In Acts 13:47 Paul and Barnabas cite Isaiah 49:6 as justification for their “turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46) in response to Jewish opposition to their gospel message. This use of Isaiah 49 provides an interesting look into Luke and Paul’s understanding of the Isaianic Servant.
In looking at Acts 13:47 there are only a few minor differences from Luke’s version and the wording found in Isaiah 49:6 in the MT. Other than this Luke’s use of the Isaiah passage is fairly straightforward and consistent.
Isaiah 49:6 is part of the second Servant Song (Isa. 49:1-6). The crucial and controversial issue in this set of Servant Songs regards the identity of the Servant. As has often been noted this Servant seems to oscillate between an individual and a corporate group. In particular, Isaiah 49 contains this tension. On the one hand, Isaiah 49:3 appears to equate the Servant with the nation Israel: “You are my Servant, Israel.” On the other hand, this passage speaks of the Servant as ministering to the nation of Israel in 49:6: “It is too small a thing that you should be my Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel.” In whatever manner this Servant is to be understood, it is obvious that there is a ministry to both Israel and the nations; salvation is to come to the ends of earth (Isa. 49:6).
The New Testament repeatedly applies elements of the Servant Songs to Jesus. Luke, in particular, links the Isaianic Servant with Jesus in a few significant ways. First, Luke is the only Gospel writer to explicitly link the famous passage of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 with Jesus (Luke 22:37 quoting from Isaiah 53:12). This leads R. T. France to comment, “There is no doubt, then, that for Luke the mission of the Servant in Isaiah 53 is a blueprint for that of Jesus; the Servant is Jesus.” Second, in his narration of the episode with the Ethiopian eunuch the particular passage being read by the eunuch is Isaiah 53:7-8. It is clear that for Luke this is a reference to Jesus (Acts 8:32-35). Third, of even more relevance, for purposes of this discussion, is Luke’s recording of Simeon’s statement about the infant Jesus in which the use of Isaiah 49:6 is clear. Luke 2:29-32 reads:
Now Lord, you are releasing your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.
All of this combines to demonstrate that Luke is clearly identifying the Servant of Isaiah with Jesus.
In light of Luke’s understanding of the Servant as identified with Jesus it is somewhat surprising to see a reference to one of the Servant Songs (49:6) being used of Paul and Barnabas as it is in Acts 13:47. Acts 13 is significant in that this narrates the beginning of the first missionary journey of Paul and contains Paul’s first major sermon delivered in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. This address is delivered to a Jewish audience and is replete with quotations and allusions to the Jewish Scriptures. When there is a hostile response on the part of the Jews Paul and Barnabas state their intentions to “turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). In so doing they quote Isaiah 49:6 for justification of such a move:
For so the Lord has commanded us,
I have placed you as a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the end of the earth. (Acts 13:49)
Paul is clearly seeing himself and his ministry as aligned with the Isaianic Servant. This understanding is layered with meaning. The Servant was no doubt understood by many of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries in a corporate sense, namely as a renewed Israel. Paul’s usage in response to Jewish rejection of the gospel creates a subtle irony in which Paul and Barnabas are now seen to be playing the part of faithful Israel. Robert W. Wall aptly comments:
The word entellomai is a term of vocation (see 1:2), and Isaiah’s original sense of it, carried over to Acts, is of faithful Israel’s purpose in the world. While Paul appeals to Isaiah to justify his mission to the Gentiles, he does so ironically since he personifies the missionary identity of repentant Israel.
Paul and Barnabas are presenting themselves as the true Israel and those who reject the gospel of Jesus as outside the scope of God’s people. This is further demonstrated by Paul and Barnabas “shaking off the dust of their feet” against the Jews of Pisidian Antioch who rejected their message (Acts 13:51). This action is charged with significance as I. Howard Marshall notes:
It was customary for Jews to shake of the dust of a pagan town from their feet when they return to their own land, as a symbol of cleansing themselves from the impurity of sinners who did worship God. For Jews to do this to their fellow Jews was tantamount to regarding the latter as pagan Gentiles. The Christians were demonstrating in a particularly vigorous manner that Jews who rejected the gospel and drove out the missionaries were no longer truly part of Israel but were no better than unbelievers.
Paul and Barnabas are, thus, seen to be aligning themselves with the Servant as corporately understood as faithful Israel. Their vocation as ministers of the gospel of Jesus marks them out as the true Israel—the true Servant.
Since the Servant imagery is understood by the early Christians to be fulfilled in Jesus, Paul and Barnabas are also aligning themselves with Jesus and his mission by their use of Isaiah 49:6.
The early Christians saw the fulfillment of the prophecy [Isaiah 49:6] in Jesus, …but the present passage asserts that the mission of the Servant is also the task of the followers of Jesus. Thus the task of Israel, which she failed to carry out, has passed to Jesus and then to his people as the new Israel; it is the task of bringing the light of revelation and salvation to all the peoples of the world.
Paul and Barnabas see themselves as embodying the mission of Jesus Christ—the Servant. His task of bringing light to the Gentiles has become their task. They see themselves under divine obligation (“so the Lord has commanded us”) to fulfill this directive.
It is interesting at this point to ask a couple of related questions: (1) Where did Paul and Barnabas learn to read Isaiah in this way? (2) When were they “commanded” by the Lord to bring salvation to the end of the earth? The answer may be found in the appearance of the risen Jesus to Paul. The importance of this event can be seen in the fact that Luke narrates this episode on three different occasions in the book of Acts.
In Paul’s third recitation of his experience of meeting Jesus on the Damascus road Luke has Paul narrate the event with these words:
And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” And I said, “Who are you, Lord?” And the Lord said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things which I will appear to you; rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:14-18—emphasis added on v. 18)
In verse 18 there is a clear allusion to Isaiah 42:7 which is a reference to the work of the Servant (Isaiah 42:1). In Isaiah 42:6 this Servant is “appointed” to the dual task of being “a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations” which is also echoed in Acts 26:16-17. As has been recognized, both Isaiah 42 and 49 have had a profound impact upon the thinking and theologizing of Paul. What is of interest here is that it is the risen Jesus who is utilizing the language of the Isaianic Servant and applying it to Paul. In this experience of the risen Christ Paul is “appointed” by Christ to this ministry of the Servant. This Christophany to Paul radically reorients his theology. For example, G. K. Beale argues that Paul’s understanding of “reconciliation” finds its genesis in this appearance of Jesus to Paul. He writes:
This Isaiah text which speaks of the commission Yahweh gave to the Servant to restore exiled Israel is now applied by the risen Christ to Paul’s apostolic commission. Consequently, if this part of the Acts narrative represents early Pauline tradition, it is plausible to suggest that this commission from Christ provided the foundation and spark for the development of Paul’s subsequent understanding and explanation of reconciliation as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s and the Old Testament’s restoration promises.
In the same way that this functions for Paul’s doctrine of reconciliation so it may be the case that this appearance also, more generally, sets about a hermeneutical revolution for Paul. In speaking to Paul with such evocative language with its clear allusions to the Servant of Isaiah Paul is being taught how to read the Scriptures with a new set of “Christocentric” eyes. Both the identity of Jesus and his eschatological import are stunningly revealed to Paul. Not only is there a radical change in perspective regarding Jesus, there is also recognition on the part of Paul of his new relationship and role in light of the risen Messiah, Jesus. G. K. Beale helpfully articulates this idea:
It may seem unusual that Paul would apply to himself a prophecy which the early Christian community would likely have applied to Christ…The rationale for these dual identifications lies probably in the conception of corporate representation already found in the Old Testament, which may well lie behind the Pauline expression of “the Christ who speaks in me” (2 Cor. 13:3; cf. 2:14-17; 12:9, 19). And it is this same idea of corporate representation which allows Paul in his own mind to understand how the very context of the Isaiah 49 Servant could apply to himself without distorting the way in which he thought it may have been intended originally. Furthermore, in that he was continuing the mission of Jesus, the Servant, he could easily apply this Servant prophecy to himself.
In this Damascus road experience Jesus reveals to Paul an interpretative key which will open up the Jewish Scriptures to a new orientation centered around Jesus Christ and his work unto the nations. This is similar to what Luke records the risen Jesus doing for his original disciples after his resurrection. In Luke 24:44-48 Jesus “opens their minds to understand the Scriptures.” This teaching moment centers on seeing how all the previous Scriptures—“the law of Moses and the prophets and the Psalms”—are fulfilled in Jesus (cf. Luke 24:25-27). In light of this revelation and Christ’s resurrection there is a corresponding task given to the disciples to proclaim “repentance for forgiveness…to all the nations” (Luke 24:47). In Christopher J. H. Wright’s understanding, the disciples are taught to read and understand the Scriptures messianically and missionally. This is also what Paul experiences in his encounter with the risen Lord on the way to Damascus. The results are the same, as Wright notes:
Paul, though he was not present for the Old Testament hermeneutics lecture on the day of resurrection, clearly found that his encounter with the risen Jesus and his recognition of Jesus as Messiah and Lord radically transformed his (Paul’s) own way of reading his Scriptures. His hermeneutic now had the same double focus.
Paul is able to apply the words regarding the Servant of Isaiah 49 to himself because he has been taught to do so by Jesus himself. In his encounter with the risen Christ Paul comes away with both a new understanding of Jesus as the Messiah and a new role to fulfill among the Gentiles. Paul’s transformative encounter with Jesus opens up an understanding of both the identity of the Servant of Isaiah and the identification of the eschatological time in which Paul lives—a time to go to the Gentiles and bring the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Furthermore, there is a renewed relationship between the individual and corporate dimensions of the Servant. In Isaiah the corporate dimension is obviously the nation of Israel and the possibility of an individual manifestation of the Servant is merely latent. In the New Testament the writers clearly see Jesus as the individual Servant but there is also a corresponding corporate manifestation of the Servant by Paul and others who have taken up the mission of Jesus.
 The relationship between Luke and Paul’s theology is complex. It has often been argued that Luke particularly manifests his theological commitments in the many speeches in Acts. Sometimes it is argued that this Lukan theological perspective is not the same as Paul’s. Without entering into the larger area of Lukan and Pauline theological consistency it should be noted that Luke’s narration of the comment by Paul citing Isaiah 49:6 is thoroughly Pauline. As Douglas Oss states regarding Paul’s use of Isaiah as reflected in Acts: “The use of Isaiah in Paul’s speeches in Acts is noteworthy also. It appears that Luke has preserved the Pauline tradition accurately, if the use of Isaiah in his speeches is any indication.” Douglas A. Oss, “A Note on Paul’s Use of Isaiah,” BBR 2 (1992): 107.
 The LXX, however, reads slightly different in that there are a few additions (in italics): “Behold, I have given you for a covenant of the nation, for a light to the Gentiles, so that you may be for salvation to the end of the earth.” I. H. Marshall states: “The addition of ‘for a covenant of the nation’ (eis diatheken genous) is not found in any Hebrew version and appears to be simply a case of assimilation to Isa. 42:6.” G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 588.
 G. K. Beale, “The Old Testament Background of Reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5-7 and Its Bearing on the Literary Problem of 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (ed. G. K. Beale; Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1994), 246; repr. from NTS 35 (1989).