Isaiah 53: Luke’s Reordering
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