Here’s a truism: It’s not only what you say, but it is what you do with it. See, I could talk about clocks and tsunamis and being superstitious and about selfies and you would not be impressed at all, and rightly so. But look at these brilliant calligrams by Ji Lee from Designwrld (again these are copywritten, so be sure to give credit where credit is due, and for these designs, there ought to be great credit given!). Instead of talking clocks, let’s talk. . . .
And instead of trying to define a tsunami to someone, all we have to do is show them this. . . .
Are you superstitious? Here’s a perfect way to picture that attitude. . . .
And instead of interrupting a conversation to tell everyone you want to take a selfie, simply show them this calligram. . . .
See, it’s not only what you say, but it is what you do with it. Here’s today’s question: What does the New Testament do with Isaiah 53? The answers may surprise you.
Before we answer that question, let me provide some background. The New Testament unambiguously quotes verses of Isaiah 53 six times (in Mt. 8:17, in Lk. 22:37, in Jn. 12:38, in Acts 8:32-35, in Rom. 10:16; and in 1 Pet. 2:24-25). And while each quotation affirms that Jesus is most certainly Isaiah’s suffering servant, each quotation serves a distinct and different purpose. Now, for me, Isaiah 53 has one clear theme: substitutionary atonement. Jesus took on our sins and punishment upon himself and died in our place so that we could be forgiven. That is clearly Isaiah’s point in verses 4-6:
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Given that is Isaiah’s main idea, I would expect all six New Testament citations to reaffirm this theme; Jesus is our substitute and by his wounds we are healed, but surprisingly only Acts 8 brings that idea to the forefront. The others don’t mention it. They each do something completely different with Isaiah (which is kind of my point). So, let’s unpack the six ways the NT authors use Isaiah 53.
Let’s start off with Acts 8. You may remember the story. There is an Ethiopian eunuch sitting in his chariot reading Isaiah 53. Philip drops in and asks him if he understands what he is reading. The Ethiopian says he does not, so starting with Isaiah 53, Philip tells him the good news about Jesus; and the Ethiopian becomes a Christ follower. (But note the question the Ethiopian asks in verse 34, “Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Even back then, Isaiah 53 was confusing!). Bottom line: Acts quotes Isaiah 53 to tell the story of Jesus’ life and his substitutionary atonement for sins. Let me just say, I like Philip. He understands Isaiah perfectly!
And then, there is Matthew. Matthew quotes Isaiah 53 for a different purpose. In chapter 8, Matthew is describing an episode of Jesus’ healing ministry. But then, out of nowhere he says (8:17):
“This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
‘He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.’”
Now, that seems like a bit of a stretch, but maybe not. Most scholars understand that when a New Testament author quotes a brief OT passage, most of the time it refers to the entire context of the quotation. Plus, the Bible sees a connection between sin and sickness and a connection between forgiveness and healing, a connection that is ultimately accomplished by Jesus’ suffering and death. Thus, Jesus’ healing ministry was a foretaste of what Jesus’ atoning death accomplished for us. In short, Jesus’ healings always pointed beyond themselves to Jesus’ death, a death that atoned for sins and gave eternal healing.
How about Luke? Jesus quotes Isaiah 53 in Luke 22:37 to fulfill Isaiah’s words that he would be “numbered with the transgressors.” Jesus urges his disciples to buy a sword or two so that when the Roman guards came to arrest him in the garden, they would perceive him as a criminal. Honestly, I would not have made this connection or forced this point, but Jesus felt compelled to identify himself with Isaiah 53 and especially with being numbered with the transgressors (as far as I know, there is no other place in the Old Testament where there is such a prophecy). In short, all I can say is that Luke 22:37 is a surprising usage of Isaiah 53.
John 12:38, on the other hand, uses Isaiah 53 as an explanation for why many Jews refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah. After all, Isaiah 53:1 asks a question expecting a negative or nominal answer: “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” John is saying: “What could be a huge hindrance to the gospel (in other words, if his own people didn’t believe in him, people who saw him with their own eyes, why should we?) gets turned to his advantage. Even Jesus’ rejection by the people was part of God’s plan, and we can see that clearly in Isaiah 53.
Paul in Romans 10:16 does the same thing as John. He also identifies the lack of Jewish response as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 53. He writes, “But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’” It is another very surprising usage.
And last, Peter uses Isaiah 53 as a paradigm for how we should perceive suffering that comes our way. Peter writes (1 Pet. 1:2:21-22):
“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’”
See, it’s not only what you say, but it is what you do with what you say. And these six passages give us a glimpse into how the New Testament authors perceived and used the Old Testament; and while there are numerous insights we could make here, one rises to the top. The New Testament authors all saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. In fact, they believed that the entire Old Testament pointed towards Jesus (in a host of different ways, some expected, some extremely surprising). And that insight ought to shape how we read the Old Testament.
And that brings us to the end of this series. I am so thankful for the insights and the conversations in Levine and Brettler’s wonderful book, The Bible With and Without Jesus. And here’s why: anything that moves us forward in our understanding of how the New Testament uses the old is worth its weight in gold. But now there is only one thing to do. Please make your way to the nearest exit. Or if you prefer, the nearest . . .
(Thanks again to Ji Lee for the calligrams – they are tremendous!)