Isaiah 53 cannot refer to Jesus because it says no one was interested in the servant of the Lord or attracted to him, yet the New Testament records that large crowds followed Jesus.
Actually, the New Testament record agrees with the picture of the servant of the Lord described in Isaiah 53, despite the fact that great crowds did follow Jesus at numerous times during his ministry. This is because he spent most of his life almost unknown, and then once he became popular, he became the center of controversy and was vehemently rejected by many religious teachers and influential leaders, ultimately dying a criminal’s death on the cross. This is certainly in harmony with Isaiah 53.
At first glance, this objection might seem odd. After all, wasn’t Jesus rejected by his own people, and didn’t he die a horrific, humiliating death on the cross? Doesn’t he clearly fulfill the image of the suffering servant of the Lord described in Isaiah 53? And don’t the anti-missionaries sometimes claim that the authors of the New Testament made up details about the life of Jesus in order to give the impression that he was fulfilling Messianic prophecies? How then can they claim that the picture of Yeshua painted by the writers of the Gospels actually contradicts the words of the prophets?
Obviously, there is something self-contradictory in these two objections: arguing on the one hand that Yeshua, as described in the New Testament, did not fulfill the Messianic prophecies, while arguing on the other hand that the very same New Testament gives a false picture of Yeshua in order to make it appear that he fulfilled those very same prophecies. I address this contradiction directly in vol. 4, 5.14. For now, however, we will simply deal with the objection raised here, an objection based on the fact that the Gospels record that great crowds often followed Jesus, whereas Isaiah prophesied that he would be despised, rejected, and unpopular.
The key relevant verses in Isaiah 52:13–53:12 of the servant of the Lord are these:
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond human likeness …
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
Isaiah 52:14; 53:2–4
Isn’t this picture contradicted by New Testament passages stating that “large crowds” followed Jesus? Verses such as these are fairly common: “Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him… . When he came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him… . Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore” (Matt. 4:25; 8:1; 13:2; see also Matt. 19:2; Luke 14:25, among other passages). How does this agree with the verses from Isaiah, just cited, that say “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him” and “he was despised and rejected by men”?
Let’s examine these verses in greater detail, without twisting anything, rewriting anything, or taking anything out of context. What does the text actually say? It begins with the servant’s humble, inauspicious origins: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2–3). This agrees well with the humble, inauspicious origins of Jesus. He was raised by (apparently) poor parents in Nazareth,143 his foster father, Joseph, was a carpenter, and there is only one mention of Jesus doing anything of prominence in his first thirty years of life (Luke 2:41–51; 3:23a). Truly, he grew up like a tender shoot, like a root out of dry ground, and when he began his public ministry, those who knew him were taken aback: “ ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Miriam, and aren’t his brothers Jacob, Joseph, Simon and Judah? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at him” (Matt. 13:55–57 NIV, with Hebraized names).
The fact that Jesus hailed from Nazareth in Galilee also raised some eyebrows. When Nathaniel, who became one of the Messiah’s followers, was introduced to “Jesus of Nazareth,” he exclaimed, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:45–46). And when the religious leaders heard talk about Jesus being the Messiah, some of them protested asking, “How can the [Messiah] come from Galilee?” and again, “Look into it, and you will find that a prophet [or the Prophet] does not come out of Galilee” (John 7:41, 52).
The prophet Isaiah stated, “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (53:2b), and this too accords well with the Gospel witness, since there is not a single reference to Yeshua’s having a stately appearance or imposing physical presence. This is in clear contrast with the descriptions of some of Israel’s leaders of old, men like Saul, who was head and shoulders above his people in height (1 Sam. 10:23), or David, who was “ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features” (1 Sam. 16:12b). Nothing like this is said of Yeshua!
Isaiah also stated that the servant of the Lord was “despised and rejected by men,” something that very accurately describes the ministry of Jesus. No sooner did he preach his inaugural message in the synagogue in Capernaum than some of the people tried to kill him (Luke 4:16–30). Such murderous plots against Jesus followed him wherever he went—because of both his teachings and his miracles—right up to the time of his betrayal and crucifixion (see, e.g., Mark 3:1–6; Luke 22:47–71). Religious leaders accused him of being a demon-possessed Samaritan and of healing the sick by satanic power (John 8:48; Matt. 12:22–24). This certainly qualifies as being “despised and rejected,” especially when you realize that the rejection followed him more closely than the crowds did!
And there was something else about these crowds: They were fickle! For example, John 6:2 records that “a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick.” But by the end of the chapter, after hearing him teach some hard things, it is written that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). In fact, it was common for Jesus to present a hard teaching to the big crowds that followed him in order to expose their hypocrisy and the shallowness of their commitment (see Luke 14:25–34). That’s why it is no surprise that one day great crowds could shout, “Crown him! Crown him!” when he entered Jerusalem and then shout “Crucify him! Crucify him!” only a few days later. As Christian leader Dan Harman pointed out, “So long as Jesus was misunderstood He was followed by the crowd. When they came to really understand Him, they crucified Him.”144
It is the graphic portrait of a crucified Messiah that Isaiah so powerfully describes: “His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness” (Isa. 52:14b)—the result of the savage beating he endured before his crucifixion (Matt. 26:67; 27:26–30); “we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4b)—as he hung on the cross dying a criminal’s death; he was pierced and crushed and punished and wounded (Isa. 53:5). “He was oppressed and afflicted, … led like a lamb to the slaughter, … cut off from the land of the living; … he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors” (see Isa. 53:7–8, 12). How could the picture be any clearer? Only transgressors were flogged and nailed to a cross. Jesus was numbered among them!(See 4.12, below.)
It should be perfectly clear, then, to any unbiased reader of the text that Isaiah 53 accurately describes the life, ministry, and sufferings of Jesus the Messiah. Go back and read the chapter again for yourself, or ask a Jewish friend who is unfamiliar with this chapter to read it and then ask him or her, “Who does this describe?” You might be surprised with the response.145
143 Cf. Luke 2:22–24 with Leviticus 12:8.
144 The original source of this quote is unknown to me.
145 It is fair to ask a follower of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menchaem Schneerson, hailed by many of his followers as the Messiah, how the picture of Isaiah 53 correlates with his life, since his disciples pointed to this very passage of Scripture when he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1992 at the age of ninety. He had several hundred thousand devotees around the world and was considered by his people to be the most influential Jewish leader of the twentieth century. Can’t the same objection raised here against Jesus—incorrectly so, as we have seen—also be raised against the Rebbe? Yet anti-missionaries in his camp use this objection against Yeshua!
Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (67). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.