The book of Isaiah has long been appreciated for its vivid imagery depicting broad messianic themes: the Anointed One, the Coming One who will bring about God’s redemptive purposes in history; the Messiah as King who “will judge the needy with righteousness and with justice will give decisions for the poor”; but also the Messiah as an obedient servant whose suffering unto death works God’s redemption. As a consequence, Isaiah has often been called “the fifth gospel.”
There are approximately 250 references to Isaiah in the New Testament, and of the 37 times that Paul quotes from the prophets, 27 are from Isaiah. When Jesus spoke in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry, he quoted from Isaiah. When the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip to explain the Scriptures to him, the Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah. Philip answered him with “the good news about Jesus.”
Much of the imagery and language of the book of Isaiah was familiar and deeply rooted in Jewish religion and culture. It formed a major part of the backdrop against which the first-century Jews interpreted their experience of the risen Christ.
This reading takes sections of text from Isaiah and from Hebrews and sets them side by side. The letter to the Hebrews is not an obvious choice to illustrate the influence of Isaiah: it includes only one direct quotation from Isaiah and only a few allusions to the book. There are, in fact, significant differences between the books. Isaiah is a large collection of texts—narrative history, poetry, prophecy—recorded for the benefit of the whole nation of Israel. The narrative and events described circulate within the world of high politics: kings, courts, and the affairs of empires.
On the other hand, the letter to the Hebrews is written in the form of a sermon to a local church in early Christendom. The author lived in a world of ordinary, vulnerable people who had been persecuted and were in continuing danger. They were a community of Christians engaged in a painful struggle for their own existence, and the author is concerned that they are in danger of “falling away from the living God.”
Herein lies the similarity. The book of Isaiah also addresses a people living through a time of extreme danger that threatens to destroy their trust in God. The authors of Isaiah and Hebrews respond with dire warnings but also with words of deep encouragement. Both speak boldly of the Messiah as the One who brings about God’s saving purposes. In that light, this reading is especially appropriate for the Advent season.
Reader A speaks the text from Hebrews and Readers B and Reader C speak the text from Isaiah. To help clarify this distinction, it is helpful if Reader A is physically separated from Readers B and C; for example, left and right at the front of the sanctuary, or front and back.
1: God Spoke
Reader A: God spoke. We do see Jesus
Reader B: born in humility
Reader C: returning in glory
Reader A: Long ago God spoke to our ancestors
Reader B: From the beginning, I have not spoken in secret. (Isa. 45:16)
Reader A: in various ways through the prophets.
Reader C: From the time it happens, I have been there. (Isa. 45:16)
Reader A: But now at last in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. (Heb. 1:2)
Reader C: And now the Lord God has sent me and his spirit. (Isa. 48:16)
Reader B: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given (Isa. 9:6)
Reader A: whom he appointed heir of all things.
Reader C: And the government will be on his shoulders, (Isa. 9:7)
Reader A: through whom he also created the worlds
Reader B: who made all things, who stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth. (Isa. 44:24)
Reader A: He is the reflection of the radiance of God’s glory (Heb. 1:3)
Reader C: and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace
Reader A: and the exact image of God’s very being.
Reader B: The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord
Reader A: the brightness of God’s glory and like him in every way. (Heb. 1:3)
Reader C: He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears;
Reader B: but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. (Isa. 11:2-4)
Reader A: He sustains all things by his powerful word (Heb. 1:3)
Reader B: He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness, from that time on and forever
Reader A: by the power of his word. (Heb. 1:3)
Reader C: As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth, so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
Reader B: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:11)
Reader C: For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. (Isa. 11:9)
Reader A: Come, Lord Jesus.
2: God Incarnate
Reader A: God Incarnate. We do see Jesus
Reader C: born in humility
Reader B: returning in glory
Reader A: who for a little while was made lower than the angels. (Heb. 2:9)
Reader B: You are my servant, in whom I will display my splendor (Isa. 49:3)
Reader A: who during the days of his life on earth offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears. (Heb. 5:7)
Reader C: But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent all my strength for nothing at all.” (Isa. 49:4)
Reader B: Let me weep bitter tears. Do not try to comfort me for the destruction of my beloved people
Reader A: with cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.
Reader B: Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might. (Isa. 12:2)
Reader C: Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
Reader B: They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint; (Isa. 40:31)
Reader A: and he was heard because of his reverent submission. (Heb. 5:7)
Reader C: He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. (Isa. 42:2-3)
Reader A: Since, we, the children, share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared these same things.
Reader B: He will be named Immanuel, God with us.
Reader A: Come, Lord Jesus.
3: God with Us
Reader A: God with us. We do see Jesus
Reader B: born in humility,
Reader C: returning in glory.
Reader A: He himself likewise shared with us in our humanity so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death. (Heb. 2:14)
Reader C: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
Reader B: on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. (Isa. 9:2)
Reader A: So that by his death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, so that through death he might free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (Heb. 2:14-15)
Reader B: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me.
Reader C: He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners. (Isa. 61:1)
Reader A: It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory . . . (Heb. 2:10)
Reader C: Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you. . . (Isa. 55:5)
Reader A: that God should make the pioneer of their faith, the author of their salvation, perfect through sufferings, (Heb. 2:10)
Reader B: From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in his body, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds. (Isa. 1:5-6)
Reader A: to make a sacrifice of atonement, a reconciliation for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:17)
Reader C: Because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors.
Reader B: He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. (Isa. 53:5)
Reader C: For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isa. 53:12)
Reader A: Son though he was, he learned trusting obedience from what he suffered (Heb. 5:8)
Reader C: He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
Reader B: By oppression and judgment, by a perversion of justice, he was taken away.
Reader C: And he was cut off from the land of the living. (Isa. 53:7-8)
Reader A: and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Reader C: By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
Reader B: I will make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Reader C: Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isa. 60:3)
Reader B: For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations (Isa. 56:7)
Reader C: Peace, peace to the far and near. (Isa. 57:19)
Reader A: When he had made purification for sins,
Reader B: After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; (Isa. 53:11)
Reader A: he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Heb. 1:3)
Reader B: And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. (Isa. 40:5)
Reader C: Come, Lord Jesus.
4: Christ Will Come Again
Reader A: Christ will come again. We do see Jesus
Reader C: born in humility,
Reader B: returning in glory.
Reader A: He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.
Reader B: I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
Reader C: to revive the spirit of the lowly, to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isa. 57:15)
Reader A: Because he himself was tested, tempted by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Heb. 2:18)
Reader C: The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. (Isa. 50:4)
Reader B: For he tends his flock like a shepherd, he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart. He gently leads those that have young. (Isa. 40:11)
Reader A: Therefore, brothers and sisters, lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,
Reader C: strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;
Reader B: say to those with fearful hearts,
Reader C: Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, with divine retribution he will come to save you
Reader A: and make straight paths for your feet.
Reader B: Make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isa. 40:3)
Reader A: so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but be healed. (Heb. 12:12)
Reader C: Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will spring up quickly. (Isa. 58:8)
Reader A: Let us not lose sight of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Reader B: He died in humility
Reader A: and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:2)
Reader C: He is returning in glory.
Reader A: Christ will appear a second time to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Heb. 9:28)
Readers A, B, and C together: Come, Lord Jesus.