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Thursday, August 30, 2012

"The Gospel According to Isaiah 53"

TITLE: The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology
AUTHOR: Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (editors).
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2012, (336 pages).

Based on a series of lectures given in March 2009 at Irving Bible Church at Dallas, the idea behind the book is to enable both Christians and Jews to see the deep connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament through Isaiah 53, and how it shines light on Jesus being the Messiah. With 11 distinguished scholars, theologians, and professors of Old Testament from reputed theological schools, this book is a treasure chest of all things Isaiah 53. In fact, the activities that arise out of such an initiative, have created a greater awareness among Jews, that there is a gospel within the Old Testament.

This collection of papers broadly covers three areas pertaining to the study and research of Isaiah 53. The first part begins with two interpretations: A Christian one as well as a Jewish one. Richard Averbeck sees the suffering servant figure as one who is not only a Prophet, but will eventually be a Glorified Person, that this figure will also bring salvation to both Jews and Gentiles. The picture of a Servant who suffers, a Messiah who prophesies, a Son of God, and a Saviour are all evident in the one person of Jesus Christ. Themes of suffering, sacrifice, and atonement runs throughout this chapter, and through Jesus, God fulfills the prophecy. From a Jewish perspective, Michael Brown, himself a Messianic Jew, lists down at least 9 popular Jewish interpretations, chief of which is that Isaiah 53 emphasizes more on the victory rather than the suffering. He gives a helpful summary of the "big three" perspectives from the brilliant minds of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak, that all of them agree Isaiah 53 referring to the nation of Israel. Brown engages these "big three" with a focused argument that embraces both the suffering and the victory, in contrast to the Jewish overemphasis on the victory as well as the righteousness of Israel. This sets the tone for Part Two of the book, which covers biblical theology.

Part Two represents the core nuts and bolts of the entire book. With six powerful essays, we learn from six world-class Old Testament professors through exegesis and biblical theology. Walter C. Kaiser Jr kicks off the session with the objective of understanding the identity and mission of the Suffering Servant. He gives 8 reasons why the Messiah figure in Isaiah 53 is NOT Israel. In fact, the most powerful piece of evidence lies in the New Testament interpretation of Isaiah 53 through Jesus' own words (like Luke 22:37), as well as Isaiah itself.  The mystery, the rejection, the atonement, the submission, and the exaltation of the suffering Messiah, can find no better explanation than in the person of Jesus Christ. Michael J Wilkins follows up with a second essay that focuses on the salvation message guided by two questions. How does Jesus see himself? This is followed by how the New Testament writers see Jesus. Wilkins conclude that both can only be answered with Jesus as the answer. The third essay by Darrell Bock links the reading of Isaiah 53 with Acts 8. Being the longest citation of Isaiah 53 by a New Testament book, Bock goes deep into the Septuagint and the Hebrew Scriptures to deal with three interpretive problems in the Hebrew texts. Jesus by allowing himself to be shamed, enables the world to gain everything. Craig A Evans uses the letters of Peter, Paul, Hebrews, and John to explain how Isaiah 53 shapes their theology. Evans reveals Peter's amazement at how the sufferings of Christ can be transformed into glorious victory. Paul uses Isaiah to announce and to proclaim the good news of Christ. Hebrews and John declare that Jesus is the ultimate high priest. David L Allen expands our understanding by showing us the context of Isaiah 53, on the identities of the people in that chapter, the cults alluded to, the language, and the identity of who the servant figure is. He is rather convincing in that if one accepts the interpretation of the Suffering Servant being corporate Israel, one must also be open to see at least 15 other individuals at that time who can be suffering servants too! The most plausible understanding is through New Testament lens. Robert B Chisholm Jr makes a New Testament application of Isaiah 53: Atonement, forgiveness, and salvation.

Part Three brings together three essays that apply the findings of Isaiah 53. John S Feinberg points out several themes that are relevant for postmodern minds. He says that Isaiah 53 tells a narrative of tragedy and triumph which so often reflects the reality of life. It demonstrates once again in the flesh how God cares for the world. It promises a freedom for the communities of the world. It highlights the concerns God has for us, and the importance for us as communities to make room for one another. Mitch Glaser goes on an evangelistic stance to bring the hope of Jesus to his Jewish community. Describing his own conversion and testimony, he points out three major polemical purposes and five powerful arguments for Jesus as the Messiah and Savior. If one is keen on apologetics to the Jews, this chapter is it.  Donald R Sunukjian concludes with tips on the what, and the how to preach Isaiah 53.

My Thoughts

I find myself very much enriched in my understanding of Isaiah 53. Readers will be quick to feel the growing pulse of excitement as contributor after contributor becomes more convinced themselves that the core bridge between the Old and the New Testament lies in Isaiah 53. The book can be used for two purposes. Firstly for evangelism to the Jews. Secondly, for equipping Christians on a better understanding of Isaiah 53, as well as to grow in their Christian faith. In fact, I will say that Isaiah 53 reflects the truths of Christian living in profound manner. The ability to appreciate and to embrace both the tensions of "suffering" and the "victorious living" also parallels the many Christian themes such as:

  • Kingdom being the already here and the yet to come;
  • The highs and the lows of Christian living;
  • The Old Testament and the New Testament interpretations;
  • tensions of seemingly opposed views, but pieced together through the grace and love of God..
While Jewish interpretations tend to harp on the point of Israel being the key figure in Isaiah 53, and the overwhelmingly high regard of the righteousness of the Jewish nation, I believe Isaiah 53 actually speaks against these. In Jesus, we see the fulfilment of the prophecy in both suffering and victory. In Jesus, we see the need for humility, that we cannot save ourselves. In Jesus, we see grace personified. If there is one key theme to remember in this book, it is the fact that no other interpretation other than Jesus, comes close to explaining not just part of it, but the entire text of Isaiah 53. 

For all preachers, teachers, and pastors keen to preach the gospel, besides using the four gospels in the New Testament, this book is an important one to get your hands on. If you only have time to read just one or two chapters, I strongly recommend Mitch Glaser's essay in chapter 10 and Darrell Bock's conclusion at the end of the book. For preachers, any of Donald R Sunukjian's essays will suffice. If you are a congregation member who desires your pastor or preacher to preach the gospel powerfully from the Old Testament, do them a favour by buying them this book.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Kregel Academic and Professional Publications without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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