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Insight #33 — Jesus: the Suffering Servant (in-depth study)

“What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Sound familiar? Something you learned as a child? Or, one of the first things you learned about Jesus as a youth or an adult? Jesus’ blood sacrifice for sin is a basic truth at the heart of the Gospel.


However, what is so basic and simple to many of us today was not understood at all by Jesus’ apostles. They simply did not understand the purpose of Jesus’ death. Not during His entire ministry. They thought His death was the end of their hopes.

“From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’ ” (Matthew 16:21,22).

Peter had just before confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. Certainly Peter understood that “Christ” meant “King-Lord.” But he did not yet understand that it also meant “Priest-Savior.” He believed that it meant reigning in triumph, but he did not yet understand that it also meant suffering in disgrace.

Peter and the Jews in general had failed to capture the meaning of the Old Testament prophecies regarding the suffering Servant. They knew the prophecies were there. Perhaps they thought the servant referred to the nation of Israel as a whole. Or, perhaps it referred to some individual, but not to the Messiah. To them “Messiah” was King, the Son of David. If they thought of Messiah as Savior, it was with the idea of saving Israel in a physical sense.

Not until after Jesus died and arose from the dead, was He ready and able to open the minds of the apostles. “And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ [Messiah] to suffer and to rise from the dead’ ” (Luke 24:45,46). It was the Messiah who had to suffer.

It was the Messiah who also had to rise from the dead. The resurrection is the key to understanding these two lines of prophecy. How could the Messiah be both the eternal King and the suffering Servant? Jesus’ followers thought that it was all over when Jesus died. However, the resurrection put everything into a new light. For Jesus to become the glorious King He first had to suffer.


Have you ever felt forsaken by God? Have you known the anguish? That’s what Psalm 22 is all about. This must be one of the prophecies Jesus was referring to in Luke 24. There are striking physical details prophesied in the Psalm. (Compare Psalm 22:18 with John 19:23,24.) However, the thrust of the Psalm seems to be mainly an insight into the inner suffering of Messiah.

Suspended between heaven and earth, Jesus cried out: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34). These are the opening words of Psalms 22. They depict inexpressible agony. It would be hard to find words anywhere in Scripture that express more deeply what Jesus suffered on the cross.

It is often said that Jesus suffered more than any mere human. However, this is not true if we consider only His physical suffering. Crucifixion is very cruel. Nevertheless, in modern times and in ages gone by, man has devised torture methods far worse than crucifixion. And, who would disagree that the prolonged unbearable pain of various terminal illnesses is far worse than one day of crucifixion?! The Bible itself acknowledges that fast death is better than slow death. “[Those] slain by the sword are better off Than [those] who die of hunger” (Lamentations 4:9).

This is not meant to minimize the physical suffering of Jesus. It was real and it was awful. It was more than most of us will ever suffer in this life. His suffering, however, was not just of the body; it was also of the spirit. It is true that we mortals often suffer in the spirit, too; but are we capable of suffering in the spirit what He suffered?

Jesus was God in the flesh. “I and [My] Father are one” (John 10:30). Yet, in His darkest hour, the Son was forsaken by the Father. “My God, My God, why… ?!” Part of the answer, at least, is found in 2 Corinthians 5:21. “He [God] made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin [to] [be] sin for us.” Jesus was made sin; sin separates from God. It’s too deep for our human minds to take it all in.

Verses 1 to 21 of Psalm 22 continue with an insight into the inner, spiritual suffering of our dear Savior. Many of the verses express the utter shame that the very Son of God suffered. Instead of being praised and glorified by the people, He was “A reproach of men, and despised by the people. All those who see Me ridicule Me” (22:6,7). Many of us know what it means to be rejected by others; but we are mere human beings who are rejected by other human beings. He was (is) the eternal Word and Creator being rejected by His very own creation. How can we understand how that felt to Him?!

Throughout the Psalm, those who rejected Jesus are called bulls, lions, dogs and oxen. These “animals” fulfilled prophecy by using the very words of verse 8: “He trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue Him” (see Matthew 27:43). Matthew adds their additional words, “for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” This is just like Satan’s temptations of Jesus in the wilderness: “If You are the Son of God… ” (Luke 4:3,9). How many of us can bear a challenge to our authority, ability, or knowledge? We fight back; yet He answered not a word, nor did He use His power to come down off the cross. He bore the utter shame for you and for me. It was not the nails, but love which held Him to the cross.

The last ten verses of Psalm 22 have a very different theme. It is a theme seen briefly in various earlier verses. It is a message of victory, of God hearing the Messiah’s cry, of God’s help for the afflicted One. It is a call to praise, glorify, fear and worship the God of Heaven who answered the Messiah’s cry. Although these verses do not say so directly, they presuppose the resurrection of the Messiah. Jesus did not triumph by yanking himself off the cross. Rather, He triumphed by yielding to the cross so that He could be buried and then rise from the dead!

This victorious portion of the Psalm begins with the Messiah referring to us as “brethren” (22:22). The Hebrews writer quotes this verse and goes to great length to explain its meaning (Hebrews 2:10-18). To be able to call us “brethren,” the Messiah had to become flesh and blood like us. He also had to suffer like us. He had to experience death as we do. All his suffering brought such tremendous results for us.


The New Testament mentions five baptisms: two in water, and one each in fire, the Holy Spirit, and suffering. Jesus refers to the latter in reference to Himself in Mark 10:38. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” What baptism is that? The form of the question indicates that He is talking about something difficult–certainly not Jesus’ baptism in water. Jesus refers to both the baptism and the “cup”. In Gethsemane, the “cup” clearly refers to His day of suffering in trial and on the cross (Mark 14:34-36). His baptism in Luke 12:50 must be the same as this cup. Two symbols to portray the same suffering. “But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!”

“Baptism” is an action word. The action is immersion, a complete overwhelming. Jesus was not sprinkled with suffering; He did not have a little suffering poured out on Him. From Gethsemane to Calvary, He was totally immersed and overwhelmed in suffering.

This baptism of suffering was prophesied in Psalm 69:1,2,14,15. “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to [my] neck… I have come into deep waters, Where the floods overflow me… Let me be delivered from those who hate me, and out of the deep waters. Let not the floodwater overflow me.”

Like Psalm 22, Psalm 69 speaks of the enemies of our Lord. “Those who hate me without a cause Are more than the hairs of my head” (Psalm 69:4). This is just the first of several expressions portraying Jesus’ adversaries, his false accusers.

Psalm 69 even prophesies that Mary, Jesus’ mother, would give birth to other children and that these earthly brothers would not believe in Him. Verse 8 says, “I have become a stranger to my brothers, And an alien to my mother’s children.” Jesus’ earthly brothers are named in Matthew 13:53-56. The fulfillment of the prophecy is found in John 7:5. “For even His brothers did not believe in Him.”

Two New Testament texts quote the very next verse (69:9), saying that Jesus fulfilled it. The first half of the verse has reference to the cleansing of the temple, and that’s how Jesus’ disciples understood it (John 2:17). The second half, telling of the reproaches Jesus would suffer, is quoted in Romans 15:3 as being fulfilled by Jesus.

What an interesting but sad prophecy is found in 69:12: “I [am] the song of the drunkards.” Have not many of us heard those songs? Those who have experience with “store-front” and other inner-city churches know that many men will darken a church door and talk of wanting to follow Jesus only when they are drunk. Like a man in New York City who would not talk about spiritual things when he was sober. But when he was drunk, he would phone a preacher in the middle of the night, wanting to hear a Psalm read.

Like Psalm 22, Psalm 69 tells of the inner suffering of the Savior. “Reproach has broken my heart, and I am full of heaviness; I looked [for] [someone] to take pity, but [there] [was] none” (69:20). Not “none” in the absolute sense. There were a few at the foot of the cross who did take pity. But where were the thousands who had followed Him before? Of the twelve apostles, only John was near.


Isaiah 53 is one of the greatest of all Messianic prophecies. Psalms 22 and 69 give good prophetic insights into the suffering the Messiah would endure. However, they do not explain why He would suffer. Isaiah 53, on the other hand, prophesies both the what and the why.

God calls the Messiah “My Servant” in Isaiah 42:1-4, (quoted in Matthew 12:15-21). In Isaiah 53:11 God calls Him “My righteous Servant.” Calling the Messiah “Servant” emphasizes His humility. It emphasizes His humanity. Jesus is the Son of God, most assuredly. Nevertheless, in the four Gospels, He is referred to as the “Son of Man” nearly 80 times. That is more than twice the times He is called the “Son of God.”

The beautiful passage in Philippians 2:5ff says, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, [and] coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to [the] [point] [of] death, even the death of the cross.”

One day, on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, an Ethiopian was in his chariot reading about this humble, suffering Servant. He was not reading the Philippian text; that had not yet been penned. Rather, he was reading the words that Isaiah had written more than seven centuries earlier. The Ethiopian did not understand it. He needed to know the historical facts of fulfillment. So when Philip came to him, he “opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture [Isaiah 53], preached Jesus to him.” (See Acts 8:26-40.)

Isaiah 53 is a perfect text from which to preach Jesus. It tells us that Jesus was not a Hollywood star as many artists depict Him. “He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, [There] [is] no beauty that we should desire Him” (verse 2). He did not look divine. He had no halo. Neither did He wear clothes to set himself apart as He is so often depicted. If that had been the case, there would have been no need for Judas to identify Him with a kiss (Mark 14:43-46). Jesus looked just like an ordinary human being, a servant.

“He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief… He was oppressed and He was afflicted… It pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put [Him] to grief” (Isaiah 53:3,7,10). All this agrees with Psalms 22 and 69 and with the many details of fulfillment seen in the Gospels. Our Lord suffered untold agony. He was spit upon. As a mock scepter, they put a reed in his hand. They put a crown of thorns on His head. They mocked Him for His claim to be king. Not to mention the beating and being nailed to the cross!

But Isaiah 53 goes further than the Psalms. Clearer than any other Old Testament text, Isaiah prophesies why the Servant would suffer. “He [was] wounded for our transgressions… the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all… For the transgressions of My people He was stricken… When you make His soul an offering for sin… My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities… He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:5,6,8,10,11,12). Is any New Testament text plainer?! With these verses in mind, we can better appreciate 1 Corinthians 15:3: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Certainly Isaiah 53 is chief among those Scriptures.

The well-known Romans 3:23 says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Isaiah 53:6 says the same thing, but more poetically. “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” We are not like the stately lion. We are not like the versatile dog who can do so many things for his master. Rather, the Master must care for us. Like sheep we have gone astray; we have become lost. Thank God that the suffering Servant came into the world to seek and save the lost.


Isaiah 53 is clear: we are all sinners, and that is why Jesus died. Some believe that Jesus also died for our physical sicknesses. They teach that sickness comes only from the Devil and that a person will not get sick if his life is right with God.

In one sense, there is no question that Jesus died for our sicknesses. He died to save us and take us to His eternal home. In the New Jerusalem “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain” (Revelation 21:4). Jesus’ death and resurrection make the New Jerusalem possible. In that sense, He did die to take away our sicknesses.

But in life on this earth, all men (saved and unsaved) are subject to tears, sorrow, pain and death. That includes sickness. Timothy, for example, a great man of God, suffered frequent stomach upsets. The apostle Paul did not tell Timothy to repent and get his life right with God. Rather, he gave him a natural remedy (1 Timothy 5:23).

Isaiah 53 does, indeed, prophesy regarding physical sicknesses. However, the prophecy is not connected to Heaven, nor to the cross, nor to a plan of God for all His people here and now. Verse 4 says, “Surely He has borne our griefs (literally: sicknesses) And carried our sorrows (literally: pains).”

The Gospels are quite clear about the fulfillment of these words. They are connected to Jesus’ healing ministry, before the cross. Matthew 8:16,17 reads: “And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘He Himself took our infirmities And bore [our] sicknesses.’ ” The wording is slightly different, as in different Bible versions today, but this can be no other than Isaiah 53:4. The fulfillment is not at the cross, but in Jesus healing ministry. The Bible tells us so.

Isaiah 53:5,6 is another story. Here it speaks of being wounded, bruised and receiving stripes. For what? For our transgressions and iniquities.
“But He [was] wounded for our transgressions,
[He] [was] bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace [was] upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

There is a question about the phrase “by His stripes we are healed.” Healed in what sense? If we let the context speak to us, we find “transgressions” and “iniquities” mentioned just before “healed”. Also, we find “gone astray,” “turned, every one, to his own way” and “iniquity of us all” just after “healed”. Does that not make the healing spiritual?

Peter refers to Isaiah 53:5,6, in 1 Peter 2:24,25. Again, notice the context in which “healed” is mentioned. “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness–by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” It is all about sin and salvation of the soul. The only thing mentioned about the body is that Jesus bore our sins in His body.

This is like Psalms 41:4. “LORD, be merciful to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.” Notice also Psalms 147:3: “He heals the brokenhearted And binds up their wounds (literally: sorrows).” Jeremiah 3:22 contains one more example. “Return, you backsliding children, [And] I will heal your backslidings.”


Jesus’ death must not be seen as failure. He did not die as a martyr. His death did not unexpectedly interrupt a fruitful ministry. On the contrary, a study of prophecy has shown that the death of the Messiah was in the plan. Not only the death itself, but the purpose of that death.

It was all in God’s plan since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 3:15, standing alone, does not have a clear meaning. One must take into account the rest of Old Testament prophecy and all the New Testament fulfillments. Then, Genesis 3:15 can be seen as the first reference to the death of the Messiah.

Actually, God had it all in the plan before the fall of man, even before the creation of the world. Revelation 13:8, referring to Jesus, speaks of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Peter, on the day of Pentecost, charges the Jews with the guilt of slaying Jesus. Nevertheless, he clarifies that Jesus’ deliverance to death came about “by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Some days later, Peter says, “But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18).

Jesus, himself, had foretold the reason. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Before Jesus began his ministry, John the Baptist clearly pointed to the central purpose of it all when he cried, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

All the evidence shows that it was God’s eternal plan for His Son to die for our sins. Far from being a failure, Jesus acceptance of death on Calvary was in direct fulfillment of the prophecies, in direct obedience to God’s eternal plan. Praise God that Jesus was willing to become the Suffering Servant! It was for your salvation and mine!

(Scripture in the preceding article is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)