Isaiah 53 is arguably the greatest chapter in the Bible. Charles Spurgeon called it “the Bible in miniature, the Gospel at its essence”. It is the leading messianic text of the Old Testament and is referred to by the early church more than any other passage. It points to the person and mission of Jesus- his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession - more than any other Old Testament passage.
It also lays the theological foundation for the Gospel like no other. It points both to the crucifixion and the atonement of Christ in a manner that sounds as though Isaiah 53 were written as history rather than prophecy. Indeed, it is as if Isaiah was an eye witness to what was going on between Good Friday and Easter - and even to Christ’s intercession!
And yet Isaiah 53 is prophecy - proclaiming with infallible accuracy seven hundred years in advance what Jesus would be like and what he would do.
In Acts 8:26 an angel of the Lord told Philip to go to a certain desert road. Philip had no idea why he would be given directions like that, but he went. He came to a chariot where a man happened to be reading from Isaiah 53. The Holy Spirit told Philip to go to the chariot, and Philip asked the man in the chariot (an Ethiopian eunuch) if he understood what he was reading.
The man replied: “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” Philip accepted an invitation to sit in the chariot to explain these words, “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” (Acts 8:31-33) Then Philip, beginning with that very passage of Scripture, told the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus. That verse represents the tip of the iceberg of how the early church felt about Isaiah 53. It was all about Jesus.
The name ‘Jesus’ does not appear in Isaiah 53, but its recurring themes - vicarious suffering, total obedience, utter willingness to suffer, the guilt of the people of God, the Lord laying on him our iniquity, being cut off from the land of the living, being numbered with the transgressors, the divine approval - all point to Jesus of Nazareth and what he did by dying on the cross. Prophecy rarely refers to a person’s actual name in advance but normally portrays the person or situation in a way that, once they have come to pass, leaves no doubt to the believer. This is a key: it is for the believer. Faith is a prerequisite in grasping prophecy in advance as well as seeing it clearly in its fulfilment. God never instructs his prophets to forecast the future in a way that removes the need for faith. Neither is the fulfilment of prophecy so definite that faith is no longer required. The exception to the latter would be the Second Coming of Jesus (Revelation1:7). There will be no doubting then! But all fulfilled prophecies in advance of the Last Day will require faith - which is partly why the Jews missed their Messiah. They needed a “sign” and no sign was given; only the prophet’s word (Matthew 12:39).
Isaiah’s opening word in this chapter raises the question: why believe in Jesus? “Who has believed our message?” Indeed, why should they?
There are actually two questions that open Isaiah 53: “Who has believed our message?” and “To whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” That latter question implies that one needs a revelation in order for a person to believe the message.
A frequent question people often ask after their conversion is: “Why did I not see this before?” But the faith that saves is a gift of God. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). One can believe only by the enabling and sovereign grace of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit gives life” (John 6:63). God said to Moses: ‘”I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Exodus 33:19). When a person believes, it is not a person “working up faith”, because of the sheer mercy and compassion of God.
There is nothing sufficiently good in any of us that would force God to show his mercy. But if he is pleased to show it, we can only thank him. We will never be able to thank him enough.
Why then does anybody believe? Answer: it is owing to the mercy of God. Not only that; when a person is given faith they are immediately ready to obey - and ask: “What next?” The Ethiopian eunuch believed and even asked to be baptized (Acts 8:36).
Taken from Why Jesus Died: A meditation on Isaiah 53 by Dr RT Kendall. Available from the KT Bookshop price £7.99