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God Justifies - Seeing Jesus in Isaiah 53 (Also, What Did Jesus Look Like?)

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

The Jews could not believe that this suffering and dying servant could possibly be their messiah, and yet that was exactly God's plan for salvation all along. Their messiah would indeed be lifted up and exalted by everyone, but not in the way anyone could have imagined.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Jennifer Harris is the new president of our local Kiwanis club. On Monday, she showed us a short video about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington. I learned a lot, and it pointed out to me that I still don't pray enough for our military or thank God enough for them (even though just last week I focused on praying for our military!). So, I'm going to use another military-themed illustration to kick off our thinking for this week's Bible study.

If you don't know the whole story of this tomb, I encourage you to watch one of these excellent short videos. They're probably too long to play in Sunday School, but you have plenty of time to watch one now (12 mins, 8 mins).

Here's the official video from Arlington National Cemetery:

I was very gratified to learn that countries around the world have similar monuments to their fallen combat soldiers.

What is it that affects me and so many about this particular tomb? Why do we pay so much respect? I can paraphrase one of the videos - these soldiers died for people they would never meet who would never even know their names. That's powerful. How can we ever show enough respect and thanks for that kind of sacrifice?

We can't.

And that brings me to the sacrifice described in our Bible passage -- Isaiah 53. There, we are going to learn about a man who willingly sacrificed himself for people who not only despised him but actually deserved the punishment he was receiving. As far as I'm concerned, there's only one kind of sacrifice more noble than that of the unknown soldier, and it's that of the suffering servant in Isaiah.

  • In the former, the people don't know, but they care.

  • In the latter, the people don't know, and they don't care.

(And that's oversimplified. The whole reason there's a 24-hour guard on the tomb of the unknown soldier is to ensure that bystanders pay proper respect, which doesn't always happen. And, because of God's approval of His sacrifice, we now all know the name of Jesus. But does my contrast make a little sense?)

I hope that every time you learn a little about the sacrifices of our military, your heartstrings are tugged. And like today, I hope that every time we talk about the sacrifice of Jesus, your heartstrings are yanked by a bulldozer.


Aside on Isaiah 53 and the Jews

You might have heard that Jews remove Isaiah 53 from their Bibles because they know it talks about Jesus and they reject Jesus. That's not actually true. What is true is that they skip the chapter in their synagogue reading calendar. Here's a well-written article from a Jewish Christian which explains how that came to be (and also why Jews should realize that Isaiah 53 is clearly about Jesus):

If you're wondering, here's a short version of the Jewish view that Isaiah 53 talks about Israel and not Jesus. (It is not very convincing.)

If you want to read a more detailed "defense" of the Jewish interpretation that Isaiah 53 refers to Israel, here you go. Here's the oversimplified view: remember how last week I said that Isaiah 41-55 refer to two different "servants" -- selfish Israel and selfless suffering servant? Well, this view says it's all one and the same servant: Israel. The article draws heavily on liberal Christian theology, which is not as helpful as the article thinks.

Here's an interesting "man on the street" video about Isaiah 53. I'm sure it's been edited to promote the Christian understanding of the chapter, but it's still extremely interesting.


Where We Are in Isaiah

I covered the context of the servant songs last week:

If you want some more detail, you have access to plenty in last week's post. This week, we are covering the last and most famous of Isaiah's servant songs of the "suffering servant". I hope you skimmed through these chapters and discovered the amazing juxtaposition of the two different servants: Israel and an unnamed individual -- one was a faithless, selfish failure; the other was a faithful, selfless success.

There were also the consistent themes of "Israel is a failure" and "But God still loves Israel and will let her be His servant". In between those two themes are placed these servant songs, as if to answer the question: "How can God restore Israel after all of her failures?" For example, in chapters 54-55, Isaiah describes Israel's future glory and salvation. The "doorway" to that salvation is the suffering servant in chapter 53.

If you did read what Jews believe about Isaiah 53, you probably noticed this: Jews don't think Isaiah 53 has anything to do with their messiah. That's because Jews believe their messiah to be a conquering hero (remember the confusion Jesus met in His mission?), not a suffering servant who will give His life as atonement for their sin. But, the biblical understanding of the true Messiah clearly points to Isaiah 53 describing the Messiah:

Some really, really cool stuff.

Getting Ready for Today

This week, we are going to read a passage that we focus on every year during the Easter season. We are going to read things that we should know extremely well as describing Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. So here's your challenge: read these words as if you don't know what they're about. Internalize the emotions they stir up in you. What do they make you feel about the person they're describing?

My goal for this study would be for you to be re-overwhelmed by Jesus' love for you. (And secondarily, to develop a profound appreciation for everyone who has ever sacrificed for you. They obviously cannot do what Jesus did, but they can certainly help us appreciate all the ways God has met our needs and provided for our eternity.)


Part 1: Despised (Isaiah 53:1-3)

1 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 He grew up before him like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground. He didn’t have an impressive form or majesty that we should look at him, no appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering who knew what sickness was. He was like someone people turned away from; he was despised, and we didn’t value him.

To be honest, I think you need to start in Isaiah 52:13-15:

13 See, my servant will be successful; he will be raised and lifted up and greatly exalted. 14 Just as many were appalled at you— his appearance was so disfigured that he did not look like a man, and his form did not resemble a human being— 15 so he will sprinkle many nations. Kings will shut their mouths because of him, for they will see what had not been told them, and they will understand what they had not heard.

This is not the description of a conquering hero, a warrior to destroy the enemies of the Jewish nation. And so the Jews don't know what to do with it. (Their attempt to say that it describes themselves as a nation is incredibly narcissistic.)


Aside on Jesus' Appearance

This has the potential to be a all-consuming rabbit hole (and I discourage rabbit holes in Sunday School) but it has become an issue in our culture, so I think it's worth addressing.

Isaiah 53 is the only physical description we have of Jesus in the Bible. Seriously. The New Testament says absolutely nothing about Jesus' earthly, physical appearance. Nothing about his hair, eyes, skin, height, etc. (In His transfiguration and return, He is said to have white clothes and hair.) Many scholars have said that this was very intentional -- to help all the peoples of the world see Him as their brother. (By the way -- isn't it interesting that the one thing every ethnicity has in common is that all of our hair eventually turns grey and then white? If we live long enough, that is?)

But around here, we have an image of Jesus that is dominated by one particular painting. You know the one. I know of multiple versions of this in different parts of our church building. Painted in 1940 by Warner Sallman, it's been reproduced more than 500 million times(!!). It's been praised for making Jesus look "manly" but also "nurturing". Here's the thing: it was produced for the Evangelical Covenant Church, a small denomination formed by Swedish immigrants focused on the upper Midwest (namely Chicago and Minneapolis), by a member. In any painting, you have to make choices. Sallman chose to make Jesus look like the people in his denomination -- pale skin, blond hair, blue eyes. But because he did such a nice job with the painting, it got spread all over the world. Thus the tradition began that Jesus looks like a northern European-er.

Jesus would not have looked like someone from northern Europe. He would look much more like someone from the current Near East or Mediterranean--darker skin, darker eyes, darker hair. Why does this matter at all? It shouldn't. Again, the Bible (I believe) intentionally does not tell us what Jesus looked like. But, some people have said that because Jesus was white, it's proof that white people are better than everyone else. Seriously, that's been said. And some of you know well what I'm talking about. At that point, Jesus' appearance becomes a very big deal. So let's be clear. Jesus was not from Europe. Jesus was from Israel, born to people who had lived in Israel for generations (and could trace back to Abraham, who came from the Middle East).

That said, let me make one additional point. The Sallman painting makes Jesus beautiful. I get that. If you're going to paint Jesus, you want to make Him attractive. But that's not the picture we get of Jesus in Isaiah 53. In fact, our passage quite clearly says that Jesus was not beautiful or attractive at all! In other words, He was just a guy. That's the only description we have of Jesus: not attractive. He is truly an everyman for all peoples.

Think about it this way -- we've talked about this before. Why do companies pick attractive people to be their spokespeople? Because the rest of us are apparently more likely to listen to someone who is physically attractive. (That's what "attractive" means, right?)

Here's the point: Jesus did not have any of those inherent advantages. He did not "get His foot in the door" by being eye candy. He won people over by the power of His words and the strength of His actions. It's just a little thing, but I think it's important.


Now, quickly, back to the passage.

The first verse explains quite clearly why we still have debates about who Jesus was or what Jesus meant -- "Who has believed this?" Everyone, including God's own people, have some kind of problem understanding the Jesus story. Whether it's not believing that Jesus would let Himself be killed or that Jesus wouldn't be beautiful, everyone rejects some part of Jesus' narrative.

(By the way, what about you? Is there something Jesus taught that you tend to ignore? Maybe something Jesus did that doesn't fit into your worldview, so you just gloss over it? You're not alone. The whole point of growing in our faith is leaving behind our preconceptions and learning to see the world as Jesus did. It takes time, humility, and commitment to God's Word.)

To rub in the Jewish misconceptions, the suffering servant is described as "the arm of the Lord". You should know what that means. Around here, our "arm" on the commercials is John Foy, "the strong arm of the law" who will get you the money you deserve for your personal injury (or something like that). There are similar "strong arm" lawyers all over the country. That's what "arm" meant in Bible times -- the arm was the strength; the arm got things done. That's what the Jews were expecting of the Messiah. And He was revealed to them (just read John 1!) but they still didn't understand.

And maybe that's because the suffering servant was just a normal guy. He "grew up" like everybody else (with everybody else -- not in a special place like a palace). He looked ordinary (see above).

More importantly, He was despised and rejected. These verses mean that his life would be characterized by suffering and grief. Nothing attractive in that!

The greatest scandal about understanding Jesus was that the messiah who would be lifted up (52:13) was also the man who would be despised by us (and crushed for our sin) -- in the same way and at the same time. "As for me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). In His death on the cross, Jesus was disfigured in a real way. We have talked about The Passion of the Christ before; they tried to get that right.

When Isaiah says that "we didn't value him", it means that we didn't consider him important or worth thinking about. He was a man who knew suffering, and we turned away. We didn't care. (That's where I got my wording for the illustration with the unknown soldier.)

That's nothing new. What are the things that we as a society tend to turn a blind-eye to? Things that are embarrassing. Or disturbing. Or cringe-worthy. That is Jesus on the cross.


Part 2: Substitute (Isaiah 53:4-6)

4 Yet he himself bore our sicknesses, and he carried our pains; but we in turn regarded him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 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. 6 We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished him for the iniquity of us all.

Earlier, I asked you to read these verses as if you didn't know anything about Jesus. I'll be honest -- I have no idea what to do with these verses apart from Jesus. They make absolutely no sense apart from understanding substitutionary atonement in Jesus Christ.

So, here's a fun exercise. Even just based on the chapters we've studied in Isaiah this quarter, what are some prophecies you've read that you know are about Jesus?

Here are some lists I found:


Messianic Titles in Isaiah

  • The Branch (4:2)

  • Immanuel (7:14)

  • The Light of the World (9:2)

  • Wonderful Counselor (9:6)

  • Mighty God (9:6)

  • Eternal Father (9:6)

  • Prince of Peace (9:6)

  • Anointed One (11:2)

  • Judge (16:5)

  • King (24:23)

  • Precious Cornerstone (28:16)

  • Shepherd (40:11)

  • Servant (42:1, 49:6, 53:11)

  • Chosen One (42:1)

  • Witness to the People (55:4)

  • Redeemer (59:20)

Messianic Prophecies in Isaiah

  • He would reign in justice and peace (2:2-4)

  • He would be victorious over death (25:6-12)

  • He would be a sure foundation (28:16)

  • His reign would be blessed (30:19-26, 35:1-10)

  • He would be the ideal king (32:1-2)

  • He would be a victorious shepherd (40:9-11)

  • He would be the light of the world (60:1-3)

  • He would proclaim the good news (61:1-3)

  • He would be the coming savior (62:11-12)

  • He will create a wonderful new world (65:17-25)

  • He will judge the world (66:15-24)

And here's my favorite list: all of the references to Isaiah 53 in the New Testament:

  • Luke 24:27, 46; 1 Pet 1:11 (53:1-12)

  • John 12:38; Rom 10:16 (53:1)

  • Matt 2:23 (53:2)

  • Mark 9:12 (53:3)

  • Matt 8:17; 1 Pet 2:24 (53:4)

  • Rom 4:25 (53:4-5)

  • Matt 26:67; 1 Pet 2:24 (53:5)

  • Acts 10:43 (53:5-6)

  • 1 Pet 2:25 (53:6)

  • John 1:29 (53:6-7)

  • Matt 26:63, 27:12,14; Mark 14:60-61, 15:4-5; 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 2:23; Rev 5:6,12, 13:8 (53:7)

  • Acts 8:32-33 (53:7-8)

  • 1 Cor 15:5 (53:8-9)

  • Matt 26:24; 1 Pet 2:22; 1 John 3:5; Rev 14:5 (53:9)

  • Rom 5:19 (53:11)

  • Matt 27:38; Luke 22:37, 23:33-34; Heb 9:28; 1 Pet 2:24 (53:12)

That's so amazing! Every one of our verses is directly referred to in the New Testament!


Now -- back to the passage.

If you're willing to chase down those New Testament references, you will learn far more about this chapter than I could ever teach you.

Here an important thing to notice about this week's passage:

  • The exclusive use of first-person plural and third-person singular -- us vs. him. This began in verse 1; all of a sudden Isaiah is speaking on behalf of the failed servant, Israel. (To me, this is clear proof that two different servants are in play.)

The grief that caused us to despise him and the suffering that he endured all in fact belonged to us. We thought he was being punished by God for his own sin, but in fact it was for ours. We were wrong about him then, and so many are still wrong about him today.

And again, I don't think these verses make any sense unless we realize they are talking about Jesus and His substitutionary atonement.

Here's a quick summary of what that means. I'll just quote from the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary so as to save words:

Just as the Israelites of the OT were to offer animals in the place of sinners, so Jesus' death is described as being offered in the place of those who deserved the wrath of God. Jesus spoke of His death as a shepherd laying down His life for His sheep (John 10:11). . . . Jesus' suffering the penalty for sim, Paul asserts, was 'on our behalf' (2 Cor 5:21). He contends that Jesus' bearing the curse of God was 'for us' (Gal 3:13). . . . As the second Adam, Jesus represents humanity by overcoming the temptations of the world and the devil (Matt 4:1-11). He suffers on a cross, not as a detached demigod, but as a human being born under the law (Gal 4:4-5). In bearing God's wrath in the place of sinful humanity, Jesus is the 'forerunner' (Heb 6:20) who triumphs over death's hold on the human race (Heb 2:14).

We are the ones who deserved this punishment. But God put that punishment on Jesus, the only One who did not deserve it.

(Note: this is why it is so important that Jesus is fully, 100% human. He dealt with all of the human condition, yet He still fulfilled our part of the covenant (see last week). And He had none of the benefits of being particularly strong or wealthy or attractive. No shortcuts for Jesus. He was fully human like us, but not a sinner like us.)


Part 3: Willing (Isaiah 53:7-9)

7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, he did not open his mouth. 8 He was taken away because of oppression and judgment, and who considered his fate? For he was cut off from the land of the living; he was struck because of my people’s rebellion. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, but he was with a rich man at his death, because he had done no violence and had not spoken deceitfully.

Or more appropriately: The Apparent Outcome of the Servant's Suffering.

And these verses tie it all together. We were the sheep gone astray. He was the good shepherd coming to rescue us. But in order to rescue us, He became like a sheep. And He did so willingly. No one forced Him to do this. God did not hatch a plan and throw Jesus into it. No, this was the divine plan of our Triune God from before the beginning of time.

When we studied Revelation a few months ago, we were taken by the image of "The Lion of the Tribe of Judah" appearing as a lamb that had been slain (Rev 5:6). And that is the confusing, seemingly oxymoronic picture that Isaiah paints for us here. Nothing makes logical sense from the human perspective. A lamb is not a lion. That which is dead cannot be made alive. No one willingly suffers someone else's punishment.

None of this makes sense to the world. But it's the only thing that makes sense. Jesus willingly gave His life for ours.

The Bible is itself sympathetic to how strange these verses are! Remember the story of Philip and the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:32-34. The official was reading these verses (53:7-8) and was just clueless about them. He asked the question that we all should realize: "How can I understand this unless someone explains it to me?" This is difficult.

Here's the basic background for the image. Sheep follow their shepherd in complete trust. They don't question or fight where they're going. Apparently, to shear a sheep, the shepherd flips the sheep on its back and the get immediately docile, waiting for the shepherd to finish. In other words, they don't put up a fight. They accept their fate, not really understanding or expecting it.

But, He did understand what He was doing. "No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father” (John 10:18). Verse 4 says that He bore our sicknesses -- He did that on His own volition.

Verse 9 concludes this section with the apparent conclusion that the servant's actions accomplished nothing. The NET translation says it this way:

8 He was led away after an unjust trial—but who even cared? Indeed, he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the rebellion of his own people he was wounded. 9 They intended to bury him with criminals, but he ended up in a rich man’s tomb, because he had committed no violent deeds, nor had he spoken deceitfully.

I think that's a little easier to understand. His trial was a sham, and no one cared. No one spoke up for him. He was even going to be buried in a criminal's grave but was somehow intercepted by a wealthy man on the way. These verses scream "pathetic failure".

Note: again, as far as I'm concerned, these verses only make sense when we see what eventually happened with Joseph of Arimathea. Otherwise, how would you try to make sense out of this?


Part 4: Sacrificed (Isaiah 53:10-12)

10 Yet the Lord was pleased to crush him severely. When you make him a guilt offering, he will see his seed, he will prolong his days, and by his hand, the Lord’s pleasure will be accomplished. 11 After his anguish, he will see light and be satisfied. By his knowledge, my righteous servant will justify many, and he will carry their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him the many as a portion, and he will receive the mighty as spoil, because he willingly submitted to death, and was counted among the rebels; yet he bore the sin of many and interceded for the rebels.

Or more appropriately: The Real Outcome of the Servant's Suffering.

After the previous section's conclusion that the servant's life was a failure, we find out the truth. This was God's plan all along, and the servant filled his role perfectly and would be rewarded generously.

To be honest, the Hebrew behind these verses is somewhat obscure. There's no clarity on what exactly the phrases mean. Verse 10: "God was the one who crushed the servant. But if the servant makes a sin offering, he will be restored to God's favor." Does that make sense? God does not make offerings to Himself, so the servant was the one making the offering. As far as we can tell, this refers to Jesus' offering Himself and suffering separation from God. But because He made the proper offering, God accepted it and restored Jesus (literally) to life. Thus Jesus can see the outcome of His work. In this sense, we interpret "seed" as "spiritual descendants" and not physical descendants.

What was "the Lord's pleasure" that would be accomplished? In this case, it's just God's bigger plan -- specifically of salvation. The servant's suffering is how God brings about our salvation. The rest of these verses essentially explain how.

Verse 11: "Having suffered, he will reflect on his work and be satisfied, knowing that his work has justified many." The servant "knows" God's plan (who knows the counsel of God except God Himself?). He knows His role in it. His role is to justify the people by bearing their sins. To us, this is "Salvation 101". To the Jews of Isaiah's day, this is advanced quantum mechanics.

By playing His role in God's plan, the servant will be brought back to life and given a mighty reward. Sounds like Philippians 2 to me:

8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross! 9 As a result God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow —in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

(Again, these verses only make sense if the New Testament account of Jesus' sacrifice, death, and resurrection is true.)

The truth comes full circle. The servant is the mighty conquering hero. But He got there through suffering, sorrow, and rejection.

But don't overlook this last gem. Isaiah throws in there that Jesus (er, the servant) interceded for the rebels. That's something major to just throw in! Blessedly for us, David just preached a sermon on how Jesus interceded for us lost sinners. He us this outline of what Jesus prayed:

  1. God’s Glory (John 17:1-6)

  2. Our Security (John 17:11-16)

  3. Our Sanctity (John 17:17-19)

  4. Our Unity (John 17:20-23)

  5. Our Eternity (John 17:24-26)

We also sang the song, "Before the Throne of God Above", which is based on Hebrews 7:25 "So he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. 26 For it is indeed fitting for us to have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separate from sinners, and exalted above the heavens."

What an amazing story. How much more amazing to realize that Isaiah wrote this hundreds of years before Jesus' birth.

There is one, final difficult question to consider. How is it "fair" or "just" for an innocent person to suffer for a guilty one? In general, it isn't. The only way this works is that Jesus was a part of the plan from the beginning, and also that He became human. That's it. But indeed that's how it happened.

We're going to end by thanking God for Jesus and by thinking about people we know who need to know what Jesus has done for them.


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