The Scripture text for this lesson is the last of Isaiah’s “servant songs.” Isaiah 53 is not only the most famous of the servant songs; it also is one of the most famous passages in all of Isaiah.
Immense scholarly debates surround the original meaning of this text. To whom does it refer? The prophet? The nation of Israel? A future messianic figure? Someone or something else? What precisely were the original circumstances that gave rise to this servant song? How was it understood by following generations of Jewish readers after the return from exile?
The scholarly literature on these issues is impossible to engage properly and summarize in this article, so, to quote Old Testament scholar Mark Gignilliat, “I will ask the reader’s indulgence if I sidestep many of these issues and simply read this text as the church has done since its inception, namely, as an enduring witness to Jesus Christ and his work.”
The Suffering Servant
The passage is full of evocative and even disturbing language about an unidentified “suffering servant.” This servant endures horrific pain and rejection from his people. But it is important for us to understand not simply that the servant suffers, but why he suffers.
The servant is not suffering for his own sins. Rather, he is suffering for others’ sins. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed… the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all… for the transgression of my people he was punished… though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” (53:5-6, 8-9).
And this is no accident—this is the will of God himself (53:10). God is the one orchestrating this affair. But this is not an act of wanton cruelty on God’s part. God is doing this for redemptive purposes (53:11-12).
The servant is suffering for the sins of the nation; he is enduring the divine punishment that otherwise would fall on others. But God does not torture the servant to death then cast him aside. No, God will vindicate the servant and reward him for his faithful sacrifice. “After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied. … Therefore I will give him a portion among the great” (53:11-12).
New Testament Use of Isaiah 53
Space precludes listing and exploring every reference and allusion to Isaiah 53 in the New Testament, so we must focus on a few key examples.
In Acts 8:26-40, when Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch, the eunuch is reading from Isaiah 53 and does not understand it. Philip explains that Isaiah 53—and indeed the rest of the Scriptures—point to Jesus. Jesus is the figure in Isaiah 53, and upon hearing this teaching, the Ethiopian eunuch believes and is baptized.
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In 1 Peter 2:21-25, Peter describes Christ’s death on the cross for our sins. And in so doing, Peter makes numerous references to Isaiah 53 (1 Peter 2:22—Isaiah 53:9; 1 Peter 2:23—Isaiah 53:7; 1 Peter 2:24—Isaiah 53:4, 5, 11; 1 Peter 2:25—Isaiah 53:6).
There are many other references in the New Testament that make it clear: Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah 53. Jesus bore the penalty for our sins in our place, suffering, dying and rising to reconcile us to God. “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
Problems with Penal Substitution?
The biblical interpretation I have presented thus far is consistent with the doctrine known as “penal substitutionary atonement.” For many evangelicals, this model of the atonement is the central model for understanding of how Christ’s death saves us. However, many other Christians find penal substitution problematic or even abhorrent, preferring other models instead.
Consider some of the concerns many Christians have expressed regarding penal substitution.
“Why doesn’t God just forgive us? Why does he demand a sacrifice?” God is perfectly just; he cannot and will not look at sin and simply “let it go.” If God did, he would not be righteous. Penal substitution is how God grants forgiveness while maintaining his justice. The cross is how God avoids picking between his mercy and his wrath.
“Doesn’t penal substitution support abuse?” Some misuse penal substitution to argue that victims of abuse should simply submit to abuse “like Jesus did,” but this is a wicked twisting of the doctrine. Jesus willingly laid down his life; he was not a powerless victim taken against his will. Christians absolutely may flee abuse and seek protection from harm (Acts 9:23-25).
“Doesn’t penal substitution ‘break’ the Trinity?” Many presentations of this doctrine depict Jesus as intervening between humanity and the angry Father, but this is incorrect. The cross is the plan all three persons of the Trinity hatched from eternity past. The Father sends the Son as a sacrifice, and the Son willingly goes with the Spirit at his side. The outworking of the cross involves all three persons of the Trinity working in harmony, not against each other.
While the depth of the cross’s meaning cannot be exhausted by any single model of the atonement, penal substitution has a legitimate place in Christian belief. And Isaiah 53 may be the strongest biblical text in its support.
Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.