Author: Michael Pfundner, 22 November 2023
Christians have always looked to Isaiah for a deeper understanding of the person and mission of Jesus. Since the early days of the Church, Isaiah has been called the fifth Gospel. In the fourth century, St Jerome described Isaiah as an evangelist.
Late medieval and Renaissance painters of the annunciation (the angel Gabriel telling Mary that she’ll be the mother of the Messiah) showed Mary reading Isaiah 7.14: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son’ (ESV). Some artists included the prophet himself in their paintings.
Before long, Christians detected Christ crucified in Isaiah’s Suffering Servant:
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53.4–7)
The early followers of Jesus lived through brutal Roman occupation. They longed for God to wrap up history and free them from all oppression. Isaiah had said a great deal about that future messianic age. No wonder the Gospel writers read him through an apocalyptic lens: the world as they knew it would come to an end, and God would deal with evil once and for all and establish peace and justice. Here are some examples:
Isaiah 29.18: ‘The deaf shall hear … the eyes of the blind shall see.’ Jesus refers to this verse when John the Baptist’s followers come to check his messianic credentials (Luke 7.22). By alluding to Isaiah, Jesus seems to imply that his miracles are indeed signs of the messianic era. The Gospel of John also keeps referring to Jesus’ wondrous deeds as signs (for example, John 2.11).
Isaiah 61.1: Preaching in the synagogue of his home town, Jesus quotes this verse and applies it to himself: ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.’
Jesus tells his fellow Nazarenes that Isaiah’s vision of God renewing the world through the Messiah is unfolding in front of their eyes (Luke 4.21). The promised messianic future has become the present reality of Jesus challenging the forces of evil and calling everyone to submit to God’s rule. The sermon causes a riot. People in his home town reject Jesus, and they won’t be the only ones.
Isaiah 6.9: ‘Go and say to this people: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.”’ The New Testament writers maintained that the imminent end of time would reveal who was on God’s side and who wasn’t. Just as Isaiah was told that he would meet with resistance from people who refused to pay attention to his message, Jesus encountered many who remained untouched by him. Compare Isaiah 6.9 to Mark 4.11–12: ‘Those outside … look, but [do] not perceive, … listen, but [do] not understand.’
Christians nowadays need to be aware that the idea of a ‘Gospel according to Isaiah’ won’t sit well with everyone.
Some Bible sceptics claim that the doctrine of the virgin birth results from the Gospel writer Matthew misinterpreting Isaiah 7.14. The verse speaks of a young woman (Hebrew text) or virgin (Greek translation, which Matthew apparently used) giving birth to a son. Young woman or virgin? The answer makes all the difference. In addition, the identity of the son in the Isaiah passage is uncertain. Matthew clearly thought that the son was Jesus and that his conception was a miracle. But not everyone agreed back then or agrees today.
Religious Jews, on the other hand, believe that Isaiah’s prophecies concerning the Messiah are yet to be fulfilled. Messiah – the Hebrew equivalent of ‘Christ’ – means ‘the anointed one’. In Bible times, kings were anointed at the start of their reign. The Messiah was believed to be a triumphant, royal figure in the line of Israel’s king and national hero David. Therefore, a Jewish Bible reader doesn’t share the Christian understanding that the Messiah is Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, ‘wounded for our transgressions’ (Isaiah 53.5). They are more likely to see the Suffering Servant as a symbol of Israel’s trials as a nation.
As Christians we are right to read Isaiah’s prophecies through the lens of Christ’s divine nature and death on the cross. But we need to be prepared to bump into people who will challenge our views. What, then, is it about Jesus that convinces you and me that Matthew got it right? Why do we find Isaiah’s Suffering Servant in the Passion of Christ? These things are worth pondering before someone throws us the question. ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3.15, NIV).
In a nutshell, then, the ‘Gospel according to Isaiah’ speaks of Christ’s miraculous birth, his suffering on our behalf, and his key role in God’s eventual restoration of a fallen world. In some Christian circles, Jesus is seen almost exclusively as the way to personal salvation; but notice that neither Isaiah nor the New Testament writers reduced their messianic vision to ‘me and my God’. They had the bigger picture in mind: God’s glory and the redemption of the world.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end. (Isaiah 9.6–7)
Unless otherwise stated, all Bible quotations are taken from the NRSV.