The Suffering Servant in the New Testament
In its description of Jesus, 1 Peter 2:22-25 draws extensively from the image of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13–53:12.
He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
1 Peter 2:22–25
Peter is not alone in is appraisal of Jesus.
The four evangelists also see Jesus as the fulfillment of the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah. Matthew makes this explicit in his understanding of Jesus’ acts of healing.
That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”
As does the author of Luke-Acts in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch:
So Philip ran up to [the chariot] and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
The four evangelists make numerous allusions to the Song of the Suffering Servant in their descriptions of Jesus’ life and death: the comparison of Jesus to a lamb, his being rejected by the leaders and the people, his silence before his accusers, the injustice of his trial, his being abandoned by his disciples, his being struck by his captors, his suffering at the hands of his torturers, the disfiguring mistreatment inflicted upon him, the piercing of his side, his crucifixion with criminals and his burial in a rich man’s grave. Some allusions are are oblique and fuzzy while others are direct and unmistakable
The Servant’s life, Isaiah says, was an “offering for sin,” but the category of “sacrifice” is not sufficient to capture Isaiah’s vision or Jesus’ fulfillment of it.
Most obviously, temple sacrifices were not human. They were animals and produce from the field, a portion of the food supply offered to God instead of to our one’s own belly. Today, we slaughter millions of animals for no better reason than we want a bacon cheeseburger for dinner or a chicken sandwich for lunch.
Sacrificial animals were required to be physically perfect, while the Isaiah’s Suffering Servant was marred, wounded and repulsive, hardly a good candidate for any kind of ritual sacrifice.
As part of the sacrificial ritual, worshipers placed their hands on the victim’s head in order to identify with their gift. Through this act of identification, the sacrifice came to represent the one who gave it. No one, however, identified with the Suffering Servant. Likewise, no one saw Jesus as their representative while he hung on the cross and breathed his last (although those who believe do now). They ran from him. He died for those who rejected and abused him.
Animals raised to be food for humans die. They have have no choice in the matter, while we humans do. We plead and protest when our lives are in danger. We resist and struggle to survive. The instinct for self-preservation is hard-wired into every human being’s brain stem. Where societies have practiced human sacrifice, people have been treated like cattle. Like Isaac on Mount Moriah, human beings must ordinarily be bound hand and foot before they can be offered on the altar.
The Suffering Servant, however, laid down his life for the sake of others. It wasn’t nails that kept Jesus affixed to the cross or rope that kept him from escaping. In suffering and silence, he delivered not only himself but those whose sins caused his pain.
Isaiah describes the effect of the Servant’s suffering and death with different words than are normally used in reference to sacrifice. Instead speaking of of guilt, purification, atonement and forgiveness, Isaiah speaks of healing and being made whole. He bore our diseases, Isaiah says, and carried our pain.
In sacrifice, the suffering of the victim plays no role at all. In fact, ritual slaughter seeks to minimize suffering. It is the offering of the animal’s life, not its suffering, that matters. The New Testament, however, constantly emphasizes that Jesus both suffered and died. Every such instance is implicitly an allusion to Isaiah 53.
The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13–53:12, then, provides one of the lenses through which the apostolic generation viewed Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
And yes, the Servant’s vindication beyond death is as essential to Isaiah’s vision as his suffering. Isaiah begins the passage by saying the Servant will be high and lifted up (the same language as he applies to the Lord in Isaiah 6). He concludes the passage with an affirmation that the Servant will he will “see the light of life and be satisfied.” The Servant will receive the reward of a victorious soldier in battle. Suffering and death are not the end of the story.
Unlike the offices of prophet, priest and king, there is no clearly identifiable human embodiment of the Suffering Servant in the Old Testament. There is no David or Jeremiah or Aaron who typified the office. Only in retrospect can we see hints of the suffering servant in the life of Israel. Jesus alone embodies the saving office of the Suffering Servant.
Nothing in this passage makes sense if it is only a human drama. How can the suffering of someone I’ve never met face-to-face heal me of my brokenness and sin? How can it make the world whole? How can it make things right? Only in God can Isaiah’s vision come to fruition. In Jesus, we see that it has.