Isaiah 56:1-8; 61:1-3; 66:17-24.
Several years ago, we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. We had a back yard open house. We had a great time with friends, family and people from the church. At one point in the afternoon, the people from our church presented us with this. It was a gift that was much more than we expected. They had worked hard at making the quilt and had thought of us when they made it.
Have you ever received far more than you expected? Perhaps you were expecting one baby and got twins, perhaps you were expecting 35 bushels an acre and got 45. Perhaps you were expecting socks and underwear for Christmas and you got an item that you had not even dared hope for.
When we get less than expected, we are disappointed. We are content when we get what we expect, but how wonderful it is when we get far more than we expect.
You have been studying Isaiah and have learned about the words of God which Isaiah speaks to Israel at a time when they were about to be destroyed for their wickedness. In the context of warnings there are many words of promise which encourage the people that God is not abandoning them, but will restore them.
This morning, we will see how the promises of restoration that God gave to the people are far greater than the people would ever have expected. The promises extended not only to the restoration of Israel, the people of God, but to all nations. The key verse from the various passages we will look at today is Isaiah 56:7 - “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” We will also see how these promises have implications for us.
It isn’t that many years ago that traveling in the southern United States would have allowed you to observe how restricted it was for African Americans. At that time, there were signs all over the place reserving all the best places for “whites only.” If you were black or coloured, you could not enter.
To understand the promise of restoration, we need to understand the background of the understanding of the people of that time. At this time and even at the time of Jesus, there were a lot of “signs” up in Israel which said, “Jews only” and “perfection only.” Their religion was filled with exclusions.
The laws of exclusion communicated the difficulty of access to God. It was not good enough that you wanted to meet with God, the religious system, supported by the Old Testament laws, restricted access to God. For example, in Deuteronomy 23:1 we read, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.” In other words a neutered male or a eunuch, whether made so by accident or on purpose, could not go into the presence of God in the temple because he was not whole.
Of course this exclusiveness is seen most clearly in the call to Israel to be the people of God. They understood that they were the people who had been chosen by God for an exclusive relationship with God. In Exodus 19:5,6 it says, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” When they entered the promised land, they were told to destroy all the nations around them. Leviticus 20:23,24 says, “You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. But I said to you, “You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations.”
The exclusiveness of access to God extended to the next level in that not even every Israelite had full access to God. Only the priests, and even they within limits, could come into the presence of God. They had to be Levites, Deuteronomy 10:8, of a certain age, Numbers 8:24,25 and having no defect Leviticus 21:21.
When we get to the time of Jesus, this kind of thinking was deeply engrained in the Jewish people and we see it in various attitudes expressed by the people in Jesus time. The truth of such an exclusive attitude is well expressed by Paul in Ephesians 2:11-13, “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth…— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.”
This summer, we had the privilege of visiting the Goddard Space Flight Center in Annapolis, Maryland. They offer tours and anyone can go on a tour and see the museum and various areas of the center and learn about how they send satellites into space. We went with my uncle and aunt and he was an electrical engineer at Goddard for many years and continues to have a keen interest in space flight. Because he was an insider, we were able to go to a few places where not every tourist will go and were given information which not every tour guide is aware of. We enjoyed the privilege of access.
Isaiah gives the people of Israel a promise of restoration which speaks about an access that is much greater than anything the people of Israel had expected.
In Isaiah 56:1-8, Isaiah speaks about eunuchs. According to what we read earlier in Deuteronomy, eunuchs would have been restricted from access to God. They could not “enter the assembly of the Lord.” I do not know why he speaks particularly about eunuchs. Perhaps it would be that some would be forced to become eunuchs in order to serve foreign kings or in the houses of foreign lords. Such men would not only have suffered the loss of the ability to have children, but would also have lost access to God - through no fault of their own.
But look at the promise of restoration which God gives to these people. To the eunuchs…I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”
One of the great blessings of life is having children. In many cultures, and certainly in the Jewish culture at that time, having children was a way of extending your name to future generations. The promise of God’s restoration was that He would accept these eunuchs and bless them in ways even better than having children. They would be given a name that would not be cut off. The promise is speaking the language of the people, a language which is intended to communicate God’s grace, acceptance and inclusiveness rather than the exclusiveness they expected. God is giving them much more than they expected.
The promise of restoration also extends to foreign nations. In 56:1-8, there is also a great promise of inclusion. In 56:3 we read, “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”” In 56:7 we read our theme verse, “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
This promise had already been made previously. When God came to Abraham, he told him in Genesis 12:2, “all nations will be blessed through you.” In many passages in Isaiah this theme comes out clearly. In Isaiah 49:1-7 - esp. vs. 6 - it is too small a thing for you to be my servant, I will make you a light to the Gentiles…” Isaiah 52:10 - All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God. Isaiah 60:1ff. - nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn” and so on. Once again we see how God reverses exclusiveness and promises something far greater than they expected.
If you turn over to Isaiah 61:1-3 we see further words which extend that inclusiveness and make a broad and welcoming invitation. There we read, “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.” Again we see grace instead of law and inclusion instead of exclusion.
C. Priests and Levites
Then turning over to chapter 66, where we see another illustration of the inclusive invitation that comes from God as he promises to restore his people. Remember that earlier we noted the exclusive nature of the Israelite priesthood by which only Levites, of certain families and certain qualifications had this special privilege. In chapter 66:21 we have a surprising promise when we read, “And I will select some of them also to be priests and Levites,” says the LORD.” The people he is speaking of here is those who come to God from among the nations. In other words, not only will others in Israel be priests, but those from among the Gentiles. The calling to priesthood goes way beyond the narrow limits which had been set earlier.
So we see how much greater is the promise of God’s restoration of a broken and rebellious people than what could ever have been expected. Not only will Israel be restored, but the Gentiles and the weak and the defiled and the broken will all be brought in as well. Furthermore, even those who could never imagine that they would be priests, will also have that opportunity. God’s promise of restoration is far greater than any in Israel could have imagined! If we adequately understand the exclusive background which I spoke about before, then we will also understand the radical nature of these promises and what a wonderful message they communicate to all the world about God’s desire to restore all of his creation.
D. Not Universalism
As we read these promises and notice the welcome which is extended to all nations, it might cause us a little bit of concern that the invitation is a little too broad and smacks of universalism. Is God’s invitation so broad that all will be saved?
As we read this carefully, however, we realize that that is not at all the case. We see this particularly in chapter 56. Although foreigner and eunuch are included among the people of God, it is not an invitation and an inclusion that avoids God’s righteous way. Both eunuch and foreigner who are included among the people of God are those who are prepared to follow God’s way. The language we see is that it is for those who “choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant…” About the foreigners it says that it is those “who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him.”
In verse 7 their sacrifices and offerings are acceptable to God. We recognize this as OT language. It is not because of their religious acts that these sacrifices are acceptable, but because they seek the Lord. They come to God to pray and to seek Him and all who desire to seek the Lord and follow Him are welcome.
These are great promises that God has made. A promise of restoration, not only of Israel, but extended to an unusual and unexpected degree. Those formerly cut off from Israel such as eunuchs and people from other nations and those who are outcasts and broken within Israel are included. Even some who would have had no access to God, are now able to be priests. These are wonderful things and even more wonderful is the amazing way in which we have already seen the fulfillment of these promises. These may seem like words that reach back a long way, but when we understand that they have been fulfilled and are even being fulfilled in our time, then we must stand amazed.
Jesus indicated the fulfillment of this promise in His words. He said in John 10:16, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”
As we read the story of the church that emerged following the resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit we read a story that reveals the fulfillment of these promises made by Isaiah.
The fulfillment of the promise begins in Acts 8:1-25. In this passage, we have the story of the gospel being preached to the Samaritans. Following the martyrdom of Stephen, the church began to spread out and some believers went and preached in Samaria. Samaritans believed and God demonstrated his acceptance of them by pouring out the Holy Spirit on them.
The story continues as Philip is sent by the Spirit of God to meet the Ethiopian eunuch. It is interesting that we read earlier specifically about the acceptance of eunuchs. The first Gentile recorded to become a believer is a eunuch. God specifically fulfilled his promise in this story. This is a great demonstration of God’s faithfulness in drawing all people to himself.
Two chapters later, we read about Peter’s encounter with the Gentile centurion whose name was Cornelius. Even though Peter may have known these promises of Isaiah, he obviously had a hard time accepting them. His view was still the exclusive view, but once again, the Holy Spirit overruled and Peter preached and this group of Gentiles accepted the gospel.
The story does not stop there. The promise of Isaiah is so exciting because we are included in the fulfillment of it!
Paul declares the theology of this truth. Earlier, we read about the barrier spoken of in Ephesians 2. We did not finish reading that passage for it goes on to say, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” Galatians 4:8,9 also says, “Formerly, …you did not know God, …But now … you know God—or rather are known by God…”
Have you ever realized that you are a part of the fulfillment of prophecy? It is truly wonderful to know that we are part of the fulfillment of a prophecy that God made thousands of years ago.
But we are not at the end of the fulfillment of this prophecy. We realize the promise God has made, rejoice that we are included in the promise. But we must also remember Jesus’ own words which not only acknowledge the prophecy, but raise it to a call. Jesus said in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
There is a line of thought which arises in the Old Testament when God called Abraham and told him that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed, to Isaiah who reiterates the promise that God’s desire is to restore all people to a relationship with Him, to Jesus who made the way for people to come to God by faith and called his followers to extend the invitation further, to us who have received this blessing of inclusion in the kingdom of God and also must embrace the call to go and tell others.
Therefore, several questions need to be asked.
1. How are we extending the kingdom to all nations?
The other day, I had a visit with Lester Olfert and he raised a concern. He noted that many missionaries are retiring and was wondering, “where are the young missionaries?” Many of us have become so comfortable with the pleasant and abundant North American lifestyle that we may not be able to hear the call of God to extend the kingdom to all nations. We must be open to the call of God in our life. All of us who are Gentile followers of Christ, when we realize the wonder of God’s grace which has allowed us to become people of God, must ask ourselves, “what can I do to extend the kingdom of God to all nations?” Perhaps for some of us it will mean praying. Perhaps for some of us it will mean giving and for some of us it will mean going. But for all of us it must mean asking this question.
2. How we are extending the kingdom to those around us?
It is so easy for all Christians and frankly even more so for those of us in Rosenort, to live in an insulated Christian ghetto. A question that all of us must answer is “Where are the unbelievers in my life?” If we think that the Christian life is about finding Christ, finding a group of Christians and hiding from the world, we have missed the call of God. Jesus specifically prays that God would not take his disciples out of the world, but would protect them from the evil one in the world.” He has sent us to be a light, but if we are hiding our light under a cover, then the world can’t see that light. I am as guilty of this as the next person and I want to pray and join you in praying that we will find ways of having unbelievers in our life and shining as a light of the gospel to them.
3. How are we extending the kingdom to the outcasts?
We live protected from the down and out, how can we help them? I am so thankful for those who are going. I have heard recently some of the work of some of the children of people in our church. I have heard of Dave and Judy in Paraguay who have a ministry to AIDS patients. I have heard of Bob and Lil in New Mexico who are working in a camp with troubled young people. Karen Dueck in inner city San Jose and I am so thankful for organizations that reach out to them. I have been keeping my eye on Inner City Youth Alive and the great work which they are doing. I know that Café 75 is also an opportunity to extend the kingdom, in a different setting, close to home. Are we supporting these works? Are we praying for these people? Are we ready to welcome those who are outcasts in our community? How welcoming are we to the children and adults who do not quite fit into our circle of friends.
There are at least several responses required as we understand the grace of God extended in these passages in Isaiah.
First of all, I praise and thank God for including me. There comes a time when God judges and rejects. As a Gentile, it is very possible that I might have been one who was rejected. Yet God desires me as His child and has called me and accepted me. I rejoice that I am loved by God because of His grace.
I rejoice that God remains a righteous God. He calls people not simply to accept Him, but to follow Him. This, of course, becomes a call to follow Him in my life. I want to be one who keeps covenant, who loves the Lord.
I also recognize the great task and pray that God will use me to build His kingdom. I want to be available to be used by God to extend the invitation wherever and however he wants me to.
What about you?