Isaiah Week 1
By Bo Lim
Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of Old Testament
Isaiah as Prophet, Evangelist, and Apostle
“What books have been most influential to you?” This is a question commonly raised in interviews for faculty and ministerial candidates, because it helps identify the voices and ideas that have shaped the individual. If you were to ask Jesus or the apostles what books had been most influential to them, no doubt Isaiah would have been at the top of the list. With some 600 instances of quotes, paraphrases, allusions, or echoes, Isaiah is the most-referenced single work in the New Testament.
- In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ first public teaching takes place at his hometown of Nazareth, where he reads from the scroll of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:16; compare Isaiah 61:1).
- The gospel writers associate significant aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: his birth, baptism, healing miracles, parables, prayer, preaching, mission of forgiveness and salvation, passion, and resurrection.
Because of the correspondence between Jesus’ teaching and actions, and Isaiah’s prophecy, it appears Jesus understood his identity and vocation in terms of Isaiah. It also appears that Jesus’ own use of Isaiah in his preaching and teaching led to the book’s prominence in early Christianity:
- The apostles would go on to imitate Jesus and read Isaiah in order to understand their calling as disciples. For example, Isaiah 49:6 — “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” — would serve as the motivation for Paul and Barnabas’ mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:44–52).
- From the earliest days of Christianity, Isaiah was perceived as the “fifth gospel.”
- The influential church father Augustine recalls the occasion when he asked his spiritual mentor what he should read: “[Bishop Ambrose] told me to read the prophet Isaiah, I think because more clearly than others he foretold the gospel and the calling of the Gentiles” [Author’s Note 1].
- Another church father, Jerome, believed Isaiah contained all the sacred mysteries of Jesus, and expressed, “I will propose that Isaiah is not only a prophet but also an evangelist and an apostle. Isaiah spoke about both himself and the other evangelists in this way” [Author’s Note 2].
- So extensively did the passages from Isaiah prefigure the events of Jesus’ life that an early medieval writer, Isidore of Seville, recounted the entire gospel narrative through the words of Isaiah.
The New Testament attests to how the early church continued to read Isaiah following Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is, early Christians did not set Isaiah aside once they saw its fulfillment in Christ. Rather, after encountering Jesus through the Spirit, they were all the more motivated to go back and reread this book.
Christian discipleship involves having the message of Isaiah shape the core of our identity and purpose in life. We, as the church, have the privilege of inheriting the same playbook and script that was well worn in the hands of Jesus, the apostles, the church fathers, and saints for countless generations. If you want to know Jesus intimately, read Isaiah. Jesus and his followers, then and now, possess Isaiah-shaped lives.
A friend of mine once wrote the following comment on Facebook explaining why students ought to take his course on Romans: “It’s just the most important book in the Bible!” I commented in half-jest, “I didn’t know you were teaching a course on Isaiah!”
Isaiah the Prophet and Isaiah the Book
The book of Isaiah begins with these words:
The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah (Isaiah 1:1).
Unfortunately, not much is known about Isaiah, the prophet identified with the book. (Of course, the reality is that we know little about most of the characters presented in the Bible.) We will never know what Isaiah was really like as a person. What we are called to do as disciples is learn about the literary Isaiah — and understand the role he plays in the book’s message. Isaiah’s life is to be understood in regard to its service to the word of the Lord, not vice versa. Throughout this book we will see that the primary agent of judgment and salvation is the word of the Lord (Isaiah 40:8), not human actors.
The identification of Isaiah as the “son of Amoz” demonstrates that Isaiah is a historical figure, and the mention of Judah and Jerusalem specifies the location and audience of his ministry. Although Isaiah prophesied at a time when the Northern Kingdom (Israel) existed, he would minister only in the Southern Kingdom (Judah). The reigns of the kings mentioned in the superscription span 785–687 B.C.E., but it is likely that Isaiah began his ministry “in the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 6:1), about 742 B.C.E., and ended his ministry shortly after the Assyrian crisis (Isaiah 36–37), in 701 B.C.E. According to the pseudepigraphal work Ascension of Isaiah [Author’s Note 3], Isaiah was sawn in two by Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son, and this tradition appears to have influenced the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 11:37).
Scholars have debated the composition of the book, and unfortunately this issue has been divisive for some [Author’s Note 4]. What is important for our purposes is to acknowledge that, even though portions of the book were written in various settings, the book is to be understood as one “vision of Isaiah son of Amoz” (1:1). The first verse of the book provides the reader the clue that the prophecy to follow is unified and authoritative. Yet, as a vision, the prophecy is not bound to its original historical circumstances, and can speak into the future. The book provides its own theological logic and thematic outline, which is not necessarily organized historically.
To embrace the message of Isaiah requires us to read it with an understanding of the literary and theological structure of the book. This is exactly how Jesus and the apostles read Isaiah — they didn’t pick and choose a couple of their favorite verses from the book; instead, they allowed the shape of Isaiah’s prophecy to form their own thinking and living. So, while Israelite prophecy, admittedly, is difficult to read and at times seems to be haphazardly organized, I invite you to read not just bits and pieces of Isaiah, but rather the whole vision.
Isaiah in the Past and Isaiah for the Present
To read Isaiah and other books of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture doesn’t deny the fact that Isaiah is a Jewish book. Christians are not to read the Old Testament exclusively for how it prophesies of Jesus or the church. Certainly the early church didn’t do so; for them the Old Testament was assumed to be sacred scripture for the church, and they didn’t feel the need to “Christianize” it at every turn.
The point to be made is that part of the task of reading Isaiah as Christian gospel is to understand it as Israelite prophecy. Certainly for Christians, Isaiah is considered more than that; but reading Isaiah’s message for Israel doesn’t diminish the important role Isaiah continues to have in the church.
As Christians who have already witnessed the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies in Jesus, we read this book as a living word to us. In Jesus and the church, the mysteries of the kingdom have been revealed, so that we have the privilege of witnessing Christ in the prophecy. Yet not all of Isaiah’s prophecies have come to pass; thus, we are actors who continue to play a role in the ongoing drama of Isaiah’s vision. So even though the church is not to be equated with Israel, the church identifies with Israel when Christians read the Old Testament.
Recently, I came across some old photos of my father when he was in his youth back in our homeland of Korea. Those photos from 40 years ago have given me new insight into who he is in the present. Those old photos continue to speak, if you will, when I begin to imagine his past; they carry clues as to who he would become.
As you read Isaiah, I hope you don’t think, “Whew! I’m glad I don’t have to worry about this stuff in the past, because I have Jesus.” Rather, I hope you sincerely ask, “In what way does the word of the Lord spoken to Israel continue to reveal Jesus to me?” Because the Spirit that inspired the prophet Isaiah now dwells in you and me, we can confidently read this book in expectation of God’s word to go forth and accomplish its purposes (Isaiah 55:11).
Questions for Further Reflection
- What are the kinds of narratives that typically shape our lives as people? In your own life, what are some specific identity-shaping stories you return to over and over again to find meaning?
- What does the Lectio writer say about the significance of Isaiah as a critical narrative for the church? Have you ever conceived of Isaiah as holding so much importance? Why or why not? How might this shape our continued study of the “fifth Gospel?”
- The Lectio writer notes, “As Christians who have already witnessed the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies in Jesus, we read this book as a living word to us. … Yet not all of Isaiah’s prophecies have come to pass; thus, we are actors who continue to play a role in the ongoing drama of Isaiah’s vision.” In what ways does biblical prophecy continue to transform people’s lives today? Are there ways you hope to be challenged as you embark on this study of Isaiah?
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