A Light to the Nations

Read: Isaiah 49:1-6

Missions isn’t just one of many jobs the church does. It’s the reason the church is still in the world.

I love church mission conferences and mission emphasis Sundays, and I speak at quite a few of them. But they do have a drawback, in my opinion. They can make it seem like missions is just one more interest among many for the church. By designating a once-a-year special time to talk about the church’s missionary task we might be giving the impression that this is just a special subject we only need to preach and think about annually, like Mother’s Day, or Christian Education Sunday.

But the church’s missionary calling isn’t like that. It isn’t one emphasis among the many things going on in the church’s life; it’s the central activity of God in human history. Missions isn’t just one job the church does in its variety of ministries; it’s the reason the church is still in the world. Missions isn’t a theme limited to a few passages of scripture (such as the Great Commission); it’s the thread that runs through the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

And nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the 49th chapter of Isaiah. This chapter has one of the most important statements in the whole Bible on the subject of missions. Does that surprise you? But really the whole book of Isaiah is a missionary book, especially its later chapters. Listen to this description of the work of the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah 49:6:

[The Lord] says, “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 nations], that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

A Light to the Nations

Answering three basic questions may help us to better understand this critically important statement. The first question is Who?. To whom is the Lord speaking in this verse? What is the identity of the one he calls “my servant”? From the context the answer to this question appears to be somewhat ambiguous. In the first five verses of chapter 49 the servant himself is speaking. From one perspective, “he” seems to be the personification of the whole people of Israel. In fact, in verse 3 the servant is explicitly called by that name: “And [the Lord] said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’” But other verses here seem to indicate an individual who is in mind. Listen to verse 5, “And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength.”

So who is this mysterious servant? In one sense he is the whole people of Israel, but he is also the embodiment and representative of the people of Israel. He is one specific man who comes from Israel in order to save Israel. As Christians, we believe the answer to the Servant’s identity is clear, not just from the New Testament, but even from further passages here in the book of Isaiah – most notably, the greatest of the “Servant of the Lord” poems, Isaiah 53. The servant of the Lord is Jesus Christ, the One who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquity.

Here’s a second question to ask about Isaiah 49:6. It’s the question What?. What exactly is it that God wants his servant to do? What is the nature of the servant’s mission? It has to do with the nations, or “the gentiles,” as it literally says. The word used here in Isaiah 49:6, and throughout the Old Testament, is the Hebrew term goyim, usually translated “gentiles” (to distinguish them from the people of Israel), but here in this verse it’s better translated “nations.” “I will make you a light to the nations,” proclaims the Lord to his servant.

While God chose Israel to be his special people, he never intended to limit the blessings of knowing him to them alone. Indeed, one of the principal tasks of the Lord’s servant people Israel would be to bring forth the perfect Servant, the individual whose redeeming mission would be both to Israel (v.5), and through Israel to the whole world (v.6). In other words, the Messiah.

So God’s object from the very beginning, even when he was dealing primarily with the Jewish people, was that one day the Messiah who would come from them would make the saving knowledge of God available to all peoples. So the servant’s mission is to be a light to the nations, bringing to all peoples the truth and hope and salvation of the one living God.

And the Servant’s mission is also to be a light to the nations. In focusing upon the “nations” who are the object of God’s concern, it’s important to understand exactly what we are talking about. Modern people tend to think of nations as countries. We hear the word and immediately picture the shape of our own country on the map and then think of all the other pink and green and yellow shapes as the other nations of the world. But a nation, in the biblical sense, is not a country. A country (a “nation-state” to use the technical term) is an artificial, political entity. It’s a fairly recent development in world history. But in the Bible a nation was a cultural entity, defined not by lines on the map but by social factors.

The New Testament word for the nations is ta ethne, from which we get the word ethnic. Nations in the biblical sense are people-groups defined by their race and religion and history and customs, and especially by their language. There are only a couple of hundred countries in the world today in the modern sense, but there are thousands and thousands of nations in the biblical sense, and these are the object of the saving mission of the Lord’s Servant/Messiah. Every tribe and tongue and people on earth. “I will make you a light to the nations.”

The third important question answered by our text is the question Why?Why must the Servant be the Savior for the whole world? What makes that so important? And here we come to one of the most profound insights in all of the biblical revelation. Many Bible verses tell us about God’s intention and desire to bring salvation to all the nations, that his purpose is to reach all peoples with his saving grace in Jesus Christ. But Isaiah 49:6 also tells us God’s reason for doing this. The answer is stated in the opening phrase. “It is too small a thing,” God says, for his servant only to rescue and redeem the people of Israel. He must become the savior of the whole world. He must carry God’s salvation to the ends of the earth.

You know, nothing is too great for God, but have you ever reflected on the fact that some things are too small? And chief among those things would be for God to limit his grace to just one people or nation. Such an act would not be worthy of God; it would belittle him. It would turn the Almighty God of the universe into just another tribal deity. But he is not an ethnic God; he is not a territorial Lord. He is the God of all, the sovereign and savior of the universe.

So the motive behind sending Christ to the nations turns out to be the same as the ultimate motive for all God’s acts. It is to enhance his glory, to demonstrate his infinite praiseworthiness, to reveal the limitless extent of his goodness. Anything less than this would be to diminish the greatness of our God, and that must never be. That’s why he has to be a light to the nations.

This Is What the Lord Has Commanded Us

One final note. There’s a very significant reference to Isaiah 49:6 in the New Testament. It comes in chapter 13 of the book of Acts, during the course of Paul’s first missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas have come to the city of Antioch in Pisidia, in south central Asia Minor. As usual, they went to the local synagogue on the Sabbath, where Paul preached the gospel. Many of the city’s gentile inhabitants heard about this remarkable preacher and his message of salvation, and the next week almost the whole city came out to listen to what Paul had to say. This turned the Jewish congregation against him, so Paul decided to proclaim the promises of the gospel to the city’s gentile population instead. And he justified this by appealing to scripture.

For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 13:47)

He’s quoting, of course, Isaiah 49:6 – but with one significant change. In Isaiah the Lord’s command is addressed to his Servant, the Christ. But Paul quotes it in the plural, as if it is addressed to Christ’s followers: “This is what the Lord has commanded us; I have made you [plural] a light for the nations.”

Here’s why missions can never be just another item on the church’s agenda. God has made us a light to the nations. We are here to see that his salvation reaches the ends of the earth. Anything less than that would be too small a thing, too small for God, and too small for us. Jesus’ mission has now become our mission. Are we up to it?

About the Author

Rev. Dave Bast retired as the President and Broadcast Minister of Words of Hope in January 2017, after 23 years with the ministry. Prior to his ministry and work at Words of Hope, Dave served as a pastor for 18 years in congregations in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several devotional books. A graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, he has also studied at both the Fuller and Calvin seminaries. Dave and his wife, Betty Jo, have four children and four grandchildren. Dave enjoys reading, growing tomatoes, and avidly follows the Detroit Tigers.