Who Is the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53?

ZA Blog on March 7th, 2019. Tagged under ,,.

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“The Suffering Servant” is a famous passage from Isaiah 53, which Christians claim is a messianic prophecy about Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus quotes from this passage and suggests it’s about him:

“‘It is written: “And he was numbered with the transgressors”; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.’” —Luke 22:37

The gospel writers and other New Testament authors quoted from this passage several times, explaining that Jesus fulfilled the various prophecies contained within it.

But some people claim this passage wasn’t a prophecy at all, and the Suffering Servant is actually the author of Isaiah. Or perhaps it’s the prophet, Jeremiah. Or a specific leper, whom the Babylonian exiles had seen die. In other words, it was about a real person who existed at the time the Book of Isaiah was written.

But there’s a problem with these alternative answers, and if you look at the whole passage about the Suffering Servant, it becomes clear why this cannot be about anyone else but Jesus Christ.

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The Suffering and Glory of the Servant

While the Suffering Servant passage is commonly associated with Isaiah 53, it begins at the end of Isaiah 52. It’s also the fourth time Isaiah speaks of a servant (see Isaiah 42, 49, and 50). This passage is part of a larger whole.

See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
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—
so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire 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.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
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.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
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.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
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.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.” —Isaiah 52:13-53:12

You may have noticed that some of the descriptions of the suffering servant could apply to a leper, such as “his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness” (Isaiah 52:14) and “he was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3).

But other descriptions seem to clearly portray a messiah figure, and they become problematic if we apply them to anyone besides Jesus.

Why the Suffering Servant has to be Jesus

God alone has the authority—and ability—to forgive sins. In fact, that’s one of the reasons the Pharisees and religious leaders had such a problem with Jesus: he claimed he had the authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8).

While the Suffering Servant doesn’t give us a picture of someone forgiving sins themself, it does tell us that the servant:

  • Suffered in our place (Isaiah 53:4)
  • Bore the punishment for our sins and even the sin itself (Isaiah 53:5, 11, 12)
  • Interceded on our behalf (Isaiah 53:12)

This passage is about humanity’s atonement: our reconciliation with God. If the Suffering Servant was about someone who already lived and died prior to Jesus, that would seem to imply that at least Israel already had a restored relationship with God.

Not to mention, so much of this poetic passage seems to describe Jesus’ life. Take a look at how New Testament writers saw this passage in light of the life of Christ.

New Testament references to Isaiah 53

When the New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament, they often quoted from the popular Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint. Most modern Bibles use the Masoretic Text, believed to be the original Hebrew. So if you look up these references in your Old Testament, you may notice that the wording is a little different sometimes.

Matthew 8:14–17

The Gospel of Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4.

When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

‘He took up our infirmities
and bore our diseases.’

John 12:37–41

The Gospel of John quotes Isaiah 53:1.

Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:

‘Lord, who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’

Luke 22:36–38

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12.

He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: “And he was numbered with the transgressors”; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.’

The disciples said, ‘See, Lord, here are two swords.’

‘That’s enough!’ he replied.

1 Peter 2:19–25

Peter’s first epistle refers to Isaiah 53:4–6 and 9.

For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

‘He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.’

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.’ For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Acts 8:32-35

In the Book of Acts, Philip encounters a eunuch who happens to be reading Isaiah 53:7–8.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.’

The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’ Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

Romans 10:16–17

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul quotes Isaiah 53:1 along with numerous other Old Testament passages.

But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

A prophecy fulfilled by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ

With the Suffering Servant, Isaiah paints a picture of a coming time when God will pour out the punishment for our sin on one individual—one who has been rejected by the world (Isaiah 53:3), and through whom people have been healed (Isaiah 53:5).

Centuries later, Jesus would fulfill each piece of that prophecy—even occasionally going out of his way to do so (Luke 22:36–38).

The Suffering Servant plainly laid out God’s plan for salvation long before Jesus was ever born, yet its ambiguity concealed his plan so well that not even Satan saw it coming (1 Corinthians 2:7-8). The Messiah was not some fierce warrior come to overthrow the government. He was a humble servant, who would save the world through his suffering.

Learn more in the video lectures on Isaiah, taught by John N. Oswalt and available through MasterLectures.

MasterLectures gives you unlimited access to thousands of video lectures on the Bible and theology. Start for FREE.