Introduction: About whom is the prophet writing?
A. Pre Christian Jewish interpretation largely viewed this passage as Messianic. The Christian use of this made them shift that interpretation from a single individual to the messianic nation as a whole. It was even suggested that Isaiah was writing of the work of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. As we shall see, however, the distinctive description in the 53rd chapter points to this prophecy as a description of a single individual in his relation to Yahweh, whose suffering is not a discipline for his own sins but for those of others.
B. Isaiah 52:1-12 prophesies a release from captivity in which God’s power, holiness, sovereignty, and compassion for his people are highlighted. This is indeed a “salvation” seen to the ends of the earth (52:10, cf 49:6). Paul cites Isaiah 52:7 as justification for preaching to the Gentiles (Romans 10:12-15) This deliverance is a single historical event that has within it the larger reality of a final salvation from the true captor—sin, guilt, and just condemnation. John specifically says, in the context of quoting Isaiah 53, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory [the glory of Jesus] and spoke of him” (John 12:41).
C. Verses 13-15 give a dramatic view of the exaltation, humiliation, and universal purpose of the servant of the Lord.
- Verse 13 speaks of the glory and triumph of his victorious delivery of the people.
- Verse 14 shocks us with the path of sorrow and suffering that led to this exalted state. Even as the nations could have been astonished that this group of slaves from Egypt actually were the chosen people of God, so would their own nation be astonished that this Galilean peasant was the longed-for Messiah. This humiliation was the initial reason for rejection, for the people had not embraced the reality that they needed redemption from sin.
- Verse 15 affirms the reality mentioned in 49:6 that this deliverer would be a “light to the nations.” Those to whom no revelation of this event had been given will “see” and will “understand.” The 53rd chapter now expands the concentrated summary we find in 52:13-15.
I. The tragic phenomenon of misunderstanding the message (1-3)
A. Verse 1 has two complementary questions.
- The first indicates the difficulty that will be involved in receiving this message “Who has believed our message?” A multiplicity of New Testament passages emphasizes this very point, an example of which is Jesus’ words to the unbelieving Jews in John 5:37-46. They close with this stinging observation, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” In fact, Jesus himself quotes Isaiah 53:1 in the face of the disbelief of the Jews in spite of so many indisputable signs of his divine character and power (John 12:38).
- The second question, “To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” indicates a failure to believe the revelation given them. They had abundant revelation of the necessity of a suffering Messiah (e. g. Psalm 22; Zechariah 12:10-14; this passage, Isaiah 53). It also indicates the need for an internal spiritual renovation before the message can be received in its saving power (John 3:1-15; 1 John 2:22-28; 4:4-6).
B. Verse 2 describes the Messiah as of ordinary appearance. There was no striking physical dominance, like that of Saul (1 Samuel 9:1, 2). The text is not saying that Jesus had any kind of repulsive physical traits but that his physical appearance was like that of a normally healthy Jew. Why would anyone have suspected one who blended so well physically with others to have been the promised deliverer of Israel? His attraction proved to be his confidence, his utter transparency, his knowledge of men, his teaching with authority, and then his power to heal, control nature, control demons, and forgive sins. That he performed all these things with such unaffected confidence though he was but the carpenter’s son, so they thought, is what enraged the rich and powerful among the Jews.
C. Verse 3 – “He was despised and forsaken of men” (53:3).This surprising combination of ordinary appearance with extraordinary knowledge, confidence, and power brought down the wrath of the religious leaders. The simple truth that his authority and power arose from his unity with the Father did not bring awe and esteem, but hate. “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). His works of kindness and words of heavenly wisdom and truth brought huge following until he made his own person the issue between eternal life and eternal death. “After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). His reputation for wisdom and the compassionate use of astonishing power provoked jealousy and sarcasm from his brothers. “For not even his brothers believed in him. Jesus said to them, ‘My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil” (John 7:5, 6). When Jesus demonstrated that the religious leaders had no true knowledge of God or of righteousness but were rather under the dominant influence of the devil, the father of lies, the Jews responded, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48). When Jesus told the truth about his eternity and his shared glory with the Father, and that Abraham believed in him, “They picked up stones to throw at him” (John 8:59).
II. The failure to grasp the principle of vicarious suffering (4-6). When the hatred that Jesus’ goodness and truthfulness provoked reached its full power, he was killed by Roman execution. The religious leaders accused him of blasphemy (Mark 14:61-65; Luke 22:70, 71), a capital crime, and turned him over to the Roman authorities for the execution. It was not, however, for his own crimes against God that this death occurred, but rather for the crimes of others. The prophet, by revelation, saw all of this clearly.
A. Verse 4 – The prophet sees this suffering servant as wrongly judged to be smitten of God for his own wrong-doing. The truth is such grief and sorrow came as he endured the cruel treatment for those who derided him. They had no perception of the deep distress of their own lives as they were oppressed by the corruption of sin. He left a world of perfect joy and love to live among fallen people, assume their very nature into his person, and experience life in the company of perpetual grievers, haters, and joyless people. Even if he had not died under the power of divine wrath for their transgressions, the experience of grief and sorrow, the sin-induced mental and emotional oppression of a fallen people still pressed down the mind and heart. To have lived in the glory of undiminished joy and love in the presence of the Father, elect angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect, and then to dwell in the midst of a people of “unclean lips,” of stultified mentality, and eroded affections would in itself produce a grieving sympathy and a vicarious sorrow.
B. Verse 5 – It was not, however, the mere experience of atmospheric sorrow and insult, nor even the physical trauma from execution on the basis of false accusation. Rather, all of the physical ferocity came in the context of real punishment meted out by God.
- Note the words used for the physical infliction by men: “pierced through” by nails and spear; “crushed” by the weight of carrying his own cross; “chastening” by verbal assault and mocking and ridicule; “scourging” with an instrument of torture that tore his flesh revealing his bone and deep tissue. This physical suffering was not limited to the vigor and ingenious cruelty of vengeful humans, but was filled at the same time with God’s own wrath. Those who suffer eternally will suffer in body and soul. Jesus’ suffering for sin as not limited to the immeasurable spiritual distress but included this physical element. “He himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).
- Note next the focus on the beneficiaries of this suffering. It was for “our transgressions.” We violated the law and were due divine wrath, he took our place. For “our iniquities” the exquisite suffering was inflicted for the failure to meet the demands of God’s righteous law. He took the chastisement that will bring reconciliation, peace with God, for us. The deeply cutting stripes, the flesh destroying whipping while bringing him right to the verge of death, brought to us ultimate healing.
C. Verse 6 – This verse summarizes the reality of the atoning work of Christ. This is the why of the incarnation.
- Unlike the suffering of Israel for its own sins in Isaiah 42: 23-25, this servant arising from Israel, fulfilling the purpose for the preservation of Israel (Isaiah 49:3), bears the punishment for sins not his own. We went astray; we turned our own way; we violated the commandments of our maker, our sovereign, our Lord. We should undergo the wrath.
- Now we see the real pain, the true infliction of punishment, the reason for such a death. “The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him.” No atonement, no forgiveness. Christ our covenant head became our substitute for the execution of God’s righteous punishment for sin. The cruelty of man and the sinful blindness of Israel, aggravated to unhindered depths by their religious leaders, engineered the entire sordid plot from a human standpoint. Divine sovereignty used the most unjust and brutal death that could be engineered by humanity to display his own justice. In this singular event there is the transcendent display of justice and mercy, wrath and the path to forgiveness.
III. His submission to brutality in the face of a larger purpose (7-9). Peter summarized both the evil of man and the decreed purpose of God at Pentecost (Acts 2:23) and also pointed to the perfect submission of Christ to the entire event in 1 Peter 2:22, 23. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
A. Verse 7 – Jesus knew that he was in the hands of his Father. He had come for this very purpose, and, regardless of the human sin and cruelty involved, this was the plan of God for redemption. He carried out his Father’s will and would not complain against what his Father had sent him to do.
B. Verse 8 – Being taken away by the judgment of men, oppressively inflicted as if none had any power to come to his aid, he was put to death. But who among those who stood around him at that time, those among whom he had lived and taught and done miracles of power and mercy—who of his generation considered that all of this that they observed was done that he might take the stroke of justice for their transgression? Who considered that what happened to him before their eyes should have happened to them? They were seeing the terrors of wrath due to them, but never considered they saw their own doom being absorbed by this magnificent sufferer.
C. Verse 9 – He died between two thieves and would have been entombed in an inglorious, disrespectful manner along with them. “His grave was assigned with wicked men.” Joseph of Arimathea intervened. He treated this brutalized body with respect and buried him in an unused tomb, the property of Joseph (Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:42, 43; Luke 23:50; John 19:41). The humiliation had been completed. Jesus had uttered the words, “It is finished,” and had given up his spirit to complete the event of death. His burial need not be an extension of his humiliation but palpable evidence that he had truly died. Now the scene for the manifestation of his victory over death and the satisfaction of wrath was set. Since he had paid the price for the transgressors, his burial was respectful for he himself “had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” In Luke 1:35 (“The Holy Spirit shall come upon you”), the path of humiliation had begun. Having paid for others, now the road for glorification has begun.
IV. Verses 10-12 – The divine purpose unveiled. These verses reaffirm that the Servant died for the eternal wellbeing of others according to divine assignment. In so doing, his reward, that for which he died, will come to pass without fail.
A. None of these grotesque abuses inflicted by men were without purpose in the plan of God. The accomplished the pleasure of God. “The Lord was pleased to crush him.” In accord, therefore, with the Father’s will that he lay down his life, so the Son does the Father’s will and gains the fullness of the reward (John 10:17, 18).The Lord’s pleasure prospers in the hand of the Son, the Servant, because voluntarily in obedience to the Father “he would render himself as a guilt offering.”
- His soul’s anguish (11), the ultimate location of the outpouring of punitive justice from God, was not in vain but was satisfied.
- This death not only was purposed by the Father but just as fully embraced and purposed by the Servant: “By his knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify many.” Obedience to the Father and giving honor to a full display of his attributes constituted the final, the ultimate, end of this unspeakable distress; but by no other means than the redemption of fallen image-bearers could this full display of glory occur. The immediate end, therefore, was the justification of many by bearing their iniquities.
- The atoning work of Christ did not establish a mere potentiality of justification but established its certainty. The Servant will justify many for he bore their iniquities. If they have been borne under the avalanche of divine wrath, the debt they accrued has been removed, the terrible accumulation of “wages” to be paid for sin has been paid and the debtor has been freed. Now, his sheep will hear his voice and they will follow him, for he has laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:14, 15, 26-30).
- The words of comfort in Isaiah 40 find their perfect reason in the perfect obedience of the Servant. “Call out to her . . . that her iniquity has been removed. That she received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2).
- As mentioned in the exposition of that text, “double” refers to the necessity of two elements for full justification, forgiveness of sins by payment of the penalty and imputation of righteousness achieved by perfect obedience. The Servant did this, being obedient even to the point of his substitutionary death, dying the just for the unjust. Atonement and perfect obedience were bound up in the same act.
- It also could refer to the necessity of the complex person of Christ. The Redeemer must be both God and man in one person. The person in his human nature receives the wrath; the person in his divine nature, the Creator, sustains the person in his human nature, the man, to endure the full payment. At the same time, the divine nature in the person of the Son of God, living in obedience, gives to the payment an honor equal to the original dishonor of a creature disobeying the Creator.
C. Verse 12 – All the gifts that he gained by this work of atonement will be granted him.
- There is a spoil and the Servant divides the spoil. “He ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men” (Psalm 68:8 and Ephesians 4:7).
- The first spoil of victory is the people given him in the eternal counsel of the triune God wherein a people was set aside for the Son. They were captive, but by his obedience unto death he released them and took them from bondage into the glorious liberty of the children of God. “They were yours,” Jesus acknowledged to the Father; “You gave them to me,” he continued (John 17:6). They are the prize he won. Now with them he divides the booty of victory, for he needs none else of it.
- The gifts he won by his victory over sin, death, hell, and the devil cannot advance him to any higher rank than that which he maintains by his deity and merits by his perfect obedience. The benefits of his death must be given to others. The spoils of his victory become the gifts given to those whose transgressions he bore.
- The spoils come because the victory was won exactly as planned and accomplished in the fields of enemy territory.
- He took on death and won. “He poured out himself to death.” He tasted death for all of the many sons that he brings to glory (Hebrews 2:9, 10). “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26), but the final victory over it has been given to those for whom he bore transgressions (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
- Through the death to which the Servant poured out himself he destroyed “him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and released those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14).
- By imputation he was numbered with the transgressors. He actually suffered as a transgressor (in fact enduring the debt accumulated by all the transgressors) and so was “numbered,” accounted on the ledger, as among them. He was not one, however, and so he bore, not his, but their sin and its consequences. The spoils of victory included the forgiveness of sin—“in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7).
- We also gain the spoil of intercession. On the cross he demonstrated this advantage when he spoke about some who railed against him and perhaps had just inflicted the deep piercing in his words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Because he was the propitiation, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous (1 John 2:1)