God’s Global Mission in the Story of the Bible & Paul’s Usage of Isaiah in Romans

In today’s sermon, I referenced a paper I was working on about Paul’s usage of Isaiah in the book of Romans. Several have asked to see that paper so I have provided an excerpt here for those who may be edified by it. The post that follows is longer than my normal posts and is more academic, but this is due to its originally intended purpose as an academic paper. I pray the content will edify you, but more than that I pray you will be caught up in the big story of God and his global mission.

The Bible is one big story that begins with, “In the beginning God” (Gen 1:1) and ends with, “Come, Lord Jesus… Amen” (Rev 22:20–21). The New Testament authors understood themselves to be a part of a redemptive historical progression carried along by the sovereignty of God. T.D. Alexander likens redemptive history to that of a canvas upon which a master painter applies brushstrokes.[1] As more paint is added, the picture emerges with greater clarity. God is the master painter. He is the divine author. He not only knows the end from the beginning, but he providentially brings the end to completion. G.K. Beale argues for the hermeneutical and theological presupposition that history is unified by a wise and sovereign plan so that earlier parts are designed to correspond and point to the latter parts.[2] The New Testament authors quote the Old Testament knowing that the age of eschatological fulfillment has come, and that Jesus is the key to interpreting the early portions of the Old Testament.[3]

The thesis of this article is that Paul quotes Isaiah in Romans believing that his mission to the nations was a continuation of God’s mission to the nations described in Isaiah. Paul believed himself to be a part of a larger story and the contemporary church should likewise read the Bible with Paul’s perspective. Argument for this thesis will be made through the following steps. God’s mission in larger biblical theological context will demonstrate Paul’s own understanding of the larger story. The theme of God’s mission in Isaiah will be traced. Isaiah 52:15 will be briefly exegeted and Paul’s usage of Isaiah 52:15 in Romans 15:21 will be explained in the context of Romans. Placing the Bible and our very lives into the context of God overarching story is essential not only for understanding the Bible’s message, but for participating in it.

It [the Bible] is essentially a story that claims to be the story, the true story of both the cosmos and of human life with the cosmos

Leslie Newbigin

God’s Global Mission in the Story of the Bible

In the beginning God created humanity with purpose. Mankind was created in God’s image and was commissioned to carry the reflection of that image to every corner of the earth. They were to, “multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:27–28). They were to extend the rule of God as his kingdom representatives. Hans Water Wolff explains, “In the ancient East the setting up of the king’s statue was the equivalent to the proclamation of his domination over the sphere in which the statue was erected (cf. Dan 3:1, 5) … Accordingly, man is set in the midst of creation as God’s statue. He is evidence that God is the Lord of creation.”[5] John Frame comments, “At the deepest level, man’s labor has the goal of bringing praise and glory to God.”[6]

By Genesis 3 the image of God in humanity is marred by sin. Rather than representing God’s rule, Adam and Eve rebelled against it. Genesis 1-11 tell of the downward spiral of humanity’s corruption. Every intention of the thoughts of man’s heart was only evil continually (Gen 6:5). In Genesis 11, the people pursued the opposite of God’s expressed purpose. They were seeking to make a name for themselves and were determined not to disperse over the face of the whole earth (Gen 11:4). God confused human language and thus forcibly scattered humanity. What seems like the dark workings of judgment turns out to “people the earth” according to God’s original commission.[7]

Though Genesis 11 ends with judgment, Genesis 12 begins with hope for the scattered nations. God is going to establish a nation through which blessing would extend to, “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:1–3). God’s promise to Abraham marks a turning point in the biblical story. N.T. Wright explains,

“Abraham emerges within the structure of Genesis as the answer to the plight of all humankind. The line of disaster and of the ‘curse’, from Adam, through Cain, through the Flood to Babel, begins to be reversed.”[8]

NT Wright

The Bible follows the family line of Abraham as his offspring become the nation of Israel. The whole narrative follows the salvation, fall, and promise of redemption for Israel which will be accomplished through a messianic king later promised to David (2 Sam 7:12–17). Through Israel and from the line of David, the Savior King would come, but the blessing to come is not only for Israel. Piper argues,

“What we may conclude from the wording of Genesis 12:3 and its use in the New Testament is that God’s purpose for the world is that the blessing of Abraham, namely, the salvation achieved through Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham, would reach to all the ethnic people groups of the world.”[9]

John Piper

The New Testament begins by identifying Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Jesus is the son of Abraham and son of David (Mt 1:1). He is the blessing to all the families of the earth (Acts 3:25–26; Gal 3:14), and the Messiah King (Lk 1:31–33). Adam and Eve failed to reflect the image of God. Israel failed to reflect the image of God. But Jesus came and reflected the image of God perfectly (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3). When he was tempted in the wilderness, he overcame the tempter with the word of God (Mt 4:1–11). He did what Adam and Israel could not do and he took upon himself the curse of death.

Now Jesus re-establishes God’s mission to reflect his image to the ends of the earth. Firstly, through faith in Jesus, not only is the penalty of death paid, but God’s image is being renewed in people of faith (Col 3:10). These people are Greek, Jewish, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free and more (Col 3:11). These renewed people are commissioned to make disciples of all nations. Jesus’ commission in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”, re-establishes God’s initial commission, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). God’s glory will spread through those who are his witnesses to, “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). At Pentecost, the effects of Babel are symbolically reversed as all present hear the gospel message in their own language (Acts 2:5–11). Luke then highlights God’s salvation and Spirit empowerment of the Samaritans (Acts 8), as well as the Gentiles (Acts 10). Acts 28 ends with Paul proclaiming the kingdom of God as if the next chapter of kingdom expansion is yet to be written. The mission of God through his people will continue until consummation. The end of the story is the completion of blessing to all nations being ushered into the presence of God fully and finally. John the Apostle provides a sneak peak in Revelation 7:9,

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!      

God’s Global Mission in Isaiah

In Romans 15, Paul describes the ministry of the gospel of Christ (Rom 15:19–20). He explains that his ambition is to preach the gospel where Christ had not yet been named. To support this missional emphasis, Paul quotes Isaiah 52:15, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” Did Paul quote this simply because the verbiage suited his argument or does Paul believe he is pursuing the same mission that Isaiah articulated?  We turn first to God’s global mission in Isaiah.  

According to Tom Schreiner, “Trying to sum up the theology of Isaiah is like trying to describe a magnificent snow leopard to someone who has never seen one. The breadth and depth and beauty of Isaiah exceed our capacity to grasp.”[10]  Abernathy comments, “The abundant quotations, allusions, and echoes from and to Isaiah in the NT demonstrate how vital Isaiah was for the church in their conceptualization of how the kingdom of God had come and will come in Christ.”[11] Recognizing the significance of Isaiah’s message for the message of Christianity, New Testament authors quote from Isaiah eighty-five times.

According to Isaiah, Israel was created for his glory (Is 43:7). They were to be God’s children whom he reared and brought up to reflect his image, but they rebelled against God (Is 1:2). Chapters 1-35 predominantly emphasize Judah’s failure to fulfil their God-given mission and the judgment to come.[12] From the beginning, Judah is called a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity (Is 1:4). They are likened to Sodom and Gomorrah (Is 1:10). The faithful city had become a whore (Is 1:21) and God promised, “I will turn my hand against you” (Is 1:25). But judgment was not going to be the final word.

The future global mission of God through his people is highlighted as early as Isaiah chapter 2,

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Is 2:2–3).

The latter days will be marked by people from all nations flowing to worship and obey YHWH. When Isaiah beholds God sitting upon his throne, the angels repeatedly exclaim the mission of God, “The whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:3). Despite Israel’s failures, God was going to send forth his righteous branch from the stump of Jesse, a son of David. Messiah was coming and he would stand as a signal for the peoples, “Of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious (Is 11:10). Even Egyptians and Assyrians will be included in the salvation to come (19:18–25). In reference to 19:18–25, Goldingay comments, “Blessing all peoples had always been Yahweh’s purpose. Verses 19–25 simply give contextual expression to the reality of this. That the words my people, my handiwork, my inheritance should be attached to Egypt and Assyria and not just to Israel is breathtaking.”[13]

Though these promises are sprinkled throughout chapters 1-35, they fill chapters 40-66. The people of God are commanded, “Go up on a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God’” (Is 40:9). The good news is deliverance from Babylonian captivity, but it is clearly more than that. In Isaiah 52, Isaiah celebrates the one who, “Brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.” The good news is articulated clearly in Isaiah 52:10, “All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” This salvation would not only be seen by foreigners, but experienced, “Foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants” (Is 56:6). The final chapter of Isaiah ends with this future vision of God’s mission completed, “The time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory” (Is 66:18). God promises, “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me…, so shall your offspring and your name remain… all flesh shall come to worship before me” (Is 66:22-23). John Oswalt notes, “The reminiscence of the thought of 2:1-5 is such that it can hardly be accidental: the symphony is ending as it began. A trusting, redeemed servant Israel becomes the messenger with clean lips through whom the world can find its Savior.”[14] God’s mission in Isaiah is clearly one of global salvation for all nations.

Isaiah 52:15 and God’s Servant

Having surveyed the theme of God’s global mission in Isaiah, we now turn our attention to one verse in its more immediate context. Isaiah 52:15 reads, “So shall he sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him, for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” Oswalt argues that the basic thrust of this verse is clear, “The nations will be shocked to speechlessness by what they see in God’s Servant.”[15] But who is God’s servant? What do the nations see? How will they see and how will they understand?

The servant of the Lord is a major theme in Isaiah chapters 44–66 and the servant’s identity is the topic of much debate. Isaiah 41:8-9 calls Israel God’s servant. This title comes with promise of God’s help despite Israel’s previous blindness (Is 42:19) and failures (Is 43:20-25). God is going to bless his servant once again and bring them back from exile (Is 44:1-9). He is going to use them mightily to, “bring forth justice to the nations” (Is 42:4). The servant language is not, however, unique to Israel in the Old Testament. Moses is called God’s servant (Ex 14:31; Num 12:7; Deut 34:5; Josh 1:1). Joshua is called God’s servant (Josh 24:9; Jud 2:8). King David is called God’s servant (2 Sam 7:5–8; 1 Kings 8:66; 11:36; 2 Kings 19:34; 2 Chron 17:4). God’s pattern of redemptive action was to carry out his plan through his servants. Isaiah 52–53, however, demonstrate that the servant cannot be identified fully with present or past servants, but with a future servant. Isaiah connects God’s use of his servants from the past to the Messiah King of the future.[16]

The servant is described in terms that no servant from past could embody. The servant would be someone who would be exalted despite being “marred, beyond human semblance” (Is 52:13–14). The servant is described as bearing the griefs and carrying the sorrows for Israel (Is 53:4). This servant would be rejected by men, smitten by God, pierced for the people’s transgressions, and crushed for their iniquities so that they would be healed by his wounds (Is 53:3–5). This servant must be someone more than Israel if he is to be the atonement for Israel. Isaiah 52:15 says that this servant would “sprinkle many nations.” This sprinkling would cause the kings to shut their mouths and it would bring understanding they previously lacked. The Hebrew word for sprinkle is frequently used in Leviticus to describe ritualistic sprinkling of blood for atonement (Lev 4:6; 5:9; 8:11, 30; 13:7; 16:14, 19). This allusion to ritualistic cleansing is then coupled with substitutionary atonement language to follow in Isaiah 53.[17]  It appears that the sprinkling is a cleansing ritual accomplished by the exalted servant, but instead of sprinkling an altar, the servant sprinkles the nations. Moyter argues,

The towering genius of Isaiah was displayed in that he saw so clearly that in its truest sense substitution needs a person to take the place of people. Animal sacrifice can illustrate the principle, but only one who voluntarily accepts the role (53:7) and voluntarily pours out himself (53:12) – that is to say, provides a will to take the place of the sinful will (cf. Heb. 10 5–9 ) – can achieve by a true substitution the full, indeed final, salvation of those for whom he dies.[18]

Alec Motyer

The apostles read Isaiah 52 and 53 and they saw the sprinkled atoning blood of the person and work of Jesus. Peter writes, “By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pt 2:24).  It was through the substitutionary humiliation and the exaltation of God’s servant that kings would shut their mouths, see clearly, and understand more fully. Even if the original audience and the original author could not have conceived of Jesus, God in the flesh, coming to live a perfect life, die a substitutionary death, and rise again on the third day; it cannot be denied in retrospect that this servant perfectly foreshadows the full manifestation of Jesus the Messiah. Isaiah understood at the very least that God’s global mission would be carried out through the witness of his suffering servant who had not yet come. Whether Isaiah consciously intended for Isaiah 52 and 53 to be fulfilled so clearly in the death of God’s incarnate Son does not change the intentions of the divine author sovereignly inspiring the Scripture to point to Jesus.

God’s Global Mission in Romans

Paul introduces himself in the beginning of his letter to the Romans as, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Rom 1:1–2). He believed himself to be a part of a story that was bigger than himself. This story was about God’s good news he was now set apart to proclaim. This good news would be, “For the sake of his name among all the nations” (Rom 1:5). This global good news included both Jew and Gentile (Rom 1:16; 9:24–26; 10:12). Jesus had come and all who call on him will be saved (Rom 10:13).

Paul asks an important question in Romans 10:14, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” The questions are rhetorical. They demand a negative answer and a positive response. Those who have never heard will not be able to believe, thus God’s people have a responsibility to go and tell. Here, Paul draws from the global mission of God in Isaiah, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news” (Rom 10:15). This section of Romans is hermeneutical: the basis of the apostolic mission lies in Scriptures itself and specifically in God’s ways with his people in the past.[19] Mark Seifrid notes, “He [Paul] uses the text typologically, finding in it a pattern of the eschatological work of God.” This global mission of God finds representation all the way into the final doxology of Romans,

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen (Rom 15:25–27).

The final doxology confirms several hermeneutical assumptions for the New Testament’s usage of the Old Testament. Paul believes that Jesus is the hermeneutical key for understanding the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages. This mystery has been made known for the good of all nations and the unfolding of history will reveal the wisdom and glory of God through Jesus Christ. Paul’s doxology is in line with Beale’s redemptive-historical method of reading the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. Beale writes,

“The concept of prophetic fulfillment must not be limited to fulfillment of direct verbal prophecies in the Old Testament but broadened to include also an indication of the ‘redemptive-historical relationship of the new, climactic revelation of God in Christ to the preparatory, incomplete revelation to and through Israel.”[20]

G.K. Beale

Though I believe Isaiah intended to describe the suffering servant in messianic terms, it is possible that some of Isaiah’s writings were even somewhat mysterious to him, but through Christ, they are now disclosed. Paul believed his gospel ministry to the nations was carrying out something that began long ago.

Romans 15:20-21

In Romans 15:19, Paul makes an odd claim, “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” Later he claims, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions” (Rom 15:23), and he requests aid for his travel to Spain (Rom 15:24). This does not mean that the gospel was proclaimed to every individual, but that churches had been planted who could confess Christ in those regions.[21] He clarifies his ambition in verse 20, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation.” Seifrid notes that Paul, “Conceives of the individual churches as instantiations of the temple of God; he thus will not build on the foundation that another has laid (cf. 2 Cor 10:12–18).”[22]  

Paul grounds his ambition in Isaiah 52:15. Seifrid argues, “The larger thematic complex of the promise of salvation for the nations that the Lord has made (e.g., Is 44:24; 45:12, 18), clearly informs Paul’s thought.”[23] The nations will be sprinkled. They will be covered by atoning blood, but only through faith in the humiliated and exalted Christ. Kings will shut their mouths because of this Christ. They will see what they had not previously been told and they will understand what they had not previously heard. God is getting his message of salvation out to those who have never heard, and he aims to use heralds of good news. Paul sees himself as one of those heralds publishing salvation to the ends of the earth (Is 52:7, 10). He understood this to be the intention of God until the consummation of all things. John Piper says it well, “The Old Testament conception of God’s worldwide purpose gives Paul his vision as a pioneer missionary. He is driven by a prophetic vision of hope… He was gripped by the Old Testament purpose of God to bless all the nations of the earth.”[24] All of this is consistent with Jesus’ commission, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all of Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

[1] T.D. Alexander, The Servant King: The Bible’s Portrait of the Messiah (Vancouver, British Columbia: Regent College Publishing, 2003), 11.

[2] G.K. Beale, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 392.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Michael W. Goheen, The Church and Its Vocation : Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 18.

[5] Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), 160–161.

[6] John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 787.

[7] Briggs, A Theological Introduction to the Pentateuch: Interpreting the Torah As Christian Scripture, ed. Richard Briggs and Joel N. Lohr (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 48.

[8] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 262.

[9] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 191.

[10] Thomas Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 327.

[11] Andrew Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (Westmont: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 4.

[12] Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, 327.

[13] John Goldingay, Isaiah, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), 188.

[14] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 11.

[15] Ibid., 379.

[16] Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, 343.

[17] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 398.

[18] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 31.

[19] G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 660.

[20] Beale, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, 396.

[21] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 744.

[22] G.K. Beale and Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 691.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad, 203.

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