For this last article on Isaiah, I begin with the New Testament. In Paul’s first letter to the fledgling church of Thessalonica, he mentions thanking God for them because of three virtues: faith, love, and hope (in that order). He also pairs a quality with each virtue. He’s grateful for their “work of faith,” their “labor of love,” and their “steadfastness of hope.” As I explain below, I believe this last phrase encapsulates the central message of Isaiah 56-66.
Before looking at the connection to 1 Thessalonians 1:3, three points will help us understand Isaiah 56-66. First, a major purpose of this section is to cause God’s people to take the future seriously. A major transition takes place between Isaiah 55:12 and 56:1. Messages of hope and comfort ring out like church bells in Isaiah 40-55, but 56:1 begins with a command for justice and righteousness. By 56:10, Isaiah is calling the Jewish leaders blind and ignorant. The lowest point comes in 59:14-15a, where justice, righteousness, truth and uprightness are banished from the city. These chapters, moreover, are directed at those who claim to be God’s people.
Although Isaiah 56-66 can sound ominous at times, some of the most encouraging and hope-inspiring sections in the Bible occur in these chapters. God promises salvation, joy, righteousness, light and glory for the faithful. The Lord even rejoices over His people and promises “new heavens and new earth,” where He will draw people from all nations (62:5, 65:17, 66:22, 66:19). In these chapters, God is calling His people to think often and seriously about the future. He will judge the obstinately rebellious, and He will pour out eternal blessings on the faithful.
In light of the first point, we might be tempted to think that God will save the righteous because of their righteousness. The second point, however, is that the righteousness of the faithful is a response to God’s own righteousness and salvation. Their righteousness begins with repentance. That’s why the Lord promises to dwell with the contrite or broken and comfort those who mourn (Isaiah 57:15, 66:2, 61:2). Apart from His grace, their righteous deeds are like unclean cloths, but He will heal those who turn to Him (64:6, 57:17-18).
Third, this section is massively important for the New Testament. Isaiah promises that the temple will be a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:7, Matthew 21:13). The fasting the Lord has chosen is strikingly similar to the way the sheep respond to the “least” of Christ’s brothers (Isaiah 58:7; Matthew 25:36, 38, 43-44). The Lord’s arm (the Redeemer) puts on the armor of salvation (Isaiah 59:17; Ephesians 6:14, 17). The Lord is a Father to His people (Isaiah 63:16, 64:8; Matthew 6:9). No one has seen a God like the Lord (Isaiah 64:4, 1 Corinthians 2:9). Although one could list more examples, what these quotations and allusions show is that these truths bloom in Christ.
What do these truths have to do with the “steadfastness of hope”? God’s people today keep the future before them. We realize that not all who claim to be Christ’s are Christ’s (2 Timothy 2:19). We pursue righteousness, therefore, not to earn salvation but as a response to God’s own righteousness that Christ has revealed. What keeps us pursuing righteousness even if truth is banished from the public square? In other words, what keeps us steadfast? Hope — hope that He will rend the heavens, come down, right all wrongs, and create “new heavens and new earth” where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).