The Bible’s Finest Word on the Cross of Christ Isaiah 52:13-53:12


Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Text Comment

v.13  “raised and lifted up” is several times in Isaiah a description of Yahweh himself. The Servant of the Lord is the Lord!

v.15  In the imagery of the Bible to sprinkle the nations is to make them clean before God.

53:1  “Arm of the Lord” in 51:9 is a periphrasis – a literary device in which a longer phrase is substituted for a shorter one – for Yahweh himself.

        If 52:13-15 give us God’s estimation of the Servant, 53:1-3 give us man’s. God places the highest value on him; man places none. In sin man rejects the beautiful and the highly valuable and prefers junk.

v.12  This text is like Cinderella’s slipper. Only one historical person fits it. After the Christian interpretation of this text became widespread Jewish interpreters began to favor interpretations that took the passage to refer to something else than a personal Messiah. Rashi, the great medieval Jewish commentator, introduced the interpretation that the Servant of the Lord was the nation of Israel herself. Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish biblical scholar, sometimes called the Jews’ “second Moses,” called Rashi’s interpretation preposterous. Israel couldn’t fit this description. There is only one who can!

Richard Ganz, a former Jewish psychiatrist and now Reformed Presbyterian minister who became a Christian at L’abri in Holland, was converted through the realization of this simple fact. One day someone read Isaiah 53 in his hearing. He didn’t know the Bible and so didn’t know that Isaiah was being read. He had replied to the effect that such a passage didn’t prove anything because anyone could describe and interpret the Lord’s death that way after the fact. It didn’t prove anything. But the fellow handed him the Bible and showed him that what had been read was from the prophet Isaiah, who wrote 700 years before the birth of Christ. The argument from fulfilled prophecy was powerful proof for him and he believed.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been, and rightly, called the ‘high peak of Scripture’. All Bible roads lead to Romans and views afforded by the Bible are seen most clearly from Romans. So says one fine scholar [J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 230]. It has also been said that if Romans is the high peak of Scripture, then Romans chapter eight is the very pinnacle of that peak. The “acropolis of the Bible” someone has called that greatest of all Pauline chapters.

Well, I certainly don’t deny any of that! But if Romans 8 is the acropolis of the Bible, then must we not say, in a similar way, that Isaiah 53 is the acropolis of the Old Testament. It was especially for this great chapter that Jerome, the church father and early biblical scholar, referred to the great prophet who wrote it as “Isaiah the evangelist, that is, Isaiah the gospel writer.” And speaking of this same chapter, the German scholar, Franz Delitzsch wrote: ‘The fifty-third [chapter] of Isaiah reads as if it had been written beneath the cross of Calvary. The Holy Ghost has here excelled himself!’ [Whyte, With Mercy and With Judgment, 201-202]. It is not too much to say that the four Gospels of the New Testament are the Bible’s commentary on Isaiah 53. And not the Gospels only. There are 46 references to Isa. 52:13-53:12 in the index of citations of and allusions to OT texts in the Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek New Testament. This great text in Isaiah has left its mark everywhere on the pages of the New Testament.

The simple fact of the matter is that there is not in the whole Bible, including the whole of the New Testament, a text that speaks so clearly and so beautifully, so powerfully, and so clearly about our salvation by the cross. There is no other text in all of Holy Scripture in which the atoning death of Jesus Christ is set before sinners so plainly and simply, so compellingly and persuasively as it is here. As Alexander Whyte once put it: “A sinner must have his eyes sealed up very close indeed, not to see his salvation here.”

It certainly comes as no surprise to read in Acts 8 that as soon as Philip learned that the Ethiopian eunuch had been reading in the Bible from Isa 53 and explained to him that the passage he had been reading was all about Jesus of Nazareth, who had died and risen again just a few months before, that Ethiopian official immediately believed in Jesus for his salvation and was baptized. Once the identification of the subject of this great prophecy is understood, the significance of the chapter cannot be missed.

For is there any passage anywhere else in all of God’s holy book that sets forth the grand themes of salvation in Christ with such force and power? Three of those themes, so prominent in this, Isaiah’s fourth and last prophecy of the servant of the Lord, I want to consider this evening.

  • The first of these themes, so prominent in Isaiah’s greatest chapter, is that of salvation by penal-substitution, or, in other words, salvation by vicarious punishment.

Isaiah tells us here not only that the Servant is our savior, but how he is our Savior. Could language make the point more clearly than the language that Isaiah employed here?

He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…”
He was pierced for our transgressions…”
He was crushed for our iniquities…”
“The punishment that brought us peace was upon him…”
“By his wounds we are healed…”
“The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…”
“It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, though he had
done no violence nor was any deceit in his mouth…”
“The Lord makes his life a guilt offering…”
“He bore the sin of many…”

According to the British scholar, J. S. Whale, this Servant Song “makes twelve distinct and explicit statements that the Servant suffers the penalty of other men’s sins: not only vicarious suffering but penal substitution is the plain meaning of its fourth, fifth, and sixth verses.” [Packer, What did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution, 34n.] We were guilty. We deserved punishment for our going astray – great punishment for our having gone greatly astray – and he bore that punishment in our place. The soul that sins must die. Divine justice demands punishment for sin; God’s perfect holiness demands that the scales be balanced; that the debt be paid. And the Servant paid the debt for us. As often as that simple truth has been denied, so clearly is it stated in this place and in so many others in Holy Scripture. Seven hundred years before the cross, Isaiah said that this is what the Messiah would do and this is how he would save his people from sin and death.

In my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood.

This has been through the ages a decidedly unpopular message. It was unpopular when the apostles first preached it to the world and it is unpopular today. Even many Christians have wanted to believe that salvation comes to us in some other way than Christ being punished in our place. They find repulsive a salvation that begins in human guilt and finishes in bloody death. And so they search for other theories. They are like the English theologian of another day, F.W. Robertson, of whom it was said: “He believed that Christ did something or other which, somehow or other, had some connection or other with salvation.”

But there is no uncertainty or confusion here. Isaiah is straightforward and repetitive. I am a sinner; God’s justice demands my punishment; but God punished his beloved son instead of me so that my sins might be forgiven. Or as the simple farm hand was quoted in a gospel tract published more than a century ago: “He die or me die; He die, me no die!”

It is just what Paul and the rest of the NT says, writing after the fact: “[Christ], who knew no sin, was made to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Or, as in Peter’s first letter, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God.” But Isaiah, centuries before, had put it better and more clearly and more emphatically even than that!

  • The second great theme so beautifully and powerfully presented in this great chapter, this acropolis of the Old Testament, is that of the origin of our salvation in the love and the will of God.

When we think about the death of Jesus on the cross, we are liable to think of the circumstances of the crucifixion itself. We think of Pilate, the Jewish leadership, and the Roman soldiers who mocked, humiliated, and tortured him and then hung him on that cross on Golgotha to die. But did you notice how all of that recedes so completely into the background in Isaiah’s great explanation of the suffering and death of the Servant of the Lord?

Jesus hung on that cross, not because men put him there, but because God put him there and because he put himself there for us! The whole passage begins with his identification as “the servant of the Lord.” In all that he did as our Savior, as Jesus himself would later say again and again he was only doing the will of his Father in heaven.

And then listen to Isaiah again:

The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all…”
“It was the Lord’s will to crush him…”
“The Lord makes his life a guilt offering…”

He came into the world, Jesus did, because God loved his people with an everlasting love and desired to save them from the judgment and death they had brought upon themselves. The Servant of the Lord came because he loved his Father and he loved us and wanted to save us, and could do so in no other way than by offering himself as a sacrifice for sin.

Jesus is sometimes represented as the victim of a vengeful father, as trying to turn the Father’s wrath against us into love. We have been frequently treated to this ridiculous view of things again in our day from so-called Christian theologians who speak of the cross as a dangerous idea because it seems to represent a form of child abuse! As if God the father is taking out his spite on his son; as if he had lost his temper and his self-control and was beating his son in a violent rage! Such ideas are preposterous, pure and simple. The method of our salvation was Christ suffering and dying as our substitute, bearing our punishment in his own stead. But the reason for our salvation was the love of God for his people and the willingness of both Father and Son to suffer greatly to save us from the penalty we so richly deserved. Grace, mercy, and love in God and in Christ are the explanation of it all; the will of the Father and the willingness of the Son lie behind it all. Isaiah saw this and said this, one would have thought, in words so clear as to be past misunderstanding.

And, of course, the New Testament says the same thing many times over. Peter can even say directly to the Jews who put Jesus to death, as he did repeatedly in his sermons in Jerusalem after Pentecost:

“Men of Israel, this man was handed over to you by
God’s set purpose and foreknowledge…”

This is the not the story of events getting out of hand, or of a good idea gone bad, or of a beginning made without a clear end in view. Absolutely not! This great salvation was born in the counsels of the divine mind and in the love of the divine heart. It was forged in the only way it could be forged so that God might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. This salvation was the result of a covenant between God the Father and God the Son, that the people of God whom God loved should be given to the Son to save and that the Son should save them, each one, by meeting for them in their place, the demands of God’s holy and rightfully inflexib1e justice.

  • The third of these great themes so brilliantly presented in this greatest chapter in the greatest of all the prophetic books of the Old Testament, is that of the triumph, the victory that the Servant of the Lord won on our behalf; the finality and the certainty of his accomplishment as our Savior.

This note of triumphant finality is sounded in the very first verse of this servant song:

“He will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted…”

And it goes on in verse after verse:

“He will sprinkle many nations and kings will shut their mouths because of him…”
“He will see his offspring and prolong his days…”
“The will of the Lord will prosper in his hand…”
“After his suffering, he will see the light of life and be satisfied…”
“He will justify many…”

This is the plan of God to save his people and this is the Son of God, now successfully executing that plan. And there is not the slightest possibility allowed here in this text that the Father’s plan and the Son’s execution of it would issue in anything else but precisely that salvation of God’s people which was their intention and purpose.

After all, how could the Almighty fail? The only thing which stands between us and heaven is our sin and the wrath of God which is against us for that sin. But God himself has born that wrath; Jesus suffered it in his people’s place and completely exhausted it until there was none left; our debt had been fully paid. The holiness and justice of God was what stood in the way of our eternal life, and the just and holy God has himself removed that obstacle. How could it be otherwise then than that those whom God gave to the son and those whom the Son died to save, must be saved?

All of these great “he will’s” of Isaiah 53 are just the great prophet’s wonderful way of saying what Paul would so grandly say in his inimitable way seven centuries later: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” and “Who can bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies…” and “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things?”

Or, as Charles Spurgeon was later to put it with his characteristic vigor: ‘We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.”

Men and women are threatened with death and judgment because they have offended God; but God himself is the Savior of his people; it is his genius that devised the plan by which he might forgive the sins of his people without betraying his justice; it was his all-conquering love that sent his only and beloved Son into the world to die for our sins; and it was the Son’s perfect and infinitely valuable execution of that plan that accounts for the salvation and eternal life of any and of all of those who are saved.

The cross was to an infinite degree history’s most excruciatingly horrible event; and yet it was also history’s most resounding success. An English bishop gave Isaiah’s “He wills” their right meaning and emphasis when long ago he wrote: ‘The eye of faith regards Christ sitting on the summit of the cross as in a triumphal chariot; the devil bound to the lowest part of the same cross, and trodden under the feet of Christ.’ [John Davenant in J.C. Ryle, Old Paths, 252n]

The precisely necessary plan of salvation – a perfect substitute to suffer our just punishment in our place –, a plan that originated in the mind and the heart of our great God and Father; and a plan so perfect in its design and so flawless in its execution that it has made it possible for God, the all-holy, the all-righteous one, to remain just and yet, at the same time, forgive the sins of and declare righteous all who trust in Jesus Christ, and all to the end that each of them and all of them together might be with Him forever in the kingdom of God.

The ancients, you know, had their heroes and their epics. They sang the exploits of Jason and his Argonauts who went in search of the Golden Fleece; of Hercules and his twelve astonishing labors, and of Odysseus and of his trials and adventures on journey home from the Trojan War. Our own tradition has its great tragedies: its Macbeths and its Hamlets.

But on this Palm Sunday evening it is my high privilege to remind you all that we have a hero and an epic and a tragedy compared to which the world’s best and the world’s greatest are simply full of sound and fury, signifying next to nothing.

If you are not a Christian this evening – (no matter what others may think or you may say) if Jesus Christ is not your prince and your Savior in your heart and with your whole heart, if you are not his follower and if you do not love him for giving his life for yours – if you are not one of that great multitude who know that Christ Jesus died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and that he and he alone can and certainly will save completely those who come to God through him, then I urge you to believe these most certain facts: foretold by the great prophet Isaiah seven hundred years before they came to pass, precisely as he said they would. Trust your eternal destiny to the Lord Jesus himself. He will not, he has not failed you!

And if you are a Christian this evening, I urge you on this sacred Sunday and in this coming holy week to glory in the great salvation and the great Savior you have got in the Son of God. Study him and his terrible and wonderful work on the cross, contemplate the love of God which sent him to that agony for you, until you can say with Samuel Rutherford, and not say only, but feelingly say: “When I look at the sinfulness of my own heart, my salvation is to me my Savior’s greatest miracle. He has accomplished nothing like my salvation!” And keep up your meditation and contemplation until you have passed even Rutherford by and can say with a heart full to the brim with love and admiration for Christ: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Alexander Moody Stuart, one of the luminaries in the galaxy of great preachers in Scotland in the second half of the 19th century, recalled in his memoir of John Duncan, the celebrated and eccentric Rabbi Duncan, Presbyterian missionary to the Jews in Hungary and then professor of Hebrew in the Free Church Divinity School, an incident in a seminary class which Duncan was teaching.

“In the winter of 1864, Dr. Duncan was reading part of Isaiah with his senior class. The particular passage I cannot remember, nor does it matter, for it only served as a suggestion of the cry in verse 1 of the 22nd Psalm, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ By the time Dr. Duncan had reached that point he had left his desk and, bent nearly double, was pacing up and down in front of the students’ benches, his snuff-box and pocket-handkerchief in one hand, a huge pinch of snuff occupying the fingers of the other, but utterly forgotten in the absorbing interest of his subject, our Lord’s sufferings for sinners, which he was turning over and looking at, now on this side, now on that, but all with a loving reverence, and as one who spoke in a half-sleeping vision, when suddenly a flash went through him as if heaven had opened. He straightened himself up, his face kindled into a rapture, his hand went up and the snuff scattered itself from the unconscious fingers as he turned to the class, more as it seemed for sympathy than to teach –‘Ay, ay, d’ye know what it was — dying on the cross, forsaken by His Father–d’ye know what it was? What? What? (as if somebody had given him a half answer which stimulated him, but which he had to clear out of his way, a very usual exclamation of his when wrapped in thought.) ‘What? What? It was damnation — and damnation taken lovingly.’ And he subsided into his chair, leaning a little to one side, his head very straight and stiff, his arms hanging down on either side beyond the arms of his chair, with the light beaming from his face and the tears trickling down his cheeks he repeated in a low intense voice that broke into a half sob, half laugh in the middle, ‘It was damnation–and he took it lovingly.’” [The Life of John Duncan, 104-105]

There is the Gospel, there is Christianity, and there is the only hope of this sinful world, seven centuries before the Prince of Life was born in Bethlehem. And what is the result of that. We read it in the opening verses of Isaiah chapter 55:

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!”

Well, said John Duncan, in recalling his conversion to Christ, “When I heard all the good things that were offered in this market, I said to myself, I will marry the merchant and they will all be mine!”

May the Lord draw so near to us and we so strive to draw near to him, that in these coming holy days that same thought and that same conviction and that love and that praise and that same admiration might well up in everyone of our hearts and, then, like a river of living water, flow from us to others.