The message of the eighth century prophet Isaiah spoke again to first century Jews eagerly awaiting the intervention of God and the coming of Messiah. The coming of the Lord Almighty and the suffering servant were one and the same, but when both arrived in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, they were blinded to his identity, just as Isaiah foretold. Isaiah is the Gospel of the Old Testament. Handel’s magnificent 17th century oratorio, Messiah, takes 16 of its 53 movements from Isaiah. The Old Testament is fulfilled (completed) in Jesus Christ; only through the lens of the Gospel can we see what many of the Jews of Jesus’ day could not.
Isaiah’s commission occurred in 740 BC, through an extraordinary vision. Isaiah saw the Lord himself, a privilege reserved for very few (Ex 24:9–11; Ezek 1:1–28).
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. (Isa 6:1–4)
Moses had asked to see God’s glory, and God replied that he would let all his goodness pass before Moses and would proclaim his name “The LORD” (The Being One). Moses hid in a cleft on the mountain as the LORD descended in cloud and proclaimed his Name; “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” and Moses bowed and worshiped (Ex 33:18–34:8). Isaiah too was awestruck; he cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then he was ritually cleansed from his sin with a live coal from the altar. (Isa 6:4–7).
The apostle John states that this vision of God’s glory and cleansing work which Isaiah saw was in fact the glory of Jesus Christ. He is the Lord on the throne; “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41) What things? The context provides the answer. The Pharisees and leaders of the Jews did not believe in Jesus, even though he had done many signs before them, and in spite of Jesus’ plea, “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” John says this unbelief was in direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy; “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” and also, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. The reason John gives is that they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. These are direct citations of Isaiah 6. John further associates the Lord Jesus with glory, light and rejection in the prologue to his gospel. He also associates the glory of God with his grace and truth.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:9–14)
Uzziah’s wicked son Ahaz scorned the Lord’s ability to fight for Israel. God gave Ahaz a sign, which probably had initial fulfilment in the birth of Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, in whose reign God would defeat the Assyrian foe. But the prophecy had a much greater meaning: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa 7:14). In Matthew 1:23 we are told “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which means, God with us,” for his conception was from the Holy Spirit, in direct fulfillment of Isaiah. The child would be God, with us, by miraculous conception and incarnation.
Isaiah 8 continues the theme of God’s intervention for his people, instructing them not to dread what ordinary people dread, but to fear the Lord of hosts.
But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken… Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. (Isa 8:13–18)
This passage is also specifically applied to Jesus. The Lord of hosts, whom they must honour as holy, is both the sanctuary and the stone of offence and rock of stumbling; Jesus (Matt 21:42–44; Luke 20:18–19; Acts 4;11; Rom 9:32–33; 1 Peter 2:6–8).
Isaiah 35 is a magnificent poem about the restoration of the people of God, full of beautiful imagery.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert” (Isa 35:1–6).
Isaiah again speaks of the glory of the Lord, the majesty of God, and the passage directly refers to Jesus. Hebrews 12:12–14 takes up the exhortation to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,” and reminds them that without holiness no one will see the Lord. Isaiah was made holy so that he might stand and behold God’s glory (Isa 6:6–7). Jesus’ response to John’s query of his identity lays claim to this passage in Isaiah as proof of Who he is; “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7:22–23) “Your God will come! He will come and save you!” The coming of Jesus is nothing less than the coming of God, the Lord of Israel. In Luke 7:27, Jesus proclaims John as the one who would prepare the way for the Lord (Isa 40:3).
Isaiah 40 is another well known and well-loved chapter proclaiming the coming of the Sovereign LORD God as none other than Jesus.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’ A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isa 40:1–11)
The Lord God who would come with might, his reward with him (Rev 22:12) is the one who would tend his flock like a shepherd (Ezek 34:11:16; Matt 2:6; John 10:11–16). The way is prepared for the Lord; Jesus claims that John is the preparer and he is the Lord who would come; the Lord whom they seek would suddenly come to his temple (Mal 3:1; Matt 3:1–3, 11–12; Mark 1:2–3; Luke 1:76–79; 3;1–6). This astounding passage in Isaiah, which is speaking of the God of Israel, is unequivocally applied to the Lord Jesus Christ. The aged Simeon, beholding the baby Jesus in the temple, was one of the few to recognise who he truly was (Luke 2:29–35).
Isaiah 41 through 55 carries two major parallel themes. One is the repeated declaration of God, “I am,” in Hebrew YHWH, the name of the LORD. The other is the description of the enigmatic Servant who would come. The memorial name YHWH, “I am,” occurs throughout the Hebrew scriptures, not only as God’s name the LORD (kyrios in the LXX) but to stress who God is, especially in Isaiah. (Isa 41:4; 43:25; 44:6 — compare Rev 1:17; 2:8; 21:6; 22:13; Isa 46:4; 48:12, 17; 51:12 — see John 14:16; Isa 52:6). The Greek translation of YHWH, “I am/ I am the being-one” (ego eimi) is spoken by Jesus of himself. This is especially prominent in the writings of John, who seems to draw a lot from Isaiah (John 4:26; 6:20, 35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12, 18, 24; 28, 58; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 13:19; 14:6; 15:1, 5; 18:5, 6, 8). No first century Jew, familiar with the Greek Old Testament, could have failed to notice the referrence to Isaiah. Then there are even more explicit connections, such as between Isa 41:4 “I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he,” comparing Revelation 1:4, 8, 17–18; 2:8; 4:8 and 22:13.
This section of Isaiah also presents the Servant. Although the Servant is sometimes explicitly equated with Israel (Isa 41:8–9, 44:21; 45:4; 49:3) it becomes evident that he represents the ideal Israel, but also transcends what Israel ever did or could ever do. In that sense he is the fulfilment of what Israel was supposed to be, in terms of a light to the Gentiles, a kingdom of priests and holy nation. In fact, the Servant is destined to bring Israel back to God as well as drawing the Gentiles to him.
The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.’ And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him — for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength — he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’” (Isa 49:1–6)
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice… ‘I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols’” (Isa 42:1–8)
The Servant is one in whom the LORD delights, upon whom God’s Spirit rests (Matt 3:16–17) who would bring forth justice (righteousness) and be a light to the Gentiles, opening the eyes of the blind, setting free the captives (Matt 12:17–21; 15:30–31; Luke 4:17–21; 7:21–23; Rom 3:21–22; Heb 8:6–11; John 1:1–9; 8:12). What is also interesting is God’s adamant declaration that he will not share his glory with another. Jesus, however, does share God’s glory, and has from eternity (John 8:54; 13:31–32; 17:1, 5,24; Heb 1:3, 13:21; Rev 5:13). “We have seen his glory,” said John.
In Isaiah 45 we have several more declarations of the uniqueness of God, including
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’”
Where do we find this fulfilled? Paul specifically applies this to Jesus, the servant who is Lord, having the very name of God, to the glory he shares with his Father. This passage explains how the Servant can be the Lord, the “I AM” and share in the glory of God.
[Jesus] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross .Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:6–11)
This passage also explains the reason for the suffering of the Servant, and the means by which he brings salvation. Isaiah predicted this in detail. In Isaiah 50 we learn that the Servant will not be rebellious (as Israel had been). He would give his back to those who strike and his cheeks to those who pull out the beard, and not hide his face from shame or spitting. Yet The Lord God would help him and he would not be disgraced, but be vindicated and not declared guilty. (Isa 50:5–10). In Isaiah 52 we learn that God’s Servant will act wisely, and be lifted up (John 13:14–16; 8:28–29). His appearance would be astonishing; marred beyond human semblance and yet he would sprinkle (cleanse) many nations (Isa 52: 13–15; Heb 12:24; 1 John 1:7–9). But it is when we come to chapter 53 that Isaiah sets out the substitutionary sacrifice of the incarnate Servant of God in all his glory. He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows; he was wounded for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed (Isa 53:4–5). The innocent was slain for the guilty; it was our sins he bore on the cross. We had all gone astray like sheep, but God laid on him the iniquity of us all (v6). The apostle Peter refers to this;
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:22–25)
The Lord Jesus is indeed the good and divine Shepherd, but as one of us in his humanity he was also a sheep, the Lamb of God’s provision (Isa 53:7; Gen 22:8; John 1:29). He was stricken for the transgression of God’s people (Isa 53:8, his soul an offering for guilt (Isa 53:10) he would bear their iniquities (v11) and he “bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (v12). By his sacrificial death, he justified many, so their faith in him could be counted as righteousness and there would no longer be condemnation (Isa 53:11; Rom 3:22–24; 4:24–25; 5:8–1; 8:33–34).
As a result of this astounding work of grace, the glory of the Lord has been revealed; his gracious and forgiving, yet totally just character, just as he proclaimed to an awestruck Moses. “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” encouraged Isaiah, “and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa 60:1–3; Matt 4:14–16; Luke 1:78–79; 2:30). The Lord himself would be their everlasting light (Isa 60: 19–20) and in Revelation we learn that this is the glory of both God and the Lamb (Rev 21:22–26; 22:3–5). There will be new heavens and a new earth, created by the one who makes all things new, Jesus (Isa 65:17; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1–6).
The book of Isaiah reaches its stirring conclusion with a promise that “behold, the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.” Just as the coming of the Servant was the coming of God, so will his second coming be, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire.. when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at among all who believed” In answer to Isaiah’s rhetorical question (Isa 53:1) many are saved, “because our testimony to you was believed.” (2 Thess 1:7–10). “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD” (Isa 66:22–23).
Isaiah is the gospel of the Old Testament. The coming of God to save his people was the coming of Christ. The prophet reveals to us Jesus, who is the Great I AM, the Messiah, the suffering Servant. The one who shares the glory of the only God, who is God and man, God with us, the true light, who shines in darkness and draws Jew and Gentile into the people of God, who opens the eyes of the blind and sets the captives free, the one who makes all things new. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”