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After setting forth the ministry of conciliation that has been given to the believers, Paul then describes that ministry further, beginning in 2 Cor. 6:1, 2,
1 And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain— 2 for He says [in Isaiah 49:8], “At the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you”; behold, now is “the acceptable time,” and behold, now is “the day of salvation”—.
The message of conciliation, received and believed by the Corinthian church, is “the grace” that Paul was referencing here. Having received it themselves, they, in turn, became ambassadors to those still estranged from God. So Paul encourages them to do the work of this ministry, “working together with Him.”
Paul’s reference to Isaiah 49:8 (and to that chapter as a whole) reveals the key to understanding how a believer actually qualifies as an ambassador of the conciliation. Though Paul says little about it, it contains the keys to this ministry during the “day of salvation.”
In verse 2 above, Paul quotes Isaiah 49:8, which says,
8 Thus says the Lord, “In a favorable time I have answered You, and in a day of salvation [Yeshua] I have helped You; and I will keep You and give You for a covenant of the people, to restore the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages.”
Here we see Paul’s interpretation and application of the prophecy in Isaiah 49. It is a long chapter prophesying about God’s “Servant,” a reference to Jesus Christ. Paul shows also that the body of Christ is part of the “Servant,” for they serve Christ as His ambassadors in the work of redeeming the world.
Verse 8 above speaks of the “day of salvation,” which, in Hebrew, is literally the “day of Yeshua.” Yeshua means salvation. Paul was making the point that the day of Yeshua began with the coming of Yeshua Himself (Jesus). The church, then, was supposed to continue His work by the power of the Holy Spirit until all things have been put under His feet.
Therefore, it is clear that the “day of Yeshua” was longer than just the few years in which Jesus ministered personally. It began with Jesus’ appearance and personal ministry on earth, but it did not end with His death or even with His ascension. It extends to the end of time. We are still today living in the “day of Yeshua.”
Therefore, “the acceptable time” is NOW (throughout the age).
So what did Isaiah have to say about this day of Yeshua? It is first about the regathering of the lost tribes of Israel who had been deported by the Assyrians and scattered afar. Isaiah 49:3, 4 says,
3 And He said to Me [i.e., the Messiah and His body], “You are My Servant, Israel, in whom I will show My glory.” 4 But I said, “I have toiled in vain, I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely the justice due to Me is with the Lord, and My reward with My God.”
The references to “My Servant” are generally understood to be messianic prophecies. However, Paul’s application of Isaiah 49 to the ambassadors of Christ shows that the prophecies extend as well to those participating in the ministry of conciliation.
Isaiah himself makes this clear when he says in verse 3, “You are My Servant, Israel.” Israel is more than just the Messiah. It is the body of people who have been called to the ministry of conciliation which puts all things under the feet of Christ.
The name Israel itself was the name (or title) given to Jacob when he became an overcomer. It was not given to Jacob on account of his genealogy, but because he overcame through the great revelation of God’s sovereignty. Hence, he was given the name Israel, “God rules.” By recognizing the sovereignty of God, we truly become God’s servants. For this reason, when Isaiah speaks of “My Servant,” it is about the Messiah and also about Israel—those who truly recognize that they are servants of God.
Isaiah 49:5 continues, saying,
5 And now says the Lord, who formed Me from the womb to be His servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, in order that Israel might be gathered to Him (For I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and My God is My strength).
Recall that Jacob went to Syria, where he was virtually enslaved by Laban. In doing so, he was a prophetic type of his descendants who would later be taken to Assyria as captives. Jacob went to Syria, but he returned to the land as Israel, because Jacob’s name was changed to Israel while on the return journey.
Hence, the prophet says, Jacob was brought back to Him “in order that Israel might be gathered to Him.” Isaiah’s parenthetical explanation shows that the name Israel is a name of honor given to those who confess that “My God is My strength.” In other words, we have no strength in ourselves.
Recall too that Jacob’s strength left him when he wrestled with the angel, and he could only hold on until he was blessed. Jacob lost the wrestling match, but in losing, he “prevailed.” No one prevails in a conflict with God. They win when they lose, for then they recognize the sovereignty of God. When they see themselves as servants, they are qualified to rule with Christ as stewards of His Kingdom.
So also is it with the church. The church is Jacob as long as it adheres to its belief in the power of his own free will and does not recognize the sovereignty of God. Jacobites give God a lot of fleshly help, hoping that between the two of them, the promises of God can be fulfilled.
Jacob knew that he was the chosen inheritor, for that prophecy had been given even before he was born (Gen. 25:23; Rom. 9:11, 12). Though Jacob was a believer, he thought he was allowed to violate the law (by lying to his father in Gen. 27:19) in order to ensure that this prophecy would be fulfilled.
That was how Jacob got into trouble and was why God led him into captivity. Jacob went into captivity; Israel returned to the inheritance.
Isaiah 49:6 continues,
6 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 make You a light of the nations, so that My salvation [Yeshua] may reach to the ends of the earth.”
In other words, if we limit this plan to the regathering of “the tribes of Jacob,” we are thinking too small. This is not merely about the lost tribes of Jacob-Israel. That plan would be too small in the eyes of God. He intends to regather all of the nations to Himself.
Paul recognized this extended regathering as well when he applied Isaiah 49 to the ministry of conciliation that had been given to the ambassadors of Christ. The idea that Israel and the nations would be regathered within the small territory of Canaan (Palestine) is laughable. We need to expand our thinking, so we do not think too small.
The plan is much bigger.
The regathering of Israel is a restoration of Israel to God by the headship of the Messiah (Hosea 1:11). With them will be many others, as Isaiah 56:7, 8 says,
7 … My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples. 8 The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, “Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.”
The Kingdom of God is bigger than just a single nation which used to be called Israel. The regathering comes about through Christ’s ambassadors having the ministry of conciliation. Hence, Paul was encouraging the Corinthians to fulfill that calling, and he cites Isaiah 49 to show that the day of Yeshua had already begun and was ongoing.
Those who respond and gather into this new body of believers, whether they are biological descendants of Jacob or not, are Israelites, for although Jacob was called, Israel is regathered.
So also Paul tells us in 2 Cor. 5:19 that “God was in Christ conciliating the world to Himself.” Neither Isaiah nor Paul were narrow nationalists. They saw the big picture. The ministry of conciliation was the fulfillment of the prophecies about being “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6; Matt. 4:14, 15, 16).
Paul was one of those lights derived from the light of Christ, and the Corinthian church was a further extension of that light.
Isaiah 49:8 says, “I will keep You and give You for a covenant of the people.” How is one given as a covenant of the people? To most people, these are just meaningless words. The Hebrew word covenant is berith, which means “covenant, alliance, pledge, confederacy.”
In my view, we should understand this to mean a pledge, because this would fit well with what Paul has just mentioned in 2 Cor. 5:5, where the Holy Spirit was given as a pledge. The messianic application, of course, is that Christ was given as a pledge to the people. Secondly, the Holy Spirit was given as a pledge. In fact, the Holy Spirit was “another Helper” (or Comforter), as Jesus said in John 14:16. This implies that Jesus Himself was a “Helper,” and that the Holy Spirit was a second “Helper.”
If a Helper, or Comforter, is also a pledge, as Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:5, then it follows that Jesus Himself might also be considered to be a pledge. How? A pledge is given to ensure payment of a debt. A debt is incurred when a man makes a vow to do something, for his vow obligates him. Whoever vows to do something is a debtor to the law until he fulfills his vow. The law tolerates no unfulfilled vows.
God vowed to save all mankind through the New Covenant. Hence, Jesus was sent to die on the cross in order to fulfill God’s vow. But the process of salvation was yet incomplete, and so the Holy Spirit was sent as “another Helper” to continue that work. And inasmuch as the Holy Spirit works within Christ’s ambassadors, we too are participants in the same overall ministry.
The point is that the Messiah was sent not only as the Mediator of the New Covenant but also as a pledge of the people to unify them in an alliance or league. Secondarily, the Holy Spirit was sent as a pledge in another way, as we have already explained, a pledge on God’s debt or obligation to return to us the heavenly garments that were taken from us through Adam’s sin.
Thirdly, as servants of Christ and members of His household, we are active participants as ambassadors of Christ. Therefore, we too are given as a pledge to the people who are yet to be gathered to Him. In other words, we are sent into the world to fulfill God’s New Covenant obligation (debt) to the world. We are God’s pledge, or surety, to show that God will indeed do what is necessary to fulfill His vow.