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Isaiah 66 and the Conversion of the Gentiles

by Brant Pitre November 20, 2020 0 Comments

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Perhaps the most famous example of this is the book of Isaiah...Isaiah 66. I’ll just read one passage. Again, this isn’t in the lectionary for today, but it might be the most famous example of what we might call “a prophecy of the conversion of the gentiles”...a prophecy of the conversion of the nations. So if you think about it, Isaiah is one of the most famous books of the Old Testament.

For example, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s, one of the only complete scrolls that we have, one of the first to be discovered, was the great Isaiah scrollthis massive 35-foot scroll (it might be 30-foot, I can’t remember the exact measurements)—but it’s a long scroll containing all 66 chapters of Isaiah. And at the very end of this sacred scroll of one of the great prophets of the Old Testament, this is what we read in Isaiah 66:18 and following:

...I know their works and their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations...

...and the Hebrew word there is goyim. It means the Gentiles.

...all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations...

There it is again, the Gentiles. Tarshish, Put, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they...

...meaning the nations...

...shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.

Now, it’s hard for me to capture in words just how shocking that prophecy of Isaiah is, because he’s not just describing the conversion of the Gentiles or the subjugation of the Gentiles—like Israel will conquer the pagans and they will lord it over them. He’s describing there that the Gentiles will not just turn to the one God of Israel. They’ll see His glory, but He will take some of them to be priests and Levites. The idea that pagans would one day become priests of the one God of Israel is almost inconceivable...but that’s how the book of Isaiah ends.

Alright, so again, if you’re a first century Jew, and you’re living under the Roman occupation, you know from Scripture that one day the Gentiles are going to turn to the Lord. But to see it actually happen, to see that take place, would be something that would be almost inconceivable. And it’s seems like it would be impossible given the current political climate, the current religious climate and all that.

And yet, what happens? Saul of Tarsus, this devout Pharisee, has an encounter with the risen Jesus in which he is called by Jesus through a revelation, as it says here in Ephesians, an apocalypsis—an unveiling of the risen Christ—to become the apostle to the ethnē, the apostle to the Gentiles, the one who’s going to bring the Good News of the fact that salvation has now come not just to Israel, but to every nation in the world...and that Israel and the Gentiles will now be united in one church, the Church of Christ Jesus, the Church of the Messiah.

That is the mystery, which for centuries has been hidden. It just wasn’t visible. It didn’t seem like it was even possible. But now through the coming of Jesus, it has been made known. It has been revealed. It has been unveiled. It has been unseen. And so Paul—in the letter to the Ephesians here—is talking about the revelation that Christ has given to him, that now the Gentiles are co-heirs with Israelites to all the promises of God.

The Church, on this feast of Epiphany, celebrates one of the first manifestations of that, and it’s the coming of the Wise Men to the child Jesus in Bethlehem...because these Wise Men represent the wise among the pagans. In fact, the pagans are going to begin to turn and to see the light that the baby Jesus brings into the world, that the Christ Child brings into the world.

And so I’ll close here with a quote from the living tradition. This is something most Christians in our day—we just take it for granted. Well, of course there are billions of people throughout the world from every continent on the Earth and from every country on the Earth who worshipped Jesus of Nazareth...and with Him, the one God of Israel. But in the first century, that was something that was almost inconceivable. I mean, yes, the prophets said it, but it’s one thing to have a prophecy. It’s another thing to see the prophecy fulfilled.

But what happens? Jesus of Nazareth comes into the world, begins to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, is crucified, dies, is buried, and on the third day rises again. And He chooses the twelve apostles and sends them out to the four corners of the Earth to go and baptize the nations of the world, teaching them everything He had commanded them. And so what happens? These twelve guys go out to the world—and Paul gets added to the mix too—and they start preaching the Good News of repentance and salvation for the nations. And one by one, city after city, temple after temple, the pagans put down their idols, and they do exactly what Isaiah said. They turn to the one God of Israel and stop worshipping the creatures of the world and worshipping false gods and false goddesses...and worship the Creator and His Son, Jesus Christ.

And so in the early centuries of the Church, the conversion of the pagans was one of the motives of credibility for believing that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t just one more guy claiming to be someone. He wasn’t just one more self-proclaimed prophet or one more self-proclaimed messiah. But unlike other figures who rose up in the first century and claimed to be the prophet or the new Moses—unlike these other ones, Jesus actually brought the prophecies to fulfillment. Because when was it that the pagans of the world began to put aside their idols and begin to worship the one God of Israel? It was after the death and the resurrection and the commissioning of the apostles of Jesus of Nazareth.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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