A Savior for All
Preached by Pastor Jason Abbott
As Benjamin explained last week, Isaiah ministered in a tumultuous time. Judah was almost constantly under the threatening shadow of some world power whether the Egyptians or the Assyrians or, eventually, the resurgent Babylonians. There were seemingly always wars or rumors of wars during the prophetic ministry of Isaiah the son of Amoz.
In fact, if you took a time machine to Jerusalem sometime around 700 BC and asked average individuals there what the biggest problem they faced was, they’d probably say it was peace in the Middle East—meaning something like: “We need to rule our enemies.”
But, Isaiah’s prophetic words, in today’s passage, challenge such thinking. Isaiah’s words—as inspired by the Holy Spirit—would have been awfully difficult for the average Judean of his day to swallow.
Well, let’s first read this passage then pray for God to be our teacher today in order that we might see how these words challenged Isaiah’s original audience and how they continue to challenge us 2,700 years later.
49:1 Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
2 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.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 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.”
5 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—
6 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.”
7 Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation,
the servant of rulers:
“Kings shall see and arise;
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
8 Thus says the Lord:
“In a time of favor I have answered you;
in a day of salvation I have helped you;
I will keep you and give you
as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages,
9 saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’
to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’
They shall feed along the ways;
on all bare heights shall be their pasture;
10 they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.
11 And I will make all my mountains a road,
and my highways shall be raised up.
12 Behold, these shall come from afar,
and behold, these from the north and from the west,
and these from the land of Syene.”
13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted.
In order for us to see the challenge this was and feel the challenge this is, we’ve got to ask 3 questions: (1) Who’s the passage to? (2) Who’s the passage for? And (3) Who’s the passage about?
1. Who’s this to (vv. 1, 6, 12)?
Well, Isaiah makes clear throughout the prophecy whom this message is to. Look at just 3 verses with me:
- God inspires Isaiah to call to a specific audience: Listen to me…coastlands, / and give attention…peoples from afar (v. 1).
These terms, coastlands and peoples from afar, are not references to Israel. Rather, God commands Isaiah to call to the pagan nations who surround Israel. God has Isaiah calling out to Egypt and to Assyria and to Babylon and to Philistia and to Moab and to Edom.
Or, consider 2 more verses in combination:
- God explains to his great Servant: I will make you as a light for the nations, / that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (v. 6).
- God boasts of this Servant’s rescue: Behold, these shall come from afar, / and behold, these from the north and from the west, / and these from the land of Syene (v. 12).
In each of these verses, God’s word for the pagan nations is cast universally. What I mean is—this good news message isn’t, in the least, limited geographically. God is saying to coastlands and peoples from afar:
“There’s no place on this earth from which I won’t gather a people for me!”
“This gospel, this amazing Savior Servant, is sent to the world!”
Consequently, when we ask whom this prophetic message is ultimately to, we must answer that this is a good news message of salvation to all the earth—every people and every nation.
Next let’s consider our second question:
2. Who’s this for?
Maybe when I ask this question, you wonder how it differs from the first. Perhaps you think: “If the good news message is to all the nations, it must also be for all the nations.” But, it isn’t.
Isaiah was no Jonah; he wasn’t called to prophesy for anyone outside Judah. In fact, one scholar notes that Isaiah’s prophetic ministry was very likely only inside Jerusalem;1 in short, his message was given almost exclusively for Israelites. So, this message was sent to the pagan nations but for the people of God!
You might think that that’s a bit of a strange way for God to communicate; however, it isn’t so terribly different from how we often communicate today. Imagine, for a moment, that I composed a letter to the—so called—Islamic State but sent it for publication in Christianity Today Magazine.
Furthermore, suppose I express, in the letter, that Jesus died to save sinners. Suppose I explain that all have sinned and that sin makes all of us enemies of God. Maybe I then begin to tell the story of the apostle Paul and compare him to ISIS: he was a persecutor of Christians; he looked on as Christians were being executed; he was an enemy of God just like every single Christian was before God saved us through faith in Christ Jesus.
Now, though this letter is written to ISIS, if it’s published in CT Magazine, whom will it likely be delivered for? The general readership of Christianity Today! Mainly Christians!
If this letter somehow made it to ISIS, it would be a good message to them. Yet, it would also be a good—albeit different—message when read by Christians. To the radical Muslim, it communicates God’s true message of salvation in Jesus. For the Christian reader, it should communicate that, but for God’s grace in Jesus, we are no less enemies of God than those whom we regularly demonize in ISIS. Do you see?!
And, something a lot like this is happening in Isaiah 49.
You see, God had given his people, from the beginning, a great commission; Israel was to be a light and a testimony to the surrounding nations concerning God. We catch a glimpse of this when God convenes with Moses.
God says to Moses:
Keep [these commandments] and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6).
However, we need to merely stroll through the book of Judges specifically (or the Old Testament generally) to see Israel again and again fail in this calling. Israel was never the testimony they were intended to be to the pagan nations. Rather, the surrounding nations generally drew God’s people away from God—into idol worship.
In light of this, the good news message through Isaiah to the pagan nations, around the world, chastises those in Jerusalem for whom it was originally intended. They’ve failed to serve God in this way so a 2nd greater Israel must do this work—an individual, a divine Servant.
And, this 2nd greater Israel—as Isaiah’s prophecy tells us—will not be used to merely save the nations but to gather wayward Israel back to God as well (v. 5)! In other words, the pagan nations and Israel equally need this Savior.
This brings us to our final question:
3. Who’s this about (vv. 2, 4-5, 6, 7, 8-12)?
Or, who’s this mysterious 2nd individual Israel, this Servant of God?
Well, today’s passage tells us a little bit about this amazing Servant of God.
Here are some of the things we learn:
- His weaponry will not be sword or spear but his powerful word (v. 2).
- He will serve and glorify God alone and receive honor for it (vv. 4-5).
- As already mentioned, he will be a Savior for Israel and the nations (v. 6).
- He will be deeply despised by the nations in his redemptive service of God; yet, one day, rulers will bow at his feet (v. 7).
- He (his very person!) will be a covenant to the people which will introduce the glorious jubilee—an otherworldly experience of grace and restoration and celebration (vv. 8-12).
Friends, there’s but one person in human history who fits this description—Jesus of Nazareth, the Savior!
Some 700 years after this prophecy, he came to fulfill God’s salvation plan. And, Jesus did so perfectly—shining redemptive light backwards and forwards upon all those who would trust in his saving work for them.
If you are here and trusting in your own abilities to measure up before God, if you think—like Israel must have often thought—that you don’t need a savior, then friends, I would urge you to consider what Isaiah was saying to all his peers, and to us, we all need this Savior.
Trust that God, in Jesus, offers you gracious and unending and perfect peace. Through faith in Jesus, God eternally offers Jesus’ perfect righteousness to you. When you trust in Jesus, God forever takes your sins and nails them to the cross. By believing in Jesus, you are evermore justified and loved by God!
Finally, allow me to end in somewhat the same place as I began.
If you’re a follower of Jesus, if you’ve trusted in Jesus for your salvation, then this prophecy in Isaiah should really challenge you as it did the Israelites. They looked at the surrounding nations as their enemies and, thus, God’s enemies. But their logic was flawed and (many times) so too is ours!
Christians have a commission from God to go to the nations with the gospel. God’s mission has always been the same—to take all those who are his enemies and to reconcile them to himself through the saving work of his Servant, Jesus. Isaiah’s prophecy should consequently remind us that God is pleased to make those whom we (as Christians) consider our enemies his friends in the same way that he, in Jesus, transformed us from his enemies to his friends.