The fifty-third chapter of Isaiah is one of the great chapters of the Old Testament. It was written more than 700 years before Jesus came, and yet it describes perfectly His life, death, and resurrection. We have in this chapter, the Gospel, the Good News of the coming of Jesus Christ.
Some Bible teachers say that Isaiah 53 does not refer to Jesus, but that it is merely a picture of the suffering and hardship of the nation Israel. But the New Testament expressly declares that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy about Jesus Christ. In Acts 8, when Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch along the desert road, he found the man from Ethiopia reading Isaiah 53:7, where it says, “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “Of whom speaketh the prophet this; of himself, or of some other man?” And the Bible says that Philip began at the same Scripture (that is, at Isaiah 53:7), and preached unto him Jesus! See Acts 8:35. Isaiah 53 is an Old Testament chapter that tells about Jesus.
The fact that Isaiah wrote this vivid detail about Jesus more than seven centuries before He was born, is one of the convincing proofs of the divine inspiration of the Old Testament prophecies. No man in his own wisdom could ever have written such a clear and full account of the sufferings of Christ, seven centuries before it all happened. Isaiah 53 tells about Jesus. The first two verses tell about His virgin birth; the next two verses tell about His earthly life; the next six verses tell about His substitutionary death; the last two verses tell about His glorious resurrection.
We have in Isaiah 53 a complete picture of the life of Jesus, but as verse 1 says, multitudes fail to accept Him: “Who hath believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” We read in John 12:37, “But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him; that the saying of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled (when he said), Lord, who hath believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The nation Israel largely rejected Christ. The New Testament says, “He came unto his own and his own received him not.” Even His own brothers did not believe on Him. And just so today, multitudes fail to see that Jesus is the answer to the deepest needs of the human heart, and that Jesus is “the outstretched arm of God” seeking to save us, to pardon our transgressions, and to give us a new joy in life. But Jesus makes demands on our lives, and thus He is often rejected.
1. His Virgin Birth
The beginning of verse 2 (in Isaiah 53) is a statement about Christ’s humanity. “For he shall grow up before him like a tender plant, and like a root out of a dry ground” (Isaiah 53:2a). Isaiah is speaking of Jesus, the Son of God, the Creator of the universe—the One who is without beginning of days or end of years—and yet concerning Him, Isaiah says, “He shall grow up.” This is a clear reference to the humanity of Jesus.
We cannot understand how God the Son could become a little child, and learn to walk and develop as other human beings do, but we can believe it by faith. Jesus became a man. He took upon himself a human body, so that He could die for men’s sins. This is the meaning, we believe, of the words of Isaiah, when he said, “He shall grow up before him as a tender plant.”
Then Isaiah goes on to give a picture of our Lord’s virgin birth. Jesus was a child like other children (except without sin), but He was not conceived like other children. He was born without a human father, conceived of the Holy Ghost, and born of the Virgin Mary. Isaiah says, “He shall grow up before him like a tender plant, and like a root out of a dry ground” (verse 2). We know that without moisture, nothing can grow. Even on the desert, the cactus-like plants that grow there, must have at least some moisture. For a root to grow up out of dry ground, would require a special miracle—and so it was with the conception and birth of Jesus. I was a special miracle. Just as it is impossible for a root to grow in ground without any moisture, so, from a natural viewpoint, it was impossible for our Lord to be born without a human father.
2. His Earthly Life
Jesus might well have been called a “Man of holiness” because He was without sin. We could have called Him a “Man of eloquence” because “never man spake like this man” (John 7:46). He could be designated a “Man of love” because love and compassion were mainstays of His character. But as Isaiah looked down through the centuries, the Holy Spirit revealed Jesus as a “Man of Sorrows.” Beginning at the center of verse 2, Isaiah 53 says, “He hath no form nor comeliness, and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . . (and) we did esteem him stricken and smitten of God.” This is the Holy Spirit’s own description of the physical appearance and the earthly ministry of the Servant of Jehovah, our Lord Jesus Christ.
We know very little about the actual physical appearance of Jesus. The Bible does not tell whether He was tall or short, whether His hair was light or dark, or whether His eyes were brown or blue. However, we do know that He had “no form or comeliness,” and that “there is no beauty that we should desire him.” The Lord Jesus did not appear in such a way as to attract the natural man. There was no majestic kingliness about Him. He was simply an unglamorous Nazarene. It is best not to interpret the latter part of verse 2 to mean that His face was ugly, but the language is such that we have no reason to think that He was handsome. The passage is simply saying that Jesus was ordinary looking.
When people looked on Jesus, they recognized the absence of physical beauty, and the latter part of verse 4 says they esteemed him “stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” They said, “Surely this man must be under the special judgment of God; he must be under a curse.” And in a sense they were right. Jesus was afflicted because of sin. He was under a curse. But the Pharisees, in their blindness, looked upon His marred appearance as the punishment for His own sins, whereas the Bible says He was a Man of Sorrows because of our sins. Jesus was born to die on the Cross, and the weight of this task pressed upon His mind in such a way that He had a sorrowful appearance. He was acquainted with grief, and His appearance was so marred that we are distinctly told that “they hid as it were their faces from him.”
There were a few disciples that followed Jesus. There were some godly women who ministered to His needs. And then there was the Roman centurion, and the Syro-Phoenician woman—but the great masses were ready to cry out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Many who followed Him and thronged around Him during His ministry, were only anxious to see some exciting miracle, or to eat the loaves that had been miraculously provided (John 6:26). And just so today, many look at Jesus as a great teacher and think of Him as a good man. They make a big ado about Christmas and wear new clothes on Easter Sunday, but when the truths of the Gospel are seriously considered, and the demands which He makes on the life of the Christian—are pointed out—the cost is too great, and the vast majority of people in the world despise Him and reject Him. There is an important lesson in all this for every Christian: Why should we be prone to accept the approval of the world—the world which despises our Lord? Why should worldliness be an ongoing problem for the church? Surely we do not want to imitate those who despise our Saviour.
The beginning of verse 4 (in Isaiah 53) can be translated to read, “Surely he has borne our sicknesses and carried our diseases.” Some divine healers say that when Jesus died on the Cross, He died for our diseases as well as for our sins—and thus they say it is God’s will that all persons should be healed, just as it is God’s will that all persons should be saved. They go to Isaiah 53 to make a case for universal healing.
And of course God is able to heal our bodies, but this passage does not teach that Jesus bore our sicknesses when He died on the Cross. Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4 (recorded in Matthew 8:16-17) when he describes a day in the ministry of Jesus before He went to the Cross. Matthew says, “When the evening was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils; and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, He himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses.”
Matthew says that the statement in Isaiah 53 (about Jesus bearing our sicknesses) is true. It was fulfilled. However, it was fulfilled, not when Jesus hung on the Cross, but when He went about during His earthly ministry, healing multitudes who were sick. Jesus healed “every manner of sickness and disease” among the people during His earthly ministry—but on the Cross, He died for our sins, not for our illnesses. In other words, Isaiah 53:2b-4 describes in part our Lord’s earthly ministry.
3. His Substitutionary Death
Isaiah 53:5-10 describes the sinless Son of God as He died on the Cross for sinful human beings. Verse 5 says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement (for) our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.” These words speak of substitution. Jesus died for us. Jesus stood where we should have stood. The punishment that was heaped upon Him, should have been heaped upon us. He took our place on the Cross. The whole thing is summarized in the words of the Apostle Peter, when he said, “He bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).
The word “transgressions” (verse 5) speaks of our own disobedience and rebellion. The word “iniquities” speaks of inborn crookedness—the downward drag of our human nature. The “chastisement for our peace” means that Jesus bore the punishment which procured our peace. The words “wounded” and “bruised” speak of the nails which tore His body and of the spear which pierced His side.
The final phrase of verse 5 (“and with his stripes we are healed”) is a graphic picture of the marks and blows that were inflicted upon Jesus during the beating and scourging described in Matthew 27:26. The “scourge” was made of the hide of an ox, twisted into knots, into which were inserted sharp pieces of animal bone. After the whipping, they kicked Him and threw Him on the ground. They nailed Him to a cross of wood and then stood it upright and dropped it into the hole with a thud. His body hung on the Cross until it is said of Him: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth; thou has brought me into the dust of death” (Psalms 22:14-15). Jesus bore the stripes for us. The remedy for our disease of sin is found in the wounds of Jesus—and in those wounds alone.
Verse 6 (of Isaiah 53) continues: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The verse begins with the word “all” and it ends with the word “all.” Between the two alls stands the Cross of Calvary. We see in the first “all”—the human family’s complete ruin in sin, and in the second “all” we see God’s perfect remedy in Christ. His death is sufficient for “all”—the Lord hath laid upon Him the iniquity of us all. I can understand that even if Jesus bore nothing but my sins, it would have been enough to crush Him; but when I think of my sins multiplied by the sin of the whole world—I’m at a loss for words!
In verse 7, Isaiah describes the main events of the day of the crucifixion. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” Jesus was the subject of cruel and unjust ridicule, but He silently took it all. When we suffer injustice, we find it hard to be still. The flames of resentment leap up in our bosoms and with impatience we begin to murmur—but not so with Jesus. Pilate marveled greatly at His silence. They later stripped Him and crowned Him with thorns and blindfolded Him and spit on Him and smote Him with a reed and struck Him in the face—yet not a single word crossed His lips!! We have here a tremendous example of how we should act when we are faced with scorn and ridicule.
In verse 8, Isaiah foretells the fact that the Messiah would not have a fair trial. “He was taken from prison and from judgment; and who shall declare his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of my people was he stricken” (verse 8). Without a fair trial, He was led away to His death. Jesus had no physical offspring to perpetuate His name, and thus the Jewish leaders thought a curse from God rested upon Him. In Israel it was considered a sure sign of God’s displeasure if a man died without leaving any children, for that meant that his name was dying out, and this was understood as a sign of God’s disfavor.
Children were considered a blessing from heaven, and the more the children, the greater the blessing. It is all much different in many societies in our day. Many people would rather have a pet dog, or a canary, or some other little critter running around the house—than to have a family of children. Anyhow, when Jesus died without leaving any offspring, they said, “Now we know God’s curse is upon him.” Who shall declare his generation? There is no one to perpetuate his name. He was cut off out of the land of the living.
But the accusers overlooked one thing. The “generation” of Jesus Christ was a spiritual offspring and His seed was a spiritual seed. In Isaiah 53:10, we read that “he shall see his seed.” David (in the 22nd Psalm) describes the sufferings of Jesus and then says in verse 30: “A seed shall serve him, and it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.” (Who shall declare his generation? David says that a seed shall serve Him. A multitude of the Redeemed from all nations will look back to Jesus as the source of life and the origin of their spiritual being).
In Isaiah 53:9 we are given a picture of our Lord’s burial. “And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.” The first part of the verse literally says (in the Hebrew), “They appointed his grave with the wicked, but with a rich man he was in his death.” Jesus was crucified between two murderous thieves, and thus they appointed His burial with ungodly guilty men—but He was never actually entombed in the place appointed for Him—because the Roman authorities handed over His body to a rich man (Joseph of Arimathea).
Verse 10 says that “it pleased the Lord to bruise him.” This is one of the mysteries of the eternal counsels of God. Jesus never did a wicked thing, yet it pleased the Lord to let Him die at the hands of wicked sinners. “Oh the love that drew salvation’s plan; oh the grace that brought it down to man; oh the mighty gulf that God did span—at Calvary.”
4. His Glorious Resurrection
The 53rd chapter of Isaiah does not end with Jesus Christ in the grave. It ends rather with a picture of His glorious resurrection and exaltation. Verse 11 says that He shall see the travail of his soul, and verse 12 says that God will give Him a portion among the great. Jesus poured out His soul unto death; He was “cut off” out of the land of the living; He was appointed “a grave with the wicked”—and yet verse 10 says that “he shall prolong his days.”
How is it possible for Jesus “to prolong his days”? The answer is that the Messiah was not only to die for our sins, but He was raised again for our justification—and now He sits at the right hand of the Father to make “intercession for the transgressors” (verse 12). The tense of the word “made” indicates an action that started in the past and continues on into the future. Our Lord’s work of intercession started at the Cross (when He prayed, “Father, forgive them”), and even now He continues on at the right hand of God to make intercession for those who transgress.
The first part of verse 11 states that the life and death of Jesus was not experienced in vain. Jesus will find satisfaction in the fact that His death is effective for the salvation of many souls. Surely we should love Him supremely because He did indeed first love us.
To those who have never accepted Christ as personal Saviour: Can you imagine the kind of pain that God will inflict one day upon those who reject Him? Can you picture how grieved God must be—when He offers pardon and people turn it down?
To those who have received Christ as Saviour: Let us examine the genuineness of our devotion to God. What if repentance in your life has not been real? What if forsaking sin has not been genuine on your part? What if your turning to God has only been a mere outward profession? As we think seriously about all this—let us fly to the wounded side of our Saviour and plead His mercy—and purpose in our hearts to serve Him with increasing dedication.