Behold the Servant He has Chosen

The Great Messianic Prophecies

The Qur’an makes no mention of the prophet Isaiah, one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. In fact the book knows none of his generation. Ezekiel, Jeremiah and the minor prophets, together with Isaiah, were a group of great prophets of a specific age in Israel’s history when the climactic vision of God’s final purpose for his people began to unfold. The only prophet of this time mentioned in the Qur’an is Jonah, significantly the only prophet whose book is a narrative of his unique experiences, especially his three days in the stomach of a large fish. All the others follow the same pattern. They are oracles of God’s anger against an ever-rebellious nation with warnings of the judgments to come upon it, coupled with unique promises of a golden, Messianic age to come when God’s purposes would be fulfilled.

Yet it is in these passages in the Bible that we find some of the best materials for witnessing to Muslims of who Jesus Christ really was and what he was sent to accomplish on earth. You have here some of the most emphatic proofs in the scriptures of his deity and redeeming work, written up to seven hundred years before the events they describe and foretell. Two verses testify to his deity, the first of which is:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14

In the Greek Septuagint the word almah in Hebrew, meaning young woman, is translated as parthenos, meaning "a virgin." The translation is obviously correct. The sign to be given to the nation is that a young virgin, too young to have married or borne children, would conceive by the power of God and bear a son. No ordinary son, mind you, but the Son of God himself. Immanuel, he would be called, meaning "God is with us." This verse is quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a deliberate proof that the unique birth of Jesus Christ, of the virgin Mary, was foretold no less than seven hundred years before it occurred.

Muslims freely believe in the virgin-birth of Jesus as it is mentioned in the Qur’an in the same emphatic language as it is in the Bible (Surah 3:47-49, 19:19-22). The Qur’an, however, misses the essential point. It is because he is the Son of God that he was born of a virgin. He had existed from all eternity and could not possibly be conceived by the normal means of human procreation. This is precisely what the Angel Gabriel testified at his conception when he said to Mary his mother:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. Luke 1:35

A similar, equally famous, passage from the book of Isaiah confirms the announcement that the great Messiah to come would not be just an ordinary human being but would have the very presence of the divine being dwelling within him. The passage reads:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. Isaiah 9:6-7

A son is promised being no one less than the Son of God. The titles and description of this son make it clear that he is a divine being. His kingdom will last for eternity the paragraph testifies, once again emphasising the presence of the eternal God within the soul of this great human Deliverer to come. It is almost incredible to see the identity of the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ, foreshadowed in these great prophecies made long before his time.

In your witness to Muslims you can also impress on them the fact that Isaiah is a Jewish scripture from their holy book, which we call the Old Testament, written centuries before it came to pass. As the Jews have always disowned the possibility that God could have a Son (just as the Muslims do), it is striking to find such predictions in their own texts, where the very divinity of the eternal Son to come is undeniably prestated, in view of their denial of what they teach. This is no interpolated Christian scripture. Two scrolls of Isaiah were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls dating back to before the time of Jesus, yet they include these very same prophecies that could only have had one fulfilment.

Further Messianic Prophecies from Isaiah

Another well-known passage from the book of Isaiah follows. It is worth quoting the whole text because it is freely quoted in the New Testament. It reads:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. Isaiah 11:1-5

By the time of Jesus’ birth the line of Jesse through his son David had indeed become no more than a stump. The Son of God was born in humility of a family line that had all but lost its glorious past, yet the birth of this great Saviour, upon whom the Spirit of the Lord would rest (as it did at his baptism Matthew 3:16), was the fulfilment of this great vision of one, supreme, divine Deliverer to come. This passage is a dramatic description of both the humility and the glory of the divine Messiah to come. It recognises his meekness and gentleness at his first coming, and his authority and rule to follow with his second coming thereafter.

A very similar passage, promising the advent of one great servant of God yet to come, is found later in the book of Isaiah. It reads:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. Isaiah 42:1-4

Once again God speaks of his great servant to come. This passage is quoted in full in Matthew 12:18-20 and is applied directly to Jesus Christ. Christians witnessing to Muslims have, here, substantial proof of the fact that Jesus (and, by inference, not Muhammad) was the great figurehead, the final climactic Deliverer to come, whose advent was foretold on so many occasions by the great prophet Isaiah. One last passage, very similar to the two we have quoted, settles the emphasis on the great Messiah, God’s eternal Saviour, to come. It reads:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted, he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Isaiah 61:1-2

This passage is also quoted in the New Testament in full, but in a much more expressive context (Luke 4:18-19). It is not just applied to Jesus by one of the Gospel writers Jesus applied the passage to himself one day as he read it in a synagogue in Nazareth. The very locality is significant. For thirty years the townsfolk of Nazareth had known him as one of them without ever suspecting he was the one promised in all these emphatic prophetic narratives. He was given a scroll of the book of Isaiah to read that sabbath morning and specifically looked for this passage. Once he had found it and had read it out, he closed the book, gave it to the attendant alongside him, and declared:

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Luke 4:21

The crowd spoke well of him and wondered at the gracious words that proceeded from his mouth, but they soon took exception to him, remembering that he was, in their view, just another ordinary member of their community. An altercation and argument followed which ended with Jesus walking away from them, but the die had been cast. This incident happened very early in his ministry and is a bold confirmation that he was the servant of God, the unique Saviour, whose coming had been prophesied in so many of the oracles of Isaiah the prophet.

You can, in an evening’s discussion with receptive Muslims, show them from this passage and all the others quoted here that it was the coming of Jesus that the nation of Israel was told to anticipate, and that he was to come as their great Deliverer and Redeemer. His divinity, meekness, gentleness, and yet ultimate authority over all the earth, are clearly foretold in this vital catalogue of prophecies from the great prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah 53: The Greatest Messianic Passage

None of the passages we have considered, however, matches one section from the Book of Isaiah. It is Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12, the greatest of all the prophecies in the Old Testament to the suffering, rejection and ultimate glory of the coming Messiah. It is written in, what radio operators would describe in wartime, plain language. In crucial situations radio messages would be sent directly in straightforward terms. Normally some form of coding would be used but, in vital cases, the message would be sent without consideration for security or its origin. A good example is the occasion when British naval aircraft unwittingly attacked HMS Sheffield in the Atlantic Ocean, thinking it was the Bismarck. An immediate command to call off the attack was sent in "plain language," meaning the cessation of the attack was more important than the enemy’s ability to discover what was happening.

Isaiah 53 is written in such language. No allegories, symbols or other language requiring interpretation are used. The enemy can have no doubt as to what is being conveyed. Deliberate, unambiguous and straightforward language is used that defies interpretation. It is the most remarkable testimony, seven hundred years before the event, of the crucifixion of the Christ and its atoning purpose. Remember that it is part of a Jewish Scripture, belonging to a people who deny that Jesus is the Messiah, yet it confirms the death, atoning purpose, and resurrection of the great Deliverer to come. It is therefore an independent witness to our Gospel, from a source traditionally hostile to it, yet written in such forthright language, that its meaning and implications cannot be missed by anyone open to the truth. Let’s go through it as you might if sitting with Muslims who are giving you an opportunity to state your case.

It contains typical Messianic terminology, such as we have already considered. It begins "Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high" (Isaiah 52:13). The prophecy begins by predicting the eventual glory of the Messiah. Yet it suddenly changes its emphasis and projects him, firstly, as a suffering servant with no comeliness to recommend him:

As many were astonished at him! His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men. Isaiah 52:14

Having introduced him in anonymity and apparent failure, it then equally suddenly announces his ultimate triumph over all the nations of the earth, such as has never been witnessed before:

So shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand. Isaiah 52:15

Isaiah was astonished and somewhat bewildered at what he was seeing. Israel had long awaited its promised Messiah since he was promised to David as one of his offspring, yet here, although glory is to come, Isaiah sees that he will first appear almost in obscurity and be rejected as an impostor no different to many who had gone before him. So he asks, "Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" (Isaiah 53:1) He recognises that it will take a special revelation from the Lord for anyone to recognise that, at his first coming, this is indeed God’s glorious Messiah. For he will appear to be an outcast, a stranger, one from whom men instinctively turn away. He would be neither handsome, rich nor imposing:

He had no form of comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. Isaiah 53:2

In hindsight it is easy to comprehend the next passage, knowing that Jesus was apprehended, spat upon, cursed and disowned; yet in Isaiah’s time, and at any other time, a suffering saviour would have been unheard of in Israel, a subject for ridicule and scorn. Yet, as he foresees the status of God’s Messiah during his first advent, Isaiah declares:

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces. He was despised, and we esteemed him not. Isaiah 53:3

As we have said, the prophet is speaking plainly and not in any figures of speech. It is as direct and intense a vision of the reception of Jesus, God’s eternal Saviour, as you could wish for. Yet the prophet is immediately given an understanding of why God’s Deliverer should be so treated. He sees, in the clearest terms possible, that this was done for our sins and iniquities that we might be redeemed. He recognises that the Saviour must first become like us in our degradation before we can become like him in his eternal glory. So he expresses this atoning purpose emphatically:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. Isaiah 53:4

I have deliberately emphasised the pronouns in italics to bring home the essential thrust of the prophet’s message: he will suffer in our place. Seven centuries before Jesus came into the world one of the great prophets of Israel saw it all. He was coming to be God’s Saviour by taking on himself the punishment that is due to us all. The next verse puts it in a nutshell, and you will do well to remind your Muslim hearers that you are quoting from a Jewish scripture and not a book of Christian propaganda:

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

This is fundamental Christian language, yet is written in the scripture of a nation that denies that Jesus is the Saviour of the world just as emphatically as Islam does. In the plainest possible language you have here a testimony to the atoning work of the Christ. The passage continues. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth to speak in his defence or avoid the false charges against him. This is just what Jesus did. "Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth" (Isaiah 53:7). You can quote the incident in the New Testament where the Apostle Philip met an Ethiopian prince on the way back home who was reading this very passage of scripture. When the Ethiopian asked Philip of whom the prophet spoke, he told him the good news of Jesus (Acts 8:35). The New Testament confirms that Jesus was silent in answer to the false charges brought against him that led to his crucifixion (Matthew 26:63, John 19:9). Isaiah marvelled at what he was seeing. Who would imagine that God’s glorious Messiah, the supremely anointed one of Israel, greater than Abraham, Moses and David, would be cut off ignominiously from the land of the living, stricken for the transgressions of his people? (v.8) Then comes another riddle similar to the one we considered in the chapter on the Psalms of David (Psalm 22:18 read with John 19:24):

And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death. Isaiah 53:9

Once again we have synonyms mixed with antonyms, in contrast to the usual Hebrew style of repeating a statement for emphasis with two synonyms. Grave and death are the synonyms, wicked and rich are the antonyms. Following the usual style of Hebrew poetry the writer might have said his grave was made with the wicked, in his death he was buried with the despised and rejected. Yet it says the opposite. He would be given the dignity of a rich man’s burial. No one, prior to the coming of Jesus, could have possibly explained this riddle. The crucifixion narrative, centuries later, gives the explanation:

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body, and laid it in a clean linen shroud, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. Matthew 27:57-60

Like any other criminal condemned to death, his body would normally have been thrown into the pit of Gehenna, but the intervention of Joseph of Arimathea ensured he was buried with full dignity in an honourable tomb. Once again, as in Psalm 22, you can show Muslims that details of the crucifixion of Jesus were spelled out in the finest possible detail, even in apparent riddles, centuries before the event of his crucifixion came to pass. Yet it is not only the crucifixion and atoning work of Jesus that are here predicted. His resurrection is too, as we see in the next verse:

When he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied. Isaiah 53:11

His atoning work is then again emphasised: God’s servant will make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities (v.11). The Apostle Paul is the great apostle of the atoning work of Jesus by which he saves us from our sins and makes it possible for his righteousness to be imputed to us. It is the fundamental theme of his Epistle to the Romans. Yet here, centuries earlier, we find one of the great prophets of God saying the very same thing. This great, archetypical prophecy of the crucifixion, saving work and resurrection of Jesus, in the clearest possible language, concludes with these words:

He poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession with the transgressors. Isaiah 53:12

Once again Isaiah emphasises the essence of what he is foretelling: God’s Saviour would die, be put to death with other criminals as if he were one of them (Jesus was crucified between two thieves), yet he would intercede for them all. He prayed for the forgiveness of his executioners (Luke 23:34) as well as promising one of his fellow sufferers that he would be with him in Paradise that very day (Luke 23:43). Jesus himself also said, on the very night when this whole prophecy would be fulfilled:

For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, "And he was reckoned with the transgressors," for what is written about me has its fulfilment. Luke 22:37

You will find no other passage in the Old Testament where the whole Christian Gospel is foretold in such conspicuous detail, and without any possible ambiguity, as this one. It will also be useful to inform your Muslim hearers that, amongst the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran in 1948, were two almost complete manuscripts of the prophecy of Isaiah, both containing this passage (Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12) in perfect detail, written by hand at least a hundred years before Jesus was crucified. So we have tangible, hand-written evidence that this prophecy predates the unique events it describes in such graphic detail.

The Bible says that the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, and you should use it freely in witnessing to Muslims. You do not need to give too much emphasis to the implications of passages such as this one. By simply going through them you will be able to impress the truth on Muslims as the Spirit of God empowers his Word to bring non-believers to the saving knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

There could not be a better place to bring our study of the Old Testament prophecies of the glory of Jesus to a close. We proceed to the New Testament and the greatest of all prophetic messengers, God’s own Son, Jesus Christ himself.

Sharing the Gospel with Muslims [Table of Contents]
Materials by John Gilchrist
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