Suffering Servant and the Good News: a book review

The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology edited by Darrell Bock and Mitch Glaser

The prophet Isaiah has long been mined by Christian interpreters of the Bible for its Christological significance. This is especially true of the ‘Suffering Servant’ passages from the latter part of Isaiah. In this multi-author volume edited by Darrell Bock and Mitch Glaser, examines Isaiah 53 in light of the gospel with an eye towards how this passage can bring Jewish people to faith in Jesus Christ. Despite Isaiah’s status as a Jewish prophet and his prominence among Christian interpreters, this passage is almost unknown among Jewish people. Written to pastors, missionaries and lay leaders, this book is intended as a resource for those who are ‘preaching  and teaching this profound passage and using it to reach unbelievers with a message of redemption (28)’.

The book is organized into three parts. Part one discusses the various interpretations of Isaiah 53. Richard Averbeck surveys Christian interpretations of this chapter (focusing especially on contemporary interpreters). Having examined the competing views, Averbeck argues that the first-person language does not imply the personification of the nation of Israel but one person acting on behalf of the nation.  Michael L. Brown discusses the history of Jewish interpretations of this chapter (showing how the corporate interpretation has often been posited to obscure the messianic implications and how this chapter points to Jesus).

In part two,  Isaiah 53 is placed within a biblical-theological framework. Walter Kaiser argues that the Servant language in Isaiah 53 should be read as a messianic designation and that Jesus understood his ministry in this context.  Michael Wilkins examines the gospel accounts, concluding that Jesus saw himself as the Servant, and the gospel writers also made this identification. Darrell Bock examines Acts 8 (Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch) and how Isaiah 53 in that context, illuminates Jesus’ death.  Craig Evans discusses allusions to Isaiah 53 in the New Testament material from Peter, Paul, John and the book of Hebrews.  David Allen’s chapter sets Isaiah 53 within a cultic context and argues for the significance of substiutionary atonement in understanding the passage. Robert Chisholm rounds out part two by discussing salvation and forgiveness in this chapter and arguing that according to this passage, the beneficiaries of  the Servant’s suffering are both Israel and the nations, that the ‘illness’ described in the chapter imply Jerusalem’s destruction, exile, injustice, death and war, that the breach of the covenant is the fundamental sin for which the blameless Servant suffers,  and that the Servant’s suffering and death provide the means toward divine forgiveness.

Part three addresses how to communicate this passage evangelistically. John Feinberg discusses how Isaiah 53 can be used to articulate the gospel message to ‘postmoderns.’  Mitch Glasser focuses his chapter on how Isaiah 53 can be used effectively in Jewish evangelism (his point is not to debate, or beat Jews over the head with a proof text, but using this chapter to open up a fruitful dialogue). Lastly, Donald Sunukjian gives practical advice to preachers for preaching an expository message based on this chapter (with an eye towards it’s structure).  Each of the chapters of the book are summarized in Darrell Bock’s conclusion (and quoted extensively) and the book also includes in the appendices two sermons from Donald Sunukjian which illustrate a couple of different homiletic approaches to the text.

As is the case with other multi-author studies, there is some overlap in chapter content; however the authors are remarkably united in purpose and theological commitments. These are some of the best and brightest of conservative Biblical scholars and they thoroughly examine this passage in light of historical interpretation, biblical theology, literary structure, and linguistically. You need not agree with the authors on every point (I’m not sure that I do) to appreciate the care and attention in which they craft their argument. I think they make a good case that a individual, substitutionary, Suffering Servant reading of the text, is faithful understanding of the text, and that this passage does point to the significance of Jesus’ work.

But what I appreciate most about this book is the compelling case made here, that Jesus understood his life, ministry and death in light of the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah. Scot McKnight, in the King Jesus Gospel made the provocative claim that many evangelistic presentations by evangelicals completely ignore the Old Testament in their articulation of the gospel.  In The Gospel According to Isaiah 53, the authors prove that for these scholars at least, this is not the case. The gospel of Jesus Christ includes the way Jesus fulfills the hopes of Israel.  By seeing the significance of this passage for Jewish people, we gentiles also come to a fuller appreciation of the gospel story and Christ’s work.

So I recommend this book to pastors and teachers who want to communicate the truths of this passage. I certainly plan to refer back to this book in my preaching and teaching from this passage.

I received this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for this review.

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