Growing up, I really struggled in my relationship with God because I thought that Christianity was all about keeping a list of rules. And God does give us commands in scripture to live by. In John 14:15, Christ says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Obeying Him is absolutely necessary in order to love Him, but obedience alone is not love. Chapter 1 of Isaiah gives clear evidence that God is not looking for mere outward conformity to His laws, but obedience from the heart.
The chapter begins with the Lord’s addressing His people’s sin. He compares them to rebellious children (v. 2), and marvels that though animals know their master, Israel does not know hers (v.3). He continues to describe their sin in verse 4: “Alas, sinful nation, people laden down with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, They have turned away from Him.”
Interestingly enough, it seems that Israel, though rebellious at heart, was still following God’s commands in regard to burnt offerings and sacrifices. And even though He had given very detailed instructions to Israel on sacrifices, He is now so frustrated with Israel’s hypocrisy that He addresses them as Sodom and Gomorrah and says,
“’What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?’ says the LORD. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath, the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood,’” (vv. 11-15).
When Israel brought their sacrifices for their sins, it was an insult to the LORD because He knew their hearts. He knew that they weren’t sorry for their sins. And because of their persistent rebellion and hypocrisy, God had to judge them with destruction (vv.5-9,28-30).
But, ever merciful and ready to pardon, the LORD gives Israel the opportunity to turn from their own evil ways and embrace His righteous ways. And we get a clear picture of what He wants in His people: the kind of heart that isn’t merely concerned with externals, but knows and respects the character of God well enough to act in consideration of Him in daily life: to cease to do evil, to learn to do good, to seek justice, to reprove the ruthless, to defend the orphan, and to plead for the widow—exactly what Israel wasn’t doing (v. 23).
We are human just like the people of Israel were. It’s easy to condemn Israel for her hypocrisy, but aren’t we often guilty of the same kinds of things? We go to church, but then we live however we want. We say we love God, but then we make fun of or despise the people He created and Christ died for.
Being a Christian isn’t just going to church on Sunday. Being a Christian is about knowing God through His Word and being changed by it. It means living differently than the people of the world—keeping a clean heart, fighting for justice, standing up to those who are wronging others, defending the helpless. This is how we love God.
“Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widow in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world,” (James 1:27).