We need a personal Savior to lead us from the pain of our own fallen humanity. That sounds as if it’s a simple evangelical statement with which many could agree. On the other hand, we can become so privatized in our religion that we lose the community impact of a given passage. This is the trouble with Isaiah 53. Is it about Israel as a suffering servant, or is it about a Messiah who saves us?
Is this only about Israel, or is it about Messiah? Can it be about both simultaneously? Walter Brueggemann wrote:
“There is no doubt that Isaiah 53 is to be understood in the context of the Isaiah tradition. Insofar as the servant is Israel—a common assumption of Jewish interpretation—we see that the theme of humiliation and exaltation serves the Isaiah rendering of Israel, for Israel in this literature is exactly the humiliated (exiled) people who by the powerful intervention of Yahweh is about to become the exalted (restored) people of Zion.
“Thus the drama is the drama of Israel and more specifically of Jerusalem, the characteristic subject of this poetry. Second, although it is clear that this poetry does not have Jesus in any first instance on its horizon, it is equally clear that the church, from the outset, has found the poetry a poignant and generative way to consider Jesus, wherein humiliation equals crucifixion and exaltation equals resurrection and ascension.”
Consider the Jewish rabbinical interpretation here. The noted rabbi, Maimonides, wrote that Isaiah 53 is about “the mission by which Messiah will present himself.” Rabbi Moses Alschech (1500-1600) wrote, “Our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.” Beyond the overwhelming rabbinical support for the Messianic emphasis of Isaiah 53 , the New Testament affirms its messianic nature without apology or controversy. Indeed, Peter directly links Isaiah 53 with Jesus:
“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed. For you were the sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:24-25).
The narrative of the evangelization of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip leaves no doubt as to the Christian teaching of Isaiah 53:
“Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: ‘Like a sheep He was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not His mouth. In His humiliation justice was denied Him. Who can describe His generation? For His life is taken away from the earth.’ And the eunuch said to Philip, ‘About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:32-35).
Finally, listen to Jesus Himself interpret Isaiah 53: “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in Me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about Me has its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37).
So, because of our sinful condition each of us, personally and corporately, needs a Messiah to save us. We need a Messiah who is also a Suffering Servant. Why is that the case?
Reason # 1: Our Messiah must serve as our Physician, because we need healing (v. 53:4).
Reason #2: Our Messiah must suffer as our Atonement, because we deserve hell (v. 53:5).
Reason # 3: Our Messiah must stand as our Advocate, because God demands justice (v. 53:6).
Jesus Christ is our Messiah who is the Suffering Servant for the new Israel, God’s own people, but also for each of us individually. Yet the challenge of this passage is not just a scholarly debate about meaning. The challenge of this text today and always is a piercing question about your own life and mine: Do we know we are sick and need healing? Do we receive the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, into our lives right now?