Isaiah 53:4-6 - The Substitute

The Messiah in Isaiah Bible Study

Isaiah 53:4-6 - The Substitute

by I Gordon

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)


We live in a world that is rapidly changing and the next few years could be a very interesting time indeed. Recently we've seen conflicts, uprisings, inflation, rising unemployment and global unrest. And that is just on the morning news. On the technology front the new flash laptop or TV that you've just got your hands on is normally out of date compared with the newest 'must-have' device within a year or two. The pace of life seems to be increasing and many struggle to keep up. In many respects it is a crazy old world. And yet, there is a place of rest. Aren't you glad that when you come to God He says 'ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls'?

So we are going to walk an ancient path today... one which has been trodden by wise men and women for the last 2000 years. You see the passage in Isaiah 53 that we will study, verses 4-6, present us with an ancient truth that God has been trying to teach mankind for thousands of years. And that is, that the Messiah would be the divine substitute in dying for the sins of mankind. In many ways it is Christianity 101. It is the foundation. But it should not be forgotten or overlooked. Let's have a look.

Ok... so who is speaking?

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. (Isaiah 53:4)

We've seen already that this whole passage in Isaiah 53 is a fantastic prophecy about the Messiah, Jesus Christ, made 700 years in advance. But as we start looking at verse 4, the first thought I had was 'who is speaking'? Who ever it was, they correctly acknowledged that Jesus had taken their infirmities and sorrows upon Himself, yet they themselves had thought that He was actually struck down by God. There are many scholars, such as Arnold Fructembaum, who see this chapter as not only prophetic of what the Messiah would accomplish, but it is also prophetic of a future national confession of Israel when they finally have their eyes open to see the glorious truth of what the Messiah Jesus accomplished at His first coming.  [1] 

Here was the initial thought process of those speaking in this verse - They saw that Jesus was obviously afflicted. They saw that Jesus' trial, suffering and eventual death was so radical that He MUST be punished by God. And if He is being punished by God in such a radical way, then He must have been a great sinner. Their initial reasoning was along the same lines as Job's 'friends' who said that Job must be a sinner and was reaping what he had sowed. Now the Jews knew their scripture and, seeing Jesus die upon the cross, the verse from Deut 21:23 came like a flashing sign into their mind saying those that are hung from a tree are accursed by God. So were they right? Was Jesus a sinner? Was Jesus accursed by God? Was that why He was obviously stricken by God? Interestingly, they were spot on in that He was cursed by God yet dead wrong in thinking that it was because of His own sin. Totally right that Jesus was crushed by God yet totally wrong as to why! But the revelation concerning the 'why' was soon to come!

Revelation at last!

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Finally... Revelation! In the previous verse they saw that Jesus was struck down by God. That is true. But the real question is why? Why was the Messiah struck down? And it's the 'why' that is important! In this verse they have this revelation and question answered! The revelation is that the Messiah was pierced for OUR transgressions and OUR iniquities. Again... the speaker in this context is the nation of Israel who will one day (and possibly a day not too far away) finally see this wonderful truth. But it is a revelation that we all need to have is it not? The fact is that Jesus Christ died because of YOUR sin and if you had lived in the days of His death, you too may have been among the crowd mocking and yelling abuse.  [2] 

But oh, how things change once the revelation comes! The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him. He died in our place.  [3]  The Bible says that the 'wages of sin is death' and the history of mankind testifies that each man has been under this judgement. Yet He died to bring us peace and everlasting life. Those that believe in Him will still die physically for this body is associated with the 'first creation' - that which was condemned to death. But praise God that He has started again and believers are a new creation in Christ Jesus. That shall never die!  [4] 

As a side note it is worth pointing out that the prophetic scripture uses the word 'pierce' for the manner in which the Messiah would die - He was 'pierced' for our transgressions. This is quite telling for that is not the Jewish method. Remember that the book of Isaiah was written over 700 years before Jesus came to this earth. At the time of writing there was no crucifixion or death by being pierced within the Jewish culture. The Jewish method of capital punishment was stoning. And yet the prophecies  [5]  declared that the Messiah would be pierced not stoned. Of course we know from history that crucifixion was a chief means of capital punishment within the Roman Empire and by the time the Messiah came to this earth, the Jews were under the authority of the Roman Empire and crucifixion was in place. It is another example of the prophets being able to foresee things hundreds of years in advance even when they weren't part of their culture at the time.

The Two All's

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)

There are two all's mentioned in this verse. Both are important and no one escapes being included in either 'all'. The first is that all have gone astray. This is so true. It includes the vilest offender and the greatest looking saint. We have all sinned... it's not just Adolf Hitler  [6]  that has fallen short of the glory of God. Like sheep we have wandered off doing our own thing. Each of us has turned to his own way.  [7]  If that was the only 'all' in the verse it may get a little gloomy! But it is not. The same verse also tells us that God has laid on Him (the Messiah) 'the iniquity of us all.'

That is the gospel. That is the good news. Jesus was our substitute. We owed a debt we could not pay, and He paid the price He did not owe. It may be Christianity 101 but it never tires. It is the truth of God and the grace of God offered freely to all.  [8] 


The message of Isaiah 53:4-6 can well be summed up by the following song. Maybe you can relate to this? Maybe you have seen yourself for what you are... maybe you have recognised that but for the grace of God you too would have been among the scoffers calling out, mocking at His crucifixion? Yehiel Dinur's conclusion was that 'Eichmann is in all of us.' Yet praise God that Jesus' 'dying breath has brought me life' and a new way has been opened for believers to come and be acceptable before God.

How Deep The Father's Love For Us

How deep the Father's love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

[1] ↩  Dr Adolph Saphir, who lived in the 1800's was a Hebrew Christian who also saw that this chapter was a national confession of the Jews in the last days. He writes:

 Blessed, precious chapter, how many of God's ancient covenant people have been led by thee to the foot of Christ's cross! - that cross over which was written, "Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews!" And oh! what a glorious commentary shall be given of thee when, in the latter days, repentant and believing Israel, looking unto Him whom they have pierced, shall exclaim, "Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted!" 

[2] ↩  Our Daily Bread has the following useful illustration:
When you study the painting of the crucifixion by the famous Dutch artist Rembrandt, your attention is first drawn to the cross and to Jesus. Then, as you look at the crowd around the cross, you are drawn to the faces of the people involved in the awful crime of crucifying the Son of God. Finally, your eyes drift to the edge of the picture and catch sight of another figure - almost hidden in the shadows. This, we are told, was a self-portrait of Rembrandt, for he recognized that by his sins he helped nail Jesus there!

Someone has aptly said, 'It is a simple thing to say that Christ died for the sin of the world. It is quite another thing to say that Christ died for my sin! It may be an interesting pastime to point fingers at those who crucified Jesus, but it is a shocking thought that I can be as indifferent as Pilate, as scheming as Caiaphas, as calloused as the soldiers, as ruthless as the mob, or as cowardly as the disciples. It isn't just what they did - it was I who nailed Him to the tree. I crucified the Christ of God. I joined the mockery!'

Think again of Rembrandt's painting. If you look closely, you will see that in the shadows you too are standing with bloodied hands, for Christ bore the penalty of your sin! And you will say, 'He was wounded for me.'

Calvary's cross reveals man's hatred for God and God's love for man.

[3] ↩  This is illustrated in C.S Lewis' much loved book 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'. You'll probably remember the story but let's pretend you don't! Edmund is tempted and tricked by the white witch, who has turned Narnia into a perpetual winter, and becomes her captive in her castle filled with her enemies that she has turned into stone. The Witch approaches to speak with Aslan, insisting that according to "deep magic from the dawn of time" she has the right to execute Edmund as a traitor. This is true so Aslan speaks with her privately and persuades her to renounce her claim on Edmund's life but it is only later that Peter, Lucy and Susan find out that Aslan has bargained to exchange his own life for Edmund's. He will pay for Edmund's sin. The Witch in delight, ties Aslan to the Stone Table and then kills him with a knife.

Yes, this was 'deep magic from the dawn of time'. But is there a deeper magic? Is this the end of Aslan? Is this the end of the Messiah?

[4] ↩  Does this part of the verse mean that there is healing in the atonement? Some say that Jesus died for our sins and our sicknesses so we should claim our physical healing by faith just as we claim our forgiveness of sins by faith. Some would go so far as to say that if you claim your healing and are not healed, then it is a lack of faith or sin in your life. So what is this verse talking about? Is the healing physical or spiritual? When we look at how the New Testament writers used it we see that there is only one reference to it. That is 1 Pet 2:24. When you examine what Peter is saying you will see that it is spiritual healing in view. He is saying that through Jesus stripes we have been brought back to God. That is the real healing. Having said that, Jesus' death on the cross did provide the means for total healing of the entire person - body, soul and spirit... But each in its time. God's ultimate healing and salvation of body, soul and spirit has a name. It is called Resurrection. Until then we live in a body that is ageing and breaking down and that in itself is used by God to remind us that the important things in life are eternal. Does God still heal us physically? Of course He does. But as I once heard Adrian Plass say about God and healing - 'We know two things about God and healing. 1. That God heals. 2. That He doesn't.' That is, that He is sovereign and knows what is best for us in this life and sometimes that involves great miracles and sometimes that requires difficult times of refining and suffering. It is just the way it is.

[5] ↩  Two other key passages that speak the Messiah being 'pierced'. The first passage describes the process, events and effects of crucifixion in some detail.

Psa 22:14-18 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing. 

Zec 12:10 And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. 

[6] ↩  The following illustration is a fantastic example of this:

'  One of Adolph Hitler's right hand men was Adolph Eichmann. He was one of the worst of the Holocaust's masterminds. After the war he escaped to Argentina. In 1959 the Mossad, Israel's secret service found his whereabouts and sent undercover agents down to Argentina to bring him back. After capturing him they transported him to Israel to stand trial.
 There, prosecutors called a string of former concentration camp prisoners as witnesses. One was a small man named Yehiel Dinur, who had miraculously escaped death in Auschwitz. On his day to testify, Dinur entered the courtroom and stared at the man in the bulletproof glass booth - the man who had murdered Dinur's friends, personally executed a number of Jews, and presided over the slaughter of millions more. As the eyes of the two men met - victim and murderous tyrant - the courtroom fell silent, filled with the tension of the confrontation. But no one was prepared for what happened next. Yehiel Dinur began to shout and sob, collapsing to the floor. Was he overcome by hatred? By the horrifying memories? By the evil incarnate in Eichmann's face?

 No. As he later explained in a riveting 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace, it was because Eichmann was not the demonic personification of evil that Dinur had expected. Rather, he was an ordinary man, just like anyone else. And in that one instant, Dinur came to a stunning realization that sin and evil are the human condition. 'I was afraid about myself,' Dinur said. 'I saw that I am capable to do this ... I am exactly like he.'

Dinur's remarkable statements caused Mike Wallace to turn to the camera and ask the audience the most painful of all questions: 'How was it possible for a man to act as Eichmann acted? Was he a monster? A madman? Or was he perhaps something even more terrifying? Was he normal?

 Yehiel Dinur's shocking conclusion? 'Eichmann is in all of us.'

[7] ↩  Ray Stedman comments well on this part of the verse saying:

 'Frank Sinatra made a song popular a few years ago, "I Did It My Way." When you hear that it sounds like something admirable, something everybody ought to emulate. How proud we feel that we did it "our way." But when you turn to the record of the Scripture, you find that that is the problem, not the solution. Everyone is doing things "their way," so we have a race that is in constant conflict, forever striving with one another, unable to work anything out, because we all did it "our way." 

[8] ↩  As Mattie Ross in the movie True Grit says  'You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.'  Too true!