Tag archives: Bible

Thinking Biblically About Safety

by Joseph Backholm

February 24, 2021

On “Worldview Wednesday,” we will feature an article that addresses a pressing cultural, political, or theological issue. The goal of this blog series is to help Christians think about these issues from a biblical worldview. Read Part 1: Thinking Biblically About Unity

As we approach the one-year anniversary of “15 days to flatten the curve,” the coronavirus continues to dominate the news and many people’s emotions. 

In many states, most public schools remain closed. It took a Supreme Court case for California churches to be allowed to meet indoors again, though many churches had been doing it anyway with the fines to prove it.

The different responses to the coronavirus aren’t simply a function of different local laws. Within the church, there are varying degrees of caution. This is attributable in part to the fact that the coronavirus poses a greater risk to some (the elderly, immunocompromised, etc.), than to others. But beyond that, some Christians are more afraid than others. What happens if I get it? What happens if I die? What happens if I get it and then pass it to someone else?

For Christians, these questions call us to consider how God wants us to think about safety.

Scripture shows us that God blesses His people with safety and security (Deut. 12:10; Jer. 32:38) and Paul even prayed for safety (Romans 15:30-31). After all his shipwrecks, beatings, stonings, and imprisonments (2 Corinthians 11:25), who can blame him?

The fact that Paul experienced those things despite his obedience to God and his prayers for safety illustrates an important truth. As with health, safety is a blessing that at times God grants, but it is not a guarantee and should not be an expectation. Jesus promised us that things will be hard: “In this world you will have trouble, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that God wants us to live recklessly. Jesus spoke of carrying a sword for protection (Luke 22:36) and Paul was kept safe on several occasions by his friends (Acts 9:25, 17:10, 19:30) and once by a Roman commander (Acts 23:10). The book of Proverbs includes wisdom to avoid trouble and make life easier.  

But any conversation about safety must happen in context. Safety is good, but it is not the greatest good. In fact, more than God wants us to be safe, He wants us to be steadfast in the trials we are promised (James 1:12).

Depending on your English translation of the Bible, the command “do not fear” appears over 70 times. There are no examples of God commanding us to be safe.

Scripture is filled with examples of people forsaking their physical safety to pursue God’s purpose for their life. Moses risked his life by identifying with the Hebrews rather than the Egyptians (Hebrews 11:24-27). Esther risked her life when she appeared before the Persian king and pleaded for the lives of her people. In the face of danger, she asked her friends to fast and pray for her, noting, “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). She had more important goals than simply surviving.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego preferred what seemed like certain death in the fiery furnace over the alternative of compromising their faith (Daniel 3). Their safety took a backseat to their loyalty and devotion to God.

Death is not only possible, it’s inevitable. But for the Christian, it’s also a promotion. As the apostle Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Moreover, as Paul explained to the Christians in Corinth, even the sufferings of our earthly pilgrimage—as terrible as they might be—are “light and momentary” compared to the “eternal weight of glory” that awaits believers (1 Cor. 4:17). Paul does not trivialize our hardships, but he does reframe them in light of eternity.

When God does encourage us to be cautious, its typically about the most important things. We should be careful about what we see (Luke 11:33-36) and careful to obey all that God has commanded us. (Deut 8:1).

At all times, our spiritual health should be of greater concern than our physical health. This was Jesus’ point when he said “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

As we examine our decisions, we should ensure that we aren’t valuing our safety more than God does. If He grants us safety, we should be grateful. If He grants us peril and sickness and death, we should still be grateful. If our pursuit of safety is preventing us from doing what God created us to do, we may be attributing to wisdom what belongs to fear. 

As we approach the one-year anniversary of “two weeks to flatten the curve,” let’s make sure that our concerns about a virus haven’t prevented us from being who God created us to be.

If Jesus’s willingness to leave the safety of heaven on our behalf isn’t inspiration enough, maybe Jim Elliott, who gave his life on the mission field of Ecuador will help. Elliott famously exhorted, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Lo, I am with you always. Even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Thinking Biblically About Unity

by Joseph Backholm

February 12, 2021

Things change quickly after the White House switches parties. After years claiming that detention facilities at the border were American concentration camps, Democrats will be ok with them again. After years of relative silence on spending during a spending spree, Republicans will again call for fiscal restraint. And then there’s the issue of unity.

Those who spent four years talking about how patriotic it is to criticize a president now call for unity. Meanwhile, those who spent four years urging people to support the president are quick with reminders that criticism of political leaders is the American way.

Which highlights an important point: unity is neither good nor bad. Whether unity is desirable depends entirely on what we are unifying around. Unity around a planned crime spree is bad. Unity around a surprise birthday party for a loved one is good.

We like the idea of unity because it brings up images of people getting along. Who doesn’t want that? What are the calls for unity today asking us to unite around?

If we are being called to treat people with dignity and respect regardless of their beliefs, background, or political persuasions, Christians can be united in that effort. “So far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18).

If we are being called to listen to our neighbors, Christians can be united in that effort as well. “Be slow to speak and quick to hear for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19).

Politically, Christians should be the best citizens because we are commanded to seek the welfare of our cities (Jer. 29:7), pray for those in authority (1 Tim 2:2), and submit to their authority (1 Peter 2:13) so long as their commands are not inconsistent with what God has commanded (Acts 5:29).

But as Christians look for ways to build bridges, we must also be mindful of the things we cannot unite around.

If we’re called to unify with the sacrifice of preborn children on the altar of convenience, we can’t do that.

If we’re called to unify with a sexual revolution that God calls sin and destroys people’s lives, we can’t do that.

If we’re called to unify with a movement that seeks to punish people for their fidelity to the gospel and their obedience to God, we can’t do that.

Despite cultural sentiments suggesting otherwise, it is not loving to be indifferent or agreeable toward wickedness because “love does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

None of this means that Christians are obligated to be combative—“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). But there are times when Christians must be confrontational. “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).

We must always pray for our leaders, but the degree to which we are unified with our leaders must depend on the degree to which our leaders are unified with God. If they want unity with us while earnestly seeking to honor God, we should be the first to encourage them and support them. If they want unity with us while waging war on truth, beauty, and goodness, the answer must be “not until you repent.”

As with many things, the world tries to deceive the church with a counterfeit version of what God made.

God’s path to unity is through submission to Jesus. The world’s path to unity is through submission to them. These are mutually exclusive options, so choose wisely. “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

When the White House changes parties, a lot of things change in Washington, D.C. But what shouldn’t change for Christians is that regardless of who is in the White House, we first seek unity with God and then with anyone else looking for the same thing.

Christmas Prophecies (Part 6): How the Servant’s Death Brings the Light of Life

by David Closson

December 25, 2020

This is the final part of a 6-part series. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

 

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see[the light of life] and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:10-12)

Christmas, the day when Christians celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ, is joyful precisely because Jesus succeeded in His earthly mission, namely, securing salvation for all who trust in His saving work. Our study of Isaiah 53 concludes with verses 10-12, which direct our attention to the meaning and significance of the Servant’s suffering and death and help us understand the depth of God’s love for His children.

Verse 10 reveals a startling truth—God willed the terrible death of this innocent Servant. Verse 11 explains why—His death made it possible for many to be accounted righteous. Verse 12 returns to the theme of Isaiah 52:13 and glories in the Servant’s exaltation. Together, these verses marvel at the work accomplished by the Servant and foreshadow Christ’s work on the cross.

Verse 10 opens the stanza with the disjunctive “Yet,” signaling a clear contrast with the content of the previous verse. The focus shifts from man’s sensory experience to God’s perspective on what has unfolded so far. In light of the horrifying miscarriage of justice perpetrated against the Servant, Isaiah’s readers expect God to avenge and vindicate the Servant. Thus, when God’s sovereign purpose is at last revealed in verse 10a, the truth is startling— “it was the will of the Lord to crush him.”

The natural response to this statement is disbelief and perhaps even anger. Why would God want to crush this man? Why would God want an innocent person to suffer? On these questions, theologian John Oswalt’s reflections are illuminating:

The faithful God of the Bible would certainly not visit bad things on innocent people, would he? Yes, he would if some greater good would be served. Is it possible there is some greater good than all the terrible things the Servant has endured will procure?… [Yes,] what God wants to come out of the Servant’s suffering is of monumental proportions. He wants human beings to be able to offer this man up on the altar of their sins so that he can be a “full and sufficient sacrifice” for them, satisfying all the unpaid debts of their behavior.[1]

God’s sovereign purpose behind all the suffering of the Servant was to make Him a guilt offering, not for His own sins (He had none), but for the sins of others.

An important note must be made concerning English translations that render verse 10a: “But the Lord was pleased to crush him” (NASB) or “Though the Lord desired to crush him” (NET). Unfortunately, these translations contribute to the faulty understanding that somehow, God took delight in making the Servant suffer. Peter Gentry helpfully clarifies this point: “Here, ‘delighted’ is being used in the context of sacrifice. God is delighted or pleased with the sacrifice in the sense that he accepts it as sufficient to wipe away his indignation, his offense and his outrage at our sin.”[2] Thus, it was not God’s sadistic will to punish an innocent man. Rather, it was God’s redemptive will. This notion is further clarified in the second part of verse 10 with the mention of “guilt offering.” 

The guilt or “reparation” offering in 10b refers to the fifth offering described in Leviticus. Of all the Old Testament offerings, this one covered guilt that had been knowingly incurred by the individual and had to be offered by the individual responsible.[3] Three important benefits of this offering are highlighted in verse 10c: “he shall see his offspring,” “he shall prolong his days,” and “the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” In view of fulfilling God’s glorious plan, the Servant will be successful; he will enjoy offspring and length of days. These should be interpreted figuratively to indicate that despite the bleak future forecasted in previous stanzas, the Servant’s life will be marked by blessing and fruitfulness. This thought is continued in verse 11a with the phrase, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see [the light of life] and be satisfied.” Despite not appearing in some English translations, the phrase “light of life” in verse 11 is supported by textual witnesses.[4] Taken together, verses 10c and 11a point to another significant reality—resurrection.

Although the Servant’s death is communicated in stanza four (verses 7-9), stanza five indicates that the Servant is alive. How is this possible? Verse 11a, with its contrast of “guilt offering” and “light,” strongly suggests resurrection, which is implied by the idea of seeing offspring and prolonging days.[5] Faithfully reconciling stanza four and five requires the Servant’s resurrection (taking place between the realities described by each). The reference to “light” in 11a is another clue to resurrection.

Verses 11b-12 conclude stanza five by describing the benefits of the Servant’s death given to the “many.” The use of “knowledge” in 11b should be understood as experiential knowledge of faith.[6] In context, this accurately captures Isaiah’s understanding of the Servant’s accomplishment. People do not benefit by what the Servant knows, but by knowing and believing in what the Servant did.  

Verse 12 explains that the benefits of the Servant’s success will be “divided… with the many.” This highlights the breadth of the Servant’s work. Because the Servant “poured out his soul to death” and “bore the sins of many,” he effectively has provided a way for men to have a right relationship with God. Gentry notes this “corporate solidarity” between the one and the many and explains it in terms of the Ancient Near East context of the relationship between a king and his people.[7] In this case, because the Servant represents the people, the rewards and benefits He secured through His suffering and death are transferred to the people. It is striking to discern that all the major words used for sin— “transgressions,” “iniquities,” and “sin”—are in the plural, indicating that the Servant’s sacrificial death is holistic, covering the guilt of the “many.” This is a magnificent picture of substitutionary atonement and points to what Christ did on the cross.

Conclusion

Isaiah 53 is one of the most magnificent messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. In a way that is striking and sobering, this passage blazes forth the glory of Christ and the hope of eternal salvation by teaching that God loved the world so much that He sent His Son as a humble Servant who willingly substituted Himself in our place and bore the full wrath of God for our sin that we might be forgiven.

Thus, at Christmas, it is fitting to read and study Isaiah 53, which clearly captures the meaning and significance of Christ’s work on the cross. Examining the intricacies of this text is not easy, but the reward is worth it. Seeing Christ’s person and work thus depicted—exalted (52:13-15), despised (1-3), rejected (4-6), killed (7-10), and resurrected (10-12)—prompts reverent worship and a profound sense of gratitude. Indeed, praise God for this Servant, this man of sorrows, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).



[1]  John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 400.

[2]  Peter J. Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (SBJT), June 12, 2007, http://www.sbts.edu/resources/journals/journal-of-theology/sbjt-112-summer-2007/the-atonement-in-isaiahs-fourth-servant-song-isaiah-5213-5312/, 35.

[3] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, 402.

[4] Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” 37.

[5]  Allen P. Ross et al., Proverbs–Isaiah, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, Revised ed. edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2008), 802.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” 41.

Christmas Prophecies (Part 5): The Lamb of God Is Sacrificed for Our Transgressions

by David Closson

December 24, 2020

This is Part 5 of a 6-part series. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

 

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7-9)

Our study of Isaiah 53 continues in verses 7-9, which contain the shocking climax of the chapter: the Servant suffers to the point of death. Because the parallels between the Servant’s death and the final events of Jesus Christ’s life are so striking, ever since the first century, Christians have acknowledged Christ’s death on the cross as the fulfillment of this passage. Verses 7-9 are quoted no less than 15 times by New Testament authors.[1]

The two comparisons with sheep (in verse 6 of the previous stanza and in verse 7) are noteworthy and most likely intentional. On this point, John Oswalt comments: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that it is not accidental that the only extended metaphor in this poem involves sheep, the primary animals of sacrifice.”[2] While “we” the people are likened to sheep that have gone astray, the Servant is likened to a sheep led to slaughter. Amid His ongoing oppression and suffering, the Servant is silent, like a sheep before its shearers. Rather than objecting to the injustice of the proceedings, the Servant accepts his role and does not protest. In the same way, Christ was silent before His own accusers (Pilate, Herod, etc.), in fulfillment of this text.

The phrase “by oppression and judgment” in verse 8a presents an interpretive challenge. Professor Gay V. Smith understands “oppression” to mean “restrained,” suggesting that the Servant was arrested and imprisoned. He understands “judgment” as referring to a court or place of judgment.[3] Smith concurs with Peter Gentry, who thinks that a lack of justice in the judicial process (no fair trial) is most likely being implied.[4]

Verse 8 continues by noting that the Servant was “cut off” out of the land of the living, indicating death. Professor Geoffrey Grogan comments, “The phrase ‘cut off’ strongly suggests not only a violent, premature death, but also the just judgment of God, not simply the oppressive judgment of human beings.”[5] Although His death is somewhat expected, given the progression of the text, the fact that the innocent Servant is finally killed hits the reader with force. The miscarriage of justice is infuriating and cries out for retribution. However, the final phrase adds a shocking, revelatory detail that clarifies the motive of the Servant— he was killed “for the transgression of my people.” Oswalt notes that this reveals that the Servant was not killed because of a corrupt legal system: “It is not legal injustice that condemns him but the transgression of my people. If he is treated unjustly, and he is, the author wants us to know that this injustice is not an expression of that all-too-common custom of mistreating innocent people. The Servant was doing this on purpose.”[6] Despite the rejection, sorrow, grief, and shame, the Servant’s death was ultimately the result of an intentional and purposeful plan. This is a staggering statement that will be developed in the final stanza.

Briefly, verse 9 adds details concerning the Servant’s death and place of burial. Gentry argues that the verse should be rendered, “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, but his tomb was with the rich.”[7]This means that although the Servant was killed with criminals, he was buried amongst the rich. This is exactly what happened at Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus was crucified with criminals but buried in the tomb of a rich man. Once again, Christ perfectly fulfills Isaiah’s description of the Servant.



[1] NIV Zondervan Study Bible, Hardcover: Built on the Truth of Scripture and Centered on the Gospel Message (Harper Collins, 2015), 1427. Some of these verses include Matt. 26:63; 27:12, 14; Mark 14:60-61; Acts 8:32-33; 1 Cor. 15:3, and 1 John 3:5.

[2] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 391–392.

[3] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, (Vol. 15) (The New American Commentary), (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2009), 453.

[4] Peter J. Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (SBJT), June 12, 2007, http://www.sbts.edu/resources/journals/journal-of-theology/sbjt-112-summer-2007/the-atonement-in-isaiahs-fourth-servant-song-isaiah-5213-5312/, 33. Oswalt concurs with Smith and Gentry on p. 393 of The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66.

[5] Allen P. Ross et al., Proverbs–Isaiah, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, Revised ed. edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2008), 801.

[6] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, 394.

[7] Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” 34.

Christmas Prophecies (Part 4): The Suffering Servant Is Rejected by Mankind

by David Closson

December 23, 2020

This is Part 4 of a 6-part series. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

 

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Our continuing study of Isaiah 53 brings us to verses 4-6, which foreshadow Jesus Christ’s suffering on the cross. By invoking sacrificial imagery that would have been familiar to Isaiah’s readers, these verses shed light on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

Verse 4 signals a dramatic shift in Isaiah’s narrative. The focus is now on the Servant’s intense suffering. But the reason for His suffering is shocking. Note the 10 first-person plural pronouns (“we,” “our,” and “us”) in these three verses. The “griefs” and “sorrows” borne by the Servant were not on account of his own deficiencies or sin. Rather, He substituted Himself for and was punished on behalf of the very same people who had previously ridiculed and rejected Him! John Calvin relates this shocking exchange to Christ: “Isaiah complains of the wicked judgment of men, in not considering the cause of Christ’s heavy afflictions; and especially he deplores the dullness of his own nation because they thought that God was a deadly enemy of Christ, and took no account of their own sins, which were to be expiated in this manner.”[1]

The degradations described in verse 5 escalate in severity—from sickness and physiological suffering to physical injuries and, ultimately, the bearing of spiritual wrath. Verse 5 is unequivocal that “we” are the beneficiaries of the Servant’s suffering. Although many liberal theologians categorically reject the concept of the transference of guilt, there is an important biblical antecedent that informs Isaiah’s prophecy—the Old Testament sacrificial system, particularly the scapegoat ceremony.

In Leviticus 16:7-10, the priests are instructed to designate a goat that, despite its innocence, would symbolically take the Israelites’ place and carry their sins into the wilderness (this is where the term “scapegoat” comes from). The goat would eventually die in the wilderness, while the people remained alive in the camp. Professor Gary V. Smith cautions against reading too much into this connection but affirms the correlation: “Chapter 53 does illustrate substitutionary action drawn from sacrificial concepts.”[2]

Isaiah clearly states that the Servant is not suffering with the people—He is suffering for them. Verse 5 concludes with an incredible statement: “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” The result of the substitutionary action of the Servant is peace and healing—the same remarkable spiritual benefits New Testament believers receive when they trust in Christ for their salvation. Verse 5 prefigures Christ’s substitutionary work on the cross.

Verse 6 concludes this stanza by comparing the people to a flock of sheep, a simile that will continue in later verses. Isaiah’s point is that people wander aimlessly in their sin, completely unaware of its magnitude and wickedness, much like sheep are prone to wandering from their shepherd’s care. People blissfully unconcerned about their sin are also equally oblivious to the incredible lengths the Servant has gone to secure payment and forgiveness on their behalf. Surely the apostle Paul had Isaiah 53 in mind when he reminded the Philippians of the great lengths Christ has gone for their—and our—salvation: 

though he [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 6-8).

At Christmas time, we Christians should celebrate and remind ourselves and others of the great lengths Christ went to for our salvation. Being fully God, Christ humbled Himself and became also fully man. And not just any man, but one who was despised and rejected, bearing the punishment that we justly deserved. As one Christmas hymn so beautifully puts it:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor,
All for love’s sake becomes poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.

- “Thou Who Was Rich Beyond All Splendor” (words by Frank Houghton, 1894–1972)



[1] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries - Volume 8 - Isaiah 33-66 (Baker, 1999), 115.

[2] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, (Vol. 15) (The New American Commentary), (B&H Academic, Nashville), 2009, 449.

Christmas Prophecies (Part 3): A Root That Is Despised

by David Closson

December 22, 2020

This is Part 3 of a 6-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

 

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrowsand acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:1-3)

Isaiah 53 is one of the most well-known passages in the Old Testament. However, it is usually associated with Good Friday, not Christmas. Even so, as Christians consider the “reason for the season” this week, it is important to remember why Jesus came—and what His death and resurrection accomplished.

Verses 1-3 continue the description of the Servant begun in 52:13-15 by detailing His physical appearance and reflecting on how the people responded to Him. The Servant is “despised” and utterly ignored and discounted because He did not conform to preconceived notions of royalty.

Although the identity of the “we” in verse 3 is debated, a growing consensus of scholars think it refers to a believing Israelite remnant that is remembering the Servant’s person and work. If that is the correct interpretation, the ensuing verses contain a report about the deliverance God has accomplished through the Servant. Notably, the prevailing tone throughout these verses is a mixture of shock, anguish, and disappointment, as those returning from exile consider their failure to recognize God’s faithful and restoring work on their behalf. In retrospect, the people realize they completely missed the identity and significance of the Servant in large measure because of His humble comportment and appearance.

Somewhat ironically, the phrase “arm of the Lord” is used in verse 1b to introduce the physical description of the Servant. In biblical literature, the “arm of the Lord” represented the powerful, salvific strength of God manifested in episodes of deliverance. Significantly, this image would have evoked memories of the Exodus, when God dramatically rescued the Israelites from the Egyptians. The Israelites’ safe passage through the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the pursuing Egyptian army would have immediately been brought to mind. Thus, the juxtaposition of the Servant’s humble act of deliverance with the Exodus event conveys enormous theological truth, making it even more shocking that a figure of such importance was not recognized.

Verses 2-3 detail the physical appearance of the Servant and how the people responded to Him. Verse 2 compares the Servant to a “young plant” and “root” that comes out of the “dry ground.” Interpreters seem to differ on the significance of this comparison. John Oswalt argues that “this is figurative speech that is intended to convey to us the unexpected nature of the Servant’s entire ministry.”[1] Peter Gentry sees a reference to Isaiah 11:1 and the promised Davidic king. He explains, “This is once more the image of a tree that is a metaphor for kings and kingdoms both in Isaiah and the Old Testament as a whole.”[2]

On close observation, it is fascinating that this imagery invokes a diminutive plant and that the “root” emanates from “dry ground.” Thus, Oswalt and Gentry do not contradict—the “young plant” and “root” proceeding out of “dry ground” indeed symbolize a royal figure but also the unexpected and unlikely origin and appearance of the Servant. From the perspective of the New Testament, it is clear that Jesus exemplified these traits and is identified with the Servant.

The final verse in the stanza reinforces the notion that this figure did not resemble royalty. At first glance, there was nothing discernible in appearance or comportment that embodied majesty, and He was treated accordingly. Verse 3a summarizes this treatment: “He was despised and rejected by men.” The term “despised” refers to the fact that the Servant’s contemporaries considered Him unworthy of attention.[3] This notion is also expressed in the phrase “as one from whom men hide their faces” (v. 3b). John Goldingay notes: “Hiding the face is more commonly an act of rejection.”[4] Perhaps this rejection was partly due to the “sorrow” and “grief” that characterized the Servant’s experience.

In other words, the Servant was subject to pain, grief, and suffering. Given Jewish expectations of a powerful and conquering Messiah, they perceived this figure as weak and ineffective, not in any way resembling the strong “arm of the Lord” that brought their ancestors out of Egypt. Thus, they turned away and rejected Him. Again, from the standpoint of the New Testament, this description perfectly captures the experience of Jesus. Oswalt aptly summarizes verses 1-3: “The point is that because he does not fit the stereotype of the arm of the Lord he will be treated as though he were ill; he will experience what the ill experience: avoidance.”[5] In summary, these verses speak of the unassuming and lowly bearing of the Servant, who is stricken with suffering to the degree that people turn away from Him.

Having described the appearance of the Servant, Isaiah is ready to reflect on the Servant’s actions and their significance. These are some of the most astounding verses in Scripture and will be the focus of the next study.



[1]  John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998),  382.

[2]  Peter J. Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (SBTJ), June 12, 2007, ,http://www.sbts.edu/resources/journals/journal-of-theology/sbjt-112-summer-2007/the-atonement-in-isaiahs-fourth-servant-song-isaiah-5213-5312/, 31–32.

[3] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, 383.

[4] John Goldingay, Isaiah, The International Critical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), 303.

[5] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, 385.

Christmas Prophecies (Part 2): How the Suffering Servant Defied Expectations

by David Closson

December 21, 2020

This is Part 2 of a 6-part series. Read Part 1.


13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
  he shall be high and lifted up,
  and shall be exalted.
14 As many were astonished at you—
  his appearance was so marred [is an anointing], beyond human semblance,
  and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15 so shall he sprinklemany nations.
  Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
  and that which they have not heard they understand. (Isaiah 52:13-15)

As we approach Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth, it is helpful to consider what the Bible teaches about why Jesus came to earth. Isaiah 53, written 700 years before the first Christmas, provides a detailed description of this purpose. To fully understand Isaiah’s teaching, it is important to start a few verses earlier with Isaiah 52:13-15.

Verses 13-15 function as a prologue, previewing the issues that will be developed throughout the passage.

Despite being in the middle of a chapter, the phrase “Behold my servant” introduces a new section of thought in 52:13 (modern Bible readers must remember that chapter and verse divisions were not added until around A.D. 1200).[1] Biblical authors often signaled new sections of thought by using stylistic elements. Such is the case in 52:13, with the attention-getting “behold.” However, this phrase does more than merely indicate a new section of thought; it also helps communicate the significance of the person about to be described, i.e., the Servant. Isaiah wastes no time in drawing attention to the person and work of the Servant.

Isaiah continues by explaining that the Servant “shall act wisely.” The ESV and NIV render the Hebrew verb as “wisely,” whereas the NASB translates it as “prosper.” Although both contain an important nuance, neither conveys the full intended meaning. Isaiah is not merely explaining that the Servant will be wise. Rather, he is saying that he will “both know and do the right things in order to accomplish the purpose for which he was called.”[2] This provides clarity to the rest of the verse: “he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” Because he has completed the work for which He was sent, the Servant will be exalted to a place of prominence.

Next, verse 14 provides further detail on how the Servant will accomplish His purpose. First, the text explains that many will be “astonished” at Him. Why are people astonished at the Servant? The reason for this response depends on how verse 14a is translated. There are two options for translating the Hebrew noun used here— “anointing” or “destruction/marred.” Old Testament professor Peter Gentry argues that the first option—“anointing”—is to be preferred because of its pervasive use in other biblical texts. He notes that the imagery associated with “anointing” recalls the anointing ceremony that took place when a new high priest was installed into office (Ex. 29:29; Lev. 21:10). This special anointing served to differentiate the high priest from other priests.

On the other side, Professor Gary Smith proposes that the Hebrew term is better rendered “disfigurement.” Appealing to context, he argues that “disfigurement” fits with the physical description of the Servant in 53:2.[3] Concurring with Smith, John Oswalt contends that “all suffering is encompassed here: physical, mental, and spiritual.”[4]

However the term is best translated, the Servant’s appearance is evidently a shock, especially to those who expected a godlike deliverer. Reading this text informed by the New Testament, the connection between the Servant in Isaiah and Jesus is becoming clear. Those in Jesus’ day were anticipating a military and political champion to overthrow the occupying Romans. Jesus defied those expectations, and, following a Roman-inflicted beating, did not appear able to save.

Moving on to verse 15, there is debate amongst biblical scholars on whether the Hebrew word should be rendered “sprinkle” or “startle.” The majority of interpreters prefer “sprinkle,” which best fits the progression of the text, especially if “anointing” is the correct interpretation in 14a. Peter Gentry summarizes his position for both disputed words by arguing, “The servant sprinkles because he is anointed.” He adds, “The idea of many being horrified at the Servant and of an anointing and sprinkling that goes beyond that of Israel so that it applies to all the nations best explains the exaltation of the Servant and why so many in the end are told something they have never before seen or understood.”[5] Gentry’s argument prioritizes the literary structure by recognizing that the prologue previews the major ideas unfolding in subsequent stanzas.

Verse 15 concludes the prologue by describing kings’ reactions to the Servant’s work. In short, the Servant’s work will be unlike anything the nations have seen before.

Isaiah 52:13-15 serves as a helpful prologue for Isaiah 53. Isaiah has signaled that the Servant is the focus of this section and the one who is tasked with securing forgiveness of sins and a right relationship with God. As we see in the forthcoming verses, this will be accomplished through His mediating role of a priest, and it will apparently involve a type of sacrifice. Evidently, the Servant’s work will shock those who witness it, and ultimately the Servant will be exalted.



[1] Robert Plummer and Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2010), 28.

[2] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 373.

[3] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (B&H Academic, 2009), 438.

[4] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, 380.

[5] Peter J. Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (SBTJ), June 12, 2007, ,http://www.sbts.edu/resources/journals/journal-of-theology/sbjt-112-summer-2007/the-atonement-in-isaiahs-fourth-servant-song-isaiah-5213-5312/, 29, 31.

Christmas Prophecies (Part 1): Why We Should Contemplate Christ’s Suffering at Christmas

by David Closson

December 20, 2020

This is Part 1 of a 6-part series.

When Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, it is common to retell New Testament stories of how Jesus came into the world as a baby in the manger. But there are other passages in the Bible that help us understand the purpose of the incarnation, including one of the most stunning prophecies in Scripture—Isaiah 53. This blog series will take a closer look at this passage and provide fresh perspective on Jesus’ mission, suffering, and victory over sin and death.

This week, Christians around the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus. Over the next few days, Scripture passages such as Matthew 1-2 and Luke 2 will be read and studied, and believers will reflect with gratitude on God’s love manifested in the incarnation of His Son. But as wonderful as these passages are, additional biblical texts can also help us understand the meaning and significance of Christmas. One such passage is Isaiah 53, a well-known Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah that explains the purpose of Jesus’ birth and the significance of His atoning work on the cross.

In his book, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, James Hamilton makes a simple but profound observation: “If we will listen carefully to the Bible, it will proclaim to us the glory of God.”[1] This is true of Isaiah 53, one of the most magnificent prophecies in the Old Testament. Although the entire biblical canon manifests the majesty of Christ, this particular passage shines a light on God’s plan of redemption in a way that is striking, weighty, and sobering.

This Christmas blog series will unpack Isaiah 53 by carefully analyzing each verse with the aim of illuminating larger themes, including the significance of the Servant’s death and resurrection (biblical scholars agree that the Servant figure in Isaiah prefigures Jesus). Entries in the series, of which this is the first, will follow the natural flow of the text. The second will examine the prologue in verses 52:13-15. The third will examine the rejection of the Servant in verses 53:1-3. The fourth will examine the Servant’s substitutionary atonement in verses 4-6, and the fifth will examine the Servant’s rejection in verses 7-9. Finally, verses 10-12, which interpret the meaning of the Servant’s death, will be covered in the final entry.

Understanding the book of Isaiah’s literary style and broader context is essential to grasping the significance of chapter 53. Hebrew prophecy has a unique form and style. Old Testament scholar Peter Gentry helpfully points out: “Prophetic preaching and writing certainly does not follow the patterns of Aristotelian rectilinear logic so fundamental to our discourse in the Western world. Instead, the approach in ancient Hebrew literature is to take up a topic and develop it from a particular perspective and then to stop and take up the same theme again from another point of view. This pattern is kaleidoscopic and recursive.”[2] This kaleidoscopic approach is characteristic of Isaiah’s prophecy, which presents a holistic message through seven major sections. Each of these sections focus on aspects of God’s relationship with Israel. The reality and implications of the broken covenant, judgment, exile, and the hope of restoration are all thoroughly explored throughout these sections.[3]

The Fourth Servant Song is situated in the sixth section (chapters 38 to 55), which focuses on restoration and redemption. This section follows on the heels of a lengthy description of Israel’s forthcoming exile (chapters 5-37). As Isaiah shifts his attention from exile to restoration, it is apparent that there are two distinct returns from exile and two agents of redemption being described. The two returns are a return to the land of Israel and a return to an Eden-like experience with God.[4] Gentry summarizes this by noting: “There are two issues in the return from exile: physical return from Babylon and spiritual deliverance from bondage and slavery to sin.”[5] Corresponding to these two returns are two agents of redemption: Cyrus and the Servant. Whereas Cyrus is responsible for the people’s physical return to the land of Israel, the Servant is tasked with the more difficult task—securing forgiveness of sins and restoring a right relationship with God.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas this week, it is appropriate to consider the reason for the incarnation. Why did Jesus—the Second Person of the Trinity—step out of heaven and become a man? As Isaiah helps us see, it was to deliver us from our sin and reconcile us to God. This is why Jesus came. This is the reason we celebrate the arrival of Immanuel—God with us—at Christmas.

David Closson is the Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council.



[1] James M. Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010), 40.

[2] Peter J. Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (SBTJ), June 12, 2007, ,http://www.sbts.edu/resources/journals/journal-of-theology/sbjt-112-summer-2007/the-atonement-in-isaiahs-fourth-servant-song-isaiah-5213-5312/, 20.

[4] James M. Hamilton, “Introduction to Old Testament II” (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, August 30, 2016).

[5] Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” 22.

Christmas Future: Resting in the Hope and Peace of Christ

by Molly Carman

December 17, 2020

This is the final part of a 3-part series. Read Part 1: Christmas Past and Part 2: Christmas Present.

This year has been hard on us all. No one could have predicted the anxiety, disappointment, and uncertainty that seem to permeate 2020. Because of the struggle that this year has been, it would be easy to lean into fear, despair, and hopelessness during the holiday season. Furthermore, it is all too easy for us to fall prey to the hustle and bustle that distracts us from resting each Christmas. However, Christians are called to rest in the peace of Christ and not despair like those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13-18). Christmas is the perfect time to re-center ourselves on biblical truth and learn to rest.

The night before Christ was crucified, He reassured his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In other words, we should not be surprised or discouraged by the trials we have and will face in this year and the next. None of us could have predicted the events of 2020, and no one can predict what 2021 has in store. However, we can have confidence that God knows what the future holds, is still on the throne, and forever in control (Ps. 45:6, Lam. 5:19).

This season of Advent and Christmas is an opportunity to remind ourselves of God’s promises and rest in the knowledge that He who promised is faithful (Heb. 10:23). Though the seasons may change, our God never changes (Heb. 13:8). Although Christmas is primarily a celebration of the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ’s first coming, it is also a time to renew our hope in His promised second coming. As the Nicene Creed states: “He [Christ] shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and His kingdom shall have no end.” Difficult years like this one serve as reminders that this world is temporary and not our ultimate home; we are called to look forward and await the second coming of Christ and the restoration of all things (Heb. 13:14). This Christmas, our souls can find rest in the hope of His second coming.

Rest is something with which many of us struggle. We want to rest but cannot seem to find the time to feel rested. As my dad reminds me, we often think that rest’s opposite is work, but the opposite of rest is actually restlessness. The Christmas season can often feel like a restless and busy time rather than a restful and peaceful time. We can counteract the restless feeling by pausing to reflect on Christ’s first coming, His presence with us, and the hope of His second coming when all will be restored and made new. As Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Each Christmas season is an opportunity to intentionally practice resting. We wait and pray for Christ’s second coming, His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and we do so with hope and patience. We must endure hardship and opposition for the hope set before us (Heb. 12). The Jews waited for hundreds of years for the messiah to appear and save them from their oppression. But the way Christ chose to come surprised many of them. He came not as a political conqueror but as a humble child, on a donkey, and a suffering servant to save His people from their sins (Is. 52:13-53:12). In His second coming, Christ will come as the righteous judge, on a white horse, and as the King of kings (Rev. 19:11-16).

When we gather together this Christmas and sing carols about peace, joy, and rest, may we begin to implement these themes into a way of life and not just a season of life. The words of “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” all teach us these themes. Consider the words of one of these carols: “God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day. To save us all from Satan’s pow’r when we were gone astray. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy!” As you celebrate Christmas with those you love, remember to rest in the hope of these words.

When you feel restless, remember the admonition of the writer of Hebrews, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest of the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Heb. 4:9-11). Remember that true rest is found in Christ and our eternal home with Him in the new heavens and earth at His second coming.

While we are here on earth waiting for Christ to return, may we celebrate Christmas with hope and peace. Psalm 4:8 says, “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety.” Do not be afraid, for God has promised good news of great joy (Lk. 2:10-11); not only has the Savior of the world come, but as Christians have confessed in the words of the Nicene Creed ever since A.D. 325: “We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come. Amen.”

Christmas Present: Choosing Joy and Proclaiming the Good News

by Molly Carman

December 16, 2020

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series. Read Part 1: Christmas Past.

We have all experienced disappointment, tension, and fatigue in 2020. These emotions and circumstances can leave us feeling exhausted and make it tempting to gloss over Christmas this year. However, it’s important to keep in mind that Christmas is an opportunity to pause and remember Christ’s presence in our lives as Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Throughout Scripture, God’s people are repeatedly commanded to remember who God is and what He has done. The command to remember might seem obvious, but it does not come naturally to humans. We are prone to forget God’s nature and His goodness to us, which is precisely why Scripture repeatedly commands us to remember. While we are not commanded in Scripture to celebrate Christmas in particular, we are commanded to remember what God has done for us, and Christmas is a traditional time to remember the grace and gift of Christ’s first coming to earth.

After wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, Moses commanded the people of Israel, “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands” (Deuteronomy 8:2). You would think that after 40 years, the Israelites would not forget all that God had done for them in the wilderness. But despite frequent reminders from Moses and other leaders, the people did forget.

You would also think that it would be hard to forget how God humbled himself and was made a man to die in man’s place (Philippians 2). However, Christians continue to forget, regardless of God’s gentle and frequent reminders. Christmas is a time when we remember and celebrate the first coming of Christ, proclaiming this good news to the world and encouraging one another. However, it is easy to forget this good news in the hustle and bustle of the season or amid the trying circumstances of a year like 2020. Therefore, it is good to remind one another—this year and every year—of the true meaning of Christmas and all that God has done by sending His son, Jesus Christ.

Psalm 103:2-5 says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all you diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” We can easily become distracted by the pain of this year and all that could have been, but even our worst circumstances pale in comparison with the blessing of all that Christ has done by saving us from eternal separation from God.

There are three things that we can do to practice remembering God’s goodness to us this Christmas. First, we can refocus. The chaos of the world, especially in a particularly challenging year like 2020, is overwhelmingly distracting. The only remedy to distraction is focus, which requires self-control, discipline, and determination. Focus on the beauty, joy, and goodness of Christ. “Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2).

Second, we can choose joy: “Rejoice always, I will say it again, rejoice” (Philippians 4:2). Complaining and focusing on our less-than-perfect earthly circumstances distracts us from the blessings of the Lord, both present and promised.

Third, as we refocus and choose joy, we can then encourage those who have forgotten and share the good news with those who have not yet heard so that all may rejoice and share in the presence of Christ. “But exhort one another every day, as long it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).

The good news of the gospel starts at the birth of Christ, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). May we help one another remember and not forget the sacredness of Christmas and the beauty of the season.

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