Jesus, Our Suffering Servant


Jesus, Our Suffering Servant

Isaiah 52:13–53:12

He was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds. (Isa 53:5)

Main Idea: Jesus Christ is presented as our Suffering Servant whose substitutionary death and victorious resurrection are predicted seven centuries in advance.

  1. Christ Repulsive but Redemptive then Exalted (52:13-15)
    1. The exaltation of God’s servant (52:13)
    2. The degradation of God’s servant (52:14)
    3. The sprinkling of the nations (53:15)
  2. Christ the “Arm of the Lord” but Human and Despised (53:1-3)
    1. The “arm of the Lord” necessarily revealed (53:1)
    2. The humanity of Christ (53:2)
    3. Christ despised and rejected (53:3)
  3. Christ Rejected but Our Atoning Substitute (53:4-6)
    1. Christ bearing our diseases (53:4)
    2. Substitutionary atonement stated four times (53:5)
    3. “Pierced!” (53:5)
    4. Constant straying, one substitute (53:6)
  4. Christ Innocent but Willing to Be Slaughtered (53:7-9)
    1. Christ willingly slaughtered (53:7)
    2. Christ dead (53:8)
    3. Christ buried in a rich man’s tomb (53:9)
    4. Christ innocent (53:9)
  5. Christ Crushed So We Could Be Justified (53:10-12)
    1. The Father’s pleasure in crushing his Son (53:10)
    2. The Son’s success: children for God (53:10-11)
    3. Christ’s spoil: the elect (53:12)


Isaiah 53 Is about Jesus and Only Jesus

Jesus Christ, and only Jesus Christ, is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Unlike many other important Old Testament prophecies, there is no immediate fulfillment in Israel before its long-term fulfillment in Jesus. For example, God’s promise to raise up a “Son of David” from David’s own body to reign in his place (2 Sam 7:12) had an immediate fulfillment in the lineage of kings that followed, but its ultimate fulfillment was in Jesus Christ. However, any effort must fail that seeks to find in the national life of Israel or in some other personage from history a fulfillment of the amazing words of Isaiah 53. For the central message of this prophecy is of substitutionary atonement, the death of an innocent substitute for the sins of his people. Isaiah could never see in the nation of Israel an innocent substitute for the sins of the world. Chapter after chapter of Isaiah has specifically denounced the nation’s wickedness. Furthermore, one verse forever closes out the “Israel is the Suffering Servant” interpretation, and that is Isaiah 53:8: “He was struck because of my people’s rebellion” (emphasis added). Who is “my people” to Isaiah the prophet if not Judah and Israel? And who is the “he” struck for the rebellion of Isaiah’s people? Finally, this matter was settled for us in Acts 8. The Ethiopian eunuch was reading Isaiah 53:7-8 and queried the evangelist Philip, “I ask you, who is the prophet saying this about—himself or someone else?” The very next verse settles forever the question for Christians: “Philip proceeded to tell him the good news about Jesus, beginning with that Scripture” (Acts 8:34-35; emphasis added). Isaiah 53 is “about Jesus” and no one else.

Isaiah 53 Is a Miracle

In 1947 a Bedouin shepherd boy named Muhammad climbed into a cave near Jericho and discovered the greatest archaeological find of the twentieth century: the Dead Sea scrolls. The largest of them was the Isaiah scroll; carbon-14 dating sets its age at least as old as 230 BC—“before Christ,” that is. Actually, the prophecy itself was originally made seven centuries before Jesus was born. And that makes Isaiah 53 a miracle!

Why do I say that? C. S. Lewis defines a miracle as “an interference with Nature by a supernatural power” (Miracles, 5). Lewis specifically discusses prophetic predictions as miracles because they defy the natural order of time. Repeatedly in Isaiah 44–45 we see God’s power to predict the future, especially in the case of Cyrus. But the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the greatest events in redemptive history and of infinitely greater significance than anything Cyrus did. God’s ability to predict the future comes to its pinnacle in Isaiah 53, and its clear prediction of the purpose and details of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection shine like a miraculous beacon to us sinners.

The Central Message: Substitutionary Atonement

As already noted, the central message of Isaiah 53 is substitutionary atonement. This was the central message of the whole animal sacrificial system, that the blood of a substitute can remove the death penalty for sin. Penal substitution depends on God’s power to transfer guilt to an innocent substitute, symbolized in Leviticus 16:21 when Aaron puts his hands on the head of the animal in order to “put [Israel’s sins] on the goat’s head.” Though this transfer of guilt is mysterious, God claims the right to do it, and without it we have no hope.

No passage in the Bible is so pervaded with substitution language as this one. It is especially clear in Isaiah 53:4-6. Here is proclaimed to the whole world for all time the way by which a holy God can justify rebellious sinners and still be just. A partner to this central theme is the reception of this justification by faith alone, as the apostle Paul made plain by quoting verse 1 in Romans 10:16, “Lord, who has believed our message?” (emphasis added) followed immediately with the assertion, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ” (v. 17). Earlier, in Romans 3:28, Paul asserted plainly that sinners are justified by faith in Christ apart from works of the law. This is the gospel, the only hope we sinners have of salvation before a holy God.

Christ Repulsive but Redemptive then Exalted

Isaiah 52:14-15

First, it is reasonable to include the last three verses of Isaiah 52 with the comments on Isaiah 53. John Calvin called the chapter division a “dismemberment” (Commentaries, 111), and I concur. The same Suffering Servant is the focus of all fifteen of these verses.

The section begins with the words, “See, my servant.” This is the fourth of the “Suffering Servant” passages (see 42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-9). The other passages portrayed a gentle Savior who would build a worldwide kingdom (including Gentiles) but who would overcome great difficulties in doing it. Here in this chapter we learn why the servant had to suffer: because of the sins of his people. So the word see (Hb hinneh) shows the dramatic unveiling of Christ. And we are told immediately that the servant of the Lord, Jesus Christ, will “be successful” and will be “raised and lifted up and greatly exalted.” The passage begins where Christ ends—in glorious exaltation, having triumphed in his mission to save sinners. The first assertion, that Christ will be successful, has the connotation of an outcome that occurs as a result of wise, skillful actions. The next three verbs build to a climax of the exaltation Christ deserves for his obedience. Because Christ died, he deserves the highest place (Phil 2:9).

Isaiah immediately turns from the exaltation to the abject humiliation that Christ would have to endure to save sinners from the wrath of God. Christ’s appearance would be so disfigured that onlookers would wonder if he was even human (v. 14). This refers to the repulsive effects of scourging and crucifixion on the human body, how Jesus’s bones would be out of joint and how his body would be covered with blood.

Verse 15 gives us the outcome of his suffering: the “sprinkling” of many nations. Leviticus uses this verb to speak of the application of atoning blood to cleanse sinners from their impurity (Lev 16:14-15). This technical term predicts the blood atonement by Jesus Christ for the elect from every nation, as Revelation 5:9 sings to Jesus in heavenly praise: “You are worthy . . . because you were slaughtered, and you purchased people for God by your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation” (emphasis added). This “sprinkling” of the nations occurs by the verbal proclamation of the gospel all over the earth, including to kings, who are amazed and speechless at the message about Christ (v. 15). Envoys will travel over the surface of the globe and tell all nations a saving message they’ve never heard before, and they will “see” it (by faith) and understand it. Thus are they “sprinkled” and forgiven.

Christ the “Arm of the Lord” but Human and Despised

Isaiah 53:1-3

Now Isaiah immediately turns to the content of this message itself and the need for all hearers to combine it with faith. He asks, “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (emphasis added). The “arm of the Lord” represents his awesome power, yet in this context it speaks of the infinitely mysterious frailty of the incarnate Son of God, whose seeming weakness in death was the most powerful thing that has ever occurred in human history. And if the Spirit does not reveal Isaiah 53 to a hearer, that person will never believe this message.

Verses 2-3 trace out, in effect, the biography of Jesus Christ in the wonder of his incarnation. The humanity of Christ is established in unmistakable terms, for he grew up before God (Luke 2:52), starting small and weak like a young plant. He was also a “root out of dry ground,” an allusion to the shoot that would grow from the stump of Jesse (Isa 11:1). Jesus would be born in a time when being a “Son of David” (like Joseph, Matt 1:20) meant almost nothing because the Romans dominated the Jews. Jesus’s appearance was completely unimpressive; he looked like any normal Jewish man. The glory of Jesus (John 1:14) was visible only to believers, who saw it in his sinless life, his compassionate demeanor, his powerful miracles, and his matchless words. Actually, Jesus’s ordinary appearance as a man was the essence of the stumbling block he presented to the Jews: “We are stoning you . . . for blasphemy, because you—being a man—make yourself God” (John 10:33; emphasis added).

So Jesus was “despised and rejected” (v. 3) by his own people (John 1:11) and by the Gentiles. The word despised means to be grossly underestimated, and never has it been truer than when applied to Jesus Christ. His own people legally condemned him when he was on trial before Annas and again before Pilate. So also today, Jesus is the most despised and rejected man in history.

Christ Rejected but Our Atoning Substitute

Isaiah 53:4-6

Jesus was also called “a man of suffering” (v. 3), deeply acquainted with every misery of the human race. Day after day he would stand and heal a river of suffering people one at a time (Matt 4:24; 12:15; etc.). Like a hiker who sees a friend bitten by a rattlesnake and who immediately sucks the poison out of his leg with his own mouth, so Jesus “bore our sicknesses” (v. 4). Jesus physically healed every disease he encountered, but that was also a picture of the deeper spiritual healing Jesus came to do. For we were “dead in [our] trespasses and sins in which [we] previously lived” (Eph 2:1), and Christ has borne our sicknesses and carried our pains. The word bore gives us the picture of a mighty Samson, who picked up the gates of Gaza and carried them to the top of a mountain (Judg 16:1-3). Jesus is mightier than Samson, carrying our sins up Golgotha.

So Jesus’s central mission was not to perform temporary healings for people who would later die anyway. Many preachers have misread Isaiah 53:4-5 and concluded that Christ’s atonement guarantees physical healing in this present age if we have faith to believe it. Rather, Christ’s mission was to die on the cross as a substitute for the sins of his people, winning eternal life in a future world where disease and death will be abolished forever. Jesus’s death would be misunderstood by onlookers, who would assume that he was dying for his blasphemy. “But he was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds” (v. 5). Four great assertions of substitution in one amazing verse! “He” and “we” are continually in view: our sins, his suffering. The transfer of guilt—this is the essence of substitutionary atonement, and without it, we have no salvation. Note our condition: steeped in rebellion and iniquities, deserving a death penalty, at war with God, needing deep healing. All of our shortcomings were transferred to Christ at the cross. And note the specific word pierced in verse 5. This is a word whose force cannot be evaded, for three times in prophecy the idea of the piercing of Christ is asserted (Ps 22:16; Zech 12:10). Jesus’s punishment wins us peace with God (Rom 5:1). And the wounding of Christ heals us perfectly and eternally from all the damage sin has done. This healing comes in stages: justification then sanctification then glorification. Only in our future resurrection and our life in the new heaven and new earth will our healing be complete.

Verse 6 captures in picturesque language our continual sheeplike wandering in sin; the essence of it is a determined pursuit of “our own way” in everything we do. Christ paid the penalty for that wandering.

Christ Innocent but Willing to Be Slaughtered

Isaiah 53:7-9

The words oppressed and afflicted (v. 7) speak of Christ being overpowered like the Hebrews were when the Egyptians enslaved them ruthlessly. So we see this in Jesus being beaten to a bloody pulp, spat on, mocked with the crown of thorns and purple robe, led through the public streets of Jerusalem, screamed at by the crowd, stripped, and nailed, lifted up, crucified, in agony. “Oppressed and afflicted” describes the single greatest display of human injustice in all history. Yet amazingly, it is also the greatest display of God’s justice in all history:

God presented [Christ] as an atoning sacrifice . . . to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:25-26; emphasis added)

In other words: God would rather slaughter his own beloved Son than allow guilty sinners like us into heaven unatoned for! There has never been a greater display of God’s justice in all history, nor of humanity’s injustice.

Yet in all of this human injustice, Jesus did not open his mouth; he remained silent and accepted the punishment because, as our substitute, he was acting as if he were truly guilty. Were we judged, we could not answer God once in a thousand times (Job 9:3). So Jesus’s silence and his meekly following his captors to his own execution (though he could have destroyed them all in an instant) speaks powerfully of his willingly laying down his life for us all. Unlike a dumb animal that has no idea what is about to happen, Jesus made a conscious decision to die for us, and thus his work was declared “one man’s obedience,” that of a new Adam, by which the disobedience of the former Adam was overwhelmed (Rom 5:19).

Isaiah 53:8-9 also asserts that this Suffering Servant would actually die for the sins of his people. He was “cut off from the land of the living” and “assigned a grave with the wicked.” From the garden of Eden, God established that the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), and only by dying could our substitute pay the just penalty for our sins. Verse 9 also asserts that Jesus would die an innocent man. Peter cited this verse to proclaim Jesus’s sinlessness: “He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Pet 2:22). If Jesus had not been sinless, suffering in our place would not have accomplished anything. Finally, verse 9 also predicts Jesus’s burial in the tomb of a rich man, fulfilled when Joseph of Arimathea buried him with royal treatment in his own new tomb (John 19:38-41). These details cannot be explained away, and they completely preclude the “Israel is the Suffering Servant” interpretation.

Christ Crushed So We Could Be Justified

Isaiah 53:10-12

In verse 10 we come on the deepest and most mysterious aspect of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus—the Father’s pleasure in the crushing of his Son and making him suffer. This is an infinitely sublime concept, for any human father who delighted in crushing his own son would be accounted as the vilest monster. But Scripture teaches us that the love God the Father has for his only begotten Son is so fierce and powerful that the blazing of the sun cannot touch it for intensity. The best explanation of this is Jesus’s own attitude toward the cross in Hebrews 12:2: “For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame.” The delight of the Father in Isaiah 53:10 is the same as the joy of the Son in Hebrews 12:2—not the cross itself but the glory it would win for God and the salvation it would work for a multitude greater than anyone could count from every nation on earth (Rev 7:9). The actual torture of Jesus was an agony beyond measure for the Father, as he showed by darkening the skies eerily and by shaking the ground when his Son died. This was immeasurable pain, followed by infinite pleasure and joy.

And the results of this agony are clear: “seed,” children for Abraham and for God. This is “the Lord’s pleasure [that] will be accomplished” (v. 10). I picture the Father having composed a magnificent violin concerto with every note penned by his sovereign will then handing it to his skillful Son who played it to perfection, filling the world with a music so sublime we will be melting to its melody for all eternity. And despite all the anguish of his soul (v. 11), Jesus would see the final success of God’s plan and be deeply satisfied with what he achieved. For by his death Jesus has justified the ungodly (v. 11; Rom 4:5). In Isaiah 53:12 the link between Jesus’s atoning death and his constant intercession is made clear—those Jesus died for he also prays for. The image of Jesus at the right hand of God interceding for us (Rom 8:34) is comforting to us who still battle constantly against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The section ends where it began, exalting Jesus Christ. God assigns to Jesus the elect from the whole earth as the “spoil” he has plundered from his enemy. And those saved souls will spend eternity bowing their knees before Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father.


This chapter builds faith in those who hear it all over the earth, if God wills to reveal Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. The fact that it speaks so plainly of Christ’s substitutionary death seven centuries before Christ is evidence of the supernatural origin not only of the book of Isaiah but, indeed, of the whole Bible. So this has evangelistic and apologetic power; we should quote its details to lost people. We should also build our own faith in Jesus daily by pondering Isaiah 53:5-6. This will humble us and also exalt us.

We should find eternal security in these few verses as well, for God made a plan for our salvation before the foundation of the world and predicted it clearly through Isaiah. Jesus achieved it two thousand years ago. And Jesus is at the right hand of God, interceding for us until we are at last with him in heaven.

We should use this chapter as grounds for personal and corporate worship. Hymn writers should continue to do what they’ve been doing for twenty centuries—using the ideas from these fifteen verses to write new hymns of praise to God.

Finally, we should seek by the Spirit to imitate Christ’s full obedience to the Father, for though we will not be called on to die a substitutionary death for anyone, yet our service in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth will require a similar taking up of our cross daily and following Jesus.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. How would you define a “miracle,” and how does this chapter meet that definition?
  2. How could meditating more on Isaiah 53 help strengthen your faith in Christ? How could it help enrich your worship life?
  3. Isaiah 52:13 speaks of Christ being “raised and lifted up and greatly exalted.” How does that relate to Philippians 2:9?
  4. In what way was Christ disfigured beyond a normal human being? How does this verse (v. 14) make the agony of the cross even more vivid?
  5. How does verse 15 speak of worldwide missions in Jesus’s name?
  6. In what way is it true that the Father must reveal Christ as the “arm of the Lord” or people will never see it?
  7. How does Isaiah 53:2-3 give us a brief biography of Jesus Christ? How was Jesus like a “root out of dry ground”?
  8. How are verses 4-6 crystal clear about substitutionary atonement—Christ dying in our place? How is this the center of the gospel?
  9. Why is it vital to see Christ’s willingness to die in our place (v. 7) and his innocence (v. 9)? Why are both of these vital for our salvation?
  10. How do you understand the mystery of the Father’s pleasure in crushing his Son (v. 10)? How does Hebrews 12:2 perhaps help us understand it better?