Light to the nations
- Main text: Isaiah 42:1-9
- Accompanying text: Matthew 12:15-21
The Servant as Israel
Most commentators note a break in style between Isaiah chapters 1-39 and chapters 40-66. Not just in writing style, but also in tone. Various explanations are given…were there two writers of Isaiah? Or are chapters 40 onward written by the prophet later in his life? It’s possible that they “are the product of his old age; a message written, not preached; concerned to comfort rather than warn; directed to a future generation with scarcely a glance at the present” . One of the new themes that emerge is the idea of the Servant. Initially this refers clearly to God’s desire for the nation of Israel (41:8-10) that it would serve him, and thus Israel would be a witness to and a light for all the nations. Realistically, Israel was nowhere near this ideal. In fact, Isaiah refers to Israel as a “worm” (41:10 NKJ throughout), in need of God’s help to become what it should be.
The Servant as Jesus Christ
In Isaiah 42 the prophet begins to explain the characteristics of the Servant. In Matthew 12 the Pharisees decide to plot against Jesus, how they might destroy him, and it is then that Matthew quotes Isaiah 42:1-4, and he explains that Jesus is the fulfilment of this prophecy. It would not be Israel that would meet the criteria of Servanthood, but it is Jesus alone who does so, and we become God’s servants to the extent that we participate in his Servanthood.
The first verse uses the possessive pronoun “my”. There is a warmth in this, a personal, intimate connection. The Servant is God’s, not the other way around, and it reminds us of Jesus’ statement in Gethsemane, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 20:39). The text continues “My Elect One in whom My soul delights”, and “I have put My Spirit upon Him”, thus reinforcing the bond of belonging. This verse “identifies God as the source of all that the Servant is and is called to do” . This looks forward to the baptism of Jesus Christ as described in Mark 1:10-11 and in the other Gospel accounts.
The Servant as a light to the Nations
The last phrase in verse 1 begins to describe what the Servant will do, and how this concerns not just Israel, but also the Gentiles, meaning all nations. Jesus involves all believers in this work of witness to the whole world (Acts 1:8 and Matthew 20:19). What the Servant will bring is justice, meaning God’s righteousness and the peace that flows from it.
Verse 6 is key to understanding two purposes of the Servant. The first purpose is that the Servant himself will become a (new) covenant to the people. In terms of covenant it is a shift in thinking. The agreement between God and humanity is not something written on stones or on a parchment, but the covenant is actually a person — the Servant. Paul reminded the Corinthians that when we drink the wine of the Lord’s Supper, it is the “new covenant” in his blood (1 Corinthians 11:25). “Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant” (Hebrews 7:22).
The second purpose is that the Servant will be a light to the Gentiles, that is, to the nations. Israel had failed abysmally in this task, and typically saw the Gentiles as enemies, not people who could share in the divine inheritance. But through the Servant all this would change. He would proceed with gentleness and liberation, not with anger and chains. Paul and Barnabas saw participation in being a light to the nations as part of their vocation in the Gospel ¬— “For so the Lord has commanded us; ‘I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:47).
A number of scriptures pick up on the idea of Jesus being the “Light of the World” (John 8:12). Isaiah himself continues the theme in many places, and he goes on to explain in succeeding chapters the self-giving nature of the Servant who sacrifices himself for his people. He describes how “Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising…they shall bring gold and incense, and they shall proclaim praises to the Lord” (60:3, 6b). At this time of year the preceding passage reminds us of how the Gentile kings (or wise men) followed the star that rose at Christ’s birth and of how they brought gifts of gold and frankincense to the baby Jesus.
- Matthew 20:39; 28:19
- Mark 1:1-11
- John 8:12
- Acts 1:8; 13:47
- 1 Corinthians 11:25
- Hebrews 7:22
- The New Bible Commentary Revised edited by Guthrie and Motyer, and published in 1970 by the Inter-Varsity Press, London, UK. 590.
- Paul D Hanson, Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, paperback edition published in 2012 by Westminster John Knox Press, Kentucky, USA. 44.