“O house of Jacob,Isaiah 2:51
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD.”
“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”Luke 21:27-28
The Fifth Gospel
The Old Testament book of Isaiah is sometimes called “the Fifth Gospel.” It is not hard to see why. Isaiah is directly quoted and alluded to numerous times in the four New Testament Gospels. Beginning in Matthew, the evangelist connects Jesus’s birth with Isaiah 7:14
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
In Luke 2:29-32, Simeon’s speech upon seeing the baby Jesus in the Temple draws heavily on imagery from Isaiah (particularly chapters 42, 45, 46, 49, 52, and 60).
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Simeon is seizing upon the dominant theme of hope in the second half of Isaiah. The prophet believes that Israel will be glorified and become a light to all nations.
Additionally, at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, all four Gospels associate the message of John the Baptist with the words of Isaiah 40:3
“A voice cries:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus begins his public ministry reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth. He starts with Isaiah 61.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Other Gospels may not quote those verses directly, but it is easy to argue that they frame Jesus’s earthly ministry in light of Isaiah 61.
Finally, there is the fourth servant song of Isaiah 52:10-53:12. It is clear that the first Christians understood Jesus in the light of Isaiah 52-53. In Acts 8:26-39, Phillip encounters an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from Isaiah 53. The Eunuch asks, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Phillip then starts with Isaiah 53 to explain the good news about Jesus.
Skeptics may doubt the historicity of the story of Acts 8. However, it is undeniable that the earliest Christians understood Jesus in light of Isaiah 53 before the end of the first century AD. I would ask the skeptic where that understanding came from? It is at least plausible that it came from Jesus himself. Jesus was clearly familiar with Isaiah. I believe that he viewed his suffering as being on behalf of Israel, just like the suffering servant of Isaiah 52-53.
The Hope of Isaiah in Ancient Israel
Given the above, it is not hard to see that the earliest Christians saw the hope for Israel expressed by Isaiah as answered in Jesus Christ. It is helpful to see the shape and content of Isaiah’s hope in the eighth century BC to better understand how we Christians appropriate that hope in the light of Jesus Christ.
Isaiah believed in Israel2 and its history with God. YHWH had brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt with his mighty hand. God guided Israel into a land where he intended for them to prosper. God raised up a great ruler in David to lead Israel to glorious heights. After the reign of David and his son Solomon, the kingdom was divided by inner turmoil into a northern and southern kingdom. The children of Jacob suffered under the uneven reign of lesser kings. Isaiah’s desire was for Israel to return to the glory that it once had under the rule of David. Israel’s history with God and Isaiah’s hope for a reunited kingdom under a Davidic ruler all comes together in Isaiah 11 (the following verses are 11:1–2; 12; 15-16).
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD…
He will raise a signal for the nations
and will assemble the banished of Israel,3
and gather the dispersed of Judah
from the four corners of the earth…
And the LORD will utterly destroy
the tongue of the Sea of Egypt,
and will wave his hand over the River
with his scorching breath,
and strike it into seven channels,
and he will lead people across in sandals.
And there will be a highway from Assyria
for the remnant that remains of his people,
as there was for Israel
when they came up from the land of Egypt.”
Isaiah’s hope went beyond Israel. Isaiah’s vision was that a restored Israel would bless the entire world. This is evident in passages like Isaiah 49:5-6 (in another one of Isaiah’s Servant Songs).
“And now the LORD says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength—
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
God’s salvation is intended for everyone who will call upon his name. This is reinforced in passages like Isaiah 56:6-6.
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
A glorified Israel is to be a light that draws people from all nations to the Lord and his great salvation.
The Hope of Isaiah Answered in Jesus
Christians believe that the hope of Isaiah is answered in Christ Jesus, who is true Israel. As Israel’s messiah, Jesus sums up all of Israel’s hopes, vocation, and purpose. In his public death and resurrection, Jesus becomes a light to all nations, opening up the promises made to Abraham for all the families of the earth. During Advent, we both contemplate and celebrate the coming of Jesus to answer the hopes of Israel.
The prophet Isaiah probably did not understand how exactly God was going to restore Israel and answer his hope. We do. Our hope is testified to by those who have seen him with their eyes and touched him with their hands.4 Isaiah’s hope lied in an ambiguous and unnamed “shoot from the stump of Jesse.” Our hope has a name, Jesus.
However, we also stand in a similar situation as Isaiah. Just as Isaiah had hope in a future messiah for Israel, we have hope in our messiah’s second coming in which God’s full purposes for creation will be realized in new heavens and a new earth.
In Advent we celebrate that Christ has come as the hope of Israel. We celebrate that he has come as the salvation of all people. We also wait in the eager anticipation and hope for his second coming and the establishment of all things on earth as they are in heaven.
1. All Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version (ESV).↩
2. The term Israel can become confusing when dealing with prophetic literature. When the kingdom split after Solomon’s reign, the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom are often referred to as Israel, while the 2 tribes of the southern kingdom are called Judah. However, the prophets will often speak of “Israel” in terms of a reunited Israel consisting of all 12 tribes. When I refer to Isaiah’s hope in Israel, I am referring to his hope in a reunited kingdom..↩
3. Here Isaiah is referring to Israel and Judah as the northern and southern kingdoms respectively. See note 2.↩
4. 1 John 1:1.↩