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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Is Jesus in the Old Testament?

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Jesus is the theme of the Old Testament and the entire metanarrative of the Bible points to Him and the New Testament reveals how all prophecies either were fulfilled by Jesus or will be during His second coming. According to Iain Duguid, “when you interpret the Old Testament correctly, you find its focus is not primarily stories about moral improvement, calls for social action, or visions concerning end-time events. Rather the central message of the Old Testament is Jesus.” Today we are going to look specifically at scriptures, which foretell and point to His suffering and glory, as well as His death and resurrection.

Before we get started I must caution you in efforts to find Jesus in every chapter or verse of the Old Testament. Instead, you must understand who the original audience was and what the proper context was before you can attempt to link either Jesus to the passage or even the passage to your own lives. You cannot move to practical application without a clear understanding of who wrote it, whom it was written for, and why it was written before turning it into a timeless truth or associating it with Jesus. Each passage must be examined according to its historical and literary context.

Jesus represented the New Covenant between man and God because the problem with all the previous Covenants was the people continually sinned and as a result they were judged. The first passage we are going to look at is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34: “The time is coming, declares the LORD, “When I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” This passage is crucial in linking the Old Testament to Christ because it is the only reference in the Old Testament to a New Covenant and the writer in Hebrews quotes this passage in chapter 8:13 saying: “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” Duguid then states, “In the context of that history of sin, only a covenant based on God’s free gift of grace to us in Christ could actually achieve God’s purpose to make us His holy people.” Sin had drove a wedge between God and His children and Jesus was the only way for humanity to truly be saved.

Another area, which points to Jesus in the Old Testament, is found in the divisions of the books and their three distinct parts as well as how they are arranged: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Each of these sections looks forward to Jesus and as Duguid concludes, “History is the story of God carrying out His grand plan in this world for the redemption of His people in Christ.” Jesus in Matthew 5:17-20 said he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it essentially restoring the point of the law. To obey the law is to know God and our obedience flows from our love for Him and our adherence to it is proof God is the priority in our lives. The ultimate role of the prophet was to look ahead while also predicting and proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah. In the Old Testament, there were three elevated offices: prophets, priests, and kings. God anointed the people who were appointed to these offices just as Christ was anointed to act in all these roles on our behalf.

In addition, the three primary ways of receiving God’s revelation also point forward towards Jesus. While these are not mutually exclusive, they represent the embodiment of Jesus. Duguid elaborates further by classifying them as, “indirect special revelation: Israel’s history, through direct revelation: the prophetic word, and through general revelation: which is by definition indirect.” It is important to remember Jesus read and studied the Old Testament scrolls and it was here where He found His identity and purpose in life. We too, as we read the Old Testament are introduced to Jesus as well as God’s future covenant. The mission God gave Jesus has also been passed on to us in the form of the Great Commission by way of enacting the Great Commandment. The first is rooted out of the Shema found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and the latter part was added by Jesus and was the way the world would know we were His disciples. In essence, Jesus was instructing us to love people to Him.

Some of the best examples of Jesus being foreshadowed are found in the Psalms and the wisdom books. In these books, it becomes evident the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and as Duguid points out, “From [Jesus’] earliest days, His entire existence was dominated by the fear [and admiration] of the Lord.” Ultimately, Duguid is illustrating that Jesus came to us to show us how to live our life according to God’s divine plan without sin. Duguid further elaborates by saying, “Jesus thus fulfills in Himself all three divisions of the Old Testament: He is prophet, sage, and sacred historian, as well as prophet, priest, and king.” Ultimately, without Jesus, the Old Testament is nothing but a book of unexplained rituals that do not make sense, a book of unfulfilled prophecies, and a book of impossible standards to uphold.

As a result of man and woman’s choice to rebel against God, sin entered the world. The earliest example of Jesus being foreshadowed in found in Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he: [Jesus] will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Despite human wickedness that has resulted from the fall in the Garden of Eden, God’s final word has always been grace, which has always left a remnant. Having free will made what man wanted a reality, so when man wanted a king; God gave them a king, but only after warning man of all the good and bad that would result. Even in King David, our model of worship and a man after the Lord’s heart we see wickedness and betrayal, yet God still used Him. The same way God has used fallen people throughout the Old Testament, He is using us in our redeemed state, which was only made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ: the spotless Lamb who was offered up as the perfect sacrifice to wash away man’s past, present, and future iniquities and sin.

The life of Jesus is often paralleled with that of the Israelites. For example, when the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years due to their lack of faith in God and grumbling, we see Jesus during His forty days and nights in the desert being presented with all the same temptations as the Israelites were, yet unlike the Israelites Jesus never lost His faith; instead He used the Old Testament scriptures as His defense against Satan. Unlike Israel, Jesus remained obedient and just as Isaiah prophesied; Jesus became the suffering servant and ultimately extended the covenant to Jews and Gentiles. Jesus was the Davidic king foretold of in the Messianic Psalms and as Duguid points out, “Jesus is not only the new Adam and the new Israel, He is also the new David: Great David’s greater Son.” God’s promise was that a son of David would always sit on the throne and this promise is only fulfilled if Jesus was the embodiment of that promise. While the Old Testament deals primarily with the suffering and resurrection of Jesus, Duguid proposes, “At its height, the Old Testament gives us a glimpse in advance of who Jesus is.”

When looking into the Old Testament scriptures for any sign of Christological significance and how they help us to understand the person of Jesus, a great tool, which helps Christian’s, understand the future Messiah is utilized through a technique called sensus plenoir or a fuller sense to similar texts. Hosea 11:1 and Matthew 2:14-15 are a great representation of this technique. Gordon Wenham highlights, “In the prophecy of Hosea, this is just a historical comment on the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, but Matthew, seeing Jesus as the true Israel, applies Hosea’s historical comment to the life of Jesus.”

There are several Old Testament passages, which were directly to be understood as the Messiah. Examples of these include Psalms 72:8-11; this must be true because there is a reference to a King having dominion from sea to sea and this could only pertain to the Messiah and the dominion He possesses. Another example is found in Psalms 110 where we see the future King is seated at the right hand of God. Without Jesus and His universal sovereignty over every nation, we as a people are nothing but a broken branch with no hope or meaning in life. God has revealed Himself to us through creation and His word, so as we read any passage of scripture we should remember everything has and always will point to Jesus Christ our Messiah and Savior. In closing it is imperative you know, “When Christ left the tomb, he was raised on high, and is now enthroned in glory, at God’s right hand…[and] having died with Christ we live with Him and in Him.”

Bibliography

Bruce, F.F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984, WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Duguid, Iain M. Is Jesus in the Old Testament? Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013.

Wenham, Dr. Gordon. The Psalter Reclaimed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.