Christmas Day (III)

The gospel is beautiful

Starry night with dark landscape
Photo by Yash Raut on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

December 25, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 52:7-10

“Beauty” is a word in the English language that gets used a lot to talk about places, people, objects, circumstances, et cetera. But what exactly is beauty? Who defines it, and what is it good for?

This week’s text identifies something very specific as beautiful: a messenger’s feet. This raises an interesting question: But why? What leads the poet to conclude that one of the dirtiest parts of the human body—especially in the ancient world—is actually beautiful? The field of philosophy that deals with the topic of beauty is called “aesthetics.” So what kind of “aesthetic” does this text have? And how can our answers to these questions help us preach and teach this text more effectively?

Critically for our purposes, the poem isn’t actually concerned with the messenger’s visual features, despite the reference to his “feet.” The author quickly pivots away from the body of the messenger to the content of his message: “peace … good news … salvation … ‘Your God reigns.’” What makes the messenger’s feet “beautiful” is not a visual or physical attribute, but the promises and proclamations that the feet carry into the world—and in particular to exiled Jews.

In popular American parlance, beauty is often associated with things like youthfulness, physical appearance, and other idealistic expressions. These modern understandings of beauty have no place in Isaiah 52. This text’s understanding of beauty is much closer to what we find in the theological aesthetics of Martin Luther.

In 2017, an important book was published by Mark Mattes, theologian and Luther scholar at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa: Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty.1 A version of his argument also appeared in 2019 in Word & World.2 In these works, Mattes draws attention to how Luther’s aesthetics both reflect emerging trends in his time and environment and also break from the scholarship he inherited. Luther’s view can be summarized in this way: The gospel is beautiful.3

To fill that picture out a little bit, Mattes offers an interpretation of Luther’s mature theology of beauty. For Martin Luther, beauty is “a feature of God’s faithfulness even to sinners and not some kind of Aristotelian golden mean of proper proportion. It is found in God’s self-donation and in human trust in God’s promise.”4 This quality of beauty is not a result of Jesus’ fulfillment of the divine law, but because of his grace toward the world. Mattes’ important claims about Luther provide us with insight into how one should interpret the 52nd chapter of Isaiah—a book occasionally termed “the fifth gospel.”5

Isaiah 52 is a poem that announces the restoration of Jerusalem and the return of Jews from exile to the City of David. Its goal, like that of so many texts in Isaiah 40–55, is to inspire confidence that Yhwh will restore Jerusalem and her people. For Isaiah 52, what makes the messenger’s feet beautiful is the fact that he announces the coming reign of God (verse 7).

This is an important point, because the poem suggests that God’s favor was hidden for a season. The absence of that favorable rule was felt in military and cultural defeat, the forced deportation of Jews to Mesopotamia, the loss of sovereignty, and the destruction of the temple—the ritual space where Yhwh had promised to be present for Jews. These public defeats left a mark of shame and dismay. But according to Isaiah 52, a new day was on the verge of breaking, and its light would be every bit as public as the darkness that preceded it.

God’s acts of redemption will now be “in plain sight” (verse 8) for all to see. The messenger appears “upon the mountains,” “announces salvation,” and speaks directly to Zion herself. The very ruins of the city break forth into song and shout for joy, and the Lord shows his holy arm before an international audience (verse 10). The “beauty” of this message is the great reversal that God promises—rubble raises its voice in celebration, defeat cedes to restoration, and lament gives way to praise. This is Isaiah 52’s “joyful exchange.”

It’s also important to note what kind of help Yhwh offers. Isaiah 52 is not simply claiming to offer a vague religious feeling—an opiate to dull the sting of defeat. The ministry of presence is only part of the poem’s vision; the God of Isaiah 52 promises to change the facts on the ground. The king is returning to his city (verse 8), Jerusalem will be redeemed, and the nations of the earth will take note. Like in so many poems in Isaiah, salvation is cosmic in its scope.

Preachers and teachers will find in Isaiah 52 a thoughtful poem addressed to hurting souls. Key to understanding that poem is its concept of “beauty.” The text represents an opportunity to disrupt modern understandings of beauty and to point, instead, to a very different concept of beauty—one marked by divine generosity, the rebuilding of ruins, and human trust in divine promises.


  1. Mark Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).
  2. Mark Mattes, “Luther and Beauty,” Word & World 39 (2019): 11–24.
  3. Mattes, “Luther and Beauty,” 13, 16–22.
  4. Mattes, “Luther and Beauty,” 20.
  5. John F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).