Isaiah 53: Suffering Servant

Missionary apologist Walter Riggans recognized this problem when he admitted, "Let me repeat this point: there is no self-evident blueprint in the Hebrew Bible which can be said to unambiguously point to Jesus. Only after one has come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and more specifically the kind of Messiah that he is, does it all begin to make sense and hang together." (Yehoshua Ben David, Olive Press 1995, p.155).

Isaiah tells us that the Servant will be universally despised and rejected (53:3). While this has certainly been true for the Jewish people, the Christian Bible describes Jesus as immensely popular (Luke 2:52, 4:14-15, Mark 3:8-9, etc.).

The future course of history only saw a rise in Jesus’ stock. Isaiah’s Servant is to be rewarded with long life and many children (53:10). This was certainly not the fate of Jesus who died young and childless.

The missionary’s greatest difficulty is posed by Isaiah’s declaration that the suffering Servant is actually a group of people, and not an individual ("…as a result of the transgression of my people, they were afflicted." 53:8). We must understand that missionaries employ Isaiah 53 not only to validate their claim that Jesus is the Messiah. They rely on this passage to delineate the essential mission of the Messiah: to die as a vicarious sacrifice in order to atone for the sins of the world. This idea has three critical flaws.

  1. The traditional Jewish concept of the Messiah as the Davidic king who will reign over a redeemed world of universal peace and universal knowledge of G-d is substantiated by dozens of passages throughout the Bible. The Christian messianic concept hangs entirely upon our controversial passage in Isaiah, and has no external corroboration.
  2. The Christian messianic notion is based upon a subtle mistranslation. Isaiah 53:5 does not say, "He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities", which could convey a vicarious suffering. Rather, the text properly translated reads, "He was wounded from our transgressions, crushed from our iniquities." This certainly does not convey that the Servant suffered to atone for the sins of others, but rather that the Servant suffered as a result of the sinfulness of others. This distinction is crucial!
  3. Christian belief maintains that not only does the Messiah come to atone for sin, but also, the only way for humans to atone for sin is through belief in the Messiah’s vicarious sacrifice on their behalf. This idea directly contradicts Biblical teaching on many fronts. Here are just some of them:
    • The Bible rejects the concept of an innocent person dying in place of a guilty one (Exodus 32:32-33, Deuteronomy 24:16, Ezekiel 18:1-4).
    • Biblical sacrifices, in and of themselves, are never sufficient to atone for our sins (Proverbs 15:8, Isaiah 1:11-16, Amos 5:22-24, Micah 6:6-8).
    • The Bible strongly prohibits human sacrifice (Genesis 22:10-13, Leviticus 18:21, Deuteronomy 18:10).

Since G-d promises forgiveness to all who sincerely repent of their sins and return to Him, there is no need for the Messiah to atone for us (II Chronicles 7:14, Ezekiel chapters 18 and 33, Jeremiah 36:3, Isaiah 55:6-7, Jonah 3:6-10, Daniel 4:27, Hoseah 14:1-3, Proverbs 16:6).

Not only does Isaiah 53 never mention the need to believe in the suffering of G-d’s Servant, but there isn’t even one reference in the entire Bible to believing in the Messiah as one’s personal saviour from sin.

What Paul Thought About Jesus

The Apostle Paul is forced to concede that a crucified Messiah who doesn’t reign over a redeemed utopian world is totally out of sync with what Jewish readers of the Bible had always understood (I Corinthians 1:23). New server