I have always viewed the exquisitely detailed Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 53 as one of the most powerful and compelling reasons for thinking that Christianity is indeed true. Written some 700 years before Christ’s life on earth, this prophecy details the suffering and redemptive purposes of the Messiah. Moreover, the presence of the entire book of Isaiah in the Qumran scrolls gives us confidence that this prophecy pre-dates the first century by at least a couple hundred years. Its presence among the Jewish Scriptures precludes any possibility of Christian tampering anyway, and such a possibility is uniformly rejected among contemporary scholarship.
So what does this passage say? Can there be any doubt that this passage refers to Jesus? I have entered the full passage below, and followed it with a brief discussion of common attempts to evade this powerful argument. The relevant text begins in Isaiah 52:13, and continues to the end of chaptier 53:
“See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
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— 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.
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
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.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on himthe iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
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.
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.
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.”
Some might argue that contemporary Jews argue against this passage being messianic. However, having read the conventional views among them, I think such a view is untenable. Firstly, if the passage — as most contemporary Jews maintain — is really a personification of the nation of Israel, then the passage makes no sense when it says “…for the transgressions of my people [i.e. Israel] he was striken…though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” The term “the servant” is also used of the messiah in other parts of the Bible, such as in Zechariah 3:8 (“I am going to bring my servant, the Branch”)
Moreover, most contemporary Jews are simply not familiar with the chapter – it is curiously avoided in the synagogue readings. We can, however, settle the issue of the passage’s historical Judaic interpretation by going to the ancient sources. Jonathan ben Uziel (early 1st century), for example, in his Targum (an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible), paraphrasing Isaiah 53, wrote: “My servant, the Messiah, will be great, who was bruised for our sins.” Furthermore, the Talmud (in the Midrash Tanchumi) states with reference to Isaiah 52:13 that “He was more exalted than Abraham, more extolled than Moses; higher than the angels.”
Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees in John 5, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
The apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:10-12, ”Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”
Could this passage really refer to anyone besides Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? Is all this just one big happy coincidence? You decide!
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