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It's Isaiah, then Jesus

Jesus and Isaiah "Tell me," said the eunuch to Philip, "who is the prophet talking about? Himself or someone else?" Acts 8:34 This is a question that many of us would like to ask when we read the prophets. We are used to the Sunday School answer being "Jesus". We know that Jesus is who the prophet is supposed to be interested in, but we would have hardly gotten that from reading the prophet in their own right. We tend to read the prophets as being nothing more than long range predictors of the Messiah and of the end of the world. But that is a very single dimension reading of the prophets and deeply misleading at times. I am convinced that we need to read the prophets in their own right if we are to receive any significant benefit out of them at all. The prophets gave cohesive and comprehendible messages before the interpretive lens of Jesus appeared. Certainly, there were many questions about ultimate purpose and meaning within the oracles, but they were still comprehendible works independent of the revelation of Jesus. The question that the Ethiopian eunuch was asking was not so much"how do I understand what Isaiah is saying?" but, "How do I appropriate what Isaiah is saying to my identity as a Jew today?" The portion of Isaiah that the eunuch was reading was the part we call the "servant songs". They are a collection of songs that speak about Israel or a representative of Israel who bears the weight of Israel's unbelief and failure upon his own shoulders. Israel, at the time of Jesus, still perceived themselves as being under God's judgment for having worshiped idols of pagan nations. Even though Israel had physically returned to their own land by the time depicted by the book of Acts, they were not truly the masters of their land with the puppet kings from Herod's family ruling and with Rome oppressing them constantly, and they saw themselves as being in that sense still in exile. So, as this Ethiopian eunuch sits there reading Isaiah, he is looking for answers to the questions of "when?" When will God return to His Temple? When will Israel be set free? And what should he be doing in the meantime, maybe even to speed things along? As he reads Isaiah, he wonders, "Did this prophet perceive himself as absorbing the failures of Israel? Or is his (the eunuch's) contemporary Israel absorbing the punishment? Or is Isaiah talking about someone or something else all together?"

It was not for a lack of understanding the inner logic of Isaiah but for want of clarity for application. It was very natural that Philip should explain Jesus to the eunuch beginning with this portion of Isaiah. It would behoove us to learn to understand Isaiah and the rest of the prophets in their own right before trying to time them into Jesus. Not only will we receive a greater portion of the scriptures by having comprehensible access to the inner logic of the prophets, but we will actually understand Jesus better by first understanding the prophets who spoke without knowledge of Him. Jesus came to fulfill the law and the Prophets, not to reinvent them. Isaiah didn't get his cues for prophesying from some foreknowledge of Jesus' life. Rather, Jesus got His cues and His clues of what His own vocation would and should be from the prophet Isaiah as well as the other prophets. We ought to seek to understand Jesus through the lens of the prophets first and not the other way around. 

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