Two women were looking at the manger scene in a shop window. One said, “The church again! Now it’s trying to horn in on Christmas.” This detachment of Christ from Christmas is disturbing to those of us who see Christ as Lord of every day and season and who have found ways to honor Him especially at Christmas. If you think this is too early to have a Christmas lesson, look around you. Advertisers began promoting Christmas for its commercial value weeks ago. You may wonder also at the choice of Bible passages for this initial lesson for Christmas 2007. Isaiah 53 is usually associated with Easter instead of Christmas. Actually, as we will see, Isaiah 53 is appropriate for Christmas. For one thing, its scope includes the total experience of Jesus. Second, we need always to view the birth of Jesus as forever tied to His suffering, death, and resurrection.
Search the Scriptures
Isaiah prophesied that God’s Servant, although worthy to be exalted, would appear ordinary, not extraordinary; and for that reason many people neither desire Him nor accept Him. The prophet foretold that God’s Servant would suffer terribly, not because God would inflict deserved punishment but because He would take sinners’ punishment upon Himself. The prophet predicted that the Servant would give up His life without pleading a defense although He was innocent of any wrongdoing. By giving His life as a sacrifice, the Servant would provide a way for sinners to be right with God, and the Servant also would see the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan.
Considered Unacceptable (Isa. 53:1–3)
How do these verses connect with 52:13–15? Who asked the questions of verse 1? Why is verse 2 appropriate for the Christmas season? How does verse 3 describe the Servant and people’s responses to Him?
Verses 1–3: Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Many Bible students consider Isaiah 52:13–15 as part of the Servant passage in Isaiah 53:1–12. Generally the passage is seen to have five stanzas of three verses each (52:13–15; 53:1–3, 4–6, 7–9, 10–12).
God called attention to His Servant. He said that He would be greatly exalted (52:13) but also unpleasant to look upon (v. 14). Paul quoted 52:15 in Romans 15:21 to tell of the effect of the gospel on the Gentiles. All who heard of the humiliation and exaltation of the Servant would take notice.
Isaiah 53:1 picks up this theme from 52:13–15. The word report can refer to what they had heard or what they had spoken for others to hear. In either case Isaiah was speaking of the difficulty many had in believing in this humiliated and exalted Servant. The words our and we in verses 1–2 could refer to Gentiles, a number of prophets, or to Isaiah speaking for the people of Israel. The third interpretation is best. Acting as their spokesman, the prophet spoke of their unbelief. Indeed, verse 1 is quoted in John 12:38 and in Romans 10:16 of the Jews’ unbelief. They were the ones to whom … the arm of the LORD was revealed, but they treated Him as described in verses 2–3. The arm of the LORD is used to describe the mighty power of God at work. The report they could not believe was that God’s mighty power was revealed in the humiliated Servant. John 1:11 describes how the Word made flesh came unto His own people, but they did not receive Him.
Isaiah 53:2 describes this Servant as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. Similar descriptions are found in Isaiah 11:1. They describe One who had unimpressive credentials as a human being. Instead of coming as a mighty oak tree, He came as a sprout from a root in dry ground. This verse and the ones that follow “tell the life’s story of the Servant from the cradle to the grave. The humble beginnings of His life seem so inauspicious. When He grew up as a lad in the streets of Nazareth, who took any particular note of Him? He could be likened to an insignificant ‘shoot,’ a bit of vegetation that is scarcely noticed.”
No form nor comeliness does not mean that He was ugly but that His background and human characteristics seemed unimpressive. They did not desire him. The words despised and rejected show that their response to the Servant went beyond considering Him unimpressive. He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. The words translated sorrows and grief literally mean “pains” and “sickness.” The same words appear at the beginning of verse 4. The words do not refer so much to physical illness as to sickness of the heart. His heart was broken by the rejection of the people He came to save. On the other hand, the words may refer to His voluntary involvement in a situation where He was vulnerable to such experiences.
To people of worldly values, Jesus probably seemed like “a loser.” Their response, therefore, was to ignore Him. We hid … our faces from him means that they turned away from Him. Despised refers to not paying attention. We esteemed him not means they thought “He is a nobody!” (CEV). “He was like one people turned away from; He was despised, and we didn’t value Him” (HCSB).
What are some lasting truths in Isaiah 53:1–3?
People have trouble believing in an exalted Savior who was also humiliated.
The circumstances of Christ’s coming and life reflect a lowly state.
Most people reject Christ because of their indifference.
Punished for Others’ Sins (Isa. 53:4–6)
What assumption did the people at first make about the source of the Servant’s sufferings? What three theories about human suffering are in the Old Testament? Which of these is the reason given for the Servant’s sufferings? How is sin depicted? What explains the sufferings of the Servant? Who speaks in these verses?
Verses 4–6: Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Notice the number of uses of the words us and we in Verses 4–6. The speaker was the prophet, but he was speaking as representative of Israel, yea, even of humanity. Notice the word all in verse 6.
The last part of verse 4 shows the people’s initial theory about the cause of the Servant’s sufferings. Isaiah expressed their theory in this way: We did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. They thought He was suffering for some sin He had committed. This was the primary explanation for suffering in the minds of many who believed in God. They assumed that He had committed some sin or sins for which God was punishing Him.
This was the assumption of Job’s three friends. Job had lost his children, his possessions, and his health; therefore, the friends assumed that he had some secret sin. They suggested that if Job only would confess his sin, God would bless him. Job steadfastly denied their accusations, and in the end God vindicated Job. The theory that all sufferers are sinners, however, persisted into Jesus’ day. When the disciples saw a man born blind, they assumed that he had sinned. Jesus denied such a direct connection between one’s sins and one’s suffering (John 9:2–5). Jesus was not denying that suffering is sometimes the result of a person’s sins (John 5:14). But the experience of Job added a second theory about some suffering. The first was, “All sufferers are sinners.” The second was, “Some sufferers are saints.” The Suffering Servant represents a third answer to the dilemma of suffering: “One sufferer was the Savior.” “He suffered and endured great pain for us, but we thought his suffering was punishment from God”.
The first part of verse 4 states the biblical explanation for the sufferings of the Servant. Borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows may be parallel expressions of the same thought; however, there may be progress in what was meant. Borne is nasaʾ, which means “lifting up and carrying away.” Carried is cabal, which means “carrying upon oneself.” In one sense, the Suffering Servant takes away the guilt of our sins. In addition, He does it by carrying the load of our sins Himself. He is the Sin-bearer who offers forgiveness based on His atoning suffering.
Strong words are used to describe what He endured. verse 5 elaborates on the new revelation of the cause of the Servant’s sufferings. The inspired prophet described this good news in four different ways, which reinforce the same truth: He suffered not for His own sins (for He had none), but for our sins. He was wounded (“pierced,” ) for [“because of,”] our transgressions. Transgressions involves rebellion; it is purposefully setting yourself against God. He was bruised (“crushed,” ) for [“because of,” ] our iniquities. Iniquities is a collective noun that refers to that which is twisted, crooked, or warped. The chastisement of our peace was upon him. Peace is the word shalom, which refers to peace with God (Rom. 5:1). And with his stripes we are healed. Stripes refers to the scars of the beatings and abuse that He endured. Peter had this verse in mind when he wrote: “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).
The first part of Isaiah 53:6 is a fourfold description of sin and sinners. These are the ones for whom the Servant suffered. (1) The words all we show that sin is universal, personal, and inescapable. The reality that all have sinned is taught throughout the Bible (see Rom. 3:23, for example). (2) The words like sheep show that sin is fundamentally stupid and places us in grave danger. Sheep are not highly intelligent animals. They tend to wander away from safety, lured by what appears to be greener grass. (3) The words have gone astray show that sin separates and scatters. It separates us from God and from others. (4) We have turned every one to his own way shows that sin is the result of our stubborn wills. This picture of sin is consistent with what the Bible teaches about sin and sinners. Sin is turning our backs on God out of distrust and going our own way. This is what Adam and Eve did, and their descendants have followed their way.
What then was the reason for the sufferings of the Suffering Servant? The LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. Just as sin is a universal plight (all we), so is the scope of God’s love (us all). Observers thought at first that the Servant’s sufferings were God’s punishment for the Servant’s sins. Verses 4–6 emphasize that He was punished for our sins. The words our, we, and us recur throughout these verses.
How then do we describe what God did for us through the suffering and death of His Son? Christ suffered with us, for us, and instead of us. Some people are willing to agree that He suffered with us, but are reluctant to go beyond that. These verses affirm that Christ suffered with us—that by enduring suffering He is able to empathize with those who are suffering. But Isaiah 53 stresses more—that Christ suffered for us. He took our place and suffered what we deserved. So He suffered instead of us. This is called the substitutionary view of the atonement. Jesus offered Himself and died the death that we deserved.
What are some lasting truths in Isaiah 53:4–6?
Jesus’ sufferings were not punishment for any sins of HIs but for our sins.
Sin is the deadly and universal plight of all mankind.
Jesus suffered with us, for us, and instead of us.
Robert J. Dean