Tuesday, February 11, 2014

An Old Paper of Mine

An unedited paper I wrote for a theology class about 8 years ago with a few edited out names. I had issues with the formatting so it isn't the original.

Danny Dowell Biblical Theology

Isaiah 53 in Historical and N.T. Context

Isaiah 53 is a text that the Church has long understood to be prophecy which foretold the life and substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. This paper will look at Isaiah 53 in its historical and N.T. context to try to dig deeper into the text. Along the way various scholarly viewpoints will be discussed. For example, I will look into the question of if Isaiah’s servant is in fact Jesus if prophecy is in fact possible at all. Finally, I will conclude by applying my research to my life. The first question we must raise is what the text of Isaiah 53 refers. The N.T. clearly sees Isaiah 53 as prophetic teaching that foreshadows Jesus’ life and sacrificial atonement. Many scholars, however, suggest that Isaiah 53 in its historical context refers to the whole nation of Israel or to a specific person or persons in Israel’s past. It is, thus, important to establish what the author of Isaiah intended to represent. The main interpretations of what Isaiah is representing are: a future person (ex. Christ), a past person (ex. Abraham), or all of Israel. Only when we determine to what the text refers can we understand its meaning within its historical context.

One argument scholars make for Isaiah depicting the historical Israel or a contemporary figure or a historical figure from Israel’s past is that the text clearly remains in the present, and not future tense, throughout. However, this evidence is not very strong because Israelite prophecy was frequently written in the “prophetic perfect” which uses the present tense to speak of future events. The point of the “prophetic perfect” tense is that the prophecy is so sure to be fulfilled that it just as certain to happen as if it had already taken place.1 E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah pg 341

The strongest evidence for Isaiah pointing toward a future figure is that the servant is said to suffer for others guilt. The servant “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” and was “was wounded for our transgressions” (vs. 4 and 5). It is quite contrary to biblical history, until Jesus of Nazareth, to view any person as being capable of bearing the guilt of others. It is in fact impossible as the O.T. clearly depicts all men as sinners who are themselves in need of forgiveness. The sacrificial system required a “perfect sacrifice” which was “without spot or blemish” (see Leviticus 22:18-23). Thus, as sinners, all individual men up to that point are disqualified from bearing the transgressions of Israel.2 respect as Israel was frequently apostate. Israel often suffered for transgressions, however, the transgressions that they suffered for were judgments brought upon themselves for disobedience and therefore even less qualified to bear the guilt of others. Thus, Isaiah can only be pointing forward to a future figure who the N.T. identifies as Jesus Christ.

Alfred and John Martin note that Israel is found in the text of Isaiah 53, but in a different role then the role of the servant. The role of Israel in the text is that of the hearers who do not understand the servant and are astonished and cannot comprehend his significance.3 bore our griefs and iniquities, “yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (vs. 4). Thus, the servant’s role was not understood by the witnesses, namely those in Israel who saw the servant’s affliction and did not understand it. E. J. Young sees that the “dry ground” out of which the servant metaphorically grew (vs. 2) signifies that the servant came to life in a spiritually desolate time. This, along with the servant’s lack of physical stator explain why the servant was rejected. Thus, Israel to Young is pictured as in an apostate state when the servant begins his work as the response of Israel to Isaiah would seem to indicate.4 Guffin makes this argument in The Gospel in Isaiah pg. 78-79 2 3 Alfred and John Martin, Isaiah the Glory of the Messiah pg 136 4 E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah pg 342

Before I explain what Isaiah’s prophecy promises we must first ask if prophecy is possible at all. Many scholars reject prophecy because they believe that it is impossible to interpret a text in an objective manner while accepting prophecy. To accept prophecy, to these scholars, is to step out of the realm of objectivity into the realm of subjectivity. However, it seems that these scholars miss the point that by rejecting prophecy they are already accepting a subjective non-prophetic framework to read the bible though – just as those who accept prophecy read the bible though a subjective prophetic framework.

It seems that the best way to interpret biblical prophecy is through the lens of faith. Since we cannot shed our presuppositions, I suggest, we should simply accept that due to our faith that the scriptures are God-breathed we should accept, by faith, that the scriptures can and do foretell of God’s future work. Thus, when we read Isaiah we should interpret that prophecy as God’s promises to humanity. As Blocker puts it nicely, “when events that have been foretold come to pass, the Lord establishes His sovereign position above and below history.”5 believe that God is “above and below history” and, thus, should interpret scripture though these presuppositions. Rather than push aside our beliefs in search for objectivity we should instead admit our presuppositions and interpret scripture as we, by faith, believe it to be.

The prophecy in Isaiah promises that God will send a servant as a substitute to bear humanities transgressions. The servant will be despised and rejected and through this rejection he will offer himself as a sacrifice for his people. In Isaiah 52:15 the servant is said to “sprinkle the nations”. Some translations have translated “sprinkle” other ways, but Blocker notes that the Hebrew verb used literally means “to sprinkle”. This is further confirmed by the imagery of the servant as a sin offering (53:5-6).6 The servant’s blood is pictured as a sin offering that will be Blocker, Songs of the Servant, 59 5 6 Blocker, Songs of the Servant, 72 given up to cleans the nations, just as the blood of sacrificial lambs was sprinkled on the altar, so the servant’s blood shall be sprinkled on the nations.

The prophesied servant will come bearing none of the physical marks of greatness. He will “come up out of dry ground” and not be a man of physical prowess (53:1-2). The coming up out of dry ground suggests that the servant will grow up in a desolate spiritual environment. It also suggests, however, that the servant will grow up in physical hardship. The servant will also be a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (53:3). The servant’s life will be one marked by suffering. His tragic end is that although he was faithful he would be considered among the criminals.

Isaiah 53:5 contrasts the work and character of the servant with the work and character of mankind (53:6). The servant is pictured as blameless and vicariously taking upon himself the transgressions and chastisement of others while we, mankind, are pictures as all having fallen away into transgression. Isaiah paints the contrast between the wickedness of mankind and the blessedness of the servant who will take mankind’s transgressions upon himself. It seems that in Isaiah’s mind there is a connection between the servant’s life of great grief (vs. 3) and his substitutionary atonement (vs. 4-7).

The striking feature of the text of Isaiah 53 is that the majority of the text tells of the particular circumstances in which the servant will die. In the text we are told that the servant will be submissive to his abusers (vs. 7), the people will view his death as judgment by God (vs. 8), the people will judge that he is to be buried among the dead which implicitly implies criminals (vs. 9), however he will be buried with the rich (vs. 10), and verses 11-12 tell the results of his death. Thus, verses 7-12 all relate to the particularities of the situation surrounding the servant’s death. It can, thus, be inferred that it is of upmost importance to the prophet Isaiah that this specific servant be recognized when he comes. As Blocher notes it is one of Yahweh’s distinctive features that He alone can bring, “the fulfillment of his words, something the false gods cannot do.”

7 With all these particularity and specific details that this prophecy sets forth it is hard to see how the prophecy could be understood in its historical setting. It seems in that on the whole the prophecy could not and was not fully understood. The N.T. constantly makes the habit of linking O.T. texts that the Rabbi’s never saw to link. Thus, that this suffering servant would also be the messiah was unthinkable in the historical setting. The question is then, if this text is so difficult to understand at its time period then what would its significance have been to its reader? I will propose three main purposes for these prophetic words for in their historical context. First, and most importantly MacRae notes that the time period of the historical backdrop of Isaiah is most likely during Israel’s exile.8 are suffering the consequences of their and their ancestor’s communal sins. I think Isaiah’s text brings hope in that these very sins which have the caused exile will be borne by another. Even though there are no sacrifices that can be offered in exile, God in the future will provide a more perfect sacrifice of whom, “LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (vs. 6). Second, this text is a test to see who will trust in the Lord. The people are being asked to put their faith in Yahweh’s promises for the future, just as Abraham did, even though it is impossible to see where and when the promises will be fulfilled. Thus, this text asked the historical reader to “put his faith in the things unseen” as the N.T. puts it. Those who put their faith in God’s promises will have the reward of having their faith strengthened. Third, and finally, Isaiah clearly sees this servant as being a pivotal figure. The prophecy serves the future 7 Blocker, Songs of the Servant, 59 8 MacRae, The Gospel of Isaiah, 19 purpose of identifying the servant when he comes. When the servant comes these texts full meaning will spring into life as what was previously hidden becomes apparent.

I will now move to analyze how the N.T. interprets of Isaiah 53 and what new insights are added to that interpretation in light of the new revelation of Jesus. The first thing to note is that Peter reaffirms that the Isaiah 53 is good news for Jew and Greek. 1 Peter 2:22-25 includes a direct quotation of Isaiah 53:6, “By his wounds you have been healed.” The only change in the quotation from Isaiah is the change from the word we to the word you. As Karen H. Joben’s notes the change is made to make explicit the fact that the we in Isaiah 53 applies to all peoples and is not shorthand for we meaning “we Israelites,” as it possibly could.9 explicit by saying Christ died for you (i.e. whoever is reading/hearing this text) not in the sense of “we Israelites.” This makes the text explicit that the servant that Isaiah pictured, now revealed as Jesus of Nazareth, died for all of mankind, not simply Israel. Acts 8:32-33 makes it undeniably clear that the apostles considered Isaiah 53 to relate to Christ. An Ethiopian Eunuch reading Isaiah 53:7-8 inquires of Philip to whom the text refers. Philip without hesitation proclaims that good news of Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53. What is interesting to note is that part of Philip’s good news must have included an explanation of Christian baptism as the Eunuch upon accepting Jesus wishes immediately to be baptized. It would be interesting topic to see if there is are any striking correlations between the N.T. baptism and Isaiah 53 as they may have some connection. It is possible, however, that baptism was not part of Philip's explanation of Isaiah 53, but rather a further explanation of the gospel. The apostle John quotes Isaiah 53:1, “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (John 12:38, ESV). The answer is plain in 9 Karen Jobens, 1 Peter: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the N.T., 197-8

Isaiah there is no one, at least by their own power, who will understand. John does this to explain why the Jewish people rejected Jesus. As Kysar notes, “The reality of unbelief comes as no surprise, but fulfills Isaiah 53:1.”10 among his Jewish brethren was foretold by the prophet Isaiah. This revelation in turn sheds light on John 1:11, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (ESV). That Jesus’ own people did not accept him validates his status as the suffering servant of Isaiah. John hones in on the theme in Isaiah that the servant is rejected and despised even by his own people. The apostle Paul also quotes and expounds on Isaiah 53:1 in Romans 10:16. Paul’s argument builds up to where he explains that the Jewish disobedience has opened up the door for Gentile salvation as Romans 11:11 states it:

So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. (ESV)

Paul makes it clear that Israel’s disobedience has come about so that the Gentiles may be saved. The result of the Gentiles being saved will make Israel jealous so that Israel may be saved. Thus, Israel’s temporary hardening of heart, to Paul, has a salvific purpose. That purpose is to bring salvation to the Gentiles who in turn are to bring salvation to the Gentiles and also to Israel. Luke 22:37 and Mark 15:28 both quotes Isaiah 53:12: “He was numbered with the transgressors” (ESV). The context in Luke is Jesus warning his disciples about the forthcoming danger. Jesus, after prophesying Peter’s denial, tells how He is to be handed over, “that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me.” It should be noted that Jesus’ handing over is of necessity it must take place. This necessity is not, however, outside of Jesus as in His own words, The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. (John 10:16-17 ESV) John Kysar, John, 201 10 That Jesus’ earthly ministry would have little effect

Thus, the necessity for Jesus to lay down his life is not outside of Jesus. It seems that it must be something within Jesus’ own nature that forces Him to lay down his life. About the crucifixion account in Mark J.C. Ryle notes, “The passage we have now read, is one which shows us the infinite love of Christ to sinners.”11 to his love and mercy toward sinners, for God to come down. Thus, God’s nature makes it so that it is necessary for God to continually condescend to sinners12 Mark 15:28 uses the same passage in Isaiah and places it directly within the crucifixion account. There is some doubt if this verse was in the original Gospel, but clearly at least either Mark penned these words or a scribe believed these belonged in the passage. What Luke 22:37 makes clear, however, is that Jesus understood the cross as fulfilling Isaiah 53. Thus, Jesus say himself “sprinkling the nations” with his blood. If these words are original to Mark then Mark associates Jesus’ crucifixion next to two robbers with His being numbered with the transgressors. Clearly, however, any crucifixion be it with criminals or not in the ancient world was considered being numbered with the transgressors.

Matthew 8:17 quotes Isaiah 53:4, “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” Matthew shows that Isaiah 53:4 relates to Jesus’ ministry of healing the sick and casting out the demon possessed. What Isaiah notes is that, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken” (Isaiah 53:4 ESV). Although Jesus healed many still many did not believe and in fact respond with hostility against His work. It seems that Isaiah’s prophecy, to some degree, anticipated the Pharisee’s accusation that Jesus drove out demons by the power of Beelzebub (see Matthew 12:27). It is little wonder that Isaiah called the servant “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (53:3). Even Jesus’ most caring and beautiful The necessity it seems must be a necessity within God, due 11 Ryle, Ryles Expositionary Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, 340 [edit], Lectures 12 actions in his earthly life came under the assault by his critics. In conclusion, it seems that there are strong reasons to interpret Isaiah 53, as it traditionally has, as prophecy about our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. We cannot read the bible without presuppositions. It seems best, therefore, to simply be open about reading the scripture though the lens of faith where we believe that our all powerful God can and has inspired people within history to prophecy concerning the future. The N.T. clearly interprets the text in that manner and seeks to further fill out the picture of Jesus as the suffering servant. Applying Isaiah 53 to my Life What strikes me most about what I have studied is applying the content of Isaiah to its historical context. Isaiah gives this prophecy about Christ to a people in exile whose whole life and beliefs were daily challenged. These people were going through very hard times. What is striking to me is that the cross is a message to meditate upon in hard times. Personally, when I am struggling I have many passages in scripture that I think about, but the crucifixion has not been one of them.

It seems, however, that the cross is a message for hard times that I should remember. If as J.C. Ryle notes the crucifixion is a passage, “which shows us the infinite love of Christ to sinners 13” then it follows it is of comfort for hard times. It strikes me that when others are going through hard times this is a text for them as well. Thus, the crucifixion is a text to remember and give to others to remember in hard times. Of course this is not to be done in a morbid sense, but in the sense of knowing “the love of Christ The N.T.’s use of Isaiah 53 also strikes me as going against much of contemporary scholarship that wishes to push aside prophecy. As the suffering servant was a man of sorrows 13 Ryle, Ryles Expositionary Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, 340 as he followed God, so we too may find sorrow following us as we serve God. Even as Jesus healed the sicknesses and cast out demons he was reviled by men. There are times in my past where it has certainly been inconvenient to follow Jesus as it has brought hardships. It seems in my future as I may, or my not, go on to graduate studies it is important to remember that I must remain faithful to the word of God even when I feel strong desires to simply comply with current opinion.

In some of my classes here at [edited] I feel at times the great desire to simply “mimic” professor’s opinions to “stay out of harm’s way.” It seems that at times stating your true beliefs may in fact, to a small degree, jeopardize your grade or a professor’s opinion of you. However, it seems that Jesus as the suffering servant asks us to judge rightly by God’s standard and not by mans. Thus, I need to remember how Jesus was faithful to God even unto death and that a risking a few percentage points for the sake of what I believe to be the true is nothing in comparison.
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