Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
As noted on here before, I once heard a Messianic Jewish pastor say that when it comes to the books of prophecy in the Old Testament that Gentile (non-Jewish) believers are welcomed to borrow them, but “make sure you put them back when you’re done.” What he meant by this was that as Christians, we need to understand that the prophecies of the Old Testament were initially written to the Jews- however, their lessons can be applied more broadly within the church. As a Gentile follower of Christ, I understand where he’s coming from and I try to keep myself from hijacking the prophecies themselves, but rather I try to understand what we can learn from them. After all, Paul did tell us, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Having said that, the Holy Spirit showed me that Isaiah actually ends with a prophecy that relates directly to non-Jews.
While Isaiah is speaking of punishment and blessings, he starts to look into the future of God’s chosen people and is told by the Lord that one day God will no longer be exclusive to the Israelites. Scripture records,
“I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations- to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations. And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the Lord- on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels,” says the Lord. “They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the Lord in ceremonially clean vessels. And I will select some of them also to be priests and Levites,” says the Lord (Isaiah 66:19-22).
This, like many of Isaiah’s prophecies, connects to Jesus and his days on earth. In the prophecy, the Lord says that he will call survivors out of Israel to spread the name of the Lord to the rest of the world. As it turned out, that’s exactly what Jesus did with his disciples in the midst of Roman oppression. Right before ascending to heaven after being crucified and resurrecting, Jesus told his followers, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). At first though, the disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ command. They believed that our Lord and Savior wanted them to go out and reclaim Jews that had been scattered among the nations. However, this understanding of Jesus’ words would soon be challenged.
As Peter sat on a roof having a vision that clarified the cleanness of all animals, the Holy Spirit spoke to him about what he was to do next. We read,
While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say” (Acts 10:19-22).
Peter was called to the house of Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile. Apparently, Peter’s vision about unclean food being made clean extended to what were previously considered to be unclean people. So, Peter went and preached about Jesus, and an amazing thing happened. The Bible tells us,
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God (Acts 10:44-46).
Even the Gentiles could receive the Holy Spirit. Of course, to us this is basic (as most Christians today are Gentiles), but up until the moment this happened even Christ’s disciples thought that God was for the Jews only. After all, on the first time he sent them out, didn’t’ their Master say (in Matthew 10:6), “Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel”? While with Cornelius, Peter learned that although during his life, Jesus’ ministry centered on the Jews, through Christ’s death God had opened the door to everyone. So we read in Acts 10:34-35, “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.’”
Because of this event with Cornelius and his family as well as Paul’s growing ministry among the Gentiles, the church fathers in Jerusalem realized that they had to re-evaluate where they stood on the Gentile issue. Many Jews didn’t want to associate with foreigners, and others felt that the Gentiles should become Jews (through circumcision and strict adherence to the Law). The problem was that God wasn’t waiting for circumcision. This was something the fairly xenophobic Jews were going to have to deal with. Therefore, a historic decision was made by the church,
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they had finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
“’After this I will return
And rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
And I will restore it,
That the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
And all the Gentiles who bear my name,
Says the Lord, who does these things’
That have been known for ages.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood (Acts 15:12-20).
It is because of this decision, and the apostles’ great desire to fulfill God’s prophecies as well as the commands of Jesus that you and I (assuming you’re not from a fully Jewish background) are even able to access the Word of God and find our salvation through Jesus Christ.
Since Gentiles can receive the Holy Spirit as the mark of their salvation after coming to Christ, then they are also recipients of spiritual gifts. Indeed, Paul writes that we all have varied gifts and talents given to us by the Holy Spirit. He writes,
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines (1 Corinthians 12:7-11).
This tracks back to Isaiah’s prophecy where he noted that the Lydians are specifically skilled in archery; for it is the Lord who equips us. We read as God speaks to Moses,
The Lord said to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” (Exodus 4:11-12).
Because the Lord has given these gifts to the Gentiles, we can surmise that they hold the same status as the Jews. In fact, in the prophecy, the Lord said that he will select priests and Levites from among the nations. However, being a Levite previously had nothing to do with being called; rather it depended on your family history (as Levi was one of Israel’s children). So by saying this, God was saying that he would even call clergy out of the Gentiles- something unheard of in the days of the apostles (or even Isaiah for that matter).
If God is bestowing talents onto the Gentiles through his Holy Spirit, and is calling some to be priests, prophets, and pastors; then indeed God is bringing a lot of us non-Jewish brothers into the fold. Paul even notes this in Romans 11:13-18,
I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.
By becoming grafted into the vine through Christ, the Lord has placed on Gentile believers the same blessings but also the same responsibilities that the original Jewish disciples were called to. And what responsibilities are those? Jesus tells us in Matthew 28:19-20,
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Therefore, just as the Jews reached out to the Gentiles some 2000 years ago, all believers are called to reach out to everyone else and proclaim the name of our God.
But be warned, my friend. Just as the Lord Jesus’ atoning death on a cross as our blood sacrifice allowed the world a chance at salvation, so too did Adam’s sin open the world up to death and sin- and even more, it allowed Satan to send out his messengers too. John explains, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 1:7). Everyone has a choice, either they will live forever with Christ, or they will live the way of the world and die eternally. The devil will fight you at every turn. No matter if you’re an unbeliever, new believer, or veteran Christian; Satan will keep coming with new temptations in order to discredit Jesus either to you (non-believers) or through you (believers). So, 1 John 5:5 tells us, “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” Without Christ you cannot be saved or be made right in God’s eyes, and by your own power you will never overcome the devil. So those of you who are saved and have Jesus in your life daily, it’s up to you, Gentile or Jew, to fight the devil and the evils of this world. Spread the Word of God, and drive the darkness out of every corner of this planet, for that is what God has called us to do- even way back in Isaiah.