Tag archives: Christmas

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.

For Some Christians Around the World, Celebrating Christmas is Dangerous

by Arielle Del Turco

December 24, 2019

As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Christmas, many are forced to do so in secret. Arrest and punishment at the hands of the government or violence at the hands of extremist groups plague many around the world who simply try to celebrate the birth of their Savior.

In Iran, the government takes advantage of Christmas celebrations in their effort to crackdown on the spread of Christianity. Dabrina Tamraz has been a victim of religious persecution herself in Iran. She is reporting that authorities began to arrest Christians in the last few weeks. She says, “Christmas celebrations make it easier for Iranian authorities to arrest a group of Christians at one time.”

The Iranian government’s main targets are converts to Christianity from a Muslim background and evangelicals. The regime feels threated by Christians who would evangelize and share their faith. Christians who stay home might avoid being targeted by authorities, but any expressions of faith—including Christmas celebrations—can be dangerous.

Christians in India are also bracing themselves amid a new wave of persecution this December. According to International Christian Concern, at least 10 Christians were arrested on trumped-up criminal charges, clean drinking water was cut off for 25 Christian families, and several churches have been shut down just this month.

We have cancelled all our Christmas events in Banni Mardatti village, including carols, cottage meetings, and pre-Christmas events,” said Pastor Raja Bhovi from in India’s Karnataka State, “There is a fear of being attacked by Hindu radicals.” 

If last year is any indicator, these fears may be justified. Just before Christmas in 2018, a mob attacked a small church in India’s Maharashtra state, leaving many injured.            

Some countries go so far as to openly ban the celebration of Christmas. In Brunei, a small country on the island of Borneo, Christians found celebrating Christmas illegally could face a 5-year prison sentence, a $20,000 fine, or both.

Brunei instituted this policy in 2015, while its Ministry of Religious Affairs released a statement expressing concern that any public Christmas celebrations might “damage the aqidah (beliefs) of the Muslim community.” 

In North Korea, those who celebrate Christmas can be imprisoned, tortured or put to death. North Korea is a communist country where the only gods allowed are the Kim family dictators. Christmas is not widely known, and certainly not celebrated publicly. Yet, the North Korean regime has seemingly tried to replace Christmas altogether. 

North Koreans are encouraged to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-Suk, the deceased grandmother of Kim Jong Un. Her birthday, which falls on Christmas Eve, is even marked by pilgrimages to the town of her birth. The empty substitute religion centered on the Kim family ultimately won’t satisfy the human soul. Open Doors USA estimates that there are approximately 300,000 Christians in North Korea—quite an accomplishment for the most closed country in the world. 

In countries across the world, any expression of the Christian faith leaves Christians vulnerable to arrest from the government or even attacks from their neighbors. Christians are often forced to either cancel their celebrations or gather in secret. Yet, the price for getting caught at such clandestine events can be costly.

As Christians in the West openly celebrate the Christmas season with friends and family, we should pause and pray for the Christians who will celebrate in secret. We can be thankful that Christ was born over 2,000 years ago to bring us the Gospel. And that hope is a light that no force of darkness can extinguish.

Christmas Joy and Divorce

by Family Research Council

December 9, 2014

Each Christmas my wife Joy and I set up our tree and relive the memories of past years. For every year of Joy’s life she has received an ornament commemorating a major life event. There is a baby crib for year one and a Crayon box for a few years later. There is an ornament for her first car and for her college graduation. There are many “Joy” ornaments as can be expected for someone with such a cheery Christmas name. And there is one of my favorites, the one that reminds us of our marriage. Sadly many couples do not spend Christmas together. Many more use the holiday, not for sharing sweet memories but for hurtful words and unkind actions. Others spend it shuttling the kids between their broken homes.

I consider my marriage to my wife to be precious as well as sacred. When we said our vows we both sincerely understood and meant “for better or for worse” and “‘til death do you part.” A recent article in First Things on the danger of no-fault divorce laws demonstrates the sad reality for many families harmed by recent American attitudes toward divorce. The article lists some casualties of no-fault divorce including “abandoned spouses, the institution of marriage, and American society itself.” No-fault divorce gives the false impression that there is an easy way out of the difficulties of marriage. Rather than seeking to understand one another, become more loving, and to get counseling when needed, many couples simply give up on marriage. But divorce is never that simple. It affects children, the couple, and the country. A society whose basic family unit is not functioning in harmony cannot expect its political institutions to function well. A society where the marriages are not accountable to God cannot expect its other institutions to be accountable to God.

Love in marriage is a difficult thing. One sees all of the faults of their spouse. It can be easy to become frustrated and discouraged. But marriage is not about one, it is about two who have become one. No fault divorce has caused many homes to become not a place of joy at Christmas but one of bitterness and broken hearts. We must work to change the no-fault divorce culture to a marriage-is-precious culture. So this Christmas if you are struggling, let your spouse know you believe your marriage is precious and seek help. If you are happily married then I recommend going home and, like me, giving your Joy a loving Christmas hug, it will do more good than you know.

CMI on the War on Christmas

by Family Research Council

December 22, 2011

The Media Research Centers Culture and Media Institute (CMI) recently posted an article about the war on Christmas, documenting how some in the media ignore or demean attacks on Christmas as phony and fake. One of the attacks on Christmas that they list comes from JP Duffys experience at a U.S. Post Office in Silver Spring, MD.

CMI fellow Erin Brown writes, Even our tolerant Federal government is playing the Grinch card this year. According to FoxNews.com, A group of Christmas carolers was thrown out of a U.S. Post Office in Silver Spring, MD, after the post office manager told them they were not allowed to sing Christmas carols on government property.

Brown documents a long series of attacks over the last couple of years, as well as the reactions of numerous liberal media types that ignore or mock the war on Christmas.

These days, the war on Christmas is fought by the Christian right … [Catholic League President] William Donahue and Rupert Murdochs New York Post, traditional combatants in the war on Christmas, have trained their Yuletide guns on someone, not for railing out put the Christ back in Christmas, but for failing to worship Santa Claus, Keith Olbermann accused on his old MSNBC show Countdown in November of last year.

If youre not convinced that theres a war on Christmas, check out the page, and a few of the attacks it documents:

In upstate New York, one school district has declared that Christmas and Hanukkah will no longer be celebrated in classrooms. According to FOX/WROC, The Batavia City School District will no longer allow decorations for either holiday to appear in classrooms as well as teachers are discouraged from writing or saying Merry Christmas. In Fairfax County, Va., grade-schoolers are treated to winter celebration. In Texas, another school district has declared war on Christmas this time, classrooms are not allowed to celebrate Santa Claus or exchange gifts.

Some attacks on Christmas are downright weird. The Huffington Post has the Skeleton Santa story, which Brown also documents in her article.

Thankfully, this hopeful time of year isnt built on the backs of Christmas displays shimmering on lawns and in storefronts. Its founded on the birth of hope: Christ Jesus our Lord.

Post Office Manager Throws Christmas Carolers Out into the Cold

by JP Duffy

December 12, 2011

This Christmas season has been very memorable for me and my wife especially now that Audrey, our 2-year-old, is old enough to participate in festivities such as decorating the Christmas tree. Since Thanksgiving, Audrey has danced around the house singing Jingle Bells and humming the tunes of Christmas carols that she hears throughout the day. Last Saturday, Audrey almost had the opportunity to experience another Christmas tradition for the first time —- caroling. The three of us stood in line along with dozens of other customers at the U.S. Post Office located in the Aspen Hill Shopping Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. We were preparing our packages when Audrey tugged on my sleeve, saying Daddy, Daddy, look. I turned to see a bright smile on her face as she pointed to a trio of Christmas carolers entering the post office who looked like they had stepped off the theatre stage of A Christmas Carol. The gentleman of the group wore a top hat and the ladies were arrayed with shawls and bonnets. Dickens would be proud. Everyone turned their attention to the carolers in anticipation of that annual tradition that weve all experienced.

They were only a few notes into their carol when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw a scowling postal manager rushing to confront the carolers. He angrily told them that they had to leave immediately because they were violating the post offices policy against solicitation. Everyone was momentarily frozen in astonishment before customers began booing the manager. Even in the face of protests from his customers, the manager wouldnt back down.

The carolers explained that they were going to each business within the shopping center to sing a couple of carols — as they have done for many years. However, this was the first time that they had been turned away. The manager said he didnt care and that they could take it up with the postmaster if they had a problem. You cant do this on government property, he said. You cant go into Congress and sing and so you cant do it here either, he said smugly as the carolers turned sadly to leave. I encouraged them to file a complaint but they had little hope that a complaint would resolve anything and felt they had no choice but to acquiesce.

I later described the incident to a friend of mine who had worked for the post office for 26 years. He couldnt imagine that there would be any policy that would prevent Christmas caroling at post offices. Indeed, a Google search will show examples of post office caroling during past Christmas seasons.

Over the last several years, we have watched militant secularists team up with federal bureaucrats in the effort to sterilize the public square of anything remotely connected to anything religious. This postal manager has clearly received the memo which has led him to stamp out Christmas caroling. But I have my own memo to all the Christmas carolers out there. Lets not surrender to the secularist version of Christmas future. Lets hold onto Christmases of past and do our part to pass that on to our children. As for me, I am taking at least one piece of advice from the postal manager and will send my own comment to the General Postmaster. The U.S. Constitution in no way prevents the government from accommodating Christmas caroling. I invite you to send your own memo (or email in this case) to pmgceo@usps.gov or call 1-800-275-8777.

Ben Franklin, the founder of the U.S. Post Office once said, So shalt thou always live jollily; for a good conscience is a continual Christmas. The U.S. Post Office and all of us would do well to heed Franklins advice.

UPDATE: Sign FRC’s petition affirming Christmas

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