Jesus’ Messianic Claims: The King of Isaiah 53

(This is the second of two articles based on a talk I recently gave called “Jesus Bold Messianic Claims.” The first is here: Jesus’ Messianic Claims: Very Subtle, Very Jewish.)

KingIf you’re unaware of Jesus’ Jewish context, his parables and teachings can seem disconnected to the worshipful language that the rest of the New Testament uses to describe him as the Christ. But when you do know his culture, you start hearing him applying powerful prophecies about the coming Messiah to himself.

Many of these describe God’s promise that he would one day send a king to rule over Israel who would rule over the whole world. When the prophets spoke about how a “scepter shall rise out of Israel” or that “God would establish the throne of David” the imagery is that of a valiant king ascending to power.

You find these same ideas within the passages that Jesus applied to himself. When he himself as the “Son of Man” who would some day “come on the clouds” everyone knew that this figure would soon be given dominion and a kingdom without end (Daniel 7:14).

The Monkey Wrench in Jesus’ Words

What we find confusing about Jesus’ messianic claims is that he often combines them with another prediction: that he must suffer and be rejected and killed (Mark 8:31 and elsewhere). Christians, of course, recall the prophecy of Isaiah 53, about God’s “Servant” who suffers for his people’s sins:

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth
. (Isaiah 53: 6-7)

But there seems to be no connection between this figure and the royal, victorious king. Some wonder if there even needs to be two Messiahs, a “Son of Joseph” (who would suffer) as well as a “Son of David” (who would reign).

How could Jesus connect the Suffering Servant with being God’s glorious reigning Messiah?  I think I’ve discovered an important clue in the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, the English translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

Isaiah 53 culminates with the proclamation that “after the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:11) But the very next line doesn’t make much sense to us in most translations. Many render verse 12 something like this:

I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong. (RSV)

To our ears this sounds like tepid, half-hearted applause. Along with many other great figures, the Servant will be given a portion. But the JPS Tanakh (1984 version) translates the Hebrew here very differently:

Assuredly, I will give him the many as his portion,
He shall receive the multitude as his spoil. (JPS)

The speaker here is God, and he is not just giving the Servant a pat on the back for his efforts. God is rewarding his Servant by giving him the multitudes of peoples as his “portion,” his “spoils” for having suffered on their behalf.

Notice that the idea of “being given a multitude of people” evokes the same language as Psalm 2, when God gives his Son the nations as his “possession” and “inheritance.” (The verb halak, “to apportion” means to “grant an inheritance” or “to divide something valuable.”) In Daniel 7, we also see a vision of the Son of Man being brought before the throne of God and then bestowed with a vast kingdom.

Reading Isaiah 53:12 in this way makes the passage sounds quite messianic. Because of his suffering, God’s Servant is being granted a kingdom, just like the Son of Man in Daniel 7 and the royal Son of Psalm 2.

Churchill_waves_to_crowds WIKI

 Assigning a Kingdom

Did Jesus read Isaiah 53:12 this way? Well, listen to what Jesus said at the Last Supper. Right after he holds up the cup and the bread and announces a New Covenant, he says:

You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Luke 22:28-30

The language here echoes that of Isaiah 53:12, about being Christ’s being assigned (“apportioned,” “divided,”) a people, and then dividing the spoils with the strong.* Just as Jesus will be rewarded for his suffering, so will his disciples who are persecuted on behalf of God’s kingdom. They are the “strong” in the sense that they’ve remained committed to serve God until their last breath, as he has.

It sounds like Jesus is even framing this promise in language of Psalm 2, speaking of God as his Father who will grant him a “kingdom.” Just as Jesus will reign over God’s kingdom, his disciples would too.

Interestingly, the larger context of this passage is Jesus’ message to his disciples not to seek to be powerful kings but to be humble servants. Immediately beforehand, Jesus says,

The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (vs. 25-27)

At the same moment that Jesus speaks of his father granting him a kingdom, he identifies himself as the “one who serves.” The connection here seems unmistakable. Jesus is claiming to be both the King of Kings and the Servant of Isaiah 53.


For more thoughts on this passage, see my article “A Surprising Idea in Isaiah 53.

*The Septuagint agrees with the JPS for the most part, rendering the verse, “Because of this, he will inherit the multitudes and to the mighty he will distribute the plunder.” The JPS interprets the second half of verse 12 as a parallelism with the first half, but it can be read either way, as either that God will apportion the spoils to the Servant, or that the Servant will apportion the spoils to the strong. It looks from Luke 22:29 that Jesus interpreted it the second way.


Isaiah III Volume 2 / Isaiah 49-55 by Jan Koole Leuven, (Belgium: Peeters, 1998), 336-339.

JW Olley, “‘The Many:’ How is Isaiah 53:12a to Be Understood” Biblica 68 (1987), 330–56.


16 Responses to “Jesus’ Messianic Claims: The King of Isaiah 53”

  1. 1
    Karl|July 21, 2015

    “Did Jesus read Isaiah 53:12 this way?” Not only do I think Jesus read Isaiah 53:12 that way, I think Paul did too: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Romans 8:17. And that’s a big “if,” often overlooked.

  2. 2
    Nancy Johnsen|July 21, 2015

    As N.T.Wright points out in his book __How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels__ Matthew and Mark both quote Psalm 22, which like Isaiah 53 is a strange mixture of suffering and kingdom. “…in the story they are telling, the crucial moment when Israel’s king is executed is highlighted as the fulfillment of one of the clearest kingdom-and-suffering passages in the whole scripture.” –section entitled “Kingdom and Cross in Four Dimensions” subsection “Kingdom, Cross and Israel”. Dr Wright is making the point that these concepts are inextricably linked, and the Christian Church needs to see them as such in order to be the Kingdom of God on Earth!

  3. 3
    Mel Sorensen|July 23, 2015

    Hi Lois, interesting stuff. In the first article you mentioned “a remarkable collaboration of Christian and Jewish scholars that had begun in Jerusalem in the early 1960s, and still continues to this day.” Does this group have a name or can you tell me some of the scholars who are in this group?

  4. 4
    Lois Tverberg|July 26, 2015

    The group is called “The Jerusalem School for Synoptic Research.” They’ve published two Brill volumes, Jesus’ Last Week and The Language Environment of First Century Judea.

    At the lay level, the journal Jerusalem Perspective has hundreds of articles of interest. See also the website of The Center for Judaic-Christian Studies.

    The scholars you hear me quoting most often from this group are David Bivin, Brad Young, Steven Notley and Randall Buth.

  5. 5
    Todd Bolen|July 30, 2015


    I really appreciate your thoughts and approach. There is such glory in Isaiah that so many miss. May I suggest that your interpretation is supported by the greater context. First, go back to the beginning of this song, in 52:13 (bad chapter break at 53:1!) where it speaks of the servant being raised and exalted. This takes us back to 6:1 where those words are used of the Lord himself. It also takes us back to Isaiah’s earlier introduction to the servant in 42:1-6 which clearly identifies the servant as a ruler. That idea continues in 49:1-9. Reading Isaiah as a whole it is clear that God is sending a son who is the heir to the throne who will first die for his people and then rise from the dead to rule and bless Israel and the nations. But it is not Isaiah only who says this. As you pointed out, Psalm 22 has a similar message of a king suffering, dying, and then living again to be rewarded. And we can go back further to Judah, the one who is promised the throne, apparently because he is most worthy of it as the one willing to lay down his life for his brother (Benjamin). There’s more and you probably know all this, but I think when seen in context, verse 12 isn’t really surprising at all.

    I love to see the unity of the Old Testament in anticipating the Servant-King who is worthy of all worship. Thanks for letting me contribute my two cents.

  6. 6
    Lois Tverberg|July 31, 2015

    Todd, once again, very good, and I couldn’t agree more with you. I think Isaiah 49 is particularly poignant.

    The reason I was focusing specifically on Isaiah 53 is that I’ve heard it said by many that the passage doesn’t describe the victorious messiah, but someone else. Or that Jesus’ followers retroactively applied it to him after his death instead of saying that he was a “failed” messiah. Or that Jesus himself did not think in terms of combining suffering with kingship. If Jesus read Isaiah 53:12 the way others did, he certainly could have, and he seems to quote it this way in Luke 22. But your point is great, that Isaiah 53 echoes similar themes that we see in other places, like Isaiah 49 and Psalm 22. Thanks!

  7. 7
    David Russell|August 13, 2015

    Hi Lois and others,
    Your two-part article is a keeper, and am sharing it with others along with your newsletter of July 29.
    -I am fascinated by what some call the “duality of the Messiah”, both suffering servant and King. References have been cited by such sources as, and, noting Talmudic citations where this duality was supported by the early Rabbinics. I am quite concerned about a perspective that seems rampant today within Christianity. It says, Many were looking for a King and some expected Jesus to be the one. The more he spoke claiming to be the Messiah and from God, the more certain became his ultimate crucifiction and death.
    Set aside, or left out, are passages that speak of His purpose, to seek and save that which was lost, and The Son of God came not to be ministered unto but to minister. Luke 19, and Mark 10, respectively.
    I wonder your thoughts about this observation?

    Of recent, I have discovered the writings of Dr. Eli…

  8. 8
    Tiffany Brower|April 22, 2016

    I found this article to be fairly intriguing. While studying in my discipleship class we have learned about Jesus and his messianic claims from the Jewish perspective. I never really thought about what Jews thought when Jesus referenced to himself as the “Son of Man”, and how he would suffer for their iniquities. The Jews wanted a king to rule over them and to save them from the Romans. In the end, that’s what Jesus did, just not in the way they would’ve liked. After reading this article, I gained a better understanding of how Jesus was both the son who was going to suffer, and the one who was going to reign. Knowing how the story ends gives us a better advantage of where God was going when Isaiah 53 was written. However, knowing what the Jews in Jesus’ day thought about it is beneficial to us as well.

  9. 9
    James|April 22, 2016

    Hi Lois,
    I liked your interpretation on Isaiah 53. I think that most times people picture Jesus as a King who came to rule over his people, defeat enemies, and lead the people to a life of freedom. However, I believe that it’s important to understand that God didn’t send his Son to defeat those who have done wrong on earth, and to reign supreme, but he sent his Son so that he could save all people from their sins, and in that sense be seen as the King of all Kings. As John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” I like how Jesus is viewed as a Servant and a King at the same time, as he died, suffered, and was raised to save all of our sins. As Mark 10:45 states, “ For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Thanks for your interpretation, I really enjoyed your connection with Jesus acting as a servant and a king at the same time. Great unity!

  10. 10
    Areal|April 22, 2016

    Hi Lois,
    I loved reading about how you have dug into the text and explored how Jesus is claiming to be both the suffering servant and the King of Kings. Also in Isaiah 53:12, I had never understood this passage, but hearing the JPS Tanakh version instead of the NIV, I understand how God is giving Jesus a kingdom. This isn’t “Just a portion” it is a full multitude of people!
    Thank you for your input on this!

  11. 11
    Kennedy|April 22, 2016

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful insight. I loved the take on Isaiah that you shared and found it enlightening. It was interested in that you said the “two-part Messiah” – the sufferer and the holy God. You asked if Jesus read Isaiah this way, and I think he definitely did. Thanks for your work furthering the kingdom.

  12. 12
    Reg|April 23, 2016

    Hi, I know aim a little off subject but would welcome your comments on those by Gerard Lorfink who in Jesus of Nazareth suggests that discipleship of Jesus was very different to that of the rabbis of his time. He suggests follow me is very different to study Torah
    Love you material

  13. 13
    Mark|April 23, 2016

    I agree that reading the Bible and interpreting Jesus’ teachings in its context makes the reading more meaningful. Jesus definitely understood the Old Testament and was able to incorporate that in his teaching. Interesting that Jesus was given multitudes of people as his reward. Also interesting that just as Jesus suffered, His disciples also will suffer. Jesus is not only a reigning king but also a suffering servant, as seen in Isaiah 53.

  14. 14
    Paige|April 25, 2016

    Dr. Tverberg,
    Thank you for your insightful and well written article. I love how you have taken the time to share your knowledge with the rest of us. I think you are on to something when you write about the contradiction of Jesus’ messianic claims – it was something that people struggled with at the time of His life and death, and still struggle with today.

  15. 15
    Fiorentino Delfina|October 15, 2017

    What response would you give to Nehemiah Gordon and Jews for Judaism when they say that Isaiah 53 pertains only to Israel as the suffering servant. Etc..?

  16. 16
    Lois Tverberg|October 18, 2017

    This is a great question! I am writing an article with a response even now.

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