Isaiah: Glimpses of God
Isaiah 53 is the most well-known passage in Isaiah, and is perhaps the most important chapter in the entire Old Testament, being quoted or alluded to over 40 times in the New Testament.1 As with Isaiah 6, it feels like we are standing on holy ground. As we come near to Israel’s and our Messiah, we do so with a humble, contrite, yet grateful spirit of worship and obedient surrender. If we leave unchanged, then we haven’t truly encountered our Living Lord.
Isaiah presents this fourth servant song from the perspective of the second coming when the Messiah is exalted and receives His kingdom. He looks back from there to Messiah’s first coming and the suffering He would endure as He completed His earthly mission. The theme of this song is the “vicarious atonement” – the fact that the sinless Messianic servant took the place of guilty sinners and died as our substitute. A secondary point is that the servant’s sacrificial suffering would lead to His glory.
This passage is a very controversial one for the Jewish people. Until about 1050 AD, all Jewish rabbis held a messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53. At that time, the rabbi, Rashi, suggested this passage might refer to Israel. The rabbi, Maimonides, dissented forcefully, stating Rashi was completely wrong in going against the traditional Jewish interpretation.2 Careful reading convinces us that Isaiah is not speaking of Israel, but rather of a specific individual who is the unique servant who suffers on our behalf. Israel certainly has suffered, but it has not been voluntary or silent, nor has it been “substitutionary” in atoning for the sins of the world. In the 1800s, with the rise of the evangelical movement, Rashi’s viewpoint became more appealing to rabbis as a ”way of countering Christian teaching.”3 “Today this passage is not read in synagogues; public readings of Isaiah will jump from Isaiah 52 to Isaiah 54.”4
Another problem for the rabbis was that Jewish prophets clearly presented two views of the Messiah, one of a suffering and one of a conquering king. Today we recognize that these refer to one Messiah who comes two times with a different purpose at each coming. The rabbis did not understand this, so concluded that there must be two Messiahs. The first one who would suffer and die was called “Messiah, the Son of Joseph” (or Son of Ephraim) and the second one who would establish the Messianic Kingdom was called “Messiah, the Son of David.” Over time, the Son of David was emphasized. The suffering Messiah was mostly ignored, so that today, most Jews only know about the conquering Messiah, the Son of David.5 The New Testament identifies this Messianic servant as Jesus of Nazareth.
I. DAY ONE: Isaiah 52:13-15
A. The Summary
- The previous servant songs have revealed that God sent the servant with a specific mission (chapter 42), that he would be scorned as he carried out this mission (chapter 49), and that as he persevered in his mission he would be physically abused (chapter 50).
- Isaiah 52:13-15 provide a preview of chapter 53, foretelling the servant’s wisdom, rejection and exaltation.
B. The Servant Exalted
- What is God’s evaluation of His servant in verse 13? To act wisely also means to act in a way that brings success. That is important because what happens to the servant looks like anything but success!
- What clues are given to the resurrection, ascension and exaltation of the Messiah?
- What do the following verses add: Hebrews 1:3; 12:2; I Peter 3:22?
C. The Servant Humiliated
- It has been stated that without a cross, there is no crown. That was true for Jesus, and Romans 8:17 indicates it is also true for us.
- We often evaluate our leaders by how they “look.” How did God’s servant “look”? (Isaiah 52:14) Who do you think were the “many” who were appalled by His appearance?
- John 19:1 and other references tell us that Jesus was flogged or scourged. Forty lashes were given with a multi-strand whip, each strand having a piece of metal or glass attached. Many men did not survive the scourging. This would have left Him barely recognizable.
D. The Servant Vindicated
- Isaiah 52 called the Jews out of exile. Isaiah 52:15 reveals that God’s call is extended to all nations who respond to Him in faith.
- The sprinkling reminds us of the old sacrificial system which allowed people to be declared ceremonially clean (Leviticus 14:1-20; Numbers 8:6-7). The sprinkling by the Messiah procured not mere ceremonial cleansing but actual cleansing. Who would be included in this sprinkling? (v. 15)
- The word translated “sprinkle” can also be translated “startle.” This seems to be the response of those who finally understand who the Messiah is, what He has done, and why (Romans 15:21). What will they say now? (v. 15)
II. DAY TWO: Isaiah 53:1-3
A. Israel’s Unbelief
- The time will come when the Jewish remnant will confess that they did not recognize the Messiah and, in fact, rejected Him (Revelation 1:7).
- What are some of the things Isaiah has told Israel the “arm of the Lord” would do? (See Isaiah 40:10; 51:5; and 52:10.) At that time, they will also discover the identity of the “arm of the Lord,” who is providing their salvation, is the Messiah whom they rejected.
- The “arm of the Lord” refers to God’s mighty power and speaks of both judgment and deliverance. Wiersbe observes: “When God made the universe, He used His fingers (Psalm 8:3), and when He delivered Israel from Egypt, it was by His strong hand (Exodus 13:3). But to save lost sinners, He had to bare His mighty arm!”6
B. Israel’s Excuse
- What do you think the Jews expect the Messiah, the Son of David, to look like?
- Instead, what did the Messiah actually look like? (vv. 2-3)
- Describe the very ordinary life of the Messiah from these verses: Luke 2:6-7, 39-40, 51; John 2:11; 7:5; Mark 3:20-21; 6:1-6. Did He look like a Messiah to people in His town?
- Since Jesus looked like any other Jewish man of His day, how should people have been able to recognize that He was in fact the Messiah? (John 7:16-17; 10:37-38; Matthew 11:2-6 compared with Isaiah 35:5-6)
- Instead, how was He treated by the majority? (John 6:41-42, 60, 66; 7:12; 11:45-53)
C. The Servant’s Compassion
- Why is it important to us that the Messiah shared in our humanity (although without sin), and experienced pain and suffering?
- Hebrews 2:14-17
- Hebrews 2:18
- Hebrews 4:15-16
- Hebrews 5:7-10
- Hebrews 12:2-3
III. DAY THREE: Isaiah 53:4-6
A. The Servant’s Substitutionary Suffering
- Verses 4-6 give us the heart of the Messianic Servant’s ministry, and in fact it is the heart of the gospel.
- The majority of the people of Jesus’ day did not understand the spiritual healing He came to provide, but rather valued Him for His physical miracles. How were these a partial fulfillment of this prophecy? (Isaiah 53:4; Matthew 8:16-17)
- Although the Jews didn’t realize it at the time, the Messiah did not come merely to carry our physical ailments, but primarily our spiritual ones. Jesus also did not suffer for His own sins, as He was sinless (II Corinthians 5:21). Those watching Jesus’ crucifixion thought He was being stricken by God for His own sins, but in fact He was suffering in our place—yours and mine. Underline “our,” “we,” and “us” each place you find them in Isaiah 53:4-6.
- However, Jesus not only suffered because of “our” sins in the plural sense, He also suffered for my sins and your sins in the individual sense. In place of the plural pronouns you underlined, substitute the personal pronouns: “I,” “me,” and “my.”I sent Him to suffer and die! God unleashed the full force of His anger against sin and sinners, against me and my sin, against you and your sin, and directed it all onto Jesus!
- What does verse 5 say the Messiah was punished for on our behalf?
- “Transgressions” – refers to the sin of rebelling against God.
- “Iniquities” – refers to the sickness or crookedness of our sinful nature.
- Verse 6 summarizes our sin by saying that we have each chosen to go our own way.
- Therefore, Isaiah is saying that we are sinners both by our choice and by our nature. And this is what Jesus was punished for.
B. The Servant’s Substitutionary Death
- There is a principle clearly stated throughout Scripture. How does Ezekiel 18:4b state it? Does God mean it?
- There is a seldom-used theological word which is important to understand. That is the word, “propitiation.” This term conveys the fact that God in His holy, righteous character is not only offended by sin, He cannot tolerate sin! (Habakkuk 1:13a) God feels anger and wrath against sin and because of His holy, righteous, just character must act on that wrath. He must judge sin! The only way to propitiate or satisfy God’s anger is by the death of the sinner. The only way you and I who are sinners can experience forgiveness of sins instead of God’s wrath is by repenting (turning from “self-rule” to “God-rule”) and trusting in the substitutionary death of the Messiah, the “vicarious atonement.” It is His propitiation that makes at-one-ment possible between God and His people.
- God prepared Israel to understand this through the sacrificial system put in place under the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 16). How did John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus in John 1:29 prepare the people to later understand that whereas the sacrifice of a lamb or goat provided a temporary covering for sin, Jesus death would propitiate God’s wrath against all who trusted in Him? What does Hebrews 9:11-14, 28 add to help you understand the efficacy of His sacrifice?
- Romans 6:23 repeats the principle, but then gives us hope. Romans 3:23 told us that all of us have sinned, without exception, so the death penalty has been pronounced on each of us. There must be a death to pay for our sin. But God is also a God of love. What does Ezekiel 18:32 say? Romans 6:23 tells us there is an option. I can die for my own sin, or I can trust in Jesus who already did die for me. How does John 3:36 present the choice we face?
- The Messiah did not face death by the normal Jewish method (stoning), but by the most cruel method, crucifixion. In addition to Isaiah 53:5, read the descriptions in Psalm 22:12-18. (If you have time, you may want to go to the Gospel accounts for the details.)
- To pay the penalty in full, Jesus experienced both spiritual death (separation from God) and physical death.
- How do the following verses prove each of these claims: Mark 15:33-34; John 19:33-35?
- We all must face the death of our physical bodies, but by God’s grace, we do not need to experience spiritual death! How does Isaiah 53:5 express it?
C. The Servant’s Substitutionary Burden
- Isaiah 53:4-6 prophesies the Messianic Servant carrying our infirmities, sorrows, transgressions, iniquities, and punishment in a way which included Him being stricken, smitten and afflicted by God, pierced, and crushed. Think back to a time when you felt guilty over something you had done wrong. Then multiply that by all the times you have sinned knowingly and unknowingly. Do you begin to have a sense of the burden Jesus carried? But you and I have not had to carry that burden to its ultimate end because Jesus did it for us!
- After having endured the horrible time when God “turned His back on Jesus” and Jesus experienced spiritual death, Jesus, just before dying physically, cried out, “It is finished!” The word He used is “tetelestai” which is a word from the marketplace meaning “paid in full.” What are the implications of that word for you and for all mankind? Is anything else needed? Can anything else be added?
- Read the familiar I Peter 2:21-25; then, bow in humble thanksgiving and pour out your heart to God. Then rise up, committed to live for righteousness as Peter says! Is any praise too much? Is any sacrifice to great? What a Savior!
DAY FOUR: Isaiah 53:7-9
A. Messiah’s Voluntary Sacrifice
- Sheep have a reputation for being submissive animals. I just watched a YouTube video of sheep shearing. While being sheared, the sheep was pretty quiet. Even more, a servant is expected to be quiet and submissive when before his or her master. Under what extreme conditions did the Messianic Servant remain silent? (Isaiah 53:7)
- In addition to the above, what evidence is there that Jesus’ sacrifice was not forced on Him, but was voluntary? (Matthew 26:39; Luke 23:34)
- What impact did this Isaiah account have on Africa in Acts 8:26-39?
- When oppressed and judged, when was Jesus silent? (Matthew 26:61-63a; 27:12; 27:13-14; Luke 23:8-9) Why do you think that was?
- To what questions did He respond? (Luke 22:67-70; John 18:33-37) Why?
- Do you see a principle which could guide you in how to respond to questions you may face?
B. Messiah’s Unjust Treatment
- We discussed yesterday why it was necessary for the Messiah to die. In addition to the proofs we looked at, what do verses 7-9 say which prophetically indicate that the Messiah did die—that He was truly dead?
- The normal practice was for the body of a condemned criminal who died by crucifixion to be left unburied.7 This was an additional dishonoring of that person. How did God intervene to show honor to the dead body of His Son? (Isaiah 53:9; Luke 23:50-56) From now on, only hands of love would touch the body of His Son!
DAY FIVE: Isaiah 53:10-12
A. God’s Judgment
- There has been much debate, many accusations, and even wars waged over who killed Jesus. From Isaiah 53:10, we learn that although each had a part, it was not the Jews and it was not the Gentiles who were ultimately responsible for His death. Who was responsible?
- Today it is popular among some who are “enlightened” to call this “cosmic child abuse.” Was it? (Refer back to Day Four, A: 2.) A good father would not want his son to be crushed. However, we all understand that sometimes it is necessary to suffer and die in order to obtain a greater good. That is why a person will give their life to save a child who is drowning. It is why our soldiers go to war to defend their country.
- Leviticus 5:15 presents the model that to be saved from sin, not only must there be a death, but the death must be of one who is without sin. Second Corinthians 5:21 can also read, “God made him who had no sin to be [a sin offering] for us…”
- Why did God do this? (John 3:16)
B. God’s Reward
- What prophetic evidence do you see for the Messiah’s resurrection in verse 11?
- From verse 11, what indicates that His purpose was accomplished?
- Verse 11 says He will justify many, not all. Unlike some beliefs, universal salvation is not taught. What is necessary for the benefits of the Messiah’s sacrifice, forgiveness of sins, a relationship with God, to be applied to an individual? (John 1:11-13; Romans 10:9-13)
- What rewards did God give the Messiah after His resurrection, and what additional rewards will He receive when He comes the second time? (Isaiah 53:11, 12)
- John 17:1-5, 24
- Acts 1:9-11; 7:56
- Acts 2:34-35; Hebrews 1:13; 10:12-13
- Ephesians 4:7-8; Psalm 68:18
- Revelation 5:6-14
- Does the principle of rewards for faithful service, including suffering, apply to you and me? (Romans 8:17)
- Before the events of Isaiah 53, came the voluntary leaving of heaven and the emptying Himself of His rights as deity. The Messianic Servant did this willingly—out of love for you and me—and out of love for His Father and ours. Read Philippians 2:6-11 and John 17 with Isaiah 53 in mind. Jesus did not stop being deity when He took on human flesh, but He willingly assumed certain self-limitations to serve and save us.
- You and I have been called to serve the Messianic Servant and those He wants to touch through us. Jesus said that no servant is greater than His master. To a much lesser degree, you and I have been called to “leave” and “set aside” and to take on hardship, perhaps even mocking, opposition, and in rare cases abuse and death. How does knowing that He truly understands, not only theoretically, but experientially, help you to trust God with your situation? How are you encouraged knowing that the same resources the Messiah had available to Him are available to you? How does it help to know that this earthly life is not the end of the story, but that glory and rewards are ahead?
- Nothing is enough to adequately express our worship and praise to God for the gift of the Messianic Servant, our Savior! God says He inhabits the praises of His people. With that in mind, in addition to a recommitment to service, could you this week express your praise to God in a new way? Perhaps painting a picture, writing a poem, composing a song, or using some other creative way of glorifying God for who He is and what He has done—for you.
- To help you remember the Messiah’s awesome sacrifice for you, memorize or review Isaiah 53:6.
1. Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Comforted (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1992), 155-156.
2. Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Messianic Christology (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1998), 54.
3. Ibid, 54.
4. Ibid, 54.
5. Ibid, 123. For further interesting analysis, see pages 123-128.
6. Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Comforted (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1992), 159.
7. Ibid, 162.
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