By DEREK LEMAN, MESSIANIC JEWISH MUSINGS—
Isaiah is a collection of prophecies with much positive to say about Gentiles. In all three of its parts (chs. 1-39, 40-55, 56-66) we find three topical themes with a hopeful message about the role of non-Jews in God’s plan to redeem Israel and the world: future hope specifically for Gentiles (“the nations”), a relationship between God and Gentiles, and a pattern of mutual blessing between Jewish people and Gentiles.
It may be surprising to some that there would be such positive theology concerning the nations. To be sure there are themes of Gentiles enemies of Israel, of God using Gentiles to judge Israel, and of God judging Gentiles for their violence and sin. But many have the idea that ancient Israel’s faith was narrow, inwardly focused and intent on making Judah and Israel the only blessed people.
May it never be. Israelites who thought they had some special guarantee with God by mere virtue of birth are again and again chastised in the prophets. The claim of special Jewish privilege is not an accurate understanding of Israel’s election as the chosen people. It is a special responsibility more so than privilege, a calling to be holy. The blessings of chosenness do not mean any individual Jew is right with God simply by virtue of Jewish birth. Each individual Jew has a responsibility to believe God and join in God’s mission on earth.
That mission was stated in the Abrahamic Covenant even before the Sinai Covenant was given. God has great blessings for the Jewish nation. Yet this nation is to be the people of blessing to all families on earth. Israel is the vessel and the Gentiles are the goal. “In you,” said God, “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
This calling of Jewish people to be the vessel, like the oil lamp that bears the flame, is further specified in the Sinai Covenant: “You will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). Priests represent God, mediating the knowledge of him to others. Who are the others for whom Israel will be priests? The only others, besides Israel, are the nations. A holy nation is one people among the many of the world set apart, called to an elevated level of holiness. This elevated holiness can be seen in the Torah in certain sign commandments required only of Israel: Sabbath, food laws, circumcision, fringes and other holiness markers.
Isaiah is a collection of prophecies which makes much of the theme of Gentiles and blessing. My intention in this series is to explore the beliefs of the scroll of Isaiah about the blessing of God on the Gentiles and God’s plan to use Gentiles positively to bring Israel back to himself. This is more than a theoretical interest. I have felt for some time now that the trend of Christians becoming positive toward the Jewish people and of non-Jews coming into Messianic Judaism are both examples of the hope of Isaiah.
In the scroll of Isaiah, Gentiles are not an afterthought. Israel’s chosenness is about teaching the nations who God is. Also, in Isaiah, the Gentiles are not just recipients of revelation from Israel. The Gentiles also reveal God to Israelites, even bringing Israelites back to God. The Gentiles are both recipients and revealers. In the same way, Israel on the whole is a revealer, but many Israelites are recipients. The light of God shines through Israel to the nations, but in many cases the nations receive the light better than Israelites, so that, in the end, Gentiles are bringing back Israelites in their arms to God.
It is my hope that all people will be encouraged by the many oracles about Gentiles in the book of Isaiah. For Jewish people, it should be worthwhile to note that Judaism is not meant to exist in isolation. Judaism was never meant to be a Jewish privilege, but a responsibility focused outward on the world. And, in fact, Jewish people support charity and good works in amazing numbers. But the good works Jews are to do also include teaching the world about God. The historical evil of anti-Semitism brought this calling to a standstill. Messianic Judaism stands as a living example of how Judaism can bless and teach non-Jews.
For Christians and Messianic Gentiles, I hope these Isaiah texts will be a strong foundation for identity and purpose. God did not send Jesus (Yeshua) to the church, but to Israel. Jesus came to the nations through Israel (the Jewish apostles). The intention was never for the righteous of the nations to receive the Jewish Messiah and forget about the very Jews through whom he came. Christians are in many places and in many ways turning their eyes back to the Jewish people with this understanding. Some have gone further, feeling that they belong with the Jewish people, to have a shared life together. These who share life with Jewish people on a more intimate level are Messianic Gentiles. There are a variety of reasons for their attachment to Jewish communities of faith, but a strong motivation of many is that somehow this calling of Jewish people to God in Messiah Yeshua is the heart of final redemption. The intersection of the Gentiles and Jews is not a frontier, but is the center of God’s plan.
As we read of Jerusalem in the second part of the book of Isaiah:
The Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And Gentiles shall come to your light.