“The New Testament writers interpret Isaiah literally, but often in unexpected ways.”
The New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament in general and Isaiah in particular is consistently literal but it is indeed done so in often unexpected ways. This issue is critical to face because of the sheer volume of references made especially to the prophet Isaiah in the New Testament. “Approximately one out of every seventeen verses contains material that come directly from Isaiah” (Beyer, 2007, p.254). This issue is also one that is rather complex because of the ways that the writers of the New Testament treat the text of the Old Testament. “The question of the use of the OT in the NT requires a many-faceted answer. One cannot give a simple, straightforward reply. The answer depends on the writer, even the specific passage. One writer can use quotations from the same OT passage in different ways in varying contexts” (Litwak, 1983, p.385). This issue can certainly be a perplexing enigma wrapped in a riddle due to the layers of fulfillment of the Old Testament in the New Testament. For example, “The New Testament writers point to events in Jesus’s life and in the life of the church as directly fulfilling Isaiah’s words. Second, New Testament writers make secondary application of Isaiah’s words to situations in Jesus’s life or the life of the early church. Third, New Testament writers use Isaiah’s words because his words, while not directly related to the point they are making, nonetheless fit the sense of what they want to say” (Beyer, 2007, p.254). The versatility of prophetic fulfillment in the New Testament is not something that should ever cast a shadow of doubt over the authenticity, accuracy, and absolute authority of the Word of God. What it should do rather is be a catalyst toward greater credibility, confidence, and certainty in the Bible as revealed truth from God Himself. “The implication of the New Testament’s use of Isaiah is not that the text of Isaiah has a further meaning other than the one for the prophets whose words appear in the book and for the people to whom they spoke or for whom the book was written. It does not have a deeper meaning or a spiritual meaning or a fuller meaning; it just has a meaning. But it does have vast potential for further significance when read in different contexts” (Goldingay, 2014, p.36). At the heart of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament is the reality that Biblical truth has always been applicable, relevant, and authoritative in every era of history, in every cultural context, and in every individual heart and life. This issue is designed by God to draw us closer to Him, deeper into His heart, and therefore live His purposes higher to the praise of His glory in Christ Jesus.
The first layer of prophetic fulfillment of the Old Testament referenced by the writers of the New Testament is described as being direct fulfillment. These texts can be classified accordingly as noted by Beyer, “The New Testament passages that declare a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s words fall into two main categories: those regarding Jesus’s person and work and those regarding his eschatological kingdom. A few passages blend these two concepts, while one deals with John the Baptizer” (Beyer, 2007, p.254). These categories will be partially and certainly not exhaustively dealt with here accordingly.
In our Lord’s first recorded sermon in the synagogue of Nazareth of Judea, He said that Isaiah’s prophetic utterance of God’s Spirit-Led Anointed One was fulfilled at that time (Is 61:1-1 cf. Lk 4:18-19). This was shocking to Christ’s hearers partly because they knew Him as Joseph’s boy who had grown up in that town (Lk 4:22). Far more importantly than that is the fact that Christ stopped His reading of Isaiah mid-sentence, closed the book, and declared the text’s fulfillment. He did so because our Savior fully understood the dispensational nature of the Scripture and therefore that “the day of vengeance of our God” (Is 61:2) was yet to transpire in a future day subsequent to the cross. As our Lord “rightly divided” (II Tim 2:15) the Scripture, so must we as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, living today in the dispensation of the grace of God (Baker, 1978, p.59).
“Isaiah’s Little Apocalypse” (chs.24-27) is a portion of his prophecy that deals with end times and Jesus’s eschatological kingdom. Tucked into this context in 25:8 is a reference to a triumphant time of glad rejoicing when the Lord will “swallow up death forever.” In writing to the church of ancient Corinth, the Apostle Paul in the “resurrection chapter” of his first epistle to them references Isaiah’s text as being brought to pass in the day of the Body of Christ’s resurrection at the Rapture of the Church (I Cor 15:50-55). What is unexpected about this prophetic fulfillment is the Biblical reality that the Body of Christ was a mystery kept secret since the world began until our risen Savior revealed the truth of the dispensation of God’s grace to and through the Apostle Paul in the mid-Acts period (Eph 3:1-8). The significance of Isaiah’s prophecy of God’s victory is indeed applicable to a day and time which he was never privy to.
Christ’s forerunner who prepared the way for the King of Israel was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets (Mt 11:11). John the Baptizer’s ministry was a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of comfort as he identified himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3, “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight’” (Mt 3:3 NKJV). Not only was this unexpected because of the immediate historical context in which Isaiah was prophesying comfort to his countrymen before the impending threat of Babylon but also because of the topography of the region in which John was performing his ministry (Beyer, 2007, p.164-165).
The second layer of prophetic fulfillment of the Old Testament referenced by the writers of the New Testament is described as being secondary fulfillment/application of Isaiah’s words. As mainline Lutheran scholars, Jacobson and Jacobson explain, “What this suggests is that the New Testament authors knew fully and well that the scriptural passages that they were applying to Jesus had an original context and meaning, and they knew that the secondary interpretation and meaning that they were assigning to those texts was a secondary application, a secondary fulfillment of those words” (Jacobson, 2007, p.429). These texts of secondary fulfillment can be classified accordingly as noted by Beyer, “The New Testament passages that present a secondary fulfillment or application of Isaiah’s words fall into four categories: Jesus’s person and work, people’s unbelief, God’s salvation, and church life” (Beyer, p.257). Once again, these categories will be partially and certainly not exhaustively dealt with here accordingly.
What is recognized as a quintessential text readily expounded on at Christmastime, is also a battleground as far as prophetic fulfillment is concerned. “Perhaps no prophetic prediction has created a greater controversy than Isaiah’s prediction of a virgin-born Son which Matthew clearly claims to have been fulfilled in the birth of Christ (cf. The Interpreter’s Bible, V, p. 218. It is interesting to note that the exegetical and homiletical sections of this work are done by different authors, and on the same page the exegete denies that Isaiah is predicting the birth of Christ and the expositor claims that he is!). The liberal interpretation of this verse attempts to deny the validity of Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 as a prediction of the birth of Christ” (Hindson, 1999, p.1164). The author of our text seems to sound like one referenced by Hindson, “It is the rule rather than the exception that Matthew’s quotations ignore the meaning of the passages in their context in Isaiah. While there is some uncertainty about whether Isaiah 7 is talking specifically about a girl who is a virgin at the moment, or whether she is a young married woman, if she is a virgin there is no suggestion in the context that she will still be a virgin when she has her baby; further, the context suggests a birth to take place in the near future, not in some centuries’ time” (Goldingay, 2014, p.33). Regardless of one’s understanding of the immediate historical context of Isaiah’s day, it is critical to understand that Matthew pointed back to Isaiah’s prophecy as being fulfilled in the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. This writer would even go so far as to say that on the basis of Matthew’s reference, it is appropriate to explain Matthew’s understanding of the situation as being “this is that.” Dr. Bultema aptly explains that “The sign is that of Immanuel. The fact that this is a Messianic prophecy is indisputable on the basis of Matthew 1:22-23. However, if some prefer to think of this as an indirect, rather a direct, Messianic prophecy, that would be acceptable also. Anyone who is familiar with New Testament quotations from the Old Testament will readily admit that Matthew 1:22 does not compel us to the direct Messianic interpretation. Nevertheless, after taking everything into account, we are inclined to prefer and accept the direct Messianic interpretation, since the word Almah, translated as virgin, as a rule refers not to a married but an unmarried woman, or a virgin” (Bultema, 1981, p.107-108). Perhaps the reason that this is such a battleground is due to the unexpected nature that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Christ.
People’s unbelief is recognized as one category of secondary fulfillment/application of Isaiah’s prophecies. For example, every writer of the gospel records of Christ’s earthly ministry to the nation of Israel references Isaiah 6:9-10 as being fulfilled in their day (Mt.13:14-15; Mk 4:12; Lk 8:10; Jn 12:40). What is unexpected is the Apostle Paul’s usage of this text at the end of Dr. Luke’s journal of the lives and times of the apostles in Acts 28:26-27. This is unexpected once again because of the distinctive nature of the Church, the Body of Christ, as being a mystery kept secret until Paul’s ministry (Col 1:24-26).
To justify his preaching to Gentiles in the regions beyond, the Apostle Paul makes reference to a text in the midst of the “Song of the Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53 (Rm 15:21). This is unexpected because Isaiah is speaking of the appalling features of the Servant ultimately fulfilled in the Person and finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Once again, this is also unexpected because of the nature of the Body of Christ as a mystery. The spiritual significance of Isaiah’s prophetic utterances certainly extend beyond his generation and dispensational context to all people of all time.
Several of Paul’s epistles are corrective in character because there were issues of doctrinal integrity and ecclesiastical structure that needed to be addressed in his day. Such is the case with his first letter to the Corinthians. In the midst of instructing them on the proper usage of the supernatural gift of speaking in known tongues or foreign languages, he makes reference to Isaiah (I Cor 14:21). Those who reject the Biblical precedent of cessationism (I Cor 13:9-10) and believe that these sign gifts are yet operational would do well to heed the Apostle Paul’s exhortations.
The third layer of prophetic fulfillment of the Old Testament referenced by the writers of the New Testament is described as being allusions to Isaiah’s words. Beyer says that “In a few instances, the New Testament writers adapted Isaiah’s words for their own purposes. The connection in these occurrences appears more remote; probably the writers used Isaiah’s words because they conveyed the sense of what they wanted to say. Citing Scripture was deemed valuable, even if it was used only in an illustrative sense” (Beyer, 2007, p.259). Whenever the Old Testament is referenced by the writers of the New Testament, it may at times befuddle the readers as to how they applied the prophecy to their context. Interestingly enough, Wycliffe scholar, Litwak explains Isaiah 53 as follows, “The prophecy has been used for three distinct though at times overlapping reasons: passion apologetic, justification for preaching to the Gentiles, and moral admonition of believers…the farther away from passion apologetics a writer’s motive becomes, the farther from the sense of the original passage the NT usage moves. Yet it is not always certain in those cases whether the writer understood his use of Isaiah 53 as the ‘real’ meaning or whether he was only applying it in a different way” (Litwak, 1983, p.394).
Three specific examples of allusions to Isaiah’s words are Peter’s reference to setting apart Christ as Lord in I Peter 3:14-15 (Is 8:12-13), Paul’s reference to partying in I Corinthians 15:32 (Is 22:13), and once again a reference by Peter to the enduring character of God’s Word in his first epistle to Isaiah 40:6-8 (I Pt 1:24-25). These are unexpected because they take such liberty to apply truth to their context that is so divorced from its original historical setting.
The writers of the New Testament interpret the Old Testament in a literal fashion but often in unexpected ways.
This is testimony to the spiritual nature of the God’s revelation and therefore its enduring applicability to every generation and cultural context. May every professing believer in Christ be subsequently drawn closer to the Lord and more faithfully invest in eternity for the glory of our great God and Savior.
Baker, C (1978) Understanding the Gospels: A Different Approach. Grand Rapids, MI: Grace Publications
Beyer, B (2007) Encountering the Book of Isaiah. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic
Bultema, H (1981) Commentary on Isaiah. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal
Goldingay, J (2014) The Theology of the Book of Isaiah. Downers Grace, IL: InterVarsity Press
Hindson, E (1999) King James Bible Commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson
Jacobson, K and Jacobson, R (2007) The One Who Will Be Born: Preaching Isaiah’s Promises in a Harry Potter Culture. ATLA Database.
Litwak, K (1983) The Use of Quotations From Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in the New Testament. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
*Written 2/12/17 for BIB 540 in Grace Bible College’s Online Graduate Studies Program