It’s not hard to understand the confusion of Jews, both in Yeshua’s time and long after, over how the all-too-often hostile Gentiles fit (if at all) into God’s plan. This is because there are not just one, but rather two consistent yet seemingly contradictory threads in Biblical prophecy. On the one hand, the prophets decreed that the wrath of God would be upon “all nations” in the day when He revealed His justice, the “Day of the Lord.”1 On the other hand, there is a significant minority of prophecies that decree that the Holy One would pour out His blessings on the whole world, many of them again specifically stating that the blessing would be upon “all nations.”2 These latter prophecies were doubtless easy for most 1st Century Jews—having been subjected to numerous waves of Gentile conquest and humiliation over the previous six centuries—to de-emphasize and overlook, but they were always there. We know now through the wonders of 20/20 hindsight that both threads will be fulfilled through a righteous remnant of “out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages” (Rev. 7:9) to whom the blessings will be bestowed. The wrath of God will still be poured out on the majority of humanity, the unrepentant.
The second prophetic thread was the one cited by the Jerusalem council as they struggled with the issue of how to integrate the Gentiles into the ranks of Yeshua’s followers, Amos 9:11-12 (cited in Acts 15:16-18):
In that day I will raise up the tent of David who is fallen, and close up its breaches, and I will raise up its ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom,3 and all the nations who are called by my name,” says the LORD who does this.
The “tent of David” is the Davidic monarchy, which had fallen but was not destroyed, and which like a fallen tent could be set up again. If the fallen monarch would be raised up so that the Son of David could possess the nations who are called by the name of the Lord, then there must be a remnant of Gentile mankind that is called by the name of the Lord.
This was the realization that the entire Acts 15 council’s decision hinged on, recognizing that not only had the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob generously opened his hand to allow Gentiles to be saved and even receive his Spirit (as in 11:18), but that he had actually made it the prerequisite for Israel’s restoration. The Gentile mission, which had previously been taken on only tentatively by a handful of individuals—Philip (if one counts the Samaritans as Gentiles), Peter, Paul, and Barnabas—suddenly took on a very personal importance. When Jacob and the elders rejoiced at the success of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles (21:20) they praised God not only for the souls turning to him, but also that he was blessing the mission that must be completed before Israel could be reunited with her King.
This prerequisite was given again in Isa. 11:10-12:
It will happen in that day that the nations will seek the Root of Jesse (a Messianic title; cf. vv. 1-2), who stands as a banner of the peoples; and his resting place will be glorious. It will happen in that day that the Lord will set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. He will set up a banner for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth
Isaiah, Amos, and the other prophets consistently proclaimed that the Holy One would save a remnant of the nations before he restored Israel to her former covenant relationship. The realization of this truth must have been one of the few things that sustained the Apostles’ and other Jewish disciples’ resolve as they saw many Jews reject the truth of Yeshua precisely because they saw his followers embracing the Gentiles (see Acts 13:43-45 and Rom. 11:28). When Paul says that “by their [the Jews’] transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:11) and that some of the natural, Jewish branches of the olive tree of Israel were broken off so that the Gentiles could be grafted in, he isn’t referring to simply a prophesied falling away. He is literally saying that it was because the word of Yeshua was being embraced by the Gentiles that so many Jews were rejecting it!
But even though their countrymen would slander Yeshua’s disciples, considering them traitors to Judaism and the Jewish people, they knew themselves to be on a holy mission to save Israel and bring in the promised ‘Olam Haba, the Age to Come, in which Israel would no longer be the tail of all nations, but their head. For this mission, they traveled far beyond the Roman and Parthian worlds where most of the Jewish colonies were and carried the word into the greater world. Eleven out of the original twelve died under torture, never wavering or recanting their testimony.
Not only did the Apostles see this mission as a necessary prerequisite to the restoration of Messiah to Israel, they saw it as the very purpose for which Israel had been created in the first place. When the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch turned against the Gospel because of jealousy over the numbers of Gentiles appearing, Paul and Barnabas responded, “It was necessary that God’s word should be spoken to you first. Since indeed you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so has the Lord commanded us, saying,‘I have set you as a light for the Gentiles, that you should bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth’” (Acts 13:46-47). The quote comes from Isaiah 49:6, which sits in the center of a series of prophecies that we might call “the Gospel According to Isaiah” (chapters 40-66). Throughout this section, the prophet repeatedly speaks words of comfort and good news to Israel, starting from the very first verses:
Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak comfortably to Jerusalem; and call out to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.”
The voice of one who calls out,
“Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness!
Make a level highway in the desert for our God. (40:1-3)
You who tell good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.
You who tell good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength.
Lift it up. Don’t be afraid.
Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold, your God!”
Behold, the Lord GOD will come as a mighty one,
and his arm will rule for him.
Behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will gather the lambs in his arm,
and carry them in his bosom.
He will gently lead those who have their young. (40:9-11)
This section not only speaks of the glorification of Israel in the World to Come, but also prophesies the successful completion of her ultimate mission, the redemption of the whole world:
Listen, islands, to me; and listen, you peoples, from far: the LORD has called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother has he made mention of my name: and he has made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand, he has hidden me: and he has made me a polished shaft; in his quiver has he kept me close: and he said to me, “You are my servant; Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely the justice due to me is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”
Now says the LORD who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, and that Israel be gathered to him (for I am honorable in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength); yes, he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give you for a light to the nations, that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth.” (49:1-6)
Isaiah’s prophecy requires careful interpretation. On the one hand, Isaiah seems to be clear that the Servant spoken of is Israel (41:8, 49:3)–but yet it is said that this Servant would redeem Jacob and regather Israel (v. 5), which would mean that he must be separate from Israel. Christian commentators, largely working backwards from chapter 53, a prophecy of the Messiah’s sufferings4, usually are content to simply claim that the Servant throughout the section is Yeshua. However, as we’ve already seen, Paul and Barnabas quoted this passage in regards to their own mission. In addition, in some places Isaiah refers to the Servant as being blind and deaf (42:19, 48:8, cf. 6:10), or refers to Israel’s idolatry (41:28ff) and other sins (42:24, 43:24), and yet says that the Servant would be crushed and slain, but not because he had committed any sin of his own (53:9), but to pay the price for the sins of others. How do we reconcile these two threads of prophecy?
As it turns out, Matthew gives us the key. In relating how Mary and Joseph took the child Yeshua to Egypt to escape Herod, Matthew (2:15) quotes Hosea 11:1 as a prophecy of this event, “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” However, even a quick glance at Hosea’s prophecy in context makes one wonder what Matthew was thinking: “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. They called to them, so they went from them. They sacrificed to the Baals, and burned incense to engraved images.” How could this be a prophecy of the Messiah, the Righteous One?
In actuality, Matthew is making a very specific point: As with the nation, so with the King. Just as the infant nation of Israel (numbering just 70 individuals) fled to Egypt for safety, so Israel’s King did the same. But where Israel came out bearing the idols of Egypt (Jos. 24:14), Yeshua came out pure and unsullied. Or for another example, where Israel was tested in the wilderness for forty years and failed over and over again, Israel’s King was tested in the wilderness for forty days, never once falling into sin. In every way, Yeshua identified himself totally with his people, even letting himself be “numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). This is why Yeshua insisted on being ritually immersed under John the Immerser, though John’s immersion was very specifically called an “immersion of repentance” (Mark 1:4). Yeshua had no sin of his own to repent of, but as Israel’s rightful King, he repented on behalf of the nation.
In the same way, when Isaiah seems to be prophesying two different servants, but with little to no transition to help us figure out which is which, it isn’t because he’s being intentionally obtuse. Rather, he is indeed referring to Israel as the servant of the Holy One, but with her ultimate purpose only realized through her Righteous King. In turn, Yeshua’s purpose in bringing salvation to the Gentiles is realized through his servants, the remnant of Israel that followed him faithfully in bringing his Good News to the world. There is not a Gentile alive today who has been saved by any god other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and there is not a Gentile alive who has any knowledge of that God but that which was delivered to him or her through Jewish prophets and Jewish apostles.
We find this theme of the salvation of the Gentiles throughout the book of Psalms as well:
- 2:8 – the Gentiles will be given to the Messiah as an inheritance (contrast Psa. 79:1)
- 18:43 – “You have delivered me from the contentions of the people; You have placed me as the head of the nations.”
- 22:27 – “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will worship before You.”
- 67:1-2 – “God be gracous to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us (cf. Num. 6:22ff), that Your way may be known on the earth, Your Salvation among all nations.”
- 72:17 – “Let all nations call him (Messiah) blessed.”
Chapter 117 is particularly interesting. It is both the shortest chapter of the Bible and (when the books are arranged in standard Christian order) the middle chapter of the Bible.
Praise the LORD, all you nations!
Extol him, all you peoples!
For his loving kindness is great toward us.
The LORD’s faithfulness endures forever.
Praise the LORD!
While it is true that the Gentile Christian Church has ultimately been the avenue through which most of the world has been reached by the Gospel, this does not mean that Israel failed in her mission. On the contrary, there is not a Christian in the world who came to know the true God and his Messiah except through Jewish writings delivered by Jewish Apostles who carried out their mission in obedience to a Jewish King.
1Psa. 59:5ff; Isa. 14:26, 29:7ff, 34:2; Jer. 25:15ff, 30:11, 46:28; Ezk. 39:21; Joel 3:2; Oba. 15ff; Zec. 12:3-9, 14:2
2Psa. 67:2, 72:11 & 17, 86:9, 117; Isa. 2:2, 52:10, 61:1, 66:18; Jer. 3:17; Hag. 2:7, Amos 9:12
3In the Masoretic Text, the addition of a vav (ו) renders “Man” (Adam, אדם) as “Edom” (אדום). However, the Septuagint, which the quotation in Acts 15:17 follows, renders the term ἀνθρώπων (mankind). Only one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Wadi Murabba’at/MurXII Amos) contains the relevant verse, rendering the word as “Edom.” Therefore I cannot prove it, but I suspect that some of the ancient MSS of Amos, which the translators of the LXX had in their possession, lacked the vav, which may have been added later to clarify the vowels in the same manner as the later Masoretic dagesh (vowel) markings.
4 Jewish commentators, on the other hand, largely reject the notion that Isaiah 53 refers to a singular Messiah and see in it instead a prophecy of the sufferings of the Jewish people. It is not our intention to write an apologetic work, so for now we will simply note that the most ancient commentaries of our rabbis, such as the Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 98b) and the Midrash (Ruth Midrash Rabba 5:6), are universal in seeing the sufferings of the Messiah in this passage.