This is a chapter in two parts: The first ten verses describe our personal reconciliation to God and our resulting unity with him, whilst the remainder of the chapter describes the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in Christ and the resulting unity of Christ’s Body on earth.
The first ten verses, then, tell us the following key truths:
- We were dead – separated from God – by our sins, and ruled by the Prince of Darkness, by peer group temptations, and by our sinful desires. We deserved God’s wrath and judgment and nothing good. It is vitally important that we see this as out ‘baseline’ state, deserving nothing from God except punishment.
- God chose to love us, one by one, as individual human beings, and mercifully made us alive in Christ, saving us by his grace (unmerited favour). Dead men do not raise themselves – they are helpless – just as we were, as enemies of Christ; but he raised us up from that spiritual death and lifted us up to heaven (in our spirits) to sit forever with Him; and that is where we are now!
- We have therefore been saved by his grace as the only driving force, through the mechanism of faith within us. Did we ‘generate’ that faith, in some sense, to make us irresistible to God’s mercy? No! Even that saving faith, Ephesians 2:8 declares, is itself a gift from God. This leaves us no room at all for pride whatsoever. It is as though we were drowning and unconscious at sea and a rescuer was winched down from a helicopter to pick us up and lift our powerless bodies to safety – we didn’t climb that rope by ourselves! Some commentators argue that it is not ‘faith’ but the ‘…grace by which we have been saved’ that is the ‘gift of God’; for me – but that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t add anything to the original statement. (Grace, by definition, is ‘a gift of God’, so Paul would be saying the same thing twice in the same sentence.)
- We have been saved for a purpose, as God’s new creation, to do His good works from now on; works that he has already prepared in advance for us to do. The Greek word translated as ‘handiwork’ can also be translated as ‘work of art’; we are the Lord’s ‘Work of Art’, then!
In conclusion, therefore, there is no room for our pride at all.
In verses 11-22, Paul deals with the restoration of unity between Jews and Gentiles: this can only occur in Christ, and when both parties lose their old natures. There was also something else to be removed – the Law of Moses! By dying on the cross, Jesus met all the requirements of that law and dispensed with the need for us to fulfil it. (“I don’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it”, he said in Matthew 5:17). In the Jerusalem temple, there was a barricade – or ‘dividing wall’ – that prevented the Gentiles going any closer to the Holy of Holies; Paul uses this wall as a metaphor for the division of the two cultures and he then celebrates the fact that Jesus has created in Himself ‘…one new humanity out of the two’. By joining ourselves to Christ, we automatically join ourselves to one another too.
Paul ends this key chapter with three illustrative pictures of this newfound unity:
- Fellow-citizens and household members;
- A great building / structure that represents the worldwide, universal church – Christ’s Body on earth – one that is still in the process of construction, dynamic, and rising up towards heaven; and
- A smaller dwelling or tent (e.g. the church in Ephesus) that is a local manifestation of church, with the Spirit of God living inside it.
Notice that these are all church – it is not a matter of size but of unity and purpose. The ‘churches’ that met in homes or households were still churches.
ISAIAH 54, 55, 56, 57 and 58
What is there to celebrate when you are barren! In the Middle East 750 years ago – and maybe also today – barrenness was seen as a curse and a disgrace for women; so why does the Holy Spirit say through his prophet: “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour…”? (Isaiah 54:1a). Why celebrate what is for some women (and men) a living torment of hope deferred on a lunar cycle?
I think that the reality is that this prophecy is multi-faceted and has several fulfilments for several people. (Every passage of scripture, including prophecy, only has one correct interpretation – but that interpretation might be that the prophecy is to be fulfilled on several levels.) The Apostle Paul, in Galatians 4:26-27, interprets it as referring to Sarah (Abraham’s wife) and to the new city of Jerusalem (the one in the Age to Come), which is also a metaphor for the church. The point that Paul is making is that physical offspring, whilst very precious to us, are not the be all and end all of God’s purposes for our lives. We need to have a vision for producing children who will live for ever and whose lives will resonate throughout all eternity. Biological barrenness, whilst being very tough and emotionally corrosive, is still of less concern to God than our spiritual productivity – or lack of it. This will come across as a harsh statement to some people, I know, but that is exactly the point the Isaiah is making in chapter 54 as an encouragement from the Holy Spirit to get on with walking with Him and being as fruitful as possible. Our biological children are ‘on loan’ from the Lord in a ‘fostering’ arrangement; our spiritual children remain with us for ever and ever.
So the Spirit talks to his church, his future bride, and says that we/she needs to enlarge – her vision, her expectations, her boldness, her understanding of God’s love for her/us and of the things that God intends to fulfil though us. He tells us:
- He will always have compassion on us, with everlasting kindness
- He will never again be angry with us nor remove his love from us
- He will rebuild us to be what he always intended for us – a community of great beauty
- Whoever attacks us will surrender to us, so we need not fear our enemies
- He will deal with each one of us individually with personal care and attention
“Come, all you who are thirsty…and you who have no money…come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (55:1). This is a foretaste of the gospel, based on faith, not works; grace not merit. “Listen to me, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you…”. The point of grace is that it is free – which, for some people, is the hardest thing to swallow! God does not want or need anything from us that he does not already have in abundance. The only thing required from our point of view is a response; we need to receive free grace as a gift. What God is really looking for in an ‘exchange’ – all of my life for all of His – which is a very good deal! Grace is the gift and faith is the delivery van!
But there is also a warning: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon”. Let us not imagine that we can choose the day of our conversion – any more than a baby can choose the day of its birth – the call and the opportunities come from the Lord, so take them whilst you have the opportunity. It is not as though one day you will wish you could and discover that you can’t; it is simply that one day you will just stop wishing that you could!
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…” (55:8); so don’t try to limit God’s purposes on the silly grounds that you don’t understand them. He really does know best and certainly knows better than you what is best for you. Just submit to him and you will be truly happy and fulfilled for your whole life and for ever after.
Chapter 56 makes it crystal clear that the gospel is for all who wish to join themselves to the Lord and his people – wherever you start from. And God’s household is truly a “household of prayer for all nations” – every member of every nation who wants to call on God and listen to him, can. As he goes on to say in 57:15, God is not proud, even though he is awesome and exalted, and he is willing to live with any of us who is humble and repentant in our hearts. If you are ‘away’ from God today, you don’t need to raise yourself up to speak to him – rather, you need to lower yourself down and be real with him to begin that relationship (again).
Chapter 57 ends the second set of nine chapters of Isaiah Book Two. It has the usual ‘bookmark’ of “There is no peace for the wicked”.
Chapter 58 begins the third and final set of nine chapters (“The Salvation of the Lord”) with a punchy look at ‘Fasting’. Most people imagine that this is all about ‘non-eating’, whilst the Lord tells us that it is about what we do with our non-eating time and money on those days. Outward ‘show’ is not what he is after. What he desires from us is to fight for justice, to be merciful to those who are in need, to honour our own biological families, to learn how to really rest, and to moderate our language. If we do these things, then the Lord will start to sort out the problems that we have in our lives and will make us prosperous too. We will also gain a great reputation with those around us (but don’t take all the credit!).