Why Only Jesus Can Be the Suffering Servant Described in Isaiah 53

Here’s a spiritual conversation starter for you. Ask a friend to read Isaiah 53 with you. Then, ask them who they think the passage describes. 99 times out of 100, they’ll answer Jesus. That’s unless of course, they’ve never even heard of Jesus. That’s a good time to let them know these verses came several hundred years before Jesus was born. It might just blow their mind.  Here are those famous passages, just to refresh your memory:

Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
    he shall be high and lifted up,
    and shall be exalted.
As many were astonished at you—
    his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
    and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
so shall he sprinkle many nations.
    Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
    and that which they have not heard they understand.
Who has believed what he has heard from us?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
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.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors.

We read in Acts that Philip used these very same verses to catapult into a discussion about Jesus with an Ethiopian man. The man happened to be reading Isaiah, and Philip explained to him how this was Jesus. (Acts 8:30-35)

Fulfilled prophecy is amazing proof for God’s word. God says that his ability to forecast the future is what separates him from Israel’s idols. (Isaiah 41:22) You can’t read the Gospels for long without seeing them talk about how Jesus fulfills a prophecy. The Acts sermons appeal to prophecy as proof that Jesus is the Messiah.

Not everyone is buying the argument from prophecy though. Throughout the ages, there have been different interpretations about who Isaiah 53 is describing. We’ll look at the most popular options, but first, let’s point out some aspects of the Servant.

  1. He suffers innocently. (Isaiah 53:7-9)
  2. He suffers voluntarily. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
  3. His suffering is redemptive. (Isaiah 53:10)
  4. He dies. (Isaiah 53:8-9)
  5. He comes back to life and is satisfied with his accomplishments. (Isaiah 53:10-12)

So what are the theories of interpretation for Isaiah 53?

  1. The Servant is Israel.
  2. The Servant is a righteous remnant of Israel.
  3. The Servant is Jesus.

Why the Servant Can’t Be Israel

This first one is the most popular alternative explanation today. Starting with the 40th chapter, God refers to Israel as the Servant. But there’s a problem. The 49th chapter seems to narrow this Servant down to an individual.

There are a lot more problems here. Israel wasn’t innocent at all. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel all say that Israel went into captivity because of their sin. (See Jeremiah 25:8-12, for example) They didn’t volunteer to have their nation destroyed and to go into Babylon. These things happened as part of the curse of the law described in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.

Moreover, it’s hard to see how their suffering brings the redemption of sin. Isaiah says “for the transgression of my people he was punished.” If this is talking about Israel, it doesn’t make any logical sense.

He can’t be speaking of them bringing healing to the nations, because we read in the prophets that God later punishes the nations that punished Israel. (Jeremiah 50-51)

You also can’t say that Israel as a nation died and was resurrected. You could stretch it metaphorically, but the people and their culture survived while in Babylon. They were reborn as a nation when released from captivity. But there was no seeing the fruition of their redemptive work. How exactly did their stripes bring healing?

Why the Servant is not a righteous remnant

Could it have been a righteous remnant that was the Suffering Servant? I don’t think this works. Sure, there was an innocent remnant that went into Babylonian captivity. But did God crush them? Did he lay “on them the iniquity of us all” on them?

Daniel survived a lion’s den, and his friends survived a fiery furnace. This was their reward for them not bowing down to idols. Esther and Mordecai brought the Jewish people a great deliverance. God didn’t crush them as innocent sufferers to bring redemption to the rest of the nation. He spared them in many ways. And this was because they refused to remain silent.

Sure, there were others who didn’t fare as well. I would certainly not deny that. But how did their suffering bring redemption? Were they suffering to bring justification and healing to the nations? Again, the answer is no.

Furthermore, were they there willingly? Did they volunteer to go into captivity? There’s a big difference between suffering with and suffering for here.

Why the Servant Has to Be Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus, on the other hand, fits the bill quite nicely. When he suffered, was it for his own sins? Jesus was an innocent man. (John 8:29) He voluntarily laid his life down. (John 10:17-18) When the soldiers came to arrest him, he went willingly. (Matthew 26:55-56)

This was too much for Peter to handle, and it led to him denying Jesus later. He didn’t understand how the Messiah had to suffer. Jesus also didn’t defend himself at his trial. He was like a sheep silent before his slaughterers. (Matthew 26:62-63)

Jesus believed that his suffering was redemptive. He said that he came down to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45) Furthermore, we know that he really died and that he was buried “with the rich in his death.” (John 19:38-42) And of course, we read that his disciples believed they saw him after his death. (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)

Jesus fits the description of the Suffering Servant like a glove. The only other explanations are that there’s a mystery servant that we don’t know about, but that discards what we already know.

Skeptics can say that the stories are made up to shoehorn Jesus into fulfilling the prophecy. But they’re going to need evidence for these assertions. We know from history Jesus didn’t deserve to die. We know that by cleansing the Temple he expected to die. Jesus was either suicidal or believed himself to be the servant.

We know that his disciples believed they saw him after his death. We know Paul didn’t buy the idea of a suffering Messiah but after his own resurrection appearance, he was appealing to these texts himself. (Acts 9:22, 2 Corinthians 5:21) We know that Jesus has radically changed the lives of many, bringing a sense of peace with God and healing to many.

When I first became a Christian I read these verses and the hair on my neck about stood up! That this was all predicted hundreds of years in advance was nuts! It proved to me that what I believed was real, but that I was loved. It’s the gospel written 700 years in advance pointing to one specific person.

For more, watch this video by Dr. Michael Brown. Brown is a Jewish believer in Jesus and an expert in Messianic prophecy. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from NYU.

Erik is a former atheist turned Christian after an experience with the Holy Spirit. Other interesting stuff about Erik: He’s a baseball nerd. His baseball writing has been published in ESPN.com, Fangraphs.com and has been mentioned in the WSJ. He’s a web designer by day and is the co-owner of a small decor business with his wife. He’s a dad of four and lives in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area. He’s passionate about the intersection of evangelism, apologetics and the local church.

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