“Pierced for our transgressions"
The Passion of the Christ in Isaiah 53
When we think about the cross, the passion, the death of Jesus Christ, it is always worth spending time thinking about this amazing passage in Isaiah 53. It’s a beautifully structured poem in the original, and consists of five stanzas or sections. And as is the case so often with Hebrew poetry, the first and last stanza have certain parallels, as do the 2nd and fourth.
It is neatly represented by a cross, with the top and bottom panels corresponding to each other and the left and right panels also having certain features in common. All of which draws our attention very firmly to the central verse, the central section of Isaiah’s prophecy, which is in the middle of the cross below.
See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him - his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness - so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
But I’ve not just put the text into a cross shape in order to highlight the distinctive structural features of ancient Hebrew poetry. Interesting though that is, the real reason I’ve done it this way is that this beautiful song by Isaiah is all about the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Many of the books and commentaries that have been written about this passage leave us to ponder the identity of the “Suffering Servant” until the end. But I want to say up front, right at the start, that Isaiah’s Suffering Servant is in fact Jesus Christ.
Why do I say that? Well, because Jesus himself said it. During his ministry on earth he quoted Isaiah 53 and said he was going to fulfil it (Luke 22:37). He also possibly alludes to it in several places (such as Mark 9:12, or Mark 10:45).
And it’s not only Jesus himself who thinks this. Philip, one of the early evangelists in the New Testament also said that this passage was all about Jesus. Acts tells us that he met an Ethiopian on the road out of Jerusalem one day, who was reading this part of Isaiah to himself. He was puzzled about who Isaiah was talking about, so he asked Philip. And Acts 8 tells us that Philip leapt on the opportunity, and starting from that very passage of Scripture he explained the gospel to him. Philip was in no doubt that the suffering servant was Jesus.
And he was not alone, because the Apostle Peter also thought this. In 1 Peter 2 for instance when he is talking about how to endure suffering in a godly way, he can’t help referring to Jesus’ good example. And the language he uses to describe Jesus’ behaviour on the way to his death on the cross is drawn straight from Isaiah 53. He says:
"He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." ... 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 like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Peter uses Isaiah 53 to describe the Lord Jesus.
And he’s not alone of course. The Apostle Paul does it (Romans 15:21). Matthew does it (Matthew 8:17). John does it (John 12:38). There was no doubt at all in the minds of the early Christians that Isaiah 53 was all about Jesus.
But what an astonishing claim to make! Because Isaiah wrote this song about 700 years before Jesus died on the cross. For seven centuries it lay there in Scripture as a witness to the work of the coming Messiah. For almost a millennium it was read and studied, until it was finally fulfilled in the most wonderful and astonishing way.
Let’s meditate on this prophetic passage in the light of its fulfilment in Christ. We’ll look at it a section at a time, and then why not pause to reflect, to think, and to pray. Meditation in the biblical sense is not to empty our minds. To meditate in the biblical sense means to fill our minds with the word of God, to chew on Scripture like a cow chews the cud, savouring it, pondering it, contemplating it from different angles, singing it, praying it.
So that’s what we’re going to do. And we start with the first stanza of Isaiah’s servant song, at the top of the cross.
See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him-- his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness-- so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Here we see, then, that the servant of the Lord will act wisely, and be successful. He will accomplish the task for which he has been sent by God. And what does that mean? It means, this first verse tells us, that we are talking about someone who will be risen, ascended, and highly exalted.
Is this not Jesus, who died on the cross for our sins but who was raised from the dead on the third day? And not only that: after he was raised he was also lifted up, he ascended into heaven, there to be exalted to the right hand of the Father.
So the song begins by telling us about this glorious, and triumphant figure. But, enigmatically, before his exaltation many were appalled at him. He was disfigured and marred. It’s a description of someone savagely beaten or with an ugly, debilitating disease like leprosy, which would make this servant unclean in the eyes of the people.
And yet his role was to sprinkle many nations. We might not pick up immediately on the imagery being used here. When the Old Testament talks about sprinkling, it is not talking about watering the garden or putting hundreds and thousands on the top of a cake! Sprinkling was done with blood. It was part of the sacrificial rituals performed by priests to make atonement and to bring about ritual cleansing.
So if someone had an infectious disease, for instance, they were considered unclean while it lasted. When they were no longer infectious, they would go through this cleansing ritual (it’s all in Leviticus 14 if you’re interested!) which involved being sprinkled with blood.
How ironic then, for Isaiah’s servant! He was considered unclean by many, Isaiah tells us, and yet he would be the one to sprinkle them with blood and bring cleansing. An astonishing turnaround. For one who was considered the friend of tax collectors and “sinners,” to shed his own blood to purify us from all unrighteousness.
This would certainly silence the wise and powerful, as their ideas of power and wisdom are overturned by this stunning reversal. Even kings would have nothing to say, forced to shut their mouths by the sheer wonder of the servant’s achievement. Ridiculed but then raised. Laughed at, and yet lifted up. Hated by men, but highly exalted by God.
Let’s spend a few minutes now, meditating on this first section, and praying for more understanding of what Jesus has done for us.
We move on now to look more closely at part two of Isaiah’s song about the suffering servant, the left-hand panel of the cross.
And rather than being a God’s-eye view of Jesus’ work on the cross and what it achieved, we now hear the report of those who have grasped the message of the cross. But they complain – “Who has believed our message?”
Who indeed? For it is not at first a very believable message, is it? A man who died on a cross 2000 years ago – how can he be God? How can it have anything to do with me today? How can this death be a demonstration of God’s power?
And yet it is. It is the power and wisdom of God, a revelation of the arm of the Lord, Isaiah calls it. Why his “arm?” Well, that’s where strength is often thought to be, in arm-wrestlers for instance, or weight-lifters. But here the picture is of God “rolling up his sleeves” as it were, baring his arm, to come down and help his people. And how does God roll up his sleeves and get involved? By taking frail flesh and being born as a man.
He grew up like a tender shoot. The start of his life looked promising – angels filling the sky, shepherds flocking to see him, the visit of the wise men from the East. But he was a tender shoot – attacked by King Herod at a tender age, as he sought to kill the newborn king.
But he was a root out of dry ground, a speck of goodness and hope from less than promising soil – “can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
This is not describing the Jesus we know from paintings and stained glass windows, or even films. He is not the Jesus with blue eyes and long flowing hair, the beautiful and majestic figure of icons and pictures. No, the picture of Jesus given to us in Scripture is very different. He was no Hollywood superstar.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. In fact, he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.
That is the true picture of Jesus. A man with no worldly attractiveness, no charismatic appeal. It was his words and his actions that drew people to him. That’s the true picture. Anything else is idolatry, and misleading, as our 2 dimensional and 3 dimensional images of him are bound to be. God has given us just one dimension – the text of Scripture, his very own word, to define and clarify and show what he is like. And that true picture is more powerful than any mute idol or painting.
A picture is worth a thousand words, it has been said. But here in the text of Isaiah’s description of the man of sorrows, we see more in a few words than any picture could ever hope to convey. We see Jesus, despised by the crowds that once shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” but now shout “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
We see Jesus, betrayed by Judas and rejected by the religious regime – “He is not our King! We have no king but Caesar!”
And we see Peter, who denied three times that he even knew his Lord. Luke’s Gospel tells us that when the cock crowed Jesus looked straight at Peter. He remembered the prediction, went outside and wept bitterly, hiding his face from the Lord he had disowned. “Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.”
We esteemed him not. Not just “them”, the crowds, the authorities, the world. But “us” – the very people he came to save. It was a bitter pill for him to swallow no doubt, but this suffering servant of God was well acquainted with grief and with suffering. As we heard back in Isaiah 50:6, he said, “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.”
Let’s spend a few moments now, looking back over this part of Isaiah’s description of Jesus’ life, and meditating on it, and pondering what it meant for Jesus to be a man of sorrows.
And now we come to the central stanza in Isaiah’s poem about Jesus. Everything leads us here – the structure makes us focus on the centre of the piece, just as our eyes are drawn to the centre of this cross. And the content above all draws us to this section too, because the big question here is “why?”
Why did the servant do it? Why did he endure such suffering? Why did God allow it? Why did this happen to someone who according to the very first verse of the whole piece, acted wisely? Unjust suffering doesn’t seem to be very wise does it? Rejection and betrayal and pain don’t sound like the rewards of a virtuous life. And yet…
The first part of this section takes up the last words of the previous bit. He was a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, we were told. But now we realize that he took up our sufferings, our infirmities, and our sorrows. He was doing something for us.
And yet we considered him to be stricken by God. That word stricken is the word used time after time in Leviticus to describe the person who has been afflicted with a skin disease, like leprosy. It describes someone who is unclean because they have been struck down with disease.
We thought the servant was like that. Stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. And indeed he was. Just look at all the words that Isaiah piles up to describe what was happening to Jesus on the cross. Stricken, smitten, afflicted, pierced, crushed, punished, wounded.
How dreadful it must have been! No wonder Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” As he hung there he was literally God-forsaken, abandoned and cut off.
But here we learn the answer to that question, “Why?” He was pierced, but for our transgressions. He was crushed, but for our iniquities. He was punished so that we could have peace with God, and by his wounds, we are healed.
Because the simple truth is, and we all know it to be true in our hearts, the simple truth is it should have been us. We are the ones who deserve to be stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. We are the ones who have turned away from the source of all light and life and love. We are the ones who, like sheep going astray, have turned to our own way, saying “no thanks” to God and his ways.
And we would like to be able to pay for our mistakes. We would like to make it up to God for our rebellion and rejection of him. Yet we could never do enough.
If I had to atone for all my iniquity, if the Lord laid it on my head and set me to work to make up for what I’ve thought and what I’ve said and what I’ve done – I would be working without respite for all eternity.
And we’ve seen this problem throughout Isaiah 40-53. In chapter 42 we heard how the people are blind, deaf, and dull to the things of God. And in chapter 48 they don’t listen to him, but are obstinate, stiff-necked people who deal treacherously and rebel.
Now, rebellion against God, even the smallest and seemingly most insignificant sin, renders me guilty of treason. Treason again Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Northern Ireland used to carry the death penalty. How much more though, do I deserve to die, having committed treason against the Sovereign Lord of the Whole Universe?
And yet….Isaiah’s words sound too good to be true… the Lord has laid on him, on the suffering servant, the iniquity of us all.
Let’s just take a few minutes now, then, to fill our minds with these staggering verses. Why not take these words and make them your own. Read them to yourself, “He was pierced for my transgressions. He was crushed for my iniquities.” Insert your own sins, “He was crushed because I… dot dot dot…” And when you’ve done that, and let it sink in how much Jesus has done for you, just say thank-you.
Now, having spoken in part two on that left-hand arm of the cross about the life of the servant, Isaiah now comes to narrate his death. His life was one of rejection and sorrow. He was despised and we esteemed him not. And yet his response to such treatment was exemplary.
He was oppressed and afflicted, the word implies some kind of injustice, or unfair treatment. And the trial of Jesus was indeed a mockery of the legal process. The Jewish courts met illegally at night to pass summary judgment upon their own Messiah. The Roman Governor Pilate pronounced his verdict of “innocent”, and yet he sent Jesus to be flogged and crucified anyway, on the whim of the crowds. He freed a murderer, and condemned the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace!
Yet Jesus did not open his mouth to complain. He did not resist. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel records the following incident as Jesus was being arrested. Matthew writes:
one of Jesus' companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. "Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?
Led like a lamb to the slaughter, like a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth, and nor did he call upon the Lord of Hosts to send his angelic legions. For this passage from Isaiah was in his mind. It must be fulfilled, as it was written.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked – the Hebrew here is plural, i.e. it means he died alongside wicked men, crucified between two thieves, numbered with the transgressors. But he was with the rich in his death – the Hebrew there is singular, i.e. it means he was with a rich man when he died.
Whether Isaiah understood what he was writing, I can’t say. How could this suffering servant be with the wicked and also with the rich when he died? We have seen how he was with wicked men, but how was he with a rich man too? Again, we read in Matthew how what was written was fulfilled:
As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.
Assigned a grave with two wicked men, he was actually buried by a rich man.
Let’s pause again to ponder the wonderful ways in which the Lord Jesus fulfilled all that was written about him in the Old Testament. And let’s ponder how we can emulate his patient endurance of suffering as seen in Isaiah 53.
Finally, we come to the last part of Isaiah’s picture of the suffering servant, at the bottom of the cross. Here we discover the ultimate reason behind his suffering. It was the will of the LORD to crush him. Literally it says, “the LORD delighted to crush him.” In Isaiah 42 God presented his servant to us as one with whom he was very pleased. But now he is delighted to crush him.
Not the delight of a sadistic monster who loves to see pain inflicted on others. No, God is no sadist. He was not pleased that this was necessary, or happy that his beloved Son should have to suffer. But he was delighted with the outcome.
Because the cross was not a tragic mistake or an unforeseen accident. It was the plan of God from all eternity to save us through his voluntary, sacrificial death.
He gave his life as a guilt offering, we are told. Back in the first part of this song, we heard how the servant would be like a priest, sprinkling many nations with blood to make them ritually clean. But here at the end we discover that he was not only priest but sacrifice too, giving his own blood, like the animals sacrificed in the Temple day by day. As John the Baptist said when he saw Jesus, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
He took upon himself all our sin, all our guilt, and dealt with its consequences as his life ebbed away. And yet, unlike the animal sacrifices which made atonement for sin in the Temple, Jesus would return to see the result of his work. “He will see his offspring,” Isaiah says, “and prolong his days.”
That can only mean that after death there would be resurrection. This man of sorrows has been rejected, stricken, smitten, crushed, pierced, and assigned a grave. Like the sheep given as a guilt offering on the altar, he has given up his life on the cross. There is no doubt at all, he is dead.
Yet after the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied! He will rise again, not avoiding death but by passing through it to the other side.
He will see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, and look back with satisfaction at what he has achieved.
What has he achieved? Here, God gives us his assessment. Just as we started this poem with a God’s eye view, so it ends from that perspective too. “My righteous servant,” God says, “will justify many.”
In other words, he will bring righteousness to many, he will bring acquittal from all charges and a new standing with God. Whereas once we were accounted guilty in God’s sight because of all that we have done, now because of the servant, we will be reckoned innocent. In a great exchange, an amazing swap, he the perfect, spotless lamb of God is reckoned as guilty, “numbered with the transgressors” --- and we sinners, straying sheep, are reckoned righteous, right with God.
The servant has borne our iniquities; he has been punished for all our rebellion. And God will not punish sins twice. Because he took my place, I need not fear judgment day any more if I am “in Christ.” So,
Jesus’ death means I am free,
‘cause Jesus died instead of me.
And the servant will be rewarded too, verse 12. Because he was obedient unto death, even death on a cross, God gives him a great reward, the spoils of a victorious war against sin and death and hell. And if we are Christ’s, we share in that victory.
So for one last time, let’s sit in quiet for a few moments and ponder this last section of Isaiah 53. Let’s praise God for his eternal plan to send Jesus to save us. Let’s praise him for the resurrection, and thank Jesus for bearing our sin. Let’s read this passage through with gratitude and wonder. And let’s pray…
Merciful God, you have made all people and hate nothing that you have made, nor do you desire the death of sinners but rather that they should be converted and live: have mercy on all those who do not know you, or who deny the faith of Christ crucified.
Take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt for your word, and bring them home to your fold, blessed Lord, so that we may all become one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever… Amen.