The Suffering Servant

The Suffering Servant: What His Suffering Means 

What follows is a study on Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant chapter--a chapter believed to be a summary of what God and Messiah (God's servant) would accomplish for His people. The significance of this chapter can't be underestimated. It's a favorite for those who believe in the Penal Substitutionary Atonement model (PSA). However, there are other ways to understand the Suffering Servant chapter. For those who aren't familiar, the PSA theory basically asserts that we are dead and without hope, but that God, in order to divert His wrath from "us," sent His own son to "bear his wrath because of our sins." The language of Isaiah's 53rd chapter does seem to suggest this, and I've believed this mainstream understanding of the death of Christ for the majority of my almost-decades long walk. But, there are other ways of understanding and interpreting this chapter which I think are a better portrait of the Father and provides a better example of our response to the His plan.

There are two basic fundamental principles with regards to the idea of "atonement" or "sacrifice" that need to be the bedrock for our understanding of what this means in order to be consistent with the character of God.[*]

  1. God hates human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31,32; 18:10 and Ezekiel 16:20,21)

  2. No man can ransom (redeem) or atone for the sins of another man (Psalm 49:7-8)

If Jesus is a man, as many affirm--even Trinitarians, Modalists, and Arians (and especially Biblical Unitarians)--, then the contradiction should be evident, and the following question extremely interesting and valid: "If God hates human sacrifice and doesn't allow for one man to atone for the sins of another, but established that every man must bare his own sin, then how can Jesus--God's own son--be the human sacrifice to pay for (redeem) the sins of another person?" Because this question has plagued my mind in recent months, I've finally set down to attempt a fresh study on this issue.

Here are the pertinent parts of Isaiah 53 with my commentary based on a number of different sources that I think provide a better understanding that's more logical and consistent with the aforementioned verses.

Isaiah 53 Commentary

ISA 53:4  Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

Note: In Matthew 8:16 is a quote of this passage, specifically this verse. The context is key, and the logic of the scenario needs to help us understand the prophetic reality as it actually unfolded. In context, Jesus healed Peter's mother in law (vv.14, 15) and he cast out devils from "many that were possessed" (v. 16, KJV). All of this was done by laying on of hands (v. 15) and "with his word" (v. 16), not by a ritual blood sacrifice of himself. To me, the reality of the prophecy, therefore, gives us the exact meaning by which Jesus is said to "bear our griefs, and carry our sorrows." Jesus was given the authority and responsibility to do these things on behalf of God who sent him. He was also destined to die. But for what purpose, and why? 

See this interesting commentary from a writer named Jeremy Davis of the Orthodox persuasion as a second witness for this claim:[1]

Here Christ does not suffer the people’s ailments in their place but rather cures them. Thus, in this passage, "bore" means something like 'took upon Himself the responsibility for healing or fixing [the problem],” akin to our idea of bearing responsibility. 

What's interesting is that a Targum (translation/ commentary/ paraphrase) of Isaiah 53 brings out the same conclusions. For verse 6, Pseudo-Jonathan Targum in Aramaic[2] reads, 

All we like sheep have been scattered, every one of us has turned to his own way; it pleased the Lord to forgive the sins of all of us for His sake.

Here, Messiah is understood to be the means by which forgiveness is made, for the simple fact that His son was showing mercy and forgiveness as he "bore" the sins of the ones who killed him (Psa 2; Matthew 27:27:34). Jesus served God unto death, healing us and forgiving us even though "we" are the ones who agreed to have him smitten (in accordance with God's plan to send his son). 

ISA 53:5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

Note: Targum for verse 5 from the same source reads,

He shall build the house of the sanctuary [/temple], which has been profaned on account of our sins; it [the sanctuary/ temple] was delivered over on account of our iniquities, and through His doctrine peace shall be multiplied upon us, and through the teaching of His words our sins shall be forgiven us.

The commentary in this particular Targum suggests that it's Messiah's teachings that bring the forgiveness of sins. 

ISA 53:6  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Note: We are sheep without a shepherd. How has the Father planned to bring sheep unto his anointed shepherd? The shepherd assumed the responsibility (in accordance with the will of God) to heal and forgive our transgressions: brother, sister; neighbor; enemy--all of them who would repent and come in faith. 

ISA 53:7  He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

ISA 53:8  He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.

Note: The Revised JPS translation of this verse reads thusly: "By oppressive judgment he was taken away, Who could describe his abode? For he was cut off from the land of the living. Through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment."[3] With this translation, it seems that the thrust of the Suffering Servant idea is that the Servant was sent by God; the plan was for the Servant to suffer an unjust death at the hands of the very ones he was healing, forgiving, and shewing mercy towards. Therefore, one object of this plan was to prove that the Servant was indeed righteous (see Matthew 27:54; Acts 2:22-24). This translation asserts that the ones who deserve to die in this way don't; in Acts 2, Peter proclaims it's not too late for that generation to repent of their sin. If we read Psalm 2, which I think is also in mind, we get the sense that ultimately God will have his vengeance on the ones [from that generation] who are found guilty of putting his son to death--i.e., the ones who don't accept the Servant. Another object is for God to "justify many" (vv. 10-12). Again, we understand this by considering what Peter is saying to that crowd in Acts 2; and to be absolutely clear, the very same Gospel message and warning of impending judgment was also to go to the Gentiles (Matthew 28:18-20).

ISA 53:9  And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

ISA 53:10  Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

ISA 53:11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

ISA 53:12  Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Matthew 8:17 : Further Depth

If we look back at Matthew 8:17 and let the logic of the scene play out (meaning that by healing Peter's mother in law, and by casting out the devils, Jesus didn't assume the fever or become possessed himself), we find that the words "bear" and "took" are mostly figurative uses. Yes, he literally cured Peter's mother in law, and he actually cast out the devils, but the word "bare" means he didn't have those afflictions return to him. 

The word "took" in relationship to our "infirmities" in the KJV is as follows:




A prolonged form of a primary verb, which is used only as an alternate in certain tenses; to take (in very many applications, literally and figuratively [probably objective or active, to get hold of; whereas G1209 is rather subjective or passive, to have offered to one; while G138 is more violent, to seize or remove]): - accept, + be amazed, assay, attain, bring, X when I call, catch, come on (X unto), + forget, have, hold, obtain, receive (X after), take (away, up).

Jesus "seized" or "removed" or "took hold of" the ailments. He vanquished them. He didn't assume them

In Matthew 8:17, the Greek word for "bare" as it relates to "sicknesses" is,




Perhaps remotely derived from the base of G939 (through the idea of removal); to lift, literally or figuratively (endure, declare, sustain, receive, etc.): - bear, carry, take up.

Jesus "lifted" or "removed" the sickness, or, in another sense, "declared" that the sicknesses had departed and was cured. He didn't become sick himself. 


What's very important in all of this is to keep in mind the narrative perspectives as well. In Isaiah 53:4, it's the onlooking "mankind" of whom it is said, "We did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted." We--not God--esteemed the Servant to be "stricken, smitten of God." However, the reality is that God wasn't the one afflicting Messiah at all! Consider these verses from Matthew (you can find the cross references yourself): Matthew 27:27-31; 39-46;49.

What Might This Mean? 

The response to the Father's plan for his son is to do as the son said: "Follow me." Jesus expects that in order for us to have fellowship with the Father that we do the will of the Father, which is what we saw Jesus doing all the time (John 8:29) and is what he commands us to do. The will of the Father is for us to believe and follow His son. Peter says so in a remarkable parallel to Isaiah's prophecy:

1Pe 2:21  For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:

In verse 21, we're told that the purpose of Christ's sufferings was for the same purpose to which we were called, to "follow his steps" for he "left us an example."

1Pe 2:22  Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:

1Pe 2:23  Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:

We see from these two verses that the example includes suffering, not having guile in our mouths, not reviling our opponents, not threatening, and deferring judgment to The Almighty. 

The lesson we learn from the example is that, despite being afflicted, Jesus committed himself to God who is able to judge righteously. God is pleased in this only because He is delighted by the obedience of his people, in this case represented by the one who willingly assumed that responsibility as Leader, His own son; He isn't pleased because He enjoys watching people suffer unjust, cruel deaths as a "means of sacrifice." Remember, God hates human sacrifices, and He hates unrighteous judgment. The theories which support the idea of God being pleased by human sacrifice of an just person for the purpose of acquitting the wicked is a pagan idea and suggests an all Good and Loving God is pleased by wickedness.

1Pe 2:24  Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.

The purpose of Jesus doing this (recall Matthew 8:17) was to seize the sins, to arrest them. He was literally afflicted by sinners--bearing their blows and hatred, but he was not deterred. He pressed on into God's will by asking God to forgive them; in so doing, Jesus showed mercy, which is the complete opposite of any sacrifice (recall Matthew 9:13). Therefore, he "put an end to sacrifices" by demonstrating mercy, and by his example (Way, Teachings, Life) he leads many to repentance. Therefore, God is pleased to forgive those who repent and who follow Jesus' example of mercy-living, for that is The Way. When Jesus submitted completely to the will of God, he overcame the world; when we follow Jesus' example, we too overcome the world. When Jesus submitted to God, he bound the strong man and spoiled his house. We are freed indeed when we follow him; not by any blood sacrifice, but by doing the will of God which is showing mercy and love and forgiveness--the "better sacrifice" of one's own will to do God's will instead. This Is The Way.

1Pe 2:25  For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

Once more, the aim of the plan was to turn the hearts of the repentant back to the Father by means of the Shepherd. We must follow him.  


When reading the Suffering Servant scene in Isaiah, we must illuminate our understanding by keeping Jesus' life firmly in our mind. This allows us to ask what's taking place in his context so that we can see how the prophecy was being fulfilled. What we saw was that Jesus put those things away by dispelling them even before he'd been executed. He did it by means of laying on of hands and by his word, all by the authority and responsibility that his Father and God had given him. All before the blood was even shed. Moreover, he himself was not afflicted by those things as though he himself were "cursed" by God, as it was often thought to be the case with such afflicted persons. This informs our understanding of what happened when Jesus was executed--he wasn't being punished for our sins as a means of appeasing a blood-thirsty deity; rather, he was enduring our sins, sustaining our sins, upon him, which was the means through which he would be able to demonstrate God's ultimate purpose and desire: to show an example of his mercy by actually living by the commandments of "love your neighbor as yourself," "turn the other cheek," "love your enemies," "put up again thy sword," and so many others that underscore what's written in the Ten Words (The Ten Commandments). By doing this, he demonstrated what it means to love God with all one's heart, soul, strength, and mind. It's no wonder Peter and John see such a magnificent example and tell us to strive to keep it,[4] for us to learn to do righteousness after his son's example. It's written in the prophets that God's ultimate desire for us is to shew mercy. It's written, "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"[5] This is what Jesus did. Jesus is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. The Suffering Servant is a mirror; we're to look upon him and conform to that image. We are all, in a very real sense, supposed to be Suffering Servants ourselves. May God give us grace as we strive to be faithful.


[*] 7 Reasons Why Jesus Was NOT Sacrificed for Your Sins by Keith Giles - Please note that Giles is a universalist. Though I affirm Conditional Immortality and disagree with Giles' use of Paul and his soteriology, his points are a fresh reminder of what God's true heart is: "mercy, not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6-8)

[1] He Bore Our Sins by Fr. Anthony Davis; from the site: "Archimandrite Jeremy Davis is Protosyngellos of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America." - Please note that, while I'm not familiar much with the Orthodox faith (and despite my strong differences with what I do know), this article was enlightening and was a joy to read; it's a welcomed, peaceful perspective on the intent behind God's plan for sending his son and God's character. *SITE NO LONGER AVAILABLE.

[2] Revised JPS translation of Isaiah 53 with the Pseudo-Jonathan Aramaic Targum of Isaiah 53

[3] Revised JPS

[4] 1 Peter 2:21-25; 1 John 3

[5] Micah 5:8