The Suffering Servant

Isaiah 53

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
February 2021

Today, we come to one of the most amazing chapters in the Bible.  Isaiah 53 is the greatest prophecy of Jesus in the Bible.  It is a prophecy of his suffering and his death.

Some have called this chapter “the Mount Everest of Messianic Prophecy.”  Mount Everest happens to be earth’s highest mountain.  It is the highest mountain range on earth.

A chapter like this needs some type of introduction.  There are several things you might not know about this chapter.  Here are five basic observations about the chapter.

Five Amazing Facts

1) This chapter is a prophecy

It was written over seven hundred years before Jesus was born.  All of it came literally true.  We live in the year 2021.  That would be like if we made a detailed prophecy of what would happen in our country in the year 2721 and everything that we said came to pass.

When this prophecy was written, crucifixion did not even exist yet.  It had not been invented yet as an instrument of execution. The Persians invented it in the 5tth or 6th century BC.

Isaiah was written in the 8th century BC and yet he predicted that the Messiah would be pierced. When Isaiah wrote this, people were executed in other ways (stoning, beheading or hanging) but not by crucifixion.

2) This chapter is written in the past tense

That is a little strange.  If you are going to make a prophecy, you put it in the future tense.  This is a prophecy and, in English translations, it is all in the past tense looking back on events.

He WAS despised and rejected (Isaiah 53:3 NIV).  He WAS pierced for our transgressions; He WAS crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5 NIV).  He WAS oppressed and afflicted (Isaiah 53:7 NIV).  Everything is past tense, at least in English.

3) This chapter is a poem

It is not only a prophecy; it is a poem.  It has a poetic structure.  It is made up of five stanzas.  Each stanza is made of three verses each.  There are three different speakers in this poem.  God the Father speaks.  The nation of Israel speaks, and Isaiah speaks.

You say, “It does not sound like a poem.  It doesn’t rhyme.”  Hebrew poetry does not rhyme words.  It rhymes thoughts.  It rhymes ideas.

There is a lot of parallelism in the chapter.  Jesus is not only despised, He is rejected.  He is not only pierced, He is crushed.  He is not only oppressed, He is afflicted.

He is not only punished, He is stricken.  He not only bears sins; He is a sin offering.  There are three different words for sin in this chapter (sin, iniquity, transgressions).

4) This is a forbidden chapter

Jews are forbidden to read it this chapter.  Isaiah 53 is a chapter that many rabbis don’t want people to know about.

It used to be part of the regular reading in the synagogues, but the rabbis took it out.  When the Book of Isaiah is read in synagogues, this chapter is skipped over.  They will read Isaiah 52 one week and Isaiah 54 the next week.

Most Jews have never read this chapter.  They have no idea that this chapter is even in their Bible.  In fact, there is a trick in Jewish evangelism.

If you read some verses from the Hebrew Bible to modern day Jews and they hear Isaiah 53, they get angry, because they think that you snuck in some verses of the NT into it.

When they are shown that the chapter comes out of their own Bible, they are shocked.  They are stunned.  It is the universal reaction.  Many Jews have been converted from this passage.

5) The chapter actually begins in Isaiah 52

The introduction to Isaiah 53 is found in Isaiah 52.  It goes from Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12. Does that mean that there are errors in the Bible?  No. The TEXT of the Bible is inspired.  The CHAPTER DIVISIONS are not.  The text is without error.  The chapter divisions are man-made.  They came a thousand years after the Bible was written.

Five Pictures of Jesus

Today, we are going to do a quick overview of this chapter.  We are going to look at five pictures of the Messiah from Isaiah 53.  Jesus is the Successful Servant (Isaiah 52:13-15).  He is the Scorned Servant (Isaiah 53:1-3).  He is the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:4-6).  He is the Submissive Servant (Isaiah 53:7-9) and He is the Satisfied Servant (Isaiah 53:10-12).  We will look at each section briefly.

The Successful Servant

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. 14 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—15 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 (Isaiah 52:13-15 NIV)

This is the prologue to the chapter.  The chapter starts positive.  It begins with the successful servant.  By worldly standards, Jesus was not very successful.

He was born out of wedlock.  His mom was a single teenager.  His dad was a construction worker.  He grew up in an obscure village. His parents were peasants. His dad died young.  He never got married or had kids.

He lived in poverty.  He was a carpenter, a simple manual laborer.  He never owned a home.  He had nowhere to lay His head.  He had no formal education.  He never had a college education.  He never got a degree.  He never went to bible college or seminary.  He never studied in any rabbinic school.  He never held an office.

He started his ministry late and it only lasted three years.  He had a criminal record.  He was convicted of a capital crime.  He was executed by the state and he lived a short life.  He died a young man in his thirties.

His best friends ran from him. His own family thought he was crazy.   Some of His closest followers, some of his own Apostles, turned him in to the authorities to be arrested. His own people rejected him as their leader and turned him over to the Romans.  He died a disgraceful death.

Was He really successful?  Yes!  H.G. Wells once said, “I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.” [1]

Someone said, “Socrates taught for 40 years, Plato for 50, Aristotle for 40, and Jesus for only 3, Yet the influence of Christ’s 3-year teaching infinitely transcends the impact left by the combined 130 years of teaching from these men who were among the greatest philosophers of all time.” [2]

Notice who is speaking in this first stanza.  God the Father is speaking (“See, My Servant”).  What does He say about the servant?

He was raised and lifted up (Isaiah 52:13).  Isaiah 52 says that He will be, not just exalted but HIGHLY EXALTED (Isaiah 52:13).  Jesus conquered death.  He sits at the right hand of God.  Philippians 2:9-11 tells us how highly exalted he is.

Therefore, God exalted Him to THE HIGHEST PLACE and gave him the name that is ABOVE EVERY NAME, 10 that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and EVERY TONGUE acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

Jesus was successful.  As Dr. Whitcomb once said, “He was the greatest success story in all history.”  You cannot come to the Father, except through Jesus (John 14:6).  You cannot be saved, except through Jesus name (Acts 4:12).  Jesus is the one who will judge the world (Acts 17:31).

He is the one who determines your eternal destiny.  He is the one who has the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:18).  He will return to earth in power and glory as King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16).

When Jesus returns to the earth, people will be shocked.  The Bible says that EVERY EYE will see him coming in the clouds (Revelation 1:7).  Kings will shut their mouths when they see him (Isaiah 52:15).  Who are they shutting their mouths at?

They are shutting their mouths at the one who was physically disfigured so much so that he did not even look human.  That is interesting.  The NT does not go into all of the gory details of the crucifixion, like you see in The Passion of the Christ.  This one verse in Isaiah 52:14 describes it and it is in the OT.

The Scorned Servant

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?2 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.3 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 (Isaiah 53:1-3 ESV)

The next nine verses have a different speaker.  Someone else is talking.  It is not the Father.  It is the Nation of Israel looking back. What do we learn about the coming Messiah in these verses?

Israel as a nation rejected him.  God promised Israel a Messiah.  The nation had been waiting for thousands of years for the Messiah.  When He finally came, they rejected Him. That is why Isaiah wrote, “Who has believed our message?”

The answer is very few.  Few Jews then believed it and few believe it today.  Most people reject it. What were the reasons for the national rejection of Jesus? In these verses, we see what the nation thought about Jesus and why they rejected Him.

Three Basic Reasons for Rejection

1) Jesus was unimpressive 

Isaiah says, “he grew up like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” He was like a weak little plant.  He appeared as a nobody.  He seemed ordinary, not special.  Everything about him was unimpressive (his birth, his childhood, his education, his income level, his occupation).  He was born in a manger, not a palace.

2) Jesus was unpopular

He had no form or majesty that we should look at him. He wasn’t wealthy. He wasn’t popular.  He wasn’t famous.  He was not accepted by all the rabbis of the day.  In fact, they were offended by him.  Most of the rabbis in the day rejected him.  Most Jews today still reject Him.

3) Jesus was unattractive

He had no beauty that we should desire him. That does not mean that Jesus was ugly, but he did not look regal.  They were not looking for a lamb. They were looking for a king wearing a crown.  They were looking for a political leader [3].

They were looking for King David.  Jesus did not look like the Messiah they were expecting.  He did not fit the profile. Incidentally, Isaiah 53:2 is the ONLY physical description of Jesus in the Bible.

Everyone wants to know what Jesus looked like.  Was he tall or short?  Did he have brown hair or black hair?  What He black, white or brown?  Did He have brown eyes or blue eyes?

What we do know is that he did not look like any of the pictures of him found in most churches.  None of them look very Jewish.  Isaiah 53:2 is the only thing the Bible says about Jesus’ physical appearance and it is found in the OT.  It says that he had no beauty that we should desire him.

Jesus not only faced rejection; he faced ridicule.  People did not just reject Him; they mocked Him. They held him in low esteem.  They spit on him.  They despised him.  In fact, they despise Him to this day.  In many Jewish households, they are not even allowed to say the name of Jesus.  The name of Jesus is like a curse word in some homes.

They hated him so much that they could not even look at him.  People turned their faces away from him.  When we see people in the street with signs asking for money, we often turn away from them and pretend that we did not see them.  Jesus’ body was so disfigured on the cross that people turned their face away from him.

Jesus is called “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”  What does it mean that Jesus was a man of sorrows?  Does that mean he was gloomy? Does it mean he never laughed or never had a sense of humor?  Does it mean that he was always sad?  No!

Jesus told his disciples, “Let not your heart be troubled” (John 14:1). He was always cheering up people.  He said, “be of good cheer” three times (Matthew 9:2; Mark 6:50; John 16:33).  He told people to “cheer up.”  The Bible says that he was full of joy through the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21).  He wanted us to share his joy that that out joy would be full (John 15:11).

He even told jokes.  Many of his parables contain humor in them, like the man walking around with a log in his eye or when he talked about the Pharisees who strained out a gnat and then swallowed a camel, but he also experienced sorrow.  He experienced mental anguish.   He experienced emotional pain.

He experienced other people’s pain.  He wept over the future destruction of the city of Jerusalem.  He wept over the death of Lazarus.  He also experienced personal pain and anguish.  They said, “We do not want this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14).

They shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered (John 19:15 NIV).  It is pretty hard when your own people reject you.

The Suffering Servant

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.5 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. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—everyone—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6 ESV)

The Messiah not only experienced success and scorn, He experienced suffering, painful suffering, excruciating suffering, suffering we cannot imagine.  In these verses, we see three very important truths.

TRUTH NUMBER ONE: We are all sinners

All we like sheep have gone astray.  We are like wandering sheep.  It describes not just the whole nation of Israel; it describes the whole human race.  Each one has gone astray.  We are selfish and we are rebellious by nature.  We do not all go astray the same way.  We all go our own way.

TRUTH NUMBER TWO: Jesus suffered for our sins

He did not suffer for his sins.  He suffered for our sins.  We sinned.  He suffered.  One preacher called this “history’s greatest substitution” [4].  This was the greatest substitution of all time.

Jesus died as a substitute for our sins.  Our guilt was transferred to him.  This is the gospel in Isaiah.  It is the same message that Paul preached that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.  This is the John 3:16 of the OT.

Jesus was smitten by God, not just by the Romans and not just by Pontius Pilate.  He was smitten by God.  He died as an offering for sin (Isaiah 53:10).  He died for the transgression of His people (Isaiah 53:9).  The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6 NIV).

Notice the word “all” is found twice in Isaiah 53:6. ALL of us have gone astray and the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us ALL. It is a good verse to show that Jesus died for everyone.  It is a good verse against limited atonement.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29)

TRUTH NUMBER THREE: Jesus’ suffering made us well

It brought us peace.  It brought us healing.  Both are in Isaiah 53:5. That brings us to one of the most misquoted in the church today.  Many people misunderstand this verse.  It is a favorite verse among prosperity preachers.

By His Stripes We are Healed

What does the phrase “by his stripes we are healed” (KJV) mean?  What are stripes?  It is talking about Jesus’ beatings, his scourging.  How could his wounds heal people?

How could someone’s wounds heal someone else?  What does it mean that they heal people?  Healing is for people who are sick.  When we see the word “healing,” we think of sickness and disease.  We think of cancer.

Do these words guarantee physical healing to every believer?  No.  Many have prayed these words and have been healed but many godly, Spirit-filled believers have not.

Does that mean that we cannot trust the Bible? No.  Isaiah 53:5 is talking about spiritual healing and it is very easy to prove that. The key is the CONTEXT.  What is the context of the passage?

In the context, Isaiah 53:5 deals with sin, not sickness.  The verse does NOT say that Jesus was pierced for our sickness and crushed for our diseases.  It says that he was pierced for our TRANSGRESSIONS and crushed for our INIQUITIES.

If you are not convinced by that argument, then do a word study of the word “healing” in the Book of Isaiah to see how it is used.  It is used six times in Isaiah (Isaiah 6:10; 19:22; 30:26; 53:5; 57:18; 57:19) and in EVERY case it is used of spiritual healing.  It is NEVER used of physical healing in the book.

Isaiah 6:10 is one example.  Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed (NIV).

It is clearly talking about spiritual healing.  When their heart is hard and their ears are dull and their eyes are close, it is talking about their spiritual condition.  Healing in that verse is also spiritual.

If you are still not convinced, look at how the verse is used in the NT.  Isaiah 53:5 is quoted one time in the NT and, in that place, it is used of spiritual healing.

“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.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (I Peter 2:24-25 NIV).  Everything in that passage is spiritual (bore our SINS, die to SINS, live for RIGHTEOUSNESS).

Some people object that Isaiah 53:4 does refer to physical sickness.  They are absolutely right.  The KJV says, “he has born our griefs” and that word “griefs” literally means sicknesses (cf. Deuteronomy 7:15; 28:59, 61; I Kings 17:17; II Kings 1:2; 8:8-9, etc.)  This verse is quoted in the NT and refers to physical healing but there’s a catch.

That evening many demon-possessed people were brought to Jesus. He cast out the evil spirits with a simple command, and he healed all the sick. This fulfilled the word of the Lord through the prophet Isaiah, who said, “He took our sicknesses and removed our diseases.” (Matthew 8:16-17 NLT)

This does not prove that healing is in the atonement.  It proves the exact opposite.  The only time that it is quoted in the NT, it does not refer to Jesus’s death on the cross.  It refers to Jesus’ healing ministry.  Matthew says that when Jesus healed people, Isaiah 53:4 was being fulfilled.

Jesus did not bear people’s diseases by suffering them himself or by dying.  He took them away by healing them.  When Jesus got rid of Peter’s mother-in-law’s fever, he did not give himself a fever.  He just healed her (Matthew 8:14-15).

The Submissive Servant

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.8 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?9 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 (Isaiah 53:7-9 ESV)

Jesus is not only the suffering servant; he is the submissive servant.  He is described as a lamb.  That is interesting.  The whole human race was described as wandering sheep who go astray.

One quality of sheep is that they are rebellious.  Jesus is also described as a lamb (baby sheep).  Another quality is that they are silent.  They are meek animals.  They are docile.  When their wool is cut, they are quiet.

Jesus was suffering and he was silent.  What Jesus did, we would call un-American.  Jesus experienced suffering.  It was unjust suffering. It was painful suffering.  It was humiliating suffering.  It is illegal suffering.  It was unfair yet notice what Jesus did NOT do.

He didn’t resist.  He didn’t fight back, even though he had the power to stop it.  He didn’t protest and demand his rights on the street.  He didn’t threaten anyone and say, “I will get you back.”  He didn’t curse and swear.  He didn’t get mad at God for how unfair he was being treated and how unfair life was.

That is our natural reaction.  That is how we respond today when things that are unfair and unjust happen to us.  When we are mistreated, we are not silent.  We are loud. We are out on the street demanding our rights, protesting.

When Jesus returns to earth, He will not be silent and submissive.  He will rule with an iron rod, but the NT says that we are to follow Jesus’ example when he was on earth.

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 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. (I Peter 2:21-23 NIV)

The Satisfied Servant

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. 11 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. 12 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 53:10-12 NIV)

This is the third voice in the chapter.  It is the voice of Isaiah.  God the Father has spoken.  The nation has spoken and now the prophet speaks.

Why did he suffer?  Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.  Suffering was God’s will in his life.  Many think that God never causes suffering.  Only the Devil does that.  That is a lie.

It was God’s will that Jesus endure the terrible suffering of the cross.  Now, God is not sadistic.  He does not like to torture people, but it was God’s will Jesus die a violent painful death on a Roman cross.

In fact, He planned it thousands of years before it happened.  It is actually God’s will that some believers experience suffering.  That does not fit the prosperity message.  To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

Jesus not only died for transgressors; He was numbered with them.  He died between two thieves and he prayed for the transgressors.  He said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

What were the results of Jesus’ sacrifice?  He is satisfied.  He did the will of God.  God blessed him.  His days were prolonged.  The chapter has already talked about him dying and pouring out his soul to death and now his days are prolonged and he sees the light of life.  That is resurrection.  Anytime you do God’s will, you will be blessed and satisfied as well.

He ends up with a seed, not a physical seed but a spiritual seed because earlier it said that he did not have a generation.  This is talking about people who are saved as a result of his death.

He ends up justifying many by his death.  Now that he bore their iniquities, they are justified.  This is amazing.  Isaiah 53 here sounds like the book of Romans and Galatians in the NT.

The chapter ends with a brief summary of the chapter.  Jesus endured SUFFERING, made a SACRIFICE for sin, acquired a SEED, shared the SPOILS, prayed for SINNERS and received SATISFACTION for his obedience.  He ends up with great SUCCESS.





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