The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 Book Analysis & Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology

Mitch Glaser and Darrell Bock team up with nine other top scholars in their respective fields of study to examine and present a variety of ways in which Isaiah 53 has been and should be interpreted by both Jews and Christians, and also how to appropriately use this essential chapter of Scripture today in preaching, teaching, and evangelistic occasions. Glaser, President of Chosen People Ministries asserts, “The Bible is the inspired Word of God and Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel – and the simple message of His death and resurrection has the power to transform the lives of both Jews and Gentiles.”[1] Bock, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary[2] also contributes considerable insight on Isaiah 53’s use in Luke’s accounts, to show that, “His death was a ransom for sin, [which] connects Jesus to all of us, potentially and actually.”[3] This book analysis is written in light of the entire text, but will focus primarily on chapters one, three, and four through six, which reveal how Isaiah 53 was essentially, “God pulling aside the curtain of time to let the people of Isaiah’s day look ahead to the suffering of the future Messiah and the resulting forgiveness made available to all people.”[4] The main objective of this analysis will detail the relationship between the Messiah and the Servant presented in Isaiah, and in the New Testament, and will also examine several key passages and their interpretive issues.

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MESSIAH AND THE SERVANT IN ISAIAH

Two of the key questions Michael Wilkins poses are: “Did Jesus see Himself as the prophesied servant in Isaiah 53 and how did the early church understand Jesus’ life and ministry in the light of Isaiah’s prophecy?”[5] After the baptism and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, He returns to His hometown of Nazareth and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, where He reads Isaiah 61 from the scroll and declares, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:20b). This act would be the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, yet even in His hometown, the people drove Him out and went as far as trying to throw Him down a cliff. It should be no surprise that some people today struggle with identifying Jesus as the Messiah when even His own disciples did not understand when He spoke of His own death and resurrection. Part of the confusion is rooted in the enigma of the corporate and individual servant spoken of throughout the book of Isaiah. Wilkins explains, “The people of Israel understood that God was using them as a people to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah, yet the prophecies of the servant vary in that some allude to a corporate entity, and some allude to a single individual.”[6] In Isaiah 41:8, Israel as a nation is clearly in mind as being the servant of the Lord because God had given them a place of honor and esteem so that they might be a witness to the other nations of God’s blessing. Gary Yates explains, “In the Mosaic Law, God told them that they would become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. In other words, they would mediate God’s presence and blessings to all the nations on the earth.”[7] However, the problem was that Israel, as a nation, had failed in its mission and as a result had become a blind and deaf servant (Isaiah 42:18-25). As John Oswalt demonstrates, “Verse 7 said that the Servant of the Lord would lead the blind and imprisoned out into the light, [so Oswalt rightly asserts] that this Servant could not be the nation Israel, even though in other places (Isaiah 41:8; 43:10) the nation is clearly identified as the servant of the Lord.”[8] Instead of leading the people of other nations to Yahweh, the people of Israel often did the exact opposite by worshipping the false gods of other nations. In the midst of this apostasy, Isaiah promises that God would provide a solution to the problem, which was the raising up of an individual Servant who would restore the national/corporate servant. Another example of this individual and corporate servant paradigm is found in Isaiah 49:3, which first depicts Israel as the servant, but then in verse six, the Servant is an individual who has a ministry to Israel. It is this individual Servant who is going to be the one who restores the national servant.

KEY PASSAGES AND INTERPRETIVE ISSUES

As Christians, it can be very easy to read chapters of Scripture like Isaiah 53 and immediately identify the Servant of the Lord or the Suffering Servant as being Jesus Christ. However, this is problematic, especially when looking at the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. In this passage, the Servant is rejected and dies for the sins of others and Yates reveals how this action highlights four differences: (1) Israel suffers for its own sin, while the individual Servant suffers for the sins of others; (2) Israel fails in its mission, as a blind and deaf servant, but the individual Servant fulfills His mission faithfully and in spite of intense persecution; (3) Israel suffers at the hands of the surrounding nations, yet the individual Servant suffers at the hands of His own people; and (4) Israel complains in its own suffering that God has abandoned and rejected her, but the individual Servant trusts God completely and suffers without ever complaining.[9]

One of the ongoing debates Richard Averbeck discusses is the suffering, sacrifice, and atonement presented in Isaiah 53:10. The main question contested is if Isaiah had in mind a vicarious, sacrificial substitution to make atonement for sin, but what Averbeck says with certainty is, “The main historical issue being dealt with was the restoration of Israel to its land and to its function as God’s servant.”[10] This conclusion fits both a prophetic perspective as well as a real-time context, such as the Babylonian captivity. Averbeck also provides clear insight on the context of ‏אָשָׁם or ʾāšām to mean guilt offering and concludes, “From Isaiah’s point of view, the suffering of the Isaiah 53 Servant was as essential to the restoration of the exiled people back to their Promised Land as the guilt offering was for the restoration of the skin-diseased person to the community.”[11] The shift in third person to first person references is another valuable contribution Averbeck highlights, in addition to the prophet who wrote this adding himself among the “we, us, our” audience. This further advances the argument that Isaiah was not the suffering servant, since as Averbeck shows, “The writer is a recipient of the Suffering Servant’s ministry and is not to be identified as the Servant Himself.”[12]

PORTRAYAL OF SERVANT IN ISAIAH AND IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

Upon addressing both the corporate and individual identity of the servant, Wilkins addresses the paradox of “How could this passive, sheep-like individual be the mighty arm of the Lord (cf. Isa. 51:9; 53:1) that Israel understood herself to be as God’s servant in His plan of salvation and how could He be exalted and yet despised?”[13] Matthew’s perspective on Jesus as the servant in Isaiah 53 is quite profound, and Wilkins shows how he divides Jesus’ ministry into five clear stages: Jesus’s Infancy – Divine Nazarene, Jesus’ Baptism – Righteous Son, Jesus’ Earthly Ministry – Healing Servant, Jesus’ Passion Ministry – Blood Ransom, and Jesus’ Burial and Resurrection – Transforming Master.[14] Ultimately, the Son of Man came to serve and not be served, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). In this passage, R. T. France explains, “Jesus’ belief that He ‘must’ suffer and die may be attributed most plausibly to that OT background, and here the language brings us significantly closer to Isaiah 53. It would be hard to compose a better brief summary of the central thrust of Isaiah 53 than ‘to give His life as a ransom in place of many.’”[15] Mark 10:45 is identical to Matthew’s account and William Lane shows how, “The specific thought underlying the reference to the ransom is expressed in Isaiah 53:10 which speaks of ‘making His life an offering for sin. Jesus, as the Messianic Servant, offers Himself as a guilt offering (Lev. 5:14-6:7; 7:1-7; Num. 5:5-8) in compensation for the sins of the people.”[16] These passages back up Wilkins’ findings that, “The early church applied to Jesus the prophecies of Isaiah 53, in an attempt to understand His crucifixion and death [and] Jesus’ own understanding of His mission and death in the light of Isaiah 53 was clearly the root of the early church’s understanding.”[17]

While the New Testament quotes or alludes to Isaiah 53 more than a dozen times, Darrell Bock offers considerable insight into one of the most revealing occurrences in Acts 8:26-40 as Philip is directed by the Spirit to an Ethiopian eunuch who was traveling on the Jerusalem-to-Gaza road. During this encounter, the eunuch asks Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about Himself or about someone else?” Here, F. F. Bruce illuminates that, “During a time when not one line of any New Testament document had been written, what Scripture could any evangelist have used more fittingly as a starting point for presenting the story of Jesus to one who did not know Him? It was Jesus, and no other, who offered up His life as a sacrifice for sin, and justified many by bearing their iniquities, as the obedient Servant.”[18] As Bock demonstrates by the eunuch’s actions, there is much that can be learned and gained, but most importantly is how, “[Jesus was] unjustly humiliated and He took our place so we can experience cleansing and new life with God, something God showed that Jesus had done by raising Jesus from the dead and taking Jesus to His side in heaven.”[19] This passage of Scripture beautifully contrasts Jesus’s silent humiliation and unjust crucifixion with God’s vindication and resurrection of the suffering Servant, which Bock concludes, “Was actually part of God’s divine work to pay a price, even for those who had rejected Him.”[20]

Craig Evans then offers substantial insight on the theologies of Peter, Paul, John, and the author of Hebrews. Between these epistles, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is quoted or alluded to nearly twenty times. Evan’s section on Hebrews seemed the most insightful, considering this sermon/homily was most likely written to a group of Jewish Christians who were considering going back to Judaism. In Hebrews 9:26, Evans states, “The death of Jesus constitutes a sacrifice on behalf of humanity that need never be repeated, and as heavenly High Priest, who mediates the new covenant, the benefits that Jesus bestows on humanity only continues to grow.”[21] Interacting with the theologies of Peter, Paul, Hebrews, and John demonstrates the suffering and death further proves Jesus was the Messiah, and that all the prophecies are fulfilled in Scripture. Evans closes this section by illuminating, “What is especially intriguing is that the famous Suffering Servant hymn apparently lay at the heart of an evangelism and apologetic primarily intended for the synagogue.”[22] Ironically, it would be the synagogues that would be visited by Jesus, the disciples, and the apostle Paul to spread the life-saving gospel message.

CONCLUSION

The message of Isaiah 53, when illuminated by the rest of Scripture, reveals that the promised Messiah, the suffering Servant is one and the same individual. Only Jesus Christ fulfills both of these roles as He rules and reigns forever, as a result of His perfect faith and trust in God and His suffering and ultimate sacrifice, which saved His people and became a ransom for many. The idea of the Servant of the Lord is indeed a complex idea because in Isaiah this entity is depicted as both the nation of Israel and as an individual Servant who suffers and dies to restore God’s people. After Israel’s failure to be a light to the other nations, they became a blind and deaf servant, but the individual suffering Servant, the Messiah, arose out of this corporate failure and was empowered by God and attains great victories in the power of the Lord and has made a way, as Bock describes, to, “Clear the way to remove guilt and defilement and provide the gift of life through the Spirit of God by removing the obstacle that sin generates between people and God. [However,] the application of that removal requires that we accept the gift of God’s work through Jesus, asking that His forgiveness be applied specifically to us.”[23]

The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 is well suited for anyone interested in discovering and viewing the Suffering Servant’s identity and role through the individual lenses of the Old and New Testament and then through the combined lens of all Scripture. This scholarly work should stand the test of time and have great impact amongst both the Jewish and Christian community.

The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology. By Richard E. Averbeck, Michael L. Brown, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Michael J. Wilkins, Darrell L. Bock, Craig A. Evans, David L. Allen, Robert B. Chisholm Jr., John S. Feinberg, Mitch Glaser, and Donald R. Sunukjian. Edited by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012, 334 pp. $27.99 (Paperback).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bock, Darrell L. and Mitch Glaser, eds. The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012.

Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988.

Dallas Theological Seminary Website. “Darrell L. Bock.” http://www.dts.edu/about/faculty/dbock/ (accessed August 11, 2017).

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.

Glaser, Mitch. “President’s Introduction.” Chosen People Website. https://www.chosenpeople.com/site/our-mission/presidents-introduction/ (accessed, August 11, 2017).

Grogan, Geoffrey W. Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986.

Lane, William L. The Gospel of Mark. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974.

LaSor, William S., David A. Hubbard, and Frederic W. Bush. Old Testament Survey. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Life Application Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988.

Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

________. The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

Webb, Barry G. The Message of Isaiah. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Yates, Gary. “The Servant of the Lord in Isaiah.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Seven Video Presentation, 12:26, (accessed August 14, 2017).

[1] Mitch Glaser, “President’s Introduction,” Chosen People Website, https://www.chosenpeople.com/site/our-mission/presidents-introduction/ (accessed, August 11, 2017).

[2] Dallas Theological Seminary Website, “Darrell L. Bock,” http://www.dts.edu/about/faculty/dbock/ (accessed August 11, 2017).

[3] Darrell L. Bock, “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 143.

[4] Life Application Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988), 1176.

[5] Michael J. Wilkins, “Isaiah 53 and the Message of Salvation in the Gospels,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 109.

[6] Ibid., 110.

[7] Gary Yates, “The Servant of the Lord in Isaiah,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, OBST 661, Course Content, Week Seven Video Presentation, 12:26, (accessed August 14, 2017).

[8] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 130.

[9] Yates, “The Servant of the Lord in Isaiah.”

[10] Richard E. Averbeck, “Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 53.

[11] Ibid., 59.

[12] Averbeck, “Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53,” 60.

[13] Wilkins, “Isaiah 53 and the Message of Salvation in the Gospels,” 111.

[14] Ibid., 115.

[15] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 761.

[16] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 383.

[17] Wilkins, “Isaiah 53 and the Message of Salvation in the Gospels,” 131.

[18] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 176.

[19] Bock, “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8,” 144.

[20] Bock, “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8,” 143.

[21] Craig A. Evans, “Isaiah 53 in the Letters of Peter, Paul, Hebrews, and John,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012), 162.

[22] Ibid., 170.

[23] Bock, “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8,” 143.

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