In Sunday School classes across the country, there was a game that was played as I was growing up. They called it “Sword drill” after the Hebrews 4 passage comparing God’s Word to a sword. The game is quite simple. The Bible is held on top of the students head until the teacher calls out a scripture. Students slam their Bibles on the table and frantically search for the scripture that was called out. The first to arrive at the passage and begin reading would get a point. I have better and kinder Sunday School teachers than I was as a teacher. My two favorite verses to call out to my students were: Acts 8.37 and Mark 15.28. Most likely they are quoted in the footnotes of your Bible, but it is not often they are found in the actual text of your Bible. They are called textual variants (more on that later) and scholars don’t really know what to do with them. It brought me great joy to see the confusion on some of my kids faces…kinda mean right. I always gave them doughnuts to make up for it.
The quotation of Isaiah 53.12 is the textual variant, the added verse, of Mark 15.
Prior to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439, manuscripts, books, and correspondence was copied by hand. It was an arduous, time-consuming, and precise. Errors in copying, both intended and unintended, happened. Sometimes, scribes hust heard things wrong. At other times things were misspelled. Think back to a time before word check and spell check. Sometimes, the scribe felt background information was needed for the reader to understand (see John 5.4). Or the scribe wanted to harmonize two passages (Luke 11.2-4 and Matthew 6.9-13). It wasn’t an exact science nor is it an easy topic to study. But what does this have to do with Mark 15.28.
It too is a textual variant that most scholars would argue was not in the original text of Mark. Mark was the first gospel written. It lacks the intricate structure that the other gospels possess. It show signs of being written rather hastily. It also doesn’t use OT prophecy in the same way, nor the volume of the other gospels. Mark is like a 6th grader on Red Bull, bouncing around telling the story at a fast pace, hoping his readers can keep up! One of his favorite words is euthus meaning “immediately”! The oldest, most complete, and best preserved manuscripts, codices, and papyri, do not have this verse in them. Some later families have the verse inserted. It is doubtful that Mark wrote this verse.
So if Mark didn’t write it, who did?
This is not meant to weaken anyone’s faith in the Bible or the accuracy of Scripture. To the contrary, I think it can strengthen it. The Bible is more complex yet so simple. It is a simple story of God loving the World, with a storied history.
The early church’s used to get letters and books from writers, make copies, and then send them on to the next one. People would copy down reports and books for their own personal libraries. They shared with one another, traded with one another, and compared libraries. With the same veracity of a 9 year old with Pokemon cards, men of ancient renown collected volumes of documents.
There is no doubt in my mind that John Mark wrote the original gospel of Mark. Ancient historians attest to it, the content seems to point to him, and I believe that he even wrote himself into the book (Mark 14.51-52). But once Mark wrote down his gospel and made his own copies (however many there were); he sent them out to the Church’s as a testimony to the identity of Jesus. And somewhere along the way, someone inserted this verse and it got copied over and over and over. Many later copies of Mark have this verse. It is in both manuscripts and papyri. It is wide spread.
So if it wasn’t original to Mark, and someone else inserted it after the fact, why worry about it here? Why Easter?
First off, Isaiah 53 is finally put in the “right” place. It’s a passage about the sacrifice of the servant in place of the people. And every other place its been quoted, it wasn’t at the crucifixion! Some early scribe, probably thinking about Luke 22, put this verse about “counted with the transgressors” at the cross. Some early believer knew this was something that needed to be spelled out to the readers of Mark.
Secondly, it connects with the mission of Mark. The main point Mark is trying to make is communicated in Mark 10.45: “For the son of Man came not be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” If that isn’t the thrust of Isaiah 53, I certainly don’t know what is. If that isn’t the main thrust of the Crucifixion in Mark 15, I certainly don’t know what is. Some early scribe connected the two and took away the doubt.
Finally, it says something about Isaiah 53. All of the major New Testament authors drew from Isaiah 53 in vastly different ways and for many different purposes. Mark, or should I say the scribes and copiers of Mark, used it in the most straight forward way possible. Jesus hangs between 2 criminals…which is exactly what Isaiah said. Could it possibly be that a scribe, who knew that they did not have apostolic authority or the direct access to an apostle, shouldn’t stray to far from what would be called direct application? Just a thought.
The point is that Isaiah 53 has more than just crucifixion in mind as evidenced through the last week. But when it comes down to it, the major application, the major point of Isaiah 53 is straight forward: a servant took on our sin.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45)
Sports have a way of handing out the life lesson of humility over and over until it gets learned. Rodeo has been doing this for years. When Solomon writes in Proverbs: “Pride goes before destruction” (Prov. 26.18), it was prescient of the sport of Rodeo. Its easy to start thinking to highly of accomplishments, be it in ministry, work, rodeo, sports, or economics; sometimes a re-ordering is needed
Luke used a quote from Isaiah 53 to re-order his disciples before his arrest.
Luke isn’t the only one who uses this quote. In the textual variant in Mark 15, found in verse 28, Mark quotes Isaiah 53.12 as well. It is there in a fitting context and honestly it makes more sense than where Luke places his quotation. Mark has Jesus hanging on the cross when he writes: “They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left, [and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘He was counted with the lawless ones”. (Mark 15.27-28) The conversation surrounding this verse will have to wait, however, Mark’s placement of Isaiah 53 makes far greater sense than where Luke uses the same quote.
Luke quotes Isaiah 53.12 not at the cross but at the dinner table. Luke 22 records the Last supper that Jesus would have with his disciples. The arrest is coming soon. But for now, Jesus shares a final meal with them, followed by some interesting conversation. The topics of the conversation: betrayal (22.20-23); who’s the greatest? (22.24-30); and Peter’s denial (31-34). Three topics with one thing in common: the ignorance of the disciples. Each topic brought division, denial, argument, or dismissal. If I were Jesus, I would have ripped my hair out by now.
Jesus turns his attention from the last interaction, predicting Peter’s denial that seemed to be fairly private, to the rest of the disciples. He brings up their first experiences in ministry. Luke 9 says that Jesus called them together, gave them power and authority, and challenged them to preach the kingdom of God! (9.1-2) Then he said this: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic…”(3) Apparently they were successful. I mean, no one died and everyone came home! Too many years in youth ministry has lowered my definition of success when it comes to church trips.
So, the last trip went well and Jesus points that out. They “didn’t lack anything” despite taking nothing with them. Then Jesus begins his words in verse 36 with “But now…” Apparently things have changed. The first journey, Luke 9, Herod, the man in charge, was “perplexed” by the things going on. Jesus gets a different feeling about this time they will go out. First off, they wont have Jesus to come back to. Secondly, the world will begin to view the disciples differently. Now they need money and swords.
“It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’ and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” (Luke 22.37)
The biggest question I had about this quote, when realizing the vast difference in the contexts in which Mark and Luke used it, was the identity of the transgressors?
Jesus is surrounded by his disciples on the night of his arrest and he is being counted with the transgressors. I said that right, Jesus is “being numbered” with transgressors. I thought the transgressors were the criminals that he hung with according to Mark. Here, however, I believe that instead of waiting until the cross to hang with criminals, now Jesus and the disciples are considered the criminals. I believe this for a few reasons.
- Who carries swords? In scripture (and in all of Luke’s writings) it’s the government and rebels. The disciples had no need for swords. Now they are being told to go buy one. Jesus knows that the stakes are getting higher and they themselves will become those on the wrong side of the government.
- The change in location. They are at supper when these conversations are taking place. Verse 39 says: “Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place…” The change in geography would signal a change in players, conversation, and point. There aren’t any more natural breaks in the text from this point in the Garden to the burial of Jesus. I would argue that the quote of Isaiah 53 takes place in the previous section.
- The characters in Luke. Dr. Luke, a Gentile, was introduced to Jesus and his life was forever changed. But he was on the outside. It took quite sometime for Jews and Gentiles to be able to worship together without issue. So Luke always had an eye out for the out cast. Every walk of life, economic status, race, ethnicity, and gender makes significant contribution to Luke’s gospel (Out Cast Characters in Luke). This is the Gospel where a rebellious son can walk away and then return (Luke 15) and a criminal on the cross can find salvation (Luke 23). The disciples had always been the ones witnessing the women, the leprous, the lawless, and the outcasts, come to Jesus. Now, in the quotation of Isaiah, they have become the outcasts, the lawless in the eyes of the government.
- Finally, Jesus shows great restraint to keep the focus of the movement. They are a rebellion, for they meet all the classic signs of an ancient rebellion. They met in the wilderness, with a charismatic leader, with a new message. But unlike any other rebellion, this one is not an arms race. If they need to go buy a sword, common sense says buy as many as you can. But Jesus answer when they realize they have two swords: “that’s enough.” As Paul reminds us: “we do not fight with weapons of this world” (2 Cor. 10.4) Jesus tells them that they will fight for the Kingdom of God in an unconventional way.
So if we are to understand, and I think we should, the identity of the transgressors in Luke to be the disciples that Jesus is being arrested amongst, how then should we understand Luke’s use of Isaiah 53?
Luke uses Isaiah 53 as a re-ordering of the disciples understanding of themselves. They had been divisive (who will betray him?). They were arrogant (who is the greatest?). They were over-assured of their commitment to Jesus (Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.) Then in one quotation of Isaiah, Jesus tells them that they will soon be the outcasts, the prey, and the hunted. He was among the transgressors…just as we occasionally need the reminder….or should I say reorder?
For more see: Ministry Handout–The Untouchables
“Flyover state” is the term that people who consider their land and lifestyle more valued on the coast to the right or the left of us call the ag-land that they fly over on their coast to coast red-eye flight. In most of these states, cows outnumber people. I for one never plan on living in a state where there are more people than cows. Fly over states are places most people don’t want to go. Suffering and the Christian life is a topic that most people don’t want to touch. OT prophecy and the NT is a place most people don’t want to go. Peter had no intention of flying over these topics. Instead of avoiding the topic, Peter uses it as an example.
Peter uses Isaiah 53.9 as an example of how to encounter persecution and suffering.
“How do you live?” is a key component of the letter that Peter writes to those scattered all over the Empire. Things are starting to change and the Church is drawing the ire of Rome. Peter is writing from Rome, the hub of the entire world and the forefront of the hate. He calls it Babylon (1 Peter 5.13) and Babylon wasn’t a real friendly place for the servants of Yahweh in the Old Testament. The change is happening before Peter’s eyes and soon, unbeknownst to him, probably within the next few years, he would be the central figure of that persecution, being hung upside down on a cross at the hands of Nero.
“How do you live when the world is falling apart?”, asks Peter.
- “Do you rejoice?” (1 Peter 1.6)
- “Do you live holy?” (1 Peter 1.15)
- “Do you live in submission?” (1 Peter 2.13)
- “Do you live lovingly?” (1 Peter 3.8)
- “Do you live with the same attitude of Christ?” (1 Peter 4.1)
Woven in and out of these questions is the theme of suffering. The readers are keen to what is happening in the Empire. They know about the suffering going on all over the world (5.9). Peter is bringing them word about how to live in a volatile world.
This world is a hard place to live sometimes. In America, it is easier than other places. I would never compare my life here to those worshiping in underground churches in China, those being beheaded in the Middle East, or those in North Africa hiding scraps of the Bible so as to not have their hands chopped off for possessing the wrong scriptures. However, I do have conversations and cancer, divorce, hunger, addiction, abuse, neglect, poverty, and violence, cross every language, cultural, or physical boundary that man can imagine. Though Peter is talking specifically about persecution, I don’t feel it outside the circle of application, to speak to any and every form of suffering that we encounter; be it from the hands of men, the works of the enemy (5.8), or simply the groaning of a fallen world (Genesis 3; Romans 8.22).
What happens when the worst happens? How do you respond? How do you think? Ministry Handout–A Brief Theology of Suffering
Peter drew back to a time when the world was not a good place: the time of the prophets. Isaiah writes at a time when Egypt and Babylon were the two greatest powers in the world. Stuck between them was Judah. A small country that each one had to go through to get to the other one. They were their own ancient version of a fly over state for Babylon and Egypt. Still, the greatest problem that faced Judah was their own sin. They had wanted a King to lead them, so God answered wanting them to follow His will. Saul, David, Solomon, all failed at leading Israel to religious reform. So God raised up the prophets, to lead His people back to a covenant life…still no good. Isaiah peers into the past, watches the present, and gazes into the future.
Idolatry would be their downfall and exile the punishment. This was the low point for God’s people. Taken at the hands of the Babylonians; seventy years away from home; no more Temple, or sacrifices, or…life.
But God wasn’t done working, however, and gives Isaiah some messages about a Servant who would come someday to bring His people back from another land, from exile.
Peter channels this example from Isaiah; a flickering of light in the darkest of times. The Church is struggling and will continue to struggle with pain and suffering. It’s part of their existence. So Peter, having already used the lamb comparison with Jesus sacrifice on the cross (1 Peter 1.19), would draw on the image again, found in Isaiah 53, in order to show how Jesus responded to unjust suffering.
“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
It is a direct quote from the LXX except for the word “sin”. Peter uses the common greek word for “sin” (amartia) in 1 Peter. The translators of the Septuagint (LXX) chose to translate the hebrew word hamas, meaning “violence” or “injury”, as the greek word anomia which means “weakness” or “illness”. The LXX translators were probably closer to Isaiah’s idea in their translation; but Peter had other, grander, implications in mind.
Jesus was without transgression and completely innocent. Yet he suffered. Back up a few words before the quote. It was done as an example (21). Peter’s real point was not the innocent/perfect lamb. He has already noted the unblemished and without defect sacrifice that was offered on the cross (1.19). This quote is all about how he suffered. He didn’t respond in violence and returned no volley of insults. He “did not repay evil for evil (3.7). The word for “example”, hupogrammos, literally means “written upon”. This is the only place in scripture where this word occurs, called a hapex legomena. They were to write upon themselves, their hearts, how Jesus suffered. It fitting that in chapter 4, Peter commands them to: “have the same attitude as Christ.” (4.1)
The recipients of this letter know suffering. Peter uses the greek word for suffering, pascho, 12 times in this book. He uses the word more than any other NT writer. But Jesus set for us an example to follow in the midst of his unjust suffering. It is fitting that pascho, “suffering”, is a cognate of pascha meaning Passover or Passover lamb. Where sin is Passover is needed; where Passover is needed, death and suffering is there. Remember Passover from the Old Testament. The blood on the door frames had to come from somewhere. Christ was our Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5.7) but in doing so not only provided the blood to save us, but Peter’s example in suffering.
Do you have that one person in your life that tells you the same story over and over and over? The congregation where I preach is probably thinking of me right now. I’ve got a buddy who tells me the same story about his dog getting its head stuck in a fence about once a month. Hyperbole and exaggeration aside, seriously its once a month. He always begins with: “The other day…” The problem is that he has told me this story once a month for the last four years. “The other day…”, like when the Royals were still terrible? When Twitter was on the fringe of society? The story Philip told over and over and over, was Jesus’.
Philip’s life revolved around talking about Jesus.
He started out by letting others talk about Jesus. Acts 6 tells the story of the overwhelming aspect of ministry. Sometimes I think we get a glorified view of the Apostles. We look at their ministry and think: “Sure, if I had walked with Jesus, I would have things figured out too!” We know they suffered at the hands of persecution, that we will likely never experience; but we assume that their day to day ministry was fairly simple. Rather, Acts 6 shows that even the Apostles were stretched thin, worn out, over-worked, and struggling to do the day in and day out ministry. So the Twelve Apostles picked 7 men from among the people to wait on tables, to serve the meals and take care of the people. For what purpose? So that they could focus on “the ministry of the Word of God.” (Acts 6.1-4) The chosen men would serve…so others could talk about Jesus.
Philip was one of the 7 chosen.
Then Saul showed up and the home base of Jerusalem was under attack. (8.1-3) The disciples were scattered among the surrounding cities and Philip went to Samaria.
In Samaria, he talked about Jesus. He “proclaimed” (gk. kerysso) the Messiah and did signs there for the people. (8.5) He started doing apologetics, showing the errors of Simon’s ways (8.12). He was baptizing people (8.12). There are many ways that Luke chose to describe the telling of Jesus story; some “preached”, some “proclaimed”, and some “evangelized”. Occasionally, these words had different nuances and if your interested you can study them here. Nevertheless, the impact caught the attention of the disciples in Jerusalem, so Peter and John came down to check out his ministry. When they arrived, they gave the Holy Spirit to the ones Philip had baptized (16.17) His preaching ministry was quite successful.
On the road, he talked about Jesus. (Acts 8.26-40) Concluding his ministry in Samaria, Philip was sent to the road that linked Gaza and Jerusalem. It was a pretty good hike from where he was located in Samaria. Driving down the road was an official from Ethiopia. He was reading from the scroll of Isaiah. Philip overheard him and asked: “Do you understand what you are reading?” Years back a Jehovah’s witness caught Aaron Jones and I reading our Bibles at Qdoba and asked us the same question. We answered “no” and it led to some fascinating conversations over the next few weeks at the Mexican grill. That aside, the Ethiopian answered Philip’s question: “How can I understand if no one explains it to me?” Then Philip “began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.” (35) I wonder how he did it. Did he use apologetics to defend the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Did he tell about his own conversion, his own journey to faith? Maybe he did in Haiku’s…I dont know, but it is fun to think about!
The rest of his life, he talked about Jesus. Philip baptizes the Ethiopian man and is then whisked away (gk. harpazo) like the way a wolf attacks quickly (John 10.12) or soldiers take a prisoner into custody (Acts 23.10). God snatched him up and took him to Azotus. There he “preached the Gospel” (gk. euangelizo) to any one who would listen. He headed north along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea until he settled in Ceseara. The last mention of his life in Scripture, Acts 21.8, Philip is known as “the Evangelist” with 4 daughters who knew the Lord. That’s an obituary goal worth chasing. His title came from how he lived his life; he did not live his life based on his title.
Isaiah, as mentioned before, is the “Messianic Prophet”. The arrival of the Messiah, God’s chosen one, is worth celebration and news worth spreading. The hebrew word for “proclaiming good news”, basar, is used 7 times in Isaiah. He has news that is worth announcing. Paul quotes Isaiah when talking about preaching the gospel, when he says: “As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Isaiah 52,7; Romans 10.14) The LXX translators used the greek word euangelion to translate the hebrew word basar. Of course according to Paul’s next thought in Romans 10.16, “not all the Israelites accepted the good news”. (gk. euangelion)
Jesus also showed the connection between Isaiah and the pronouncement of the gospel. Near the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is asked to teach in his hometown Synagogue. The text he chooses is from Isaiah 61.1: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news (hb. basar) to the poor.” The LXX and Luke use the word euangelion, to translate the hebrew basar.
The connection is clear that Isaiah is concerned with getting the good news out! Philip is happy to hop on board.
“Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news (gk. euangelion) about Jesus” (Acts 8.35)
The Ethiopian was baptized that day. Philip had spoken to yet another person about the power, love, and sacrifice of Jesus. Using Isaiah as a starting point, an introduction, Philip changed one man’s eternal destiny.
Epilogue: Have you thought about how you would tell people about Jesus? One way is just to simply tell your story and how accepting Jesus into your life has changed you. If you don’t know where to begin…start here.
The pyro-technics went off, the smoke clouds filled the air, and the kerosene fire illuminated just enough of the dirt so as to be able to make my way to the center of the arena. I sauntered in. My face paint glowed under spotlight and my freshly pressed western shirt cast shadows from the sharp creases. Maybe it was the starch from the shirt, but my biceps and pecs felt much firmer and my posture improved under the spotlight. Then they called the wrong name! Turns out the introduction wasn’t for me, but for someone else…dang. Lesson learned. Arrivals can be tricky can’t they? This was not the case for Matthew.
Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 53 signals his understanding of the arrival of the Messiah and the Inauguration of a new Kingdom.
There are a few oddities with Matthew’s use of Isaiah 53. First off, he uses it outside of its usual time frame and context. Matthew and John are the only two to use it outside of the context of the cross. Every other author (save John) will use Isaiah 53 as a descriptor of what happened in the last 24 hours of Jesus life, and John within the last week; but Matthew quotes Isaiah 53, years before the cross would ever happen.
Secondly, Matthew doesn’t quote the Septuagint (LXX). In fact, the greek words in Matthew 8.17 and the LXX of Isaiah 53.4, outside of the words translated “and”, “us”, “he”, and “the”, are completely different. Matthew has astheneias, usually translated “weakness” or “sickness”, where as Isaiah uses the greek word amartias meaning “sins”. In Matthew, Jesus elaben, he “took up” our weaknesses, but in the LXX “he bore”, pherei our sins. The same can be said of the rest of the quotation. The quotation of Isaiah 53.4 in Matthew 8.17 seems to be more of a translation of the Hebrew scripture itself, than of the LXX. Which makes Matthew the only one quoting Isaiah 53 from the original Hebrew.
These reasons underscore how special and how unique Matthew’s treatment of Isaiah 53 is.
At first glance, it seems that the importance of the placement of the quote isn’t as important or significant as that of Paul and John. But something is happening in the 8th chapter of Matthew that we must understand before we can understand the quote. Let’s start at the beginning of Jesus Ministry in chapter 4.
- Jesus beings to preach: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” (Matthew 4.17)
- Jesus teaches in the Synagogues in Galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness (Matthew 4.23-25)
- Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount. His opening: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”(5.3) and he goes on for 3 chapters about what the kingdom is and how those in it live (Matthew 5-7)
- Heals a man with Leprosy (Matthew 8.1-4)
- Heals the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8.5-13)
- Heals Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8.14-15)
- Healed all the sick (Matthew 8.16)
- “This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.’”
Two things dominated Jesus’ early ministry: Kingdom talk and healing. His focus would shift to authority and power after this quotation, but the foundation had been set and for Matthew, the connection between healing and the Kingdom could not be separated. We need no further proof than from Matthew 11 and 12.
John the Baptist is in prison. He is wondering what it is all about. (Matthew 11.2) Did he waste his time? Was he, God forbid, wrong about the identity of the one he announced? So he sends his disciples to ask Jesus a question. “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (11.3) Jesus has the perfect response to this: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor…” (Matthew 11.4-5)
Quickly, compare that list with Isaiah 35. Isaiah is talking about the redeemed people who have seen God’s glory when he writes: “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way…The eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” (Isaiah 35.3,6) Sound familiar. When John wanted to know if Messiah had arrived, Jesus didn’t just say “Yes”, he said: “look at the results.” Jesus said, “Isaiah’s prophecy is taking place before your very eyes!”
The second thought comes from Matthew 12 where Jesus has just healed on the Sabbath and then had to retreat. Many followed him and he healed all their sick (Matthew 12.15), What is most interesting is Matthew’s take on this.
“This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Isaiah 42.1-4)
It is without a doubt that Matthew equates healing with the arrival of the Servant of God and the arrival of his Kingdom. In fact, every instance of Matthew’s use of Isaiah (save for perhaps Matt. 15) is in direct context of healing or kingdom messages.
Isaiah 53.4 says: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.”
It is such a simple statement about the work and ministry of the Lord’s Servant. Isaiah is, after all, called the “Messianic Prophet”. Matthew, however, took it even further. It was the arrival of the Lord’s chosen Messiah, who would bring back his people from exile, be it physical or Spiritual, and give them a new way of living. In reading Matthew 8 and Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah, the reader is given the privilege of seeing Matthew’s eye’s opened to the reality that Jesus Christ is the chosen One of God to do his work and to bring his kingdom to this earth. It is a kingdom that can transform our lives and transform our soul. This kingdom only comes through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The one who was sent by God to bring us back. Matthew understood that and chose Isaiah 53, to prove his point: The Kingdom has arrived…and it wan’t by accident!
Bareback riders must have a terrible time finding tuxedo’s that fit. It must be difficult to find a jacket that has one arm 6 inches longer than the other. Bareback riders wedge their hand into a riggin’ and then hang on for dear life for 8 seconds as their body gets contorted into shapes that make Cirque du Sole seem like beginners yoga class. When asked: “why do you fight bulls?” my answer is simple: “I wanted to be involved in Rodeo without harnessing my self to any large animals!” Bareback riding is exactly what I was trying to avoid. Bareback riders arms is how they make their money. The bend in the elbow, the compression of the bicep, and the grip in the hand make their arm and their power pay off. See it wasn’t just Isaiah who saw the importance of a powerful arm.
John uses Isaiah’s metaphor of God’s arm (aka. His power) to understand Jesus’ ministry to this world.
The imagery of the arm of the Lord is used throughout the Old Testament. It is in reference to God’s power to redeem his people (Deut. 4.34), as Creator (32.27), performer of the miraculous (Deut. 26.8), and Judge (Jer. 21.5). The underlying message, however, is the power and the capability of God to accomplish his purposes. Be it a showdown with Pharaoh or a conquering people, the Old Testament authors knew their God had the upper hand…or should I say arm.
As for Isaiah, the “arm of the Lord” was one of his favorite metaphors. Fourteen times from his pen, we find this imagery. In every instance it is used in the context of salvation. God will save his people! Isaiah wants to make this overwhelmingly clear. John would later expand on one of his salvation passages (Isaiah 40.10-11), where Isaiah is describing the arms of the Lord like a shepherd looking after his sheep. It is a metaphor Jesus would get great use of in John 10. Isaiah uses the idea of “the arm of the Lord” as a description of the past and a prescription of the future. A God who has done wonders for his people and a God who will some day bring back his people from exile. He would accomplish this future mission by sending a servant with his power described in Isaiah 53.
But why does John use this verse on this occasion in John 12.38?
John 11.37-38 says: “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still did not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: ‘Lord who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?'”
The reason, I think, is because it is in these few verses that all of the book of John comes to a head. It is a convergence of sorts, where all the aspects of John’s testimony come together.
- Jesus Ministry: His worldly ministry began when he first changed the water to wine in chapter 2. He then spent all of his time in the public eye, doing ministry in the world, but beginning in chapter 13, all of his time will be spent pouring into his disciples. This quotation is an epilogue to his public ministry in John.
- Division in John: John might be the only guy ever to center his narrative around division. Throughout the entire gospel people are divided over the question: “Who is Jesus?” In our text: “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him (37)….Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him (42).” When Jesus arrives, people divide.
- Signs in John: Jesus began his public ministry by turning the water to wine in Cana (John 2). This was the first of seven signs that Jesus would perform in John’s gospel. The last of the signs was Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11) in the prior chapter, thus concluding his public ministry as mentioned before. Our text, John 12.37 mentions these “signs”. John refers to them as signs, where as the other gospel writers use the term miracles. As it pertains to our text, the word “miraculous” in the NIV does not appear in the greek text…just in case you were wondering. The sign discussion leads me to the next point…
- Belief in John: “Even after he had done all these signs in their presence, they still would not believe…”(37) Ninety-Eight times is the word translated “believe” (gk. pisteuo) used in John’s gospel. That is nearly half of the times in the New Testament. Belief is often used in connection with the signs that Jesus performed. Jesus even sums it up in John 6, immediately after feeding the 5,000 (sign 4) and walking on the water (sign 5), when he answers the question: “What must we do to do the works God requires?”. Jesus answered: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” Belief is paramount.
- The Purpose: John’s purpose for writing is stated in John 20.30-31: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Again, “miraculous” is added by the NIV and not in the greek, but still, the signs recorded here were meant to bring them to belief. But what does our text say? “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous sings in their presence, they still would not believe…”(12.37) Diametrically opposite!
The Jewish leaders have found themselves in a collision of greatest importance. Before them stands Jesus Christ, with all his signs, all his statements, all his accolades…and all his Power. That is what this is really all about. Jesus and his power.
In Hebrew prophecy and poetry, there is a literary device known as parallelism. The second line, in our case “to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”, repeats the message of the first line. This device equates the two ending clauses. Therefore, the “arm of the Lord”, a metaphor extolling the “Power of God”, is equated with the “message” being preached in line 1.
If its been a while, you should go back and read John 1 and answer the question that has plagued us the entire book of John: “Who is Jesus?” John 1 begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus Christ was the message of God to the entire world and in him was the Power of God. Isaiah 53.1 and John 12.38 is where the message of God, “For God so loved the world…” (John 3.16) and the power of God, “My Father, whom yo claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me” (John 8.54) stand before them in the person of Jesus; and it will soon be shown greater still in his death and resurrection, yet they could not bring themselves to believe. So John lifts the question from Isaiah 53.1:
Who has believed our message; and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
If you have never had the pleasure of trying to “cut” cows on a true pure bred cutting horse…consider yourself lucky.
Most of the horses I have ridden were not bred, nor trained to cut cows. They were ranch horses who would look at a cow but not really work one. A true cutting horse will stop on a dime, shift its front end at break neck speed, with little warning. If you aren’t prepared for such a maneuver, then you will soon find yourself performing different manuever that ends with you on your backside in the dirt. But hey, I’ve never really been considered much of a horseman, so operator error is a valid explanation. True cutting horses are quick, intelligent, intuitive, and powerful. They will plant their back feet, roll their hips, and head another direction before the rider even cues them. Paul does the exact same thing with Isaiah 53. See, Paul uses Isaiah 53 as a turning point, as a transition.
The purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans is found in Romans 1.16-17 where Paul writes:
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness from God is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'”
Located in this verse is a comparison, a contrast, and a transition. “First for the Jew, then for the Gentile” shows the two sides. At this time it was argued as the two sides of salvation. The Jews were saved; the Gentiles were on the outside looking in. That was until, Peter opened the door to the Gentiles in Acts 10.
Romans is about bringing both the Jew and Gentile to faith..but there was a problem.
What is needed is a transition in thinking. In both of Paul’s quotations of Isaiah 53, in Romans 10.16 and 15.21, the verse begins with the word “but” (gk. alla). “But” signals a change, a transition, in thought. A simple look at Romans 10 illustrates this point:
- Romans 10.1: “Brothers, my hearts desire and prayer to God for the Israelite’s is that they may be saved.”
- Romans 10.12-13: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all of who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
- Romans 10.16: “But not all the Israelite’s accepted the good news…”
- Romans 11.1: “Did God reject his people? By no means!” He then goes on about the remnant.
- Romans 11.11: “…salvation has come to the Gentiles…”
The hinge of this entire section is verse 16 at the word “but” and Isaiah’s question: “Lord, who has believed our message?” Isaiah and Paul both are asking where the belief lies. Paul answers it in the “Gentiles”. This is why he can claim in verse 13 of chapter 11: “I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles…”
In Romans 15, instead of using “Jew” and “Gentile” as categories, he uses the terms “those who have heard” and “those who have not”. Paul clearly states his mission as: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” (Rom. 15.20) Then there is that word “rather” (gk. alla) elsewhere translated “but”. Then he quotes Isaiah 52.15. Thematically the end of chapter 52, starting at verse 13, gels with Isaiah 53. For sheer ease, I refer to the whole prophecy as Isaiah 53. In this case Paul quotes the last verse of Isaiah 52: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” Paul uses Isaiah to transition thinking about who needs the Gospel. For Paul the answer is clear…those who have not heard. That is why Paul had not been able to come to this body of believers yet. (Romans 15.22)
Secondly, Paul Romans 10.16 as a transition of salvation. Paul attunes his readers to the fact that the Gospel changes peoples lives. Romans 10.9-10 makes it very clear:
“That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
and then he adds: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (10.14) Paul understands that hearing leads to belief, and belief to confession, and confession to salvation.
But not all Israel believed. Then he quotes Isaiah 53: “Lord, who has believed our message?” Isaiah was originally written in the hebrew language. In around 270 B.C. the Old Testament was translated from hebrew into greek so that people could more easily read it. This is called the Septuagint, or LXX for short. Paul quotes the exact words of the LXX here. He uses the common Greek word for belief (gk. Pisteuo) and equates it with “accepted” in the quotes introduction. The greek word for “accepted” is intriguing. The word used here (gk. upakousan) is a word that means “to answer the door”. It is used of Rhoda in Acts 12.3 when she “answered the door” after Peter knocked. You get the picture here. The Jews refused to let Jesus in…but the Gentiles were willing. A transition in those who are saved. But there is another transition that Paul uses Isaiah for in Romans 15.
Finally, Paul uses Isaiah 53 in Romans 15, to show his transition in ministry. The first quotation was about salvation, this one is about evangelism. The change in thought, led to a change in ministry. If you are unfamiliar with Paul’s story the short version is this. He was a persecutor of the church (Acts 8.1) but after an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), Saul (his former name, more on this later) would spend a few years in the desert (Gal. 1.18), then 14 years preaching in Judea to the Jews (Gal. 2.1), and finally was called to preach to the Gentiles (Gal. 2.2,7-10). He had a transition in ministry. When Saul, a Hebrew name from his parents, took off on his first missionary journey, to plant churches among the Gentiles, in Acts 13.9, he took on a Greek name, Paul. A transition in ministry. He defends his ministry with this: “I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 15.15-16)
When Isaiah penned his words in Isaiah 53, 700 years before Paul, he was finishing his work. The Servant whom this prophecy was about was the exclamation point to his entire work. This was the figure that was the end, the goal of Isaiah’s words. He would bring the people back from the exile. He was the one that Isaiah waited and hoped for!. But for Paul, Isaiah’s words were a transition. Paul’s mission, his ministry, and understanding of salvation all hinge on Isaiah’s Prophecy in Isaiah 53. Paul thought of Isaiah’s words as a new beginning in thought, salvation, ministry. His words opened up the ministry to the Gentiles, it was a gateway for Gentile salvation, and a step towards a new understanding of people. Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 2.4: “But, because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved.” For Paul, and in many ways us, Isaiah’s quotes can be seen as the first steps toward a great adventure, if we are able to understand, believe, and confess this “Suffering Servant” and his name is Jesus. Our lives can turn on a dime; they can transition when we call on the name of Jesus.
We all have that one friend.
They can turn a hand at almost anything. Leather work, no problem. Roping, heels or horns, is not an issue for them. They can diagnose a farm truck, weld a pen, train a horse, and if need be pen a poem. They are the most interesting man in the world. I have a few of these men in my life…and I’m jealous of them. Lucas, Josh, Bandy, Thomas, Chuck, and the others, you guys know who you are. Whatever your hands found you doing today, you undoubtedly accomplished more than I.
As Holy Week begins, I want to introduce you to a man who is every bit as versatile as those mentioned above. He was a main part of whatever he was involved in; that is probably why he was invited to every party. Like the afformentioned, everyone wanted him around…especially when the worst happened.
Isaiah was one of the prophets of Judah. His ministry and writings spanned a significant amount of events during some of the best and worst kings of Judah. Then he died. But the Words of his prophecy would be remembered and written again, long after his death.
The major players of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and Peter) account for most of writings of the New Testament. Every one of them in some way interacts with Isaiah’s recorded prophecy.
They all, lacking Peter, quote Isaiah 6 to some degree. Isaiah, having been known as the “Messianic Prophet”, is littered through out the Gospel Narratives and the Pauline Epistles. Every time Isaiah 6 is quoted, the situation is the same and the context similar: unbelief or non-understanding of the people. This is not the case for Isaiah 53.
Isaiah 53 (really 52.15ff.) is used by all of them to explain the events that would happen in 33 a.d. that we will all celebrate and mourn this coming weekend. When these guys went to the cross (the NT writers), they brought with them the words of Isaiah 53. Arguably, and Psalm 22 is debatable , Isaiah 53 is the clearest picture of what took place on the day Jesus was crucified. But each writer brings Isaiah’s words out in different was, to highlight their own arguments and illuminate their individual aspects of the cross.
The beauty of the gospel is that there is but one Gospel (the good news of Jesus coming to Earth to die for our sins and give us eternal life through his resurrection) yet there are many gospels (the individual stories of how Jesus came and what he does in us and through us). Each NT writer lends their own aspects to the gospel narrative and each writer pulls from Isaiah 53 in a different way for a different purpose! Paul asks a question; John makes a statement about God; Peter illuminates a doctrine. Every one is unique.
This week I want to highlight this incredible passage of Scripture (Isaiah 53) through the lenses of the New Testament writers who bring him along to the cross in effort to put words to what they are witnessing.