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The Gospel According to God

(10 posts)

The Fifth Gospel

The entire Old Testament contains messianic prophesies scattered throughout. The book of Isaiah is filled with prophesies that can refer to no one but Jesus of Nazareth. But no Old Testament passage is as packed full of Christ as Isaiah 52:13–53:12. John MacArthur writes, [O]f all the marvelous prophecies in Isaiah, this passage in chapter 53 rises above all the rest. It is a majestic description of Christ’s sacrifice for sins. Some commentators call it the most important text in the entire Old Testament. Isaiah 53 has received many such accolades throughout the history of the church. Polycarp, the second-century church father and disciple of the apostle John, referred to it as “the golden Passional of the Old Testament.” Augustine called the entire book of Isaiah “the fifth gospel,” and that name applies particularly to chapter 53. A collection of John Calvin’s sermons on Isaiah 53 is titled The Gospel According to Isaiah. Martin Luther declared that every Christian ought to have the whole of Isaiah 52:13–53:12 memorized. The noted nineteenth-century Old Testament commentator Franz Delitzsch famously wrote, “In how many an Israelite has it melted the crust of his heart! It looks as if it had been written beneath the cross upon Golgotha. . . . [It] is the most central, the deepest, and the loftiest thing that the Old Testament prophecy, outstripping itself, has ever achieved.” . .  Isaiah 53 is the precise passage the Ethiopian eunuch was reading in the Gaza desert when Philip encountered him. The eunuch read a portion of the passage aloud: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter . . .” (Acts 8:32). Then he posed a question to Philip—and it was exactly the right question. This is the key that unlocks the passage: “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (v. 34). ”Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture [Isaiah 53] he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35)—the gospel according to God! . .  For anyone familiar with the New Testament account of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and high priestly intercession, there should be no mystery about what Isaiah 53 signifies. It is the complete gospel in prophetic form, a surprisingly explicit foretelling of what the Messiah would do to put away the sins of his people forever. It is the gospel according to God, set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. —John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 31–33.

The Forbidden Chapter

Isaiah 53 is so replete with gospel truth that those who see the passage for the first time might well think they are reading the New Testament. Jewish people whose exposure to the Scripture is limited to texts that are read aloud in their synagogues each week will be completely unfamiliar with Isaiah 53. The entire passage is always omitted from the scheduled public readings. Every Sabbath in every synagogue worldwide, two portions of Scripture are prescribed to be read aloud—one from the Pentateuch (the Torah), and the other (the haftarah) a selection of texts drawn from the prophets. The same schedule of readings is followed in all synagogues, year after year. Over a year’s time, the rotation covers every verse of the Torah in canonical order. But the haftarah readings are more selective. One of the featured haftarah excerpts is Isaiah 51:12–52:12. The next reading in the cycle is Isaiah 54:1–10. Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is therefore never read publicly in the synagogues. As a result, Isaiah 53 is an unfamiliar passage for multitudes of devout Jewish people. In mid 2015, an Israeli-based messianic (Christian) community known as Medabrim released a video on the Internet titled “The ’Forbidden Chapter’ in the Tanakh” (Hebrew Bible), featuring a number of Israelis reading Isaiah 53 from the original Hebrew text. All of them were seeing it for the first time. The astonishment is obvious on the faces of those dear people. Their surprise quickly gives way to thoughtful reflection. As an interviewer asks them to put into their own words the implications of the passage, it is obvious that every one of them sees the clear connection between the prophecy and the New Testament record of Jesus. Christians would do well to reflect on Isaiah 53 more carefully as well. This prophecy is like a bottomless well of biblical truth. The more we look into it, the more we realize that no human preacher or commentator could ever fully plumb its astonishing depth. This passage first arrested my attention when I was a young man, and every time I return to it, I am amazed at the fresh richness of its truths. —John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 37–38.

The Crux of Isaiah

Now here’s another important thing to notice about the literary structure of Isaiah: the good-news portion of Isaiah (chapters 40–66) is an extended triptych. That part of Isaiah’s prophecy divides naturally into three sections of nine chapters each. Each subsection promises a different kind of salvation for God’s people. The first nine chapters (40–48) foretell Judah’s deliverance from the Babylonian captivity. The second nine chapters (49–57) focus on redemption from sin. The final section (chapters 58–66), looking forward to Christ’s millennial and eternal reign, speaks of full emancipation from the curse of Adam’s fall. . . . If we take the entire fifteen-verse pericope—Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12—verse 5 is literally the central verse of the whole passage: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” In other words, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the crux of the core verse in the middle chapter of the center panel in Isaiah’s triptych on deliverance. It is the heart and the focal point of everything the book of Isaiah has to say about the forgiveness of sin. That is fitting, because there is no more vital gospel truth. The literary symmetry is perfect and the focus is sharp. You can see it from every possible vantage point. Whether we look at Isaiah 53 in isolation, consider the nine-chapter section where forgiveness is the main topic, or expand our perspective to include the entire good-news section of Isaiah, the cross is always literally at the center. And there it remains, with a bright spotlight on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. —John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 40–42.

Deadly Self-Righteousness

John MacArthur explains why Isaiah 53 was, and is, so misunderstood. After the captivity ended and multitudes returned from exile, the Jewish people never again fell into the kind of widespread, wanton idolatry that characterized the nation during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh. The Jews came back from captivity with a new devotion to the law. Perhaps the chief distinctive of postexilic Judaism was an unprecedented stress on strict legal obedience, with particular attention given to the law’s external and ceremonial features—dietary laws, dress, ritual washings, and visible symbols of piety like phylacteries and robe tassels (Matt. 23:5). But a show of religious zeal is no solution to the sin problem that plagues the human race. Sinners cannot make themselves holy, even by the most exacting attempts at obedience to God’s law. Rules and regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch. . . . These . . . are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:21–23). Nevertheless, an increasingly ascetic form of Judaism emerged, and it was perpetuated by an appeal to tradition rather than authentic faith. By the time of Christ, sheer legalism was the dominant religion in Israel. . . . Yet because the Jewish nation was chosen by God as the line through whom the deliverer would come, many believed that by virtue of their Abrahamic descent, they already had a claim on God’s favor and blessing. After all, “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” were all theirs by birthright (Rom. 9:4). They took the goodness and mercy of God for granted—exactly like multitudes in Christendom today. The notion that they needed a Savior to expiate their guilt or deliver them from God’s condemnation was as thoroughly offensive to the average Jew of Jesus’s time as it is to today’s cultured secularists, moral relativists, and people who think they became Christians by birth or baptism. Those who followed the Pharisees’ doctrines happily acknowledged that Gentiles and other reprobates were sinners, but they thought of themselves as “righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). They were “clean in their own eyes but . . . not washed of their filth” (Prov. 30:12). That is the deadly danger of works religion. That is the attitude Jesus was condemning when he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . . I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12–13). And make no mistake: all false religions cultivate sinful self-confidence. That includes every brand of genteel “faith” and pseudo-Christianity that is stylish today. Self-righteous souls who don’t see themselves as hopeless sinners in need of a savior can never truly appreciate the message of Isaiah 53. That, I am convinced, remains the major reason (even today) why so many—Jews and Gentiles alike—remain unmoved by the account of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. —John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 47–49.

The Servant’s Wisdom

Isaiah says the servant of the Lord will “act wisely” (Isa. 52:13). The Hebrew word speaks of someone who performs a task with skill and expertise. One modern translation says, “My servant will prosper” (NASB). Both translations are valid. The Hebrew word speaks of prudent action that gains prosperous results. Wisdom and success are often linked in Scripture (cf. Josh. 1:7–8; 1 Sam. 18:5, 30; 1 Kings 2:3 where the same verb appears). The language accents the fact that the servant’s exaltation is not owing to accidental success or good fortune. His ultimate triumph is an accomplishment attained by adroit know-how. The servant’s amazing wisdom will result in the attainment of his purpose. He will not fail to accomplish God’s will, because he prudently employs righteous means to achieve the noblest results. Moreover, “the Servant’s wisdom is deeply self-denying, for it means accepting ends determined by God and willingly shouldering a burden of untold suffering to make them possible. Here God’s wisdom and humankind’s decisively part company (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17–25).” —John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 54.
Every unprejudiced person might have seen from [Isaiah 52:13–53:13] that the Messiah, when he came, was not to be surrounded with pomp, but would come as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” to be “despised and rejected of men.” Yet, though the truth was written as with a sunbeam, and the Jewish people were pretty generally acquainted with their own Scriptures, so that they had the opportunity of knowing it, yet when the Messiah came unto his own, his own received him not, and though favoured with the clearest prophecies concerning him they rejected his claims, and cried, “Let him be crucified!” —Charles Spurgeon, cited in John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 67. Why did the Jews reject their Messiah? The answer is found in the word “unprejudiced.” “Every unprejudiced person” who knew the words of Isaiah—that is, every Jew educated in the synagogue—should have known the Messiah would not be a political leader or military conqueror, but they were not unprejudiced. Neither are we, by birth (Psalm 51:5). Why did the Jews reject their Messiah? For the same reason we all do. By nature, we are predisposed to reject Jesus as Lord and Savior. We need a new nature before we can see him as our true Messiah. We must be born again (John 3:1–8).
The Jews of Jesus’ day expected a Messiah who would deliver them from oppression and set up his Messianic kingdom. In that, they were not wrong. One day, all their expectations will be fulfilled. What they did not realize is that they were under a much heavier oppressor than the Roman Empire. Jesus is the true Messiah, and he will one day return to reign as King over all the earth. But he could not establish his kingdom (with all its promised blessings for Jews and Gentiles alike) until he had provided salvation. People cannot be delivered from their suffering until they are delivered from their sin. The countless millions of sacrificed animals offered under the sacrificial system did not atone for sin. “Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered?” (Heb. 10:2). The constant offering of those sacrifices was designed to remind people of their sin and the need for an adequate atonement. “In these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year” (v. 3). The sacrifices pointed to Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Only the death of a perfect substitute would truly satisfy the demands of God’s justice and pay the penalty for sin. Isaiah 53 is God’s promise that he himself would provide a suitable Lamb (cf. Gen. 22:8). —John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 76.
Even though the people of Israel collectively and overwhelmingly rejected their Messiah, his work carries on. Paul sorrowfully says that his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3) were “ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (10:3). They failed to grasp the truth that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (v. 4). In other words, they did not understand that they had no ground on which to stand before God and no possibility of earning his favor with their own good works. They therefore did not see their need for the servant’s sacrifice on their behalf. Had they believed, the perfect righteousness of their sinless Messiah would have been imputed to them (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24). Instead, they chose to clothe themselves with their own self-righteousness. By refusing God’s righteousness and trusting their own, they made themselves supremely offensive to God. In fact, Isaiah casts off all the normal rules of genteel discourse in the way he describes the guilt of those who trusted their own good works. He says it was as if they were dressed in used menstrual rags. That is the literal meaning of the Hebrew expression in Isaiah 64:6: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Like all self-righteous sinners, they imagined that God was less holy than he is and that they were more virtuous than they were. So they came to God on their terms, not his. An inadequate view of the sinfulness of sin kept them from understanding why the Savior died. Those who don’t understand the glory of divine righteousness will never see the necessity of atonement. —John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 81.

Smitten by God

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. Isaiah 53:4–6 Most shockingly, the sufferings described in this passage include the outpouring of God’s wrath in righteous retribution for the sins of those who rebel against him. He was indeed “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (v. 4). In other words, the servant’s wounding and crushing were not merely unintended side effects of our sin. He was no martyr. He was not an accidental victim. His sufferings are not collateral damage somehow caused by a chain of events set in motion by mistake. Isaiah is describing a purposeful act of penal substitution carried out by the sovereign will of his Father, God. “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” Both expressions mean his suffering made an atonement for our sins. The language is categorically punitive. “Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace.” That clearly means he bore the punishment sinners deserve—the full measure of God’s wrath “against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). The griefs and sorrows he bore for his people are not merely sin’s temporal consequences or side effects. The servant of Yahweh dies as a substitute and sin bearer for his people, shouldering their guilt and taking the punishment that was due them. This passage cannot be made to mean anything else. —John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 93–94.

The Central Point of the Cross

The price our Savior paid to redeem his people from the guilt and bondage of sin was horrific, and Scripture never tries to soften the dreadful aspects of the truth–especially if it means toning down the awful reality of the righteous wrath of God. Unless we understand and embrace the truth that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31), we cannot truly appreciate the Father’s great mercy and love toward us in sending his own Son to die in the place of sinners. In fact, God’s love (not his wrath) is the central point of the cross. Jesus Christ willingly drank the full cup of God’s wrath so that his people could escape that judgment. It was an act of unspeakable love. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And his death accomplished precisely what he intended. Because he bore the full outpouring of divine vengeance against sin, those who trust him as Savior will never have to face God’s condemnation. Jesus told his followers, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment” (John 5:24). The apostle John, overwhelmed with how the sacrifice of Christ demonstrates the love of God, wrote: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9–10) God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16–17) —John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God (Crossway, 2018), 94–95.


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