Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the galvanizing figure of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has become a familiar face to the nations of the world. Against the Russian claim that they invaded Ukraine to get rid of its Nazi government, Zelensky replies that he is Jewish. How then could his government then be a Nazi one, he asks. Zelensky has since gone on a virtual tour of the halls of power of nations around the world. He has given pitch-perfect addresses to government bodies of many nations. Zelensky spoke to the British Parliament, US Congress, the German Bundestag, the Israeli Knesset, the Canadian Parliament, the Italian Parliament, the Japanese Parliament, and the United Nations General Assembly, among others. He has been given the highest Czech honor, as well as national honors in Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
The Jews – Light to the Nations
Zelensky has gone on a virtual tour of parliaments and halls of power of the world’s nations. He chastises, encourages, pleads, and goads them into moral action on behalf of Ukraine. He illustrates so well the prophecy that Isaiah foretold 2700 years ago about the Jewish people. Isaiah had prophesied:
6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;Isaiah 42:6
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
3 Nations will come to your light,Isaiah 60:3
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Jews have since carried this mantle of being a ‘light to the nations’ given 2700 years ago through Isaiah. They ponder its meaning. We know this from search results on popular Israeli websites. Here are the ‘Light to the nations’ results in TimesOfIsrael, and here similarly for the Jerusalem Post.
Claims to be a ‘Light to the Nations’
In spite of his prominent voice before nations today, Zelensky has never claimed to be a ‘light to the nations’. That would be presumptuous. The one Jewish person in history who is on record as having claimed that distinction is Jesus. But it is not only his claim to be such a ‘light’ that stands out. Rather, it is when and how he made it is remarkable. We look at this here and reflect on whether his legacy justifies this claim.
After the Triumphant Entry on Palm Sunday
Jesus had just entered Jerusalem mounted on a donkey as prophesied 500 years earlier. He did so on the exact day that the prophet Daniel had prophesied 550 years before. The Jews had been arriving from many countries for the upcoming Passover festival. Therefore Jewish pilgrims crowded Jerusalem.
The manner of Jesus’ arrival had caused a stir among the Jews. But it was not only the Jews who noticed his arrival. The Gospel records what happened right after he entered Jerusalem.
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.John 12:20-22
The Greek – Jew barrier in ancient times
It was extremely unusual for Greeks, (that is Gentiles or non-Jews), to be at a Jewish festival like Passover. The Jews shunned the Greeks and Romans of that time since they were pagans and considered unclean. And most Greeks considered the Jewish religion with only one (unseen) God and its festivals to be foolish. So these people regularly stayed apart from each other. The Gentile, or non-Jewish, society was many times larger than the Jewish society. So the Jews lived in a sort of isolation from much of the world. Their different religion, their kosher diet, and their exclusive Book created a barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles. Each side displayed hostility toward the other side (as we saw with the Maccabees and bar kochba).
… Prophesied to come down
But Isaiah (750 BCE) claimed to see far into the future and he foresaw a change for the nations. He had written:
1 Listen to me, you islands;Isaiah 49:1
hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
And now the Lord says—Isaiah 49:5-6
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself,
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord
and my God has been my strength—
6 he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come,Isaiah 60:1-3
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
So Isaiah had foretold that the coming ‘servant’ of the Lord, though Jewish (‘the tribes of Jacob’), would be a ‘light for the Gentiles’ (all the non-Jews). He prophesied that this light would reach to the ends of the earth. But how could this happen with this barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles firmly set these hundreds of years?
Jesus’ Entry that Day begins the dismantling
That day when Jesus entered Jerusalem the light began to draw the first Gentiles because we see some approaching him. Here at this Jewish festival were Greeks who had journeyed to Jerusalem to meet him. Jesus had raised their interest. But would they, considered unclean by the Jews, be able to see him? They asked Jesus’ disciples, who brought the request to Jesus. What would he say? The Gospel continues:
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.
34 The crowd spoke up, “We have heard from the Law that the Messiah will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this ‘Son of Man’?”
35 Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. 36 Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.” When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.John 12:23-36
Belief and Unbelief Among the Jews
37 Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. 38 This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:
“Lord, who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
39 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:
40 “He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their hearts,
so they can neither see with their eyes,
nor understand with their hearts,
nor turn—and I would heal them.”
41 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.
42 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved human praise more than praise from God.
44 Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. 45 The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.
47 “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.49 For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. 50 I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”John 12:37-50
Against the prevailing Jew-Gentile animosities of that day, Jesus said that he would be ‘lifted up’. He predicted that this would draw ‘all people’ – not just the Jews – to himself.
Jesus boldly claimed that he had ‘come into the world as a light’ (v.46) which the previous prophets had written would shine on all nations. And on the day when he entered Jerusalem, that light first began to shine on the Gentiles.
Jesus’ Light to the Nations in History
Consider now how the halls of power, with their accompanying institutions, where Zelensky has been speaking recently, have come about by Jesus’ influence on the nations.
Here are some quick examples:
- the official US motto “In God We Trust” recognized on the powerful American currency
- the workweek and weekend rhythm extending from Jews to the nations,
- founding of the Red Cross by Henry Dunant,
- Florence Nightingale’s development of professional nursing,
- abolishment of slavery by Wilberforce,
- the origin of universities,
- the development of books rather than scrolls for writing upon,
- the founding of hospitals,
- the link between the development of the printing press and the Bible,
- Cultural holidays of Christmas and Easter
- the drafting the Magna Carta – the earliest charter of rights and freedoms.
These practices, customs, and institutions that we often take for granted today across the many nations came about as people throughout history were influenced by Jesus. From a strictly historical point-of-view, Jesus of Nazareth has been the brightest Jewish light shining upon many nations. Isaiah’s predictions 2700 years ago have come true through Jesus’ historical influence on the nations.
Passion Week Day-by-Day
But Jesus did not simply come to be a Light to the nations. He had also declared War on death itself. How he goes about this struggle is reviewed in a day-by-day recounting of his activities in Passion Week. We will go through each day of Passion or Holy Week and note what Jesus does and says each day. From these we will recognize patterns going back to the beginning of the world, bringing fresh meaning to his activities that week. We also reflect on the Jesus-as-Israel lens we have adopted.
The following chart goes through each day of this week. On Sunday, the first day of the week he fulfilled three different prophecies given by three previous prophets. First, he entered Jerusalem mounted on a donkey as prophesied by Zechariah. Second, he did so in the time prophesied by Daniel. Third, his message and miracles started to light an interest among the Gentiles. Isaiah had foretold this would shine as a light to the nations, growing brighter to people around the world.
We continue looking at the events of Monday, Day 2 of Passion week next.