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Doctrine of Religious Worship: The Importance of the Sabbath

December 19, 2021 Series: Great Doctrines of the Christian Faith

Scripture: Isaiah 58

Scripture -> Isaiah 58

Review/ Introduction 

Last week we concluded our section on the internal and external call of the Gospel as part of our series on the Doctrine of Salvation.

We’re going to take a short break in that series and move our focus to that of Religious Worship and the Sabbath.

This is something that has been on my mind for quite a long time.

I was intending to preach through the entire Confession, in order, as we have seen and experienced the wisdom of the Assembly in the order in which the Confession was developed.

However, I strongly feel that churches today would benefit from studying the Doctrine of Religious Worship.

As evidenced over recent history, too many churches and far too many Christians willingly gave up coming before the Lord of Hosts to worship Him on His Holy Day for whatever reason seemed good to each individual.

I believe this is due, in part, to a lack of understanding of the Sabbath.

My hope, my prayer, for this sermon series is that the Holy Spirit might ignite within each of us, and any who hear this sermon, a powerful burning for the Word of God.

  • for His presence
  • for His Holy Day

That we might grow in our affections for God and eagerly desire – above all other worldly distractions – to attend upon Him and His Word each Sabbath Day.

That we would become a people after God’s own heart – as was David.

Before we begin, I want to make sure everyone understands something.

This topic is not targeted at anyone in particular. It is for the church.

In the Bible, when the prophets in the Old Testament spoke hard words to hear, it was not from a “high and mighty” or “self-righteous” position.

  • Do you think these prophets were without sin?
  • Do you think these prophets had no personal sins or struggles to deal with?

Of course not.

But they were speaking God’s Word, as given, to the people.

Therefore, it was necessary that they speak in such ways that would seem as being rather direct and pointed and perhaps confrontational to the people of God.

So sometimes it is, similarly, from the pulpit when a minister speaks from the Word of God a message that can be difficult hear. This series is just as much pointed to me…

General Outline of this Series

We’ll start in Isaiah 58 by looking at what the Prophet is commanded to speak and why

We'll explore the parallels between fasting and the Sabbath.

We’ll look at the practice of God's people with respect to the Sabbath.

  • At that which the Lord pressed upon them in the Old Testament
  • Why they worshiped.
  • When they worshiped.
  • How they worshiped.

We’ll look at the understanding they had about worship in the morning and in the evening?

We'll talk about how many days the Old Testament Church got together for worship under the Lord's direction.

We’ll look at whether the Lord has distinguished Sabbath day worship from those other days of worship.

Then we’ll conclude by working through Chapter 21 of the Confession, Religious Worship, and the Sabbath-Day.

With that in mind, let’s read Article 1 of Chapter 21 of the Confession.

This first Article describes the focus of this series quite nicely.

Religious worship is that in which we fear, love, praise, call upon, and serve the infinitely holy, infinitely perfect Lord and Sovereign with all our heart, soul, and might.

And…the acceptable way of worship is instituted by Himself.

It is not to be left to the imagination of man or man-made traditions.


To further help us get the right mind-set for this study, we have a few quotes.

"Mark! we can neither taste the sweetness of communion with God, nor pay the honour due to God in sanctifying his day, except we deny ourselves in our carnal delights.  If a king should at some certain times of the year invite some of his poor subjects to sit and feast with him at his own royal table, they should exceedingly dishonour their prince, and wrong themselves, to bring their ordinary mean fare with them to court.  Do glorified saints in heaven call for any of their carnal delights, or miss them, while they are taken up in heaven praising God, and feeding on the joys that flow from the full-eyed vision of God?"

- William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour

"When the ways of the Spirit of God are grievous and burdensome to us, – when we say, “When will the Sabbath be past, that we may exact all our labors? – when our delight and refreshment lies in earthly things, – we are unsuitable to Christ. May not his Spirit say, “Why do I still abide with these poor souls? I provide them joys unspeakable and glorious; but they refuse them, for perishing things. I provide them spiritual, eternal, abiding consolations, and it is all rejected for a thing of nought.”

- John Owen, Communion with God

Both of these quotes are quite arresting and possibly uncomfortable.

They can offend our senses.

But these men do not speak these things without the understanding and authority of Scripture.

Isaiah 58

This should raise up a desire within us to seek and study

  • what the Scriptures have to say about religious worship and the Sabbath.
  • what God Himself has to say about religious worship and the Sabbath

Since these are commanded by Him, and since He determines what is proper and acceptable,

(leaving everything else not expressly set forth in Scripture or reasonably deduced by the light of nature and good and necessary consequence improper and unacceptable),

it follows that we must search out Scripture, setting aside our own traditions and vestiges of will-worship.

Isaiah 58 – The Urgency

So, in order to lay a good foundation/ understanding on the Sabbath, we’ll start in Isaiah 58.

We’re going to spend today looking at this passage which speaks about fasting.

What does fasting have to do with religious worship, you might ask?

First, you need to understand that fasting is a type of religious worship.

Next, don’t get distracted with the initial focus on fasting.

  • The Lord could have chosen from several aspects of worship
    • prayer, delighting in Him, drawing near to Him
  • But He chose fasting.

Perhaps, He chose it because it has the greatest appearance of self-denial.

  • Fasting of all of the religious exercises that we do, does carry with it the greatest appearance of self-denial.
    • It is the concept of self-denial that is important with respect to all religious worship.
  • At the end of this chapter, we are going to see the same self-denial applied to the observance of the Sabbath.
  • And if, in the greatest appearance of self-denial, He shows the people of God to be indulgent...
  • Then any of the rest of the ordinances or acts of religious of worship, are to be understood with the same kind of admonition and application.

The passage begins with a command of the Lord to Isaiah. (v. 1)

  • The Lord begins with an urgency, with a particular cause in mind
    • That His people should be reproved for their sins.
  • There is an urgency
    • Isaiah is to "cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob, their sins."
    • This needs to be urgently and loudly addressed.
    • This is something that needs to be addressed like a trumpet.
    • It is something that needs to be addressed where the prophet (and by extension the ministers of the gospel) are required to lift up their voice and cry aloud
  • There is a command to spare not. What does that mean?
    • Don't spare any energy
    • Don't spare any strength
    • Don't spare any opportunity
    • Do whatever you can, whenever you can, wherever you can...

Isaiah 58 – The Current State/ Outward Observance

Verse 2 begins with a statement of what the current state looks like to the casual observer, on the outside.

What is that current state?

  • It looks like the people of God are drawing near to God
  • It looks they delight to draw near to God

But in context of the passage, in light of the urgency of the warning, the implication is that all is not as it seems

  • They don't truly delight to draw near to God
  • Rather, they delight to draw near to God, apparently.

# Application 1 – Self – Examination #

When we read or hear something like this…

  • It should affect every one of us
  • It should cause every one of us to examine ourselves
  • It should cause every one of us to ask these questions:
    • What is our approach to the Lord when we draw near?
    • Is our desireto approach to the Lord only apparent?
    • Is our desire to approach to the Lord heart-felt?
    • Is our desire to approach to the Lord deep and abiding?
      • Is it real?
      • Is it genuine?
    • Or is our desire, our approaching to God an outward activity only?
      • Are we going through the motion, albeit with great sincerity?

Before you answer…. consider this…

  • These people are fasting.
  • Fasting, as you know, is the afflicting of your souls
    • Not only going without food, but also going without the normal niceties in life to focus upon the Lord, to make sacrifices
  • They were fasting outwardly
    • But not inwardly.
    • In verses 3 and 4 they were wondering why God wasn’t answering them for their service, for their fasting

Isaiah, here, is crying out against an outward performance of any religious worship and duty without there being an inward reality to accompany it.

  • Whether it's fasting
  • Whether it's coming to public worship
  • Whether it's our private worship, or secret worship
  • Whatever we do for religious worship, we must look for the engagement of our hearts in those things.
  • they are delighting to draw near to Him on their own terms

Isaiah, here, is crying out against is the sin of rejecting the instructions of the Lord in favor of elevating man’s ideas/ traditions/ comforts to a higher position

  • A better response would be something like:
    • I'm going to do without my general comforts so as to transfer them into a concern for my soul.
    • I’m going to do as the Lord commands – not as my comforts dictate.

# Application 2 – The Necessity of Consistency between the Outer and the Inner #

The outer man, the outward elements

  • They were making the appearance of approaching God
  • They were making the appearing of applying unto him.
  • They were even, in verse three, fasting.
  • They were a nation that did righteousness
  • They prayed to God and asking for justice.
  • They took delight in their approach to God.

-> They were wrapped up in the "doing" of the thing

The inner man, the inward elements

  • Their actions were not sincere
  • They may have been sincere in the act
  • But they were not sincere in the performance and intent of them
  • Their actions were fraught with hypocrisy.

In all these overtly pious acts

  • They have, in reality, turned away from the Lord.
  • They have, instead, turned towards themselves and their desires
  • This is especially difficult and is a hard truth to come to terms with.
  • It assaults the Pharisee within us

They were, in appearance, behaving themselves as God's people.

  • But their hearts were far from Him.
  • But their hearts were far detached from their actions.

Isaiah 58 – Their Type of Fasting/ Obedience

This will become clearer in the verses that follow.

Look at their question in verse 3.

  • Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou take us no knowledge?

Notice that we have the term fasting, and the affliction of soul are given as parallel statements.

What is fasting? Basically, it is the refraining of food…

  • People fast for all kinds of reasons today:
  • People fast for health reasons or to lose weight.

The biblical reason to fast is to afflict one soul, that is, self-denial.

Why self-denial?

  • Because there is something more important than us
  • Because there is something larger than us
  • Because we would deny ourselves in order to press toward that larger thing

Sometimes, in Scripture, we see a fasting before ordination. (Acts 13, 14)

  • There is fasting that occurs before the laying on of hands and setting apart a man to ministry that is done with prayer and fasting.
  • Why?
    • Because there's something greater than our personal comforts
    • Because we're talking about the advancement of the kingdom of God.

And that self-denial is in testimony of this greater thing that we're undertaking instead of taking care of ourselves at that time.

  • Jesus talks about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount in a similar way. (Matthew 6:16-18)
    • Where the hypocrites fast, and they make their faces pale, and they disheveled their hair and mess up their clothes
    • Why? so that they will be seen of men for their personal gain.
    • That's not the fast that God has called for.
  • This applies also to our fasts, to be wary of hypocrisy.
    • Fasting should be something with which we are humiliated
    • Fasting should be something with which we are humbled.
    • We should be denying ourselves.
  • There are some people that fast for the sake of pride or for show or for some sort of personal gain or satisfaction.

But that is exactly the opposite of what it should be.

Can you see the exact parallelism of those two statements?

  • wherefore have we fasted...and thou seest not?
  • Remember, *seeing* in Scripture is often *knowing*
  • Many times, in Scripture, the word seeing, or I see, means I understand, I know.
    • So, we have fasted, and you don't see
    • So, we've afflicted our souls, and you take no knowledge

Now, notice what the Lord says here in response:

Behold, in the day of your fast, you find pleasure, and exact all your labors.

You find pleasure

  • Now, what does fasting and pleasure have in common?
  • They ought to have nothing in common
    • Fasting and pleasure, are opposites of each other
    • The reason that we fast is to afflict not to take pleasure.
    • But instead, they are being sure to take their pleasures, and to exact all their labors.
  • In other words,...the Lord is saying…
    • Indeed, you are fasting all right
      • But you have believed that in refraining from food for a time that you're really fasting.
      • But you have believed that you can set your own terms
      • But you have believed that a simple outward observance is good enough and sufficient
    • But if you were really fasting
      • refraining from food would be just the tip of the iceberg.
    • But if you were really afflicting your souls
      • refraining from food would be the least of your afflictions.
    • In the day of your fast, you go right ahead, as if everything is normal
      • The only thing you've done is you've drawn back from eating at certain times.

You fast for strife, and debate

  • they got a little irritable
  • they became argumentative and easily provoked

You exact all your labors.

  • They were setting their laborers to work.
  • They were gaining benefit from the work of others.
  • They may be fasting, but they are still getting all the benefits of others
  • There is no affliction
  • There is no sacrifice
  • There is no setting aside one’s comforts for the glory of God

Example Fasts – Two Contrasts

Zechariah 7:1-7

There is another place where the Lord calls out the hypocrisy of attending upon religious worship where the focus is self-centered and not God-ward.

  • They were fasting in the fifth and the seventh month
  • They were fasting in remembrance of being taken into captivity
  • They have fasted like this for 70 years

And what does the Lord ask?

  • “did ye at all fast unto me, to me?”

This is a rhetorical question – of course the Lord knows the answer.

But, perhaps, they did not realize they were not really fasting unto Him.

 Jonah-03: 5-10

How did they fast?

  • They humbled themselves
  • They put on sackcloth and sat is ashes – even the great king
  • They proclaimed a fast even unto the animals – every living thing in the city
  • They turned from their evil ways
  • They turned from violence
  • They afflicted their souls for repentance
  • They afflicted their souls to seek God
  • They afflicted their souls for His glory

This is the type of fast that God calls for – and we’ll see more of this, explicitly from God, next week in verses 6 and 7 of Isaiah.

And we will see the blessings the Lord has in store ….


What have we seen in these first few verses?

What are these people doing here?

  • They are performing religious worship
    • Not as God has commanded
    • But as they have determined.
  • They are performing an act of worship only through external means
    • They're setting their servants to work.
    • They themselves are fasting, but they're still getting the benefit of all the labor of their servants.
    • Everything's going on like clockwork, there really is no afflicting and soul other than refraining from food for a few hours.
    • And then they become irritated, irritable, and then they strike with the fist of wickedness, they become short and unruly.
    • They are more concerned with their own pleasures and their own needs and their own comforts.

This is what he means when he says in the day of your fast, you take your pleasure.

  • All your servants are still working.
  • You're still taking everything that you would normally take you have simply refrained from food for a little while.
  • You are doing what you would normally do as if it were nothing special or just an ordinary day
  • You have not set aside any of your own concerns
  • You are still taking your own pleasure
  • You are still pressing your own wills upon those around you.

And so, the Lord tells them this kind of fast is not heard by Him.

  • this does not gain you a hearing from on High.

And so, we are to understand, that any form of religious worship not conducted according to His commands

  • will not be accepted by Him

Therefore, it becomes even more urgent, now that we have this understanding, to search the Scriptures to see what we can learn of God's expectations for worship.

Lord willing, next week, we’ll continue in Isaiah looking at the type of fast that the Lord does command.

Next week, we’ll look at the parallels that exist with fasting and with the Sabbath Day.

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