Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” (Isaiah 49:1-3)
Messiah, God’s chosen servant, is representative of the whole of God’s chosen nation, Israel. He is the righteous Jew, the faithful Israelite. In a very real way, he is Israel, and so assumes the role Israel was intended to play in the plan of God: to bear the light of God’s glory to the nations. Israel had failed disastrously in that role, which is why Messiah was needed in the first place, to come and deliver her.
Where Israel had failed, however, Messiah would succeed. God would display his splendor through him, yet not without difficulty. For Messiah says, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God” (Isaiah 49:4).
In the Gospel, John speaks of the Word, Jesus, through whom the whole world was made, and says, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:10-11). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
From this it might seem that the mission of Messiah would be largely ineffective — he was rejected by many of his own people. Did Messiah labor in vain? No, because that is not the whole story, not even of this prophecy in Isaiah 49. Messiah leaves it in the hands of the Lord, and the Lord has a plan that is more encompassing than initial conditions might have suggested.
And now the LORD says — he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength — he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." (Isaiah 49:5-6)It was not enough just to gather in and restore Israel — too small a thing for what God desired to do. God’s plan through Messiah was to give light to all the nations and reach the whole world with salvation. This was God’s promise to Abraham from the beginning: “All peoples will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).
So in the Gospel, John says, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11-12). And in the Sermon on the Mount, though Jesus said that few would find the path to life, he was speaking of the Jews at that time, who within a generation would be facing the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. But in the very next chapter he says, “Many will come from the east and the west [the nations], and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). The book of Matthew ends with Jesus sending his disciples to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20).
In Romans 11, Paul speaks of Israel’s blindness in rejecting Messiah. Yet it is not a permanent blindness nor a permanent rejection. “Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles [the nations] to make Israel envious” (Romans 11:11). Gentiles who turn to Messiah are “grafted in” to Israel, to be included in God’s promise. The end result: “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26). Jews and Gentiles, counted together as Israel, come finally to salvation through faith in Jesus the Messiah. Yet Paul has even more to say about the reach of God’s saving purpose, which knows no limits.
- In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to bring to unity all things in heaven and on earth under Christ" (Ephesians 1:7-10).
- For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
- God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:19)
- Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
- When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:28)