In the previous article of this series it was seen that the Call of the Gentiles was taught from the earliest times of
Israel’s history. The serpent lifted up in the wilderness provided deliverance for “anyone”, Israelite or Gentile, who looked upon it in faith. Jesus confirmed this when he said the Son of Man would be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness and provide salvation for all who believed on him. In this article we have further linkages between the Old Testament and the New. The commission given to the apostles to go into all the world and preach the gospel was anticipated in the prophets, making them the subject of prophecy!

In this article we will be looking at the enlightening references to Isaiah 49 in the New Testament. This chapter sets forth the call of the Gentiles more clearly than any other in the Old Testament.

Paul in the Synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia Acts 13

 On his first missionary journey, Paul spoke in the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia. The audience was clearly mixed, consisting of Jews and proselytes or Gentiles converted to Israel’s God. This is evident from the way the apostle addresses them, “Men of Israel, and ye that fear God” (v16), and later, “Men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever feareth God… ” (v26).

 The interest shown in Paul’s message by the Gentile component was great and they requested that he should speak further on the next Sabbath. The result was a huge multitude of Gentiles gathered on that Sabbath. Tragically this had a negative reaction upon the Jews who were filled with envy and contradicted Paul’s message. This was to be a typical response from the Jews of the diaspora. What was Paul and Barnabas’ response? Very boldly they pointed out that it was right that the Word of God should first be preached to the Jews, but seeing they rejected the message, effectively they judged themselves unworthy of eternal life. In view of this Paul and Barnabas said, “We turn to the Gentiles”. Justification for this change of direction was taken from Isaiah, “For so hath the Lord commanded us saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47 cp Isa 49:6). This is an arresting appropriation of the prophet’s words to themselves. Clearly they were addressed in the primary sense to Yahweh’s Servant, the Messiah. Here we find Paul and Barnabas applying them to their work.

There is a further allusion to the context of the prophet’s words in the wholesome response of the Gentiles, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord… ” (Acts 13:48). This was precisely what Yahweh had declared was His will through the work of His Servant, “Thou art my servant, O Israel (title here used of the individual servant, Jesus the Christ), in whom I will be glorified” (Isa 49:3).

The Magnitude of The Servant’s Work Isaiah 49:1–6

 The Gentiles are addressed in the opening words of Isaiah 49: “Listen, O Isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far”. It is Yahweh’s servant who speaks and points out that He had been called from the womb for a divine purpose. Moreover his mouth had been made like a sharp sword for in his mouth the words of Yahweh had been placed (cp Deut 18:18; Isa 50:4). By this means Yahweh would “be glorified” (v3), for His mercy and His truth would be revealed in His Son’s life (John 1:14). But this response of Israel would falter and many would fall away and walk “no more with him” (John 6:66). As his ministry progressed the opposition to him would increase and this would culminate in his crucifixion.

This change in attitude towards him is anticipated in Isaiah for we find Yahweh’s servant lamenting the decline in the words, “I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain”. This disappointment is quickly followed by words showing his confidence that what he was doing was in accord with His Father’s will: “yet surely my judgment is with Yahweh, and my work with my God” (Isa 49:4).

These despairing words are answered by Yahweh’s reassurance that not only would his saving work embrace Israel, but he would be a light to the Gentiles and bring salvation to all mankind: “And he said (“Yea he said” RV), It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob… I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth” (Isa 49:6).

Paul, Yahweh’s Servant and the Gentiles

 It is significant that the Lord Jesus never went outside the borders of the land of Israel. How then would his saving work extend to the Gentiles? Paul was specifically raised up for this purpose. In his life of suffering and dedication to Yahweh’s work he revealed the qualities of his Lord. He fully recognized this when he wrote to the Colossians, for he exhorted them to “continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister: who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the ecclesia:” (Col 1:23,24).

Galatians, Paul and Isaiah 49

 Paul’s usage of Isaiah 49 when speaking to the Jews in Antioch, a region of Galatia, may well have provoked discussion. What right had he to apply this Messianic prophecy to himself and Barnabas? It is possible that this contention may have reached his ears. The epistle that he wrote to the Galatians most interestingly contains a number of references and allusions to Isaiah 49, in which he assumes the role of Yahweh’s suffering servant before them. Firstly, be it noted, he points out to the Galatians that they should not be bewitched by Judaizers (Jews who opposed his work and who sought to take believers from the grace of Christ and return them to the bondage of the Law: Jews who were probably from the ranks of those at the synagogue at Antioch who had contradicted and blasphemed when Paul spoke to the Gentiles), for they had seen Jesus Christ before their eyes “evidently set forth (‘placarded’), crucified among you” (Gal 3:1). He was making reference to the sufferings he had endured. Clearly he was “Christ” to the Gentiles.

We will now consider the allusions in Galatians to Isaiah 49.

  1. Paul speaks of himself as the “servant” or “bond slave” (Gr ‘doulos’) of Christ, a term used of the Lord throughout the Servant Prophecies (Isa 40–56) and in particular in Isaiah 49:3, “Thou art my servant (LXX ‘doulos’), O Israel, in whom I will be glorified”.
  2. In order to emphasise his divine calling and to show that he was appointed by God he says, “But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen… ” (Gal 1:15,16). Here we have a direct reference to Isaiah 49:1 where we read words primarily applying to Jesus, but secondarily to the apostle whose work it was to extend the gospel’s net to the Gentiles, “Yahweh hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name”. While we might initially have some difficulty seeing how these words could apply to Paul in view of the fact that he was the great destroyer of the ecclesia and it was not until later in his life that he was enlisted into Christ’s service, it is clear that he was being developed by the Hand of Providence for the great work of taking the gospel to all nations. Ananias was told to go to Paul in Damascus for, contrary to all appearance, “he is a chosen vessel unto me (Christ), to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
  3. News of Paul’s remarkable and unexpected conversion filtered back to the ecclesias in Judea. What they heard was summarised by Paul in the words: “he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed” (Gal 1:23). The response of the Judean ecclesias was wonderment and glorification of God that such a tyrant could be so completely converted. In Paul’s own words we read, “And they glorified God in me(Gal 1:24). Of course these words are also found in Isaiah 49:3, “Thou art my servant… in whom I will be glorified.
  4. Constantly Paul had difficulties with the Jews of the diaspora. They formed vendettas against him and became the great enemies of the Gospel, persecuting him from city to city (1 Thess 2:14–18). True to the will of God he took the gospel of the grace of God to the Jews first and after that, to the Gentiles. In many cities the response from the Jews mirrored that seen at Antioch. Like his Lord, he at times felt that his work was in vain as troubles and afflictions dogged his steps. But he had the same confidence, knowing he was doing the Father’s will. So he laboured carefully lest his work should be in vain. In describing his second visit to Jerusalem (Acts 11:29,30; Gal 2:1), he says that, “I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain(Gal 2:2)echoes of Isaiah 49:4.