Scripture: Isa 53; Luke 22:36-37; Acts 8:32-33; 1 Pet 2:21-25
Leading Question: Before his death on the cross, neither the disciples nor the people in general accepted Jesus’ teaching that he must suffer and die. How did the resurrection turn that all around?
Christians are so accustomed to thinking of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, that it is easy to overlook the ambiguity of the Old Testament evidence. The Jews wanted a conquering king, not a suffering servant, and one can indeed construct such a picture of the Messiah from Old Testament passages. In time, Isaiah 53, the song of the suffering servant, would be applied with enthusiasm to Jesus. But there is no evidence that anyone other than Jesus was willing to accept that application before the crucifixion and the resurrection. Here we will explore the topic under three headings:
1. Suffering Servant. Even from the lips of Jesus, the Gospels rarely apply Isaiah 53, the suffering servant song, to Jesus. In the New Testament, these three passages are the best candidates for application to Jesus:
A. Luke 22:36-37. After Peter exclaimed that he would be willing to go to prison and die for Jesus’ sake, Jesus responded that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed. Then Luke gives a quote from Jesus that includes a phrase from Isaiah 53: “He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: “And he was numbered with the transgressors”; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.’”
Note that Jesus’ usage of Isaiah 53 here is in the context of buying a sword. Yes, he would be numbered among the transgressors. But the portion Jesus quotes does not suggest a suffering servant at all.
B. Acts 8:32-33. Several decades after the resurrection, Luke tells the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who meets Philip on the road to Gaza. The eunuch is reading Isaiah 53 and quotes these lines: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” (NIV)
Here the suffering servant language is clearly applied to Jesus, an application that is quite missing from the Gospels.
C. 1 Peter 2:21-25. Peter’s reference to the suffering servant aspects of Isaiah 53 is unmistakable. But here, too, the quotation comes decades after the resurrection: 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Question: What possible explanations can we offer for the two-fold mystery: A) That Jesus himself somehow discovered the suffering servant in his Bible, but B) That the people did not see it, and, in fact, refused to accept the message when Jesus tried to convince them?
2. The Passover Lamb. Jesus is referred to as the Passover lamb in only one New Testament passage, 1 Cor. 5:7-8: “Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Here Paul is not discussing the Passover interpretation, but simply assuming such an application with reference to a very difficult situation in Corinth.
One other “lamb” passage comes to mind, the story in John’s Gospel where John the Baptist exclaims as Jesus approached him: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 2:29, NIV). Writing near the end of the first century, the lamb imagery comes naturally to John, even though the word “passover” is not included.
3. The Cleansing Blood. The official study guide for this quarter, quotes a host of passages that refer to the blood of Christ. Interestingly enough, they are all from the book of Hebrews. And we need to remember that the book of Hebrews is in the New Testament, not the Old. There is no clear evidence in the Old Testament that the people saw the sacrificial lamb as referring to a coming deliverer. Only after the resurrection did the combination of Isaiah 53 and the Passover imagery come together to portray Jesus as the suffering one who died for our sins. The effective blood of Jesus is a clear New Testament teaching. But it comes only after the story of Jesus has become rooted in the lives of the believers. To this day, Jewish readers do not see a suffering messiah in the Old Testament and they would not make the application to Jesus. It is a precious Christian teaching and we need to preserve it, even celebrate it. But it is not everywhere present in Scripture.