Israel - Light to the nations

Christian Embassy's International feast of tabernacles Jerusalem celebration: What is Israel's central role?

Jerusalem 521 (photo credit:
Jerusalem 521
(photo credit:
“Indeed He says, ‘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; I will also give you as a light to the gentiles, that you should be My salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Isaiah 49:6).
At the International Christian Embassy’s Feast of Tabernacles celebration in Jerusalem last month, the theme for our seminar components was “Israel: Light to the Nations,” based on Isaiah 49:6. This prophetic passage is rich with meaning, as it touches upon God’s purpose for Israel, its divine calling.
This verse has been used in many different contexts. For instance, many today allude to it in reference to modern Israel’s many amazing innovations, which are bringing tremendous medical benefits and technological advances to humanity.These are indeed remarkable Jewish contributions to the world, yet the focus of the passage is on God’s “salvation” – the profound spiritual blessings He has delivered to the world through Israel (Romans 15:27).
In context, the passage speaks of a servant of the Lord God whose task would be, not only to restore the descendants of Jacob, the Jewish people, and preserve them according to His plans, but also to embrace an even broader mission among the gentiles by taking the salvation of God to the ends of the earth. So in its specific setting, this portion of Isaiah speaks about a person of “light” – undoubtedly the promised Messiah – who is a restorer of Israel, rather than about the nation of Israel itself.
This is how the passage is treated in the New Testament. In Luke 2:32, it is used to refer to Jesus at his birth, describing his dual role as “a light to bring revelation to the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” In Acts 13:47, the Apostle Paul cites the same verse to validate his resolve to take the Gospel to the gentile nations. Then in Acts 26:23, Paul again refers to the person of Jesus as that favored son of Israel who was sent to “proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the gentiles.”
Yet that is not the end of the story. Jesus did not just arrive out of nowhere, but came according to the promises which God had made to the “fathers,” meaning Abraham, Moses, David and the other “beloved” Hebrew patriarchs (Romans 9:4-5, 11:28, 15:8; Galatians 3). He indeed was the “light of the world” (John 8:12), but he arose out of the light of messianic hope and expectancy already given to Israel. Even Jesus himself said: “Salvation is of the Jews.” That is, the very concept of world redemption came to us through the people of Israel.
To better understand this biblical principle, consider that light is often used as a metaphor for truth in Scripture. It reveals eternal realities, illuminating the way things really are, since our spiritual understanding can often be veiled.
The psalmist cries out, “Oh, send out Your light and Your truth! Let them lead me...” (Psalms 43:3).
This aspect of light as a revealing agency of eternal truths is especially so regarding the true nature and character of God, which brings us to Israel’s central role in being a “light to the nations.”
Israel: custodian of the light The nation of Israel has gifted the world with many spiritual blessings, the foremost being our Messiah. It was also through Israel that God chose to reveal His nature and character to the world.
In His covenants with Israel, God reveals His personality. We see His grace and faithfulness, as well as His holiness and justice. This is summed up in one powerful passage in Exodus in which God describes His own attributes to Moses on Mount Sinai.
“Now the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him [Moses] there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation’” (Exodus 34:5-7).
Thus it was through Israel that God revealed His personality traits to the world – what He is like and what pleases and displeases Him. Through the revelation at Sinai, we understand that He is the awesome and all-powerful Creator, and yet He does not want to stay out there in eternity forever. Rather, He loves creation and actually wants to come down and interact with humankind, even to “dwell” with us (Exodus 29:43-46; Revelation 21:3).
But we are given to understand that He also is a holy God and cannot abide any rebellion against Him. He lashes out at sin, even visiting iniquities on succeeding generations. Thus we can be assured there are consequences for sin! One day, this Creator God will require that everyone give account to Him for their lives (Ecclesiastes 3:15; Matthew 12:36; Romans 14:12; Hebrews 4:13).
This revelation at Sinai gave rise to what we know today as ethical monotheism – belief in the one true God and Creator of all, who is ultimately good and holy and engaged with the world, and to whom we will all give answer some day, thereby encouraging us to live uprightly.
This revelation was and remains an incredible “light” which Israel delivered to the whole world, which was groping in darkness and sorely in need of this light. For man’s image of God had become perverted, as we brought Him down to our level, thinking He was like us (Romans 1:18-23).
Humankind’s highest wisdom in ancient times gave us the Greek pantheon of gods, who were selfish and temperamental, taken up in revelry and carnality. But Israel insisted the Creator is not like that; He is merciful, holy, slow to anger, and ever open to the repentant soul. This, dear saints, was a precious light shining forth into darkness. And it was the Israelites who were made custodians of this light for all peoples, tongues and tribes.
We see this uniquely manifested by the visible symbols of light which God placed in the Wilderness tabernacle, and later at the Temple – that is, the menorah and the holy fire which fell upon the altar. The light of God’s glory and presence was also seen in the pillar of fire that accompanied Israel in the desert, and was reflected in the glory which shone upon the face of Moses.
Israel has carried this magnificent light for generations, and indeed the Apostle Paul lists “the glory” as one of the great redemptive gifts to the world which “belong” to Israel (Romans 9:4). Thus, Christians should be forever grateful for this divine light which has come to us through Israel.