By my friend Jonathan Whitehead
Undoubtedly, Isaiah 53 had a significant impact upon the hearts and minds of those who contributed to the production of the New Testament. In fact, every student of the New Testament that takes the opportunity to become familiar with this particular text will be greatly edified. Throughout the scope of the text we find that divine satisfaction and pleasure can be found in the sufferings of a righteous servant and that such an offering is a “gracious thing in the eyes of the Lord.” (1 Peter 2:23) There’s no doubt in my mind that the 53rd chapter of Isaiah is an important piece of literature within the Christian faith. However, I cannot say that such a feeling is mutual within the popular mechanics of Christian thought. Some would suppose that the text alone (without judicial ramifications) is not as inspiring as it should be and that we must superpose a greater message on top of the literal message so that we might find the prevailing message of modern Christendom’s “hidden” Messiah in Vicarious Atonement.
Christianity has irritated the Jewish religion and provoked their response to Isaiah 53. This has lead the modern Jewish movement to at least identify an application, if not the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The views that are promoted today have not necessarily been accepted within the primitive Jewish community. In fact, the historical records reveal to us a great longing within the Jewish mind. They longed to understand, not necessarily the meaning, but the application of Isaiah 53. The meaning of the text had long been settled, but its application on the other hand was a different story. The historical record (Acts 8:26-40) bears witness to the fact that an evangelist of our Lord was given the opportunity to speak with a well-known and respected treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia. The man’s name is unknown and is often referred to as the “Ethiopian Eunuch.” He was obviously a devout worshiper under the first covenant. On this particular day he had been meditating upon the words of Isaiah that are found within the text of our consideration. Phillip, the evangelist studied with this man, and after the text had been read aloud, the Eunuch asked; “About whom, I ask, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Even a man as devout and well-respected as this Eunuch lacked any sort of known fulfillment of this particular prophecy. Indeed, he understood the meaning of this passage but was at a loss of words when it came to it’s application. He asked; “Of whom does the prophet speak, of himself or someone else?” Thus, we see that the primitive Judeo-Christian mind of the first century did not suppose that there had been a satisfactory, uniformed, and authoritative understanding of the fulfillment of Isaiah 53 as we see within the Jewish religion today. The confident and modern Jewish position of Isaiah 53 has come about due to their great difficulty in addressing the primitive Christian faith.
Today, the Christian and Jewish battle over Jesus’ ministry is being fought on two different planets. While the Jews discuss the application of Isaiah 53, most Christians obscure it’s meaning. In this article I hope to secure the meaning of this particular text so that we might meet the Jews, once again, on the battlefield of the Christian faith. It is my firm conviction, based upon the empirical evidence (Apostolic Example), that an appeal to prophetic fulfillment is the most persuasive element within the Jewish mind (this is in contrast to the so-called necessity of expiation.) The impassible justice of God was foreign within the Jewish mind. In fact, any such appeal toward judicial satisfaction would have seemed to be in contradistinction to Jehovah’s revealed word in the Torah. A Jew ought to see that Jesus was the Christ because those things that were written of him had come to pass. Furthermore, when a Jew finds scriptural fulfillment in the person of Jesus, he’ll find the clarified teachings of Jehovah, redemption from the Old Testament law, and a compelling exhibition of God’s love.
It’s important for us to realize that the text of Isaiah 53 had no hidden or secret meaning that needed to be revealed in the New Testament. Admittedly the prevailing view that many Christians have toward the prophecy of Isaiah is deeply rooted in judicial substitution and divine vindication. However, and to the surprise of most, these principles are foreign to Isaiah 53 and can find no grounds within the sermons of the Apostles or our Lord. Luke provided us with an account of all that the Lord both began to do and to teach, yet the idea of divine satisfaction and vindication in the Lord’s death is entirely absent. Luke carried over into the Acts of the Apostles, giving us a detailed account of their missionary journeys along with a few sermons. However, in all the things that the Apostles taught, within the Acts of the Apostles, there’s not one hint of those Vicarious models of atonement. Never once did the Apostles appeal to the Jewish community by boasting in the idea that Jesus had “Paid it all” or that the Lord had poured out his “wrath” upon Jesus. The Apostles never stood up and preached something that was foreign to the Jewish religion, nor did they ever twist the scriptures to provide proof for their divine convictions (2 Peter 3:16). In Paul’s defense before King Agrippa he said;
“To this day I had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to the small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” Acts 26:22-23
If we allow our understanding of a particular text in the New Testament to twist the meaning of an Old Testament text then we’ve erred in our interpretation of the newer text. Often times it is supposed that the New Testament teaches that men under the first covenant never received absolute pardon, or if they did that it was only in prospect of the work that the Messiah would someday accomplish. However, if we are to make such an assumption we must first validate such a claim by either 1) Supplying an Old Testament affirmation or 2) Supposing that the topic of pardon had never been taught prior to the New Testament revelation. Unfortunately, such a modern claim fails to find its validity in either one of the two methods. Instead, it is a fabrication of a philosophy that has been rooted in the framework of judicial stipulations that only a lawyer could discover. Thus, in the modern Christian mind a Jew needs to become a Christian because God’s impassible attribute of Justice must be satisfied (and could only be satisfied in Jesus), when in reality a Jew needs to become a Christian because Jesus fulfilled the scriptures and that to reject the Christ is to reject Jehovah. This is the message that we see preached in the book of Acts. Peter told the men on the day of Pentecost that Jesus was the Christ and that they needed to repent because they had rejected the Christ. No one had ever been told to become a Christian becausethey had not really been forgiven, or that the only reason why they had been forgiven was because Jesus paid what they could not.
With all of that being said, I ask you to rid your mind of the modern rhetoric and allow the following text to speak for itself. Allow the text to have a practical meaning, one that is independent from the New Testament revelation and after you’ve apprehended the natural meaning of the text, ask yourself “Of who does this man speak?” Does Isaiah speak of the Nation, or a man, and if he speaks of a man, how then should this man’s days be prolonged if he should be crushed and put to death except he rise from the grave? (Vs. 10) This is the argument that the apostles made and this is the argument that convinced the Jews that Jesus was really the Christ (Acts 2:29-32).
1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 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.
3 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.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 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.
7 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.
To put this particular text within its proper perspective, let us first realize that the writer speaks of the suffering servant in third person – past tense. Thus the writer is being given a revelation of a man that has lived after and actually participated in the following events. He identifies himself as one of the guilty and is reflecting on his previous actions. Even though it is true that the speakers switch in the latter part of the text, it is still largely written from the third person perspective of those that had participated in the crucifixion of our Lord.
As we begin in verse 3 we noticed that the suffering servant was despised and rejected by men. Let us keep this at the forefront of our minds lest it slip away from us and lead us into error. It is strongly suggested today that Jesus was despised and rejected by the Father and that the Father took pleasure in punishing his Son Jesus for the crimes of others, but for now, let us only observe the fact that Jesus was rejected and despised by men. The suffering servant was well acquainted with grief and sorrow, and much like Job, his friends hid their faces from him supposing that God had found some sort of fault in this man. While It is true that the Lord acquired a great following during his earthly ministry, it is also true that all of those that followed him also forsook him when the time came for him to suffer and die upon the cross. Even our beloved Peter denied the Lord three times before the cock had crowed. The writer acknowledges the fact that Jesus deserved to be “Esteemed” before men, but that he had not received any such praises. More will be said of this in a moment.
“Surely he has borne our grief’s and carried our sorrows…” The writer speaks of an undisputed fact. “Surely” he says, the Lord bore our grief’s and carried our sorrows but before the wandering mind barrels down the road of substitution, let us consider the historical understanding of verse 4. Let us ask ourselves “What did the Jews believe that Isaiah 53:4 meant?” It’s important for you to understand that the bearing of grief’s and sorrows has nothing to do with judicial substitution, nor does it suppose that these infirmities have been transferred to the suffering servant. To validate my claims I ask you to consider the Evangelists words in Matthew 8:17 wherein he speaks of this particular fulfillment. It may sound appealing to say that the Lord “Bore my grief’s and carried my sorrows when he died on the cross” but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The text speaks of a limited number of people, and only those who lived and walked during the days of Jesus. Jesus bore “their” grief’s and carried away “their” sorrows through his miraculous healing. Thus, the historical interpretation of such a text has always been that the Lord bore away the infirmities of men when he healed the sick and fed the hungry.
A moment ago, I wrote that the Lord did not receive the esteem that he deserved from the people. While he deserved praises, he received cursing. This brings us into the latter part of verse four wherein we read that they “esteemed” him stricken and smitten by God. “We esteemed him not…” but instead “We did esteem him stricken and smitten of God.” This fact is undeniably true to those who are familiar with the gospel story. Who can deny this attitude by those who crucified our Lord? Even those who were being crucified with our Lord questioned his divine mission saying; “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Others said, “If you are the Son of God come down from the cross… He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” Earlier, a once blind man defended the Lord’s divine origin after he had been healed. He said, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” as he testified to the fact that “God does not hear the prayers of a sinner!” Thus, the Jewish mind could not fathom the idea of a righteous man suffering such a horrible fate. If God were with him, then why does it appear that he has left him? Was he not esteemed stricken and smitten by God? To answer in the negative is to ignore every source of historical evidence. However, if on the other hand, we suppose that their evaluation of Jesus’ fate was true then we’ve essentially repudiated the hope of the Gospel. If we suppose that their evaluation was true then we’ve essentially discovered something that Jesus did not know. Jesus rested his soul in the hands of a Father who judges righteously and who would reward a faithful servant with eternal life and fellowship if he should choose to suffer to the point of death at the hands of an offender (1 Peter 2:23; Rev. 2:10.) 1) If Jesus were truly smitten by God and punished for another man’s crime’s, how then could he continue to entrust himself into the hands of a Father who judges unjustly? 2) How can we entrust our souls in the hands of a Father who might punish his faithful children for the crimes of another?
Verse 5 identifies the fact that Jesus was punished and some would suppose that God was punishing him. However, men, because of their envy, were punishing Jesus. He was wounded and crushed because of their transgressions and this punishment brought about peace and healing. For many years after the prophecy of Malachi the Jews had been seen as those that had been forsaken by God, and the Jews partially believed it. They longed for the inheritance of their promised redemption and some (that did not believe in the resurrection) feared that the sting of death would hinder them from observing the coming of the kingdom. They were broken and they needed to be healed. They needed to know that their God had not forgotten his promise to Abraham. Thus, the death of Jesus brought about this confirmation and fulfillment of those promises. The Jews realized, after the resurrection of our Lord, that the Lord had not forgotten about His promises and that he sent his Son Jesus to gather all men together into one body that they might reign together with him. The chastisement of our Lord healed their broken heart and brought peace to those who feared death and were shut up by the Mosaic Law.
The writer then speaks in verse six of an apostasy. He identifies the fact that the Jews had erred from the fold of God. This is also confessed by our Lord when he states that he came to “Seek and to save that which is lost” and that he has come “for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Nevertheless, the Lord had many more sheep who were not part of the Jewish community (the Gentiles) that were also lost. However, the force of the statement in verse six is to show that their apostasy lead to the punishment of Jesus and that the Lord allowed their iniquity to fall upon him. All that is meant by this expression is that the Lord allowed their iniquities to fall upon Jesus. Similar language is used frequently in the Old and New Testaments, namely with Job and Joseph: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away!” “What? Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and shall we not receive evil?” It was not God that was punishing Job, but God lifted his hand of divine protection. It could be said that the Lord laid upon Job the iniquities of the Chaldean and Sabean robbers simply because he allowed him to suffer. This however does not mean that sins were imputed to Job, nor that he suffered as a penal substitution. Neither does this mean that the Lord poured out his wrath upon Job. It’s quite clear that many people have read much into the sacrificial language of the Old and New Testaments.
The writer continues to explain the way in which the Lord bore the sins of many. It is said that the Lord bore their sin because he took their punishment like a man. He did not open his mouth but allowed his accusers to bind him up and carry him to the slaughter. It may be beneficial to the honest heart to make a comparison between Isaiah 53:7 and Romans 8:36 wherein this particular text is quoted. However, Romans 8:36 speaks of Christians that are being lead into the slaughter of martyrdom. Romans 8:36 is not teaching that Christians are slaughtered by the Father and neither is Isaiah 53:7 teaching that Jesus was slaughtered by his Father.