Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant

LISTEN: Isaiah 53 – The Suffering Servant – Part 1 (mp3)

READ: Isaiah 53 – The Suffering Servant (pdf)

Prologue

Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 53 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance from Babylonian exile and ultimate glory.

Key verses:

Isa. 53:5-6 – But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment   for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds.  We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished Him for the iniquity of us all.

Quick summary:

Isa. 52:13 – 53:12 make up the fourth Servant Song in which the Servant dies in the place of the guilty to satisfy God’s judgment of sin. Warren Wiersbe (Be Comforted, S. Is 52:13) sees this song unfolding in five parts:

  1. Exaltation – the shocking Servant (Isa. 52:13-15)
  2. Humiliation – the sorrowing Servant (Isa. 53:1-3)
  3. Expiation – the smitten Servant (Isa. 53:4-6)
  4. Resignation – the silent Servant (Isa. 53:7-9)
  5. Vindication – the satisfied Servant (Isa. 53:10-12)

Take note:

Many Jews today reject the notion that Isaiah 53 is a Messianic prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. Instead, they say, this chapter is a reference to the nation of Israel, which has suffered great violence throughout history – in Isaiah’s day at the hands of the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans, and more recently by the Nazis and the Arab nations that surround modern Israel. But this interpretation is fraught with problems, as Robert B. Hughes and Carl J. Laney explain: “Early Jewish interpretation of this passage understood the ‘servant’ (52:13) to refer to the Messiah. This also was the interpretation by the early church (cf. Acts 8:30–35). Not until the twelfth century was it suggested that the ‘servant’ of Isaiah 53 was the nation of Israel. But the nation of Israel has not suffered innocently (53:9) or willingly (53:7). Nor did Israel’s suffering provide substitutionary atonement (53:5)” (Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, S. 267).

As we will see, this passage is naturally and wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Despised and Rejected (Isa. 53:1-3)

The chapter opens with a depiction of the Servant as a nondescript “young plant” shooting up out of “dry ground.” When Jesus appears seven centuries later, He is not the Messiah the Jews are expecting – handsome, charismatic, flush with political and military designs for the oppressed nation of Israel. Rather, He is poor and plain, a Galilean carpenter with seemingly little interest in the Romans, who says His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Although His words and works attract great crowds, His appearance does not distinguish Him from other Jewish men. Further, His religious views are at odds with those of the Jewish leaders, and His refusal to be declared king infuriates the political zealots of His day. He is, indeed, a young sprout in barren soil. Warren Wiersbe summarizes Isaiah’s use of horticultural imagery to describe Jesus: “Messiah is the Branch of the Lord (4:2); the remnant is like the stumps of trees chopped down (6:13); the proud nations will be hewn down like trees, but out of David’s seemingly dead stump, the ‘rod of Jesse’ will come (10:33–11:1). Because Jesus Christ is God, He is the ‘root of David’; but because He is man, He is the ‘offspring of David’ (Rev. 22:16)” (Be Comforted, S. Is 53:1).

So how do the people respond to this unlikely Servant? They treat Him as a common slave. They despise Him, reject Him, put a cheap price on His head, and look the other way when he passes by. The apostle John puts it this way: “He was in the world, and the world was created through Him, yet the world did not recognize Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him” (John 1:10-11). This Servant does not value the same things the people of His day – or ours – value: wealth (Luke 16:14), prestige (Luke 14:7-14), self-reliance (Luke 18:9-14), and self-indulgence (Matt. 16:21-28; Luke 22:24-27).

But what does the phrase “a man of suffering who knew what sickness was” mean? While it could refer to a sickly person, or one who experiences much pain and illness, more likely it describes the Great Physician who gives Himself to those who are suffering for the purpose of providing relief. This is how Matthew sees it, quoting from Isa. 53:4 in Matt. 8:16-17: “When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick,  so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He Himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases.”

Struck Down by God (Isa. 53:4-6)

These verses capture the essence of the sacrificial system and point us to the heart of the gospel: the innocent dying for the guilty for the remission of sins. Just as the blood of spotless animals atone for people’s sins under the Old Covenant, the blood of the sinless Servant, who fulfills the Law, takes away the sin the world (John 1:29). Jesus bears our sins on the cross (1 Peter 2:24), but He also addresses the consequences of Adam’s sin by ministering to people in need. Matthew 8:14-17 applies Isaiah 53:4 to Jesus’ healing ministry, not to His death. Those who apply this passage today and teach that healing from all sickness is a “right” of the believer fail to understand Isaiah’s prophecy and Matthew’s application of it. It is true that the effects of the fall, including illness, will be reversed in our bodies in resurrection and glorification (1 Cor. 15:51-57), as well as in creation in the new heavens and new earth (2 Peter 3:10-13: Rev. 21-22). But until these promises are fulfilled, believers must understand that we continue to live in this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) in a world that groans beneath the weight of sin (Rom. 8:18-22).

All that the Servant suffers is our fault, and for our benefit: He bears our sicknesses, carries our pains, is pierced for our transgressions, is crushed for our iniquities and heals us by His wounds. Yet we regard Him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted (vv. 4-5). Note the graphic depiction of the Servant’s suffering. He is “pierced because of our transgressions.” Nails pierce His hands and feet (Ps. 22:16; Luke 24:39-40), and a spear pierces His side (Zech. 12:10; John 19:31-27; Rev. 1:7). This is not a Jewish form of execution. Isaiah foresees a Roman crucifixion centuries before it is introduced. The Servant also is “crushed,” not physically because not a bone of Jesus is broken, but in His soul and spirit as He who knows no sin becomes sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). He is punished for our peace. The only way a lawbreaker may be at peace with the law is to be innocent or to pay the penalty the law requires. Jesus is innocent, yet pays the penalty for our sins so that we may stand blameless before God (see Rom. 5:1, 8:1). Finally, the Servant heals our wounds. The reference to healing in verse 5 concerns sin, as Peter makes clear (1 Peter 2:24). Sin is sometimes compared to sickness that only God can cure (Isa. 1:4-6; Jer. 30:12; Nahum 3:19).

Isaiah refers to our sin as “transgression” and “iniquity.” Transgression means rebellion against God, deliberately crossing the line He has established. “Iniquity” refers to our sin nature, our natural tendency to live independently of God. In other words, the prophet understands that we are sinners by nature and by choice. In verse 6, he compares us to sheep that are prone to wander. “By nature, we are born children of wrath (Eph. 2:3); and by choice, we become children of disobedience (2:2). Under the Law of Moses, the sheep died for the shepherd; but under grace, the Good Shepherd died for the sheep (John 10:1–18)” (Wiersbe, S. Is 53:4).

Silent as a Lamb (Isa. 53:7-9)

As a slave is silent before his master, even though wrongly accused, the Servant does not speak in His own defense. This is fulfilled beautifully in Jesus, who is silent before Caiaphas (Matt. 26:62–63), the chief priests and elders (27:12), Pilate (27:14; John 19:9) and Herod (Luke 23:9). He holds his tongue while Roman soldiers mock and beat him (1 Peter 2:21–23). This humble endurance intrigues the Ethiopian eunuch as he reads the account in Isaiah (Acts 8:26–40). Is the Servant powerless? Is He somehow deserving of this treatment? Has He nothing to say in His own defense? Couldn’t He argue the unfairness – the illegality – of this judicial charade? What has He done? He has done no violence, nor has He spoken deceitfully (v. 9). So why does He remain silent in the face of this monstrous injustice? Perhaps Jesus answers it best: “Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given Me?” (John 18:11). Anything He says in His own defense could lead to the release Pilate is inclined to grant. But escaping the cross negates His very mission. Therefore, His silence secures His death, for which He came into the world. “He was willingly led to death because He knew it would benefit those who would believe” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1108).

The Servant is compared to a lamb, a frequent symbol of the Savior in Scripture. A lamb dies at Passover for the sins of the household (Ex. 12:1-13). The Servant dies for His people, the nation of Israel (v. 8). Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Nearly 30 times in Revelation alone, Jesus is called the Lamb.

A victim of execution on a cross knows his corpse most likely will be left unburied. Yet the Romans release Jesus’ body to Joseph and Nicodemus, who bury Him nearby. There are two key facts to note here. First, the Romans never would have given Joseph Jesus’ body if the Servant were not dead (Mark 15:42-47; John 19:38-42). Second, Joseph, a wealthy man, never would have chosen an execution site for his own burial, especially when he lived so far away. What’s the explanation? The Lord planned it this way and gave us a unique prophecy through Isaiah that is fulfilled magnificently in Christ.

Joyful in Submission (Isa. 53:10-12)

The last three verses of this chapter reveal the cross from God’s perspective. Even though wicked men crucify Jesus, God planned His death long ago for the redemption of mankind (Acts 2:22-23; Rev. 13:8). There is a secret to the Servant’s death that Isaiah reveals: It pleases the Lord. “[T]he Lord was pleased to crush Him,” reads verse 10, and we later learn the Messiah is pleased to be crushed. He comes to do the Father’s will, not His own (John 6:38; Heb. 10:7, 9), and “for the joy that lay before Him” endures the cross (Heb. 12:2). In addition, the Lord makes the Servant sick, meaning He not only bears our sins but partakes in sin’s consequences. This seems unreasonable to the unbeliever, but it is an essential truth that spurs deep gratitude in the hearts of those who trust in Christ.

But even better news than the Servant’s death is that the Lord “will prolong His days” (v. 10), meaning He will be raised from the dead and live forever. Jesus’ words in John 11:25 prove the value of this truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live.” Jesus is obedient to the point of death, and in His obedience defeats Satan and his works, claims the spoils and is highly exalted by the Father (Eph. 1:19-23; Phil. 2:8-10). His obedience also results in a spiritual family: “He will see His seed … My righteous servant will justify many … I will give Him the many as a portion” (vv. 10-12).

There also is satisfaction in these verses. The Servant’s obedience satisfies the heart of the Father. But even more, His sacrificial death satisfies the law of God. Warren Wiersbe explains: “The theological term for this is ‘propitiation’ (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2). In pagan religions, the word meant ‘to offer a sacrifice to placate an angry god’; but the Christian meaning is much richer. God is angry at sin because it offends His holiness and violates His holy Law. In His holiness, He must judge sinners; but in His love, He desires to forgive them. God cannot ignore sin or compromise with it, for that would be contrary to His own nature and Law. How did God solve the problem? The Judge took the place of the criminals and met the just demands of His own holy Law! ‘He was numbered with the transgressors’ and even prayed for them (Isa. 53:12; Luke 22:37; 23:33–34). The Law has been satisfied, and God can now graciously forgive all who will receive His Son” (S. Is 53:10).

Closing Thought

Matthew Henry writes: “When men brought bulls and goats as sacrifices for sin they made them offerings, for they had an interest in them, God having put them under the feet of man. But Christ made himself an offering; it was his own act and deed. We could not put him in our stead, but he put himself, and said, Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 53:10).

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