Michael S. Heiser
“I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain” says Paul, while imprisoned. His ambitions are repeated a few verses later: “When therefore I have completed this … I will leave for Spain by way of you” (Rom 15:28). 1 It’s certainly ambitious for him to be making travel plans. But Paul wasn’t making casual conversation or planning a vacation. He believed that his life and ministry would not end until he reached Spain. We aren’t sure if Paul made it, but he was passionate about getting there. Why? He saw himself in the prophecy of Isaiah 66.
Day of Salvation
Throughout his letters, Paul quotes Isaiah and other Old Testament books to show that the long-promised day of salvation would come during his lifetime. In the Old Testament, the Jewish belief in Jesus as the Messiah was preceded by something Paul referred to as “the fullness of the Gentiles” (11:25).
In Romans 9–11, Paul says that Gentile (non-Jew) inclusion in the people of God was made possible by the hearts of the Jewish people being temporarily hardened (11:25–26). Accomplishing the mission of Gentile evangelism would undo this hardening. Only then would Paul’s longing for the Jews to believe in Jesus come to full fruition. And only then would the deliverer (Jesus) come again from Zion (11:26).
Isaiah 66:18–20 prophesies that the LORD would gather all nations to see His glory. He would give them a “sign” (אות, ’ot) of His promised salvation. The sign would be delivered by Jewish exiles, sent by God into far-off nations—specifically, the lands of Tarshish, Put, Lud, Tubal and Javan. The conversion of the Gentiles would result in the Jews from those nations returning to the Lord.
The Sign Paul Saw
Paul interpreted Isaiah 66 through Christian eyes. The “sign” (אות, ’ot) was the virgin-born Jesus (compare Isa 7:14—“The Lord himself will give you a sign”). 2 At Pentecost, Jews whose ancestors were exiled to foreign nations came to Jerusalem from those nations. They witnessed a sign of the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, heard the gospel miraculously in their own language, and believed (Acts 2). Returning to their countries—nations scattered throughout the Mediterranean—they spread the word to the Gentiles.
Reading Acts 2 carefully, we can see that the nations listed move east to west, beginning with the region where Jews were first exiled. 3 Paul’s missionary efforts began at the geographical midpoint of those listed nations and moved westward.
The Ends of the Earth
Spain—the location of ancient Tarshish, listed in Isaiah 66:19—was the end of the world, according to the thinking of Paul’s time. When Paul wrote Romans, he and other believers had taken the gospel to every region in Isaiah 66—every region except Tarshish.
Paul believed that his mission, “the fullness of the Gentiles” and the salvation of his fellow Jews, would be fulfilled once he reached Spain. His focus was evident when he and Barnabas were rejected at Antioch: “[We] are turning to the Gentiles. 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 13:46–47). For Paul, reaching Spain was about the gospel being fulfilled—there was no other option. This is something we wouldn’t pick up on without reading our Old Testament.
1. All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).↩
2. Isaiah 11:10–12 says this about the messianic king: “In that day the root of Jesse will stand as an ensign.” The Hebrew for “ensign” is נֵס (nes), which is messianically translated as “sign” (אות, ’ot) in the ancient Aramaic paraphrases of the Old Testament—the Targums.↩
3. Although Acts 2 and Isaiah 66 refer to the same nations, Isaiah employs broader geographical terms. Isaiah also presumes a Jewish exile in Babylon and Media-Persia.↩