“For God so loved the world that He gave…” (Jn 3:16). The heart of the one true and living God as the Holy One of Israel has always been to redeem the nations unto Himself. His glorious plan of redemption was a forethought not an afterthought subsequent man’s rebellion and fall into sin and death (Rom 5:12). The Lord Jesus Christ is the ultimate sacrifice and is described as the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world (Jn 1:29; Rev 13:8). Isaiah’s ministry as “the prince of the prophets” is consistent with God’s “prophetic program” to redeem the nations through the direct instrumentality of the nation of Israel. “Yahweh’s plan was to reach the world by relating to Israel in particular” (Goldingay, 2014, p.125).
First of all, the nations must recognize the Holy One of Israel as the one true and living God. Goldingay rightly affirms this Biblical reality, “They need to…recognize the emptiness of their gods, and…go to proclaim Yahweh’s honor among the nations (Is 66:19)” (Goldingay, p.121). Upon recognizing who God is, the nations must therefore reject their idols and gods as utterly false and impotent before the Holy One of Israel. “Every knee is to bend to Yahweh, acknowledging that faithfulness and might lie in Yahweh (Is 45:20-25)” (p.122). This has been the challenge in every generation throughout the entire course of history. The words of Joshua echo down through the corridor of time and beckon to us yet today, “And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Josh 24:15 NKJV).
Any theological analysis of the Biblical text must recognize the privileged status of the nation of Israel in times past over and above the gentile nations of the world (Rom 3:1-2; 9:1-5; Eph 2:11-13). Moore noted that “Isaiah pictured those from all nations streaming into Jerusalem in the last days (2:2; 66:18-20), participating in the eschatological banquet (25:6-7), enjoying worship of God (56:7), righteousness and praise (61:11)” (Moore, 1997). The Biblical and historical reality of Israel’s privileged status is in accordance with the covenants of promise made to the patriarchal fathers of Israel beginning in Genesis 12 with the Abrahamic Covenant. Dispensational theologian, Charles F. Baker, wrote with penetrating insight into this very topic. “In fact, the prophetic kingdom program was that the Gentiles were to be blessed through Israel; therefore, Israel must first be blessed before she could in turn pass on the blessings to the Gentiles. It is axiomatic that wherever the message is to Israel only, or to Israel first, the ministry is that of the Messianic Kingdom.” (Baker, 1978, p.128). Having said this, Goldingay rightly affirms that God’s plan of redemption was never meant to exclude those of other ethnicities. “Foreigners need not feel that just because of their ethnicity they are the victims of the separation or distinction (hibdil) that Yahweh expects of the holy over against the ordinary or the clean over against the taboo” (p.123). By the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, the nation had degenerated so far into the greedy clutches of man-centered religion that the Holy One of Israel’s intention for the temple was lost or long forgotten (Matt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-17; Lk 19:45-46; Jn 2:13-16). Goldingay said that “Yahweh’s house is called a prayer house for all peoples. Any group that wishes to commit itself in covenant to Yahweh can come there” (p.123). Living today in the dispensation of the grace of God where there is no advantage to being of a particular ethnicity is a tremendous privilege that should fill our hearts with an overwhelming sense of humility, gratitude, and surrender before the Holy One of Heaven. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him” (Rom 10:12).
Along the lines of this same theme, Goldingay observes that, “Yahweh does not abandon the particularity that characterizes the Scriptures as a whole. Yahweh’s plan was to reach the world by relating to Israel in particular; Israel’s resistance to Yahweh brought it chastisement and shame, but it is still through Israel that Yahweh fulfills that purpose” (p.125). Scripture in general and Isaiah in particular does indeed affirm that the nations of the world would be reached through the direct instrumentality of the nation of Israel (Is 60:3-5). Speaking of the prophesied millennial kingdom of heaven on earth, Bultema writes that “During this golden age of Christ’s reign, the nations will be converted. First Israel is saved, united, and exalted, and after that and through them, the nations will be, also. Jerusalem will the seat and focal point of this glorious period of peace; nevertheless, it will encompass the ends of the earth and the most distant peoples. Then, the promise of Genesis 12:3 will be truly fulfilled for the first time. Of this restored Israel it is said, ‘And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising’ (60:3)” (Bultema, 1981, p.28). In reference to the Gentiles coming to the brightness of Israel’s rising in the prophesied Messianic Kingdom, Ed Hindson of Liberty University writes, “this refers to the fact that all of the nations (goyim) of the earth will be attracted to the Light…Again, one must remember that the Light is not the light of Zion, but rather the beauty and radiance of the Lord as shining upon the Zion. The people are ultimately attracted not to Israel, but to the Lord” (Hindson, 1999, p.852).
There is one facet of Goldingay’s statement that I would contend with and that is his conviction that Scripture is characterized as a whole by Israel’s instrumentality. If one were to remove the Pauline epistles from the canon of Holy Scripture, then his statement would be entirely accurate. Writing about Christ’s interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Matthew 15 and the gospel of the kingdom as a whole, Baker poignantly observed that, “This is in direct contrast to the dispensational order today, when Israel has been blinded and cast aside, when no nationality has the priority. The very name of the present dispensation: the dispensation of the grace of God, prohibits any such discrimination” (Baker, 1978, p.128). Until the risen Christ made known “the revelation of the mystery” of His grace (Rom 16:25-26; Eph 3:1-9; Col 1:25-16) to and through the ministry of the Apostle Paul and therefore suspended His prophetic program for Israel (Rom 11:25), God’s plan was indeed, as described by Goldingay, to reach the nations by “relating to Israel in Particular.” In order to understand what God is doing today in the dispensation of grace and His “mystery/secret program” in contrast to the “prophetic program” of times past, it is necessary to consistently interpret Scripture in accordance with the dispensational hermeneutic of “right division” (II Tim 2:15 cf Lk 4:16:-21; Is 61:1-3). The old adage still rings true: “All Scripture is for us but not all of Scripture is written to us or about us” as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, living today in the dispensation of the grace of God. Having said that, how faithful are we as servants of the Holy One of Heaven to read the entirety of God’s revelation to mankind and not just the most familiar portions or our favorites books?
The heart of this matter of the LORD being the one true and living God as the Holy One of Israel, ethnic distinctions between the nations and Israel, and therefore Israel’s privileged status as the channel of blessing comes down to understanding how we are to serve the Lord today. Moore states that, “In Isaiah the concept of Gentile participation in salvation is inseparably bound to the mission of the Servant to the nations…The Servant was appointed to be a light for the Gentiles to bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Moore, 1997). Beyer explains that “Israel’s witness to the nations contained a centripetal aspect; that is, it was to draw people to God’s light. People who witnessed Israelite society and interacted with Israelites were to see a quality of life so unique and blessed, they would want it for themselves…Israel’s witness to the nations also contained a centrifugal aspect; that is, Israel was to share its spiritual light with others” (Beyer, p.266-7). Understanding that the mission and commission of the Church, the Body of Christ, is in accordance with God’s “mystery program” to redeem the nations in spite of Israel’s instrumentality is critical to faithfully serving God today. “Most interpreters agree that the Bible teaches the nation of Israel had a role to play in the accomplishment of the Great Commission. Most also agree that Israel’s role differs at least somewhat from that of the church…” (Beyer, p.266). Perhaps one of the greatest differences of the church’s mission today is that we are commissioned to go to all the nations in spite of Israel because she had been temporarily set aside. “For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom 11:25 cf. 11:11-12). May we be faithful in pursuing the heart of our God and investing in His purposes for His glory!
Baker, C (1978) Understanding the Gospels. 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
Long, P (2017) Class Lectures. Grand Rapids, MI: Grace Bible College
Moore, T (1997) The Lucan Great Commission and the Isaianic Servant. ATLA Religion Database
*Written 1/23/17 for BIB 540 in Grace Bible College’s Online Graduate Studies Program