On the significance of Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” in 1 Peter.
There is, undoubtedly, no Old Testament passage with fuller meaning and richer significance than that of Isaiah 53. In a mere twelve verses, the prophet Isaiah signals a momentous triumph to come for the Lord’s people — only coming, however, by the Lord’s Servant himself suffering a crushing and defeating blow. Notwithstanding one’s interpretations of the actual (or intended) identity of the Suffering Servant, the Messianic overtones of Isaiah 53 are too brilliant to ignore or pass by without careful consideration. Though its citations in the New Testament are not as numerous as other Old Testament references, Isaiah 53 is unmistakably woven into the fabric of apostolic thought. “Allusions to the passage,” writes Kenneth Litwak in an article for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, “are deeply imbedded in the work of all the principal NT writers as well as the early fathers, particularly 1 Clement and Barnabas.”The “primitive church,” so to speak, was heavily influenced in its apologetic framework with the understanding that none other than Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the prophesies of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant when he endured the torments of the Roman crucifix. The apostolic insistence on Jesus as Israel’s anointed Deliverer served, then, as the bulwark for ecclesiastical and eschatological hope.
In Peter’s first epistle, the hope-filled message of Jesus as the Suffering Servant from Isaiah 53 figures considerably, with allusions or outright quotations from the prophecy prominently appearing in the first three chapters. In chapter one, Peter reminds his readers of the salvific procedure by which they are now redeemed from the “empty way of life” inherited from their ancestors. (1 Pt 1:18) This redemption was purchased “not with perishable things like silver or gold,” Peter says, “but with the precious blood of Christ.” (1 Pt 1:18–19) The sins of the readers could not be atoned for by any other means than the shedding of blood, specifically the blood of “an unblemished and spotless lamb.” In that way, then, Peter points his audience back to the liturgy and ceremony of the sacrificial system of Moses, which surely scandalized them considering they were primarily comprised of Gentile Christians. But Peter’s intent is to show them that the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, is the world’s Savior, “foreknown before the foundation of the world” but only “revealed in these last times for you.” (1 Pt 1:20–21) The exilic identity of the Gentiles is put to rest, then, in the recognition that through Christ the Lamb, they, too, are espoused to God as his own people. (1 Pt 2:6–10)
Peter reinforces this idea in chapter three where he affirms that Christ “suffered for sins once for all.” (1 Pt 3:18) As Israel’s and the world’s Righteous Representative, Jesus endured the agonies owed to unrighteousness thereby paving the way for the restoration of God’s people and the inclusion of foreigners in the climactic kingdom of God. (Is 53:4–6) Christian salvation belongs to all those who find their righteousness in the Righteous One who suffered on behalf of the unrighteous. Therefore, Peter’s readers are made to share in the rich history and glorious future of God’s eschatological kingdom because of the surrogate suffering of Jesus Christ. (Is 53:11–12) “The letter confers on them,” writes J. R. Michaels, “a Jewish past and a quasi-Jewish identity by claiming that certain titles of privilege once given to Israel are now theirs as well.”(1 Pt 2:9; cf. Ex 19:6; Is 43:20–21) Such is why Christ’s sufferings are to be understood as the “leitmotif of 1 Peter,” as Mark Seifrid puts it.
The most explicit of these citations, however, appears in chapter two with an extended confession, of sorts, of the substitutional suffering of the “Shepherd and Overseer” of men’s souls. (1 Pt 2:21–25) This reference to Isaiah 53 is significant especially when one considers its place within the epistle and the apostle’s overall argument. Just prior to this paragraph on Christ’s exemplary suffering, Peter urges his readers to “conduct themselves honorably” and to “submit to every human authority because of the Lord.” (1 Pt 2:11–20) The admonition to submission finds its footing in the willing submission of Christ Jesus to suffer innocently and silently, entrusting himself “to the one who judges justly.” (1 Pt 2:23) Peter follows this confession of the Suffering Savior with an application of Christ’s willful succumbing to the atrocities of the crucifixion to the submission that ought to be displayed in husbands and wives (1 Pt 3:1–7) and the likemindedness that ought to define the church. (1 Pt 3:8–12) Peter utilizes the scandalous language of Isaiah 53 to augment his argument that faithful, hopeful endurance of suffering is inherent to the Christian religion. “The sinless Christ,” Seifrid continues, “accomplished redemption through his meek endurance of injustice, a redemption that therefore is worthy of highest esteem.”Jesus’s willingness to subject himself to corrupt human authorities is, perhaps, one of the loudest notes of grace in the biblical gospel. Grace, therefore, is the inspiration for the church to do likewise: to suffer for the good of others and the glory of God the Father because of the victorious meekness and willful submissiveness of God’s Servant and Savior, Christ Jesus. (Is 53:7–8; 1 Pt 2:22–23)
Kenneth D. Litwak, “The Use of Quotations from Isaiah 52:13–53:12 in the New Testament,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 26:4 (1983): 387.
J. R. Michaels, “1 Peter,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 917.
M. A. Seifrid, “Death of Christ,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 278.