In Isaiah chapters 40 through 56, we find some of the most stunning prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. The section is dubbed the Servant section because of its many references to a figure that God calls “my Servant”. I believe Jesus of Nazareth very clearly fulfilled these Servant passages, and no, I’m not primarily referring to Isaiah 53. But before we dive in, we should probably head off an objection upfront.
The Servant Is Not Strictly Israel
The Servant is frequently identified with the nation Israel as a whole (Isaiah 41:8, 44:1 and 21, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3). Those who are skeptical of Christianity argue that Isaiah can’t possibly be referring to Jesus. But there are several passages where the Servant is clearly differentiated from Israel as a nation. For example, Isaiah 49:5, reads: “And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his Servant, to bring Jacob back to him and that Israel might be gathered to him?” Um…so how exactly is the Servant Israel if he is regathering Israel? That doesn’t make sense.
There’s also the famous Suffering Servant passage in chapter 53. Let’s look at verse 8. Isaiah writes: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.”
OK, so how could Israel suffer innocently and also be stricken for Israel’s sins at the same time? These verses become nonsensical if you apply them to the entire nation of Israel. There are more passages that we could look at, but I think you get the point. The most plausible explanation for this oddity has been suggested by many biblical scholars: Israel as a whole was called by God to do a specific task, but the work will be carried out by an individual Israelite.
It should be pointed out that some have suggested that the Servant is a personification of Israel-perhaps a righteous remnant, or an ideal Israel. I don’t think that makes sense, either. In 53:3 the subject is called a man. A “soul” is ascribed to him in 53:11–12. Additionally, “grave” and “death” seem to imply a singular subject. If this were an allegory of a collective righteous remnant, we wouldn’t expect these indicators.
Jesus is the Servant
OK, so with those skeptical objections out of the way, let’s talk about how Jesus is found in the text of Isaiah. I’m going to make somewhat of a bold claim here: There’s no way I’m going to be able to be accused of saying that Gospels were written to fit these predictions. Why? Because most of the fulfillments happened long after NT times. The writers of the NT couldn’t conceivably have engineered these predictions.
We’ll be looking at Isaiah 49:6–7, which says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
The Servant’s role as a light to the Gentiles is explained here as “bring salvation to the ends of the earth”. This suggests the Servant’s work is to have a powerful, global effect. Though “despised and abhorred by the nation,” even the rulers of the Gentiles will bow down to him. Can you think of any Israelites who fit these words apart from Jesus? Jesus is the only Jew who claimed to be the Messiah and founded a worldwide religion that included billions of Gentiles, including kings and princes. He’s the only Israelite who has had this kind of global influence.
The massive growth of Christianity
Before the beginning of the first century AD, monotheism was mostly only practiced by Jews and a handful of Greek philosophers. The Hebrew Scriptures were only known by a small part of the population. The vast majority of the known world was polytheistic; their gods were not morally perfect. Consequently, the Gentile world often displayed a low morality. When the NT was written, the Jewish world had very restricted cultural, spiritual, or intellectual influence outside its own communities. Throughout the Roman empire, there were Jew but they mostly kept to themselves. Many Jews refused to eat with non-Jews and made scant efforts to spread their faith, and few Gentiles showed much interest in Judaism.
Fast forward to today. Those who worship God include Jews (at 15.2 million) and predominantly Gentile Christians (at 2.4 billion). Islam (at 1.9 billion) may also be included since Christianity indirectly contributed to the rise of Islam. Since Jesus, about half of the population now identifies with the God of Abraham. Overlooking Muslims and most Jews, about one-third of the population accepts Jesus as Messiah.
There is a presence of Christians on every continent and in nearly every country. That includes Western countries and Eastern nations, poor nations and prosperous ones. Even in Communist China there are an estimated 44 million Christians. Clearly, Jesus of Nazareth has become a light to the nations news of him has spread throughout the world. Interestingly, Jesus Himself also predicted this would happen, saying that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations…” (Matthew 24:10)
What are the odds?
So what are the odds of this prophecy coming true? Approximately 1.9% of the world’s population is Jewish. To be generous, let’s say it was 2.8% back in Jesus’ time. Based on 0.28%, the antecedent odds of being the world’s largest religion emerging from this group are incredibly low. And how many famous Jews were also “despised and abhorred by their nation” like we read about in Isaiah 49:7? Not a whole lot. The Jewish community, like most ethnic groups, tends to be proud of its members who have accomplished success in society. Jesus is viewed by Jews as a religious innovator, and Jewish religious innovators are more likely to be despised more than non-religious innovators. Ironically, one of the standard objections made by skeptics of Christianity the Jewish rejection of Jesus.
Additionally, the Christian church was persecuted until 313 A.D., as powerful rulers and officials attempted to suppress and destroy the Christian religion as well as its Scriptures.
Jesus’ followers often paid a high price, such as being nailed to crosses, burned alive, or fed to wild animals. Christianity’s chances of becoming a dominant global religion are therefore very low.
I think we can say that on the hypothesis that a given Jewish individual is the promised Messiah, the probability that they would bring members of all nations to worship the God of Israel is roughly equal to one. Whereas on the hypothesis that Jesus is not the Messiah, the probability is extremely small. The only person to accomplish this feat throughout history is Jesus. Additionally, Israel mostly rejected him just as predicted by Isaiah, which further decreases the likelihood of this all happening by chance. This gives us good reason to accept both the Messiahship of Jesus and the Bible’s divine inspiration.