On the Inspiration of Jesus and the Prescriptive Nature of Isaiah

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of February 21. Enjoy!


In reading the New Testament, one indirectly reads a lot of Isaiah. Though detached some 800 years from the life of the historical Isaiah, the four evangelists make numerous Isaianic connections to the life, death and message of Jesus. In doing so, these early Christian writers are merely continuing a tradition that manifests itself in the latter half of our canonical book of Isaiah, when the prophet’s original message was found to have new meanings for a nation threatened by Babylon and a people returned from exile.[1] For better or for worse, Matthew’s birth narrative identifies Jesus with a young woman whose child will be named “God with us,” or Emmanuel. Furthermore, the Christian claims to Isaiah 53 require no superfluous introduction. It is no wonder that this Isaianic legacy of Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν leads Gordon McConville to devote a large sidebar to the question of whether prophecy is predictive.[2]

Meanwhile, I am developing this reflection paper under the guise that Isaiah’s prophecies are better understood as prescriptive. In other words, was Jesus’ awareness of the full body of Isaiah something of a roadmap for his ministry? Even if one doubts the scene in the Nazarene synagogue wherein Jesus was said to read from the scroll of Isaiah (Lk 4:16-20), as many scholars do, one cannot deny that his ministry drew special inspiration from Isaiah. For example, Jesus’ unique devotion to the cause of the poor evokes Isaiah’s description of the “shoot” of Jesse: “He shall not judge by what his eyes see . . . but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Is 11:3-4 NRSV).

Moreover, Jesus’ Isaianic orientation may have even borrowed and adapted thematic elements for his signature parable form. Isaiah sings of a vineyard that produces wild grapes (Is 5:1-7), while Jesus tells of a vineyard that received new laborers as the day progressed (Mt 20:1-16). Whereas Isaiah’s vineyard represented the house of Israel, Jesus develops a portrait of the vineyard as an instrument for the kingdom of heaven, which is buttressed by a second Matthean vineyard parable, that of the wicked tenants (Mt 28:33-41). A simple matter of collecting the harvest gives way to murder, and the vineyard is unproductive in a manner that Steve Moyise suggests would, without pause, “suggest to a Jewish audience the allegory of Is 5.”[3] Another parable true to the theme of Isaiah’s vineyard is that of the barren fig tree (Lk 13:6-9). In both cases, the owner of the plant expects it to follow the natural order and yield proper fruit, and furthermore, a condemnation against Israel is implied, given that “the fig tree is a common sign of divine blessings in Jewish lore.”[4] As Moyise explains, “the reason Jesus introduces the fig tree is because it concentrates the divine judgment in one single act. Is 5 describes the destruction of the vineyard in a series of actions . . . but cutting down a fig tree is swift and decisive.”[5]

We can scarcely doubt that the book of Isaiah inspired its first generation of hearers and even continues to do so today; consider that Isaiah 11 is read aloud in modern Israeli synagogues both during Passover and on Yom Ha’atsmaut, the country’s Independence Day.[6] It is no stretch of the imagination, therefore, that Jesus’ own ministry, and indeed, his self-understanding, were prescribed and informed by themes of a peaceful kingdom, the coming judgment, the suffering servant, the gathering of nations, and a “Wonderful Counselor” (Is 9:6 NRSV), all of which are developed in Isaiah.

[1] J. Gordon McConville, A Guide to the Prophets, vol. 4 of Exploring the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 4.

[2] Ibid., 8-9.

[3] Steve Moyise, “Jesus and Isaiah,” Neotestimenica 43, no. 2 (2009), 253.

[4] Robert W. Funk, Bernard Brandon Scott, and James R. Butts, The Parables of Jesus: Red Letter Edition (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1988), 60.

[5] Moyise, 254-255.

[6] Christopher Leighton and Adam Gregerman, “Between Text & Sermon: Isaiah 11:1-11,” Interpretation 64, no. 3 (July 2010), 287.

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