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Paul and the Servant, Part 1

When we read the book of Galatians, we often think about salvation by works versus salvation by faith, as this is one of the major teaching points of the epistle. At the same time, somehow supporting this theme, the apostle Paul quotes heavily from the prophecy of Isaiah.
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This set of articles will consider some of the links in Galatians to Isaiah, with this first article identifying the major links, and the second exploring why the apostle, guided by the Spirit, used these connections to reinforce his message of salvation by faith.

When Paul and Barnabas preached in Antioch in Pisidia—a city in the region of Galatia (modern-day Turkey)—they first preached to Jews. And yet, it was here in Galatia that they told the group of Jews that they would turn to the Gentiles. They supported their new preaching efforts with a passage from Isaiah: “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,

‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” (Acts 13:47).
This is a quotation of Isaiah 49:
“He says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’” (Isa 49:6).

As Paul and Barnabas mention, this connection between their preaching and Isaiah was not of their invention—it was commanded to them. While there is no specific reference to when they were given this charge, it would seem likely that this was conveyed when they were first commanded to preach:

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:1-3).

The Spirit stated that Saul and Barnabas had a specific “work to which I have called them.” The term here is important—because this calling is perhaps itself an allusion back to Isaiah 49:

“Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.” (Isa 49:1).

This first missionary journey became the time to start fulfilling that calling.

In the Septuagint (LXX), the root word for “called” is the same (καλέω, G2564), and thus, perhaps the work to which Paul and Barnabas were called was a specific allusion to Isaiah—making a stronger link between Acts 13 and Isaiah 49. This first missionary journey, therefore, became the time to start fulfilling that calling. Thus, in their first attempt at preaching, they preached to a Gentile proconsul (Acts 13:12). Their next major stop was Antioch in Pisidia.

Paul was given a divine charge to preach to Gentiles—and even further, given the divine seal that the words of the prophet applied to him. The fact that the Lord had taken a prophecy of Isaiah and applied it to Paul is perhaps somewhat astonishing for us in itself—rarely would we think about the apostles as individually fulfilling what the Hebrew prophets wrote. Yet adding to our surprise here is that these very words were not just applied to Paul. When Jesus came to the temple as a baby, he was presented to Simeon, who, moved by the Holy Spirit, spoke these words:

“For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32).

Simeon’s words refer to the same verse in Isaiah 49—they refer to a light to the nations and God’s salvation being shown to all the earth. Yet here, they are not applied to Paul and Barnabas, but Jesus.

So how does this work? How can it be that a prophecy about Jesus could also apply to Paul? Perhaps because God, through Luke, shows that there are multiple fulfillments of the prophecy during the first century.

While Isaiah initially prophesied to the Jews in Judah during Hezekiah’s day and so his prophecies applied to those days, and while his prophecies will ultimately also be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God, Scripture also indicates, through these quotations of Isaiah 49, that Isaiah’s words, at least in this chapter, applied to Jesus and to Paul. Further, these multiple fulfillments of the same chapter also emphasize a theme in Paul’s initial point to the Galatians:

Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. (Gal 1:1).
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:10-12).

Paul asserted that his teaching was in accordance with everything the other apostles were teaching (also see 1:18, 2:1-2). He was not running in vain. His gospel was taught to him entirely by revelation. And that’s the link: just as the Spirit separated him and Barnabas for their work in Acts 13, commanding them to preach, Paul had been given a divine charge by the Lord Jesus.

That divine charge was to fulfill what was prophesied in Isaiah 49. His gospel was not from someone else—but it was taught to him by God, who specifically commanded him to share it in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And thus, when reinforcing his message and the authority of his gospel, Paul seems to refer to Isaiah 49:

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (Galatians 1:15-17).

This is another quotation from the same chapter in Isaiah. While the connection is not entirely evident from the English Standard Version, almost all other translations use the specific language of the Greek: “from my mother’s womb” (KJV). Paul states that he had been separated for a specific purpose while he was in his mother’s womb.

In the LXX, the words “from the body of my mother” are the same as what is used in Galatians:

  • Galatians 1:15— “ἐκ κοιλίας μητρός μου”—out of my mother’s womb
  • Isaiah 49:1— “ἐκ κοιλίας μητρός μου”—out of my mother’s womb
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And yet, Isaiah clearly states that the one prophesied had been called from the womb. Instead of using the word “called,” Paul says that he had been separated from the womb (ἀφορίζω, G873; rather than Isaiah’s word καλέω, G2753). If Paul was quoting from Isaiah, why did he change the verb? Perhaps because this was also a reference to when this quotation was first applied to Paul: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” (Acts 13:2).

Paul was set apart (ἀφορίζω, H873) for the work to which God had called (προσκαλέω; G4341) him—and thus, there is a double allusion here. Paul stated that he was separated from the womb, perhaps as an allusion to his calling in Acts 13. And that calling was a reference back to Isaiah 49, which states that he was called from the womb.

A few ideas are being brought together here: Isaiah 49 was a prophecy that God applied to Paul. Paul received the calling to fulfill this prophecy at some point, perhaps when he was in Arabia, but it was confirmed in Acts 13:2 when he and Barnabas were separated for the work of fulfilling the prophecy. Finally, this fulfillment of Isaiah 49 confirmed that what Paul taught was true. It was not taught to him by a man, but by God.

Scattered throughout the epistle are these references to Isaiah 49, with Paul continually reminding his readers that he was called to fulfill Isaiah 49 by God. Thus, his words have God’s backing.


Thus, the book of Isaiah offered proof that God had called Paul to his preaching. His words held authority and authenticity.

And yet, there is more to Paul’s quotations—because, as we will see in the next article, Lord willing, Paul did not simply apply the quotations to himself.

The Believers and the Servant

However, there is more here than Paul simply quoting the Scripture about himself to prove that he is a fulfillment of it. Indeed, Isaiah 49 further legitimates his preaching, but there is an even more profound way that Paul understands Isaiah and uses it when speaking to the Galatians.

This additional understanding is perhaps indicated when Paul first applies Isaiah 49 to himself in Acts. Notice who Paul applies it to:

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

Paul and Barnabas saw the passage as about both—this prophecy about Jesus was being fulfilled by what both were doing. In fact, this appears to be how Luke attempts to get his readers to understand the fulfillment of Isaiah 49 and the servant songs. Just consider the progression here: first, Luke applied the words to Jesus (Luke 2:30-32).

With that in mind, consider what Luke does next:

“‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’” (Acts 1:8).

Do you recognize the end of this verse? It’s a quotation from the same verse in Isaiah 49—the same verse applied to Jesus, Paul, and Barnabas.

Thus, Luke takes this servant’s mission and applies it, not just to Jesus, but to Jesus’s apostles. Even more, Luke, in both instances—Acts 1 and Acts 13—essentially has Jesus divinely giving this interpretation of Isaiah 49 to his disciples. Reinforcing this interpretation is Jesus’s description of the disciples, “you will be my witnesses,” which is another quotation from Isaiah about the servant:

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, ”and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.” (Isa 43:10).
“I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and I am God.” (Isa 43:12).
Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any. (Isa 44:8).

The servant songs were being fulfilled, not only in Jesus, but in the disciples. But how? How was it that a prophecy about Jesus would be fulfilled in the disciples? Just because they were following in his footsteps? With that in mind, consider Galatians and the way that Paul understands this application of Isaiah:

“But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone.” (Gal 1:15-16).

As already noted, this is one of the places where Paul applies Isaiah 49 to himself—both when he references being called before he was born, and when he recalls his preaching among the Gentiles. At the same time, Paul also explains this calling and prophetic application in another way: God was pleased “to reveal his Son to me.”

Unfortunately, however, reading a translation can obscure something crucial here. The Greek for this phrase is as follows: “ἀποκαλύψαι τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν ἐμοὶ.” There are two things to notice here—the second to last word is the preposition en, which is typically translated as “in.” Thus,

To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood. (Gal 1:16 KJV).

To reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood. (Gal 1:16 NKJV).

To reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood. (Gal 1:16 NASB).

The servant songs were being fulfilled, not only in Jesus, but in the disciples…There’s more to this verse, however, that cannot be seen in any translation. In Greek, there are specific ways to emphasize a concept. Paul wrote en emoi, which translates to “in me.”  But it also has emphasis. If one simply wanted to write “in me” in Koine Greek, they would write en moi. However, Paul wrote en emoi—and the epsilon that has been added to moi adds emphasis. Paul was stating that God revealed Jesus in me.

Why did he emphasize this? Perhaps because he was showing that this was how Isaiah 49 was being fulfilled. God was revealing Jesus in Paul. It wasn’t that Isaiah 49 was written with Paul in mind. It was that Christ had come to live within Paul and that because of this, Paul was now fulfilling Jesus’s work!

Thus, in the next chapter, notice how Paul makes this clear:

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

Jesus was alive in Paul. But he wasn’t just supposed to be alive in Paul.

“My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal 4:19).

God had formed Christ in Paul. Jesus was living in Paul, and because of that, Paul was a fulfillment of Isaiah 49. And yet, this was the same process that not just Paul and the disciples were to undergo—it was the process for the believers in Galatia as well!

In other words, Isaiah 49 was also meant to be about them, not because it was literally about them, but because it was about Jesus, and Jesus was supposed to be alive in them. Just as Jesus passed his mission to the disciples, so the mission of the servant in Isaiah would be given to the ecclesia.

And yet, unlike what we had seen with Paul’s use of Isaiah to demonstrate his authority, what did the Galatians fulfilling Isaiah have anything to do with the central issue in Galatia? How was this connected to salvation by faith and salvation by works? Lord willing, we will explore those questions in the second article.

Jason Hensley,
Simi Hills, CA

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