Friday, July 7, 2017

The Significance of the Five Quotations of Isaiah 6:9-10 in the New Testament

by Michael Vlach

All quotations of the Old Testament (OT) in the New Testament (NT) are significant. Yet when a particular OT passage is cited multiple times, we do well to study why the NT persons and writers viewed this text as so important. Such is the case with Isaiah 6:9-10, a text quoted in the NT five times in connection with national Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah.

The context of Isaiah 6:9-10 is the prophet Isaiah’s commission to disobedient Israel around 740 B.C. Isaiah’s message to Israel would not result in the nation’s repentance but would result in their being further hardened:

He [the Lord] said, “Go, and tell this people:
“Keep on listening, but do not perceive;
Keep on looking, but do not understand.”
“Render the hearts of this people insensitive,
Their ears dull,
And their eyes dim,
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts,
And return and be healed.”

Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted once each by the four gospel writers—Matt. 13:14-15; Mark 4:11-12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40—and once by Paul in Acts 28:26-27.

All quotations of Isaiah 6:9-10 in the NT occur in the context of national Israel’s unbelief in Jesus as Messiah and the kingdom of God He presented as “near” (Matt. 4:17). This passage is applied to Israel as a corporate entity even though some individual Jews were believing in Jesus.

In Matthew 13:14-15 Jesus applied Isaiah 6:9-10 to unbelieving Israel:

In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,                           
You will keep on hearing, but will not understand;
You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;
For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they would see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal them.’

The context of this statement is important. According to Matthew 3:2; 4:17; and 10:5-7 the nearness of the kingdom was being presented to Israel. Matthew 10:5-7 reveals that the kingdom message at this time was only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The cities of Israel were the focus here. Yet according to Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus rebuked the cities of Israel for their unbelief: “Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent” (Matt. 11:20).

Then with Matthew 12 the religious leaders of Israel expressed their rejection of Jesus as Messiah when they attributed His miracles to Satan and thus committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:25-32). A national rejection of Jesus was occurring.

So when Jesus quotes Isaiah 6 in Matthew 13 and says “the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled,” He connects Isaiah 6 with the unbelief of Israel during His earthly ministry. One might ask, “How can a prophecy of Isaiah centuries earlier be fulfilled during Jesus’ day?” The answer is that Israel is a corporate national entity with trans-generational implications. Israel’s unbelief in Isaiah’s day can be heightened or fulfilled by the unbelief of Israel during the time of Jesus’ first coming. Both in Isaiah’s day and in Jesus’ day, national Israel evidenced a hardened unbelief.

Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 in connection with national Israel’s unbelief and Jesus’ giving of parables is found also in Mark and Luke:

Mark 4:11-12:
And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.”

Luke 8:9-10:
His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant. And He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”

With John 12 the apostle John also quoted Isaiah 6:10 with some commentary:

For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, “He has blinded their eyes and He hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them.” These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him. Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue (John 12:39-42).

Three factors are noteworthy here. First, Jesus directed the words of Isaiah 6 to Israel’s unbelief.

Second, John says that Isaiah understood his words in connection with Jesus—“These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him.” This reveals that Isaiah had a specific messianic hope.

And third, we are told that “many” of “the rulers” of Israel “believed in Him [Jesus].” This shows that Isaiah’s words apply primarily to Israel as a corporate entity and not just to individual Jews. Even though many rulers in Israel believed in Jesus the leadership as a whole did not, even to the point of intimidating others Jewish leaders who believed. Thus, Israel’s national rejection of Jesus, even in spite of the belief of “many. . . rulers” of Israel, is cause for the application of Isaiah 6:10 to the corporate entity of Israel in Jesus’ day.

Acts 28:17-29
This last chapter of Acts describes an important encounter between Paul and “leading men of the Jews” in Rome (Acts 28:17). This gathering of Jewish leaders offers a formality to this encounter and indicates more than just a happenstance gathering of individual Jews.

Even though these Jewish leaders do not believe in Jesus Paul calls them “Brethren,” and he identifies with them by referring to “our people” and “our fathers” (28:17). He also told them, “I am wearing this chain for the sake of the hope of Israel” (28:20). Thus there is a heavy Israelite context to this encounter and Paul takes the Jewish element of this encounter very seriously. There certainly is no idea that the church has replaced the traditional concept of “Israel.”

Then we are told that these Jewish leaders came to Paul at his lodging “in large numbers” (28:23). Paul then testified about the kingdom of God and tried to persuade them concerning Jesus from the Law and the Prophets (i.e. Hebrew scriptures) from morning until evening.

The result of this all-day encounter is described in verse 24: “Some were being persuaded by the things spoken, but others would not believe.” Thus, some Jewish leaders were persuaded by Paul and believed, yet others did not believe. We are not told which of these two groups was larger but there seems to be a significant number who believed. This should not be overlooked. Some Jewish leaders believed in Jesus the Messiah.

Certainly, Paul must have been pleased with these Jewish believers but his strong words indicated that he was hoping for more. Verse 25 indicates that the two groups could not agree and this hindered a unified belief in Jesus as Messiah by Israel as a corporate entity. This led to a stinging rebuke of corporate Israel by using the words of Isaiah 6:9-10 in Acts 28:25-27:

And when they did not agree with one another, they began leaving after Paul had spoken one parting word, “The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers, saying,
“Go to this people and say,
‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand;
And you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;
For the heart of this people has become dull,
And with their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes;
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal them.”’

The disagreement between the believing and unbelieving Jews led Paul to quote Isaiah 6:9-10 with its message of judgment for unbelieving corporate Israel. But why would Paul do this when some of the Jewish leaders in Rome did believe in Jesus? Should this not be considered a successful encounter since “some” Jewish leaders had believed? Kinzer asks an appropriate question:

Why does Paul respond so negatively to what Christians today might consider a rather successful evangelistic encounter? His fierce reaction appears disproportionate to the mixed attitudes of his audience.

But for Paul this was not a successful encounter. While probably encouraged by the remnant of Jewish men who believed (Rom. 11:1-6), this meeting did not result in a corporate acceptance of Jesus as Messiah by the Jewish leadership. That was what Paul was seeking—belief in Jesus as Messiah by Israel as represented by its leadership.

Concerning the encounter in Acts 28 Kinzer notes, “This scene makes little sense if we view Paul’s audience as a collection of Jewish individuals and Paul’s aim in addressing them as the ‘salvation’ of as many of them as possible.”[1] Instead what Paul was after was a communal decision of belief in Jesus as the Messiah as Tannehill points out:

The presence of disagreement among the Jews is enough to show that Paul has not achieved what he sought. He was seeking a communal decision, a recognition by the Jewish community as a whole that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish hope. The presence of significant opposition shows that this is not going to happen.[2]

This encounter in Acts 28 parallels John 12 when Jesus quoted Isaiah 6:9-10 even though “many” of the Jewish leadership had believed. But in both John 12 and Acts 28 the leadership as a whole as representatives of national Israel did not believe. Thus, the condemnation of Isaiah 6:9-10 again applied.

Significance of Isaiah 6:9-10 in the New Testament
The five references to Isaiah 6:9-10 concern national Israel’s unbelief in Jesus the Messiah and a rejection of the kingdom of God. Even though some Israelites believed in Jesus and thus comprised the remnant of Israel (see Rom. 11:1-6), the lack of corporate belief by Israel brings a stinging rebuke in which both Jesus and Paul draw upon the words of Isaiah 6:9-10 for their current Jewish audiences. This situation will be reversed one day when national Israel believes in Jesus as Messiah as passages like Zechariah 12:10 and Romans 11:26 indicate.

[1] Mark S. Kinzer, “Zionism is Luke-Acts,” in The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel & the Land (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 160.
[2] Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, vol. 2, The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 347.