How Isaiah Conveys the Beauty of the Gospel Message
When my wife and I were praying about what to name our son, we finally landed on the name “Isaiah.” Isaiah means “God saves.” Part of our thinking was that this could serve as a reminder to him as he goes throughout life that no matter what happens, his name is true. God saves. As a newer song states, “you can always run to Jesus. Jesus, strong and kind.” The name Isaiah is a reminder of this.
It should be no surprise, then, that the book named after the prophet Isaiah is one of the best pointers to the gospel of Jesus. Some have called this book the “fifth gospel.” Isaiah is often quoted in the Christmas story, it’s quoted by Jesus to launch his earthly ministry, and Isaiah 53 is often used as an interpretation of His vicarious death.
How else might we see the gospel in the book of Isaiah?
How Do You Find the Gospel in the Old Testament?
I suppose before understanding how to find the gospel in the OT, it’d be helpful for us to define the gospel. The simplest definition is one given by JI Packer: God saves sinners. If you’d like to put a bit more meat on your gospel presentation, I use two different frameworks with four points each. The first is God—Man—Christ—Response. The second is more of a story: Creation—Fall—Redemption—Glory.
The first presentation centers upon God’s character and how humanity fails to meet God’s holy standard, as such the judgment of God is upon us. But the good news is that Jesus Christ fixes this by fulfilling what is required through his life, death and resurrection. Our only fitting response, then, is to respond to Him in repentance and faith. When this happens, we are united to Christ and his record becomes our record.
The second presentation centers upon the overarching story of the Bible. God lovingly created us to love Him and enjoy Him forever. We were made for rest, rule, and relationship. But we made shipwreck of this, and so rather than having the blessings of obedience we are under the curse of disobedience. Rather than having peace (rest), purpose (ruling), and healthy relationship we often experience the opposite. Ultimately, we are alienated from God. But thankfully God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bear our curse and to fulfill what God intended for humanity. As such we now experience the blessings of Jesus’ obedience in our place. He restores the rest, rule, and relationship we were created to enjoy. Someday everything will be ultimately restored and we will live in a new heaven and a new earth.
We could write entire books focusing on these various themes of the gospel. But every gospel story follows this basic skeleton. No matter where you find yourself in the Old Testament (or the New Testament) you can find one of these various threads. Every place in Scripture is either telling you something about God, something about our rebellion, something about His rescue, or something about our future restoration. If you can spot this, then you can fill out the rest of the story.
How Do We Find the Gospel in Isaiah?
In the book of Acts we read of the Ethiopian eunuch who was reading a book of the Bible. Philip came up to the man and asked him if he understood what he was reading. He was reading Isaiah 53. So, what did Philip do? The text says, “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture, he told him the good news about Jesus.” What Philip did here in Acts 8 is what we have been attempting to do through this entire series. We should be able to do this with any text in Scripture.
How, specifically, does Isaiah help us see the good news of Jesus? The immediate context for Isaiah was the impending danger of Assyria (as well as Babylon). It was written in the 8th century but some of what Isaiah prophesies has a much later setting (6th century) as well as prophecy which encompasses all times until the end. This gives Isaiah a context that seems to transcend time.
In Isaiah 6 we see what is really the message of the entire book. It is set in the year that King Uzziah died – a time of national tragedy, a moment when it seems as if everything around Isaiah and the people is unraveling. But in the midst of this tragedy, Isaiah sees a vision of the LORD, and He is seated on His throne. Though Isaiah and his people are shaken, God is not.
But this unshakeable God is also unflinchingly holy. This holiness overcomes Isaiah because he must confess that both he, and the people, are unclean. We saw this much in the Lord’s stirring indictment of the people in the first chapters of Isaiah. “Their sins are like scarlet” (Isaiah 1:18). This vision of God’s holiness is what causes Isaiah the prophet to be undone.
Yet, God does not leave Isaiah, or the nation in an unraveled state. He restores. We see in Isaiah 6 that God provides atonement. An angel, sent by God, touches Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal and it is declared over Isaiah, “your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for.”
This is really the message of Isaiah — and it is the message of the gospel. What we break and unravel God restores. The people will be overcome by the Assyrians. Centuries later they will be exiled. Many years later people’s unfaithfulness will continue. But through all of this, in each stage of unraveling, God is in the business of restoring.
This is the gospel message. You can pick up any of these threads throughout Isaiah, just as Philip did, and from there proclaim Jesus. If it is one of the places of unraveling, you can easily take it to God’s rescue, and then show how Christ is the one by which sin is ultimately atoned for. Jesus fixes what we’ve unraveled. That’s the gospel.
“The more we get to know Isaiah 40–55, the more we will understand how the first followers of Jesus understood ‘the gospel’ (Isaiah 40.9; 52.7). The more we relish the sweep and subtlety of its poetry, the more dimensions of salvation we will glimpse. The more we pray our way through it, listening for the voice of the Spirit, the more we will be led into the celebration of God’s presence with us here and now; and the more we will be equipped to be new-covenant people ourselves, working in the present time to bring about true signs of the new creation which is the ultimate fruit of the Servant’s work.”
Let’s take one of those places in Isaiah 40-55 and see how we can proclaim the gospel.
How Do We Find the Gospel in Isaiah 54?
When you think of things that make you want to sing a joyous song, what do you think of? Now listen to Isaiah 54:1-3
“’Sing, barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
burst into song, shout for joy,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband,’
says the Lord.
‘Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread out to the right and to the left;
your descendants will dispossess nations
and settle in their desolate cities.’”
If you read on to verse 6, you see other painful things over which God says, “sing.” Barrenness. Widowed. Divorced. These are some of the most painful experiences we humans have. And God says over them “Sing.” They are places of deep personal tragedy. And in that culture, they were not only painful, they would be a place of deep shame.
At first, it seems a little cruel for God to say over them, “Sing!” But if we have ears to hear we will hear the beautiful voice of God. What God is doing is entering into the places of our deepest hurt and shame.
This passage is actually quoted in Galatians 4:21-31. To see how Paul is using Isaiah 54, we have to first ask, what will make all things right? What will heal those deep wounds? For the Pharisees it was to follow the Law. Fulfill every jot and tittle of what God calls you to do, and finally it will bring about the kingdom and all will be right.
But that’s not the answer the gospel gives. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus enters into these places of our deepest failures, our deepest hurts, and our deepest shame. And there he provides healing and rescue and freedom. I like Ray Ortlund’s summary of this passage:
“Now to invite this desolate woman to sing for joy seems absurd and cruel. But Isaiah isn’t rubbing it in. He’s relocating her happiness from herself to the servant of the Lord, the ultimate Patriarch who ‘shall see his offspring’ (Isaiah 53:10). He wants all of us to grasp that our failure is real, but it’s not the death of our joy, because Another has succeeded for us, and now we live in him.”
Again, we see that overarching message of Isaiah. God saves. Or to put that another way, Jesus fixes what gets unraveled. Whether it’s through our own rebellion, sin that has happened to us, or just life outside of paradise, Jesus fixes what gets unraveled. And that is the beauty of the gospel. Some day things will no longer unravel. And Isaiah tells us the already-not yet of this beautiful reality.
Hold on. He’s fixing all things. Christ will enter into the places of your deepest hurt, shame, sin, and frustration.
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