I love Isaiah 53. This Old Testament chapter gives such insights into the promised Messiah – who he would be, what he would suffer, and how he would heal the broken relationship between God and His creation. Following cross-references to other passages in both the Old and New Testaments, brings to light many hidden details woven into this remarkable prophecy.
Seeing that we are coming up to yet another Passover anniversary (the Christian’s “Easter”) which pointed forward to the sacrificial work of the “Lamb of God” slain to set us free from death, it seems completely fitting to focus this blog on Isaiah 53.
Who Will Believe the Report?
The Messianic chapter begins with a despairing remark, “Who has believed what he has heard from us?” (ESV) It seems incredible that a prophecy given a thousand years before it was fulfilled would not be believed when it finally occurred.
However, outside of Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, there are not many prophecies which speak so clearly and specifically about the sufferings the Messiah would endure. This may be the reason that few understood that suffering and death was part of God’s plan for his Son’s life. When one understands the role of suffering in the life of the Messiah, it becomes clear that the Law was also full of allusions to his sacrifice. The Messiah is the Passover lamb, the sin offering, the blood that cleanses and atones, and much more. As Jesus Christ said to his disciples, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:” (Luke 24:44-46)
Everything about Jesus Christ’s life was prophesied far in advance of his coming. Looking back on the Law of Moses, the Prophets (such as Isaiah) and the Psalms, we can view the details and understand his life in a fuller way. Click here for a cross-reference chart showing many connections between Isaiah 53 and the Old and New Testaments.
In the New Testament, John 12:37-38 quotes the despairing remark from Isaiah 53:1, “Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:” Even though Jesus did many indisputable miracles, few believed in him – he was not what they were expecting their Messiah to be.
A Root and A Branch
We are told in Isaiah 53:2 that, “he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground.” This word ‘root’ has the idea of a ‘sucker plant’ – a new growth coming from an old root. So many prophecies of Messiah refer to a ‘root’ or ‘branch’ coming from the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1-2, 9-10, Jeremiah 23:5-6; Zechariah 6:12-13). David, the son of Jesse, had been promised that one of his descendants would be ‘God’s Son,’ a king who will sit on David’s throne FOREVER! (2 Samuel 7:11-17, Psalm 89:20-48)
When the angel Gabriel told Mary she would have a son, in Luke 1, he said that, “the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
Jesus Christ is called the ‘Son of David’ in Matthew 1:1, and the apostles refer to him as being a descendant of David in Acts 2:29-30; 13:22-23. While Jesus was and is the ‘Son of God,’ he is also the son of Abraham, Jesse, David, Nathan… and so on down the line to Mary. As explained to Mary by the Angel Gabriel, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (Luke 1:34-35) God’s Holy Spirit power acted miraculously upon an egg in Mary’s womb (who was herself a descendant of Abraham and David), creating a baby without the involvement of a human father. God, who can form a living man from dust as he did with Adam, heal barren wombs to bear children, and restore a ‘dead’ womb as he did with Sarah at 90 years old, can certainly create a baby from an egg, without a sperm!
The Messiah’s Appearance
Isaiah 53:2 also tells us that, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.” The words and phrases used here seem to describe the Messiah’s physical presence, speaking of his form (figure) and his beauty (appearance), and telling us that he was not a man to be admired or desired for his outward appearance. Such a revelation may be surprising as we are used to seeing the very attractive, well-formed, blue-eyed paintings of Jesus. Human-beings generally like their heroes to be handsome, good-looking individuals. However, perhaps it was God’s plan to diminish the outward appearance of his Son, in order that we might be attracted to the Messiah’s character and godly attributes.
Despised and Rejected
Sadly, Isaiah 53:3 tells us that the Messiah would be ‘despised and rejected,’ and that we would turn away from him and not hold him in high esteem. This is echoed in Psalm 22:6-8, “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.” Had Jesus been built like King Saul – a head taller than everyone and very handsome, he may have won many hearts for the wrong reasons. Instead, at the end of his life, hardly any stood by his side and most called for his destruction. As it says in John 1:10-11, “... the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.”
Why Was the Messiah Afflicted?
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows,“ we are told in Isaiah 53:4-5, “yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” This is one of the clearest prophecies in the Old Testament telling us that the Messiah was to suffer for OUR sins. Understanding the sacrifices in the Law of Moses, we see many allusions and types, but here in Isaiah 53, we are told clearly that the Messiah was to be the sacrifice for sin – a sacrifice that brought healing. All the other sacrifices in the Law had been made in anticipation of the real sacrifice that God required, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (Galatians 3:24) God required a willing sacrifice from a man who had never sinned and didn’t deserve to die; a man who chose, everyday of his life, to submit his will to his Father’s. (John 5:30; Luke 22:42; Hebrews 10:3-10) Unlike the sacrifices under the Law which needed to be offered again and again for sin, ‘Christ was ONCE offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.’ (Hebrews 9:25-28; see also 1 Peter 2:24; 1 Peter 3:15; Romans 4:25)
Like Sheep That Go Astray
In verse 6 of Isaiah 53, we have the simile, “All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way.” Another passage in the Old Testament gives a reason for this scattering of the sheep. Ezekiel 34 alludes to the leaders of Israel being selfish shepherds, more interested in eating the flock, than in caring for them. In Ezekiel 34, God has compassion on his lost sheep, saying, “Behold, I, even I, will both search for my sheep, and seek them out.” Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd who would ‘give his life’ for the sheep (John 10:11). In speaking of Jesus’ death and resurrection in 1 Peter 2:24-25 it says, “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.”
The Passover Lamb
Not only is Jesus the good shepherd, but he is also the lamb! In verse 7 of Isaiah 53, we are told that he was brought ‘as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.’
The feast of Passover pointed forward to the Messiah’s sacrifice as the ‘lamb of God.’ Exodus 12:17-23 records the details of this feast, when the blood from a ‘lamb without blemish’ was painted on the doorposts. Painting the doorposts with the lamb’s blood saved the firstborns from death when the destroying angel passed through Egypt. The angel ‘passed over’ the homes with blood on the lintels and doorposts.
Jesus Christ was crucified at the time of Passover. (Luke 22:7, 14-19) He is spoken of as, ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,’ (Revelation 13:8) since the promise of his sacrifice was given to Adam and Eve after the very first sin (Genesis 3:15).
When the Ethiopian Eunuch was travelling in his chariot, puzzling over the words in Isaiah 53, ‘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,’ Philip explained that the lamb referred to in this passage is the Lord Jesus. (Acts 8:32-35) In Hebrews 9:13-14, we are told, “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
How was the Messiah taken from ‘prison’ and ‘judgement,’ as verse 8 of Isaiah 53, indicates? ‘Prison’ has the idea of ‘constraint or closure, or oppression.‘ ‘Judgement’ has the idea of ‘a verdict, or a sentence.’
Jesus was given an unfair trial, greatly oppressed and then led out to be crucified. He was ‘cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.’
There is another Old Testament reference to the Messiah being ‘cut off.’ Daniel 9:26-27 also records a prophecy of Messiah’s coming, giving a prophetic timeline for when he would appear which begins with the command to return and build Jerusalem. Daniel was told, “And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined. And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease…”
The Messiah would be ‘cut off’ for the sins of others, not his own. With his ultimate, willing sacrifice of himself, he ended the need for sacrifices and oblations to be offered according to the Law. “…with his own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption… now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” (Hebrews 9:12, 26)
A Grave With the Wicked and the Rich
We are told in Isaiah 53:9, that ‘he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.” Jesus Christ died between two criminals (Luke 23:33). A rich man named Joseph, claimed his body and buried Jesus in his own newly-hewn tomb. The fact that there was never any deceit or guile in Jesus’ mouth, is reiterated in 1 Peter 2:21-23, “because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:”
It Pleased the Lord to Bruise Him?
So, why did it ‘please the LORD to bruise him,’ as we are told in Isaiah 53:10? It ‘pleased’ the LORD only in the sense that it was God’s plan and purpose from the very beginning. After the first sin, God promised to bring a ‘seed of the woman’ to crush the ‘head of the serpent’ (Genesis 3:15). Once sin had entered the beautiful world God created, the only way to overcome the sentence of death, was for sin to be fatally crushed by the perfect obedience of another. (Hebrews 2:14) In the process of crushing the serpent’s head (a fatal blow), the seed of the woman was to be ‘bruised on the heel’ by the seed of the serpent (a temporary wound). We are told in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…For he made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
A Happy Outcome
Finally, in the last couple of verses in Isaiah 53, we reach the happy outcome of the sufferings, when the Messiah will “see the travail of his soul, and be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.”
Now that the sacrifice has been accomplished and Jesus sits at his Father’s right hand, he sees the many sons and daughters he has brought to glory. He is not ashamed to call us ‘brethren,’ and to see us as ‘the children which God hath given me.’ (Hebrews 2:10-13) By his obedience ‘many will be made righteous.’ (Romans 5:19) Where Adam’s lack of obedience brought death on all God’s creation, “through one man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in the justification of life” (Romans 5:15-19).
However, it wasn’t just the death of Jesus that brought us life. If he was still dead, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, that we would still have ‘no hope,’ and all those “who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” If perfect obedience led to nothing but death – what kind of a hope would that be?
However, this is the good news – “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Through Jesus Christ’s willing sacrifice, our sins can be forgiven and we, like him (the firstfruits), can be raised from the dead and given immortal life. (1 John 3:2-3; Romans 8:29) Where Adam brought the curse of death on the world, Jesus Christ brought the gift of life forever!
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for giving up everything in this life, submitting your will to your Father’s, and enduring great suffering in order to bring salvation to the world!