by Dr. Allen Ross | The hand of God was indeed against the sufferer, but the sin was not his, but theirs. It was penal–but he did not deserve it (image: YouTube).
The “Gospel” is a term that is used for a number of things in Christianity; it means “good news” essentially. The word is used for one or more of the four books of the Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are the four “gospels.” But the word is also used very precisely for the central doctrines of the Christian faith concerning Jesus, namely his death, burial and resurrection.
Paul clearly states that the Gospel that he preached is that Jesus died according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again according to the Scriptures. Paul says:
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he as raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
Paul then goes on to declare that Jesus made many appearances that proved that he did rise from the dead. And so the creed says:
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures.
The point is that the Christian Gospel is not simply the facts of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, but those facts understood in accordance with what the Scriptures say. In other words, the death of Jesus has to be understood in accordance with what Scripture teaches about it–who this Jesus was who died, why his death was so important, what kind of death it was, and what it accomplished. Likewise, the burial and the resurrection have to be understood in the way that Scripture teaches–what exactly it teaches about his resurrection, why it was important, what it proved, and how it relates to his exaltation to glory.
This would mean that we must first be clear on who Jesus is. If he is not God manifest in the flesh, if he is not the divine Son of God, then his death would be at best a martydom, a great act of love and devotion–but it would not have saved anyone, it would not have made atonement.
This would also mean that we would have to be clear on why he suffered and died. Scripture teaches that it was for our sins that he died (he did not deserve to die), the just for the unjust. His death was a vicarious substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. And Scripture also teaches that his death was an atonement. In other words, it was not just a physical death. For the divine Son to die was the equivalent of the human race suffering the second death, eternal separation from God. Christ, the eternal one, was separated from the Father spiritually on our behalf when he died on the cross.
This would also mean that there was a complete death, and so he was buried. He did not swoon, or faint, or go into a coma to be revived. He died, and was buried. It was a real death.
And if it was a real death, this would also mean that it was a real resurrection, one who was dead actually coming back to life. The resurrection proved that his death was an atoning sacrifice, that it accomplished what it was accomplish, and that it authenticated all of Christ’s claims.
It would take much longer to explain all the details about the Gospel that are contained in the Scripture. This is the task of the churches in their teaching and preaching ministry in the word of God. And we have our entire lifetime to focus on these truths and discover all that God has done for us. But perhaps it would be most helpful in this brief survey to look at the cardinal Old Testament prophecy about the death, burial and resurrection of the Messiah, Isaiah 52:15–53:12. The song is written in the past tense, as if it had alrready happened; but that is normal for the prophets who saw the visions and described what they had seen (called “seers”). We know from the contents of this song that its ultimate meaning is in Jesus the Messiah, for Jesus claimed to be the servant who came into the world to give his life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28), and the apostles knew that this song was a vivid picture of the suffering of the Lord Jesus on the cross and so quoted from it in their epistles (see 1 Peter 2:21-25).
A Biblical Exposition
Isaiah 52:15–53:12 is the fourth of the so-called Servant Songs in the book, and the most powerful of them all. The prophet Isaiah does not always identify the servant in the oracles; at times it seems it could be referring to the righteous remnant in Israel, at times to the prophet, at times to other servants that God might use. But in this passage, a song about the suffering servant, the meaning clearly breaks free from any Old Testament application and finds fulfillment in the Messiah, the Christ–Jesus. Much of the song talks about how the innocent suffer for the sins of others, but when it comes to speaking about the LORD placing the sins of others on this one’s back so that he could justify them, the passage can have no other fulfillment but in the saving death of Jesus, the Christ.2 And so this song is about the ideal suffering servant, the one whose suffering goes beyond anything that mere mortals could accomplish in their suffering.
Down through history the sufferer has been the astonishment and stumblingblock of humanity. Ancient barbarians simply removed them from society. More civilized people have dealt more kindly; but sufferers still pose a problem for philosophers and medical doctors, and a test for the faith of religious people. People have a hard time seeing any profit in suffering; rather, it is considered a tragedy, an inconvenience that hinders progress, a fate to be avoided.
But for the Christian the point of suffering should be clearer. In summary, we may say that the Scriptures teach that it is the will of God that believers suffer–not all the time, not all the same, and some very little. That is not to say that God enjoys it, or that people should seek it. But the Bible says that it is inevitable. Jesus said that if the world hated him, it would hate us as well. Paul said all who live Godly lives in this world will suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3), and that it was given to us to believe and to suffer (Phil. 1:29). And Peter explains that Christ’s death, revealed so fully in Isaiah, is both our justification and our sample to follow so that we might know how to suffer (1 Pet. 2:19-23). Moreover, our Lord himself learned obedience through the things that he suffered (Heb. 5:8)–and if that is true of the sinless Son of God, how much more is it true of us? All of these teachings simply say that suffering is inevitable in this life, especially if we seek to live a righteous life of spiritual service.
The sample for us to follow in our suffering–if it comes–is the suffering of Jesus Christ our Lord. It is displayed graphically in the prophecy of Isaiah, written centuries before the actual death of Jesus. Isaiah displays the ideal sufferer, but never names him. That identification had to await the fulness of time, when Jesus claimed, and the disciples could see, that Jesus was fulfilling Isaiahs oracles.
The song is divided into five sections or stanzas of three verses each. The first line of each stanza gives a summary of that section. And, the entire first stanza is a summary or an overview of all that the song will say.
I. “My Servant Shall Prosper”
The suffering leads to glory (52:13-15).
A. My servant shall be exalted (52:13).
The grand theme of the entire song is summed up in the first three verses: the servant who endured such suffering will eventually be exalted on high to the amazement of all the world. He will be highly exalted–and the means of this exaltation is that he will “deal wisely” or “wisely prosper.” The verb describes prudent and practical wisdom that finds success doing the will of God. He will live wisely before God and therefore prosper. Jeremiah 23:5 associates this verb with Messiah’s receiving the kingdom.
Since the song will describe his death, the exaltation here assumes a resurrection. This passage does not explain that precisely, but other passages do. There could be no exaltation of one who stayed dead.
B. The exaltation will contrast with the humiliation (14, 15).
The theme of the humiliation is now developed: earlier, many were aghast or astonished at him because his form was so marred (literally ruined, spoiled). His appearance was so changed by affliction that kings were astonished that such a one should be exalted over them (v. 15). He will startle3_ftn2 these kings, for they will see what they never thought could have happened.
The point to be made here is that the suffering servant will ultimately prosper with God because he dealt wisely–he did the will of God. He has insight, and so his suffering is practical. He endures the suffering because he knows it is leading somewhere–to glory. Pain in God’s service will lead to glory (2 Cor. 4); and the pain in the sacrifice of Christ Jesus will lead to the greatest glory, his glory for ever, for he will reign as king of kings and Lord of Lords–to the amazement of all.
II. “Who has believed?”
The suffering is offensive (53:1-3).
A. The report meets with disbelief (1).
If we may paraphrase this verse, we would say, “No one ever imagined this!” For ages, the prophet predicts, people would not believe the word that such a suffering servant could be at the heart of God’s redemptive plan and would eventually be exalted on high. Isaiah uses a series of questions to make this point: the penitent would reflect on this, and eventually realize it–who would have imagined?
B. The suffering is observed (2, 3).
The response to his sufferings is so true to life: they are at first thought to make him insignificant, and then they are considered to be offensive. First, he was considered insignificant. Who would have thought that a carpenter’s son from Nazareth would figure in the eternal plan of God this way? He was just a tender plant out of parched ground, nothing great and glorious. Certainly not kingly. He did not appeal to them in any kingly way so that they might rally to him.
But then the more they observed them his sufferings became offensive: he was despised (v. 3). His life was filled with grief and sorrows, so that people turned away their faces. In short, they did not “esteem” him–they did not think much of him, especially in this condition, so they wrote him off, as it were.
These words point out a habit we all share, the habit of letting the sight of suffering blind us to the meaning. We don’t like to look on anyone who is suffering or even disabled. We forget that such conditions have a purpose and a future and a God. We make snap judgments about sufferers and their value to life in general or to God. The point is that suffering is a part of God’s plan to remind us of the human predicament we share, to bring us out of ourselves in sympathy and patience, and to eventually fit us for glory. It was certainly so in the case of Christ, more so than imagineable.
III. “Surely our griefs”
The suffering is vicarious (53:4-6).
A. The servant’s suffering is punishment (4).
The earliest and most common moral judgment that people make about pain is that which is implied in its name–it is penal. People think that those who suffer do so because God is angry with them and punishing them. That is exactly what Job’s three friends argued relentlessly. Here, the people say in the words of the Isaiah the prophet, ‘we saw the suffering servant and thought that God was striking him severely.
But now they knew they were partially wrong. The hand of God was indeed against the sufferer, but the sin was not his, but theirs. It was penal–but he did not deserve it.
B. The punishment of the servant was vicarious and redemptive (5, 6).
As we read these two verses, we must note the contrast between the “he” expressions and the “our” expressions. In the first set we see that he endured the suffering, we had the sins that deserved the suffering, and so his sufferings were vicarious–for others.
The second set shows that the sufferings were also redemptive: “our peace” and “we are healed.” The pain was the consequence of our sin; and the peace that is ours was the consequence of his suffering. Thus, the suffering was not only vicarious, but now redemptive.
This truth is confessed by Israel in verse 6. The verse begins and ends with the word “all.” So the substitutionary suffering of this servant touches all who have sinned; it benefits all who acknowledge his suffering with these correct words: “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
In every family, in every nation, innocent people often suffer for the guilty. So vicarious suffering is not unique to the Messiah. It is part of human life. Vicarious suffering is not a curse; it is part of the service we have to God and to mankind. People like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah went into the captivity with the sinners and the idolaters–they did not deserve to go. But they were able to use it as an opportunity to proclaim God’s word. Even on a lesser note we know that parents who suffer for their children when they are sick or in need understand the impulse of vicarious suffering. People in a country suffer because of the mistakes of leaders or previous generations. We may suffer because we deserve it; but we may also suffer because of others, or out of love for others in service to other people. That is noble and magnificent: greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15). But it is limited–it cannot save another person.
So then, as great as vicarious suffering can be, it is not redemptive when we do it. What is pictured here is that the suffering of our Lord Jesus also removed sin. When Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he became the sin-bearer for us. No other suffering could have done this. It took the suffering of God incarnate, the holy one who knew no sin, to remove the sins.
IV. “Oppressed he humbled himself”
The suffering was accepted (53:7-9).
A. The suffering servant was silent (7).
What is remarkable is that this suffering servant accepted his affliction in silence. This is almost unheard of. In the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Psalms, the sufferers either confess their sins that brought on the sufferings, or cry out that they are suffering and do not deserve it. They either confess of complain. But not the Messiah: he did not confess sin, for he had none; and he did not even cry out in complaint, for his death was vicarious. How could he remain silent? He knew the truth; he dealt wisely. If anything will enable a person to accept suffering silently it is this–the knowledge that the suffering is a service to God and will help others who are suffering.
B. The suffering servant was innocent (4).
The prophet affirms that this sufferer has done no wrong; there was no guile in him. Yet he was taken to judgment by tyrannical powers. It was a judicial murder. And when they considered that he was lawfully put to death, they gave him a convict’s grave. On this note the stanza ends: he was an innocent man, the only innocent man ever to walk on earth; but he silently submitted to oppression, an oppression that brought him a criminal’s death. From all outward appearances an innocent man’s life ended fruitlessly. But nothing could be further from the truth.
V. “It pleased the LORD”
The suffering was efficacious (10-12).
It appeared to many that the death of this servant was an awful tragedy. Surely here passed into oblivion the fairest life that ever lived. People might see it and say that God forsakes his own–even in his own sufferings that thought crossed the Messiah’s mind. But Isaiah will now declare that the suffering was efficacious–it accomplished God’s will.
A. The suffering was God’s will (10).
“It pleased the LORD to bruise him.” This does not mean that God really enjoyed it! It means that God willed it, and that is satisfied God’s will. This is the one truth that can render any pain tolerable–God willed it. So, anyone that God calls to suffer for him must make it his or her purpose to please God with it. Therein is success with God.
B. The suffering was our justification (10b, 11).
This suffering was powerful to effect its intended results (i.e., it was efficacious)–it justified sinners. God made his innocent sufferer a guilt offering (Lev. 5) for many, so that by the knowledge of him people might be justified. Those who know him, those who come to personal faith in him and acknowledge their sin and his salvation, are justified. Paul explains that the Father made the Son to be sin for us, that we might become righteous in his sight (2 Cor. 5). We, the guilty sinners, have been declared righteous because of his vicarious sufferings.
By the way, the word “many” used throughout this passage is the word that Jesus used in the upper room to apply Isaiah 53 to his death: “This is my blood of the New Covenant which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28).
C. The suffering will lead to the servant’s exaltation (10b-12).
With this note the passage comes full circle. Isaiah says that because he bore the sins of many, that is, because he made “intercession” for sinners in his self-sacrificing love, God appointed him to honor and glory. The rest of the Bible explains that his exaltation involves his resurrection from the dead, his ascension to heaven, and his coming in glory. We shall return to this when we focus on the belief in the resurrection.
Using military figures, Isaiah says that he will divide the spoil, that is, celebrate victory. But there is a hint here to of his coming to conquer evil (see Ps. 110).
So in his suffering the servant was closest to his glory; he may have been despised and rejected by people, but he was pleasing to God, and that assured his exaltation in glory.
Isaiah, then, presents a picture of the ideal sufferer. He does not identify him, but his language parallels so many other prophecies about the coming Messiah that we know it had a future fulfillment in his mind. And then when the Son of God came into the world and fulfilled this passage to the letter (so far), we know that it was a prophecy of Jesus the Messiah. By his suffering we have peace with God; by them we have been justified because our sins have been paid for. Or, to put it another way, apart from his vicarious sufferings there is no remision of sins for sinners, no hope of justification with God. That is why the Church worships and serves Jesus Christ the savior. Worthy is the Lamb!
But there is a practical side to this passage too apart from its great prophetic message. We who believe in Christ are called to follow him, and that usually involves suffering in one way or another. When Peter quoted this chapter in his epistle, he explained that it also left us a sample of how we should suffer. If God calls us to suffer in some way for him, then we need to understand that it is service to God, it is part of the pilgrimage to glory, and that we must use it to glorify him and help others. Knowing that it is part of the will of God and will lead to greater glory, we will be better able to endure it and use it properly.
Dr Ross joined the faculty of Beeson Divinity School in 2002 as Beeson Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew. He is the author of Introducing Biblical Hebrew and Grammar, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis, and Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation. He has contributed numerous articles to scholarly journals. Previously, he taught at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and Dallas Theological Seminary, and served as director of the Christian Leadership Center, Tallahassee, Florida.