The Fifth Gospel
The Substitutionary Atonement of Isaiah 53
Starting in Genesis 3:15, the Gospel message saturates the entire Scripture. Justification by grace alone, in faith alone, in Christ alone, is everywhere. But one place the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and His substitutionary atonement is powerfully taught is Isaiah 53, and I want you to see three verses that will transform your life. Turn there and take out your outline. Why is the book of Isaiah referred to as the fifth gospel?
Well, in Isaiah it is the divided kingdom–Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Isaiah is preaching primarily to upper class Judeans in the south. He condemns them for appearing genuine–without a high view of God or with a committed heart. Isaiah takes 35 chapters to proclaim judgment upon Judah and other nations for their empty faith. Assyria has already taken Israel in the north captive in 722 BC, and in chapters 36 to 39, Isaiah describes Assyria’s attempt to conquer Judah in the south, which fails. Isaiah predicted it would fail, but also predicts that Judah in the future will be taken captive by Babylon.
As the second half of Isaiah begins, the prophet describes three major foci—1) the coming deliverance from captivity, 2) the coming sufferings of the amazing servant of the Lord, and finally, 3) the future glory of God’s people. The centerpiece, the high point, the incredible future promise in the midst of this entire book is Isaiah chapter 53, with the description of the suffering servant of the Lord, who is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah’s prophecy about Christ in chapter 53, called the suffering servant, is structured so that the most important focus lands at the very center of the passage.
Isaiah 53:4 to 6 is the third of five stanzas of an extended prophecy. These three verses are a clear picture of the central theme, which is the innocent servant, dying as a sacrifice for sin–that also describes the heart of the Jewish religious system, the innocent animal sacrificed by dying for the guilty sinner. Read Isaiah 53:4 to 6, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Those three verses could be considered the most magnificent in the entire Old Testament. The first stanza (in chapter 52:13 to 15) describes the astonishment of the Lord’s contemporaries concerning Christ’s humiliation—especially the suffering He endured in his trials and crucifixion. The second stanza (in chapter 53:1 to 3) records the beginning of repentant Israel’s future confession, where they admit that they were unimpressed with how their Messiah was born, where He grew up, what He looked like, and (most of all) how He died.
This third stanza (now our text, chapter 53:4 to 6), reflects a staggering awakening–a sudden realization of why God’s servant (Christ) had to suffer such humiliating agony. It’s the awakening of the nation of Israel to their true Messiah. And the core truth instructing you how your sin can be completely atoned for. Notice the very first word in verse 4, “surely”. That’s not the name of a girl, or the name of your dog—Shirley. Surely is a word of shocking exclamation.
Do you remember when Moses was shocked to find out that someone had seen him murder an Egyptian? He used the same word, “Surely it is known.” It’s a combination of shock, surprise, dismay and dread—surely. Isaiah 53:4 uses the expression surely in the same fashion. Surely indicates a sudden recognition of something totally unexpected–a dramatic change from a previous perception, a realization that we were wrong. And this word, surely, signals the total reversal of Israel’s attitude toward Jesus. It’s a stunning and abrupt shock. What do I mean? Shocking is what you learn from this passage. Here are five profound introductory lessons. This passage is . . .
First Prophetically PROFOUND
Romans 11:26 says all Israel will be saved in the future. Someday in the future, during the tribulation and prior to the thousand year earthly kingdom reign of Christ, the nation of Israel will suddenly recognize that the very person they rejected in the past is actually their true Messiah. Isaiah 53, written over 700 years before Christ was born and 2,700 years before today, is describing Israel’s awakening to Christ.
These verses describe the future reaction of the Jewish people to Christ. It illustrates their heart when they decisively, nationally, realize Christ is their Messiah. It was written long ago, but it’s prophesying a true coming moment–still future to us, yet predicting something that will happen in our future. These verses are the voice of future Israel when they turn to Christ. It is prophetically profound. This passage is . . .
Second Salvation SATURATED
These verses are just as clear as the book of Romans concerning the genuine nature of salvation. It truly is the fifth gospel, written to look ahead to the person of Christ and His substitutionary death on the cross on behalf of His children. Whereas the other four gospels look back, Isaiah looks ahead. But the message is the same–God saves sinners. God rescued you from the greatest calamity–your sin, through the death of His Son. This passage is . . .
Third Biblically BREATHTAKING
Do you know what the Septuagint is? It is a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. It started with the Pentateuch in the 3rd century BC for the Jews who lived in Egypt. Then the entire 39 Old Testament books were translated into Greek from Hebrew in the 2nd century BC. Septuagint comes from the Latin Word for seventy, and it is most likely there were around seventy scholars who participated in this Old Testament translation. Some believe it was six men from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Most important of all, it was completed 200 years before the birth of Christ. This establishes the breathtaking fact that Isaiah 53 was written before Christ was born, yet the passage perfectly describes His life and sacrificial death on the cross. This shows in incredible detail that the purpose of the cross was in the mind of God and written down for us in the Old Testament ages before it happened, making this passage biblically breathtaking. This passage is also . . .
Fourth Savior SEEING
This passage describes the eternal triunity. The Father sending the second person of the Trinity to bear the punishment for the sins of His children. These verses describe the humiliation of Christ, His willingness to suffer in our place, the torture He experienced in bearing our sins, the loving action of God to rescue His rebellious children. The verses help us see the Savior, worship His character, and break under His loving sacrifice.
Fifth Individually IMPERATIVE
These verses are here so you do not make the same mistake the Jewish nation has made for thousands of years. They finally get it right here–they understand who Christ is and the question this morning is, do you? Have you surrendered your life to Christ? What Christ did is good news. God Himself saving you from your sins–the Father pouring out His wrath upon His own Son for the sins of His children. The Father punished the Son for His elect.
There are some popular authors today who say the Father didn’t punish the Son for sin. They undermine justification. But friends, both Old and New Testaments say differently and clearly–God is your substitute. God took your place. God loved you so much, He died for your sin. Verse 4, Jesus was “stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.” The only accurate meaning of these verses is this–the servant of Yahweh dies as a substitute and sin bearer for His people, shouldering their guilt and taking the punishment that was due them.
I don’t care if you have favorable feelings toward Christ, this passage commands you to fully embrace what He did for you–to turn from your sin and follow Christ in obedience. Have you broken under the truth that Christ is the only way to be right with God? He is your only hope. This passage shows the awakening of Israel to their Messiah and His sacrifice for sin. And they’re shocked—surely. My prayer is a few of you are shocked into faith as well.
John MacArthur sees these three verses in this middle stanza of Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy being tied together by a common theme–the confession of sin. Each verse presents an aspect of Israel’s sin and Christ’s atonement. Isaiah proves that one day, repentant Israel will confess they rejected Jesus since they had a sinful attitude, manifested in wicked behavior, which flowed from a depraved nature.
#1 True converts Confess Their Sinful ATTITUDE
Isaiah 53:4 begins with, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” Israel despised Christ, because He did not meet their expectation of what the Messiah was supposed to be like. Yet what Christ was actually doing for His people was infinitely greater than anything they had expected. The word in verse 4 translated “infirmities” is a broad term meaning sickness or calamity. Infirmities describes the sorrows and griefs of life brought about by human sin.
Isaiah is talking about the problem of human fallenness and the external effects our sin produces. Sin causes every kind of calamity in our lives. Students, have you ever been caught in a lie? Sin brings that kind of calamity. The point here is not merely that the Messiah shares our infirmities and feels our heartaches as our merciful high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses. The point of verse 4 is not that Jesus has compassion for all of your pains, but rather He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases–literally borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.
Clearly, Jesus took our sin and all its effects on Himself, though He Himself was perfectly innocent of any and all sin. The proof of this interpretation is found in the parallel terms in verse 5. The words transgressions and iniquities make it clear that verse 4 is not about undeserved sorrows we endure as victims. Isaiah is speaking of the anguish which always accompanies sin, starting with guilt and ending in death. Jesus bore all of that for His people.
The word “borne” for our infirmities literally means to lift or take up. The Savior in Isaiah 53 is actively suffering because He has actively taken on Himself the full burden of His people’s sin and guilt, with all its consequences–up to and including the wages of sin, which is death. Exactly what 1 Peter 2:24 says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”
In technical terms, He fully expiated His people’s sin–He put an end to it by death. He stood in their place and paid the penalty in full for their sin, thus carrying away their guilt and ending sin’s total mastery over them. Just like the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, when one animal became the scapegoat to make atonement. Christ is our scapegoat, except His work is complete and permanent. But because Jesus was tortured, then crucified, the Jewish nation wrongly concluded He could not be the long-awaited Messiah.
Verse 4 says, “Yet we accounted Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted”–therefore unfit to be the King they hoped for. Most Jewish people throughout history have rejected Jesus’ messianic claims–why? They don’t think Jesus fulfilled messianic prophecies, or the qualifications for the Messiah. They don’t understand His condescension to be born and live as a man. They never understood His humility as He emptied himself by taking the form of a servant–by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. The biggest hang-up was Jesus didn’t establish a kingdom, but instead was tortured and killed.
Verse 4 reflects that same kind of attitude–what do they confess? Verse 4 says, “We accounted Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” Remember, Isaiah is prophetically expressing the heartfelt remorse of the Jewish remnant when they suddenly believe what the nation has so long denied. As all genuine confessors must, they fully accept the responsibility for their sinful rejection. Notice the emphasis of the pronoun—we ourselves esteemed Him, accounted Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. (The Hebrew pronoun we is an intensified version of the first person plural. We expresses genuine humility and true remorse.
The implication is the Jewish people assumed Christ’s public shame was fully justified. They assumed Yahweh God was striking and smiting Christ because He was a blasphemer. The word “stricken” in verse 4 is not a reference to the mocking blows of Roman soldiers who struck Him on the head with a reed. The word refers to a brutal blow, but not necessarily a physical buffeting.
In Genesis 12:17, the same Hebrew word stricken is used to say God struck the house of Pharaoh with plagues when he unknowingly attempted to add Abraham’s wife, Sarah, to his harem. Struck can mean to beat, strike down, or even kill. Afflicted can mean humiliated, degraded or mistreated. All three words are connected to the preposition, “by God”—”accounted Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” To paraphrase–they regarded Christ as a sinner stricken, smitten, and afflicted by the very hand of God. The repentant Jews of the future nation will confess that they regarded Jesus’ suffering as a punishment from God that Christ justly deserved. Their attitude toward Christ was wrong. They falsely impugned Christ’s character, which led to . . .
#2 True converts Confess Their Sinful BEHAVIOR
One future day, Israel will see that the guilt which caused Christ’s suffering was theirs, not His. Isaiah 53:5, “But He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the punishment that made us whole, and by His bruises we are healed.” This second aspect of Israel’s confession acknowledges that the punishment the servant suffered was actually due to be given to them for their own sinful behavior.
There’s no biblical way to sidestep the punitive aspect of the suffering described in verse 5. The graphic words “wounded,” “crushed,” “chastisement,” and “wounds,” are all strong terms describing injuries that have been inflicted by punishment. You know that stoning was the usual method of execution in Old Testament Israel. There was no way Isaiah would be able to imagine the yet unused and uninvented torment of crucifixion.
But here the Holy Spirit led him to choose these specific words to express the extreme suffering Christ the Messiah endured in crucifixion. The words translated wounded and crushed are two of the strongest words in the Hebrew language to describe a violent and painful death. Wounded conveys the idea of pierced through or stabbed to death. Crushed conveys the sense of beaten in pieces, destroyed. This servant is crushed to death by the burden of the sins of others, which He took upon Himself, further weighted by the wrath of God due for that same sin.
Punishment (sometimes chastisement) is translated correctly punishment for crimes committed. Bruises or stripes is from a Hebrew word that speaks of welts and the raw wounds from the lashes of a whip. All four terms describe things that happened to Jesus. He was pierced in his wrists, feet, and side. He was crushed by the beatings He endured at the hands of the Sanhedrin and the Romans. He was formally but illegally punished as the result of an unjust indictment, trial, verdict, and sentence. And He was severely marked with stripes and raw bruises as a result of the brutal scourging He received at the hands of the Romans.
It is amazing Isaiah describes crucifixion 200 years prior to its invention. Those were merely the visible wounds inflicted on him “by the hands of lawless men.” But we also know that Christ was, Acts 2, “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” Isaiah underscores that Christ’s death was sovereignly ordained by God as the means of atonement for sin. In verse 6, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. In verse 10, “It was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief”–His soul makes an offering for guilt. So the servant was indeed, verse 4, “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted”–not for his own sin, but because He took on Himself the punishment for His people’s guilt.
Likewise the healing spoken of in verse 5, “with his wounds we are healed” is not immediate physical healing. The context is all about our transgressions, our iniquities–the spiritual effects of sin, guilt, and alienation from God. Those who believe are healed in the sense of being restored to spiritual wholeness and released from the bondage of sin. The verse 5 healing is more radical than the temporary healing of our bodily infirmities.
Isaiah is describing a divinely wrought miracle of spiritual resurrection. Ephesians 2:5, “When we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ”–guaranteeing eternal life and the future glorification of even our physical bodies (a greater physical healing than any earthly doctor has ever seen). Here is the message of Easter–the resurrection of Christ. Christ rose to life and all His children will rise to life.
The sin sickness the prophet has in mind here is more deeply ingrained and more malignant than the worst kind of cancer. It’s an utter depravity of the soul, described in verse 6. And the healing in view is a powerful remedy for an incurable spiritual sickness–our fallenness and the resulting enslavement to sin. So verse 5 is an explicit confession of sinful behavior. Although Isaiah is recording the confession that will be made by repentant Israel, it is also a fitting confession for anyone coming to faith in Christ, because Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
All of us are sinful, guilty of perverting and violating God’s law, and in our fallen state, separated from God, spiritually sick and full of grief–an opposition to God’s character. But Jesus took on Himself His people’s sin, guilt, grief, sorrow and every other sinister expression of our fallenness. He voluntarily endured God’s punishment for those evils. And Christ thereby purchased our permanent rescue, our everlasting peace and eternal heavenly blessing from God for us. The death of the physician made the patient well. Israel will confess they rejected Jesus because they had a sinful attitude, manifested in wicked behavior–which now, verse 6, flows from a depraved nature.
#3 True converts Confess Their Sinful NATURE
The final stage in Israel’s confession recognizes sin at its deepest level. Isaiah 53:6, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” This verse completes the three-part confession. The newly awakened remnant of Israel just acknowledged their thinking about the Messiah was corrupt and wrongheaded. They have confessed their sinful behavior, admitting that their guilt and their sins are the true cause of the servant’s suffering. They are pleading guilty.
Now verse 6 is an indictment of the fallen, corrupt, sick, perverse human nature. Verse 6 describes a sickness that infects the entire human race–total depravity. Sin has infected every aspect of human nature. This is the malady referred to in verse 5 that is healed by the suffering servant’s stripes. But verse 6 uses a completely different metaphor, comparing the human race to sheep. Sheep are spiritually helpless, hopeless, and condemned to wander and die, unless the Great Shepherd intervenes to save us.
The fault lies in our very nature–not merely our thoughts or our behavior. Wrong thinking and wrong actions flow ultimately from a sinful disposition. Our nature is fallen. True confession of sin must therefore ultimately deal with sin at its origin (the human heart), not merely in its manifestations–right? Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jesus declared in Matthew 15:19 that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”
This is a truth every sinner, every one of you, must come to grips with. Our problem is not just a matter of how we think or what we do. The real problem is who we are. We are not sinners because we sin–we sin because we are sinners. The comparison to sheep for unsaved Israel and unsaved people today is a good one. Sheep cannot care for themselves.
Philip Keller writes, “More than any class of livestock, sheep require endless attention and meticulous care. It is no accident God calls us sheep. The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways… Sheep by nature are stupid animals, prone to wander off on their own and thereby place themselves in mortal danger. Sheep are defenseless against predators and can’t take care of themselves. For example, sometimes they roll over onto their backs and are unable to right themselves and that very action can lead to their death unless assisted.”
In a similar way, people by nature are prone to go astray from God, turn to their own way, and become lost and morally capsize. And Israel’s confession in verse 6 views the entire human race as sheep who have all gone astray from the Good Shepherd. We continually spurn His guidance and care, choosing instead to follow the natural path of sin and our own ideas. Verse 4, “We have turned every one to his own way.”
It is important to confess our known sins, enumerating precisely where we have wronged God and broken his law. First John 1:9, ”If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But true repentance goes deeper yet. In fact, there can be no genuine repentance apart from the recognition that you are hardened sinners by nature—helpless, lost sheep, desperately in need of the 1 Peter 2:25, “Shepherd and Overseer of our souls” to rescue us.
The good news of the Gospel is, “the Lord has laid on [Christ] the iniquity of us all.” The expression in verse 6, “laid on Him,” is translated from a Hebrew word meaning to fall on, in the sense of a violent attack. David and Solomon used this same term to describe falling upon someone to kill him. The expression literally means fell upon him with the intent to kill. The same word is used in verse 6, “The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on”—violently falling upon Christ to kill Him. The guilt that belonged to us, God used to strike Christ.
The reality of Christ’s vicarious, penal, substitutionary death on your behalf is the heart of the Gospel and the central theme of Isaiah 53. And never forget, our sin did not kill Jesus–God killed His Son for our sin. The suffering servant’s death was nothing less than a punishment administered by God for sins others had committed. That vicarious, penal, substitutionary atonement is meant to be shocking and disturbing and overwhelming. What kind of love did it require from God to save sick sinners at such a cost? What kind of hate for sin did God have to take such drastic measures to rescue you?
Isaiah 53 teaches the same truth in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” And 1 Peter 2:24, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” The servant of Yahweh, though perfectly innocent, bore the guilt of others and suffered unspeakable anguish to atone for their sins.
Are you thankful for the good news that God, Psalm 103:10, “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities”? God has not compromised his own righteousness. God does not merely overlook our sins–rather, the Father fully satisfied justice and put away our sin forever through the death of his Son. In fact, Psalm 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.”
How do we know it is all true? The resurrection! On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished.” In the resurrection, Jesus proves it is all true. He is alive, He is God, He alone can forgive your sin at the same time, He is the one you will answer to as judge. Israel’s national salvation is still in the future. But yours is not! No one (neither Jew nor Gentile) need wait for a future event to turn from sin and trust Christ. Have you submitted your life to Christ?
My friends, you can be saved. The righteousness of God is available even now. Romans 3:22, “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” And Romans 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 2 Corinthians 6:2, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Let’s pray.