The Gospel According to Isaiah 53
I have been writing this month to prepare us for Good Friday and Easter by noting how allusions to these events, and Jesus in general, can be found in the Old Testament. Probably no other section in the Hebrew Scriptures testifies to who Jesus was going to be more than Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Depending on how you count, there are about 15-20 exact quotations of this passage in the NT, and countless allusions to it across several books and nearly all NT authors. And while I agree with my fellow Rambling Ever On contributor Dave Lytle here when he speaks to how the Gospel is bigger than how we explain it solely in regard to salvation, these 15 verses of Isaiah hit some of the salvation highlights I love to think about and teach. For space and time concerns, not all phrases in this section of Isaiah will get treatment. But I will hit on some things often overlooked concerning the nature of the Gospel. In doing so, I hope to spur you on to deeper study of them all.
1. The Gospel is Jesus Exalted As God (52:13)
Jesus’ nature as both God and man makes for a fascinating juxtaposition of roles. Jesus was a king but also a servant. Our Lord was so humble that he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on a mere donkey, yet also worthy of the praise, “Hosanna in the highest!” Here in Isaiah 52:13, in the same passage where Jesus is called a suffering servant, Isaiah says he will be “high and lifted up and greatly exalted” (cf. Is. 45:23, Philippians 2:9-11, John 3:14). And this expression is only used three other times in the entire Old Testament, all three in Isaiah (6:1, 33:10, 57:15) and all of Yahweh, the unique, sole God of Israel1. The suffering servant is exalted as only God should be.
2. The Gospel is Jesus Severely Flogged (52:14)
I am of the opinion that Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was not unnecessarily gory (and, appropriately, not gory enough). And this verse is a big reason why I think this. When the movie came out I heard two frequent objections to gratuitous violence that could have easily earned it an NC-17 rating. Some objected, saying we shouldn’t focus on the violence of Jesus’s death. This objection may have merit, but I’ll save that discussion for another day. I also heard objections that the New Testament doesn’t really speak to how badly Jesus was beaten. However, I think John 19:1 does speak to it. Its just easy to overlook in English because we didn’t live in Roman crucifixion times. I am leaving a footnote after this statement that explains what “severe flogging” means in John 19:1 according to the NET textual notes, but I’m giving the reader warning now that if the extreme nature of the description of the violence bothers you, please do not read this footnote2. I truly think both Old and New Testament confirm that the extreme violence of Jesus’ death is part of our Gospel.
3. The Gospel is Jesus To The Nations (52:15)
Jesus’ blood was sprinkled just as were the atonement sacrifices in Leviticus that were used to purify and cleanse people from sin (1:5, 1:11, 3:2, 3:8, etc). And this was for ‘many nations.’ This is just one of the many verses in Scripture that prove God desires all races, peoples and languages be in a covenant relationship with him (Galatians 3:28, Revelation 5:9-10). Jesus died not only to forgive us of our sins, but to bring Jews and Gentiles together under his blood (Eph. 2:11-22).
4. The Gospel is Jesus Rejected and Grievous (53:1-3)
I do not think it is coincidence that Isaiah speaks of the future Messiah as being rejected and “a man of sorrows” in the same verses. In a culture that values acceptance, approval and affirmation, and is convinced you must live with joy all the time, we can learn something from these three verses. Our Savior was, is and will always be rejected by the majority (Isa. 53:1 is quoted numerous times in the NT as referring to mass rejection of Christ by the Jews, his very own people) and who knew the deepest suffering in an intimate way. In Luke 24 there are three scenes and in every single one, suffering is presented as an essential precursor to the resurrection. You cannot appreciate Heaven unless you have in some sense experienced Hell. Let us us not devalue the importance of Christ’s rejection and suffering as part of our Gospel.
5. The Gospel is Jesus as Atonement: Taking Our Place (53:4-6, 12)
A. Taking our Pain (53:4)
B. Giving Us Peace (53:5)
C. Dying For Our Sin (53:5-6)
D. Interceding For Our Sin (vs. 12)
An earlier article of mine on Leviticus (found here) spoke to the issue of atonement more fully but for this passage I will again point out the triune nature that brings out its full meaning. Jesus died as a substitution (contrasting “he/him/his” pronouns vs. “us/we/our” pronouns), he satisfied God’s wrath (giving us peace), and procured our forgiveness (interceding for us). Isaiah adds an element I did not mention as being in Leviticus: taking our place wasn’t just dying in our stead but taking our pain and suffering as well. This was seen in Matthew 8:16-17 as Jesus literally and physically healed people that were in his presence. And according to Jesus’ own mission statement in Luke 4:18-19, he did not just come to save people from sin, but to heal them as well. The concern of God with the whole person reveals what kind of God we serve.
6. The Gospel is Jesus’ Silent Innocence (53:7-9)
It has always fascinated me that Jesus didn’t defend himself against false accusations when he was tried and convicted (Matthew 26:63). Part of the reason is that it was prophesied that he would not. He of all people had every reason to defend himself since he committed no wrong, but to fulfill his mission, he had to quietly suffer the false accusations for which he was killed.
7. The Gospel is Jesus Death As God’s Will On Earth (53:10)
The Book Surprised By Hope had a deep impact on several of the staff here at Rambling Ever On (see a review of the book here). The truth of God having his will done on earth as it is in Heaven was a huge reason why. Acts 2:23 and 4:27-28 prove that it was God’s will for Christ to die since the beginning. It wasn’t just a heinous murder by guilty men; it was God’s plan. To bring Heaven to earth, Hell had to be vanquished. And God wanted that. The NASB brings a nuanced translation to God’s will here saying it “pleased Him” to crush Christ. God’s will on earth as it is in Heaven can be a pleasing thing, even if the context is abhorrent.
8. The Gospel is Jesus Resurrected (53:11)
Both the LXX (the Greek translation of the OT) and the Dead Sea Scrolls have “light” after “see” in verse 11. This may be a reference to the resurrection. Of all the Bible versions I use on a regular basis3, only the NIV has “light” after “see” in this verse. The other major versions follow the Masoretic Text and have “see” without an object (or sometimes “it” is provided as the object since it is unknown by the MT). But the case for the the LXX/DSS reading has support in scholarship4 But even if the resurrection is not being alluded to here, it is definitely alluded to in Psalm 16:10 so the overall point of my articles this month–finding Christ in the OT–is still relevant.
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is probably my favorite ‘chapter’ in the Bible. I had it read at my ministerial ordination. And the above reasons are why. It has as much about Jesus as any 15-verse passage other than the Gospels themselves. Every clause speaks to what he was going to do as future Messiah, especially his actions on Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. They make for fine Holy Week devotional reading, which is the point of my March articles for Rambling Ever On.
- Bock and Glaser, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53, 184-185 ↩
- This severe flogging was not administered by Pilate himself but his officers, who a Pilate’s orders took Jesus and scourged him. The author’s choice of wording here may constitute an allusion to Isaiah 50:6: “I gave my back to those who scourged me.” Three forms of corporal punishment were employed by the Romans in increasing degrees of severity: (1) fustigatio (beating), (2) flagellatio (flogging), and (3) verberatio (severe flogging, scourging). The first could be on occasion a punishment in itself, but the more severe forms were part of the capital sentence as a prelude to crucifixion. The most severe, verberatio, is what is indicated here by the Greek verb translated flogged severely (μαστιγόω, mastigow). People died on occasion while being flogged this way; frequently it was severe enough to rip a person’s body open or cut muscle and sinew to the bone. It was carried out with a whip that had fragments of bone or pieces of metal bound into the tips. ↩
- I use NIV, ESV, NASB, and NLT ↩
- The NIV Application Commentary on Isaiah says ‘see light’ is “supported by all the Qumran editions of Isaiah. This is a strong argument in favor of its originality, especially since the consonants of ‘light’ (‘or) could be confused with ‘see’ (r’h). ↩
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5 thoughts on “The Gospel According to Isaiah 53”
I am amazed, time and time again, when I see how God planned our salvation. He knew. From the foundation of the world, He knew. It was His good plan.
Great read Gowdy, and a great reminder during this Easter season!
Sometimes we talk about the story of Jesus like it was a new thing that came on the scene in the 1st century. This is a good reminder that God had always been working to bring salvation to the world.
Good work. I had a similar experience reading Psalm 22 as a teenager. I was blown away by its graphic, prophetic description.
I teach Psalm 22 to my students when studying the crucifixion. They are amazed by it, so there’s great joy in sharing it with them. We look at Isaiah 53, too.
I confess I am weak in Psalm 22. I read it three times this week and the temptation for me is to read the verses that clearly identify with Christ and kind of half read the verses that I don’t know the connection to Christ (I’m sure a lot of them have one and I’m ignorant of it). Sounds like I don’t need to study Is 53 or Leviticus this Good Friday….