Evidences of Faith

The Suffering Servant

In the eighth chapter of the book of Acts, we find Philip the evangelist being sent by God to the deserted road that led from Jerusalem to Gaza. Once there, Philip saw the chariot belonging to the eunuch who was treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia. The Spirit told Philip to overtake the chariot. When he did so, he found the eunuch reading from the book of Isaiah. Specifically, he was reading the passage known to us as Isaiah 53:7-8. Philip established that the eunuch did not understand the prophecy he was reading, and the eunuch asked Philip for help. "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him" (Acts 8:35).

This is an amazing thing. Philip began preaching Jesus from the book of Isaiah, which was written more than seven hundred years before Jesus' birth. How could this be? How could a book written centuries before Jesus was born be used to teach someone about Him? If we go to the passage that the eunuch was reading, we will see that, on its own, it is indeed difficult to understand. However, when we view it through the lens of the New Testament, we can get a glimpse of how Philip could have used this passage to lead the eunuch to Christ. We will also see that it becomes very difficult to explain how or why Isaiah wrote such a passage - unless he was truly inspired by God.

Before we look at the passage in Isaiah, it is important to keep a couple of things in mind. For example, remember that the chapter and verse divisions in our modern Bibles were added almost 2,000 years after Isaiah wrote. These divisions are for ease of reference, and do not necessarily reflect a logical division in the author's line of thought. Also, you will notice that Isaiah, like other prophetic writers, frequently shifts verb tense. He goes from past to present to future tenses while talking about the same events. This may be to emphasize that, whereas the prophet was writing about things that had not yet occurred, God had decided that they would happen, and therefore they were as good as done. Whatever the reason, however, we do not need to be distracted by these things; for our current purposes, we simply need to be aware of them.

I. Exalted, Extolled, and Marred?

Let us turn now to the fifty-second chapter of Isaiah. In the midst of prophecies concerning God's promise to redeem His people, we find descriptions of a very special Person:

This picture of a Servant of God who would be characterized by wisdom and be held in honor is consistent with other prophecies of the coming Messiah (for example, Psalm 110). From here, however, Isaiah goes in a direction that we would not expect:

Why would God's Servant be marred? Moreover, how does this fit with the idea of Him being exalted and extolled and very high? Already, we can begin to see why the eunuch might have difficulty understanding Isaiah's prophecies concerning the Servant. We can also begin to see that it is difficult to explain why Isaiah would write in this manner, if he were merely writing of his own initiative. If his goal were to comfort the people with promises of a great and powerful Messiah, why would he say that God's Servant would be marred? On the other hand, if he were trying to frighten the people into obedience, he would not be writing promises of a wise and glorious leader. If we try to explain Isaiah's words in purely naturalistic terms, we will keep running into problems.

If we try to imagine ourselves living before the time when the gospel had been preached all over the world, we can see that Isaiah's words would be very difficult to understand, even if we believed that he was a true prophet, and his book inspired by God. How could it be, that God's anointed King would be wise and exalted, and yet be marred more than any man? For one who is acquainted with the gospel, however, Isaiah's message is perfectly clear. Consider the apostle Paul's words:

Jesus was God in the flesh, and He never did anything but good, yet He was subjected to the form of execution reserved for the most despicable criminals: clearly, His visage was marred more than any man. Yet, as Isaiah prophesied, Jesus was subsequently exalted and extolled above all others.

So then, Isaiah 52:13-14 is a passage that is difficult to explain in naturalistic terms. Moreover, even a believer would have difficulty explaining its meaning - if it were not for the gospel. We see then, that the gospel of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the New Testament more than seven hundred years after Isaiah, provides the explanation for Isaiah's writing. To look at it another way, Jesus fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy. If this were an isolated Old Testament passage torn from its context and made to conform to a preconceived idea, then it would not be very compelling. But is that what we have done? Let us return to Isaiah and see.

II. The Mouths of Kings Shut by the Man of Low Esteem

If we pick up the reading in Isaiah where we left off, we find that the prophet had much more to say about God's coming Servant:

Where the New King James reads, sprinkle, your Bible may say, "startle". Either way, the prophet is telling us that this Servant of God would have such an impact on the world as to affect many nations. In fact, He would even shut the mouths of kings! And yet, Isaiah tells us that He would not be respected, but rather would be despised and rejected by men. How could both of these things be true?

Once again, we can turn to Jesus to find our answers. In His life as a man, Jesus was indeed despised by the religious leaders of His day (for example, see Mark 12:13, 18, 28; John 9). Moreover, at the end, multitudes of His own people gathered together and demanded that He be subjected to an excruciatingly painful and disgraceful death:

But the Jews were not the only ones to show contempt for Jesus. The Romans, too, treated Him as though He were utterly despicable:

Remember that all of this was done after they had beaten Jesus with a scourge, which was a whip with many thongs (verse 26). So, Jesus was treated with the utmost contempt by both Jews and Gentiles. All are guilty of His suffering and death; no one is innocent. When we meditate upon these things, we see that Jesus thoroughly fulfilled the words of Isaiah, He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

But Jesus also shut the mouths of kings, even after His crucifixion. Consider, for example, the emperors of Rome. The Roman Empire covered an enormous territory and encompassed many nations. For centuries, Roman emperors persecuted Christians. Their goal was to put an end to the religion of Jesus Christ and preserve their empire by turning the people back to the state religion. In 311 AD, the emperor Galerius, an ardent persecutor of Jesus' followers, was struck with an incurable illness that caused him intense pain. Realizing he was near death, he reversed his stance, and issued an order that Christianity should be tolerated. Might we not say, insofar as his attack on Jesus was concerned, that his mouth was shut? Of course, his nephew, Maximin II, disregarded the order, and instead increased the severity of his persecutions. But Maximin was defeated by Licinius in battle, and fled. In 313 AD, co-emperors Licinius and Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which required that Christianity be tolerated. As for Maximin, he died of poisoning that same year.

Of course, the Roman Empire slowly crumbled, and its emperors have long been silent. However, the kingdom of Jesus Christ, which they fought so tenaciously to destroy, continues to thrive. Indeed, no other person has had as much of an effect on human history as Jesus, yet the secular historians of His own time considered Him to be of little significance: they did not esteem Him. Having said all of that, though, we need to recognize that Jesus' influence on the affairs of this life is as nothing when compared to His influence in eternity. Jesus has gained the eternal victory for His followers. He has gained the ultimate victory over every attempt of man or Satan to establish a lasting religious or political system. In the end, there will be no pretending to resist Him:

On the day when God calls all mankind to account, there will be no king, emperor, philosopher, scientist, "pastor", or "reverend", who will be able to open his mouth in the presence of the glorified Jesus Christ. However, His faithful servants, though lightly esteemed in this life, will shout and sing with triumph and joy.

III. And By His Stripes We Are Healed

When we return to the passage in Isaiah, we find many more remarkable things. In order to fully appreciate how remarkable Isaiah's prophecies are, we must remember that he wrote more than seven hundred years before Jesus came to earth. Moreover, we must imagine ourselves to be living before the gospel had been preached all over the world. Let us pretend that we never heard of Jesus Christ, and pick up reading where we left off:

How can we explain such a passage? Who is Isaiah talking about? How could someone else's suffering help to heal you or me? How can God lay my iniquities on someone else? It is a truly puzzling message.

Of course, if we stop pretending, the answers are easy. For those of us who have heard the gospel message, it is obvious that Isaiah is referring to Jesus. We know this because the New Testament teaches that all have sinned, and that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 3:23, 6:23). It is through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross that sinners have the opportunity to be forgiven, and to be granted eternal life:

It is only through the atoning death of Jesus Christ that we have hope of everlasting life, for all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

There is yet another point to be observed in these verses. Isaiah indicated that people would think that the Servant had been smitten by God. Rather than seeing that He was suffering willingly, in obedience to God, the people would think that He was being punished by God. And, in fact, that is what happened to Jesus as He hung on the cross:

And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, "You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross." Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, "He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, 'I am the Son of God.' " (Matthew 27:39-43)

We can see in the sarcastic taunts of these men that they felt Jesus was lying when He claimed to be the Son of God. Thus, from their point of view, His suffering was what He deserved, being a blasphemous heretic. They felt that He had been smitten by God.

IV. As A Lamb to the Slaughter

You will recall that we were led to this study of the suffering Servant by the eighth chapter of the book of Acts, where Philip the evangelist met the Ethiopian eunuch on the deserted road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The eunuch was reading from the prophet Isaiah, and Philip was able to preach Jesus to him beginning with that passage. Let us now turn to the verses which the eunuch was reading when Philip approached his chariot:

Isaiah asserted that the Servant of God would accept His suffering without complaining or defending Himself - even though He was innocent. His suffering, after all, was not for the sake of His own sins, but for the sins of God's people.

We see here that Isaiah again prophesied about the redemptive nature of Jesus' sacrifice. Somehow, Isaiah - who wrote more than seven hundred years before Jesus - knew that a Man would give His life to pay for the sins of others - as he wrote a few verses later, the Servant would be an offering for sin (Isaiah 53:10). When considering such a passage, we can see how this would indeed be a perfect place for Philip to begin telling the eunuch about Jesus. On the other hand, if we put ourselves in the place of the eunuch, who had not yet heard of Jesus, we can see why he had trouble understanding these verses. Why would God's Servant be stricken for the sins of His people?

Of course, it is only in the teaching of Jesus and His apostles that we find the answer to this question. Jesus' sacrifice was an expression of God's love for mankind (John 3:16). It was the way of bringing men and women from all nations into one people (Ephesians 2:14-18). It was the only way for God to be just - that is, to punish sin - and also merciful - to forgive the sinner (Romans 3:21-26). Jesus' sacrifice and resurrection were the fulfillment of God's ultimate plan of redemption, whereby He bought back people from the clutches of sin, and gained the eternal victory over Satan (I Peter 1:17-19; Hebrews 2:14). It is in Jesus that God accomplished the plan of salvation He had announced in the garden of Eden, wherein the Seed of the woman triumphed over the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Once again, we are brought face to face with the fact that the books of the Bible, though penned by some 40 human authors over a period of 1500 years, work in harmony to present one coherent message.

But there is something else about these verses in Isaiah that is striking. Notice that it is prophesied that this Servant, although He did not deserve the punishment inflicted upon Him, would accept it quietly. And, in fact, when we read the passages that describe Jesus' final hours, we find that He made no attempt to defend Himself, and that He offered no complaints (Matthew 26:47-27:50; Mark 14:43-15:37; Luke 22:47-23:46; John 18 & 19). Although He possessed the ability to eliminate His tormentors in an instant, He accepted their abuse with all the meekness of a sheep before its shearers. Indeed, He is the Lamb of God, the pure and perfect sacrifice for sin (John 1:29).

Again, we need to ask ourselves, why would Isaiah, in the eighth century BC, think to write about these things? What would make him imagine a Servant of God who would suffer for the sins of the people? What would make him think that this Servant would suffer quietly, without defending Himself or complaining? Where would Isaiah get such ideas? It is difficult to explain in naturalistic terms.

In this article, we have looked at eleven verses of Isaiah's prophecies of the Suffering Servant. We have seen that, in point after point, Isaiah's predictions were fulfilled in Jesus. The skeptic may suggest that the New Testament writers somehow manipulated their accounts to give the impression that Jesus fulfilled Isaiah's prophesies, but this assertion is without any factual basis. On the contrary, many of the instances where the New Testament describes how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy make no mention at all of Isaiah. If they were frauds trying to deceive people into believing that Isaiah's prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus, they would certainly point out the correlation between their own stories and Isaiah's prophecies. Moreover, we cannot go to any one book of the Bible to see all of these connections; the passages which show the connections between the Suffering Servant and Jesus are scattered throughout the New Testament. It is simply not within the realm of reason to suppose that all of the men who wrote these books, being in different parts of the world as they wrote, somehow collaborated to produce such a perfectly harmonious correlation between Jesus and Isaiah's Suffering Servant. Furthermore, when we consider that all of the various passages we have cited blend seamlessly in their context, we conclude that they could not have been fraudulently inserted.

In other words, the passages we have considered are genuine, authentic, and honest. That being the case, we cannot escape the conclusion that Isaiah foretold of a Person and events more than seven hundred years beforehand. That is powerful evidence of the inspiration of the Bible.

e-mail this author at jfrobson@flash.net

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