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The Suffering Servant and Isaiah 53: A Conversation with Darrell Bock

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Isaiah 53 is a towering presence in the landscape of Old Testament messianic expectation. The substantial new book The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology (Kregel, 2012) [Table of Contents] explores the biblical, theological, and evangelistic significance of this well-known chapter.

Co-edited by Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, and Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries, this volume “presents the redemptive work of the Messiah to the Jewish community, exploring issues of atonement and redemption” in light of Isaiah 53. And in addition to providing “unparalleled help in preparing Bible studies and sermons,” the book is bound to prove useful as “supplemental reading for classes on Isaiah, the Prophets, and Jewish evangelism.”

I corresponded with Bock about the significance of the passage on which his new volume is based.

What biblical passages and traditions is Isaiah 53 drawing on? How does it connect to the rest of the Old Testament?

Isaiah 53 is unique in the Old Testament in portraying an individual who suffers for sin by making reference to a guilt offering (Isa. 53:10; see Lev. 5:14-6:7 [=5:14-26]) and who does so after being rejected by his own people (“esteemed him stricken” [Isa. 53:3-4]), much like a leper was to be separated from his people (see the reference to the deformity he was perceived to have; cf. Isa. 52:14, 53:2). Isaiah 53 draws on texts that picture sacrifice for sin, the move to ritual purity, and the image of a leper rejected. The passage also, along with Psalm 118:26, pictures a move from rejection to exaltation that the New Testament uses to describe how Jesus fulfilled God’s plan. Most people know about Isaiah 53, but I think Psalm 118 in this role is not as appreciated.

Did Isaiah consciously anticipate the Messiah?

His text anticipates a decisive delivering figure of the end who suffers and then is exalted. We call such a figure messianic, even though Isaiah does not use that specific term, because the role and timing now fits. In context, Isaiah’s remarks look ultimately to the decisive deliverance of God’s salvation of his people, even though there are elements of his picture of the Servant in other texts (Isaiah 42:1-4; 19:1-6; 50:4-9; 61:1-3) that portray a prophetic figure (Isa. 61) or that point to the role of Israel as the Servant (Isa. 49).

At the end of Isaiah, the individual servant takes on the role that Israel as a nation failed to achieve. Nonetheless, the Servant in Isaiah 53 cannot be the people or the remnant, because he is said to be cut off from the people (Isa 53:8) and is said to die for our sins and iniquities (Isa 53:5, 11). This cannot be the nation, because how can the Servant be cut off from himself? In addition, he is a righteous sufferer. That cannot be the nation, as Isaiah has portrayed the nation as being in sin (just look at Isaiah 58).

Christian readers today directly link the servant to Jesus on the cross. Who did Isaiah and his first readers have in mind?

Isaiah describes a suffering figure who dies for the sins of those who reject him and then is exalted by God. No specific name for this person is given other than to call him the Servant of God. His role is simply described. Jesus fits the portrait. Outside of Jesus himself, the New Testament says this in several texts (Rom. 15:21; 1 Pet. 2:21-25; Matt. 8:17; Acts 8:32-33). There are even more allusions to the passage. In Paul alone, one can mention allusions in Romans 15:21; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Romans 10:16; Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 15:3; and Romans 5:19.

Did Jesus understand himself to be fulfilling Isaiah 53? If so, what’s the biblical evidence?

Yes, Jesus described his mission as involving his being a ransom for many in Mark 10:45. At the Last Supper, Jesus mentions dying for many, using the language of this text. He also speaks of being reckoned with criminals as the Isaiah text describes (Isaiah 53:11-12; Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:37). So the idea of being the Servant comes from him. Jesus also cited Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:18-19, which is a text most tie to Isaiah’s servant imagery. Jesus declared that he fulfilled the mission of this text of bringing the gospel to those in need of it.

You contribute a chapter on “Isaiah 53 in the Book of Acts.” What is the function of Isaiah 53 in Acts?

It shows Jesus died an unjust death as Isaiah predicted. He also died without fighting the charges. This actually fits how Luke 23 and the Passion narrative portrays Jesus’ death. Six times in Luke 23 Jesus is said to be innocent of any crime worthy of death. Yet the injustice is that despite Pilate’s recognition of this, Jesus is put to death. I think this dimension of the use of Isaiah 53 often goes unnoticed and is underappreciated. The injustice of Jesus’ death is prevalent also in the preaching of Acts, as Jesus was put to death although God had attested to his position (Acts 2:24-26; 10: 38, 40-42).

What are some common evangelical misunderstandings about Isaiah 53?

We do not appreciate how much of this chapter Jesus fulfills. We might see a verse or two, but the entire passage summarizes Jesus’ death and the reaction that produced it. All this comes some 700 years before Jesus was born! That makes Isaiah 53 quite an unusual text. That is why we wrote about it.

Evangelicals are also slow to see how the Servant moves from a picture of Israel to the picture of an individual as one moves through the various Servant passages. That movement is important to understand in light of Jewish claims that the text is about the nation, citing Isaiah 49:3. Failure to see this movement from nation to individual blocks a good conversation about who the servant is as we move through these texts and the picture narrows to an individual who is said to restore Israel. This is a reason several chapters in the book discuss Jewish views of this text, revealing how Judaism sees this text and how to address the interpretive issues Jewish people who know Isaiah often raise.

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