In the midst of Isaiah’s prophecies about the Messianic age appears one of the most difficult texts of the Scriptures. It is known to us as Isaiah chapter 53. The whole passage was an enigma. When Philip encountered an Ethiopian reading his Bible, he was reading this passage. The first question he asked was “Of whom does the prophet speak? Himself, or someone else?” (Acts 8.34).
Of course, when we read this text we say “Hey, this is about the suffering and death of Jesus!” Of course it is. It speaks of one, called the Servant of God, who carried our griefs, who was pierced through for our transgressions, and who was crushed for our iniquities. Yes, that’s Jesus. But some difficult aspects of this text remain.
Isaiah began his view of the Messiah with the question “Who has believed our report?” (v 1). That little phrase is an introduction to the description that follows in the rest of the chapter. In other words, Isaiah was saying (if we may paraphrase): “Listen, I’m going to tell you a story, a story about the coming Servant of God, the Messiah of Israel. But you’re not going to believe it.”
As wonderful as the description of the Messiah is – remember, he carried our sorrows, we are healed by his wounds, and he was a guilt offering for us – no one (generally speaking) would believe it. That in itself is strange. Who would greet such wonderful news with unbelief? Yet this is exactly what the apostle John says happened: “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him” (John 1.11). We see this unfold in the gospel narratives. At first, people were excited about Jesus. The men of his hometown, Nazareth, were overjoyed when they heard Jesus tell them that he was the Messiah (Luke 4). A few minutes later, however, they tried to kill him. Similarly, at the end of his ministry Jesus came into Jerusalem with a celebration fit for a king because the people believed he was the Messiah. Those same people were demanding his crucifixion a few days later.
What was so difficult about this text, or about Jesus and his words? Isaiah 53 was not difficult because of its wording, nor because it was vague. It was difficult because the idea presented in it was unthinkable. That is, it was a difficult text not in the sense that it was hard to understand, but in the sense that it was hard to accept. It is the same reaction that people had when Jesus told them they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood. They knew exactly what those words meant, but the idea they conveyed was unacceptable to them. “This is a difficult statement. Who can listen to it?” (John 6.60).
We see this phenomenon over and over in the gospels. For example, Matthew tells us that “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they understood that he was talking about them” (Matt 22.45). Note that. They understood. They knew what his words meant. But they did not like them.
What is interesting that that we see two basic groups of people in the gospel accounts – the Jewish leaders and common people – and both of them rejected Jesus and his message, but for different reasons. The Jewish leaders were not going to let Jesus establish a new kingdom made up of the masses of poor people. If he did, they would lose their places of power and honor in the world, and they were not going give them up easily. But the common people rejected Jesus for a different reason. When they thought that he was going to be the man who would drive the Romans out of Palestine and restored the land to the Jewish people, they were all for him. But when they learned that Jesus had no such plans, and that he said the Romans were going to come and destroy Jerusalem and the Temple, they had no use for him or his message. By two different routes they actually shared a common experience: they did not, they would not, believe what Jesus was telling them.
The reason Isaiah foresaw that people would not believe the wonderful story about the Messiah was not that the story was communicated poorly or because it used strange words. They understood it well enough, but they would not believe it because they did not want to believe it.
Believing what God tells us is not simply a matter of understanding it (although that can also be challenging). It is, much more, a matter of deciding to accept it. That decision is called, in the Bible, faith. The person who comes to God in faith comes with the attitude that he / she will listen to, and accept, whatever God says about us. It is a decision to acknowledge, to assent, to accede, to take, and to receive. This is what Jesus meant when he often said “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Paul quotes Isaiah 53.1 in Romans 10.16. In that context, Paul is making the (difficult!) point that all Israel needed to be right with God was in their own Bibles all along – but Israel would not listen, they would not hear. “All day long I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” was God’s summary of their situation (Isa 65.2, quoted in Rom 10.21). They needed to decide to accept what God said, by faith. Paul says “faith comes by hearing” (Rom 10.17). Where did he get that idea? He got it from Isaiah 53.1, “Who has believed our report?” Paul saw there, in that verse, the simple truth that God’s word must not only be understood, it must also be believed, it must be accepted and trusted. This is where the Jews stumbled. God’s word through Isaiah did not say what they wanted it to say, so they refused to accept it.
So what are we going to do with what we find in our Bibles? Most people understand that message perfectly, but they don’t like it, and because they don’t like it they refuse to accept it. It is still a difficult message.