The Gospel of Mark is introduced with the following words:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. (Mark 1:1-3)
When we read these words we generally understand that Mark is referring to Isaiah 40:3 as a prophecy that spoke of John the Baptist. This is true, of course, but the use of this passage at the beginning of Mark’s gospel is so much more profound than that! Mark was in fact tapping in to the deepest desires of the Jewish people at the time. The whole nation in the generations leading up to Jesus had been waiting expectantly for the Lord’s deliverance, and for the glorious fulfillment of their prophetic Scriptures. They realized that Isaiah 40 was the very beginning of a long passage in Isaiah, from chapters 40 to 55, that spoke specifically of this deliverance. So while we may think of this passage as referring primarily to John the Baptist, its first readers would have recognized it as an allusion to something much greater and deeper.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord…”
If we shift from the Gospel of Mark to the book of Acts we find that the early church first viewed itself as a sect of Judaism calling itself “The Way.” Truthfully, the early Church was not merely a “sect” because they actually viewed themselves as the true remnant of Israel who had embraced the One sent by God to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah 40-55. Their view was that Jesus was the “Servant of the Lord” whose way had been prepared by John the Baptist to lead the true remnant of Israel out of exile and on to its ultimate Promised Land that is identified in the letters of Paul, in the book of Hebrews, and in Revelation as the “heavenly” or “New Jerusalem.”
Yes, I’m still talking about the New Exodus! This was the apocalyptic expectation that colored the worldview of the Jewish people who lived at the time of Jesus. It is true that a remnant had physically “come out of Babylon” after the 70 years of captivity spoken of by Jeremiah, but all of the other blessings predicted by the prophets to follow this “return from exile” had been delayed. Things in Israel were a mess! The prophet Malachi preached about this and explained why God’s promises were not fulfilled after the partial physical return from Babylonian exile. He castigated the people of Israel for their continued corruption, idolatry, and wholesale rebellion against God, even as they carried on the outward show of religious rituals in their rebuilt Temple (which was, by the way, never re-inhabited by the Shekinah Glory of God, and never included the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat, which were both necessary to properly fulfill the Day of Atonement ceremony according to Leviticus 16).
But truthfully the nation of Israel never did “come out of Babylon.” In fact they simply brought “Babylon” back to the promised land with them when they returned! So the nation of Israel continued to wait for the great “return from exile” predicted in Isaiah 40-55 and in Ezekiel, Jeremiah and in the minor prophets as well. Who would lead them out of this exile? Who would gather the dispersed twelve tribes out from the four corners of the earth? Who would overthrow the corrupt Gentile powers that dominated Israel, first Greece and the empires that followed, and then Rome? Who would rise up with an anointing from God, to teach the Romans a lesson, and establish Israel as the foremost nation on earth with her Davidic king as the ruler of the world!?
These are all things that Isaiah talked about. He was the prophet largely responsible for shaping the first century Jewish worldview, and when the Gospel of Mark quotes from the first few sentences of Isaiah 40 he is purposely tapping into this worldview and predicting that his Gospel, his “Good News,” is in fact the answer to this widespread apocalyptic messianic expectation!
Within Isaiah 40-55 there are five “Servant of the Lord” passages that speak of a “Servant” who is first identified as the nation of Israel and then gradually redefined as a specific individual who would suffer and die on behalf of Israel’s sins. You can view these passages together in a single pdf file here: Isaiah’s Five “Servant of the Lord” Passages
Just as Moses was the pre-eminent “Servant of the Lord” for the old exodus of the Old Covenant, Jesus is the pre-eminent “Servant of the Lord” for Isaiah’s New Exodus that is a theme at the very heart of the New Covenant. Yes, Jesus fulfilled the role prophesied by Isaiah of a figure who would gather and lead the faithful remnant of Israel out from their bondage in “Babylon” from the four corners of the earth to its final destination of (the New) Jerusalem.
Isaiah predicted that a remnant of Israel would be saved even as the majority of Israel would despise (49:7, 53:3) and reject the “Servant,” even to the point of killing Him (53:10). Yet His death would be the redemption of the righteous remnant, which would also grow to include peoples from all the nations of the world! Yes, Isaiah predicted that Gentiles would enter in and become a part of God’s holy nation of Israel — the renewed Israel gathered up from the four corners of the earth. This was a point that I established in my previous post. After the appearance of Isaiah’s “Servant of the Lord” the righteous remnant of Israel became newly defined solely by their living faith in the Messiah Jesus. This is why Paul refers to all who believe in Jesus, faithful Jews and Gentiles collectively, as the true “Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16.
The early Church had nothing even close to the widespread modern dispensational belief that “the Church” was a unique entity that was separate and apart from the believing Jewish remnant that was the foundation of the Church. The early Church viewed itself as followers of “The Way” that was predicted by the prophet Isaiah. This “Way” was simply “The Way” of Isaiah’s New Exodus that was composed of a righteous remnant of Israel led by Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant.”
The early Jewish Church was faithful Israel. That’s exactly how they viewed themselves. And then when the early Jewish Church began to witness an amazing influx of Gentiles, it changed nothing, because these followers of “The Way” recognized that this was exactly what Isaiah (and Jesus Himself) had clearly predicted. Indeed the true Church composed of faithful followers of Jesus (our “Good Shepherd” – Isaiah 40:11) is and always has been faithful Israel, the true Israel of God.
In his new and massive 1700-page study bible scholar N.T. Wright shows time after time that this was the clear and simple understanding of the Apostle Paul. He writes that the worldview of the first century Jew was shaped by three things: Monotheism, Election, and Eschatology. Basically this was their understanding of “Who is God?” “Who are His people?” and “What is their future?” Wright’s book is entitled “Paul and the Faithfulness of God,” and over the course of the book he shows that in Paul’s letters the Apostle proves that in Jesus God has been faithful to every single one of His covenant promises to Israel. Every one.
But the catch is that God’s faithfulness was shown in ways that were unexpected by the majority within Israel, and because of this unexpected fulfillment Jesus brought about an extraordinary change in how the new “people of God” are meant to understand these three defining themes of Monotheism, Election, and Eschatology. Yes, Jesus changed the way that Paul had first understood monotheism, because Jesus was in fact God in the flesh! And Jesus changed Paul’s notion of the defining criteria of election. After Jesus God’s people became defined by faith in Jesus, and not by circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, kosher diet, and the various regulations of the Mosaic Law that previously divided Jews from Gentiles. Furthermore, Paul recognized that the reality of the resurrected Jesus had also totally redefined his understanding of eschatology. Isaiah’s predictions had been fulfilled in Jesus! The carpenter of Nazareth was the “Shepherd” of Isaiah 40:11; He was the “Servant of the Lord” guiding the remnant of Israel on the Highway of Holiness (Isaiah 35:8), which would be a New Exodus joined by Gentiles (42:6, 49:5-8, 51:4-7), leading out of the wilderness of Babylon (48:20), and on to the New Jerusalem (60, 61, 62).
For a closer look at seven of the themes found in Isaiah that were fulfilled by Jesus as the One who brought about the restoration of the remnant of Israel and started us off on our New Exodus path go to the pdf file here: Seven Themes in Isaiah
For a more scholarly and in-depth look at how the theme of Isaiah’s New Exodus creates the overall framework for the Gospel of Mark I invite my readers to download and begin to study the book “Isaiah’s New Exodus In Mark,” by Rikki Watts, which can be found HERE.
Remember, the resurrection of Jesus changed everything, including how we need to understand our eschatology! We can’t read Isaiah without recognizing how Jesus fulfilled these prophecies as they are explained in the New Testament. For too long I was beholden to the “homo-textual agenda” of dispensationalism that pushes the idea that all of Bible prophecy, both Old and New Testament, is meant to be understood equally and literally, and must be fulfilled explicitly. I now recognize that Jesus fulfilled much of Old Testament prophecy spiritually, and often Isaiah’s predictions were fulfilled ironically, in ways that took much of first century Israel completely by surprise!
If we continue to refuse to look at the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus we prove that, like the Scribes and Pharisees of old, we have eyes that don’t see and ears that don’t hear, and we will be surprised by Jesus just like they were when He comes again.
Literal = carnal + superficial.
Let’s dare to go deeper as we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.