after day and delight to know my ways, like a nation that does what is right and does not abandon the justice of their God. They ask me for righteous judgments; they delight in the nearness of God.”
3 “Why have we fasted, but you have not seen? We have denied ourselves, but you haven’t noticed!”
“Look, you do as you please on the day of your fast, and oppress all your workers. 4 You fast with contention and strife to strike viciously with your fist. You cannot fast as you do today, hoping to make your voice heard on high. 5 Will the fast I choose be like this: A day for a person to deny himself, to bow his head like a reed, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord?
Poor Isaiah. He must not have been popular. It makes me think of the very first Charlie Brown cartoon (1950):
"Go tell everyone that they're miserable rebel sinners and God's not happy with them. Get in their faces and get their attention."
Yeah, thanks, God.
Reminds me of what God said to Isaiah back in Isaiah 6:
9 "Go! Say to these people: "Keep listening, but do not understand; keep looking, but do not perceive. 10 Make the minds of these people dull; deafen their ears and blind their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their minds, turn back, and be healed." 11 Then I said, “Until when, Lord?” And he replied: "Until cities lie in ruins without inhabitants, houses are without people, the land is ruined and desolate, 12 and the Lord drives the people far away, leaving great emptiness in the land. 13 Though a tenth will remain in the land, it will be burned again. Like the terebinth or the oak that leaves a stump when felled, the holy seed is the stump."
Because here's the thing about Judah's perspective, something made clear in verses 2 and 3: they give every indication that they care about doing the right thing. They want to know what God says. They want to understand God. They want to be in God's presence.
Or, at least, that's what they say.
The hardest person to reach is the person who already thinks they're on the right path.
Let's read a couple of things that Jesus said:
“1 Be careful not to practice your righteousness[a] in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven. 2 So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward." (Matthew 6)
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18)
Why would Jesus say this? Because it was still a problem among God's people.
We have a word to describe the problem Jesus is talking about: hypocrisy. The Oxford definition of the word is "the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one's own behavior does not conform". [Humorous aside about how much the world has changed in the past 7 months. We used to call this "wearing your mask to church". Now, that means something very different!]
Verse 3 explains exactly what the people had gotten wrong: they had separated their religious practice from their daily behavior. In other words, they thought that if they did the right religious things, it didn't matter how they behaved the rest of the time. This is very much like what I said above about watching your mouth in church but not anywhere else.
Take a close look at the situation: the people fast, yes, but during their fasting they oppress their workers and behave overall belligerently and viciously. God calls them out on this. NET Bible translates this as "Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls, and fist fights." The next section covers what God wants a fast to be, so try not to get too ahead of yourself, but let's start this discussion. What's the difference between what people think a fast is and what God thinks a fast is? Let's start with this:
What do you think a fast is, and what is the purpose of a fast?
In Isaiah's day, the people apparently thought that a fast was about denying yourself and spending time in religious observance. How different is that from what people think today?
There's a phrase "You can't have your cake and eat it too". What does it mean? (BTW, the people who say that you can have your cake and eat it too obviously don't know what the phrase means.)
The Jews wanted God to approve of their fast, but they wanted to make up their own rules for their fast. That's not how it works. It can't work that way.
Let's go all the way back to the end of Exodus (put your thinking caps on). Moses had built God's tabernacle, but then he was unable to enter. Why?
The next book, Leviticus, answers -- Moses' sin needed to be dealt with. (Ergo, the sacrificial system.) It's not safe for sinful humanity to be near God. God's holiness would consume us. (The beginning of Isaiah 6 addresses exactly that concern.)
The people wanted to be near to God, but they wanted to bring their sin with them.
How do we do that today?
Part 2: True Worship (58:6-10)
6 Isn’t this the fast I choose: To break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will appear like the dawn, and your recovery will come quickly. Your righteousness will go before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.
9 At that time, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry out, he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you get rid of the yoke among you, the finger-pointing and malicious speaking, 10 and if you offer yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted one, then your light will shine in the darkness, and your night will be like noonday.
Based on this description, why did God give us the command to fast?
We tend to focus on the idea that a fast should bring us closer to God (Zech 7:5, Ps 69:10, Ez 8:23, Joel 2:12). But I think this passage reveals that a fast -- intentional self-deprivation -- is also uniquely designed to make us aware of the plight of people in need around us and to free up resources that we can then use to help them.
One of my favorite passages was written by Isaiah's contemporary, Micah:
6 What should I bring before the Lord when I come to bow before God on high? Should I come before him with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? 7 Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with ten thousand streams of oil? Should I give my firstborn for my transgression, the offspring of my body for my own sin?
8 Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.
Our religious approach to God isn't just about our personal relationship with God; it's about how God can work through us in the fallen world we live in.
I've heard some people approach Lent by saying they would give up, say, their daily Starbucks *and also* take the money they would have spent on it and give to the local homeless shelter. That's starting to understand what Isaiah is saying.
But even moreso, the way we deny ourselves in a fast should make us aware that people all over the world are being forced to live that way and are powerless to help themselves. We should be infuriated at the oppression that takes place around the world, and we should support the many excellent ministries that look to put a stop to it.
[Plug: The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions starts soon! Our missionaries around the world work hard to share Jesus and improve the quality of life of their communities. Bring in those offerings!]
God wants fasts to result in changes in the world. "Chains of wickedness" means "wicked chains" not "chains that bind people to their wicked nature". "Yoke" is the symbol of any method of oppression.
What are the "yokes" in our world today? This was hard for me to answer because everything gets so political so quickly. I would say that lack of education can be a yoke, whether that's a family that doesn't prioritize it or a system that makes it hard to access. A worldview can be a yoke -- what a child is raised to believe. Debt is certainly a yoke, and there are some political and social systems in place that are unfair to the debtor. Ethnicity and gender are sadly still yokes in many parts of the world, systems that benefit white males in some parts of the world, or Islamic males in others, for example.
God wants His people to look out for the good of all people. The poor. The imprisoned. The sick. The young. The old. All people.
That takes us back to the "unwritten rules" we talked/joked about above. If someone comes into our church service not dressed the way we would want, is the proper response for us to point fingers and speak badly about them? If someone comes into our church service and doesn't behave up to our standards, is the proper response for us to give the side-eye and the silent treatment?
A thousand times no!
What God is telling us to do is look out for the good of those people -- all people. Maybe we need to be generous with our own clothes. (Or maybe we need to change our conventions for attire.) Maybe we need to spend time with those people and teach them about godly behavior and mentor them. That's the response God wants from us.
The result? Our light will shine in the dark world. And that's what should be the most important to us. Not our comfort. Not our opinions. But the light of the gospel shining in a dark and sinful world.
In his sermon last week ("Jesus Got Involved"), David talked about the various ministries our church supports/does to take care of the physical needs of people in our community and around the world. As a follower of Jesus, we have the dual responsibility of sharing the gospel and helping people. Our work is incomplete if we do one at the expense of the other.
That's what verse 10 is about. "Offer yourself" is about more than giving your extra food or money away -- it's about "giving yourself" away, in other words, what is personal and important. Getting involved. Depriving yourself for the good of others. That's what God wants of us. And it's a small price for the blessings He's given us, and the eternity of glory He has waiting for us.
Part 3: True Satisfaction (Isaiah 58:11-12)
11 The Lord will always lead you, satisfy you in a parched land, and strengthen your bones. You will be like a watered garden and like a spring whose water never runs dry. 12 Some of you will rebuild the ancient ruins; you will restore the foundations laid long ago; you will be called the repairer of broken walls, the restorer of streets where people live.
Why do people [we] do things like keep our money instead of tithing it? Point fingers at others? Take advantage of those weaker than us? Flaunt our power? Yes, it's sin. And yes, it's just the easy and destructive manipulations of the devil. But we do so in pursuit of basic desires. Thomas Hobbes, for example, argued that people primarily act in the interest of self-preservation. All of those decisions about money and power are driven by the desire to keep more for one's self (i.e. if someone else has the power to point fingers at you, that person has the power to bring you harm). I think that he's right -- it is definitely a worldly, fleshly way that people make decisions.
But it's not how God's people are supposed to make decisions.
And here's the amazing result of living and worshiping God's way: we end up with everything we were looking for in the first place.
Do a list of all of the benefits of living according to God's rules above (in this case, with respect to the fast). Obviously, the language is spiritualized (this isn't just about strong bones and fresh water), so think about what this means in the lives of ordinary human beings. What are these benefits?
More importantly, how are they better than the selfish pursuits described in the earlier verses?
Let me bring back verse 8 and the first part of verse 9, which I skipped over earlier. Based on everything we've said so far, what do the people want? They want access to God. They want God to preserve them. They want to be important. Well, the people who do life the way God wants them to do it, what do they get? They get immediate access to God. They get God Himself protecting them and walking with them. (The language is a clear reference to the Exodus.) They get sustenance from God. That's what God planned all along for His people! They blew it by seeking their interpretation of those blessings in their own power!
Perhaps Jesus' words make even more sense now:
5 “Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask him." (Matthew 6)
My award for this week's "sneaky awesome" verse goes to verse 12 -- "you will rebuild the ancient foundations". I think this has two separate, equal meanings. (1) Some of the people who read these words in exile literally rebuilt Jerusalem. This would have been so encouraging to the people living as slaves far away from home. (2) More pressingly, the people in Isaiah's day who heeded his words and put them into practice, teaching them to their children, spiritually rebuilt Jerusalem. The people of God who return to God are building a spiritual city, laying a foundation for generations. Isn't that true of us today?
And then catch where that verse is really going. Think about the earlier references to harsh masters -- they will be remembered (at best) as shrewd businessmen. (And soon forgotten.) But what about the people who live according to God's design? They will be remembered as people who built a better world for their children and brought healing to their community. Which of those remembrances is better? It's not close, is it!
So, let's end this by asking yourself: what blessings am I really after? What are my highest desires? And how am I pursuing them?
I hope this week's passage encourages you to focus on God's blessings God's way. This is exactly what Jesus was talking about when He said,
31 So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. (Matthew 6)
So, let's do that. Let's seek above all else God's kingdom and God's righteousness. Jesus said that God will then provide us everything we need. Do we doubt?
About Lifeway's Emphasis on Worship
If you're not careful, this lesson can devolve into a debate about what we should be doing in our church services, like guitars vs. organs or the like. That would be so, so missing the point of this passage. And Lifeway is not encouraging you to go that direction.
In our passage, Isaiah singles out an act of devotion, fasting, that the people did on their own in hopes of drawing nearer to God. It's not about their corporate worship services at all. It's about certain spiritual practices they did to obtain God's favor. (And they were disappointed when it didn't work.) So, in other words, the modern parallel wouldn't be what your church does in a worship service, it would be why you personally go to the worship service in the first place. See the difference? It's really important that we understand this difference. Your church could have discovered a recording of the apostles themselves in worship, but if you were duplicating their actions with selfish motives, or while hypocritically living contrary to God's law, it wouldn't make any difference for you. This is about you. Why do you pray? Why do you go to church? Why do you read your Bible?
If we do it all for the right reasons, we will get "results" beyond our wildest imaginations.