Messiah’s Sacrifice Prophesied
We have already seen in this series how from the very onset of sin, God had instilled in the hearts of His children the hope of a coming savior. Through prophecy and visual typology, He revealed that this savior would die bearing the sins of the world, defeating Satan and obtaining reconciliation for sinful people with their holy God. This is substitutionary atonement. The recorded examples of such atonement in events like the sacrifice of Isaac, the Passover and the Levitical sacrificial system and Day of Atonement are there to point to Jesus, the promised Messiah and once-for-all sacrifice for sin. Throughout the Scriptures, there are many prophecies of this Messiah, but arguably none clearer than the prophecy of his penal substitutionary death recorded in Isaiah 53. Isaiah’s portrait of the “suffering servant” is fulfilled in Jesus Christ with remarkable detail about his suffering, death, burial and triumph. Let’s take a look at it. It really is striking.
Israel was called and set apart to be a holy nation to represent God to the world, bringing all nations into a right relationship with Him. God gave them the Law, which was impossible to keep, so He also gave them the sacrificial system so they could make atonement for their failures to keep the Law. This system allowed God to dwell among them, limited though the access to Him was. When Israel fell repeatedly into idolatry, breaking their covenant with God, He sent prophet after prophet to warn them to repent.
Isaiah was one such prophet appointed by God to speak on His behalf to His people in the kingdom of Judah. He warned the nation of God’s pending judgment (exile) for its rejection of Him but he also preached a message of hope. This hope would be realized in God bringing the people back from exile but ultimately in His sending the promised Messiah to rescue the people from the sin that condemned them and to bring them into a new, eternal covenant.
Isaiah calls the people of Israel God’s servant for that is what they were supposed to be. Yet because of their rebellion, they failed in this mission. Not only did they fail to be the city on the hill to bring God’s light to the nations, but they failed even to remain in that light themselves. So Isaiah speaks of another servant of God, this one a single representative who would do what Israel failed to do. However, in accomplishing for them this task of bringing the nations of the world in reconciliation to God, this servant would not cast Israel aside, but would preserve a faithful remnant and ultimately restore the nation to its role as God’s servant.
How all of this would be accomplished is prophesied in stunning detail in Isaiah 53 where God’s Servant is portrayed in a shockingly unexpected way–as a “man of sorrows,” “despised and rejected by men,” “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”1 This servant seemed dramatically different than the king they were expecting from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10) and line of David (2 Sam. 7: 12-13) that was to rule forever on God’s throne. Yet this was that very king, suffering and dying a criminal’s death without a word of protest. And this is how his throne would be established.
Who is Speaking?
This “Servant Song” in Isaiah 53 (which actually begins in 52:13) has two speakers. The first and last stanzas are from God’s perspective and book-end the whole prophecy with the theme of the Servant’s exaltation. The middle three stanzas, many scholars agree, are spoken from the perspective of future, penitent Israel, finally recognizing the Messiah.
Of Whom are They Speaking?
Ancient Rabbinic literature widely recognized this passage as a prophecy of the Messiah as does the majority of Christian scholarship today.2 Not only is this interpretation strikingly evidenced in the accounts of Christ’s suffering, death, burial and resurrection, but it is also attested to elsewhere in the New Testament. One example is Acts 8, wherein we read the account of an Ethiopian eunuch who was reading this very prophecy. God sent Philip to him to help him understand and the eunuch’s question was “About whom…does the prophet say this…?” In response, “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:34-35). This is all to say, the “Suffering Servant” is the promised Messiah who is Jesus Christ.
The Basis (for the Servant’s Exaltation)
Let’s look at this beautiful Song stanza by stanza…
Behold, God’s Servant
“Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and he shall be exalted.
As many as were astonished at you–his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind–
So shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.”
This first stanza, spoken from God’s viewpoint, begins the Song with the future wisdom and exaltation of His Servant, the Messiah. Rydelnik and Spencer in The Moody Bible Commentary note that the same Hebrew words used here are used of God in Isaiah’s glorious vision in chapter 6. “It even goes further,” they say, “adding the expression and greatly exalted, a phrase not used in Is 6:1.”3 So, the Servant’s future glory is equated with the very glory of God, a glory so great that Isaiah’s response is “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Is. 6:5). In Revelation 5:11-13, we see a vision of Jesus, “the Lamb who was slain,” in all of this glory, receiving worship from “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.”
It seems strange, then, that the next line describes his appearance as astonishingly disfigured, beyond recognition. But it is through this horrific suffering that the Servant will “sprinkle many nations,” such that kings see and understand him, and stand silent in reverence before him. The sprinkling4 alludes to the sprinkling of blood in the sacrificial system to make purification for sin. It is, in fact, the same word used in Leviticus 4 and 16.5 This Servant’s sacrifice that causes him this great suffering is far greater than any other sacrifice for it purifies many nations. We see this fulfilled in the sacrificial death of Jesus, whose blood “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
He Was Not Majestic but Rejected
“Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Now, the speaker in the Song shifts to the people of Israel in the future, as they finally recognize their Messiah. Zechariah 12:10 says of this repentance, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” Here is the first of three reasons they give for their rejection of him–that they did not recognize him because of his lowliness.6
The arm of the LORD is symbolic of His power. The Jews were anticipating their Messiah coming in great power, even military power, so they failed to recognize “the mighty, incarnate power of God in the person of Jesus, their deliverer.”7 Comparing him to a young plant and root out of dry ground is synonymous with having no form or majesty. He was simple, ordinary, plain–altogether undesirable. More than this, he was despised and rejected, living a life characterized by sorrow and suffering. John 1:11 shows this fulfilled in Jesus: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
He Was Punished by God
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
This is the heart of the passage and this is the portrait of penal substitutionary atonement. The second reason the Jews did not recognize the Messiah is because they viewed him as being punished by God for his own sin–“yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”8 The truth in this is that he was punished by God, but not for his own sin. It was for their sin, and ours that he was penalized. We are the ones who have gone astray like sheep–foolish and stubborn. And he was the one who was crushed and pierced, bearing the weight of our suffering and sorrow.
The trade-off here is that his sacrifice brings us peace with God because he has borne the wrath of God against our sin. The only reason that the Servant’s sacrifice could bring us peace is because he himself was sinless. Otherwise he would be paying the penalty for his own sin. First Peter 2:21-25 tells how Jesus has fulfilled this prophecy (even quoting it directly). It says, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth…He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Jesus even calls himself the “good shepherd,” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Because he has substituted himself as the sin-bearer, we can be viewed by God as bearing his righteousness. We can be the sheep who, instead of going astray, know the Shepherd’s voice and follow him (John 10:3-4).9
He Willingly Submitted
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”
Here is the third reason future Israel gives for not recognizing Messiah Yeshua: he went to his death willingly. How could he be innocent and not speak a word of protest? He is compared to a lamb who goes silently to its death. Indeed, this is fulfilled in Jesus, the Lamb of God (John 1:29) who gave no answer to the accusations against him during his trial (Mt. 27:12-14).10 Once again Peter shows how Jesus fulfilled this prophecy saying, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pt. 2:23). Jesus himself explains the reason for his lack of protest–it was not because he was guilty but because he was willingly laying down his life in order to obtain eternal life for his followers (John 10:18, 27-28). He did this by becoming the sacrificial lamb foreshadowed by the Passover. How remarkable that God’s image-bearers, like sheep, stray from their creator, so He becomes like a lamb Himself in order to take the death they deserve to bring them back into the fold.
So, the Servant was put to death (“cut off out of the land of the living”) for the sins of Israel. He submitted to an oppressive trial and was destined to be buried as a criminal. Yet, this prophecy predicts the Messiah would actually be buried in the tomb of a rich man–a detail fulfilled by Jesus’ burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43-46). The second half of verse 9 tells why God permitted him to have an honorable burial–because he really was innocent.
God’s Suffering Servant Exalted
“Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
This last stanza is again from God’s perspective regarding the Servant. It is again focused on his exaltation as a result of his humiliation. As we have seen previously, it was God’s will all along to send His Son as an atoning sacrifice for mankind’s sin (Acts 2:23). And Jesus submitted himself perfectly to his Father’s will (Mt. 26:39, Heb. 5:8-9), presenting himself as a guilt offering. Here he is fulfilling the sacrificial system, making atonement or restitution for the damage done by sin. 11
The remainder of this stanza tells what the Servant’s reward will be due to his submission to the Father’s will. He will have followers–spiritual offspring. He will have life –prolonged days (Mt. 28:6). He will have prosperity–God’s blessing (Phil. 2:9). He will himself be satisfied at his accomplishment of redemption. Here again we see the idea of substitutionary atonement–the Servant bearing the sin of the people and in so doing, justifying them before God (Rom. 5:19). Because he will have accomplished God’s will in this matter, he will be the reigning king, whose spoil is the many–those he has redeemed (Rev. 17:14). They will be heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:16-17). In addition to his kingship, he will also have the role of High Priest, making intercession for his people (Heb. 7:25).
Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, has fulfilled in surprising detail what this prophecy had predicted hundreds of years before he was born. How he has done this is summarized powerfully in Philippians 2:6-11. Though he was God, he set aside his glory (Is. 52:13-15), humbly becoming a servant in human form (Is. 53:1-3), and suffering a humiliating death (Is. 53:5-9). But because of this, he is the highly exalted Lord of heaven and earth (Is. 53:10-12).
Beyond this, Jesus fulfilled every type and shadow of the Torah (Lk. 24:44-47). He accomplished what Israel could not–fulfilling the Law and its “righteous requirement” (Rom. 8:3-4; Mt. 5:17). He is the light of the world, pointing both Jews and Gentiles to God, showing them how to be holy as God is holy. (Jn. 8:12; Mt. 5:48). The Suffering Servant did for Israel what they (and we) could not and he bore God’s wrath against our sin. He was raised from the dead, defeating death so that we can not only be forgiven of our sins and reconciled to God, but also live as we were meant to as God’s servants, walking in obedience to Him and representing Him to the world under a new covenant of grace.
Isaiah’s beautiful prophecy foretold that not only would the nations believe and be saved by the Servant’s sacrifice but how ultimately, in the future, Israel will nationally recognize Jesus as the Messiah and turn in faith to “him whom they have pierced.” 12 In the meantime, all who turn to Jesus the Messiah in repentance and faith in his sacrificial death are brought into God’s kingdom and become “the light of the world” (Mt. 5:14).
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
1 Peter 2:9
- Isaiah 53:3-4
- The Moody Bible Commentary notes that “the influential medieval Jewish interpreter Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi, AD 1040-1105) identified the Servant as Israel. Today, most Jewish interpreters follow Rashi, as do most critical scholars” (p. 1087) The commentator goes on, however, to list six reasons why this cannot be. I will not go into them here, but wanted to acknowledge this other view and recommend resources that argue against it. In addition to the Moody Bible Commentary, I recommend Kaiser’s Toward an Old Testament Theology, pp. 215-217.
- p. 1087
- Though some scholars argue that this Hebrew word should be translated “startle” or the like, there is good contextual and linguistic reason to translate it “sprinkle” not the least of which being that this is the plain and common translation of the word. (See Rydelnik and Spencer, The Moody Bible Commentary, p. 1088)
- See my previous post on the sacrificial system and Day of Atonement for more on this subject.
- These three reasons are outlined nicely by Rydelnik and Spencer p. 1088-1089.
- John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 825
- These are “all terms that indicate punishment for sin” according to Rydelnik and Spencer, p. 1089.
- Though this prophecy is from the perspective of penitent Israel finally recognizing its Messiah, these incredible words apply to Gentiles as well. In John 10, Jesus goes on to talk about “other sheep” that he will bring in such that there is “one flock, one shepherd.” All are reconciled to God in the same way–through faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
- Commentators observe that verse 8 even predicts the unjust trial of Jesus (“oppressive judgment”). Moody, p. 1089 for example.
- See Rydelnik and Spencer, p. 1090
- I find this idea to be consistent with the whole counsel of Scripture but some key proof texts are Romans 11:25-27, Zechariah 12:10; 13:1, 8-9, and Revelation 7.