Isaiah As Taught By The New Testament Apostles

Victor L. Ludlow

Reprinted by permission from The New Testament and the Latter-day Saints (Orem, Utah: Randall Book Company, 1987), 149—60.

This paper will study the various ways in which the New Testament writers, especially the apostles, presented the prophecies and pronouncements of Isaiah. The purpose will not be to study the doctrines in any great depth, but to analyze the approach, context and application of Isaiah's writings as they are found in the New Testament.

Where is Isaiah in the New Testament?

Frequent readers of the New Testament recall that there are occasional references to the Prophet Isaiah (or Esaias, as he is usually referred to in the King James Translation), which usually highlight some prophecy that was fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. Maybe these readers were like me in assuming that most of the remembered references seemed to be in the gospel account of Matthew, since he frequently demonstrated how Jesus became the fulfillment of Isaiah's messianic prophecies. However, we find that other apostles also quoted from Isaiah. The apostle Paul did so most frequently, three times as often as Matthew.

There are at least seventy-one passages in the New Testament in which Isaiah is either quoted or expressly referred to as his teachings are cited or paraphrased. Except for the book of Psalms (with eighty-nine references), no other Old Testament book is quoted or referred to more times in the New Testament. For those who like to keep more careful track of such references, Isaiah is quoted or referred to ten times in Matthew; seven times in Mark; six times in Luke; four times in John; five times in Acts; sixteen times in Romans; nine times in 1 and 2 Corinthians; one time each in Galatians, Ephesians, Thessalonians, and Hebrews; six times in 1 Peter; and four times in Revelation. Looking at it from another direction, thirty-one of Isaiah's sixty-six chapters are quoted in the New Testament, ranging from one to sixty-six, with the heaviest concentration coming from chapters 6, 8, 28, 29, 40, 49, 52, and 53.

The Isaiah passage quoted most often in the New Testament books is Isaiah 6:9—10, which is found in the first six books—namely, Matthew 13:14—15, Mark 4:12, Luke 8:10, John 12:40, Acts 28:26—27 and Romans 11:8. This passage refers to the difficulty most people have who have heard the word of the Lord but still do not understand it.

The favorite chapter of the New Testament writers is an obvious one—Isaiah 53, which prophesies of the suffering servant or the Messiah and is referred to in Matthew 8:17, Mark 15:28, Luke 22:37, John 12:38, Acts 8:32—33, Romans 10:16 and 1 Peter 2:22—24. Another favorite Isaiah chapter is the fortieth, which talks about the power and glory of the Lord, especially in conjunction with the message of a forerunner preparing for his coming to a transformed earth with references in Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4—6, John 1:23, Romans 11:34, 1 Corinthians 2:16, and 1 Peter 1:24—25.

As can be summarized from the references above, more than one-third of the Isaiah passages quoted in the New Testament come from just twenty-one verses: Isaiah 6:9—10; 40:3—8, 13 and 53:1—12. (For a full list of Isaiah passages in the New Testament, see "Quotations" on page 758 in the Bible Dictionary of the LDS Version of the Bible.)

How Did Matthew Teach From Isaiah?

More passages from Isaiah are found in Matthew than in any other of the gospel accounts. Six of the ten references from Isaiah in Matthew are also found in one or more of the other gospels, and four of the Isaiah passages are unique to the writings of Matthew.

The favorite presentation used by Matthew as he quoted from Isaiah was: "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying . . . " He used this phrase to introduce verses from Isaiah, which he gave as evidence for the messianic calling of Jesus. This phrase is found with all four passages from Isaiah that Matthew quoted but are not found in any other of the gospel accounts (Matthew 1:22—23; 4:14—16; 8:17; 12:17—21).

Two passages from Isaiah are found in all four gospel accounts. The first, from Isaiah 40:3, refers to the voice of one crying in the wilderness, "prepare ye the way of the Lord." This scripture applied to John the Baptist who used it as he preached in the Judean wilderness near the Jordan River. It is interesting to note four different ways this scripture is used in the gospel accounts as each writer applied it in a slightly different context. Matthew said that John was the person prophesied by Isaiah whose voice would cry in the wilderness (Matthew 3:3). Mark simply said that it was written in the prophets that a messenger would precede the Messiah, that the messenger's voice would cry in the wilderness, and that John did preach in the wilderness (Mark 1:3). Luke wrote that John was preaching in the country about Jordan, as it is written in Isaiah about the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and then quoted verses 3—5 (Luke 3:4—6). John noted that John the Baptist referred to himself as the voice crying in the wilderness as Isaiah had promised (John 1:23). In other words, Matthew used the Isaiah passages as a proof for John's calling; Mark roughly tied John and the Isaiah scripture together by association; Luke implied that John used the Isaiah prophecy in his teachings or at least was the embodiment of it; and John specifically stated that John the Baptist said he was the fulfillment of Isaiah's promise.

The other passage found in all four gospel accounts comes from Isaiah 6:9—10, where it is promised that many who hear the word of the Lord will not understand it. This passage is also applied in different contexts by the different writers. Matthew states that Jesus used the passage to tell his disciples why many could not perceive his message. According to Matthew, Jesus specifically referred to Isaiah and quoted the passage in great depth (Matthew 13:14—15). Mark and Luke are similar in that they paraphrase or briefly quote the Isaiah passage in the context of Jesus' talking to his disciples, but neither account mentions Isaiah as the earlier source of this teaching (Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10). John, on the other hand, uses the Isaiah ideas to back up his own explanation as to why many Jews could not understand Jesus and be converted. He does not mention that Jesus used these ideas but uses them to explain why many did not believe in Jesus (John 12:39—41).

There is one Isaiah passage found in the three synoptic gospels, but not in John. The brief reference comes from the first half of Isaiah 56:7, which Jesus used to describe how the house of the Lord should be a house of prayer, but the moneychangers had made it into a den of thieves. The fact that this description comes from Isaiah is not even mentioned in any of the accounts (Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46).

Three Isaiah passages found in Matthew are also found in one other gospel account. Matthew and Luke both record how Jesus told the disciples of John the Baptist to return to their master and tell him how they had witnessed Jesus as be performed miracles among the blind, the lame, the leprous, the deaf, and the dead. In recounting these types of miracles, Jesus used promises from the prophecy found in Isaiah 35:6—7 (Matthew 11:5; Luke 7:22).

Matthew and Mark share the same concepts and context as they record how Jesus chastised the hypocrites by telling them that they were the fulfillment of the words of Isaiah 29:13, which is about how people would draw near to the Lord with their lips, but their hearts would be far from him (Matthew 15:8—9 and Mark 7:67).

Matthew and Mark also shared parallel accounts as they told of the teachings of Jesus concerning Jerusalem and the last days. Jesus borrowed some phrases from Isaiah 13:10 about the sun being darkened and the moon not giving her light as one of the signs of the times. Neither account gave any specific reference to Isaiah (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24).

In summarizing how Matthew used Isaiah in his teachings, one notes that he has more references from Isaiah than any other gospel writer. Of the ten passages, four are distinct to Matthew's account while the other six are also found in various other gospel accounts. In his own distinct references to Isaiah, Matthew always specifically mentioned that he was using Isaiah and in the shared references Matthew was also more inclined to mention specifically that the quoted passages came from Isaiah. Thus he uses Isaiah as an authoritative source for his teachings as he bears witness of Jesus the Messiah.

How Was Isaiah Taught In The Other Gospel Accounts?

Although Mark and Luke were not apostles in Christ's early church, as far as we know, it is of value to see how they also taught from Isaiah. John the Apostle also has a few references to Isaiah in his gospel account.

Mark and Luke share one brief Isaiah passage from chapter 53, verse 12, concerning Christ's being numbered among the transgressors, but they apply it in completely different contexts. Luke wrote that shortly before Gethsemane Jesus told the apostles that he must fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah, or suffering servant, must be reckoned among the transgressors, referring perhaps to the approaching atonement or intercession for the transgressors which Jesus would shortly suffer (Luke 22:37). Mark uses this same passage from Isaiah in describing events shortly after Jesus was placed upon the cross. He wrote that the prophecy was then fulfilled in that Jesus was crucified between two thieves, or in other words, "he was numbered with the transgressor" (Mark 15:28).

Mark makes reference to one Isaiah scripture which is not found in the other gospel accounts. In chapter 9, starting with verse 43, Jesus taught about severing ourselves from those elements, even parts of our body, which might lead us to hell. He specifically referred to our hands, feet, and eyes. The basic teaching was that if our hand, foot, or eye should offend us and be leading us to hell, then we should separate it from us. After each item is mentioned, Mark records Jesus' teaching that hell is "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44, 46, 48). This quote echoes the very last verse in Isaiah, where he teaches that those who transgress against the Lord will be in a miserable state, "for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched" (Isaiah 66:24). In his Inspired Version, Joseph Smith kept the first and last references but dropped the middle one (Mark 9:41—48, Joseph Smith Translation). Although Matthew also taught about separating oneself from evil hands, feet, and eyes, he did not include the specific phrases found in Isaiah 66:24 (Matthew 18:8—9). It is interesting that Mark not only includes it, but repeats it three times, and the whole teaching is found with more detail in his account (especially as recorded in the Joseph Smith Translation) than in Matthew. With the repeated use of the phrases found in Isaiah 66, it seems that this teaching episode was clearly impressed upon Mark so that be recorded it in more depth.

Luke also has one important quote from Isaiah not recorded in the other gospel accounts. In chapter 4, verses 17—19, Luke states that Jesus began his public ministry in the Nazareth synagogue by quoting from the Prophet, Isaiah. We find the words Jesus quoted in Isaiah 61:1—2 which refer to a messianic calling. As Jesus applied this prophecy to himself, the townspeople wanted to cast him off the cliff. These words of Isaiah got Christ's ministry off to a rocky start. It is interesting to note that not all of verse two was quoted; Jesus did not mention that he was coming to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God or perhaps his reception may have been even more severe. Besides, his first coming was to bring redemption through an "acceptable year of the Lord," and the "day of vengeance of our God" would more closely combine with his second coming.

John also includes a couple of distinctive Isaiah passages in his writings which are not found in the other gospel accounts. In John 6:45 he records that Jesus included an Isaianic teaching in the famous "bread of life" sermon. Without mentioning Isaiah by name, Jesus stated that it was written "in the prophets" that all people shall be taught of God. In Isaiah 54:13 we find the same specific concept.

In the twelfth chapter of John, John gave some detailed commentary on why many Jews did not accept Jesus and believe on him. He referred to two specific pronouncements found in Isaiah to explain this rejection. He first referred to Isaiah 53:1, which asks: Who would believe our report and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? John says this scripture was fulfilled by those who saw the many miracles performed by Jesus, but still did not believe in him. John then referred to the passage in Isaiah 6:9—10 about how people's eyes and hearts would be blinded to the truth. John said that his saying of Isaiah also explained why many Jews did not believe in Jesus (John 12:38—41).

To summarize the use of Isaiah in the gospel accounts of Mark, Luke, and John, we find that most of the passages are in the context of various teachings of Jesus, who used Isaiah as he taught. In the main, these quotations or references by Jesus are straightforward and to the point of supporting and verifying his teachings. However, John did use some Isaiah material to reinforce his commentary about the hard hearts of many people who listened to Jesus but did not accept him.

How Did Paul Teach From Isaiah?

More passages from Isaiah are found in the writings of Paul than in the records of any other New Testament writer. Of the 32 such references in the teachings of Paul, the heaviest concentration is found in Romans 9—11, three references are in Acts, and the rest are scattered throughout his epistles.

In Antioch, Paul taught the Jews from the writings of Isaiah as he testified about the resurrection of Jesus and said that it was the "sure mercies of David" as promised by Isaiah 55:3. To the same audience Paul also said that if they rejected him, then he, as a spokesman for the word of God, was also to be a "light of the Gentiles," as prophesied in Isaiah 49:6 (Acts 13:34, 47).

The last apostolic teachings recorded in Acts were the words of Paul in Rome as he commented on why many Jews in Rome did not believe his message. He used Isaiah 6:9—10 and said that his audience was a fulfillment of Isaiah's inspired words about people hearing but not understanding the word of God (Acts 28:26—27).

The most concentrated use of Isaiah in the New Testament is found in Paul's epistle to the Romans. After a couple of brief references from Isaiah (which were simply blended within the context of his teachings: Isaiah 52:5 in Romans 2:2, and Isaiah 59:7—8 in Romans 3:15—17), Paul started an extensive series of thirteen quotes from Isaiah starting with Romans 9:27 and continuing for the next two and one-half chapters. The chart below shows where the Isaiah passages are found:

Isaiah passages in Romans Parts of Romans with Isaiah quotes
Isaiah 1:9 Romans 9:29 Romans 9:27—28 Isaiah 10:22—23
Isaiah 6—9—10 Romans 11:8 Romans 9:29 Isaiah 1:9
Isaiah 8:14 Romans 9:32—33 Romans 9:32—33 Isaiah 8:14; 28:16
Isaiah 10:22—23 Romans 9:27—28 Romans 10:11 Isaiah 28:16
Isaiah 27:9 Romans 11:27 Romans 10:15 Isaiah 62:7
Isaiah 28:16 Romans 9:33; 10:11 Romans 10:16 Isaiah 53:1
Isaiah 29:10 Romans 11:8 Romans 10:20—21 Isaiah 65:1—2
Isaiah 40:13 Romans 11:33—34 Romans 11:8 Isaiah 6:9—10; 29:10
Isaiah 52:7 Romans 10:15 Romans 11:26—27 Isaiah 59:20—21
Isaiah 63:1 Romans 10:16 Romans 11:27 Isaiah 27:9
Isaiah 59:20—21 Romans 11:26—27 Romans 11:33—34 Isaiah 40:13
Isaiah 65:1—2 Romans 10:20—21

As can be seen from the chart above, Paul quoted from twelve different chapters of Isaiah in just two and one-half chapters of his own writings. A whole symposium presentation could be delivered using this material as a basis. Suffice it to say that Paul used these many and varied passages from Isaiah to back up his teachings to the Romans about how Israel had been chosen to receive the covenant blessing of the Lord, but she had forfeited them. These covenant opportunities and blessings were now being offered to the Gentiles and they could be heirs to them, depending upon their faith and righteousness. Indeed, the faithful Gentiles could be grafted into the house of Israel and the gospel would go preferentially to them until their time was fulfilled. These chapters contain a masterful discourse of Paul about the covenant relationship between the Lord and the house of Israel, including those righteous Gentiles who would become a covenant part of Israel. He used a number of other scriptures in this discourse, but half of them came from Isaiah.

Later in Romans, Paul quotes Isaiah three more times as he declares: (1) that everyone will come before Christ and know him (Isaiah 45:23 in Romans 14:11) (2) that Christ as the root of Jesse will reign over the Gentiles (Isaiah 11:10 in Romans 15:12) and, (3) that people separated from the place and events of Christ's life could come to understand him and his gospel (Isaiah 52:15 in Romans 15:21).

In his epistles to the Corinthians, Paul uses nine scattered references from Isaiah, particularly at the beginning and end of his first epistle. Almost all these quotes are in sets of two each, as seen in chapters 1, 2, and 15 of 1 Corinthians and in chapter 6 of Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 1:19—20, Paul quotes two Isaiah passages to illustrate that the wisdom of the world is foolishness before God, and what the world finds as foolish in the gospel is the true wisdom of God (Isaiah 29:14, 33:18).

Two Isaiah passages are in the second chapter also, and both of them illustrate that although the wisdom of the Lord is hard for mortals to comprehend, through the Spirit and mind of Christ people can be instructed by God (Romans 2:9 and Isaiah 64:4; Romans 2:16 and Isaiah 4:13).

A lone Isaiah reference in 1 Corinthians 14:21 where Paul paraphrases Isaiah 28:11—12, tells of a stammering, foreign speaker not being understood even though the message was of great value. Paul applies this reference to the gift of tongues to reinforce his teaching that the gift of tongues is not as important as the gifts of faith and belief.

Two verses from Isaiah found in 1 Corinthians 15:32, 34, are also paraphrased by Paul. In teaching about the Resurrection, Paul compares his own spiritual readiness to face death with the attitude of "eat and drink for tomorrow we die" which Isaiah used to describe the people in Jerusalem (Isaiah 22:13). Later he promises that the sting of death will be swallowed in the victory of the Resurrection, borrowing some phraseology found in Isaiah 25:8.

The two Isaiah passages in 2 Corinthians are both in the sixth chapter. Paul uses Isaiah 49:8 and 52:11 to back up his invitation to the Gentiles to come out of the world and accept the salvation of Christ (2 Corinthians 6:2, 17).

Four single references from Isaiah are scattered in four other epistles of Paul. In Galatians 4:27 he uses Isaiah 54:1 to tell the Gentiles that they too are the children of promise even though they are not literal descendants of Israel. Continuing his theme of comforting the Gentiles, he uses Isaiah 57:19 in Ephesians 2:17 to tell those far from Jerusalem that the gospel message of peace is also to come to them through the Spirit of God. In 2 Thessalonians 2:8 Paul addresses a different theme as he borrows Isaiah 11:4 to promise that at the Second Coming the Lord will reveal and consume the wicked in the brightness of his coming. Finally, Paul uses one phrase from Isaiah 8:18 in his epistle to the Hebrews. In Hebrews 2:13 he testifies of his trust in Christ and those fellow Christians whom God had given to Christ as his children.

In summary of Paul's use of Isaiah, we find that be not only used passages from all parts of Isaiah's writings, but be also varied from paraphrasing to using specific, exact quotations. His scripture quotations were often bunched together, so we usually find clusters of Isaiah references in the same chapter. Most of his emphasis was upon the covenant relationship between people and the Lord. He used Isaiah to illustrate both why Israel forfeited her role as the chosen people and why the Gentiles had a spiritual right to the blessings promised to Israel. He also applied Isaiah passages to teachings about the Atonement, the Resurrection of Christ, and some key events surrounding his later Second Coming. In short, Paul found wide and varied applications of Isaiah in his writings.

How Did Peter Teach From Isaiah?

In the few brief writings of Peter, we find some important applications of some prophecies of Isaiah. He concludes what we now have as chapter 1 of his writings with a poetic description of man's temporary, transitory nature which he undoubtedly borrowed from Isaiah 40: 6—8 (1 Peter 1:24—25).

Peter's most important and numerous references from Isaiah are found in the second chapter of his first epistle. As he testifies of Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone of the gospel, he quotes from the scriptures, and particularly from Isaiah 28:16, which is mentioned twice (1 Peter 2:6, 8). At the end of this chapter, Peter testifies about the purity of Christ and his atoning sacrifice as he borrows important phraseology from Isaiah 53 (1 Peter 2:22—24).

One last possible, but weak reference from Isaiah is found in the third chapter of the same first epistle. At best, this passage might be a loose paraphrase from Isaiah 8:12—13, where Judah was commanded to be brave and to sanctify the Lord. In 1 Peter 3:14—15, Peter tells the early Saints to not be afraid but to sanctify the Lord in their hearts.

In brief summary, Peter basically uses the pronouncements of Isaiah to reinforce his testimony about Jesus as the chief cornerstone and as the pure sacrifice for sin.

How Much Of Isaiah Is Found In Revelation?

New Testament

Actually, surprisingly little of Isaiah is found in direct reference in the writings of John the Revelator. Only four specific references seem to come from the writings of Isaiah. One passage from Isaiah 44:6—7, where the Lord of Israel states that he is the first and the last, is clearly echoed in Revelation 1:17—18 and 2:8. Indeed, the combination of three scriptures from Isaiah in Revelation reinforces the doctrine that the Lord of Israel and of the Old Testament is also the Christ and Lord of the New Testament.

Another specific Isaiah passage is found in the third chapter of Revelation, where the keys of David are mentioned as a symbol of the power and authority of Christ (compare Revelation 3:7 with Isaiah 22:22). The last clear Isaiah reference is from Isaiah 49:10, where the righteous are promised that they will neither hunger or thirst as they will be protected from the sun and heat. This same promise is found in Revelation 7:16 where those before the throne of God are given the same blessing.

Although one does not find a number of specific quotations from Isaiah, thoughtful readers of the Bible sense that major portions of John's revelations from his grand visions are similar to Isaiah's apocalyptic visions. It is as though they both have seen the same events in the last days but each had drawn from the vision and recorded those perspectives which they felt to be the most distinctive and valuable. I feel particularly this way as I read chapters 24—27 of Isaiah and compare his insights with those of John in Revelation 6—9, or Isaiah 6 with Revelation 5, Isaiah 51 with Revelation 11, and so on.

How Did The Apostles Differ In Their Use Of Isaiah's Writings?

Matthew and Peter quote specifically from Isaiah to support their declarations that Jesus is the Messiah. Paul inserts Isaiah as a subtle reinforcement to his teachings about the covenant relationship of the house of Israel. John uses Isaiah to reinforce his testimony and commentary about Jesus in his gospel account. Then, in his book of revelation, be duplicates Isaiah's perspective because he seems to have seen the same or similar visions and thus repeats some of what is in Isaiah's apocalyptic writings. Thus we have a progression from a "Bible bash" scriptural foundation to a "reinforced teaching" approach to a "shared vision" concept of relating the pronouncements of Isaiah to their own contemporary teaching situations. What does this mean for us today?

How Can We Use Isaiah Today?

The apostolic teachings from Isaiah in the gospel accounts often were simply a reflection of Jesus using the Isaiah material in his teachings. However, some writers, especially Matthew, specifically note that Isaiah was being quoted whereas others would simply quote or paraphrase the Isaiah material in the general context of Jesus' teachings.

There is no general, uniform pattern with which the apostles used Isaiah in their teachings. I looked for such a pattern, but instead I found diversity. Maybe this means that each of us has to approach and use Isaiah from the framework of our own background and adapt his teachings in the context of our own personality for the purposes of the particular teaching situation, as inspired by the Holy Spirit. It appears, from the example of the ancient apostles as recorded in the New Testament, that we are allowed a fair amount of flexibility in our use and application of the profound writings of the ancient prophet Isaiah.

The classical example of using Isaiah in a flexible teaching situation is found in the New Testament, but it has not been mentioned earlier because it did not involve one of the apostles. The episode is found in Acts, chapter 8, where the evangelist Philip was inspired to ask the visiting dignitary from Ethiopia if he understood the teachings from Isaiah which the Ethiopian was reading. Using Isaiah 53 as the foundation, Philip taught him from the scriptures, and the Ethiopian was baptized later that same day. I guess one never knows when a good teaching situation will arise where the teachings of Isaiah will help convert someone, so all students of the scriptures need to study his profound writings and have them available to teach and help others.