Dec. 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.” 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.” 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.
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. 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.” 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.
 James M. Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010), 40.
 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.
 James M. Hamilton, “Introduction to Old Testament II” (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, August 30, 2016).
 Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” 22.