Usually by the time December begins Christmas decorations are up, holiday music is blasting, and pumpkin spice is in the air. But as the culture prepares for the holiday, I invite you to do something counter-cultural: to read the ancient collected prophecies of a man named Isaiah. Not only do I want you to read it, I want to run alongside and help you understand and enjoy it (Acts 8:30–31). That is my goal for you in the month of December leading up to Christmas — in twenty-four readings beginning on December 1 and ending on Christmas Eve.
Isaiah tells the boisterous story of international political upheaval — the stunning prequel to Bethlehem. Nothing will deepen your appreciation for the Incarnation, nothing will better help you enjoy Christ, and all that he is for you, if you understand the global setting that anticipated, and demanded, his birth. It’s been called the Fifth Gospel for good reason because along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John it’s a book about the Messiah, not merely in his birth, but in the whole of his world. And it’s majestic. It’s the prequel-gospel, the first gospel, or the gospel before the first gospel, because it serves as a forerunner to the biographies of Christ.
Ever since George Frideric Handel’s famous oratorio Messiah took its rightful place as the musical theme of Christmas the holiday season has been a good time to reflect on the full redemptive story-line of Scripture. Handel’s work builds from seventeen key citations drawn from across the prophetic book. Soaring texts like Isaiah 7:14; 9:2, 9:6; 35:5–6; 40:1–5, 40:9, 40:11; 50:6; 53:3–8; 60:1–3. He left no great Christmas text behind. But those texts are set within a bigger context we shouldn’t ignore.
But any reader soon finds out that the book of Isaiah, like the incarnation of Christ itself, is rather dark and gritty compared to the holiday season we experience each year. Our Christmases are clean and too easily reduced to fresh pine trees cut and domesticated, boxes wrapped in shiny foil, and mass production frosted cookies in the kitchen. The true reason for the birth of Christ is borne of global need and widespread desperation. Christ arrived from sheer human necessity, based on the dominant political powers and the resulting pains of the world. Isaiah offers us all the reasons to explain the story.
A Christ-centered reading of Isaiah is problematic, too. We can too prematurely read Isaiah in light of what we know about Christ and miss the urgency of the prophet’s hope and global expectation. Indeed what Isaiah sees is a threefold need which must be remedied by a threefold promise. As scholars have pointed out, Isaiah’s visions for the future redemption of the world calls for three separate individuals: a King, a Servant, and a Prophet.
“Isaiah does not envision only one lead agent,” Andrew Abernethy writes, “instead, there are at least three distinct lead agents whom God will use in each of the major sections of the book: (1) the Davidic ruler (1–39), (2) the servant of the Lord (40–55), and (3) God’s messenger (56–66). While Christians profess that Jesus ultimately embodies what the book of Isaiah envisions for these lead agents, I am not certain that these agents are necessarily understood to be the same individual throughout Isaiah.”
What I uniquely offer is a way of approaching these themes in the season of Advent that covers the entire prophecy of Isaiah.
In the end, we will learn to postpone the urge to merge this trio of figures together in Christ until the end of the book. What we see is the urgent need for God to send three men, a threefold anticipation manifesting in three very distinct parts. Only as we approach Christmas will we begin to assemble these three anointed characters together.
This is my fourth consecutive Advent leading readers through Isaiah online. I hope you can join us by following the hashtag #IsaiahChristmas. Here’s the reading schedule (PDF). Download and print it. And join us on Twitter.