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The Suffering Servant of Yahweh: A Good Friday Meditation

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The Scripture clearly teach that there is one human sacrifice that is allowable and proper:  the one found in Isaiah 53.
—Mitch Glaser, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 (2012)

And they didn’t recognize Him?!
-a high school student on first hearing Isaiah 53

Behold, My Servant

The prophet Isaiah draws a detailed and moving portrait of the Servant of Yahweh:  “He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” The Servant is wounded and bruised for the sins of God’s people; Yahweh makes His soul a sin offering. Yet the Servant endures suffering patiently and without complaint. He is cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgressions of God’s people and bearing the sin of many. He makes his grave with the wicked and the rich. And yet Yahweh prolongs his days. In other words, Yahweh’s Servant doesn’t stay dead:  He returns to life to enjoy His triumph. And by knowing Him, many sinners will be “justified”—made right with God. All of this is in chapter 53 of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Since the days of the apostles, Christians have seen this chapter as a clear prophecy of Jesus Christ, the true and final Sin Offering. Each of the gospel writers makes a direct reference to this chapter (Matt. 8:17; Mark 15:28; Luke 22:37; John 12:38). Peter briefly paraphrases and applies the passage in his First Epistle (2:21-25), and the deacon Philip preached from this text when he spoke to the Ethiopian eunuch, the first Gentile to hear the gospel (Acts 8:26-29). To most Christians, the prophecy seems very clear and unequivocal in the description it paints of the Lord’s Messiah. But Christians share presuppositions and a worldview that are alien the rest of the world. And Isaiah 53 stands in the middle of the Old Testament. It rests on everything that’s gone before.

The God of Isaiah 53

Isaiah 53 assumes the reality of the Creator God. This God is sovereign over all His works, holy and just in all His ways, and able to communicate intelligently and intelligibly with man, His image-bearer. This God reveals Himself in creation and in His written word. His word is the more thorough and precise revelation:  in it, God communicates the requirements of His law and the promises of His mercy and grace. His word-revelation is true:  that is, it is true to reality. It describes God as He really is—not exhaustively, but truly—and it faithfully describes the real universe. It is historically and scientifically accurate.

Because there is one God, there are no other forces or influences to which He must yield or with which He must compromise (Isa. 40:13-26; 43:10-13; 44:6-20). He determines the course of history. And since He knows His own will and purposes, He knows Earth’s future in exhaustive detail (Acts 15:18). He doesn’t have to guess or speculate or play the odds. He declares “the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done” (Isa. 46:10). And this is the God who moved Isaiah to describe the Servant of the LORD.

Holiness and Sin

This God of Isaiah 53 is holy and just. He has revealed His law to men and requires their obedience. This law by its very nature is good and right. It is the best prescription for man’s happiness, success, and well-being. Transgression of this law—what Scripture calls sin—brings confusion and destruction to the transgressor and those about him. It is unkind and unloving. It is an affront to God the Creator, and He won’t let it go unpunished. In fact, God’s holiness and justice demand the death of the sinner.

The problem is that all men transgress God’s law. We are “all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). This is a hard saying, both for moderns and post-moderns, for secular humanists and for New Age mystics. Sin is an ethical category and as such, implies the existence of the Creator God. Non-Christians of all stripes are used to thinking of themselves as good people, despite their individual flaws and mistakes, and of humanity in general as innately “good,” whatever that means. But the prophecy of the Suffering Servant says otherwise. Human nature isn’t good. Sin deserves judgment. In the Lord’s Servant we may see His estimation of sin. The Servant of Yahweh is stricken, smitten, afflicted, wounded, chastised, oppressed, and finally “cut off out of the land of the living”—all for the sins of others.

Blood Atonement and Justification

What Isaiah 53 presupposes and teaches is the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Yahweh promises to make His Servant a sacrifice for sin:  “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities… the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all… for the transgression of my people was he stricken… he shall bear their iniquities” (vv. 4-5, 6, 8, 11). This is the theology of the altar and the Temple that begins in the book of Genesis. God imputes the legal guilt of the offender to a substitute who dies in the offender’s place. But whereas the lamb on the altar could only illustrate such atonement, Yahweh’s Servant can actually accomplish it. He can bear the sins of the world (John 1:29). All of this is Yahweh’s doing, and He delights in providing such a sacrifice for those who must otherwise face damnation (v. 10).

Because of the Servant’s sacrifice, those who know Him are justified before God (v. 11); that is, God receives them as perfectly righteous and blesses them with His shalom, His peace (v. 5). Those who receive such justification are the Servant’s seed and treasure (v. 10, 12).

The Missing Piece

But how can any man be such a substitute? Who can meet the requirements of Isaiah 53? He would have to be a just and righteous man, and yet his life and death would have to be of infinite value. That is, He would have to be God Himself.

This is the message of the New Covenant gospel. God became man in the Person of Jesus the Messiah:  one Person, two natures. Truly God and truly man. In His death and resurrection is atonement for sin and justification unto life for all who know and trust Him (Rom. 3—5).

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) summarizes these doctrines with these words:

Q 15. What sort of a mediator and deliverer then must we seek for?

A. For one who is very man, and perfectly righteous; and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is also very God.

Q 16. Why must he be very man, and also perfectly righteous?

A. Because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned, should likewise make satisfaction for sin; and one, who is himself a sinner, cannot satisfy for others.

Q 17. Why must he in one person be also very God?

A. That he might, by the power of his Godhead, sustain in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath; and might obtain for, and restore to us, righteousness and life.

Q 18. Who then is that Mediator, who is in one person both very God, and a real righteous man?

A. Our Lord Jesus Christ: “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.”

And They Didn’t Recognize Him?

There are no uninterpreted facts. We all interpret the particulars of our existence in terms of our presuppositions and worldview. For those who believe in the innate goodness of man, for those who reject divine justice and wrath, for those whose ethics have no place for atonement through Another, Isaiah 53 must be so much nonsense. For those hate Christ or the very idea of a sovereign God, the passage can’t possible be a prophecy of His coming. There’s nothing surprising here. The whole chapter begins with the lament, “Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?” (v. 1). The arm of the LORD is revealed to those whom the Spirit of God quickens to spiritual life through the gospel (1 Cor. 1:17-2:16). Faith comes by hearing the word of God (Rom. 10:17). And through faith the sinner sees the world as God sees it… through new eyes.


For Further Reading:

Joseph Addison Alexander, The Prophecies of Isaiah (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1953 [1846-47].

Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965).

E. W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel Publications, 1970 [1847]).

Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53:  Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel Publications, 2012).

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