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Question

What does it mean that Israel is a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6)?

Israel light to the Gentiles
Answer


Isaiah 49 speaks of a time of blessing for Israel. There is some difficulty in interpreting this passage because at times it seems that Israel is being addressed, and at other times it seems that a single person is being addressed. This person will help bring blessing back to Israel, so he must therefore be distinguished in some way from Israel.

In Isaiah 49:3, God addresses Israel: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” However, by verse 6, the one addressed is an individual called the Servant of the Lord, and He will also restore Israel:

“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.”

From the context it is clear that “a light for the Gentiles” in Isaiah 49:6 is parallel to “my salvation . . . to the ends to the ends of the earth.” The light is spiritual light, corresponding to God’s “splendor” in verse 3. The ends of the earth are the Gentile nations—the people who live everywhere other than Israel.

The question is, how does Israel do this? How do they act as a light to the Gentiles?

Certainly, if Israel had been loyal to the Lord, other nations would have taken notice and perhaps been drawn to the Lord (see Deuteronomy 4:6). But that did not happen. So Isaiah speaks of a new situation. The Servant who is identified with Israel but also distinguished from Israel be the light instead. This is somewhat mysterious. However, this makes sense if the king of Israel is the one in view. The king is the representative of Israel, yet he is distinguished from Israel. He can do things for Israel but can also do things as Israel. But Isaiah does not reveal this king’s identity.

In the New Testament, the identity of the Servant, the King, and the Messiah is revealed in reference to the Isaiah passage:

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’” (Luke 2:25–32, ESV).

According to Simeon under the influence of the Holy Spirit, it is Jesus, the King of Israel, who is the glory of Israel and a light to the Gentiles.

Matthew 4:12–16 also applies to Jesus a similar idea from another passage in Isaiah:

“Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali—to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned’” (Isaiah 9:1–2).

Galilee, both in the time of Isaiah and in the time of Christ, had a large Gentile population. By preaching there, Jesus was bringing light to the Gentiles.

Furthermore, Paul applies Isaiah 49:6 to himself and Barnabas as representatives of the King and preachers of the gospel. On the first missionary journey, they were rejected by the Jewish population in Pisidian Antioch: “On the following Sabbath, nearly the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy, and they blasphemously contradicted what Paul was saying.

“Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: ‘It was necessary to speak the word of God to you first. But since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us:

“I have made you a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”’

“When the Gentiles heard this, they rejoiced and glorified the word of the Lord, and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord spread throughout that region” region” (Acts 13:44–49, BSB).

Thus, Paul and Barnabas, as Israelites and authorized representatives of the King of Israel, were also a fulfillment of Isaiah 49:6.

In summary, Israel is a light to the nations because Jesus, as the King of Israel, provided salvation for the nations (Gentiles) and then authorized His representatives to spread the good news throughout the world (see Matthew 28:18–20 and Acts 1:8).

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Questions about Isaiah

What does it mean that Israel is a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6)?
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This page last updated: June 9, 2022