What an Amazing Passage: Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Swapster-ArrowsI am continually amazed at the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 ever time I  read or teach it. For three weeks, my Sunday morning Bible study has considered this passage. After over a year of study on the book of Isaiah with this group, it is this passage that gives the answer to the quandary of “How will sinful Israel become God’s perfect obedient servant?” “How will broken down Jerusalem become the beautiful glowing city of God?” “How will I, a sinner, become acceptable to God?” It is by the servant’s sacrifice of himself.

Isaiah 53:10-12 really becomes the climatic verses in the progression of the four servant songs. The first song in Isaiah 42:1-9 gives us a picture of a servant who God raises up to bring about justice and salvation. The second in 49:1-3 introduces the idea of frustration by the servant over apparently fruitless work. The third song in Isaiah 50:4-11 reveals physical and emotional suffering as part of the servants work. And the fourth in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 explains it all. The servant brings about justice and salvation through his sacrificial death. His work is not frustrated but rather gloriously accomplished. His suffering turns out to be on behalf of our sin, and we see that through his suffering many will be accounted as righteous.

There are two essential areas of Christian theology that shine through in Isaiah 53:10-12 to the naked eye. It is amazing to me that these two areas theology so debated in the New Testament can be seen plain as day in this passage (another reason I love the Old Testament): 1) substitutionary atonement and 2)imputed righteousness.

Substitutionary Atonement – Though this concept appears second in verse 11, it has already been revealed in Isaiah 53:4-5. In Isaiah 53:11 it says, “he shall bear their iniquities” a summary of the previous verses. This is an amazing aspect of the Gospel. That God’s servant, who we know to be Christ given our privileged New Covenant perspective, was punished for our sins. He stood in our place. The fourth servant song makes quite a deal of the fact that we thought God’s servant was being punished by God, for his sins or otherwise, but in fact it was our sins. It was our sins that caused him to be beaten beyond recognition, our sins that caused the “sorrows,” “sicknesses,” and or “griefs” of Isaiah 53:3, our sins that resulted in his death. We can further illuminate our understanding of this by looking at Leviticus 5 of Leviticus 16. In the former there is a prescription for guilt offerings which Jesus is called in Isaiah 53:10 and in the later the process of assigning and sending away sins attached to the scapegoat is prescribed. In both cases something is substituting, standing in, in leiu of the worshipper for his sins. This is our Messiah, the suffering servant of God, willingly standing in your place and my place suffering the just punishment for our sins so that we can have access to God.

Imputed Righteousness – Also in Isaiah 53:11 is the seed, thought probably more like a billboard, of imputed righteousness. Isaiah 53:11 says, “the righteous one, my servant, [will] make many to be accounted righteous.” There is quite the hurricane of debate over this word ‘righteous/righteousness’ and what it means for God to account someone as righteous. Given the problem of Israel’s continued unrighteousness in the book of Isaiah something more drastic must take place if they are to become God’s obedient righteous people. And the answer is found in Isaiah 53:11. There is a causative action to what is being described in this verse. The servant is causing the many to be righteous. This is more in line with Ezekiel 36. It is more than an acquittal by a judge ruling the many righteous, but not less than that, they are being made to be righteous. Something is being imparted that is changing the very nature of those that would place their faith in the suffering servant. This is the answer Israel has been looking for. Their sins need to be dealt with and they need a fundamental change to continue to walk in righteousness. God’s servant is imparting righteousness to his people.

Later theologians can speak of both of these concepts under the umbrella of ‘The Great Exchange.’ The great exchange is Christ taking our sinfulness as we receive his righteousness. This is the amazing mystery of the Gospel; the suffering servant willingly humbling himself to the point of death for our sins so that we can receive his righteousness and walk in his deeds. And here it is, basking in the sunlight, since roughly 700 B.C.

One other point deserves attention, even though this passage deserves a lifetime of perpetual attention, is the fact that the suffering of Christ was the will of God. Isaiah 52:10 says, “it was the will of the Lord to crush him.” In this day of political sensibilities and an over-emphasis on love and freedom this verse can offend our senses. It should. We need to remember that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was God’s plan A from all time and eternity. It was not an emergency recovery plan, it was not an unfortunate set of circumstances in Jesus’ life, it was the will of the God to see Jesus crucified on the cross. It is in the cross that we have the perfect display of God’s love and God’s justice. The cross is the way that God chose to reveal his nature to us and affect our salvation. It is this mystery that will inspire us for the rest of eternity.

Finally what do we do with the suffering servant and his sacrifice? We appropriate it as our own. We lay the servant on the altar as our sacrifice to God. And we appropriate it by faith. By faith, Christ’s sacrifice becomes our sacrifice. Furthermore, in thankfulness to God for his provision of salvation through Christ’s sacrifice we begin to live in a manner like the suffering servant. We become the living sacrifices of Romans 12:1-3. We give up our lives, we humble ourselves (think Philippians 2), we submit our will to that of the Lord’s, even to the point of death. We like the servant, through his sacrifice, are free to partner in God’s saving work. We help others become the righteous people of God living in the New Jerusalem by appropriating the servant’s sacrifice through faith.

This is truly an amazing passage.

*Some of this content comes from my weekly Bible study on Isaiah at Risen Life Church. If you would like to take part in the Bible Study I am posting a recording from each week on the resources page. I will soon be updating the recordings up through chapter 53, so stay tuned.

**The image above was used in accordance with the licensing agreements of Creationswap.com and in no way reflects the views of the artist that produced the image.
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