Messianic Prophecy: Jesus as Isaiah 53’s Suffering Servant

Traditional Christians believe Jesus Christ is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah and the Savior of the world. This central and cardinal belief of historic Christianity ties together the identity of Jesus (divine-human Messiah) with his work of redemption on the cross (suffering and atoning Savior).

Accordingly, Christians recognize him as the “suffering servant” prophesied in the book of Isaiah. But not all scholars hold this view. We’ll explore some of the details of the Isaiah passage and discuss alternative views, but first let’s consider the biblical basis for Jesus being the prophesied Jewish divine Messiah and the world’s Savior.

Prophesied Divine Messiah and Savior
The English word messiah1 comes from the Hebrew term meshiah meaning “anointed.” In the Old Testament period, Jewish prophets, priests, and kings were anointed by oil, thus consecrating them for the work Yahweh had called them to perform. In a Jewish context, the Messiah would be God’s specially anointed servant or liberator who would restore the fortunes of Israel.

The New Testament title “Christ” (from Christos) is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word messiah. Thus, the earliest Christians identified Jesus as the Christ (John 1:41; 4:25)—the long-awaited Hebrew Messiah. Those early Jewish Christians would even come to view Jesus Christ as an extension of Yahweh and, hence, the Son of God and the divine-human Messiah (see these primitive hymns and creeds with a high Christology: Philippians 2:6­–11Colossians 1:15–201 Peter 3:18–22).2 The developing trinitarian theology of historic Christianity—with its roots in Scripture—affirmed Jesus as being the Spirit-anointed Son of the Father.

Many Old Testament passages predict the coming of the Messiah (for example: Psalm 2:1–2; 22:1–2; 110:1, 4; Isaiah 9:6; 42:1, 4: Micah 5:2) as well as numerous New Testament passages where the apostles affirm Jesus as the Messiah (for example: Matthew 1:23; 27:46; Mark 12:35–37: Luke 2:11; John 1:41; 4:25; Acts 4:25–26).

Regarding messianic prophecy, Christian scholar Norman Geisler says that “[J. Barton] Payne lists 191 prophecies concerning the anticipated Jewish Messiah and Savior. Each was literally fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth.” Geisler continues by stating, “Since these prophecies were written hundreds of years before Christ was born . . . Many predictions were beyond human ability to fake a fulfillment. If he were a mere human being, Christ would have had no control over when (Dan. 9:24–27), where (Micah 5:2), or how he would be born (Isa. 7:14), how he would die (Psalm 22; Isaiah 53), do miracles (Isa. 35:5–6), or rise from the dead (Psalm 2, 16).”3

With so many messianic prophecies predicted and fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, let’s examine perhaps the Christian’s most cherished Old Testament predictive passage concerning the Messiah: the book of Isaiah 52:13–53:12.

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant of the Lord
Biblical scholars generally recognize that Isaiah contains four “servant songs” in which the servant spoken of is the Messiah (Isaiah 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12).4 Scripture was not originally written with chapter divisions, so most commentators say this Isaiah passage concerning the suffering servant extends from chapter 52:13 to 53:12.5 This servant song also contains five stanzas of three verses each.

The NIV Study Bible notes the following concerning Isaiah 52:13–53:12: “It is quoted more frequently in the NT [New Testament] than any other OT [Old Testament] passage and is often referred to as the gospel in the OT.”6

In this theologically rich passage, we find a dozen aspects of the suffering servant mentioned by the prophet Isaiah:7

1. “his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being” (52:14)

2. “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (53:3)

3. “he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God” (53:4)

4. “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him” (53:5)

5. “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6)

6. “he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (53:7)

7. “for the transgression of my people he was punished” (53:8)

8. “he was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death” (53:9)

9. “it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and . . . the Lord makes his life an offering for sin” (53:10)

10. “my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities” (53:11)

11. “he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors” (53:12)

12. “he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12)

Fulfillment in Jesus Christ
The staggering reality is that this precise prophecy concerning Isaiah’s suffering servant is literally and specifically fulfilled in the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ as recorded in the four canonical gospels (see Matthew 26–27; Mark 15–16; Luke 22–23; John 18–19). Moreover, the apostles’ message was that Isaiah’s suffering servant prediction was fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ (see Matthew 8:14–17; John 12:37–41; Luke 22:35–38; 1 Peter 2:19–25; Acts 8:26–35; Romans 10:11–21).

The detailed characteristics of Isaiah’s suffering servant match the New Testament details of Jesus Christ’s passion and death:

1. Disfigured: The gospel accounts reveal that Jesus’s torture included, among other things, being struck on the head (Matthew 26:67–68) and flogged (John 19:1) which could easily result in facial and bodily disfigurement.

2. Suffering and pain: The English word “excruciating” is connected to the Latin excruciare (from the Latin crux, meaning cross) and crucifixion was a Roman instrument of torture.

3. Bore suffering and punished by God: The cross of Christ involved a penal, substitutionary atonement (Galatians 3:13).

4. Pierced and crushed: Both descriptions apply to Roman crucifixion (Matthew 27:32–37).

5. Bore iniquity of all: In the great exchange, Jesus took human sin on himself and gave believers his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).

6. Slaughtered lamb and silence: Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29) and he remained silent before his accusers—the chief priests, Pilate, and Herod (Matthew 27:12–14Mark 14:60–61Luke 23:8–9).

7. Punished for transgressions: In his atoning death Jesus suffered for the sins of others (1 Peter 3:18).

8. Grave and death: The Roman soldiers intended to bury Jesus among the criminals he was crucified with. But the rich man Joseph of Arimathea intervened and gave Jesus an honorable burial in his own tomb (Matthew 27:57–60).

9. Offering for sin: Jesus as the redeeming substitute bore the sins of people on the cross (1 Peter 2:24).

10. Justify many: Jesus’s atoning sacrifice and death justified many (Romans 5:19).

11. Numbered with transgressors: Jesus was crucified between two criminals (Matthew 27:38Luke 22:37).

12. Intercession for the transgressors: From the cross Jesus prayed for the people who crucified him (Luke 23:34).

This passage seems to have been precisely fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s passion and death as recorded in the gospels. Its force was not lost on missionary and Messianic leader David Baron:

“It is beyond even the wildest credulity to believe that the resemblance in every feature and minutest detail between this prophetic portraiture drawn centuries before his [Jesus’] advent and the story of his life, and death, and glorious resurrection as narrated in the gospels, can be mere accident or fortuitous coincidence.”8

Yet Isaiah 52:13–53:12’s context and interpretation remain controversial among Jewish and Christian biblical scholars. An important question to consider concerning this critical passage in the Hebrew Scriptures is: What do Jewish and skeptical critical scholars say about Isaiah’s suffering servant? What are the standard rabbinic and critical biblical scholars’ responses?

Three Major Interpretive Options
This is a huge topic, so I can only briefly summarize the three most popular scholarly (critical, Jewish, nonconservative Christian) positions taken on this biblical pericope. Interpreters see the suffering servant as either an individual Israelite, a righteous remnant within Israel, or a metaphorical reference to the nation of Israel itself. These views are explained in an online article on Isaiah 53 that I’ll summarize. (See the Wikipedia article for the rabbinic and other historical sources supporting the specific suggested identifications):9

Suffering Servant as an Individual
“The individual interpretation states that the intended referent for the servant is a single Israelite man. The passage’s third-person masculine singular nouns and verbs are cited as evidence for this position . . . ”10

The article offers the following as possible specific referents:11

  • Jesus of Nazareth
  • Rabbi Akiva
  • Moses
  • The Jewish Messiah (but not Jesus)
  • Jeremiah 

Suffering Servant as a Righteous Israelite Remnant
“Some interpretations state that the servant is representative of any Israelites who meet a particular standard of righteousness, such that the passage applies to some Israelites and not others.”12

Wikipedia offers the following as possible examples of the righteous one:13

  • Whoever the Lord is pleased with, he crushes with suffering (Isaiah 53:10) 
  • Whoever is sick and has a seminal emission (Isaiah 53:10)

Suffering Servant as National Israel
“This interpretation states that the servant is a metaphor for the entire nation of Israel. The sufferings of the servant are seen as sufferings of the nation as a whole while in exile. This interpretation first appears with unnamed Jews familiar to Origen in the third century CE, and it subsequently became the majority position within Judaism from the medieval period until today.”14

The Wikipedia article offers the following Jewish commentaries as representative: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak.15

Three Perspectives on Isaiah 53
In light of these three broad Jewish interpretations, let’s examine responses from three perspectives (traditional Judaism, skepticism, Messianic Judaism):

Jews for Judaism
In a brief article entitled Isaiah 53 Explained, the author supports the national view in stating:

“In Chapters 52–54, the prophet is referring to the gentile nations who have tormented and inflicted pain and suffering on the Jewish people. It is THESE nations who will be astounded and shocked to see that God has saved us from their persecution and returned us to our home, Israel: and, that ultimately, God will vindicate us for our suffering. The same promises appear in the Book of Ezekiel 36:6–9 & 15 and in Jeremiah 30:8–13.”

Skeptical Biblical Scholar Bart Ehrman
In a brief blog article, “Does Isaiah 53 Predict Jesus’ Death and Resurrection? Most-Commented Blog Posts: #1,” Ehrman also supports the national view:

“Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is a passage that has long been cited by Christian interpreters as a virtually infallible prophecy of the death and resurrection of the messiah—i.e., Jesus. But that is almost certainly a misreading of the passage, at least as the author of Isaiah originally intended it. The passage deals with the ‘suffering servant’ of the LORD. But in its original context the servant does not appear to be the future messiah.”

Ehrman continues summarizing his position:

“In short, Isaiah 53 is not originally about a future messiah. It is about the nation of Israel taken into captivity. Some of the people were suffering horribly because of the sins of others. But God would restore them, raise them from the dead as it were, bringing them back to the land and allowing them to live again after their national destruction.”

Biblical Scholar and Messianic Jew Michael L. Brown
In his book Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Theological Objections, Vol. 2 Michael Brown defends the individual interpretation of Isaiah 53 and posits Jesus of Nazareth as the obvious referent:

“We have pointed out that portions from Isaiah 52:13–53:12, the famous passage describing the sufferings of the servant of the Lord, were applied to the sufferings of the Messiah in some Rabbinic sources. . . . Yet this passage was frequently quoted in the New Testament with regard to Jesus. You would have thought that this fact alone would have discouraged the rabbis from using it to refer to the Messiah. After all, if Isaiah 53 is a Messianic text, then Jesus, better than any other candidate, fits the bill.”16

Brown continues:

“Jesus the Messiah is the best-known Jew of all time, yet he was beaten, flogged, humiliated, and nailed to a cross. He is a Messiah with whom we can identify—and who can identify with us—a suffering Messiah who brings life, deliverance, and lasting victory to all who put their trust in him.”17

My Take: How Does Jesus Compare?
Part of the difficulty in understanding this incredible passage lies in the human conception that a deity would not be portrayed this way. Yet I think the best interpretation is that it is speaking of an individual and that Jesus Christ is its exact and perfect fulfillment. But even if it is speaking of national Israel or Israel’s righteous remnant, it could still have a broader fulfillment because Jesus is the symbol of faithful Israel. 

How does Jesus Christ’s identity and role compare with that of the world’s religious leaders:18

  • Christianity: Jesus—Divine-Human Messiah and Savior
  • Baha’i: Baha’u’llah—Prophet
  • Buddhism: Buddha—Enlightened One
  • Confucianism: Confucius—Ethical Teacher
  • Hinduism: Krishna—Divine Avatar
  • Islam: Muhammad—Final Prophet
  • Jainism: Mahavira—Great Hero
  • Judaism: Moses—Prophet 
  • Shintoism: Kami (mythical gods)—Symbols
  • Sikhism: Nanak—Prophet
  • Taoism: Lao-Tzu—Sage
  • Zoroastrianism: Zoroaster—Prophet

Jesus Christ as the predicted divine-human Messiah and Savior stands unique among the world’s religious leaders. Other religious figures claim to be prophets of God—with religious texts supporting those assertions—but Jesus Christ claims to be God come personally in the flesh. And Isaiah 53’s suffering servant—with exact fulfillment in Jesus Christ’s passion and death—may be the most extraordinary messianic prophecy of all. More than rescue from human oppression, this Messiah gives his life as an atoning sacrifice for his people.

An Ancient Jewish-Christian Hymn
Further evidence of the Messiah who emptied himself of divine prerogatives can be seen in an ancient Christian hymn to Christ (called the Carmen Christi). It’s found in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the passage came from primitive Christian history when the church was predominantly made up of Jews.

Larry Hurtado, New Testament scholar and historian of ancient Christianity, explains the prevailing view of modern scholarship concerning this passage:

“Although the idea does not seem to have occurred to anyone prior to the early twentieth century, it is now the dominant view of New Testament scholars that Philippians 2:6–11 preserves (or derives from) an early Christian ‘hymn’ or ‘Christological ode’ whose original provenance was in the setting of corporate worship.”19

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5–11)

One of the many good reasons for believing in the truth of Christianity and, thus, in Jesus Christ as the divine-human Messiah and savior, is that Jesus specifically fulfilled messianic prophecy.

Reflections: Your Turn 
What are your immediate thoughts in reading Isaiah 53?



1. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3 K-P, gen. ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1981), s.v. “Messiah,” 330–338.

2. A “high Christology” is one in which Jesus is viewed as God. For more on Jesus as an extension of Yahweh, see my article “An Early Christmas Hymn in the New Testament?

3. Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 610, 612.

4. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 6, Isaiah—Ezekiel, gen ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 299–300.

5. Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 300.

6. The NIV Study Bible, gen ed. Kenneth Barker (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 1094.

7. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 611–612.

8. David Baron, The Servant of Jehovah: The Sufferings of the Messiah and the Glory that Should Follow: An Exposition of Isaiah 53 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000), viii.

9. Wikipedia, s.v. “Isaiah 53,” last edited January 6, 2024,

10. Wikipedia, “Isaiah 53”.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Ojections to Jesus: Theological Objections, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 225.

17. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections, 231

18. Kenneth Richard Samples, God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017), 230–231.

19. Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 84.