Isaiah 53: Paul’s Transition
If you have never had the pleasure of trying to “cut” cows on a true pure bred cutting horse…consider yourself lucky.
Most of the horses I have ridden were not bred, nor trained to cut cows. They were ranch horses who would look at a cow but not really work one. A true cutting horse will stop on a dime, shift its front end at break neck speed, with little warning. If you aren’t prepared for such a maneuver, then you will soon find yourself performing different manuever that ends with you on your backside in the dirt. But hey, I’ve never really been considered much of a horseman, so operator error is a valid explanation. True cutting horses are quick, intelligent, intuitive, and powerful. They will plant their back feet, roll their hips, and head another direction before the rider even cues them. Paul does the exact same thing with Isaiah 53. See, Paul uses Isaiah 53 as a turning point, as a transition.
The purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans is found in Romans 1.16-17 where Paul writes:
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness from God is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'”
Located in this verse is a comparison, a contrast, and a transition. “First for the Jew, then for the Gentile” shows the two sides. At this time it was argued as the two sides of salvation. The Jews were saved; the Gentiles were on the outside looking in. That was until, Peter opened the door to the Gentiles in Acts 10.
Romans is about bringing both the Jew and Gentile to faith..but there was a problem.
What is needed is a transition in thinking. In both of Paul’s quotations of Isaiah 53, in Romans 10.16 and 15.21, the verse begins with the word “but” (gk. alla). “But” signals a change, a transition, in thought. A simple look at Romans 10 illustrates this point:
- Romans 10.1: “Brothers, my hearts desire and prayer to God for the Israelite’s is that they may be saved.”
- Romans 10.12-13: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all of who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
- Romans 10.16: “But not all the Israelite’s accepted the good news…”
- Romans 11.1: “Did God reject his people? By no means!” He then goes on about the remnant.
- Romans 11.11: “…salvation has come to the Gentiles…”
The hinge of this entire section is verse 16 at the word “but” and Isaiah’s question: “Lord, who has believed our message?” Isaiah and Paul both are asking where the belief lies. Paul answers it in the “Gentiles”. This is why he can claim in verse 13 of chapter 11: “I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles…”
In Romans 15, instead of using “Jew” and “Gentile” as categories, he uses the terms “those who have heard” and “those who have not”. Paul clearly states his mission as: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” (Rom. 15.20) Then there is that word “rather” (gk. alla) elsewhere translated “but”. Then he quotes Isaiah 52.15. Thematically the end of chapter 52, starting at verse 13, gels with Isaiah 53. For sheer ease, I refer to the whole prophecy as Isaiah 53. In this case Paul quotes the last verse of Isaiah 52: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” Paul uses Isaiah to transition thinking about who needs the Gospel. For Paul the answer is clear…those who have not heard. That is why Paul had not been able to come to this body of believers yet. (Romans 15.22)
Secondly, Paul Romans 10.16 as a transition of salvation. Paul attunes his readers to the fact that the Gospel changes peoples lives. Romans 10.9-10 makes it very clear:
“That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
and then he adds: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (10.14) Paul understands that hearing leads to belief, and belief to confession, and confession to salvation.
But not all Israel believed. Then he quotes Isaiah 53: “Lord, who has believed our message?” Isaiah was originally written in the hebrew language. In around 270 B.C. the Old Testament was translated from hebrew into greek so that people could more easily read it. This is called the Septuagint, or LXX for short. Paul quotes the exact words of the LXX here. He uses the common Greek word for belief (gk. Pisteuo) and equates it with “accepted” in the quotes introduction. The greek word for “accepted” is intriguing. The word used here (gk. upakousan) is a word that means “to answer the door”. It is used of Rhoda in Acts 12.3 when she “answered the door” after Peter knocked. You get the picture here. The Jews refused to let Jesus in…but the Gentiles were willing. A transition in those who are saved. But there is another transition that Paul uses Isaiah for in Romans 15.
Finally, Paul uses Isaiah 53 in Romans 15, to show his transition in ministry. The first quotation was about salvation, this one is about evangelism. The change in thought, led to a change in ministry. If you are unfamiliar with Paul’s story the short version is this. He was a persecutor of the church (Acts 8.1) but after an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), Saul (his former name, more on this later) would spend a few years in the desert (Gal. 1.18), then 14 years preaching in Judea to the Jews (Gal. 2.1), and finally was called to preach to the Gentiles (Gal. 2.2,7-10). He had a transition in ministry. When Saul, a Hebrew name from his parents, took off on his first missionary journey, to plant churches among the Gentiles, in Acts 13.9, he took on a Greek name, Paul. A transition in ministry. He defends his ministry with this: “I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 15.15-16)
When Isaiah penned his words in Isaiah 53, 700 years before Paul, he was finishing his work. The Servant whom this prophecy was about was the exclamation point to his entire work. This was the figure that was the end, the goal of Isaiah’s words. He would bring the people back from the exile. He was the one that Isaiah waited and hoped for!. But for Paul, Isaiah’s words were a transition. Paul’s mission, his ministry, and understanding of salvation all hinge on Isaiah’s Prophecy in Isaiah 53. Paul thought of Isaiah’s words as a new beginning in thought, salvation, ministry. His words opened up the ministry to the Gentiles, it was a gateway for Gentile salvation, and a step towards a new understanding of people. Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 2.4: “But, because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved.” For Paul, and in many ways us, Isaiah’s quotes can be seen as the first steps toward a great adventure, if we are able to understand, believe, and confess this “Suffering Servant” and his name is Jesus. Our lives can turn on a dime; they can transition when we call on the name of Jesus.