Was Isaiah Thinking of Jesus?

Thinking about how the New Testament uses Isaiah and the prophets will make us see that there is both continuity and discontinuity in the move from Isaiah to Jesus.

One could, I think, answer this question too quickly, either with an “Of course!” or an “Of course not!”

The quick “Of course” could come from a faithful Christian who might then continue, “Yes! This is what I have heard every year during Advent or Lent, when the pastor read the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah about the birth of Immanuel (Isa 7) or the suffering and death of God’s servant (Isa 53), and then preached on how this was fulfilled in Christ. It rings true, and it’s what I believe.”

The quick “Of course not” could come from another faithful Christian who might continue, “Well, no, Isaiah could not have been thinking of Jesus, because this is not how prophecy works. The prophets were not crystal-ball gazers, but rather proclaimers of God’s word to their own time.”

There would be truth in both answers, but both require further consideration. Take, for example, Mark 1:1-2: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah…” The evangelist wants to say something important here, something that is, in fact, essential to Christian faith: God did not send Jesus to start a new religion, but acted to fulfill and extend the promises God had made to Israel from the beginning. “And now,” Mark’s Gospel wants to say, “God chooses to continue and fulfill that work through Jesus of Nazareth.” So, in that sense, yes, this is what the prophets had in mind.

On the other hand, take another New Testament passage that works with Isaiah, Acts 8:26-39. An Ethiopian eunuch who knows enough of the Old Testament story to come to Jerusalem to worship God is reading from the prophet Isaiah (a very good choice, many would still say, to get at the heart of Israel’s faith). When Philip asks the Ethiopian whether he understands what he is reading, the foreigner responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” In other words, even for one ready to learn, ready to hear, ready to believe, things are not immediately obvious. Understanding that Isaiah’s words are fulfilled in Jesus will require careful teaching and the insight that can be provided only by the Holy Spirit.

Thinking about how the New Testament uses Isaiah and the prophets will make us see that there is both continuity and discontinuity in the move from Isaiah to Jesus. If there were no continuity, if the preaching of Isaiah and the preaching of Jesus had nothing in common, there would almost certainly have been no Jewish believers, no disciples, and thus none to preach faith in Christ. None of the Jesus story would have made sense, and the New Testament would have been talking about a different God.

On the other hand, if the move from Isaiah to Jesus were a matter of simple continuity, of adding up the words of the prophets to get Jesus as the obvious outcome, there would have been no Jewish unbelievers (that is, none who did not understand Jesus to be God’s Messiah), so there would be no ongoing Judaism with what we now call the Old Testament as its only sacred Scriptures.

There was continuity in the move from Isaiah to Jesus, but there was also surprise. Return to Mark 1:1-2. Intriguingly, after Mark says, “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,” he proceeds first to quote from what seems to be a conflation of Exod 23:20 (“ I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared”) and Mal 3:1 (“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me”), before moving to Isa 40:3: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” What does this mean? Some will argue a memory lapse on Mark’s part — not necessarily a disastrous thing, since it would simply affirm the fundamental Christian truth of the incarnation, that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7 KJV). Yet others will insist that no such “error” is possible, based on the modern notion that “inerrancy” has to do with data and grammar rather than with the Gospels’ infallible purpose of proclaiming Christ. More likely, Mark 1 opens with a combination of Old Testament texts (a sermon on them, really) that is not so much concerned with the correct answer to a “who said what” question on a test of Bible knowledge as with the insistence that, in Jesus, God is following through on the good news announced already by the prophets of old.

This kind of preaching on the Old Testament message may be the best way to understand the New Testament’s use of Isaiah and the other prophets. Though Matthew, for example, will sometimes refer to a specific prophetic word that is now fulfilled in a New Testament event, he will also quote Jesus summing up the whole passion narrative by saying, “But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled” (Matt 26:56). There is no particular textual reference here, since none would suffice. Instead, Jesus and Matthew proclaim that the entire prophetic message, properly understood, points to Jesus. But it does not do so in predictable ways, for here, in Jesus’ words, we hear the totally surprising notion that God would usher in the kingdom through the suffering and death of God’s only Son.

Paul uses the prophets similarly when he argues that “all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus]” (2 Cor 1:20 RSV). The point is not so much that this passage or that one pointed to Jesus; rather, once Jesus had appeared, certain Jews, knowing what God had promised for their future, came to believe and confess, “Yes! Yes, this is what God has been up to all along. Impossible as it seems, all that God has ever done and promised is now put together in the life, death, and resurrection of this man Jesus.” None of this denies that those same prophetic promises had been heard as word of God by earlier generations of Israel in their own time. Of course they had. As Isaiah knew, the word of God never returns “empty,” but accomplishes God’s purpose in every generation (Isa 55:11). In fact, were this not the case, these words would not have been remembered, recorded, and kept available for New Testament preachers to use again in a new way.

So, did Isaiah have Jesus in mind? Certainly not in the sense of seeing far in the future this historical Nazarene carpenter. Such exact advance prediction was never the essential mark of Old Testament prophecy. But did Isaiah profoundly name the work and character of God in a way that New Testament believers came to discover in the person of Jesus? Clearly, yes. That was precisely the “good news” with which Mark began his Gospel.

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