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Walter H. Rose summarizes well in in stating that the Hebrew Bible understands the Messiah to be “a future royal figure sent by God who will bring salvation to God’s people and the world and establish a kingdom characterized by features like peace and justice.”[1] The long awaited Davidic King was to inaugurate a kingdom, not die on a Roman cross. The One who was to be like Moses, according to Deuteronomy 18:15-22, was to lead the Judean people in a supernatural rebellion against the dominion of gentile nations (Rome, in particular) just as Moses lead Israel out of Egypt. Jesus of Nazareth led no political rebellions.  The Messiah was to be a king, not a law-violating blasphemer. The Messiah was to be exalted, not humiliated.

This project examines two biblical texts with the goal of demonstrating congruency of inter-testamental Christology. Does Old Testament Messiology agree with New Testament Christology concerning the person, role and function of the anointed Savior of God’s chosen people? More specifically, does the Old Testament support a Christology characterized by kenosis and vicarious suffering as central components to the efficacious redemptive work of the messiah―as does the New Testament? While the New Testament concept of Christological kenosis and vicarious suffering is not a concept that pervades Old Testament Messiology, the concept is by no means absent from the Old Testament, thanks to Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

The two texts from both Testaments that most clearly present the messianic figure as one having a kenotic posture resulting in vicarious suffering and death are (1) Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and (2) Philippians 2:5-11. Kenosis is the term used by Paul in Philippians 2:7 translated “emptied” to describe what Jesus did in giving up divine privileges in order to be “poured out” for the redemption of humanity (more below). For Isaiah, that kenotic posture is crucial in an act of obedience resulting in an atoning death for God’s people. For Philippians, Christ’s kenotic posture is crucial in exemplifying Christian character expected of the Philippian church. As will be demonstrated through the critical analysis of each text, both passages convey the central figure is a model, a paradigm for God’s people. Both passages also underline the fact that this model of transformational leadership is a transcendent one that teaches that the way up is down.

This project, then, demonstrates the intertestamental congruency of kenotic Christology through an analysis of both Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and Philippians 2:6-11. The theology of both passages is multifaceted having an interconnection between layers of subordinate and dominate themes all working together to convey one central, theological message. That central message is that faithful obedience paired with downward mobility (ending in death) results in an efficacious redemptive work of the servant of Yahweh, thus meriting exaltation.

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As is true of any inter-textual study, each passage comes with its own exegetical issues.  Therefore it is necessary to assume some interpretive positions that are not agreed upon by all.

To start, this study assumes that Isaiah’s suffering servant is a messianic figure. While not all agree on this interpretation of the identity of the servant in this passage, both substantial textual proof and tradition together make this a reasonable interpretation. There is a great deal of debate over the identity of the Servant of the Lord in this passage and in the other three servant songs.[2]  The theme of servant-hood is repeated all throughout Isaiah, but especially 40-55 (41:8, 9; 42:1, 19; 43:10; 44:1, 2, 21, 26; 45:4, 48:20; 49:5, 6; 50:1-; 52:13; 53:11; 54:17). In the repetition of that theme, there is a back-and-forth dynamic between the servant as a collective group represented in Israel/Jacob and as an individual. This back-and-forth creates tension in drawing conclusions regarding the servant’s identity.  Some suggest that the servant in all passages is to be understood as the collective, archetypal Israel in the sense that the individual is understood as a singular personification of collective Israel.[3] Problematic in this interpretation is that it seems unreasonable to think that the collective Israel would qualify as a substitutionary atonement for itself.  Goldingay writes,

the nuancing of the servant’s task in 52:13-53:12 emphasizes his suffering in connection with other people’s sins, whereas chs 43-48 have emphasized Jacob-Israel’s own sins and their being the cause of Jacob-Israel’s suffering.  It is this that makes it implausible unequivocally to identify the servant calling in 52:13-53:12 as Israel’s.[4]

Other interpreters embrace the text’s clear distinction between the collective servant and the individual as servant. North reconciles the apparent collective-individual contradiction by interpreting the passages in such a ways so as to imply that the servant as the collective nation of Israel are those who are intended to be Yahweh’s faithful servants.[5] In turn, North suggests that the passages identifying an individual as the servant are interpreted to teach that this particular servant of Yahweh is the one through whom collective servanthood is made attainable. In other words, the individual servant of Yahweh accomplishes a provisional work for the collective servants of Yahweh. This interpretation makes the individual servant a messianic figure by default in that he is the human agent through whom Yahweh restores righteousness to His people.

Adding to this, this study suggests that the lack of clarity on the historical identity of the servant actually creates a rhetorical effect that underlines the unassuming nature of the servant. It is contended that the prophet wishes the servant to be understood only as the servant of Yahweh. His submissive relationship to Yahweh is the only identifying attribute that is important. In this event, while there is great speculation over the identity of the servant, we can be sure that the servant is intentionally understood as merely the “servant”.  This meaning that specific messianic language is particularly avoided in order to underline the unassuming nature of the servant.

To finish, these two texts have a critical, inter-testamental Christological theme in common. In this case, the underlining of these common themes helps to develop a more robust inter-testamental Christology. Isaiah’s emphasis on atonement in the suffering servant passage, for example, provides a fresh angle at which we can consider the Philippians song. Normally, one does not read the Philippians song with atonement at the forefront. The tenor of atonement certainly comes through with mention of the cross, but again, atonement is not at the fore of the passage’s central message. Together with this, Isaiah’s emphasis on the transcendent nature of the model for redemption in the suffering servant song helps us see the model of Christ in Philippians 2:5-11 as one that is set-apart and foreign to the human understanding of leadership.

Taking a perspective greater in scope, the goal of this project is to arrive at a clearer biblical Christology through a inter-textual analysis of two of the more ontologically substantial Christological texts of scripture. Certainly, as an act of worship, this project searches the Scriptures to better understand who he is (ontology), and how it effects what he does (function). This being the case, this project sets out to follow in the same spirit and tenor of the texts it treats in focusing on the ontological nature of the messiah and to exalt him.


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[1] W. H. Rose, “Zemah and Zerubbabel: Messianic Expectations in the Early Postexilic Period” (JSOTSup; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 23.

[2] Cf. Goldingay, Message of Isaiah 40-55: A Literary-Theological Commentary (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 473-477; Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998), 49-52; H.H. Rowley, The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament (London: Lutterworth, 1952). 49-53.

[3] O. Eissfeldt, “The Ebed-Jahwe in Isaiah xi-1v,” EvI 44 (1932-1933).

[4] Goldingay, The Message of Isaiah, 474.

[5] C.R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah: An Historical and Critical Study (2nd ed.; London: Oxford), 1956.


Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary

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