Interfaith Now
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Interfaith Now

Isaiah 53: How Does Jesus’ Life Compare with the Suffering Servant?

How Jesus’ death and resurrection overlap with the suffering servant

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Isaiah 53 (52:13–53:12) is often subject to debate. It’s not surprising that Bart Ehrman’s most commented blog post is on this passage. Rabbi Tovia Singer also has many videos on Isaiah 53.

I’ve discussed key background issues in my earlier posts:

  • how the central texts of Judaism and major Rabbis have interpreted Isaiah 53
  • the context of Isaiah 53 — particularly the Servant Songs.

So we can finally focus on Isaiah 53 and how Jesus’ life maps onto these predictions.

A brief recap of context

Isaiah is thought to have been written in approximately 400–600 BCE. Importantly, we also have manuscripts of Isaiah’s prophecy dated long before the Gospels.

There has always been a strong tradition within Judaism that considered Isaiah 53 to be about an individual — not the nation. Many Rabbis argued the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 was the consensus view within Judaism.

The previous Servant Songs identify two servants — Israel is certainly one of these servants. But Israel is in exile. She needs rescuing. The Lord will send another servant, a representative of Israel, who will not only rescue the nation but people from all nations who turn to him.

But isn’t Isaiah 53 written in the past tense?

Bart Ehrman raises an interesting point:

…the passage describes the suffering of the servant as a past event, not future (he was despised and rejected; he has borne our infirmities; he was wounded for our transgressions). On the other hand — this is a key point — his vindication is described as a future event (He shall see light; he shall find satisfaction; he shall divide the spoil). (Bart Ehrman, Does Isaiah 53 Predict Jesus’ Death?)

This argument would work if Isaiah 53 was originally in English. However, as pointed out by the famous Jewish commentator RaDaK (David Kimchi), it is common for prophecies in the Hebrew Bible to be written in the past tense.

And in the greater part of prophecy this is found, that the speaker uses a past tense in place of a future; for it is as though the thing had already happened when it has been spoken in the Holy Spirit.

The suffering and rejected servant

The suffering and rejection of the servant dominates Isaiah 52:13–53:12.

Just as there were many who were appalled at him —
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness (Isaiah 52:14, NIV)

Yet that suffering was not only physical — the people will also reject him:

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53:3, NIV)

The suffering and rejection of Jesus

The last week of Jesus’ life — leading up to the cross — was central to Jesus’ mission in the Gospels. For example, in John’s Gospel, his death is the very reason he came to earth (John 12:27–33).

Mark’s Gospel records the rejection of the people as Jesus reached the cross.

“What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted…

Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:12–15, NIV)

Followed by Jesus’ humiliation at the hand of soldiers.

Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. (Mark 15:17–20, NIV)

The servant did not oppose his persecutors

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7, NIV)

The servant is an innocent man — who suffers for the guilty. But, he refused to defend himself.

Jesus’ life also reflected this prophecy. For example, when Simon Peter cut off the ear of a guard arresting Jesus.

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:52–54, NIV)

When Pontius Pilate questioned him, Jesus again refused to defend himself.

When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge — to the great amazement of the governor. (Matthew 27:12–14, NIV)

The servant as priest and sacrifice

The servant is going to die — but not for his own sins. He will die for the forgiveness of God’s people.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
(Isaiah 53:5–6, NIV)

The servant’s mission will be as a priest. As the high priest made atonement in the Jerusalem temple for all Israelites — as all “have gone astray” — so the servant will atone for the nation. God will forgive their sins. But, the servant’s atonement stretches beyond Israel to the entire world — “he will sprinkle many nations” (52:15, NIV).

Yet, there’s more. Israel’s priests would regularly offer animals as guilt offerings for the people’s sins. But the servant will do something new. He will offer his life for the guilt of his people. His death will be a guilt offering (asham) (53:10).

Jesus as priest and sacrifice

Jesus declared he was the priest and sacrifice.

“For even the Son of Man [Jesus] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45, NIV)

At the last supper, Jesus spoke of his body broken, and his blood (i.e. his life) poured out for his followers:

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:19–20, NIV)

How can the Messiah die?

But isn’t the Messiah supposed to be a victorious king? How can he reign on David’s throne forever (2 Samuel 7) when his mission is to die a humiliating death? Yet the last verses of the chapter show his death is not the end.

After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:11–12, NIV)

After his death, the servant will see “the light of life”. He will live and reign — because he will be raised from the dead.

The Resurrection of the Messiah

Jesus’ resurrection was not a later invention. Paul writing approximately 20 years after Jesus’s death (~50 CE) stated:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:3–8, NIV)

Paul was reciting an earlier tradition. Most scholars therefore date the tradition to within a few years after Jesus’ death.

NT Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God, p254

The parallels between Isaiah 53 and Jesus’ life are remarkable. The apostle Peter sums this up beautifully.

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:9) When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) For “you were like sheep going astray,” (Isaiah 53:6) but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:22–25, NIV)

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Nick Meader

Nick Meader

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My background is in psychology, epidemiology and medical statistics. I’m mainly discussing here theology, philosophy of religion and mental health.