Monday, November 27, 2017

Galilee And Prophecy Fulfillment

Isaiah 9 comes up a lot at this time of year. The focus is usually on something like the light in verse 2, a distinction between a child being born and a son being given, Jesus' deity, the meaning of the titles mentioned in verse 6, or the kingdom of verse 7. There's seldom discussion of the significance of Galilee in verse 1.

That's in spite of the fact that the New Testament places so much emphasis on Galilee's role. Matthew cites Isaiah 9, highlighting the fulfillment of its opening verses, upon Jesus' entrance into Galilee near the beginning of his public ministry (4:12-16). When Jesus' opponents are objecting to his physical origins in John 7, they walk into a trap by building a cumulative case against him that he answers by citing Isaiah 9 in John 8:12. (7:53-8:11 weren't part of the original gospel, so 8:12 followed immediately after 7:52.) They object to his association with Galilee (7:41). They object that the Messiah should be a descendant of David from David's city, Bethlehem (7:42). Jesus' supporters are condemned as ignorant of the scriptures (7:49). Search the scriptures and see that no prophet is to come out of Galilee, the region Jesus was associated with (7:52).

Jesus then identifies himself as the light of Isaiah 9, who shines upon those walking in darkness in Galilee. The passage simultaneously answers all of the objections and puts Jesus on the offensive while his opponents retreat. (For more about their retreat in chapters 8 and 9, see my discussion of the passage here.) Not only is there an Old Testament prediction about a figure associated with Galilee (Isaiah 9:1), contrary to what Jesus' opponents suggested in the closing verses of John 7, but this figure also is a descendant of David, the Davidic Messiah (Isaiah 9:7), with the implication that he'll come from David's city, Bethlehem. (Jesus' opponents connect Davidic ancestry and the Bethlehem birthplace in John 7:42, and the connection between the two is common elsewhere, as we see in Psalm 132, Micah 5, and Matthew 2, for example. For more on this subject, see the relevant section here.) So, Jesus' opponents were wrong on all counts in John 7. He is a descendant of David, he did come from Bethlehem, his association with Galilee is a good thing rather than a bad thing, the Galilean association is predicted in the Old Testament, and Jesus' opponents are the ones who are ignorant of the scriptures.

Verse 1 of Isaiah 9 refers to Galilee's despised status. It was still despised in some ways in Jesus' time, and that despised nature seems to have contributed to the failure of Jesus' critics to appreciate his fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. Even in later centuries, Tertullian refers to how Jewish opponents of Christianity called Christians "Nazarenes" (Against Marcion, 4:8), and Julian the Apostate derisively gave his anti-Christian work the title Against The Galilaeans in the fourth century. In our day, critics of Christianity still make much of Jesus' Galilean background, often emphasizing how he was known as Jesus of Nazareth, contrasting that with the expectation that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.

It should also be noted that Isaiah 9:1 refers to Galilee as despised because of its Gentile connections. That association with Gentiles takes on added significance when we consider the later history of Jesus' movement, beyond his public ministry and his initial followers. Most Christians have been Gentiles. Jesus was and is a light to Israel, but in some ways has been a light even more so to other nations.

Isaiah 9 is a highly significant passage that has a lot of evidential value for Christianity. The themes in verse 2 and beyond that receive the most attention are important and should continue to be highlighted. But verse 1 should get more attention than it usually does. The figure Isaiah predicted not only was to be God incarnate, the Messiah, and a descendant of David who would come from Bethlehem in southern Israel, but also would have a significant relationship with Galilee in northern Israel, with emphasis on its despised status and its relationship with Gentiles. Those characteristics narrow the field for potential fulfillment of Isaiah 9 even further and make Jesus' fulfillment of the passage even more impressive.

Update On 12/23/19: I've expanded upon the argument in this post here.

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